“What is the sound of one hand clapping?” J. D. Salinger inscribed in the opening pages of Nine Stories. An epigraph made in heaven: What on earth were his readers going to make of that? Whatever it was, coming from him it had to be good—precious, tender, not to be found in the phony world that stretched beyond the household of the Glass family. “A Zen Koan,” he added underneath.

Koans were still an exotic rarity in the early 1950s. The great apologist of Zen, D. T. Suzuki, had lectured and written on them passionately and widely earlier in the century. In the 1940s the first small wave of Western Zen pioneers had gone to Japan to taste the austerities of the masters of the void. R. H. Blyth’s Zen and Classics of English Literature had appeared. Alan Watts, himself an Anglican minister and at an early age a leader of Britain’s Buddhist Society, had already published The Spirit of Zen. Philip Kapleau’s Three Pillars of Zen would not appear for another decade, and the popularizing of Zen was even further away. Yet one of the very first American writers interested in Zen—before Ginsberg or Snyder, or even Kerouac—was Salinger. Zen was the first of various spiritual practices that caught his eye as he developed his own eclectic spirituality. Although he didn’t stick with it but went on to study Vedanta, as well as other spiritual traditions, Zen was one element that helped him to evolve his own idiosyncratic literary stance—which is surprisingly hard to pin down, even as it has seemed so palpable to the reader.

The cycle of stories about the Glass family is where this is most highly developed. If one were to reduce it, the fictional position might be that something is rotten in the state and, more importantly, the state probably does not contain the necessary remedy. This represents a shift from, say, Victorian fiction, where in the last resort humankind contains within itself the seed of its own redemption. Be true enough to yourself, and you can find peace and happiness. But Holden Caulfield’s problem, in The Catcher in the Rye, is that he is being true to himself, and no one else is (with the exception of the children, Phoebe his younger sister above all). The question the book presents is how to enter the adult world without losing oneself. This is Salinger’s restatement of the moral problem much great fiction grapples with: in short, how to be good. In Salinger, unlike much twentieth-century fiction of despair, there does seem to be an answer, but it’s unclear what it is, and it’s always just out of reach.

Salinger’s own spiritual explorations—Zen, the Orthodox Church, the Bhagavad Gita—infused and quietly informed his fiction, all the time addressing not just the question of how to live but the fundamental problem of life and death, the heart of the existential quest: Who am I, what does it mean that I will die? This question hangs over the Glass family like a sword poised in mid-fall, from the very first story of the Nine Stories, in which the intellectually and spiritually masterful Seymour, the golden child of the family, kills himself. Why? All the Glass family chronicles can perhaps be seen as a working out of this question. Seymour’s suicide isn’t a koan, yet there is something in its insistent irritancy, its motivating power, its infallible awkwardness that is somehow koan-like. Its effect on the reader may not be Mumon’s red-hot iron ball, but is surely a cousin to it. Salinger’s work is famously addictive to adolescents. Around the time I discovered it—at thirteen or fourteen—I was obsessed with finding out if I was fully awake. I didn’t mean whether life was all a dream. It might or might not be. But either way, how could I know if I was simply as awake as I could be? Was there a maximum setting to wakefulness? If so, who knew what it was, and how could anyone ever get inside my mind and tell me if I was there? As I walked home from school, satchel strap digging in my shoulder, I might be kicking a stone along, or thinking about a friend or my homework, when suddenly I’d realize I had no idea how I’d gotten from one lamppost to the next. Had I been asleep on my feet? What had happened to me over the missing 50 yards? And even when I was there, did I know what I was doing, could I know it even more? Even at those times, was I in fact only partly awake?

