Pondering Dogen and Proust

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Recently I interviewed the novelist and Zen Buddhist prist, Ruth Ozeki, on the occasion of the publication of her new book, A TALE FOR THE TIME BEING. I made a commitment to myself to turn the recording of our conversation into an edited, publishable transcript as quickly as possible, but I got caught up in a way I didn’t expect.

In the interview, we discussed generally the many quotations by the Zen Patriarch Dogen, and, glancing back through them a couple of evenings ago, one in particular caught my attention:

“Thus, the self, setting itself out in array, sees itself: This is the understanding that the self is time.”

And I realized I knew exactly what Dogen meant: we are not in time, or experiencing time, but we are time — and when we touch the “eternal moment,” we discover that it is not just another type of moment but that it embraces all moments, all of what we are as eternal being. There is not one thing called “me” and another thing called “time.” When we know ourselves as time, we know nonduality.

The other author whose work sets the tone and is quoted in Ozeki’s novel is Proust. And so, reading this Dogen quotation, I felt moved to go back and read the end of A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, and see if Proust’s illumination was the same as Dogen’s. But this took the whole evening because, unlike Dogen, Proust didn’t just say it pithily in one sentence. No, he went on and on, page after page. And my evening passed with no more work on the transcript.

So today, I was thinking about this, and I realized that the reason Proust took so long to get to the point was that writing was an exploration for him: when he experienced something new and didn’t know quite what, in order to find out, he had to write about it. And then I realized that my process is exactly the same as his! In fact, I’ve often thought of my spiritual practice to be writing, although, having read Proust when I was much younger and more academic in my approach to writing, the similarity never occurred to me.

After my interview with Ms. Ozeki, we were speaking more casually, and she asked me what my spiritual practice was. And somehow, being asked this by a Zen priest who is also a writer — and a much more accomplished one than I — I completely forgot that for years I have considered writing to be my practice, and a very valuable one that has illuminated many spiritual questions I have grappled with. Instead of saying this, though, I heard myself reply with an embarrassed laugh, “I don’t have a practice.” Then I added hurriedly, “But I did, in Japan.” And I imagined Ms. Ozeki to be thinking, but to be too polite to say, “But you were in Japan decades ago!”

Well, now I can answer, “My practice is the same as Proust’s.” And who can question that?

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