Peter Matthiessen passed away on Saturday, April 5, 2014. He was 86.


Peter Matthiessen, author, environmentalist, and activist, began his Zen studies with Soen Roshi and Eido Roshi in 1969. He continued his studies with Maezumi Roshi, then with Tetsugen Glassman Sensei, from whom he received dharma transmission in 1989. Matthiessen’s books The Snow Leopard (Viking, 1978) and Nine-Headed Dragon River (Shambhala Publications, 1986) both deal with his Zen studies. His latest novel is Killing Mr. Watson (Random House, 1990). He lives in Sagaponack, New York, where he runs a small Zen center. This interview was conducted for Tricycle by Lawrence Shainberg, who first met Peter Matthiessen at the Zen Studies Society. Subsequently, Shainberg has studied Zen with Kyudo Roshi at the Soho Zen Center in lower Manhattan. The author of a memoir about Samuel Beckett (The Paris Review, Issue 104) as well as One on One, Brain Surgeon and Memories of Amnesia, Shainberg is currently working on a personal narrative about Zen. This interview took place at Peter Matthiessen’s house in April.

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Shainberg: In The Snow Leopard and Nine-Headed Dragon River, you wrote that your first experience of Zen practice was attending a weekend sesshin at New York Zendo early in 1969, in which you participated without having had any previous experience of zazen. I must say I find it hard to believe that one could endure a whole retreat—especially the sort they held there—without any preparation.

Peter Matthiessen, Sagaponack, New York, 1993

Matthiessen: I found it hard to believe too. I thought I had been hit by lightning. My late wife, Deborah, was a Zen student, and it was she who got me into it. Through her I’d met Soen Roshi [1907-1984] and Yasutani Roshi [1885-1973] as well as Eido Roshi, who was then the monk Taisan. I was very impressed by them, and that was part of it. I think Deborah thought this sesshin would finish off any interest I might have had. And after two hours, I was certain she was right. At rest periods, I’d literally weep with pain and rage. Then I got stubborn and macho. There was a monk there who was not only macho but a masochist, maybe a sadist, and he kept whispering to me behind his hand, hyping me up so I would stick it out.

Shainberg: Was the pain a teaching for you?

Matthiessen: Well, as Yamada Roshi once said, pain in the knees is the taste of zazen. Pain is certainly a teaching. You learn very quickly that if you give way to it and start shifting around, it will unravel through your body, whereas if you sit still, sit in the middle of it, you can focus on it, control it. It is just pain. But those are things you learn over the years. At that first sesshin I had no such understanding. I was just gritting my teeth and praying for the period to end. I thought it was one of the most barbaric experiences I’d ever had. Yet for all the pain and distress, and the terrific anger, I got hooked.

Shainberg: Can you say why?

Matthiessen: Something about zazen must have reawakened some primordial longing, though I didn’t understand this at the time. I think most people who come to Zen practice have had an early glimmering, an opening, of mystical experience, like a glimpse of the lost paradise. Perhaps they suppressed it or at least didn’t acknowledge it, afraid they were crazy, afraid of what others might say. They felt they’d be laughed at, as if they’d seen Bigfoot or something. But eventually they realize that something important has happened, and they go to a zendo to reaffirm this vision, know the truth. Why else would people go in there at dawn on a beautiful day and crack their knees all day long, when there are so many more tempting things to do in the so-called “real world”?

Shainberg: What can you say about your own first glimpse?

Matthiessen: The first one I recall was in a storm, standing fire watch on deck on a troopship going to Pearl Harbor during World War II. At the time it seemed overpowering, bizarre. I didn’t dare try to describe it to anybody. It was a sense of unity with the universe—or as I saw it at the time, obliteration of P. Matthiessen in the wind and water. Not a profound experience, just a glimpse. Later, in the sixties, I was stirred by LSD—again that sense of becoming one with the world around. Later, I realized that the hallucinogens did not open the way to true mystical experience, there was separation in the very presence of the chemical, but it sure seemed astonishing at the time. I think many of us in Zen in the early days were acidheads who’d tired of that chemical presence, that loss of self which separated you from complete immersion in the Absolute. In a sense the experience of the troopship was more profound because there was no such separation. In any event, that first sesshin must have evoked an echo or reverberation of those other moments.

