When Breyten Breytenbach was ordained as a member of Taisen Deshimaru’s Paris dojo almost forty years ago, he had a piece of his hair symbolically cut, was given a koan to study, and committed to the dharma as a way of life. Of the vows he took that day, it was the promise to be of benefit to others that most resonated with him. But for Breytenbach, a white South African who had come to Paris to paint and write, this didn’t mean volunteering at the dojo, or even at the local soup kitchen. Instead, he would start an underground militant network to fight apartheid, change his identity, channel funds to South African labor unions, and spend seven years in a South African prison for his activism. The dharma was not only a foundation for his political work; it was also a potent force behind his vast creative output as a writer and painter. It gave him, as he put it, “a still point from which to work.”

Now a highly regarded poet and memoirist with dozens of books to his credit, he came to New York this past April to read and speak at the PEN World Voices literature festival. When I met up with him on a rainy day in Manhattan, he was walking with a slight limp after having sprained his ankle by “slipping on a mossy stone staircase in Catalonia.” (After his fall, he wrote, “my foot and I don’t know who should feel sorrier for itself.”) But even when Breytenbach complains, his eyes are smiling. At sixty-seven, he’s tall and distinguished, with graying hair and beard, well-worn laugh lines, and a warmth that makes even the newest acquaintance feel like an old friend. His voice is smooth and lilts with an accent that you can’t put your finger on. (He speaks six languages, each, he claims, with a different foreign accent.) Wearing a faded red Nehru jacket and sandals despite the cold, he gives the impression that he’s never dressed quite in season.

There was something about the noise that day in New York that was bothering Breytenbach. But it wasn’t the trucks or the alarms; it was the New Yorkers. “They like to make noise,” he said. “It’s like they’re a group of birds, happy as long as they’re all singing, as if they’re all up in a tree together.”

The analogy is fitting for someone whose travel patterns could be described as migratory and whose work is full of avian references. Breytenbach’s surreal, lushly colored paintings include one of a man with wings under crying crows. In another, a woman holds a mask to her face that is part bird, part human, while various prismatic birds sit on serpentine tree branches overhead [see below]. In his poems, birds make “oceans glitter” with their flight, lovers fly together “over dark times,” memory becomes like starlings, and exiles, gods, and refugees have wings, sometimes broken. Birds are the followers of Mahakashyapa in the poem “About the shadowline,” about the parinirvana of this great disciple of the Buddha. Mahakashyapa, who came to be regarded as the first Zen patriarch, tells Breytenbach’s narrator:

you will be the first patriarch of a new school
of birds—the suchness stays and flies away—I say
you will have nothing to say, Bird the Silent,
only the transmission of nought—glassy and bare…

Ultimately, “birdness,” Breytenbach told me on that rainy New York morning, “is a very primary, bottom-line, open-ended sense of awareness.”

Breytenbach was just twenty in 1959 when he boarded a steamer for Europe, leaving South Africa behind for what would become an extended exile. He was going to pursue his art, but first he traveled a bit—working on farms in England and yachts in the Mediterranean, painting portraits for food, sleeping in orchards, and getting “singingly pissed on home-brewn liqueurs.” After depleting his travel budget, he settled down in Paris, which he considered the mecca for art at the time.

the bird-tree (detail), Breyten Breytenbach, circa 2000
the bird-tree (detail), Breyten Breytenbach, circa 2000

His paintings were exhibited and well received in France and across Europe, while his poems and short stories, mostly in Afrikaans, were acclaimed back in South Africa. As he was becoming established as an artist, Breytenbach was also helping found the France-based apartheid resistance group Okhela, whose name derives from the Zulu word meaning “to start a fire.” Over time, Okhela’s international network of militants infiltrated West Germany’s South African embassy to prove that the two countries were collaborating to manufacture nuclear arms. They exposed the shady maneuverings of international oil companies in Rhodesia and South Africa, and worked to direct money to South Africa’s black labor unions, setting up union offices in Europe. It was dangerous work. During this period he married Ngo Thi Hoang Lien Yolande Marie (she goes by Yolande), who, being of Vietnamese descent, was considered “non-white” by the South African government. Their partnership was therefore illegal under South African law, and Breytenbach’s voluntary exile became forced in more ways than one.

