One warm sunny Saturday in April, PW drove up to Zen Mountain Monastery in Mount Tremper, N.Y. Sitting at a picnic table, surrounded by the Catskill Mountains, which are the subject of many of his photographs, we talked and laughed with the genial Zen monk Loori about Zen, art and the publishing of books (The Zen of Creativity).
PW: How does it feel to be the abbot of a Zen monastery preparing to go down the mountain to go on a book tour and promote a book?
Well, I like to think that the book will help people, so that is my real motivation. Plus, I've taken a vow of poverty as a monk, so all of the proceeds of this book will go to the monastery.
How can a book lead someone to an experience of creativity?
That was a challenge because the way the Zen arts are traditionally taught is that you watch and imitate the teacher. Plus, the teacher constantly challenges the student. When I thought about how to translate that into a book, what I came up with was needing to talk about my own experience with my teachers. I also give exercises.
You describe how Zen artists teach with the body. Doesn't everybody teach with the body, in a sense? Aren't we always showing people when we're lying, when we're afraid?
We create karma with our bodies, and that's pretty easy to understand. If I punch you in the nose, there's going to be consequences. We can also see how we create karma with what we say. But what we really don't appreciate is that what we think also creates karma. What we think is action. It projects to other people. Most adults aren't aware of this because they're so preoccupied with their thoughts, but babies know, dogs and cats know. The body communicates, and the body can't be in a book. The only way I can have my body there is to actually be with a student.
Given that, do you think the Buddha would have written a book?
I'm convinced that if books had been available to the Buddha, he would have used them. He would have used a computer, whatever he could get his hands on.
I don't think most people understand how Zen can be practiced in the midst of the turmoil and suffering of real life.
The whole point of Buddhist practice has to do with being in the world. You work your way up the mountain until you reach a peak where the view is boundless and limitless. But it doesn't end there in Zen. You keep going, and going straight ahead when you're on the peak of a mountain can only mean one thing, going back downhill back into the world. The aim of Zen is to take everything that has been realized and actualize it in everything that we do.
Isn't this actualization that you speak of very close to being a definition of art?
That's right, but remember that the Zen arts are really about teaching people to wake up. There is this notion that Zen arts are all misty landscapes, but [they are] not. It can really be powerful. It can sock you right between the eyes.
Does Zen have a morality?
Zen master Dogen said that enlightenment without morality was not yet enlightenment. Morality without enlightenment is not yet morality. A man shows his attainment not by what he says, but by what he does.
What I take from the book is that creative efforts or gestures can come with awareness and with a connection to the deepest part of ourselves, our deepest truths. Whether this gesture is made with a paintbrush or a camera or in writing, it will have the power to touch other people, to resonate with them because it has "chi" or life force, because it is true. When a book touches me, it has to do with the writing and the observations being fresh and real, not whether or not it is Buddhist. Does this Zen approach to creativity have to be tied to Buddhism?
Yes, and yet one of the big surprises of the writing of this book came at the end when I was working very hard, through the night sometimes, and I found myself just breaking out and writing and what came out was very Buddhist. In fact, I would describe the last three chapters as very Buddhist, and the surprise was that the editor loved it. Everybody seems to love those particular chapters.
That seems a fittingly Zen answer.