Buddhism at Millennium's Edge - Seminar 2

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Copyright 1998 by Peter Matthiessen - Unedited Preview Cassette

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E.M. Forster had a wonderful phrase. He said, good writing is administering a series of tiny astonishments. And what does that mean, really? It means finding a fresh way to say something, a new way, a beginner's mind way of saying things. I talked earlier about Buddha's golden words, Mount Fuji, and stuff, and research and notebooks. And I think really the greatest, and again, you must treat everything I say with the highest suspicion. It may not apply to you or to your work or the work you would like to do. And there are all kinds of writings for all sorts of occasion. It's all varied. I find it hard to believe, though, that you could write well without paying attention. And of course, that's the heart of our practice


as well. Pay attention. Pay attention. Pay attention. Moment after moment. Moment after moment freshening your mind, we call it. And that fresh mind, you may have noticed, we were discussing that this morning at breakfast too, I think. When you sit and when you meditate, your vision, your vision actually seems to widen. You know, in ordinary life, you're concentrating on this, and you really are looking down a tube. But when you meditate and you start opening out, this morning when we began, I said, open out. And your vision actually starts opening out until finally you really think you can see, you feel you can see out here. And you're certainly aware of everything out there. Nothing gets by. And it's really that, I think, that opened mind, which is or should be the writer's mind.


You don't miss much. Henry James said that. You don't miss anything. You really are aware of little intonations, little figures of speech, little colors, sounds, smells. You take it in, and you use what you can. But all of those things, of course, in that moment are very fresh. And it's how you transcribe them into your notebook or into your mind. You sometimes don't need a notebook. If it's vivid enough, you'll never forget it. I saw something in Antarctica I will never forget. I was absolutely astounded. We were up on the bridge of this ship looking south toward the ocean just west of the Antarctic landmass there. And the sun was going down into the ocean. And as you know, at that time of year down there in summer, there isn't much darkness. And the sun actually itself seemed to be having a very hard time getting below the horizon. It seemed to hit the horizon and then kind of bulge out and flatten out, and it wasn't going under. And I thought that's extraordinary.


What would it look like through binoculars? So I put my bird glasses on it. And the gold that came through those lenses was so, it absolutely pierced the heart. It seemed to pierce the brain. It just, I've never seen such gold, gold, goldness. You know, like tata and tatagata, tatagata, that suchness, the suchness of that gold, you know. And I went, I nudged one of our clients who was next to me. I said, put your binoculars on the sun. He said, oh, I can't. It'll burn my eyes out, you know. I said, no, no, it won't. You'll see something very beautiful. And he did, and he put his glasses up. And I'm glad he did because at that moment, that sun on the horizon turned an absolutely piercing turquoise green. It was like having a green needle piercing your brain. That's how, that's how sharp it was, how extraordinary. And then it flattened out into kind of a green rectangle. And then it went down


below the horizon. And I'd been hearing about this green flash. I never took it seriously at all. I have seen sort of greenish sunsets in Africa and the Gulf. It's always, the sun has to be going down below the horizon. It wouldn't happen even going behind an iceberg. It's just when that last moment, well, how do you describe that moment? You see, I've taken how many words, probably 500 words here to describe something that was a split second experience. How do you, how do you boil that down? How do you find that detail that stands for the whole thing? This is what the writer is always searching for. You're looking for that detail that really represents the whole. And, and that sometimes it's a bit of dialogue. Sometimes it's a conversation. I once, I was, I was looking at birds in the Okefenokee Swamp in the great Okefenokee. And I was rowing around and out of the trees, out of these huge swamps, cypress came, this old guy rowing,


leaning on his horse. He'd been in there all day long. You could just see it. He'd really, when they used up his six pack and his bait and everything else, he was really tired. And he paused on his, rested on his oars as we kind of coasted past each other. And he said, you run into any fish around here that might care for a ride in my boat? You know, well, if you're a writer, you know, you struck a little vein of pure gold. That's the kind of thing you put in your notebook. It just, it says the whole thing about his day in the swamp and the fishing, you know. So you, and you just, you're open to those things. You should be economical. Now, I don't, I don't particularly like some of the modern novel writing that's very, very economical, indeed, to the point of transparency. I love transparency, but it should be used as a tool, not as a, not as an end. I mean, you, I'm all for storytelling. I might as well admit that.


I think if you go into traditional peoples, the winter count of the Indian people, these stories are very important. And I have a feeling that literature that dispenses with story, not plot. Plot is something else. Plots are construction. You arrange it. But story, as a story, and by story, it's our story. It's the universal human story. And somehow this writer is able to tap into that. And I think we need stories, you know, in books. Nonetheless, you shouldn't bang on a great length as I have done in my trilogy. I feel that the length is necessary, because what I'm doing is I'm constructing, this sounds extremely pretentious on the first to admit it, but I haven't found a better analogy. But what I want is a kind of a symphonic structure. The introduction of themes, and then you have a movement that's faster and a movement that's slower, andante, allegro, or whatever. And then you, but you keep coming


back to that central theme. Even at the risk of repetition and verbiage, it's important because it's developed in different ways each time from a different point of view. The last book of the trilogy will be from the dead man's point of view, actually, although he's not quite dead yet. He will be. But you do when, in other words, unless you have a good reason not to be, for artistic or structural reasons, there are reasons when you don't want to be economical. And novels, by the way, you know, they are, as somebody said, big, saggy things. A novel can absorb a lot of extra. It can have little digressions and diversions and pockets of this and that. A short story can. A short story's construction is much more like a poem. You really cannot waste a word in a short story, and you mustn't pick the wrong one. I had a student, a writing student one time, and this guy wrote a very touching, really elegiac thing about first love with this beautiful girl. He obviously was basing it all on his own