Breytenbach meditated under various teachers in Paris, but his practice took off when Taisen Deshimaru opened up a dojo there in 1967. Breytenbach’s expression softens when he talks about Deshimaru. He describes him as witty, easygoing, and exceedingly frank, commenting on people’s sexual habits, for example, during meditation. One of Breytenbach’s fondest memories of his daily visits to the dojo was having a glass of whiskey with Deshimaru after the morning sitting. “He wasn’t a drunkard,” Breytenbach said. “More of a bon vivant.”

Above all, Breytenbach found Deshimaru eminently practical and his instruction always very concrete. He would refer to the texts, Breytenbach explains, “and he was obviously well versed, but one didn’t have the sense that they were particularly important to him.” Rather than by studying texts, it was through Deshimaru’s instruction and through his example that Breytenbach learned the dharma. “He was always affable, but precise.” During chats with Deshimaru—over whiskey and otherwise—Breytenbach came to understand and respect his teacher’s style. “It was really an object lesson in living, in the sense that one’s practice of Zen was part of everyday life, with all its concerns. There was not a sense of withdrawing, of stepping out of life, to do that.”

Breytenbach saw others spending all their time at the dojo, shaving their heads, taking vows, and even becoming priests, but although he was an ordained member of the group, he was wary of becoming too attached to it. “I thought it was a satisfaction in itself. It was a way of arresting progress, arresting the possibility of going deeper.” The sangha, he said, “becomes a community with its own comfort, its members reinforcing one another. It creates its own justification and its own momentum, which I’m sure is conducive to meditation but which can also be a form of escapism.”

The real purpose of the teaching, as Breytenbach saw it, was “to subsume the dharma in one’s everyday activities,” and he incorporated his practice in other facets of his life, particularly his painting and writing. The fifteen years he spent in Paris were exceedingly fruitful, and between 1964 and 1975 he published eight volumes of poetry, a book of short stories, a novel, and A Season in Paradise, the first book of what would become a four-part memoir of his time in South Africa. His work was heartbreaking, sensitive, and acute. He began garnering international attention, and was receiving major South African literary awards, even though some of his work was censored there. “While he became one of the fiercest and most uncompromising critics of apartheid,” as fellow South African writer André Brink wrote, “his work consistently enjoyed the highest recognition in Afrikaans literary circles.”

Breytenbach never saw any contradiction between his activism—literary, underground, or otherwise—and his spiritual path. “Nonattachment is not at all indifference—not at all. In fact, I think the more closely one is involved, the less attached you are.” His meditation practice motivated him to be more engaged politically, and at the same time allowed him to worry less about the outcome. “That does not mean that one is unaware and indifferent to the result of what one is doing,” he said. “But one observes oneself doing so, and understands that that’s not the main purpose. I suppose without knowing it, a lot of what Deshimaru bequeathed to me stayed on, and that is that one can be active and involved . . . without being attached.”

Meditation also provided clarity for what was obviously very trying work. “It brought the mind to rest, and I’m sure that it must have made a difference.” With enough practice observing the mind, he reflected, you learn to recognize when it has become agitated and to handle it appropriately—not by controlling it, but by letting it be. “You let it play out its excess energy so that it comes slowly to its senses. It’s like, ‘Okay, go ahead and make a fool of yourself, but let’s not waste too much time.’”

In 1975, Breytenbach began preparations for a trip to South Africa. They read like a spy novel: there was the false name (Christian Galaska), the counterfeit French passport, the new mustache, the South African visa obtained in Rome, an Okhela manifesto hidden in a bag inside a fake book cover, and blank passports for his fellow militants in South Africa. The trip was, nonetheless, a disaster. The South African police tracked him every step of the way, and he was arrested and tried on eleven trumped-up charges of “terrorism.” He would serve seven years of a nine-year sentence.

