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Mar 10, 2015 12:36 PM

Zen Buddhism and storytelling merge in novelist's journey

The Associated Press

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) Novelist Ruth Ozeki's spiritual companion is a Zen master named Dogen. Dead for nearly 800 years, when you listen to Ozeki, you know he's there.

Addressing nearly 2,300 Ozeki fans inside a concert hall here, the critically acclaimed novelist talked about Dogen's perception of time.

Each day consists of 6,400,099,980 moments, and in the time it takes to snap your finger, 65 moments have passed, the Japanese Zen master wrote in the 13th century.

Of course, this is "rhetorical sleight of hand," Ozeki told the crowd. Counting moments is like trying to grab a fistful of water. But Dogen has a purpose: to get humans to slow down and think about their actions at every moment and not rush through the days. Be aware. Be alive.

"I find his view of time astonishing," Ozeki says of Dogen. "There's always enough time, if you just slow down."

Ozeki's commitment to Zen Buddhism has grown over the past several years. Her spiritual and creative lives are intertwined.

Ozeki was raised in Connecticut by a Japanese mother and an American father. Neither was religious.

Her very first memory is of a visit by her grandparents to Connecticut in 1959. The 3-year-old girl went to tell her grandparents that breakfast was ready. When she entered the room they were sitting in Zen meditation.

"They were at eye level with me. I wasn't used to seeing adults sitting on the floor," Ozeki told The Associated Press in an interview in Portland, where she spent a week as artist-in-residence for Literary Arts, a nonprofit that promotes literature and writers.

Ozeki's Japanese heritage tugged at her. After graduating from Smith College in 1980, Ozeki received a fellowship to study Japanese literature at Nara Women's University. While in Japan she also worked as a bar hostess, studied Noh drama, started a language school and taught English at Kyoto Sangyo University.

After moving to New York City in 1985, she designed props and sets for low-budget horror movies. In the 1990s she started making her own documentaries, including the award-winning autobiographical film "Halving The Bones."

Her first two novels were about the eco-dangers of American food production: "My Year of Meats" and "All Over Creation," published in 1998 and 2003, respectively.

Ozeki had long been drawn to meditation, and she became more serious about it as her parents aged and died.

Ozeki's spiritual beliefs helped shape her most recent novel, "A Tale For The Time Being," a finalist in 2013 for the prestigious Man Booker Prize. The title borrows from an essay by Dogen on time titled "Uji," often translated from the Japanese as "The Time-Being."

The novel features a "Hello Kitty" lunchbox that washes ashore on an island in British Columbia, a Japanese-American woman named Ruth who finds the lunchbox, a teenage girl in Japan who owns the lunchbox, and a 104-year-old Zen Buddhist nun at a remote monastery in Japan.

Magic is woven into the book. Words vanish, ghosts appear, characters change shape, and time does weird things. These metaphysical elements come right out of the box of Buddhist principles, intended to convey messages that all things are interconnected, nothing is permanent, and there is no abiding self.

Ozeki's book is literally an act of Zen. She uses literary techniques that seek to collapse time and space in the readers' imagination. The effect on readers can be similar to what practitioners of Zen feel as they sit in meditation.

In 2010 Ozeki was ordained a Zen priest.

"I'm a priest with training wheels," says Ozeki, who continues to go through various stages of Zen training.

The novelist and her husband live on an island near British Columbia's rainy Desolation Sound, just like Ruth in "A Tale For The Time Being."

Last fall, she had two months of head monk training at the Zen community in Vancouver, British Columbia. She taught classes, gave talks, offered tea, and cleaned the toilets, a chore that helps keep Zen priests from getting lofty ideas about themselves.

During her artist-in-residence stay in Portland, Ozeki spoke with high school students and also conducted classes in fiction writing and on meditation and creativity.

As she wrapped up her visit, Ozeki spoke at Portland's grand Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. At the close of the evening, Ozeki gave the audience an introduction to Zen meditation.

She asked everyone to put their hands on their laps and sit up straight. With Ozeki softly coaching them, nearly 2,300 souls watched their thoughts and their worries pass through their minds, not dwelling on them, quietly letting them go, being mindful of every moment.

Dogen, Ozeki's ancient companion, did not say a word. But he was surely smiling.


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