In “Indian Camp,” the first story in Hemingway’s first book, In Our Time, a boy and his father paddle out on a lake to an island where a pregnant Native American woman is having a hard labor. The boy is shocked both by her suffering and by the general poverty of the camp. He waits as his father, a doctor, helps deliver the baby; the boy doesn’t pay attention—nor do we—to the woman’s husband lying on a nearby bunk. Unable to endure the sound of his wife’s birth pains or his certainty of the new child’s miserable prospects, the man slits his own throat. But the author only lets us see this late in the tale; most of the way we think the story is about the boy and his father. All along, without our even noticing, another more pressing series of events has been unfolding right under our eyes.

In literary terminology this kind of manipulation of our attention is aptly named “misdirection.” The term describes a technique of prestidigitation, or sleight of hand: a skillful pickpocket might distract a victim by knocking against her shoulder, directing her attention there and away from the pants pocket. A magician draws attention to his sleeves—Look! Nothing up my sleeves!—so the audience doesn’t look at the real hiding place of his next prop. But it’s just as common in narratives, found in mysteries and TV cop shows and all manner of stories, short and long.


In Somerset Maugham’s classic short story “Rain,” for example, we follow the state of a prostitute’s soul, wondering whether the zealous missionary will succeed in “saving” her from her sins. Only at the very end do we realize that the person whose moral fortitude has been on the line all along is not the prostitute but the missionary; he, not she, is the one we should have had our eye on. This is one of the pleasures of narrative misdirection: the discovery that the information we needed was right before us, yet we didn’t see it. It can give a story a satisfying sense of both inevitability and surprise. To find that our attention was in the wrong place adds another dimension to the sense of reality evoked by the narrative. The writer invites our attention to a foreground, but something is also moving in the background. When we see that, our perspective shifts and expands, and that feels good. There is a rightness to it, like the tumblers inside a lock falling into place, allowing it to open.

For a mystery writer, misdirection is as essential a tool as a hammer for a carpenter. In one of the early classics of the form, The Hound of the Baskervilles, Sherlock Holmes disappears for a long stretch, leaving an outmatched Dr. Watson on his own with the likely murderer. Only later on, at a moment of high tension, do we discover, with terrific relief, that the gardener of the household where Watson has been sequestered was none other than Holmes himself in disguise. He has been there—once again—all along.

Alfred Hitchcock was cinema’s first master of the mystery, and—not coincidently—he was a master of misdirection. We are so swept up in James Stewart’s obsessive attempts to protect the woman he loves in Vertigo that we miss the clues indicating she is a duplicitous accomplice in a shameless heist. Psycho, too, is threaded through with misdirection, though today, when the film is iconic and the story so well known, some of this might be hard to appreciate. We naturally assume that the female lead, Janet Leigh, will be a major character in the film. Having stolen money from her boss and having been stopped by a suspicious cop, her caper and her moral dilemma soon have us on the edge of our seats. But we don’t know the half of it. The film is barely getting going when she is famously dispatched in the shower, and we realize that the real subject of the movie is not going to be this woman after all, but someone else, namely, Norman Bates—and his mother. And that’s another misdirection.

But misdirection is more than a mere device for a storyteller. It works in stories because it fits with something in the workings of life. Misdirection is akin to a principle of growth and development, and it’s no accident that its operations can be detected within the structures of many wisdom traditions.

I remember once reading an account of a Zen student who worked diligently and vigorously for years with the koan Mu and eventually had a breakthrough, an opening that allowed the koan to become clear to him. He “passed the barrier” of Mu and entered into a new phase of his koan study with his teacher. But what struck me in the account was that it seemed to convey something more than the writer was aware of. He had clearly benefited from his years of hard practice, but the benefits, as he described them, had to do not only with the specifics of his koan training but also with something larger. Although he intended to tell the story of his Zen practice one way, a broader story emerged in its telling, for it seemed clear that it was in his whole life of practice, especially shared practice as a member of a community, that he came to flourish as he never had before. His focus was on one thing, but, as in the Hemingway story (though in this case, it was without authorial intent), much of importance was happening off to the side as well. Our training may require us to pass through a narrow gate even as it leads us to something far wider than we may at first realize.

The narratives implicit in spiritual training often contain misdirection of various kinds, under the shadow of which other kinds of change and growth, noticed and unnoticed, may be occurring. In the grand narrative of the voyage from samsara to nirvana, we may tend to overlook all kinds of unsought gifts that befall us along the way. For some people, their significant growth takes place entirely within the traditional and explicit narrative structure of a path of practice. But for others, it is more multifaceted and harder to pin down. Probably it has always been this way.