The conditions were horrible, but Breytenbach, ever the critic of Western monasticism, nonetheless found the prison conducive to practice. “It’s a perfect environment for meditation,” he said. “The cell is already a monk’s cell. There’s a bareness, and a calm for long periods. From 3 p.m. on, there were no activities until the next morning.” With nothing else to do, Breytenbach sat. In the autobiographical essay “Self-Portrait/Deathwatch,” he writes: “I remember getting up at night in my cell, which was like a hole, to do zazen facing the dark concrete mirror of the wall. And a moon of nothingness would rise.”

He developed a committed daily practice, meditating during lockup hours and in the early morning. Sometimes he sat all night: “Poem on Toilet Paper” is about one all-night sitting [see third page]. Fruits of A Dream of Silence, a small volume of poetry in Afrikaans, was also written in prison, during an intense period of meditation: “Quite naturally the meditation would give birth to a poem, and the poems in turn came to be about meditation.” Surprisingly, officials allowed him to write, keeping his poems and essays and returning them to him on his release.

Breytenbach wasn’t allowed access to any Buddhist literature, however, much less a monk or a teacher, so he worked on his meditation alone. But he was grateful for having studied with Deshimaru, whose instruction helped him make it through those seven years: “I was lucky enough, knowing enough, and experienced enough by then to be able to turn what would have been an utter imposition, in terms of time and uselessness, to my advantage.”

He would never study with his teacher again. Deshimaru passed away while he was in prison. When Breytenbach returned to France, the atmosphere at the dojo had changed, and he stopped sitting, practicing his dharma through his writing instead. His meditation was still with him, though; those many years of practice had “shifted something that couldn’t become unshifted again.” The koan Deshimaru had given to Breytenbach, however, didn’t fare as well: “I must have solved it or I must have forgotten it, because I can’t remember what it was.”

Breytenbach had long been fascinated by birds, but during the seven years he spent in prison, much of it in solitary confinement, his relationship with these animals took on a particular importance. “You become very attached to any form of life around you under those circumstances,” he writes in The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist, an account of his years of incarceration. In it, he describes how, when sitting zazen in the morning, he knew the sun was out, “giving shape to the trees one knew must be growing not far off because the birds talked about these trees.” He followed carefully the activity of doves and plovers and wagtails who would visit the prison—and leave again.

self-portrait with head, Breyten Breytenbach, 2002
self-portrait with head, Breyten Breytenbach, 2002

That ability to transcend ordinary human barriers is not unlike Breytenbach’s relationship to conventional boundaries today. He travels extensively and lives at least part of each year in Senegal, Spain, and the U.S. He doesn’t have much of a national or cultural identity. This physical nomadism mirrors both an intellectual one in Breytenbach’s work and an existential one in his life. His essay “Notes from the Middle World” is a hilarious and insightful treatise on a place he calls the Middle World, or MOR for short, and its inhabitants. MOR is a sort of non-place to which its “uncitizens” are detached, even though they may live there.

The Middle World is finality beyond exile. For a while at least, the reference pole will remain the land from which you had wrenched yourself free or from where you were expelled. Then exile itself will become the habitat. And in due time, when there’s nothing to go back to or you’ve lost interest, MOR will take shape and you may start inhabiting the in-between.

Uncitizens move about and change colors to suit their environment, like their emblems, the parrot and the chameleon. The Middle Worlder transcends physical borders as well as psychological ones and will “practice nomadic thinking, even if he doesn’t move around much.” But MOR is also a space in which the mind is free from attachment, where there is no identification with the self but only shifting personae that come and go with environments. Like the bird, the MOR uncitizen lives from moment to moment, from one place to the next, her home nowhere and everywhere: “the terrain is rugged. . . . It is not an easy perch.”

Breytenbach himself is the quintessential MORican. “I’ve instrumentalized my different identities to quite an extent,” he said. “I know that I can operate as a French person, I can operate as an African, as a European, I can operate as a painter, a writer.” He smiled and continued: “I can put up a good show of talking about notions of identity.”

On the island of Gorée, off the coast of Senegal, the restored colonial-era houses are painted in hues of salmon and butter and sky blue. Birds and tourists hover around the island’s beaches and old, sandy lanes. Amber and fuchsia bougainvillea drapes over stone walls. The island’s unique location—both of the continent and removed from it—made it the perfect meeting place in 1987 for a group of forty-four liberal Afrikaaners, Breytenbach among them, and seventeen exiled members of the African National Congress (the anti-apartheid organization that would become South Africa’s first post-apartheid governing party). Here, they demolished the wall of silence that had existed between South Africa’s Black and Afrikaaner populations and drafted an agreement on their goals for a nonracial South Africa, laying the groundwork for overturning apartheid.

