The Zen of Creativity

“Does a dog have Buddha-nature?”


Zen koan

For decades now, I’ve written novels full of sex and violence. For nearly as long, I’ve been a practicing Zen Buddhist. I’m frequently asked if there’s any dichotomy or relationship between the two. For me, it is not even a relationship, because there is no separation between the two. It was literature that first led me to Zen, and since then as much of my practice has taken place with pen or keyboard as with the meditation cushion.

I once told a pianist, who was unhappy, “I see how you are when you’re playing the piano. If you can take that with you when you get up from the piano stool, you won’t suffer.” When playing the piano, this person just played the piano, with no notion of self, while being entirely present, and so was free.

It was writing that let me see what was real. I wrote books that other people considered to be wise and compassionate, and I could see that they were. But I, who had written the books, was not wise and was not compassionate. So where did the books come from? Whose was the wisdom and compassion?

Over the years, my self-centered, neurotic behavior varied, but there was something that was constant: When I got out of the way and let the writing happen, there was wisdom and compassion. So, I realized that there was always wisdom and compassion, and that it was only my attachment to self that kept me from seeing it, just as dirt on a window keeps us from seeing the sunlit day outside.

By writing as well as meditating, I realized that my desire to stop being self-centered was itself a self-centered desire, and that my desire for wisdom was materialistic and unwise. I realized that wisdom and compassion were not things I could have — instead, wisdom and compassion had me, and when I gave myself over to them when writing, the window was wiped clean. The dog does not have Buddha-nature; Buddha-nature has the dog.