In his first teaching, the Buddha explicitly taught that we exist in a state of suffering and that we can be liberated from it. There’s a stick, and there’s a carrot. There’s a path from A to B, from dukkha to liberation, and he went on to outline it. This would seem a straightforward description of, and prescription for, a path of training. Yet even this is not so simple.

Inherent in that carrot-and-stick model is the notion that this state we are currently in is unsatisfactory, while there is another, better state waiting for us: a deluded here and an awakened there. Yet that very formulation could stand as a description of dukkha itself—of the problem one is seeking to resolve—in that it constitutes dissatisfaction with how things are. It is surely a conundrum, one located squarely at the heart of spiritual life and elaborated in a multitude of ways. If we are seeking something other than what is already right here, we surely have a problem. If we are not seeking, if we simply choose to live out our ego-driven portion of samsaric existence, then we also have a problem. It’s something to chew on, and Buddhists have been chewing on it, and arguing over it, for a long time.

Bodhidharma, the legendary first great ancestor of Zen in China, said that when we reach the “other shore,” the promised land of nirvana, we find that there never was another shore to begin with. This is not so much Zen’s final word on the matter as its first word, or at least the perspective in which the tradition is grounded. In Bodhidharma’s words, both sides of the equation—the need to seek and need not to—are embraced.

Many paths have certain benchmarks, and as we pass them we may be encouraged to think we are making progress on the way. But our inevitable attachment to these markers traps us inevitably—in notions of good and bad, of something chased and something fled, of pride in the one who has made the progress or despair at the one who hasn’t. “Progress” itself may be, as it were, a lack of progress, any concern with it being a precise sign of our continuing attachment to it. And yet, off to the side, we may truly have made progress in ways we don’t see.

Misdirection operates on a smaller scale, too. Any spiritual training has to work with what is presented, namely the front door to our experience: our mind and our sense of self. In kannaZen, or koan training, the student initially sits with a “barrier koan” such as Mu. The focus, the attention, is all on Mu. Mu comes to fill the foreground of the mind. The mind’s front door over time becomes completely occupied with the koan. That’s what’s needed. While the front door is busy getting absorbed in Mu, it’s not attending to the back door, where the “real” Mucan slip in unnoticed and spring itself on us.

It seems paradoxical, and it is: by becoming absorbed in the foreground, we allow the background gently (and sometimes suddenly) to come to life. Our attention expands. By means of the narrow focus, our consciousness broadens. As we absorb ourselves into the lamp of consciousness, its light opens into a more inclusive illumination. The narrow torch-beam switches off, and the background—everything else previously plunged in shadow—comes into bright relief, not to say new life.

But it has to happen by itself. We can’t aim for it directly. “Attempts to stop activity will fill you with activity,” according to the Xinxin Ming, a poem attributed to the Third Chan Patriarch, Sengcan. In other words, you can’t take the mind head-on. The front door is not the way; and yet it is the only way. Our minds are fruitfully led down the garden path, an illusion of progress is fed to the hungry maw of the self to keep it quiet, like a bone tossed to a dog, and real shifts can occur—inadvertently.

In “The Student,” Chekhov’s personal favorite of his 588 stories, a young seminarian is walking home one gloomy afternoon, searching his mind for solutions to his life’s travails. He hates living at home with his parents, he hates his studies, the weather is awful: the whole world is a vale of sorrow. Then he stops in a vegetable plot where some women are warming themselves by a fire, and he is prompted to tell them the gospel story of Peter—how he stood by a fire through the night while Jesus was held by the Roman authorities, and three times denied that he had anything to do with the prisoner. One of the women starts crying. The student is shocked to find an event from 1,900 years ago having such a direct effect here and now, and he sees in a flash that the past is connected to the present in a single “unbroken chain.” The past is not merely past, it is also right here.

The revelation opens him up to a different kind of resolution, one he would have struggled in vain to find deliberately. His own efforts to sort out his life are eclipsed by a religious discovery that overwhelms him. All of a sudden, his problems find their answer in a source far other, and far wider, than where he was looking.