experience. He was trying to describe her face, and he did a pretty good job of it too. And she was attractive anyway, from the whole context, she was attractive. And then he brought the whole thing tumbling down by referring to, I know exactly what he means, it was very vivid, he said he referred to her, something in her eyes and her teeth and her mouth, and a perfect ski-jump nose. You know, in certain contexts, that would be wonderful. If you were doing something else, that ski-jump nose. If you were trying to describe some kind of horsey, athletic girl, whatever, the ski-jump nose would work very well. It would bring the whole thing into focus, you know, kind of thing. But in a romantic mood piece, it brought it, it just, and that's why I say one word, it just brought it all down. Luckily, that's easily fixed. But you know, in England, they say a gentleman is never rude except on purpose. Well, a writer should never be


wordy except on purpose. Be spare. Do your homework. I know many, many writers whose work consistently needs another draft. They're extra words, they're soggy words, they're cliche, stale expressions. So put the time in. You put a lot of time in already, put that extra time in. You can also overwork. No question about that. You can do it in painting and you can do it in writing. But there are little things that many, those of you, I know that everybody here has, but when you're making bread, you know how the dough is. At first it's kind of amorphous. And then you shape it and you knead it and it suddenly comes to life. It has this real elasticity and flexibility and enormous life in it. And what happens if you keep working? It becomes more and more brittle and it starts to crumble in your fingers and you can't go back. The same thing can happen in writing. You have to judge that life. You have to know where that life


is. And yeah, again, the detail that stands for the rest. Suzuki Roshi in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, a wonderful book, which I read so many times. I always read it with a different color pencil or pen and underline it according to where my mind is at. And it's really fascinating. I never underline the same things. You go back and back to that book. It's like a well. But at some point in there, he says something like, if you've understood a frog, you've understood everything. And of course, what does he mean? If you untruly understand a frog, you've understood everything. You've understood the whole. The frog represents everything. So you could say that you could replace frog with almost anything. But that detail, in a sense, stands for the rest. It stands for the whole Indra's net, the whole universe that's echoing behind, resonance behind.


So we are always searching for that detail. I won't do it now, but after lunch, I'll read you a couple of short passages that were, and I'll put it up to you if you see what detail is there that is the key one. Sometimes we miss what is the key thing. The key word, we talk sometimes about, remember Master Basho's famous haiku, old pond or ancient pond, frog jumps in, splash, is. That is the key word there. It isn't frog or old or it's that, psh, this moment. That's where the life is right there. We say, we chant the Heart Sutra, form is emptiness, emptiness is form. It's the is, it's the key word, not one or the other,


is, is, is, is. That's what our life is. And think of all the is's we trample. We're always regretting the past. We're always looking forward to the future. We resent our work or whatever it may be, our drudgery, not realizing that if you're in that moment, even washing dishes can be thrilling. If you're aware of the mechanism in your hands, these extraordinary motors and processes and apparatus, apparatus, that are at work there, and the sensory feeling of your skin, the heat and the hot, and it really is quite astonishing, but that depends on keeping your attention. Even at so-called painful moments, if you really pay attention to the pain in your knees, you know, you find yourself going into that pain and it's all one and you don't make these value distinctions. You don't, you know, militate against the pain. It's just pain, red, green, metal, hair, smell from the kitchen.


It's just a phenomenon like that. You don't say it's good or bad, just like the violence I was talking about last night. It's just there. This is the fact. And when you, I mean, you don't demonize pain anymore. You can handle a lot more of it up to a point. I agree there is a point when you realize to your horror that the bell ringer has fallen asleep. And that's been known to happen, too. So it's this truly seeing. One time, I don't mean to dwell on So and Roshi too much, but I remember at one session, because there was construction of our monastery, we went to a Catholic retreat house up in Litchfield, Connecticut. And there's a huge spruce there in the east, east of the building. And you can see it most clearly from the stairwell, a great big window there. And So and Roshi called for Daisan. Again, he didn't want to talk to us at all. He just went


running up the stairs and he'd stopped you on the landing and you turned around and there behind this spruce was this sun coming up through the needles. It was just filling the whole window. And then he'd ring the bell and send you down again. Well, I, it was such a shock. You know, there was a Zen master who saw the sun for the first time and that was his enlightened experience. You know, we speak of seeing the sun for the first time. How ridiculous. We see it every day. The sun is out. You don't see it much here in California lately, but still you see it, but you don't truly see it. You don't truly see the tree-ness of the tree or the sun-ness of the sun. And because this was a long way into a long session, everybody's mind was very, very open. And I burst into tears and a lot of people did. He'd just ring the bell and go down again. That is that moment, moment, moment. Um, you know, what is that koan? Norman, maybe you can remind me. I haven't taught this koan for


a long time, but, um, the master has a stick, a kwatsu, and he holds it up and he says, if you say this is a stick, I will give you 30 blows. If you say it is not a stick, I won't give you 30 blows. That's a wonderful, wonderful koan. And I will, are any of you working on that koan? Before I go any further. But, uh, anyway, we're talking about suchness, stick-ness, this moment-ness. And these moments, when you really pay attention to this moment, it just expands, expands, expands. And all the mystery is there. You suddenly see that mystery that's hiding behind everything. And it's part of the writer's task to see that, see that mystery. Always there, everything, right here, now. Um, you see, I'm just, I'm not in some sort of daze. I'm hunching over my notes because I can't,


I can't see through my glasses at all. And I can, I have to lean over to see through my eyes. So that's what I'm doing. Um, Ezra Pound had a wonderful image. Ezra Pound was, um, not such a great writer, but he had a great sense of writing and what it was. And he did do some very fine writing, too, but we don't remember him for that. We remember him as an influence on other people and as somebody who recognized good writing way ahead of his time. But he did have one image I really remember. And he says, it said, he was talking, he'd seen a subway car pass in the dark. It was a famous line. He said, something like, faces in the passing subway, petals on a wet black bow. That's wonderful. You see those white faces going by, just as momentary as that. That was great.