Somehow that mysterious koan that opens Nine Stories, the sound of a single hand, seemed connected with my question. Both were equally impossible to answer and produced the same uncomfortable feeling, yet also held out a promise of brightness just round the corner. I remember the feeling that the epigraph roused in me when I first read it: a mixture of impatience and, somehow, hope. It was like being given a key, but you had to find out what to. There was some kind of truth the koan seemed to know about, an honesty of a sort our culture perhaps had little of. It is said that koans are dark to the mind, yet radiant to the heart. The koan was somehow cognate with the frankness of Salinger’s work, with the battered integrity of his protagonists, their horror of phonies, their sense that so much of the world was bitter, cruel, wasteful. This strange question seemed to promise another way, perhaps the same way that Holden, Seymour, Franny and the others were struggling to find. It’s not that Salinger was particularly faithful to the spirit of Zen training. Still, the problem that motivates his work—how to integrate spiritual meaning into life, in the context of Western, urban, educated, postwar ennui—spoke loudly, if also elusively, to the spiritual hunger of his audience.

Salinger became an entry point into the dharma for me in two ways. First, that inherent seeking manifest in his characters, who, with their troubled integrity, seemed to be searching for a truer way of living spoke to me of my life. Second, there was that koan. But I got nowhere near finding the answer to it, or to my own troubling sense that I was disconnected from the source of what I intuited was life’s most vital knowledge. Now, instead, I threw myself into study—ancient Greek, Russian, and English literature. Perhaps I’d find the answer in books. I secured an early place at Cambridge, then decided to take a year off, a gap year, and went to work in South America, where I wrote my first book.

“Whatever Master Gutei was asked about Zen, he would simply raise a finger.” “Show me your original face, before your parents were born.’” Koans can inspire profound impatience, as if they were designed with no purpose other than to infuriate. They can curdle the mind, tie the brain in knots. But by rousing discomfort and doubt, they can also lead to deep release. Sometimes when an “answer,” or presentation, arises in the student, it may bring with it a stream of laughter and tears, at the simplicity of it, the bare, bald understanding of it, the depth, the love, the revelation of life itself that seems to arrive with it. But equally, the value of a koan can lie in the mysterious trail whose start it suggests, which in turn demands that it be given time; away from the desk, away from our relationships, the shops, the gym. Holden Caulfield, in an inchoate way, seems to have understood the sense of another order of priorities, outside the conventional constructs of our world, where we drop the getting and spending with which we generally lay waste our powers. He was a seeker who didn’t know what he was seeking, but only knew what he didn’t want.

Photograph by Julianne Swartz

Salinger’s work is full of incipient dharma—an apprehension of the truths conveyed through Zen training. The precocious children in whom a more compassionate wisdom abides, and who are the lodestone of the books; the adolescents who reject the adult world, which they perceive as a sea of hypocrisy; and the Glass family, living a kind of modern fairy tale, where children of unusual perceptiveness withdraw from the opacity of the city around them. There is Franny Glass, who openly embraces the mystical life, teaching herself, even if arguably for all the wrong reasons, to recite the “Jesus Prayer” continually, a standard Orthodox contemplative training. By the close of Franny and Zooey, it seems that Franny is less likely to continue with the prayer than to return to the adult world, with all its hypocrisy, and to try to be “in the world but not of it,” which is what she and Zooey, her brother, recognize as the path they must take despite their feelings of not fitting in.

Although Salinger had little if any formal Zen training, his work is full of the kind of questions that might lead one to such a training. If the adult world is as dire as it seems to Holden and the Glass children, is there in fact any way to gain adulthood without losing one’s integrity? Is there after all a Catcher in the Rye who can stop us all from going over the cliff? Obviously, a spiritual answer must be an emphatic Yes. In the case of Zen, there is a refuge, the refuge of the Three Treasures—the “harbor and weir of the world,” as Dogen called it, the Catcher into whose arms we practitioners are lucky enough to stumble.

Dogen said: “Directly upon encountering the dharma, we will abandon the law of the world.” In other words, once we discover the true order behind the appearance of things, our lives will no longer be dominated by the conventional values of society— the seeking to outshine, outrace, outgain. In Dogen’s day, this generally meant “renunciation” and “home-leaving.” Today, like the Glass family perhaps, most Western practitioners pursue lay lives. Once again, the Glass kids, with their uneasy, restless seeking, seem dharma students in the making. Like them, we too surely would prefer not to join conventional social life if all it contains is hypocrisy. Instead, we will follow the elusive trail in our hearts suggested by the koan. But in the end, this must surely lead us back to our own actual lives.

