Monday, January 16, 2012


When you get to the end of this talk you may be waiting for the other shoe to drop. Keep waiting.

There are writers and there are writers. Thomas Merton, Agatha Christie, Paul Theroux, Dogen, and a few others across history, are known as writing fools because they lived and breathed writing, and their output was prodigious.

I may or may not be a fool, but I like to think I’m a writer.

In the 1960s, I was approached by a pollster from California’s Stanford Research Institute. SRI is a nonprofit organization specializing in research and development.

I should mention this was in the old, pre-word processor days. Because I was a lousy typist I used a pencil and a legal-sized yellow pad to write. The words were transcribed by a typist, pencil-edited, retyped, re-edited, retyped, and so on until a reasonably clean copy was ready for mailing to a publisher.

Among the many questions the SRI interviewer asked me was this: “No matter how far-fetched it may seem, what sort of tool would you, as a writer, welcome?”

I answered that a really valuable device would be one that could read my thoughts, follow them in my brain, and with little delay print them on sheets of white paper.

The researcher didn’t smile or frown, but jotted on her yellow pad.

“And, what would you be willing to pay for such a tool?” she asked.

“Oh,” I said. “Probably a couple of hundred dollars.”

She gasped.

“Two hundred dollars? Do you realize what the cost would be to research such a project? To develop the device? To manufacture it? To market it? The profit margin? Do you grasp that, and more?”

She looked as if she suddenly realized she was talking to a fool. She hastily pushed her notepad and her pencil into her handbag and stood up.

“You asked me a question,” I said. “You asked me what I am willing to pay for such a tool. There were no conditions. It was a straight question. I gave a straight answer when I said two-hundred dollars. I didn’t consider anything other than your question and my budget.”

That was the end of the interview. As far as I know neither Stanford neither Research Institute nor anyone else has developed such a device at any cost, and I’m not holding my breath.

Today I’ve graduated from putting down thoughts with pencil and paper to tapping keys on a word processor that I paid more than two hundred dollars for. The process is faster, more accurate, and easier than even a typewriter, but it still can’t read my thoughts.

As I said, I’m not holding my breath.

Speaking of direct answers . . . .

One time I was given dokusan by Master Oda, and he asked for my response to a certain koan.

I started off, “I think . . . .

“Stop right there,” Oda said.

“Anyone who says ‘Well,’ is stalling for time to think up a clever answer.

He paused.

“And you say, ‘I think.’ I don’t care to hear what you think. I want to hear what you know. Right now.”

He rang his hand bell in dismission.

“Now go meditate without thinking,” Oda said.

Back to Zen.

Dogen was a writing fool and he put his words down on rice paper, using a soft brush dipped in black ink.

From an early age Dogen disagreed with the practices of the popular Tendai School. These formalities combined secret rituals, sutra study, chanting, the concept of the Buddha as a divine being, and meditation.

Instead, Dogen zeroed in on Zazen.


Silent meditation.


Anonymous tam said...

i enjoy your blog.

Saturday, February 04, 2012 9:46:00 AM  

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