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Writer Waking Up - A Publication Blog

On the role of Buddhism in this memoir

In today's post, I begin a three-part Q&A series. I asked long-time writing friends to ask me the questions that came to mind when they read A Piece of Sky, A Grain of Rice: A Memoir in Four Meditations. I begin with questions posed by poet Karen Whalley, author of The Rented Violin.

KW: When I read your work, I see part of the beauty in your essays as being a sparse, purposeful pairing of imagery and commentary, and I'm wondering whether your Buddhist practice has perhaps informed your work. I guess, specifically, I'm asking if you bring a Zen-like process to writing and revision that grows out of your practice.

CH: I love hearing this book described as a pairing of imagery and commentary, because such a format is very like that of stories in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition: little dramas with vivid characters in vivid settings, followed by commentary that might or might not explain or interpret the story. I never consciously attempted to emulate that form in my memoir but it's not surprising that there is some resemblance, because I have spent many hours over many years reading Buddhist material, contemplating it, and during sitting practice, visualizing it. One goal of Tibetan Buddhist practice is to so thoroughly immerse oneself in the teachings that one's conscious and unconscious thought patterns are gradually changed. So, in that way, whatever I write is informed by my Buddhist practice.

There are two other, more direct and conscious ways in which Buddhist practice has shaped my work.

One is attention to objects. As a writer, I've long been a big believer in the power of concrete detail to ground story and embody emotions. In Buddhist practice, the constant attempt to become mindful--awake and aware--of one's habitual activities lends simple objects a kind of instructive power. (For instance, I can eat unmindfully, shoveling food into my mouth while my mind is busy chasing a dream or an argument. But to eat mindfully--to be where I am doing what I'm doing--I might focus on my fork, bringing rice from the bowl to my tongue.) In my book, then, the prominence of image might arise from the meeting of those two disciplines: the writer always looking for the "right" concrete detail and the Buddhist practitioner always trying to see the object clearly and give it its true valence in the memory.

The second shaping influence of Buddhism on this memoir is in the self-analysis. The true territory of memoir is exploration of the self: who am I, and what are the forces, inner and outer, that shaped me? A goal of Buddhist practice is to know one's own mind--to become consciously aware of one's particular, recurrent cravings, aggressions, and delusions. So, once I realized I was writing memoir (something I've admitted, in the first post of this series, I never intended to do), I had no other choice, as a student of Buddhist, but to examine with the most stringent honesty I could summon my mind, my actions, my motivations, and my judgments. This process was sometimes pleasant, often harrowing, and always, ultimately, rewarding.
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