Though they say writing is a bad habit for a Zen priest, I can’t help it. I seem to be writing all the time. I write poems of several varieties in several voices, journal entries, dharma talks, speeches, essays, books, blurbs, reviews, notes, lists, stories, e-mails, blogs. In doing all this, I have no special purpose I can discern or explain. I don’t get paid much for it and if I had a reputation or fame and notoriety (and I don’t much) this would be a problem for me, because fame or reputation as a writer would be exactly infamy and disrepute for a Zen priest, which is one of the probably several reasons they say writing is a bad habit for a Zen priest. Though I hope my writing does somebody some good, I am not at all sure of this. It may even do some harm. Sometimes - very rarely - people do report to me that my writing has mattered to them. I appreciate that, but find it doubtful. Mostly it seems they have misapprehended what I was writing, making up their own text - which is fine, but they probably didn’t really need my text in order to do that. Most likely, my writing is a waste of time - in the most profound sense (insofar as wasting time is always profound). I have always found this possibility to be as marvelous as it is disturbing. What a fabulous thing to spend one’s life, as the essential gesture of one’s life, on something that is completely useless. Something really pure about this. Whatever of purpose and effect one does one could always do more or better. But doing something useless can’t be surpassed. To perform a useless task is to perform an unsurpassable task.
What am I doing when I write? I am not documenting my life for my friends or posterity, nor am I telling anybody something they don’t already know or need to hear from me. Why go on? I am compelled to, delighted to. There seems to be something crucial about working with language, something that wakes me up or brings a quality of density or significance to my life, even though I can’t say what that significance is more than that it is a feeling or a texture. Besides, writing is a deep pleasure. And besides that, I have always written, seem to be a writer by temperament and impulse, and what writers do is write; they just can’t help themselves.
Maybe I should get over this. Maybe there’s an adhesive patch I can put on that will block the neural pathways that lead me down to the arteries of language. But if there were, I wouldn’t put it on. Whether writing is good or bad, I affirm it like an athlete affirms her sport, a mother her child, or a believer his religion. I have noticed over the years in my conversations with writers that for a writer, writing is a sort of absolute bottom line. “Are you writing?” If the answer is yes, then no matter what else is going on, your life— and all of life—is basically okay. You are who you are supposed to be and your existence makes sense. If the answer is no, then you are not doing well, your relationships and basic well-being are in jeopardy, and the rest of the world is dark and problematic.
Where does this need to splash around in language come from? Is it a disease? I’m not sure, but if so I don’t think (William Burroughs notwithstanding) we will identify the virus. I suppose the need to write comes from the intimate connection between human consciousness and language-making. Language-making isn’t incidental or ornamental to human consciousness; it’s not that we become human and then, being fully human, we decide it’s time to say something. No, language is in some way the centerpiece, the defining piece, of being human. Yes, okay, other creatures also have language forms. Dolphins talk somehow, maybe mice do too. But not the way we do, not with the same sort of desperate need to express - even if there’s nothing to express. If no language, then no person. And if no language, then no concept of life, no concept of death, so no sorrow, grief, fear, joy - at least in the human sense. So no relationships. No fiction of a future. No tools, no imagination, so anxiety. We are what we tell ourselves we are in language.
Meditation practice brings the mind to a profound quiet that comes very close to the bottom of consciousness, and right there is the wellspring where language bubbles up. So does meditation get us beyond language? Is that what we’re trying to do when we sit - to get beyond language to the pure place, the true place, the place beyond all that jabber? Is it true, as the old Zen teachers seem to be saying, that language is our whole human problem, the basic mistake we make, the mechanism of our suffering? Is this why it’s such a big no-no for a Zen priest to write?
Yes. Language is the big problem because being human is a big problem. Language ruins us and makes us suffer. Language is certainly my big problem. All my dissatisfactions would instantly disappear if I couldn’t identify them or talk about them. But so would I. Without language I’d have no experience, no life in the world. To say that language is the problem is to say that life is the problem: it’s true, but what are you going to do about it?