Twenty years later, Breytenbach runs the Gorée Institute here, a sort of think tank that creates networks for peace-building and community development across the continent. In addition to the Gorée Institute’s main work—preempting conflict and supporting transparent, ethical governance—it’s also involved with community development and cultural activities. A recent workshop focused on creating cultural networks in Africa, and the organization regularly holds traveling festivals, translation and writing workshops, and artist residency programs.

Breytenbach’s efforts to promote the visual and literary arts in Africa and elsewhere have a humanitarian side that goes beyond just helping people express their creativity. By helping people make art, Breytenbach is sharing the dharma. The techniques he gives to his writing students, with their emphasis on awareness, resemble meditation instruction. The creation of a poem, for example, starts with having a receptive posture: “If the posture is right, then that which needs to come will come. The right posture is utter unconditional attentiveness.” Writing, he continued, is “an odd combination of non-resistance, built around a spine of total alertness.” In other words, birdness.

The Institute’s twin goals of making peace and making art are a natural and even necessary combination for Breytenbach. In “Self-Portrait/Deathwatch,” Breytenbach writes that “the practice of beauty shapes the private parts of ethics,” and that aesthetics “flow into ethics which leads to action. An act of beauty is a political statement.”

This may be so in part because, for him, making art is a practice in dissecting, re-creating, and ultimately detaching from the self. “Writing is a kind of a heightened meditative process, a continuing revisiting of that assumed and very often unquestioned place from where one lives and interacts with the world—that place which is called self, which is perhaps mistakenly called self,” he said. “In the process of doing so, one recognizes both that which is attractive or useful about it, and that which is shards and clots and scars.”

The act of writing becomes a means to see the self (or the lack thereof ) with some perspective by mirroring and recreating it. The result is a chiseling away at attachment and even, he writes, “a destruction of ‘self.’” “He’s an incredibly humane writer,” says Breytenbach’s colleague New York University professor Chuck Wachtel. “He works from a very subjective place and comes out the other side in a very universal place, by using himself, with his voice, as a vehicle towards that humanity.”

“Self-effacement is not a moral stance, it is a survival imperative,” Breytenbach writes in his essay “Thinking Birdness.” “Go on, go to the further edge of thinking, to where the hand sings,” he entreats his readers, “For who or what can take you to the underworld except the free mind’s movements of creativity?” The singing of the hand, the act of creation, that cultivating of birdness, is, for Breytenbach, a path to wisdom. “True emptiness,” he writes in another essay, “flows from the hand—like the history of flight from the bird’s wingbeats.”

poem on toilet paper

nights everything is possible
this red labyrinth that I inhabit
    like a rat
its echoing passages and frowns of steel barriers
    fade away
        only floodlights and solitary warders
ring the darkness in rising towers
    the jail becomes a monastery

from the bunk I take the pillow
and roll it tight
    this is my zafu
to the wall inside the sacred space
          I make sampai
deep in the ear coils the hollow pain
of the gonged wooden fish
and I cross my legs and breathe
and I see nothing
and nothing is seen
thus to turn back to reality

through walls the mayas break
spouting desires
          flames in the crotch
       burning images of the world
how deep will this land live on within me?
that the heart may never be blunted or blurred!
till the corpse is thrown on the town square
where curs flash their sweet fangs
and only turds pain the fields—
kill! kill that which has not lived

it also pales
    the inner quad
becomes a haven for night birds
the moon has grown feathers
outside a tree stretches its roots
    to peer in
    and look upon darkness
where all is honed
    to a mountain of time endlessly unearthed

which recedes in time
    the wound closes up again
in this place I do kin hin
and listen to the breath that comes and goes
until it will stop coming
       to go

when light bleeds
I gassho to the wall
I sit in sun’s snow
    and leave my chopped-off arm
       on the writing book
          a flower to the silence

all around is jail
the way has no end
but what does it matter?