I’m currently reading a book written by a Western Buddhist, and struggling with it a lot. It is not, however, the teaching which is the source of my struggle and irritation. It is the writing.
More and more I find it is less and less what something is ABOUT that matters to me; it is the voice itself. This may mean that in the end I am doomed to be forever style over substance, and on one level this is true. However another way of experiencing this is that what interests me is the story, and can the storyteller make me experience the story.
This is as true for me in ‘texts about facts’ as it is in fiction. It is always an illusion to say a fact is devoid of an interpretation of it. Our subjectivity is always within the objective.
What has this got to do with the book about Buddhism?
It is this – any ism way of viewing the world, faith based, political, philosophical carries its own jargon within it, which means something to the cognoscenti, and is of course a very useful shorthand. But one of the major problems of jargon is that over time, its well-worn grooves move further and further away from the immediacy which caused their initial creation. And so the writing connects less and less with the experience.
There is a particular strand I come across in a lot of Western Buddhist instructional – I suppose vaguely ‘self-help’ writing which is intensely (I really mean over intensely) pragmatic salt-of-the-earth writing (or speaking) It’s the ‘monkey mind’ ‘loving instruction of a puppy’ the ‘be-here’ which is all about the (apologies to the easily offended) ’you have to smell the shit, taste the shit’ approach. Once, maybe with the first person who spoke those words or wrote those words, their effect was immediate, direct and wake-up. Now (for me) they are without power and jaded. Singing from the same hymn-sheet can mean singing by rote on auto-pilot, a mindless musical mumble of a well-worn groove.
The best writers, it seems to me (on anything) are those with poetic sensibilities. And by that I am not talking about intensely lyrical writing. What the poet does, because of the strictures imposed by form, is to carefully make words work. The best writers (in any medium) do not take their words lightly. Writing can be extremely plain and pared down to the bone, and yet be poetical in immediacy. What poetry and poets (if they are skillful!) does, and do, is to freshly mint the experience for the reader or listener. Poets (whether they write poetry or not) shake us awake into sharing the experience. They take the cliché of Moons/Junes/Hearts/Flowers used as symbols of love (or whatever) and break them apart.
Back to the self-help Buddhist book. What I suppose irritates even more is the unremitting focus on being pragmatic, on escaping the trap of illusion, facing things as they ARE. Well, life may be full of shit – but it is also full of stardust, mystery, the unfathomable. Personally, as reader, neither the shit nor the stardust in writing will work when their description relies on cliché.
Which is not to say the writer needs to try and forever shock or be ‘new’. But the writer does need to find a way to make sure they have not placed cliché between the thing itself and their truthful experience of it
I do like reading books which come from various – vexed word – ‘spiritual traditions.’ Which I suppose means books which grapple with what is not ultimately tangible. And some of these are written by atheists.
Perhaps in the end it comes down to personality – who finds the words that ignite you into really being here, waking up, and being able to hold (metaphorically, I think!) the shit and the stardust together.
Nothing is new, everything has been said before – but maybe a way of saying what has been said before makes it new enough to be heard, or seen, as if for the first time.
Paradoxically, some of the writers who have connected most with the ‘is-ness’ have not been writing from any ‘spiritual’ or instructional place. And the one I come back to, as sure pointer, is the Scottish poet Andrew Grieg, whose At The Loch of The Green Corrie is a deep delight. Michael Mayne, a Christian cleric, and Richard Holloway, one time Bishop of Edinburgh, and now atheist, are others. The nature poet and writer Kathleen Jamie is yet another. None say anything which has not been said before (philosophically) except, through the immediacy of language which is from their own tongues, this reader experiences the matter of their writing in immediacy.