Now that is metaphor. And most good writing is full of wonderful metaphor that stops you in your tracks, you know, really, uh, vivid and fresh and new or whatever. I tried writing a book without, um, metaphor. Let's go far Tortuga. That was my Zen type book. I tried to eliminate, um, metaphor entirely. I tried to write the whole book without any symbol, nothing like so-and-so, just the thing itself. And maybe I'll hold that and I might, I might, maybe at lunchtime, I'll find a little passage from there to show you, show you what I mean. That was a wonderful exercise because if you truly see the thing itself, you don't need a metaphor. You're just adding. It's just extra. So much of our life is just extra. We miss the thing itself. And writing, um, at least for a fanatic like me is sort of our life. We say Zen is our life,


but anything you truly do wholeheartedly is your life. That is your life. Your life is there going by moment after moment. And we must take advantage of these moments, not live in the past. Think of the millions of moments we've ignored or trampled on or blurred out and didn't notice. And this life is extraordinary. Very mysterious business. So I really, uh, it's like teaching Zen. I think if I were trying to teach writers, I don't quite believe in, um, writing classes. What you can teach in a writing class is in a sense what not to do. It's sort of a negative proposition. You can save new writers a lot of time. Ski, jump, nose, for example, to avoid that kind of stuff. And to be economical and to be, and to put in the time, put in the time. If it's worth doing, as you've heard many times, it's worth doing. Well, um, you know about


that. But I think I would really just teach that, is paying attention to this moment, that freshness. That's what we want in writing. We're not interested in abstractions and generalities and so forth. We really are interested in a fresh way of seeing our own life. And that's what good writing is. You recognize something that somebody is saying that you knew to be true and you've never seen in writing before. And in the old days, I was mentioning this to Norman. In the old days, in library books, when you got books out of the library, there was little, there were always little ladies who made a little notation, a little checkmark on the margin saying, how true, how true. But that's true. I mean, that is, that is, that's what's happening. It's that moment of recognition. That writer has pierced into the universal well of experience, which we all share, male or female. And I think that really is what good writing is. That's what, that's what breaks


your heart. If the hero, the idiot, excuse me, the idiot, it really hurts what happens to that person because the writer has managed to convey the humanity and the pain that the hero is going through. I think that's what writing is. And I'm not going to, I'm very happy to answer questions about technique or whatever I can help with if it happens to be something I know about. So I think I'll open it now to questions for about 10 minutes and we'll, is that where we actually go to? Let's see how it goes. Who goes? If the questions run out, we can sit. How do you define story for yourself as you're working? How do you keep track of the story you find as you're working? Well, you can write an outline. I recommend not doing that with a short story. Generally speaking, a short story you can hold in your own, well, if it's a long story or near novella, maybe not. But a short story is really an impression. And one could almost say the faster you write it, the better. Then you can go back and polish it. But it is more like a poem.


I had a friend who was a poet who actually had that technique. He would write about really, I mean, really 15 or 20 poems a night at top speed. But then he went through the next day ruthlessly and generally threw them all out. But now and again, he'd save one. And that was his technique. And it amounted to about the same time as other people's technique. But I think his principle was correct. It's spontaneous. You're not letting your notions, ideas of what's literary and what isn't and what people will like, all that stuff will only get in your way. In good writing, you don't care what people think. You're really trying to clarify something for yourself, clarify an idea. And if you really do it, everybody will care about it. It'll be that perceived truth that everybody can share. What about in a novel, though? Novel, you can wander around a bit. And sometimes it's very good to wander around. But some novels wander. Do you write an outline of a story? I always do. Not always. I usually write an outline and then I wander away from it.


Because if the novel is any good, it'll take on its own life and the characters will too. And you can't control that with an outline. They're going to be sprawling all over the place. I generally know how the novel is going to end. That's often the first thing that occurs to me. And then I'm working toward that in the most effective way I can. And in Killing Mr. Watson, as I say, I put it right in the beginning. So it wasn't even the ending, it was the beginning. But I do use an outline simply because what you can do, if you get a great big piece of artist's drawing paper, a biggest piece of paper you can find, and you tack it up on your wall, and then you make a rough outline, but leave a lot of space, chapter one, chapter two, and you put in at first just general topics and how it goes. Then as you think of things, you can write them right in there. They'll be in the right place, and it'll be a terrible mess, and you may have to remake that chart. But you're accumulating your ideas in the right place, and you say, this is ridiculous. This whole chapter should be down here. Your order is wrong. And then we talk about structure. Structure is very,


very important, how the book is structured. And the problems are always different. To me, it's much the most fascinating part of doing a novel, how you structure it. It really is like sculpture. What is the shape that will bring this feeling or emotion or idea out most clearly? That is truly fascinating, how it'll happen. Then you have to worry about the voice. What's the best voice to tell the story in? If you hit the wrong voice, the whole thing will come down. Often you may write three chapters in the third person and say, no, this has to be first person narrative, or the reverse, or omniscient, or have everybody thinking at once. I mean, every character you mentioned, he's doing his own thinking. Yeah? Can you talk a little more about structure and what you feel like the options are you're considering when you're approaching a story? What optional structures you would think of? There's no limit to your options. And you shouldn't limit yourself that way.


