Thursday, October 10, 2013

"Enlightened by the ten thousand things"

Lately, I keep coming across the above quotation from Dogen, the ancient Zen Master. But apparently the phrase has an earlier origin because a bit of on-line research also yielded this:

"The ten-thousand things and I are of one substance."
Zen Master Seng-chao (384-414)

This is a bit more to the point for most people, perhaps, but Dogen's way of putting it is more dynamic, expressing how seeing from the right viewpoint (which is no viewpoint) can result in (although "result" isn't the exact word, since it's already there) instantaneous enlightenment.

I'm pondering all this with respect to literature, and more specifically with respect to a thoughtful article by Ruth Ozeki I read recently:

The article is about a very old Japanese nun and former novelist, Jakucho Setouchi, who, according to Ozeki, stated once in an interview that love affairs were the best subject for a novelist. Ozeki takes issue with this point of view, although she doesn't explain why, so this post is not a reply to her, but rather a musing on where that statement took me.

Love affairs take the life energy and run with it.  We get carried away -- and most of us enjoy losing ourselves in such passion.  There's an old song, "I Wish I Were in Love Again" that expresses this well.  But if one is writing a "spiritual" novel, are love affairs still the best topic?

Or, more to the point, is there really such a thing as a "spiritual novel"?  As the above quotation makes clear, there actually is no such thing as enlightenment, nothing at all that separates the "ten thousand things" from the consciousness that appears to witness them.  And so, for a writer, can there be any separation between "spiritual" and "worldly" topics?

Nothing is inherently "spiritual."  It is all in the eye of the beholder.  If we really get to the bottom of what a love affair is about, we must be in wonder at how life produces such passion.  And, because we can never really get to the bottom of what a love affair is about, it produces endless opportunities to mine the wealth hidden in its depths.  That wealth is spiritual because everything that is is spiritual when it is seen truly. So what makes a novel "spiritual" is not any particular content but simply the urge, the determination, to see things as they actually are -- as Dogen did.

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