Shainberg: The diaries from which you have quoted in your books portray a practice that is very focused on mystical experience. Are you as interested in that now as you were then?

Matthiessen: No. But [laughing] I’ve got nothing against it. If a student asks if I think it’s important, I say yes. However, I think there are other ways of attaining that understanding; it doesn’t have to take the form of kensho [an “opening” or enlightenment experience, in which a glimpse of the “true nature” of existence is revealed]. We have all seen people walk into a zendo for the very first time, already in a clear place. “There are people outside in the street right now who don’t need this so-called Zen,” as Soen Roshi used to say to curb our spiritual ambition. He hated “the stink of Zen” so much. He was capable of saying “Zen” with real contempt!

Shainberg: Do you think Zen practice itself has changed? If my experience is any guide, the mystical-fixation is a romanticism we’ve outgrown. My teacher, Kyudo Roshi, a dharma heir of Soen, as you know, is less concerned with mysticism than teaching you how to wash your toilet. He seems to disdain any talk of mystical experience. As he once said, “All I know about enlightenment is that when I sit my legs hurt.”

Matthiessen: I’m not so sure he’s saying anything different. There are so many admonitions to avoid such traps as thinking about mystical experience, et cetera. When washing the toilet, if you’re truly paying attention, you’re actually enlightened, because you’re in the moment, and that is the enlightened state. The fact that it doesn’t take the form of an opening up, a great white light, doesn’t mean that it isn’t legitimate. In Kyudo Roshi’s case, it could be just another way of coming at it, another way of striking sparks, as in teisho [a dharma talk]. Even in his lineage, after all, some people talked about kensho a lot. Soen didn’t talk about it but quite a lot was made of it when it occurred. And there are other teachers who talk about it much more than he did—Yasutani, for one—who say that until you’ve had an opening you haven’t really tasted Zen. I don’t go along with that. I talk about it very little. But if it comes up, I don’t back away from it, I eat it.

Shainberg: In Dragon River, you speak of something that occurred in dokusan fa private interview with a teacher] with Soen Roshi. You described an experience you’d had during sesshin, an episode when you felt as if you’d become invisible. And Soen said, “Please take good care of yourself.” You wrote then that you didn’t understand what he meant. I wonder if you do now.

Matthiessen: I think it was simply an affirmation. Eido Roshi in that same situation would probably have urged me on with the stick. I think Soen Roshi knew I was very open at that moment, very strong, but also very fragile, and he was just saying, Take care of it. Take care of the dharma, of which you are a part. When you’re coming from a point of view of emptiness, there’s no difference between you and the dharma or you and the Buddha. So perhaps he was telling me to just take care of the Three Treasures.

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Shainberg: Soen was no ordinary person, was he.

Matthiessen: He was extra-ordinary! There was no one like him. One felt a real egolessness in him. He was so light, no vanity, no arrogance. He was utterly free, completely wild and humorous, fearless. He wasn’t hung up on how a Zen master should be. He’d try anything. He once took LSD.

Shainberg: What effect did it have?

Matthiessen: None whatsoever. Where could he go? He was already there.

One morning he came in here and drank a sample of everything I had, maybe a dozen different liquors, a half shot glass each. He finally got to a very bitter aperitif called Fernet Branca, which is only suitable for hangovers. I said, “Roshi, I don’t think you are going to like that.” He shouted, “DO NOT DISCRIMINATE! How can I not drink this one when I’ve drunk everything else?” But when the glass was about six inches from his nose, he got a whiff and realized he was in terrible trouble, so without a moment’s hesitation, he growled and took up a skishi board [a prefabricated board for calligraphy] and, dipping his finger into the Fernet Branca, used up every last drop making this wonderful calligraphy. I still have it, The Face Before Your Parents Were Born. It was an amazing display of spontaneous moment-by-moment activity.

