zen is not about zen

February 10th, 2014

thusZen is the freshest essence of mind, already gone by the time it becomes an idea. The Zen meaning of literature is impact, not ideology. ~ Thomas Cleary

I found this wonderful quote on the Facebook page of Dharma Field Zen Center in Minneapolis. I’ll be in Minneapolis and St. Paul May 16-18 for several talks and a daylong retreat launching my next book, Paradise in Plain Sight — go to their website now and sign up before you think twice.

There is one question that causes me a lot of trouble. It isn’t intended to upset me. Anyone who asks it is sincere. Other people can answer it with aplomb. It’s just that I can’t answer in the way you might expect. The question is: What are your books about?

I never know what to say, because the truth is something like this:

I don’t write books about anything. I just write what I see. I write my experience. I put myself on a page and let others wonder what it is about.

Of course, it is useful in all ways to have a book be “about” something. Books need to be categorized and coded. In the conventions of bookselling and library science, books are sorted into genres and genres are collected onto shelves (even virtual shelves) as an aid to the reader or researcher looking for a book “about” something. Most non-fiction books fit the bill: they are the product of the author’s effort to illuminate a certain area of expertise or a period of history, even if it’s their own history.

In the traditional way of selling books, which is still the only way books are sold, a category is printed on the jacket flap or back cover as the publisher’s suggestion for shelving. The distributor feared Momma Zen would be “lost” in the parenting aisle so suggested it be sold under Eastern Religions. Eastern Religions is the Outer Slobbovia of bookstores, a place only stray dogs and ideologues are likely to roam. Momma Zen was definitely not about Zen. As soon as librarians or store managers read Momma Zen, they knew it belonged in Parenting, which was the kind of impact I was aiming for all along: the impact of the obvious.

Zen is not about Zen.

When you write, don’t you formulate ideas? Don’t you think about it? Don’t you work out what you’re going to write before you write it, what you’re going to say before you say it? Uh, no. Can’t you tell? I have no idea what words will appear from my dancing fingertips. I have no idea where a book will take me. Nor do I formulate the beat of my heart or the shine of the sun. Formulation is an unnecessary vexation.

With a little bit of time and reflection, I can now say that Momma Zen is about a daughter becoming a mother, Hand Wash Cold is about a woman becoming a wife, and Paradise in Plain Sight is about a student becoming a teacher. But that’s only how I see it. What really matters is what you see.

I put my life on a page. And then, in that glorious instant when you see it fresh and unexpected, you might recognize it as your life too, the life of everything and everyone, freed from any notion of what it’s supposed to be about. A moment of realization is not about anything. It just is as it is, then it’s gone.

And that’s Zen.



  1. Hi Karen; I read your blog and it always lifts me up. Byron Katie taught me that thoughts are not personal, they are like spirits that flutter around and land in our heads. We can try to choose the highest thought in every moment. That is what I try to do and your blog helps me in finding the mental space needed for that different kind of thought and that different way of being.
    Thank you for that.
    Have a wonderful day.

    Comment by SImone — February 11, 2014 @ 12:33 am

  2. My favorite sentence in this post is “Uh, no”. Lovely, valuable! Many books belong in multiple aisles and on several different shelves. One of the reasons for multiple categories being printed on the covers. Multiple descriptors are getting quite common. I am not a momma, nor a practitioner of typical Zen practices, nor a woman but I find your writing nourishing and I try to not miss any of it.

    Comment by Bill — February 11, 2014 @ 6:04 am

  3. what is zen? outside, the trees are bare of leaves!

    Comment by daniel — February 11, 2014 @ 8:56 am

  4. I feel the same way when people want me to explain my paintings. What they are to me, what brought them about, might be very different than the experience they bring to the viewer.

    This became clear to me years ago when I painted an empty chair in an empty room. For me, it was about the light, but what it evoked in the viewers had to do with their individual perspectives and lives. The range of reaction was amazing, from “sad and lonely” to inspiring and hopeful”. I learned a lot from that chair. 😉

    Comment by Clare — February 11, 2014 @ 9:55 pm

  5. Chills and tingles and fresh excitement to read your new book!

    Comment by Rachel — February 13, 2014 @ 9:52 am

  6. I share your loss for words when asked, “What are your books about?” Still don’t know how to answer that question, but I love the way you’ve taken a step back here in order to see your own books as they are–stories of becoming. Have missed your voice of late. Came over here to “hear” you, which was just what I needed today, my friend.

    Comment by Katrina Kenison — February 14, 2014 @ 12:26 pm

  7. Reminded me of Frederick Buechner: “My story is important not because it’s mine, God knows, but because if I tell it anything like right, the chances are, you will recognise that, in many ways, it is also yours. ” There is no THEM and US, we are all ‘us’.

    Comment by Lee — February 21, 2014 @ 5:36 pm

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