Zen Shin and the matter of style

Monday Musing

[ Asok Pillai ]

A flower does not think of competing with the flower next to it. It just blooms.
– Zen Shin

That’s a level-headed, vaguely romantic reflection, profound in its simplicity. It summons up in one’s mind a pair of marigolds shaken gently by a breeze.
‘Zen Shin’ is not, though it might give the impression, the name of a person. It’s actually a book, the full name of which is Zen Shin Talks, and it’s a collection of short talks given by a Japanese monk named Ogui (Sensei). According to a review on Goodreads: “The author illustrates (in the book) the way we human beings often regard the aliveness of each moment and expresses with exceptional insight the Buddhist perspective on everyday life.”
For one’s money, if the rest of the short talks in Zen Shin Talks are as sweetly contemplative as the foregoing, it must be a delightful read for sure.
A flower just blooms. It finds its own potential for growth, and bursts forth, blithely unwary of the rest of the park, or wherever.
That’s aliveness.
Despite, or maybe because of, being so utterly defenceless, flowers, unlike us, are not insecure; they are incapable of envy, and they exist without pretence. Indeed, it would seem as if there’s something to be learnt from flowers and the nature of their existence. They are, in a word, uncomplicated… always in their true colours, so to speak.
And while we are on the topic of short talks, there is the one by Bruce Lee that makes so much sense on so many levels even today, forty-six years after Lee himself passed on. It’s an observation of great wisdom – a part of a television interview – and it’s not the one about water, in case you were guessing.
“Here is that natural instinct,” Bruce Lee said (in his much admired Hong Kong-American accent), “and here is control. You are to combine the two in harmony. Now, if you have one to the extreme, you’ll be very unscientific. If you have another to the extreme, you become, all of a sudden, a mechanical man.”
Bruce Lee is arguably the greatest ever martial arts legend, and that’s a piece of advice that can be applied in many fields besides Jeet Kune Do.
… In writing, for example. Barring the occasional instances of writer’s block, one must be able to let loose one’s natural flow of thoughts even as one determines how best to construct sentences and paragraphs to express one’s thoughts exactly, without one coming off as a trudging boor. It’s not without reason that writing is an art and a craft at the same time. It demands a certain balance between one’s natural thought-stream and one’s control of language.
In a skewed manner, the idea may be applied to essay writing, too. What you are writing about need not necessarily be more interesting than how you write it. Purists would shake their heads in disagreement, but there you have it: style is a good thing to have.
Style, not in the sense of being a stylish writer – although there’s nothing wrong with that, either – but in just being yourself and trying to sound sane and logical and, if possible, entertaining in an uplifting way… which sort of explains the title of this meta essay, but not fully. Not yet.
Meanwhile, of course, it is necessary to be truthful – and truthful are words that come to life at the meeting point between fact and fiction, where your ‘language’ is born.
Understanding this concept comes in handy when the idea is to write without mentioning anything about politics, religion, human rights violations, suppression of free speech, and all forms of -isms. In other words, if you don’t want to write about anything that might land you in trouble and at the same time you’re no good at writing movie or book reviews.
Therefore, if you’re going to have to do something, such as write columns, the goal should be to do something that has so much of you in it that it cannot be replicated. Create a voice. As people these days say, YOLO – you only live once.
Now that’s assuredly not some kind of pronouncement from atop a hill, or anything like that: but what’s the harm in going to town on what is, at the end of the day, a small work of non-fiction? A little extravagance in prose is forgivable, one assumes, as long as the balance that Bruce Lee spoke about is maintained.
And therefore one toils on, still learning, still needing to learn – a lifelong student. As Suddenly Tammy’s album’s title went: We get there when we do. And meanwhile, as the title of the INXS album went: Welcome to wherever you are.
Well, we are at the fag end of a write-up that at the moment isn’t really looking like it’s headed towards any definite end. But, as Axl Rose sang, all we need is just a little patience. It does require a certain amount of hard work to write like a professional dunderhead, without offending anybody, and without risking being asked to explain oneself in front of a large gathering of unfriendly faces. That last is a scary prospect to consider. Therefore one must hack another way by.
And anyway, writing is a process that works on the principle of circular growth: the more you write, the more you learn, the more you learn, the more you write, and so on, and one just doesn’t write that often. Who knows, the long absences might ultimately be in the interest of the reader. Maybe stuff like this is exactly the kind of torture they would much rather be spared.
And so one toils, trying to pick the right words from the meeting point between fact and fiction, where truth exists, like a flower in all its uncomplicated glory.
The only difference is, truth is subjective. Everybody has their own.