All good literature, in a way, is an emissary from this other land of “truth.” Seamus Heaney speaks of the “redress of poetry,” which holds up an image of a realm of truth, intangible but undeniable. Why can’t we know this land directly, but only through ambassadors? Zen says we can, and when we do, we may find it is no different from exactly where we are anyway. But we have to go on a journey to get to where we are. We roll like a ball downhill, into exactly where we are. Sometimes, along the way, we make discoveries that truly “astonish the heavens and astound the earth,” as Master Mumon put it. We may even be fortunate enough to hear the sound of one hand. There are koans—Joshu’s “Mu” or “What is this?” or “What is the sound of one hand?”—that aim at pushing practitioners toward deep insights. Are these insights so different from the epiphanies found here and there in Western literature? In Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, for example, Edmund reminisces about an experience he had while crewing on a sailing ship:

I was on the Squarehead square rigger, bound for Buenos Aires. Full moon in the Trades. The old hooker driving 14 knots. I lay on the bowsprit, facing astern, with the water foaming into spume under me, the masts with every sail white in the moonlight towering high above me. I became drunk with the beauty and singing rhythm of it, and for a moment I lost myself—actually lost my life. I was set free! I dissolved into the sea, became white sails and flying spray, became beauty and rhythm, became moonlight and the ship and the high dim-starred sky! I belonged, without past or future, within peace and unity and a wild joy, within something greater than my own life, or the life of Man, to Life itself! To God, if you want to put it that way.

Edmund’s epiphany is based on a journal entry that O’Neill wrote when he was in his early twenties, describing his own experience while at sea as a merchant seaman. Thirty years later he was still writing about it, it still tugged at him. When his ship docked, O’Neill went straight to the nearest dive and over the next several weeks nearly drank himself to death. The experience did not deliver him from despair but only deepened it. On the other hand, he named his last home, the house where he wrote Long Day’s Journey, Tao House, which seems to indicate that he continued to recognize in that early experience something of surpassing preciousness. But nevertheless he had no context that would deepen, stabilize, and make the experience intelligible, that would link it to the larger patterns of his life, and connect him to a community offering guidance, purpose, and inspiration. This can be the role of a spiritual tradition, whatever its methods—to give a context, to link a practitioner to a tradition that gives shape to our deepest intuitions.

“To study the self is to forget the self,” said Dogen. If you try to find who you really are, you may discover you’re not there at all. Dogen also said: “To forget oneself is to be actualized by all things.” O’Neill’s epiphany seems to contain similar or even identical insights.

I was nineteen when something like this first happened to me. Brought up a fledgling rational-empiricist in that most rational of cities, Oxford, England, I wasn’t prepared to accept the experience at face value. Mentally equipped with Homer, Plato, Cicero, some D. H. Lawrence, chunks of Shakespeare and Milton, a dash of Chekhov—as well as my beloved Salinger—I decided the experience could only mean one thing: I had to be a writer.

I worked between school and college in Argentina, then backpacked through the Andes with a school friend. On long truck rides I stared out over the endless landscapes—the bulging suede plateaus of the Altiplano, the livid red canyons of the Pacific mountains, enflamed with dust like sore throats, the forested valleys thousands of feet deep—and tried to understand what they were, how come they existed at all. The culmination of the trip was a visit to the Galapagos Islands.

It was on the last afternoon of a boat tour in the islands that I found myself alone on a beach. The sun was low enough to shed a broad, scintillating path of light on the ocean. I stared at it, fascinated. I had recently finished writing what would become my first book and was inordinately happy. I had not only found my metier but had begun to put it into effect. I was also happy to be alone. It felt like I had put down a great weight I didn’t realize I’d been carrying. I hadn’t known until then to what extent I normally trammeled my mind, steering it in channels that enabled communication with others. Suddenly a great liberation opened, blissful. I forgot all plans for the future; all hope, all fear vanished. The joy somehow carried a promise of eternity, as if I were nose-up against the beginning and end of time.