You can do anything you please if you can do it. The question is, can you do it? I think for a new writer, the first person, in a way, is harder to do without seeming kind of monotone. And for new writers, it takes a certain amount of experience to jump around and be experimental and try things. But there's no rule about it at all. The rule, I suppose, is to hold your reader. But in a way, you don't even care about that. You will, though, if it's good. Yeah? I've had the experience of losing the magnet in the course of writing a novel. I've wondered if you have as well, and if there's any way you can find again? No, I don't think it is. If you lose that magnet, you've grown away from your material, and you just have to cut your losses. That's my experience. At a certain point, I've done that with a couple of books. I got in too far, and I just lost it. And I knew it was good material.


And often, what you do is you go back to an earlier draft. That you can do. If you keep your drafts, and on the computer, that makes it quite easy to do, then you'll probably have a better sense of what your true direction was or is. That might give you a clue. But I don't think you can do it from scratch, no. Although, for Tortuga, which is my own favorite of my books to date, I worked on for 12 years, off and on, doing a lot of nonfiction, a lot of travel. It was experimental, and I had so much fun trying to work out the problems. And I had a lot more fun than some of the reviewers seemed to have had with it. But there were those who... Writers really liked that book, and some reviewers liked it very much, but some really hated it. Can you say something about beautiful accidents, where you're thinking you're doing something wrong, and it takes off, and it's not an opportunity? That does happen. It does happen. And some writers make the mistake of waiting for that


beautiful accident. And when it happens, you count your blessings. And the same is true of a good working day. There are days when you just can't seem to put a foot wrong. The thing just... My first short story that was published was like that. It's virtually first draft. Why that story? I've never been able to repeat that. 35 stories later, I'm still waiting for it to happen again. But somehow... And certain scenes will do that. But you cannot wait for that. You just have to write every day, plug along. You're going to hate some of the material. I think this is probably true of most writers. Some days, I'm really suicidal by the end of the day. And other days, I'm so elated that I'm up all night. And you just don't know when it's going to happen. And after a while, if you're a pro, you just take the bad day and the good day. You go along and just thank God for the good days. You can always... Those days that are really bad, later on in the second or third or fourth draft or whatever you're doing, you can always clean up stuff that's bad. Sometimes it's better just to go ahead because your mind will rethink that passage you had trouble with. Hemingway,


the immortal Hemingway, said a very good thing. I've always used this. It's been very helpful. He said, always end with a difficult passage, a passage that's been giving you trouble. End your workday with that one when you know exactly where you're going the next morning. In other words, the first passage of the day is an easy one, a patch of dialogue you have in your mind, something like that, that primes the pump. It gets you rolling. Sometimes that blank page in the morning can be stupefying. And I think that's excellent advice to do that. This is kind of a general question, but it has to do with the relationship between imagination and writing and practice. Because the practice seems sometimes to be a kind of war of imagination, or it seems that that's imagination and bringing you back to


the moment where it is. Whereas, you know, creating fiction or, I don't know. Okay. I know, that's a wonderful question, Rick. I don't have that experience. I used to have such a problem, especially in early days of practice. For some reason, like sitting in a session, the dawn sitting, structure would just come to me. You know, my mind had been sort of clearing up in the days before, and these very clear structural solutions would come. Not only structural solutions, but patches of dialogue and story and every characterization. It was so strong, and it interfered with my sitting. And so I finally went to Edo Roshi, that was, and I went to him and said, what do I do? He said, no, and he was quite right. He said, you're doing Zazen. You are fully into the structural problem in your novel, and that is your Zazen for the moment. He said, go upstairs and write it all down, and then you're empty your mind of that,


and then come back and do your ordinary, your normal Zazen. But I find, I find Zazen very, very good for structural problems, and I'm ashamed to say that I've used many a sitting period to work out my... Do you ever find that your Zen outlook is in any way in conflict with the sensual pleasure of the metaphor? I mean, the sense of using metaphor rather than, as you did in Part 2, but going directly from trying to pull the essence out. That sort of excitement and patience and conflict and struggle. Do you find that any of those, any of that artifice is in any way in conflict or at war with Zen thought? Well, I really hadn't thought of it, but the book, the novel I wrote before


for Tortuga was At Play in the Fields of the Lord, and that was full of metaphor, similes and metaphors all over the place. And it seemed to me at that time, and then I took up Zen after I'd finished that book, and it seemed to me then that it was overwritten and ornate and extra. I don't think it really was. It was just a different way of going at the work, but it seemed to me so. It seemed to me that those metaphors were in the way I was in love with spareness then. No doubt I reeked of the stink of Zen. I had this austere view of everything. Now, on the contrary, on the contrary, I think it's all... I embrace the spareness and the over-rich, erotic things too. That's all part of our life. That's part of our existence. So I don't make that distinction anymore. You start out with a lot of wrong ideas about everything. At least I did. First lines. Just wanted your thoughts about that. I mean, sometimes you have


a tendency... I find I have a tendency when I'm in a bookstore picking up a novel and reading the first line and kind of judging the book on that. But when you read something like Anna Karenina, the first line, you know, you've really got something. It really brings you in. Could you talk a little bit about how you feel about that, about first lines in a novel, about really getting it going? Okay. I always think, and I think most people do, they love the first line and you want to have... But you kind of have to avoid having a grabber, if you know what I mean. A hook. I don't think that... I think that very rarely comes in the first line. And a lot of the so-called famous first lines are lines that have become famous because the book was so good. And we think it was a great first line. As a general rule, when you're teaching writing, as a general rule, with people who are more or less, even people who are more or less experienced, I would say that it's true four times out of five that if you eliminate the first paragraph and the last paragraph, you will improve the story.


