Zen & Literature: A Review of Into Terrible Light

Zen & Literature: A Review of Into Terrible Light March 1, 2018

Zen has always been intimately tied up with the arts. The way Zen approaches life, with clarity, and focus, and above all a sense of letting go which invites an intimacy with life that is both beautiful and at times stark, even terrible.

I think of that anecdote of how a “Zen garden” is created, where everything is picked up, the sand is raked perfectly. And, then, at the very end going to the tree, giving it a good shake, and letting leaves tumble where they will.

Discipline and wildness. It just invites a painting, a poem, a song, or a story.

Here in the West, Zen, or perhaps a better term would be “Zen” with the scare quotes, it is a messy, has influenced a number of musicians like John Cage and artists like Joan Miro and Jackson Pollock. Just to begin a list. And then there are writers. Jack Kerouac, of course. Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is always cited for such lists, although personally, I thought he owed more to Hegel than to the Buddha. And of course there are poets. Poets like Gary Snyder, Alan Ginsberg, Philip Whalen, Diane Di Prima, and Jane Hirschfield. Again, just to start a list.

Several of these “Zen” creatives, are actually Zen without the quotes, like Philip Whalen and Jane Hirschfield. And I think a lot about the novelist Ruth Ozeki as the first truly significant Zen influenced western novelist, an actual Zen Buddhist priest met justly with wild literary acclaim.

And, now there’s David Rutschman.

Hondo David Rutschman is a long time Zen practitioner who was ordained a Soto Zen priest by Setsuan Gaelyn Godwin in 2010. He has studied at Tassjara monastery as well as with numerous Zen teachers. He and his wife Devon sat with me when they were doing advanced academic work in Rhode Island. So, I know him pretty well. Dave is also known in the Zen world as one half of the blogging team “No Zen in the West.”

And now his first book of short stories has been released. And he’s instantly meant for that list.

Let me put this simply. He is an amazing writer. Yes, he is a Zen writer, a complex and not entirely clear term. But, he is also quite simply an amazing writer.

Into Terrible Light is a haunting collection of brief and longer stories. As one example, his forty word story “Memorial,” in full:

A stack of AA chips carefully placed on the newspaper vending machine outside the liquor store. To thine own self be true, God grant me the serenity.

A neat stack: red on yellow on blue.
One month. Two months. Six.

I can’t quite stop thinking of one of his longer stories, “The Hogs, The Sow, The Wind.”

I believe a major literary figure has just walked onto the stage. So. Do yourself a favor.

Buy this book. Read it.

Do someone else a favor. Tell them about it. Or, hey, give them a copy.


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