We have to go on a journey to get to where we are.

I was staring at the shifting, dazzling scales of light on the surface of the sea. Water was transparent, as was air, and come to think of it, so was light. The three substances were in effect invisible. The surface of the sea was nothing but the sheet, infinitesimally thin, where they met. How come I could see anything at all?

As I stared in amazement, it felt as if I—the center of my consciousness—were not where I thought I dwelt, in my body, but had been swallowed by the world. An extraordinary feeling of belonging arose. I belonged utterly, right where I was, and everywhere, and always had.

Then I looked at my hand. It too was no different from everything else. It was one and the same as the sand, the sea, the rocks. It felt like everything, hand included, was engaged in one single declaration of love. The whole world was the single hand. There was nothing else. And somehow, I could hear not only it, but everything. It was the only sound in the universe.

A week later, back on the mainland, I sat down at a pavement café to write about the experience. Sentences, paragraphs poured out, and before I knew it I had written an opening chapter for my next novel, completed only many years later, and published in 2008 as The Lost City. Consequently, over the days and weeks that followed—and again before I really knew what I had done—I turned the experience not just into a memory, but into the stamp and branding of a literary calling. It meant I must be a writer. O’Neill had had such an experience. Tolstoy clearly had as well—he ascribes one to Pierre at a pivotal moment in War and Peace, when the imprisoned nobleman is stripped of all the trappings of his wealth, almost stripped of his life too, and suddenly finds an altogether different self. And Salinger must have known something of the sort too, or else he wouldn’t have offered us that inscrutable nugget of truth, the koan, at the start of Nine Stories. It seemed a safe bet that writing and epiphanies in some way went together, and I lived by that creed for many years.

Still, in spite of a growing career as a poet and writer, for many years I wasn’t happy. Not at all. Everything that mattered seemed to be wrong. Some singular vital task was not being addressed. Somehow, that moment on the ocean continued to haunt me. It seemed to have offered the hope of a complete resolution to the question of life and death. But what was one supposed to do? I’d been trying the only way I knew, following the most radical career path—writer, poet—that my cloistered Oxford upbringing allowed me to conceive. Yet it wasn’t enough. That glinting ocean and its scales of light still flickered in the back of my mind.

In what ways is literature a sufficient response to deep spiritual experience, in what ways not? Why did O’Neill remain miserable? Why did I become even more miserable? Eventually, through my late twenties and early thirties, I made various attempts to find a Zen teacher. My life as a travel writer at the time gave me a lot of mobility, and I sat in a Northumbrian abbey, a monastery in upstate New York, a zendo in New York City, a makeshift ecological retreat center up a mountain in New Mexico, but felt ready to entrust myself to none of them.

Finally I resolved to sit a whole sesshin. I worked with the most fundamental and explicit koan: Who am I? One afternoon, in the midst of acute knee pain, while listening to the wind plunging through trees, I suddenly disappeared. The ship of me had no captain! It was uncrewed. It was a tremendously liberating moment, but the teacher, a maverick rookie, offered no help with it. Besides, I wasn’t a student of his, and had neither a sangha nor a practice to return to. The initial euphoria wore off after a few weeks and left me more desperate than ever, feeling as if a hole had been blown open in the middle of my life, one that at all costs I had to fight, vainly, to cover over again. I didn’t want to know what I had seen. I scribbled desperately for magazines, zigzagged around the globe on expenses, fulfilling writing assignments that brought in good fees but meant nothing to me any more. I did all I could to forget what I had glimpsed, but couldn’t.