The first paragraph is the grabber. That's the one that knocks you out. People are the writers scared that the reader won't follow them past the first paragraph. So you try to dazzle them in the first paragraph with a burst of fine writing, you know, which is almost always extra. And the real story begins in the second paragraph. And the last paragraph is a wrap-up in case they missed it. A good story needs neither. So I'm a little suspicious of that great first line. I think I often do too. I can skim through a book and I think, I'm going to be wrong though sometimes, but most of the time you can skim through a book and I know whether I want to read it or not. Because I don't want to labor through it. Life is very short and there are a great many wonderful books. And I don't want to waste time on bad writing, you know. But you can do that. But it's risky. You might miss a very good one. And there are people who write wonderful books. And I don't think Tolstoy was a great prose stylist, but he's one of the great writers that ever lived. He just,


because the material, the substance was so extraordinary. And he's a very good writer, but he's not a great stylist. In this case, it didn't matter. Could you talk a little bit about your writing day? Do you have a schedule? Rituals and that sort of thing? I'm a morning writer. And in the days when I can, and I did, I wrote all the books through the 60s and 70s. I always wrote two books at a time. I wrote fiction in the morning because that's my best time. I gave it to fiction. And I wrote nonfiction in the afternoon. And I was able to make that by going back for lunch or something, or maybe going for a walk or doing something for an hour or so after lunch. I could make that break and then go back. Now, I can't do that. I've got to stay with, I can go back and forth, but I can't do two in one day like that. I work from, I always work about from 8.30 to 12.30, break for lunch, go back with coffee for another maybe two hours.


Then I try to get some exercise in the afternoon. And it depends how things are on an ordinary day. Then after that, I will maybe do some research or some reading or just whatever. But when things are really rolling, I'll go back on and write through supper and pass supper. I've worked often when I'm on a real roll, I'll work till 9.30 or 10, starting at 8 in the morning. But I am fanatic. It's true. I travel a lot, but when I'm home, I really do work. I'm a workaholic. My wife says that if I wasn't a workaholic, I'd be an alcoholic. And I'm sure she's right. No. Necessary isn't, well, okay, go ahead with your question. Could you comment on the role of those people? That is really the key point, the dependable


reader. As I say, writing, I think Suzuki Roshi said or somebody said at some point said, you're not here to learn anything, you're here to let go of things. And maybe the writing teacher can teach you what to drop in your style or unfortunate or cumbersome mechanisms or whatever that. Of course, those mechanical things can be taught. You can't teach talent. You can't teach determination. You can't make somebody a thick skin if they can't handle criticism and they won't make it very far. There are people who really, we were talking about evil last night, there are critics out there who are just waiting to do you harm and say truly vicious things about you. So if you can't handle that, then you better watch out. In my, when I was teaching writing, I always made a very strict rule. No sarcasm. But no namby-pamby criticism either. Don't handle the person. There's a terrific tendency among new students,


they know their own stories might be coming up next week and they want careful handling. So they're gushing, oh, that's wonderful. And you're hearing this awful dreck. That's not wonderful. And why are you telling this person it's wonderful? So you're the heavy, you bust into that and say, no, no, no. Bluntness is what you want. This is what you really want from a reader, even though as a writer, you will probably hate it and maybe hate them for a few days. You will recognize that this is true and it helps the work and that's what counts. And what I always encouraged, I said, don't, don't listen to me. I'm just the guy just trying to, you know, administer this thing. Make up your own critical group among your peers. If you have a good writing class and if you can instill a spirit of bluntness, but no sarcasm, you will hear among the other people around that table, you will hear some who are very good critics and they aren't always the best writers. They just have a very good critical eye and you learn to value them. And a lot of, I always encourage them to do is form up their


own group. So after the teacher has left, then they have this encounter group and they really, because there you have, you will never have it again. You have maybe 12 people who are seriously interested in improving your prose and your writing and your chances of getting published and so forth. Where are you going to get that after you leave there? So from that point of view, I think it's extremely valuable. It's a resource that everybody should use. But these are these writing programs, these MFA and so forth that go on and on and on. And you see these people staying with these writing programs year after year. The same people we see coming to Zen practice, but they're also going to six other religious disciplines. They're kind of, you know, shopping around. They are staying in, it's like spending your entire life with your You know, I mean, you know, when it is, when does the real life begin? You have to jump out of that form, that mold, that cocoon at some point. And I think I'm a little bit hostile to the MFA


programs because I've seen too many good writers kind of go dead and stale. They've been just, they're hanging around the, you know, they haven't, they won't wean themselves. They won't get away. So I think that can do, it can do very serious damage. That's all. You just have to know when to quit, just like in the writing itself. Way back. When you spent a lot of time in the Tibetan Buddhist world as well as the Zen world, I'm just wondering whether you're associated in that world, any different sort of effect on your writing when you use a metaphor symbol as opposed to your Zen world? Well, no, because I don't really make that much distinction. One of the Tibetan schools, I think it's called Gyupa, I think so, is very, very close to Zen practice anyway. And so there really isn't a conflict. And in fact, I think the further you look into traditions and religious traditions, I know the American Indian, my American Indian friends I used


to hang out with, they say, well, don't your Zen teachers mind you hanging out with a bunch of skins? That's what they always call them, skins, short for red skin. And I say, absolutely not. We don't see any conflict. And I don't see, you know, Tibetan Buddhism is much more tantric, it's much more ornate. And for our taste, it's a little bit overwrought in that way. But the essential teachings are really essentially the same. They came, the origins are the same. They all came from the same place. No, I don't see it. It's just a matter of, more a matter of appearance than taste, you know, the difference. And anyway, I've never been really, I've read a lot of Tibetan Buddhist texts and books about Tibetan Buddhism. A wonderful book that John Blofeld, who used to live right here, remember that one, it's called The Tantric Mysticism of Tibet, terrific book. We can all learn from that. One of Trungpa's books, which he didn't write himself, that's neither here nor


there. There's a spirit behind it with that awful title, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. But if that wouldn't send you running from the bookstore, I don't know why. Use no words. The other way is social. A hair of the dog that bit you. You were drafted into the illusion by a social conspiracy, and you can be released by a social conspiracy involving a guru and a community of like-minded devotees. There are many, many other variations to this plan. But these are the two general ways by which liberation from our artificial sense of identity can be found.


