What are your thoughts as you prepare to go to India to speak at the Jaipur Literature Festival? Have you been to Jaipur or other parts of India before?
i am very excited! I have never been to Jaipur, but many friends have told me how beautiful it is. When I was in college, I traveled around Asia for a year. This included months in India visiting Calcutta, Varanasi, Agra and Delhi. I was 19 at the time, so it was a long time ago, but I’ve never forgotten it. India had a huge impact on me and ever since then I have wanted to return to India.
As a Zen monk, do you plan to visit Buddhist sites in India?
both! When I was invited to the Jaipur Literary Festival, I decided to go a few weeks early and visit Sarnath, Bodh Gaya and Rajgir. I am meeting with a group of university students participating in an exchange program studying at the Central University for Tibetan Studies in Sarnath. The program is led by my colleague, Professor Jay Garfield, a Buddhist scholar and professor of philosophy at Smith College. I’ve been wanting to visit these historical Buddhist sites since the beginning of my Zen practice, so I’m very excited. The Jaipur Literary Festival is the largest literary event of its kind in the world. This trip is a combination of both things I love most.
recent novels, form and empty calligraphywhose title is heart sutraCan you tell us about the significance of this scripture for your practice as a novelist?
The phrase we chant in the English translation of heart sutra The shape is the same as the sky. The sky is the same as the shape. Form itself is emptiness, and emptiness itself is form. It is a condensed expression of impermanence, selflessness, dependent symbiosis or mutual existence, the central teachings of Mahayana Buddhism that seek to explain the causes of human delusion and suffering. Thus, form and emptiness can be seen as complex parts of Buddhist philosophy, or simply as a literal description of human experience and the truth of the world.
Viewed in this way, these Buddhist teachings share much with fiction and literature. Both are expressions of truth in the world. All stories are about impermanent truth. Stories begin with change. Fictional characters coexist dependently in their relationships with each other, resisting change or trying to manage it, and this creates intrigue, which often leads to and sometimes relieves suffering.
Buddhist philosophy explains reality, fiction evokes it.
In this book, Benny seeks refuge in the stillness of the public library. To what extent is this character modeled after you and based on your involvement with Dogen’s teachings? Was it aimed at depathizing what is called mental illness?
There are many ways to understand the mind, but perhaps the main lens through which we look at the mind these days is that of biomedical psychology. However, this biomedical model has limitations. Because mental conditions, like cancer, for example, cannot be diagnosed. Diagnosis is an imprecise science because there are no biomarkers for psychological ‘medical conditions’. People who tell a clinical psychologist that they hear voices are more likely to be diagnosed with psychosis or schizophrenia, but should hearing voices be pathological? would say
Hearing voices is an unshared psychic experience and much more common than we think. I was confused because it sounded like it was coming from outside my head, I could hear it with my ears, but it didn’t bother me, but it made me feel sad. Eventually, I stopped listening to him, but this got me thinking about the phenomenon of hearing voices and how we view this unshared experience.
Artists and writers hear voices and see visions. In fact, we rely on them. As a novelist, I “hear” the voices of the characters and the voices of the book, but the experience of hearing these voices is also not shared, at least not until I write the book.
And then there is the spiritual understanding of hearing voices. The Bible is full of prophets and hearers. There are many teaching stories in Zen literature that explore questions such as: Can objects, objects, pebbles, grass, roof tiles be our teachers? Can they learn to hear the wisdom of a world without senses?
So I’ve been thinking about all these ways of understanding the mind and mental and psychological phenomena, and the book is an expression of this speculation.
In a recent correspondence with the Smith College Alumni Book Club, you talked about how there are as many forms and empty books as there are readers, because every new person reads a new book. . Does this insight come from Buddhist theories of dependent origination and mutual existence? How does it help you deal with criticism?
Yes exactly! We think of a “book” as a single entity written by an author, but that’s not strictly accurate. A book is a collaboration born of interdependence between reader and writer. As any writer knows, everyone who reads a book brings their own lived experience to the page. This is what brings the book to life. But it also means that the book one person reads will be different than the book the person next to them will read. But that reader had her own experience and doesn’t care. It’s perfectly valid and has little to nothing to do with me. Whether a critic likes or dislikes a book doesn’t have to be taken too personally.
As a novelist, I create a fictional world. As a Zen practitioner, she trains her mind to see things as they are. How do these two pursuits of hers enrich and complicate each other?
As a Zen practitioner, I know how the human mind perceives “what is” as a story. It’s our nature and we can’t help ourselves. When I work as a novelist, I try to create my own fictional worlds and build them a little more intentionally.
The two practices make each other very rich, the only complication is that you can’t actually type while sitting on a cushion.
After winning the 2022 Female Fiction Award, did you find yourself thinking more about what it means to be a female writer today than an American writer or a writer of Japanese heritage? How does it help you relate to your identity?
Winning the Women’s Award meant a lot to me. Because throughout my life and career, I have always supported and supported women and women’s organizations. That said, I don’t think much about my author’s identity in these terms. Gender, race, class, and all combinations and permutations of these identities matter in the real world. But when I write fiction, I immerse myself in the idiosyncrasies of the characters’ lives and the writing process itself, trying to find the right words and improve the clarity and rhythm of my sentences.
Zen practice can help. The Buddhist teaching of no-self — the sense that we are a concrete, personal self is an illusion — helps me to belittle myself and my identity a little more.
If you encourage creative writing students to explore meditation as a way to deepen their awareness before writing, will they accept it as an adventure, or will they see it as religious and express resistance? .
In America, mindfulness has become mainstream and secularized, so I don’t think many students would oppose it on religious grounds. My students know ahead of time that mindfulness will also be part of the class, so those who register will know what they are doing. It says that you are free to choose not to meditate. Instead, you can sit quietly with your eyes closed so as not to disturb others. The meditations are guided, so I think you’ll benefit anyway. Most students report that it is very helpful in their writing process.
How do you navigate the racism and misogyny that manifests itself in Dharma centers and even religious institutions? Sanga Is it intended to be an equal space for the benefit of all sentient beings?
One of the reasons I chose to follow the priestly path and seek ordination is that I have a very ambivalent relationship with organized religion, and I am deeply moved by the way religious institutions marginalize women. because they are critical. I think it is important for women to have leadership positions within these organizations. Personally, I found it interesting to work with my ambivalence from within the belly of the beast.
Dharma Center and Sanga Historically, the United States has consisted of two types of practitioners: “immigrant” or “ethnic” Buddhists and “converted” Buddhists. The latter are historically middle-class, wealthy whites, and Buddhism in the United States is jokingly referred to as the “Upper Middle Way.” But these days, I think this is changing.at least some Sanga The companies I work with are committed to diversity and this makes a difference.
What are you working on now?
So far, not much.short essay for new york timesThis is the text for next year’s lecture. I have some ideas, but I haven’t started writing a new novel yet. I think my next book will be non-fiction, possibly a short memoir about writing and Zen, so your question was both timely and interesting!
Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer.
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