Shainberg: Can we talk about the relationship between Zen practice and writing? Has the practice ever interfered with your work?

Matthiessen: No, but the writing’s interfered with the practice. In sesshin, for example, when your mind is emptying day after day, resolutions of plots or characters may rush in to fill the void, especially in the early morning sittings. Sometimes I felt inundated with ideas. Finally, I went to Eido Roshi and told him about it, and he said, Look, if you’re really thinking about it, that’s zazen too. If you’re not just daydreaming and vaporizing, that’s fine. So think about it. That is your zazen. And in the rest period go up and write it down and then you’re clear of it. I took his advice and it worked. I’d be scribbling away right after breakfast to get those ideas down.

Shainberg: What’s that line you once quoted from Muso Roshi—about literature being the lowest form of endeavor?

Matthiessen: Well, that’s a slightly different matter. Muso was a fourteenth-century teacher in Japan. In Rinzai practice at that time, many monks and teachers were involved in culture in a sort of dilettantish way. Culture had become a corrupting influence, so many teachers inveighed against it strongly. I don’t think this is such a problem today. I see no fundamental way in which writing interferes with practice, nor any in which the practice interferes with writing. If anything, the practice enriches creativity through these clear insights. I’m not speaking about mystical experience, just seeing very clearly moment after moment.

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Soen Roshi, Peter Matthiessen, and Eido Roshi in Sagaponack, New York, 1972

Shainberg: When I first began to study with Kyudo Roshi, I often found that I couldn’t write a word after morning sitting. The deeper I went during sitting, the less I was able to work when it was over. I told him about it once, and he said, “Your problem is you’re attached to emptiness.” It was a perfect description of me, but it doesn’t seem as if you’ve ever had this problem.

Matthiessen: Well, that’s not exactly true. But the period in which I was most hung up on emptiness, on small Zen miracles, was when I was keeping the diaries that appeared in The Snow Leopard and Nine-Headed Dragon River. I ended those journals some years ago. By the time I was in Japan with Tetsugen Sensei, making the pilgrimage on which the last part of Dragon River is based, that stage was pretty well over. I didn’t turn against mystical experience when I left Rinzai practice in 1976, but in some way I kind of grew up. And Soto practice, as you know, emphasizes kensho less than Rinzai does. People can really mess up their sesshins, being attached in this way, going into them with preconceived ideas of enlightenment or emptiness. At times it’s kind of comical and touching, but the teacher must be rough with such people, knock that down. It’s much more important to clear the way, empty the bell all stuffed with leaves and sticks so that it can ring again.

Shainberg: Kyudo Roshi likens the breath during zazen to a windshield wiper, each inhalation and exhalation simply cleaning the dust from one’s mind the way the wiper cleans a windshield.

Matthiessen: Kyudo’s teacher, Soen, always cried, “FEET ON THE GROUND!” Eido Roshi too. They seemed to despise so-called “mystical experience,” knowing that in feet-on-the-ground practice you really are living moment after moment, breath after breath, moment-by-moment awakening of mind, and in such a condition an opening is almost inevitable, so why talk about it? These teachers, of course, are not repudiating realization. They’re simply saying: Pay attention to this moment. Clean your toilet. Have a cup of tea. I could give teisho for a hundred years and all I’m ever teaching, in the end, is moment-by-moment awakening of mind. Again: Pay attention to this moment. Right here! Now! Pay attention! Pay attention! Pay attention!

Shainberg: Can you say which of your books most expresses your Zen practice?

Matthiessen: Probably Far Tortuga. What’s odd, however, is that the experiences on which that book is based, when I first went down to the Cayman Islands, occurred before I began to sit. In fact, I had already begun to write Far Tortuga by the time I began to sit. I had been reading a lot of Oriental literature, but with the exception of the experience I mentioned before, on the troopship, I’d had no real glimpse of any kind.

