At heart, I am a storyteller. I love the English language, whether spoken or written, though my particular passion is playing with written words. I’ve written a couple of books and co-written a couple more; I earn my living through mastery of a highly technical and precise form of writing that has little room for creativity and often feels like assembling a verbal puzzle. I get a lot of enjoyment from crafting a well-turned phrase.
Stories are a wonderful way to learn, teach, and share. Some truths penetrate the heart easier when they are clothed in fiction; a lesson may face less resistance when presented through a well-told story. I spent my childhood unashamedly in love with books and can still be enthralled by a good author who knows the craft.
Mary McCarthy wrote, “We all live in suspense, from day to day, from hour to hour; in other words, we are the hero of our own story.” As an inveterate storyteller, I occasionally catch myself doing something akin to narrating my own life through internal dialogue. There is always a danger that I will sensationalize, catastrophize, romanticize, or otherwise subconsciously alter my own experience in order to make a “better” story. Mindfulness practice reminds me to remain in the unvarnished present moment, accepting and embracing what actually is rather than trying to recast it into something else.
I feel that mindfulness practice is an essential component of being Buddhist. I’ve read some interesting articles on the dangers of intellectualizing Buddhism by reducing it to a series of thought-exercises rather than a path of practice. Robert Aitken has some wonderful thoughts about this in his excellent Mind of Clover. Right at the beginning of the book, he tackles the question of whether the Buddhist doctrine of emptiness, understood purely intellectually, negates the precepts. After all, someone might argue, if in an absolute sense there is no death, then why do we need a precept against killing? Aitken is positively poetic in response:
If there is no sword, no swing of the sword, no decapitation, then what about all the blood? What about the wails of the widow and children? The absolute position, when isolated omits human details completely. Doctrines, including Buddhism are meant to be used. Beware of them taking life of their own, for then they use us. . . Killing, even in an exalted state of mind, cannot be separated from suffering.
This reminded me of the teaching of the Tibetan Buddhist master Marpa, who wept openly when his son died. The master was confronted by one of his students, who couldn’t understand why his teacher was crying; after all, did not Marpa teach that this world of suffering and death itself are illusions? “Yes,” said Marpa. “But it is a sad illusion.”
Was life as unreal to Marpa as a movie is to us? He held the deepest understanding of reality: nothing is fixed and changeless; birth and death are mental constructs. Nevertheless, he could still be touched by ultimately ephemeral events, even as we are touched and even changed by stories. Sometimes it takes being torn open by the sadness of someone else’s experience, vicariously lived through story, to grasp the suffering that underlies our bodhisattva vows to save all sentient beings.
To me, the practice of Buddhism must be supported by three foundations: precepts, mindfulness practice, and Sangha. These three ensure that whatever stories we tell – about ourselves, about the world – remain true and grounded. The precepts are the rules of our story; like the rules that govern sonnet writing, for instance, they are the container that shapes everything we put into them. Mindfulness practice keeps us honest with ourselves in the telling. Sangha acts as both mirror and audience, providing feedback that can cut through any remaining self-deception.
Robert Aitken says in his commentary on the precept of not lying that the heart of the precept is to be loyal to our own Buddha-nature. The effect of that is that we are loyal to others as well, but the real essence of our vow is to be true to ourselves:
When this is clear, then the various social and psychological virtues of truth-telling are illumined. Self-deception, deception of others, cheating, gossip, and carelessness with language are all disloyal to the peace in our heart of hearts. Words expressive of that peace are true. Silence expressive of that peace is true.
The storyteller owes her strongest obligation not to the audience outside of herself, but to the truth within.
So much gloom and doubt in our poetry –
flowers wilting on the table,
the self regarding itself in a watery mirror.
Dead leaves cover the ground,
the wind moans in the chimney,
and the tendrils of the yew tree inch toward the coffin.
I wonder what the ancient Chinese poets
would make of all this,
thee shadows and empty cupboards?
Today, with the sun blazing in the trees,
my thoughts turn to the great
tenth-century celebrators of experience,
Wa-Hoo, whose delight in the smallest things
could hardly be restrained,
and to his joyous counterpart in the western provinces,
– Billy Collins, Ballistics