14 January, 2009

I Owe the Orient

Today's disclaimer provided by Kaden:
As your friend and consort, I'm tempted to be offended that so much attention in this blog as been trained solely on politics and interweb humor that you have to put a disclaimer when you are posting about writing or the processes involved. Really, Dana. It's your blog, write whatever you damn well please - I'd much rather see more mind exercises than more articles about why the world is fucked anyway.
I'm not sure how many of the rest of you feel the same, but I have too much fun with disclaimers to brush them off so easily. Besides, just because it's my cantina and I can fill it with whatever I damned well please doesn't mean the rest of you all have to read every damned word. Although I very much much appreciate those of you who do. All right, I appreciate those of you who cherry-pick, too, but the others get a little extra. So there.

I owe a huge damned debt to Eastern philosophy.

Back in the bad old days when 99% of my thinking was still stuck in the Judeo-Christian, Western traditions I'd been steeped in since birth, my story world felt stilted. Ordinary. Ho-hum. Incomplete. Wrongo. I didn't have philosophical concepts for what I felt to be true. Do you know how weird that is? Writers go through a very odd experience as they write. They're the ones creating this stuff out of whole cloth, it's their story and they can tell it any way they want. It's not like the story is some entity outside of them, right? Not like history, where some fact is staring you in the face going, "I just annihilated everything you thought you knew, mwah-ha-ha!" I mean, this stuff isn't really real, it doesn't really exist. So where the hell does the throat-clearing come from?

Because stories do that. They sit there silently shaking their heads. They thump the writer over the head, saying, "Ur doin it rong, genius." There you were, beavering away, on a roll, getting up to supersonic speeds, and suddenly the whole damned thing derails. You realize that everything you thought you knew was wrong.

But the hell of it is, you don't know why.

I went through that a lot. Still do. But not as much as in the past. For several years now, I've felt that the basic concept is solid. Granted, I recently realized I've got to go back and work out the science, but that's microscopic potatoes compared to the structural work I used to have to do. And the cultural stuff is coming together nicely.

It's all because of Buddhism. Well, that, and a heaping helping of Hinduism, Confucianism, and a plethora of other Eastern religions and philosophies, not to mention a liberal sprinkling of atheism.

My stories have always wanted to be Eastern stories. They were desperately unhappy with me trying to force them into the Judeo-Christian-Western shape that was all I ever knew. Take Eternals, my beings-of-energy whose physics I haven't quite worked out, but whose philosophy is coming closer. I'd conceived of them as something like gods. Specifically, Western-style gods. And it just never worked. I didn't want to write about meddling, patriarchial buggers. More to the point, such buggers didn't fit the story at all, and got rejected like an uncomfortable pair of shoes. But those were the only shoes I had. There I was, barefoot, and my feet are too tender for that sort o' thing.

After many, many years of reading all of the Eastern philosophy I could lay my hands on, shedding the last bit of Christian disdain and fully embracing those strange philosophies, I could finally write this about Eternals:
I keep asking my Athesean folk what it's like to relate to an Eternal, what it means to them, how it feels, and all I'm getting is a bunch of infuriating, knowing smiles. That's it. There are no words. No way to convey it. Totally experiential. Which is a bugger for a wordsmith, I am here to tell you.

I might as well be trying to explain what happened when the Buddha raised up a single flower, and Mahakashyapa smiled. The whole Zen Buddhist movement happened in that moment. Can I tell you what it was all about? No. And no one else can, either. Not even the Buddha. "I have the Eye of the True Law, the secret essence of nirvana, the formless form, and the ineffable realm of Dharma. Without depending on words or letters, a special transmission beyond all teaching, this I pass to Mahakashyapa," the Buddha said. And he handed him the flower.

I have a strong feeling that every moment with Tarlah is like this. And that's why none of them can tell me what it was like. Can you imagine Mahakashyapa trying to explain that whole episode on Vulture Mountain to somebody? You can't put the ineffable into words - that's what ineffable means. Words talk completely around it, point to it just about as well as somebody with extreme palsy and a severe stutter trying to direct you to the tacky tourist trap on Route 66: they can't get you there, can't ever say what it's really like.

But hey, at least the Atheseans have a special pronoun for Eternals. Trying to get that across in English bites. Don't want to call Tarlah it - that implies a thing, something without mind, consciousness, will. But call Tarlah he or she, and a whole new load of baggage comes down. Tarlah is not a he, she or it. I'm not even sure Tarlah's a what. Not a what that you can deconstruct and explain.

Imagine this conversation: an Outlander has just asked an Athesean what Tarlah is. The Athesean says, "An Eternal."