Many great creative lives seem to proceed by a kind of misdirection, too. Tolstoy, for example, hoped to be seen as a great philosophical and religious figure. He considered his true life’s calling to have been Christian monasticism, something for which a man of such famous passions and appetites was probably not well suited. He discounted and even disparaged his own achievements in literature. Yet perhaps his poor aim in his life’s objectives helped him. He saw himself as a larger thing than a novelist, and the novels as a means to that; but he was no good at the larger thing, and in the end the novels were the larger thing.

“Writers are often best at their second-best calling,” said the late Wordsworth scholar Robert Woof. Even Hemingway set out to be a poet in his early years in Paris, with the writing of stories a second best. When novel-writing replaced poetry as his main act, it was still in the relegated form, the short story, that he continued to excel. D. H. Lawrence likewise took the English novel as his arena for greatness, yet his best work is a handful of poems and his occasional prose. There is a great deal to be said for having a major project in life, though it’s possible that its greatest service is to provide a shelter in which our most truly valuable activities can germinate and grow.


This is comparable to the way some works achieve their greatness by fighting against their own grain. The original story of Hamlet was a simple revenge tragedy. But it is the young prince’s ambivalence about that story line, his resistance to it, and then his resistance to that resistance, that generates all its greatness. The Iliad appears to be a tale of warriors and their martial prowess. Yet as the poet Peter Levi has said, “Homer’s is the poetry of the defeated”: the true subjects of the epic are vulnerability and forgiveness, as becomes clear in the scene near the end when the two sworn foes, Priam and Achilles, weep in each other’s arms. It is surely one of the most moving moments in all literature. It is as if art, like life perhaps, succeeds through a contrary. Likewise in our spiritual lives, the lofty project of a great awakening is something we both work toward and chafe against. Within its shade, all kinds of smaller openings and maturations may spring up.

The Lotus Sutra is probably the preeminent text in East Asian Buddhism, and it is often referred to as the king of sutras. In fact, as the scholar Jacqueline Stone has noted, it makes a claim very much like this for itself, proclaiming that it is the ultimate sutra, the supreme teaching of the Buddha. Yet it then proceeds to offer no real doctrinal content, no explicit teaching as such. It never expounds the great doctrine it keeps saying it is going to present—it is like a great lead-up to something that never happens. There are, however, many teachings within it. One of the most famous is the parable of the burning house, which explains earlier Buddhist teachings almost exactly as misdirection. From the standpoint of the Lotus, other teachings are skillful means, which essentially means misdirection—stories told to get people out of the “burning house” of samsara at all costs. Yet at the same time that it characterizes other teachings as misdirection, the Lotus Sutra is itself a work of misdirection too, as it never actually proclaims the doctrine it promises.

One can discern various kinds of misdirection at work within Buddhism: that one can’t go directly at transcendence, but only askance; that no matter what narrative structure a given tradition offers, the structure necessarily leaves things out, and much that is significant in spiritual life may happen outside it; the idea of skillful means, that teachings are provisional and meant to lead the practitioner to emancipatory ends. The Lotus Sutra in particular exemplifies, though it leaves unsaid, something that we today have learned through studying religion and its literature comparatively: the meaning of religious texts is not entirely determinative. Much of their meaning is symbolic, pointing beyond itself at a living coherence that is larger and more encompassing than our ideas about the world. The meaning of a text is bound up with the living experience it unlocks. In Zen’s famous formulation, the finger pointing to the moon is not the moon. With some texts—and the Lotusis certainly one—this sensibility is built into the texts themselves and, more important, it is carried by their traditions of interpretation. So misdirection thrives, and must thrive, because the world we seek entrance to far surpasses our descriptions of it.

Sometimes we can see something akin to this in great literature, and Tolstoy’s War and Peaceis exemplary. Henry James dismissively called the novel “a great mass of life,” and in a way he is right. War and Peace, by all standards, is a deeply flawed novel. It’s a very different beast from novels of more perfect form, such as Madame Bovary. Tolstoy’s long excursions on his philosophy of history, for example, are so dull that many readers simply choose to skip them. What’s more, they flagrantly violate, absurdly, a basic axiom of narrative writing: “Show, don’t tell.” Ironically, everything he has to say about history is already being shown in his narrative anyway, and to far greater effect. Yet despite these and other flaws, War and Peace has, since its publication up to today, been regarded by writers and critics more than any other book as the greatest novel ever.