This morning we were discussing the relationship of society to the outcast. To the people who are beyond the pale. In other words, what are the ways of being liberated from the suffering and the tension which the social game involves, by really two ways, going right out altogether into solitude or staying in the game and seeing through it. And I was describing to you the whole history of the transition from hunting cultures to agrarian cultures, from roving, unsettled, unfixed people to city or set people, and


showing how the way of liberation is in some sense a return to the hunting culture. Now it's not, of course, an actual return. In India, a person who remains in the settled culture is called a grihasta, which means a householder. Now when you become advanced in years and you have done your job in society and you have raised a son who can take it over, you go into a stage that is called vanaprastha, and that means forest dweller. You see, in effect it means simply that the head of the house moves to a cottage in the backyard and is supposed to be practicing meditation and studying the Bhagavad Gita. Whatever else, he's probably sleeping, but you know how things become


in the course of time. But to call this stage of life vanaprastha or forest dweller indicates that it's a return to the jungle. So


we go into the agrarian culture and we seem to go back to the hunting culture. Here in the center is what is in the pale, what is in the influence of the social game. Now likewise, outside the pale, there's the outlaw who's a criminal. And then, I won't say the in-law, no, the in-laws are here, but then there's a kind of a higher outlaw who is different from the lower outlaw. And he's also beyond the pale, but in the sense, the outlaw who's a criminal is fighting one sort of game. The outlaw who is a saint is beyond the pale in the sense that people


can't understand him. His experience is ineffable. That means what can't be effed up or spoken from the Greek phoebe. So notice then this curious companionship between the saint and the no good. And they've always been associated. And it's a very odd thing. Jesus, as we know, sought out as his friends the disreputable people in the community. The whores and people who are now called notorious evil livers.


Well, they, I say not now, but they were. In the prayer book of the Episcopal Church, there is a passage about notorious evil livers who should not be admitted to communion. But you see, the funny, odd, queer thing is that it is precisely the notorious evil livers that people like Jesus cultivated. Because they were interesting. Because there is something in people like that, that is manurish, feisty, that somehow cultivates a new thing. As the book of the revelation says, because thou art neither hot nor cold, but lukewarm, I will spew thee out of my mouth. And you see, the sad, sad fact of the matter is that most people are lukewarm. They are squares, as we say. Whereas on one, you have this strange combination


of the very evil person and the very saintly person. Both of them beyond the pale, both having a curious alliance. So then, you started getting rewrote. Well, it's what it really is. It's just, you go through again, and you polish, and you omit the extra words, and you maybe restructure, and you look at your paragraph, and you see that this sentence at the end really is more effective if you put it at the beginning. The placement of material is really important. If you have a bunch of good images on a certain page, you don't want to bunch them all together. They're like a bunch of dinosaurs clashing. You want to give the way you would inset a jewel. If you have a truly good image or a good metaphor, have some ordinary, not bad prose, but just plain, clear, lucid prose around it. Set it all. Don't jumble up your prose. Metaphors will weaken each other, no matter how strong each one is. They distract your attention from the other.


So placement, so the structure isn't only the whole book. It goes right down to the paragraph, and even the sentence. Yeah. So, you feel they'd be the same for nonfiction and fiction? Yeah, I do. Yeah. I don't think, I mean, there are many differences. Maybe I'll talk about some later. Well, I'll just say something right now, actually. I like fiction because I find fiction energizing. I could never work on a nonfiction book till nine o'clock in the evening. I've worked on fiction till nine o'clock, and only because I start to do bad stuff because I'm blurry, and I probably had a drink or two at supper, then I know I'm doing horrible stuff. I better quit and wait till the next morning. Nonfiction is a battery drainer. If you're a good journalist, and you have a certain set of facts, and you're stuck with those facts, and you must be, you must stick to the facts. You can't twist the story just because it'd be much more effective that way. And there you are. So,


what you're doing, for me, I always use the image of a cabinet maker. You're making a beautiful cabinet, but it is according to pre-design, and tradition, architecture, and so forth. And no matter how fine your craftsmanship is, it's still kind of an ordered thing. You can bring certain things. Botticelli brought extraordinary things to interior effects, whatever. But nonetheless, it'll be beautiful. It can be very beautiful, but it cannot be, in my view, art. Whereas a piece of sculpture, which has its own life, which is original, which is its own form, which takes over, you work with the materials, you work with everything. That's the difference. It's between a piece of sculpture and a beautiful cabinet. And I find the cabinet making arduous, and it takes away from my energy. A book like The Snow Leopard, because it was kind of a mythic land and everything else of the kind, and it's so strange, and that element of mystery makes it, for me, much more fun to write and much more energizing to write. On the other hand, I really, I resent The Snow


Leopard of all my books, because it's put me in a pigeonhole. Your agent, your mother, your fans, they all want you to write another Snow Leopard. There's the heat to write this stuff, which is more comfortable, makes more money. It's safer. You're not offending people. You're not stepping on toes, which is very easy to do. And The Snow Leopard kind of put me in that box. And many, many reviewers, they always begin, I'm second to no one in my admiration of Peter Mattson's nonfiction. They begin a review of one of your novels. And I know it's really hit the fan. It's going to happen any second now. And I don't feel this is true. I feel that I've, unfortunately, written more nonfiction, because I've gotten interested in many causes, and I want to write about the environment and social injustice and stuff. But I don't think it's the heart of my works. And it takes me three or four times longer to write a novel than it does a work of nonfiction.


