04/08/2014 03:32 pm ET Updated Jun 06, 2014

Zen in the Art of Peter Matthiessen

I first met Peter Matthiessen on June 30, 1998 and had the exceptional privilege of becoming his student for four years. This excerpt from my book describes our first meeting at his studio in Sagaponack, N.Y.:

"The Zen masters were men of few words, but mature in insight and skilled in means." -- Ingrid Schloeg, The Wisdom of the Zen Masters

"I don't know anything about windsurfing, really," says the Zen master.

I wonder if I've wasted two and a half hours driving eighty-seven miles in teeming rain to get to this interview.

Hands clasped, the tall intense man in blue jeans and a chambray work shirt leans back in his chair, thinking. Behind him, on the computer, shine words of his latest book. The ingrained instinct to snoop gets the better of me. I try to read what's on the screen without looking like I'm looking at it. There are a few lines that look like dialogue. Piled around the studio on desktops, bookshelves, and any flat surface are manuscripts, articles, and pictures. Years of ideas expressed and exchanged, gathered on expeditions, inner and outer.

Is it coincidence or synchronicity that brings me face-to-face with a Zen master who happens to lie a few miles from Peconic Bay?

That the person in question also happens to be award-winning author-explorer-environmentalist Peter Matthiessen challenges presuppositions about random odds ruling events. If synchronicity is a meaningful coincidence, this encounter weaves together a subtle pattern of personal events that have been affected by Matthiessen's work. In 1968, as a student in London, I read At Play in the Fields of the Lord, Matthiessen's novel about missionaries in Peru's Madre de Dios jungle. Four years later, I found myself working as a photojournalist in the same jungle, filing stories about the chiringeros who milked rubber sap from one of the world's last remaining forests of natural rubber trees and photographing a gold rush in a jungle town named Quincemil--15,000--a sum which the town priest allegedly lost in a poker game. Without consciousness, I seem to have followed Matthiessen's journeys to the same cloud forest that he had explored eleven years earlier by boat. It has thrown me off guard that he has generously agreed to an interview.

Is this an interview? Or is something else pulling me to this writing studio in a Sagaponack garden near the sea?

Which brings me to why I'm here. It seems almost ludicrous to end at the beginning with an obvious question: "What is Zen, really?"

A fresh intensity of rain muffles the sound of classical music playing in the background. He is scribbling on a pad, apparently half listening. "Didn't you get wet on your way in?"


"Your question..?"

"What is Zen?"

He nods as if he's been expecting this one. "What isn't Zen?"

"Isn't it a religion?"

"A religion before religion." He continues, "The ground of all religion is certainly meditation and mystical experience. Zen is the ground of seeing more deeply. It's really an understanding of life, appreciating your life." He paused. "When you eat, you eat. When you sleep, you sleep." (Me? I could write "The Hit and Run Cookbook: The Un-Zen Way." How to prepare a meal and eat while talking on the phone, writing, cleaning up, caring for a child, and driving a car.)

He continues, "I used to have a teacher who asked, 'When you vomit, do you think about it? No, you just vomit!' That's all. Paying attention to this moment."

As if sensing my question before I say it out loud, he responds with a koan: "Rice in a bowl; water in a pail. How do you like these common miracles?" (Case 99 from the Zen text Shoyruku (Book of Equanimity): "A monk asked Unmon, 'What about the 'speck of dust samadhi?' Unmon said, 'Rice in the bowl; water in the pail.")

We sit quietly. Physical details: He is in his mid-seventies; around six foot two, with gray hair, pale blue eyes. Wicked smile. It's hard not to admire the stillness in his posture--the gift of a straight spine or years of meditation practice? And his eyes. Can he really see me from the inside out as if I was transparent, or am I just insecure? Or both?

According to legend, Sakyamuni Buddha was asked, "Are you a saint? A prophet? A god?"

"I am awake," he answered.

What does it mean to be awake? Not skimming the surface or rushing around, making excuses that there's no time when that's all there is. Awake! I might not know what it is but I sure know what it's not.

Matthiessen writes, "Soon the child's clear eye is clouded over by ideas, ambition, preoccupations, opinions. Simple, free being becomes encrusted, year by year. The armor of the ego. Not until years later, an instinct comes that a vital sense of mystery has been withdrawn. The sun glints through the pines and the heart is pierced in a moment of beauty and strange pain, like a memory of paradise. And as of that moment, we become seekers."

"I s-seem to have an aversion to sitting down and meditating." (Where did that come from? Why am I stuttering?) Compelled to keep going, I tell him, "I started to meditate when I got sick with chronic fatigue syndrome more than ten years ago. Now, it feels like if I let go, I'll be overwhelmed."

"You don't know what's behind that door when it starts to open. The best way is to go through it." He speaks in a deep, thoughtful voice, tilting his head slightly to his right, as if to study me with a hint of mischief in his eyes.

"What you look for in a really good teacher is that quality of rascalness," says Ram Dass. A rascally teacher will find your weak spots and provoke you to reveal them, often using unorthodox teaching methods. He (or she) will test your strength, stretch your limits, and when you believe you can't go any further, lead you past the edge to new insight. A really great teacher keeps you on that edge until you find that place where the arrow releases itself. Or he might laugh.

It feels like something rascally is getting ready to happen.

"You are welcome to join us," he says.

"All buddhas throughout space and time." The words of the Heart Sutra. All buddhas and an energetic contingent of heavy hitters in the playing fields of the Lord have taken up presence in this room. The air feels warmer, heavier in texture. Time is taking on the consistency of warm Turkish taffy, folding over and stretching into a slower configuration. I am reminded of a passage from his book The Snow Leopard: "In Zen, one seeks to empty out the mind, to return it to the clear pure stillness of a seashell or a flower petal."

To have earned the title of Roshi, Matthiessen received transmission of the dharma through a lineage that extends back more than 2500 years, or eighty-two generations back to the Buddha himself. In his essay about Peter Matthiessen called "In Search of the Crane," Pico Iyer writes, "An aristocratic, solitary, exacting discipline which prizes immediacy, irreverence, and unanalytical attention to the moment, Zen might almost have been made for this practical rebel."

The Zen master's blue eyes crinkle up at a private joke with himself. "You have to sit," he says. He is smiling so hard that he is having a hard time not laughing. Locked in, like a laser. He's got my fear and he knows it. Rascalness! Because I hate sitting still. I'm a squirmer. When I tried Zen meditation at a weekend retreat, I wriggled my foot and a monk led me out of the meditation hall. I actually failed Zen 101! Do I confess up front? Or just show up and see what happens?

No use fooling myself or anyone else: This babe does not expect enlightenment of the buddhas to come near her anytime soon.