Tolstoy’s great mass of life lays open the impossibility of containing life in a tightly coherent narrative structure. Life doesn’t work that way; it doesn’t fit. War and Peace is a sprawling work, and in that, it mirrors life’s complexity, its shifts in direction, the fact that coherence is found not in linear development but in the intricacy of the web of relationships that tie us together. Instead of structure, it offers a breathtaking empathy with a huge array of people and situations. The novel is a vast piece of actuality, rather than a form to be appreciated. Real life seems to steal into us as we read. It has the “maximal contact” with the world that the theorist Mikhail Bakhtin identifies as characteristic of great fiction. But it has more. It is itself of a piece with that “great mass of life.” Its omniscient narrator is not a neutral teller of events but someone with an embracing vision that infuses it all from top to bottom. After reading it, even if we feel we haven’t arrived at a clear end point, something has happened to us. We have taken in a measure of life’s immensity, and we are left with an unbridled empathic openness that leaves us astonished. We thought we were getting a novel; we were getting much more.

Near the end of J. D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, Zooey goes after his sister Franny for her reciting of the mantra-like Jesus Prayer, accusing her of doing it to acquire “spiritual treasure,” which, he says, is no better than material treasure. Anticipating by a good 20 years Chögyam Trungpa’s idea of “spiritual materialism,” Salinger points at a deep dilemma in spiritual life: how does one seek for something that transcends the self, if the self, which is the problem, is doing the seeking?

In a famous passage from Genjokoan, Dogen leads us into the territory of this dilemma and points us toward a resolution. He writes that to study the Buddha Way is to study the self, and that this study of the self means the forgetting of the self. The kind of examination (study of the self) that he says Buddhism is about, is self-forgetting, and self-forgetting is itself awakening. But how does one forget the self? Aim at uprooting the self, and you’re still the one aiming, which means the self is not forgotten.

For Dogen, the key was faith.

In How to Raise an Ox, Francis Dojun Cook contrasts Dogen’s way, based on faith, with Buddhist approaches that tackle the project of liberation head-on. Like his contemporary Shinran, the founder of the Shin school of Pure Land Buddhism, Dogen was suspicious of practice based on an aim seen from the ego’s point of view, since that is the very thing we are trying to get past. Instead one starts with faith. For Dogen, this means faith in buddhanature; for Shinran, it means faith in Amida Buddha. For both Dogen and Shinran, a single practice—zazen (formal seated meditation) for Dogen, nembutsu (recitation of Amida’s name) for Shinran—done in faith makes present and expresses, fully and completely, original enlightenment. That in itself is the going beyond the self.

Give up the ego’s designs on practice and trust that zazen itself is the full expression of buddhanature: this may seem clear and straightforward enough, yet even here there is a kind of misdirection writ large. Faith here is not you looking toward Buddha out there in the world; it is Buddha looking out at the world through you. Not you gaining Buddha; but Buddha gaining you. For it is the whole experience itself that is the point, not the practice alone, and its meaning is not capturable in linear terms, but rather as an expression of life’s wholeness. Hence Dogen’s concern with the forms of practice. For while original enlightenment is without limits, its expression is always particular. We don’t live life in general; we live life in particular ways, and it is in its particulars that life is invested with wisdom and meaning.

Buddhist practice pulls both ways. From one perspective, it is a discreet activity, something we do. From another perspective, one which tends to emerge more clearly with time, it seems less something we do and more something we are; less a piece of life and more all of life. No wonder we, like Franny Glass, get confused, getting things back to front, chasing the carrot and fleeing the stick, assessing our progress as we move from here to, well, here. The good news may be precisely that our lives will never “work out,” no matter how well we arrange the pieces or play the game, whether of career, relationships, or indeed practice. Buddhist practice is especially recalcitrant; it just won’t “do” what we want, at least not for long, because what we want is the problem.

In a sense, any spiritual path is largely a matter of misdirection, something meant to conceal an appalling and marvelous fact that, in the words of the Zen master Yunmen (Unmon), “swallows the entire universe.” It’s a case of a metaphor—the process of practice—being all vehicle and no tenor. To really “get” the metaphor is to discover there never was a tenor to which it referred; it was only ever a “vehicle”—a metaphor for nothing. But if the whole narrative has been a setup from the start, like a mystery; if it turns out the journey of training was just a road painted on a stage scrim, seeming to proceed over hill and dale into the distance, but in reality being just a prop, paper-thin, going nowhere, then that may be no bad thing. Without following that apparent path, we could not have come to the realization that there never was a path, and that everything, just as it is, is only waiting for our love and attention. But that love and attention mean everything. Every step of the way, everything we could ever have hoped for was right here, all along.

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