Meanwhile, I somehow kept on hoping my literary life would fulfill the promise of these insights. I don’t know why I was so stubborn, so fixated on writing as my one and only path, but I was. Then, suddenly, twenty long years after the first opening experience, when I had long since given up the search, I did find a master—in my hometown of Oxford, of all places. Without even looking for one, here he was. And not just a master, but a sangha, a community of fellow students, and a vibrant lineage, the Sanbo Kyodan, in which my teacher operated under the guidance of our abbot. Not only that, but their main method of teaching was koan study. As I took the koan “Mu” about with me everywhere, and then as Mu started to take me about with it, I felt I was at last attending to something I had long postponed. Mu soon opened me up: suddenly, one evening, as I was carrying two plates of food upstairs for my wife and myself, the world vanished; there was nothing at all. I remember thinking: all this training of the mind, yet there is no mind! There’s absolutely nothing! Not a speck in the sky. Thus I entered koan training in earnest.

Looking back on those three preliminary insights—everything is one thing; there is no self; everything is nothing at all—I can see that in each case a koan provoked it: the sound of one hand; Who am I?; and Mu. All delivered as though on time. Somehow, I was a natural fit for koan study, and I had stumbled, without my knowing it, into a lineage where that constituted the core method of training. The good fortune of that stumble continues to amaze me, even as I have continued my training with the guidance of a second teacher in the lineage, Joan Rieck Roshi.

Photograph by Julianne Swartz

Chekhov said all that is necessary for a writer is to present a problem as completely as possible. When later in life Tolstoy began producing his homilies and religious parables, he arguably abandoned the problem for the solution, and his art suffered. If Salinger’s works were situated any further into the spiritual arena, fiction couldn’t withstand it. The best fiction seems to operate at the outer edges of samsara, as it were, just where the spiritual life is coming into partial view. Characters may be seeking blindly, but they are seeking. They sense a greater truth than their society seems to operate by, and though they may make endless mistakes in their attempts to find it, those attempts are the engine of great narrative.

How to live right, in our modern, materialist, individualist culture: In one way or another, this is what Salinger’s characters struggle with. All his protagonists have intimations of some deeper truth than is apparent in the society around them; perhaps their charm comes from this. Anything that seems to express this truth they seize on, and love inordinately. Esmée, the English innocent, loved by the traumatized soldier; the little girl on the beach, Seymour’s last friend, hunting for bananafish; Holden delighted by Jane Gallagher’s back row of kings in her checkers game; Zooey with his intricate smoking rituals. All these small things are what his characters somehow know they must cherish.

In the closing epiphany from Franny and Zooey, Zooey tells Franny about how Seymour used to make Zooey shine his own shoes when he’d appear on the radio, even though no one could see, and Seymour would say to do it for the Fat Lady. Then it turns out he used to say the same thing to Franny as well. Seymour never explained who the Fat Lady was, but Zooey does: she is “Christ himself.” Salinger’s vision seems to be that we can actualize the Big Thing only through loving small things; loving small things, conversely, is the way of realizing the Big Thing. Seeing this, Franny finally is returned to herself and her world, the same yet transformed—delivered, if you will. We readers are returned to ourselves as well, by a resolution that is wise and loving and yet also enigmatic, for the source of this wisdom and this love is Seymour, Salinger’s most deeply troubled soul.

Koans, too, return us to our daily lives. This is surely why Salinger used one as the epigraph to one of his greatest books: It was in harmony with the thrust of his tender, farreaching morality.

“Help me, master. Who is the man who does not accompany the ten thousand dharmas?” Layman Pang asked Baso before his great enlightenment. Baso replied: “I won’t tell you until you have swallowed the West River with one gulp.” The literary mind could chew on this and get nowhere. But it’s not a statement to ponder. The master means it literally, concretely. Swallow the Hudson, the Thames. Whether or not Salinger had, or had heard the sound of one hand, he knew, and caused many millions of readers to intimate, that there was another kind of truth, other than the ones our socially constructed lives supported, and that there just might be a way of finding it. In the end, all his of works are surely a kind of koan too.

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