"Yes, but what is an Eternal?" the Outlander asks.

"An Eternal."

"That's no answer!" The frustrated Outlander points to a cloud. "That's like telling me a cloud's a cloud. What a cloud is is a collection of water vapor suspended in the atmosphere!"

The Athesean looks at the fluffy, beautiful, ever-changing cloud and says, "Is that really what a cloud is?"


"Everything that it is, was, could and will be; everything that it means? Are those things in your definition? Or are they only in the word cloud?" The Athesean points in turn. "I say a cloud is a cloud, and that is all that it is. An Eternal is an Eternal, and I have told you everything about Tarlah."

That may sound a little Zen, but it's not. A truly Zen answer would be to point to Tarlah. At one time on Athesea, this was possible. But Tarlah's in Exile, he can no longer be pointed to, and there are those who have never experienced him. So they're having the same problem I'm having. Explain a cloud in its totality to someone who has never watched one soar across the sky, never seen it turn from dragon to ship to pirate to rain, never felt it rain down, never tasted the air when it's cloudy. It can't really be done. You can't ever convey the essence of a cloud to a person who's never experienced one. You can tell something about it, but you can't capture it completely. And that's what it's like trying to convey Tarlah: Tarlah can be experienced, and only then can you know the truth of Tarlah, of the Eternal.
There we go. We haven't got shoes yet, but we've at least got socks. It's something, anyway.

Then there's the poetry war story I'm writing. Before I studied Eastern philosophy, I had no idea what the hell that was all about. How could two people reciting poetry unite a whole bunch of different species together into one people?

This is how:
I just figured out where the whole thing's going, what I really want to do with it: it's a story about third choices. People are so locked into seeing things a certain way that it's hard for them to conceive of it any other way. And at the end of the story, in jest, a third way is presented, and their whole viewpoint changes. It really, literally, changes the world.

I'm reminded of a wonderful Zen anecdote.
Master Shui Lao asked Ma Tsu, "What is the true meaning of the coming from the West?" Ma Tsu then knocked him down with a kick to the chest: Shui Lao was greatly enlightened. He got up, clapping his hands and laughing loudly, and said, "How extraordinary! How wonderful! Instantly, on the tip of a hair, I've understood the root soure of myriad states of concentration, and countless subtle meanings." Then he bowed and withdrew.

Afterward, he would tell the assembly, "From the time I took Ma Tsu's kick up until now, I haven't stopped laughing."
The important thing is, a sharp unexpected action, instant enlightenment, endless laughter.
It was that laughter I had seen in the Atheseans, without ever recognizing it. Until I had the koan. Until I had Eastern philosophy to point a little more accurately in the right direction.
Here we go with the Eastern parallels again: the Master can't give you enlightenment, can't force it on you, but can help create the conditions that will lead to your enlightenment. Pretty similar thing here. Unity had to come from within. And this poetry cycle was the Master's shout, the kick, the koan, that led to a mass awakening in a world that was ripe for it. "How can you choose between one?" You can't. And so the Atheseans didn't. This whole cycle, this war masquerading as a poetry contest, came about because Atheseans had stopped seeing themselves as one. This cycle brought them back into being as an indivisible whole. It has kept them unified for tens of thousands of years. And sure, they bicker, they disagree, but they don't get so wrapped up in the differences that they stop appreciating the fundamental oneness. They are many species, many cultures, but one people, in a way that no human civilization I know of has quite managed to achieve. And in performing this cycle every spring, they reinforce that. They remind themselves that they are, in fact, one.
Oneness is vital. Whenever I'm thinking of Athesea, I'm thinking of the Upanishads. Tat tvam asi. Thou art that. When I first read that, it hit me like a thunderbolt. "Thou art that." It's so close to how the Atheseans think. They aren't searching for oneness because they realized long ago they already are one.

I still haven't quite grasped it. Atheseans aren't Buddhists, after all, nor Hindus, but an alien civilization with their own history, culture and traditions. But enlightenment is like the sun shining just over my shoulder. Eventually, I'll turn around, see it, and then it will be my turn to start laughing and never stop.

Is there a lesson contained herein for other writers? Perhaps. I'm sure that not all writers think this way, but storytelling for me is a process of discovery. The story already knows what it needs to be. It's up to me to discover what it's trying to tell me. That has led me to study comparative mythology, science, history, other civilizations, delve deep into subjects I thought I had no interest in. Everything becomes fascinating when you start to discover what your story has been trying to say all along.

As Shunryu Suzuki said:

The most important thing is to find out what is the most important thing.

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