by | Mar 4, 2007 | Approaches to Writing, Literature

In a story called “The Sandman” by Donald Barthelme there is a fine statement on the state of the artist.  There is no such thing, he says, as a ‘successful artist’ because “The actualization fails to equal, meet, the intuition.  There is something ‘out there’ which cannot be brought ‘here.’”  The fate of the true artist, he suggests, is to be perpetually dissatisfied, the vision always out ahead and out of reach, a golden but unattainable carrot, time without end.

The life of a Zen master, it is said, is nothing but one mistake after the other.

Although, as I have suggested in an earlier posting, art criticism is to artists as ornithology is to birds, artists do tend to spend an awful lot of time thinking about the nature of art.


A Zen disciple was troubled by a thought one day, during zazen, sitting meditation, and found, over the course of some time, that he could not get that thought out of his mind.  And so eventually he decided to go to his master for help.  He prepared tea for the old man, and the two of them sat quietly, enjoying the place and the moment, and drinking the tea, until, having filled the teacups a third time, the disciple, with some trepidation, began to speak.  Trepidation, because you must understand that generally speaking, the truths of Zen are not the sort that are found out by question and answer.  There is a famous story of a master who, having been asked a question by a young monk, replied by pushing the young man into a pond.  Which, by the standards of Zen, was an astonishingly straight answer.

Venerable master, began our disciple, some time ago, during zazen, I was visited by a thought, a question, that gives me no peace.  I was hoping that perhaps my honorable master would give me some hint, just a tiny hint, whereby I might find my way free of this puzzle.

The old man sipped his tea and smiled expectantly, inviting the disciple to continue.

Well, master, the disciple continued, pleased and relieved to find the old man in such a receptive mood, I was sitting, and my mind, I’m afraid, began to wander, and I began to wonder about our training here.  To wonder, if it is not impertinent, exactly what it is that we do that will lead me to monkhood.

The old man smiled and nodded, and the disciple, encouraged, continued.

I have thought, said the young man, to compare our life here with life in the village.  In the mornings, for example, we haul wood and fetch water, and those in the village do the same.  And we pray at the proper times and observe the festivals, but the people in the village also pray at the proper times and also observe the festivals.  And going through all the routine of our day, I cannot find anything that we do that those in the village do not also do.  And so how is it, venerable master, that we do the same as those in the village, and yet we call ourselves monks and they do not?  Is there something I have missed?

Missed?  Well now, replied the master, let me think.  Ah!  You forgot to mention that we practice zazen.