Well, you live. And, if you are a writer, you write. But here’s the strange part: you write for the writing, you write alone and in silence, and you don’t know if it does anyone any good—yet somehow you need a reader. This shouldn’t be the case, but it is. Until there is a reader, some reader, any reader, the writing is incomplete. This is not true, for instance, with meditation practice or, say, with working out. You can run or bike or sit watching the breath without anyone ever witnessing it. It makes no difference whether someone witnesses or not. Because nothing comes of your running or sitting; there’s nothing to share. But when you write you produce something that can be shared and somehow must be. You can’t write without being read. This doesn’t have to do with ambition or desire; it is built into the nature of writing. A word has built into it someone to listen and try to understand. That’s what the word is, and to savor it, to fondle it, to hear and taste it, is to make the connection with whoever, or whatever (maybe it’s not even another person, but it’s somehow someone or something) is on the other end of that word.
I have been thinking about this for a thousand years. In the 1980s I sponsored a symposium in new York called Meditation and Poetry, in which I brought together a number of serious poets who meditated. My idea was to try to discover what these two activities have in common. I remember Jackson MacLow, the great avant-garde poet, saying something like, “I am chary (I particularly remember his use of this word) about mentioning these two in the same breath. They exist in different worlds. Writing is effective and public; meditation is private.”
But, one could argue, MacLow’s writing was utterly private. He worked with chance operations and cut-up words for much of his career, so that there was no intention or conventional communication in his work. Even later, when he didn’t use these methods, he was never interested in “saying something” in the usual sense. Many people found his works impenetrable. He was never trying to say or describe or explain anything, certainly not how he himself felt about life or the world. Still, he published copiously and was active in the poetry and arts community for half a century, all the way up until his death. Why?
A decade or more later I was involved in a similar symposium at Stanford. On the panel with me were the poets Leslie Scalapino and Michael McClure, both of whom practice meditation. We were asked by someone in the audience, “whom do you write for?” and we all answered, in different ways, “no one.” I remember that one of the professors in attendance (who, as it happened, was the Zen scholar Carl Bielefeld) took serious issue with this. Writing must always be social, he argued. What we meant was not that we were uninterested in readership—we all publish a fair amount—but that in the act of writing we did not consider who the reader is or what he or she is going to make of what we are writing. We write to someone, but that person is essentially nobody, without a name or social circumstances—we write for God. The beyond. The empty nature of all phenomena. Buddha nature. The Mystery. Zero. The empty nada. Nothing. We speak, and however little or much our words communicate, they touch something Out There. And somehow within the mind and within the words, that Out There is already implied. Words simply, by their very nature, imply and include a listener. A word, even spoken in one’s aloneness, is always spoken to a someone. That’s already there in the word as a word.
Years ago I went to the wailing wall in Jerusalem and did what all tourists there do: wrote some words on a scrap of paper that I tucked into a crevice in the wall. When I closed my eyes and touched my head to the warm stone, it came to me: “all language is prayer.” This must be so. Who is it we are speaking to when we speak to anyone? To that person, and also past him or her to Out There. If there is language, it means there is the possibility of being heard, being met, being loved. And reaching out to be heard, met, or loved is a sacred act. Language is sacred, and all sacred observances always involve language, dedication, invocation, prayer, petition, commemoration, praise, lamentation - all language acts. We might call them special uses of language, but I think not. They are simply uses that sharpen and make more pointed the procedures that are always in effect whenever language comes into play - which is all the time, in every encounter, thought, perception, and deed.
And so, dear reader, know that at this moment of your reading this text, you are also touching the Mystery, the Nobody, at the center of your language-charged silence. I, the supposed author, about whom you may have formed some impression by now entirely of your own making, am not now talking to you. At the moment of your reading, amazingly enough, although I seem to be present, I am elsewhere, doing something else. I am unaware of who you are, and I don’t know that you are reading these words in this exact moment, when you have this text in your hands, holding words I have written in a present for you that is past for me, while I am in this moment (not this moment, that one) mowing the lawn or eating lunch or out walking - or writing something else. Or no longer exist at all. And yet, at this moment, the moment when I am composing these words and you have not yet read them—a moment in the future for you for but piercingly immediate to me now—I am as close to myself, and to you, as it is humanly possible to be.
This essay appears in Norman Fischer, Experience: Thinking, Writing, Language, and Religion (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, Dec 15, 2015). An earlier version appeared in Shambhala Sun (Spring 2007).