And I just love it. I hope I will never, I'm going to assemble a couple of books full of short pieces on Asia and on islands around the world. I've been to lots of islands. I love islands. But I hope I will never undertake a nonfiction book again. That's my hope. It's only a hope. I know Tetsuken Roshi will make me do something awful. Is there a book that you wish you had written? You mean that I admire so much? Oh, sure. Lots of, A Hundred Years of Solitude, for example. Yeah. Oh, there's lots of wonderful books. Wonderful books. Yeah. You were talking about, in writing nonfiction, you just have the facts to deal with, and you have to just approach it that way. In Crazy Horse, at the end, when you have the interview with the gentleman who was supposedly the one who did it, don't you at that point cross over from just studying the facts to actually being a participant in the facts at that point, and a holder of that information while in jail? I was wondering how you feel about that


crossing over at that point and being a holder of that knowledge. Well, I did do that. You're quite right. That's a good point. I did in this Leonard Peltier case. He's the young Indian guy who allegedly killed two FBI agents in a shootout on Pine Ridge in 1975, and I've been working on that case forever. He's still in jail, of course, and that giant lawsuit did no good. I did become partisan, but I said so at several places in the book. I really did say, I said some other extreme things, in fact. I said that at one point, I said, it doesn't really matter or something like that who actually pulled the trigger in that particular case because of a number of facts, one of them being that Peltier had no record of violence whatsoever. He wasn't a crook or a criminal or a thug. He was a young Indian who had a long history of working for his people, and there were over 20 young Indians involved. The FBI now admits, having put him in jail for two consecutive life terms,


they don't know. I mean, the U.S. Attorney's Office don't know who shot. They say, we don't know who the shooter was. They only have him on aiding and abetting, but they convicted him on first-degree murder. He is the shooter. He is the cowardly thug that went down there and shot these two young agents, and they didn't know that. So there are many, many inconsistencies in the case, and even his own judges think that he should have a commuted sentence. At least one of them actually wrote a letter to the president about it. They feel it's 23 years is long enough. If the victims had been anybody but FBI agents, he would have been out long ago, and the two people who were convicted with him, who were indicted with him originally, they both were acquitted. If Leonard had been there for that trial, he'd be a free man. He would have been a free man for the last 23 years. So I think maybe, since his whole life has been blown away, he was 27, I think, when he went in. He's almost 50 now, about 50. Maybe enough is enough, but we go on appeal every year, and the president knows all about this case. He's waiting


for Janet Reno to pass on, and she's waiting for him. They never come down with a decision for this commutation of sentence, and I feel, and perhaps you would, I'm going to ask you in a minute to identify your interest in this case. I feel what's holding it up is the retired agents, retired FBI agents, who are people who remember the case, who probably knew some of the young agents involved or whatever, and they are represented by very, very right-wing people, very fanatical people. But the FBI regular, I mean, Louis Freeh, at first said he wasn't going to take any opinion on this case. He didn't know about it. He was too young and so forth, but then he was kind of obliged to take a position and to attack Peltier and attack the idea of releasing him, and this somehow happened right after I got myself smuggled into the White House and was able to press a copy of the book into the large, soft, friendly hand of our president,


in front of many witnesses, but those witnesses included, I'm sure, a lot of Secret Service people, and I think the word got out, hey, this Commie Matheson has got loose in the White House and he's doing these awful things. I don't know that. That may be paranoia, but somehow, suddenly, when that happened, right after that happened, Louis Freeh takes an ad out in the Washington Post. He's the director of the FBI, and blasting Peltier. Now, here's a guy who's been in jail for over 20 years. Why is he suddenly attacking him? He's been judged, convicted. Why is the FBI director attacking him in print, in an ad paid for by your tax money? It was kind of odd. And at the same time, I was really smeared in an article. A guy who's had, obviously, very good access. The agents he quoted were people we could never get to. I couldn't interview. He seems to be able to interview anybody in the FBI. He obviously had very good contacts, indeed, and he, as a way of attacking Peltier, he attacked me. He attacked my integrity and so forth. As a writer who's been


working all these years, I really did not like to have my integrity. He could say you're a boob and a bleeding heart jerk. All those things, I've certainly heard that many times. I'm used to that. You get finally just hunkered down. But this was different. He really went after my integrity and he said that I and Oliver Stone, who at that time was very interested in making a movie, we had purposely pulled a fraud on the American people. Because we got this footage of this guy who said I killed the agents, a young Indian guy in a hood. Got that on 60 Minutes. We got a lot of attention. But it was very speculative, I admit. In that way, yes, I was partisan. But I said so. I said this is my view. This guy really needs some compassion here. Yesterday, you read about the FBI. They're in trouble yet again. They had to give money to this guy who blew the whistle on their laboratory work, which was notoriously sloppy. Well, it was very sloppy in Leonard Peltier's case. So I'm delighted when they have to do that because it backs up what we've been


saying all along. Whether or not he was the killer, he was railroaded into prison on fake ballistics evidence, sloppy work, disdain for Indian people. Now, I'm afraid I've wandered back up onto my soapbox. I feel very strongly about this case. I feel this is a great blot on our national discussion. I really do. And I'm going to work for him until the day I drop it out. I won't pretend I'm not partisan. And in the book, I listed the sources which argue the other way. I listed the FBI documents, the various judgments against him. I put them all there. I said to the reader, please, avail yourself of the opposite evidence. But let me just say that when his own judge, Judge Haney on the Eighth Circuit Court, says it's time to commute this man's sentence and has also said, as have all the judges who were involved, there was evidence of FBI misconduct throughout the case. The judges, the U.S. Attorney's Office, have acknowledged this.