Shainberg: Are there other books in which you have tried to realize a Zen point of view?

Matthiessen: No, not even in Far Tortuga. It was only in retrospect that I realized that a lot of that book seemed to have been written from a more “unified” perspective.

Shainberg: You’ve never tried explicitly for a dharma insight in your writing?

Matthiessen: No. I wouldn’t know how.

Shainberg: There are certain writers, like Beckett, to name my own deity, who can be associated very directly with a Buddhist point of view. On some level, however, there seems to be a split, a way in which the literary form seems to prevent or even contradict a direct embodiment of realization. As Beckett once wrote, no direct contact is possible between subject and object, “because they are separated by the subject’s consciousness of perception. . .” Some Beckett scholars, those who are also familiar with Buddhism, say that he embraced the first two Noble Truths but not the third. In other words, he did not believe desire could be transcended. It was as if he refused the dharma resolution.

Matthiessen: Assuming I know what you mean by “the dharma resolution.” . . . In Zen practice, isn’t it the subjective consciousness that falls away? When that occurs, the dharma resolution is no longer refusable. It simply is. Who is there to refuse it?

In your memoir about your encounters with Beckett, he said many things that were close to Zen thinking. It was dazzling! But it’s true that it wasn’t quite the Buddhadharma. Perhaps this was because his own reading and training had prepared no ground for making the jump involved in dropping the subjective consciousness. It seems to me that this is what Zen training is about, preparing the ground. Without such training, transcendence is very difficult. One arrives at a place where dualisms have lost their meaning, yet there seems to be nowhere to go from there.

Near the end of Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King, Henderson approaches mystical experience. The entire book seems to build toward this epiphany, this liberation in a unifying vision. But Bellow, for whatever reason, does not break through, does not go all the way. This seems to me the one serious flaw in his best and most adventurous book. Like Beckett, he is exceptionally intellectual, cerebral, which makes it all the harder. Everything in their Western training would resist a leap into the unknown that transcends words or even thought. Yet both seem very aware of something beyond thought that holds astonishing significance.

Shainberg: Do you know a writer who in your view did not back off? Someone who had not come from an explicitly Buddhist point of view?

Matthiessen: Do you mean so-called “religious writers?” Rabbi Nachman? St. John of the Cross? Kabir? Or do you mean more-or-less “accidental mystics” such as Wordsworth? Do you know Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows? There’s a chapter in that book—a so-called children’s book!—called “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.” Pure mystical experience, apparently spontaneous! I’m sure he never thought of it as anything like that, but it is unmistakable. Then you have Wordsworth, who in his later life almost explicitly repudiated mystical experience, and yet his early work is full of it. It’s as if he were awed by it, frightened of it. And of course such an experience can be quite frightening if you have no preparation, therefore no idea of what is happening.

Do you remember what Daiman Konin, the Fifth Patriarch, said about Hui-Neng, the Sixth Patriarch? That Hui-Neng was the one student—out of more than five hundred—to whom he would give his robe and bowl because “he does not understand Buddhism.” Hui-Neng came to the monastery entirely uneducated, illiterate, no ideas, no intellectual context. He was free. For an intellectual person, someone who has been accumulating ideas throughout life, it is very difficult to empty out that bell. When I was first practicing with Soen Roshi and came in with my koan presentations, he thought they were all right from one point of view, but he also thought they were too literary, too clever. And he would shout, “BE MORE ORDINARY!” Hui-Neng had no trouble being ordinary. He was ordinary. He was just-who-he-was in his own Buddha-nature.

Shainberg: What about doubt? Does any serious doubt about the practice come up anymore?

Matthiessen: Practice? Or the teachings? I have no doubt about the practice. Doubts about myself as a teacher perhaps, about my ability to manifest the teaching. I may always have that. But no doubt about the teachings or the practice itself.