The case is shot through with prejudice and sloppy practice. Now, are you an FBI person? What happened with LTA happens all too frequently. There have been at least two fairly infamous cases here in California, the Croy case and then another one just recently in Northern California where Native Americans were charged with murder. In the Croy case, he was actually sentenced and then eventually he got off. In the other one more recently, there was actually an ambush set up by sheriff's officers who later testified that they were attacked. Fortunately, the man who was charged with the murder was acquitted. But it's all too unfortunately a situation in Indian country and I do a good deal of work in Indian country, so that was...


This really is true. One of the things on Peltier was attempted assault on a police officer in Milwaukee. But when they brought it to trial, the police officer's girlfriend testified that this guy had been boasting how they were going to set Peltier up and for the FBI, the FBI would reward him later for doing this. They had so much stuff, the fake stuff saying that Peltier was an incipient killer and he just wasn't. He's a very nice guy. I talk to him about once a week. We have a little laugh and try to give him... He's humorous and his spirit is absolutely undaunted. He's just a great guy. What time do we have? We have a couple more questions. Yeah. Related to your work with the environment, you mentioned the sprawl of people converting from Adelaide. I'm just curious what you think needs to happen to create a change or a shift around this? In the environment? Yeah. Well, I think mainly we have to educate ourselves and that would include


everything. That would include education. I mean, I'm sorry, that would include population. It's too easy to say that excess human population is the cause of everything, but one could argue at least that all other problems are corollary to too many people. Again, we forget we are big animals and we're big, heavily polluting animals. We're huge mammals pushing everything else off the globe and we show no inclination. When doctors discover things that cut down the incidence of child mortality, well, that's great in a way, but your heart also partly sinks. When we brought malaria cures to Africa, what did that do? A population explosion in a country which really can't support that number of people in countries. We have to think about who we are and what we are doing. We don't know when we push a tiny species off the globe. We don't know what that species role is in that balance of nature that it's involved in. We don't


know that the whole thing may not come tumbling down. In Zen, we talk about how everything is interrelated and connected in some way. It really is. Any biologist or any physicist would say the same. You pull out one part. Any of you who have ever run an outboard motor, you know about the shear pin. It's the tiniest part on the whole outboard motor. You bust that and you're out of commission. How do we know we're pushing hundreds, literally hundreds of species out of existence every day? It's really very scary. I have an American Indian friend, Anandaga, some of you probably know him, Oren Lyons, because he works a lot with Zen people now. Oren always says, he said, for Indian people, we are just amazed that you are willing to do this to your children and grandchildren, that you're willing in the name of profit and comfort, which we don't need. Do we really need to upgrade everything every year, these CDs and this fantastic manufacture of stuff, stuff, stuff? You know, he said,


we think in terms of seven generations, if it's not good for the seventh generation along, it is not good. I could not agree more. We can turn this around. Cesar Chavez said, if everybody did something, if everybody did something for the public good, instead of just standing around talking about it and saying, what can one little person do? Let me tell you a story about a lady in Honolulu who's one of my heroes. And I don't know her name. I've got to track her down someday. She was driving into work in Honolulu one day, and she saw on an island in Queen Kamehameha Park, or whatever it was, there was an island in the park that all the highways went past. And there, on the middle of this little island, was a great big sign saying, heights, 59 varieties. In the city park. Everybody had to see it. It was a wonderful place. The ad people must have been going nuts with joy. Well, she didn't go nuts with joy. She got to her office, and she was in her


towering rage, and she called up her councilman or somebody and said, what are you people doing? This is completely outrageous. That's public property. Why do we have to look at this eyesore every time we come in and out of town? He said, well, I'm sorry, ma'am. And he said, actually, personally, I, of course, agree with you, but what can one little person do? You know, and it's written in stone. We can't do anything about it. The contract is the contract. And she said not to me. And she got on the phone, and she called 10 of her friends. She started her telephone chain letter, instructed them to call 10 of their friends. Heights didn't move a can all that day. It went around Honolulu like that, and the next day the sign was down, written stone or not. You see, that's the kind of thing. Look what Cesar Chavez did. This great Californian, as I said this morning, far greater than Mr. Reagan and Mr. Nixon. He had no education,


no money. His own church was against him. The whole organization was against him, not just the growers. Everybody was against him. He was a troublemaker, and he just went from door to [...] door, and he put in his time, and he put in his work, and he put in his enormous passion to change these horrible inequities that his people were suffering. What can one little person do? Here's a guy who not only didn't have much going for him, he was just one person, but had everything against him, and he still beat him. And he made some mistakes, and he made some mistakes later because he was a guy, delegation of authority was very hard for him. But nonetheless, I think the migrant workers in this state will never go back to the way they were before. Chavez, I don't think the public would permit it. Great, great victory. So if we all thought that way, we could really turn. We have a great country here, and yet we seem to permit our leaders and our politicians. Do you know that all the polls have shown, I think it's something like 15 or 18 years, that the American people actually are


willing to be taxed more to pay for clean water, clean air? They said, yes, we want that, and we will pay for it. But the politicians know we are soft, and we're not going to get mad. We're not going to throw them out of office. They can smell that like a shark and smell blood. You know that. And they'll listen to the lobbyists and get free trips and do whatever they do. And that legislation will not pass until we get mad. What do we have to have here? An inversion where the numbers of old people die, something like that. That would move things. But short of that, we don't seem to be willing to move. But we could move it. But will we in time? I'm not sure. I don't want to get another gloomy speech like last night. I think it's probably one o'clock. I would be happy to sign books if somebody has books. I might as well do it right here.