Shainberg: I’m speaking about it in terms of means. The dangers of the practice. Of self-consciousness, for example. Willfulness. Compulsiveness. All the rigidities and pride the practice can engender.

Matthiessen: Well, perhaps I don’t recognize all these dangers sufficiently. And maybe we’d better separate the practice from the teachings. I have no doubt about the teachings. To live right here now, moment after moment. So simple, and so very difficult. The extraordinary teaching of the Buddha, with echoes and reverberations in every direction throughout space and time.

Shainberg: You’ve never had doubt?

Matthiessen: Oh, yes. How can one be a true seeker without doubt?

Shainberg: At Ryutakuji [Soen Roshi and Kyudo Roshi’s monastery in Japan], as you know, I’m sure, they call the Meditation Hall the Hall of Great Doubt.

Matthiessen: Because of certain clues and intimations, one has a very powerful faith in something immanent, something of the greatest importance that must be penetrated. But until it has been truly experienced, there is so-called Great Doubt:, which could also be called Great Faith.

Shainberg: To be consumed with that doubt is a great help to the practice, isn’t it?

Matthiessen: Yes. Because the other side of it is the urgent need and longing to penetrate, to burst through it, to be liberated.

Shainberg: One is driven by the other?

Matthiessen: In a sense, they are the same.

Shainberg: And what of your doubt about being a teacher?

Matthiessen: My life as a writer was twenty-five years along when I became a Zen student. Perhaps if I were a true Zen teacher, truly qualified, I’d give up writing, and someday it may come to that. I don’t have a romantic view of writing. In fact I have a very practical view. Most American writers go on writing much longer than they should. It’s hard to name a well-known American writer who didn’t keep writing after he or she was finished, whose work did not weaken toward the end of his career. This seems to be less true of Europeans. Here, where there’s so much media hype, writers seem to burn out faster. I hope that I will know it when my work becomes repetitive or stupid or senile or I’m just coasting, sneaking by on past work. Then maybe I will have sense enough to quit writing, give more time to Zen studies and to teaching.

Shainberg: How do writing and teaching conflict with each other?

Matthiessen: Time, in the main.

Shainberg: Only in that concrete sense? What about the spiritual consequences of description, the separation of subject and object to which Beckett refers?

Matthiessen: We hope for a glimpse of the absolute reality, but the linear reality—so-called separation—is reality too. Remember what Kyudo Roshi said to you about attachment to emptiness. Separation is all right so long as one perceives the unity behind it. But with separation, of course, comes the problem of self. A writer must be very wary of his ego, all the more so if his work becomes well known. If one accepts, as I do, that the modern writer, as Camus said, must speak for those who cannot speak for themselves, then advocacy is “right livelihood” in the Buddhist sense, and a reputation gets the writer a hearing and makes that advocacy much more effective. I am involved with the environment, American Indian matters, social justice. To the degree that I have a reputation, I am more effective in drawing attention to Leonard Peltier, or an endangered species, or even to the benefits of Zen practice. It’s a very narrow line I walk between ego and effectiveness, and sometimes I stumble. The trap of self can lead to self-deception. Sitting practice helps, of course. It’s a good thing that public attention to my work came a bit late. I don’t think I’d have handled it well in my twenties. I had a lot of vanity and arrogance, I was very cocky. But these days, the main problem is time. I never have enough of it. One wants to help whenever one can, yet I find that it’s very difficult to keep my own work going while trying to handle all these other matters and still be available to my students and my family. I travel a lot, and I’m constantly trying to catch up, all the while yearning for a simpler life.

Shainberg: That’s all through Dragon River, isn’t it, your hunger for simplicity?

Matthiessen: I dream of simplicity, but I’m as far from it as ever. That is my practice, how to be in the world and remain simple. One day perhaps I’ll accept the fact that I am never going to find the simple life. Maybe the first step toward simplicity will be to accept that my life will never be simple even if I go live in a cave and subsist on green nettles like Milarepa.

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