Celebrated writer Ruth Ozeki’s latest novel, The Book of Form and Emptiness, continues her tradition of “enacting the Zen teachings in the world.”
In the opening passages of Ruth Ozeki’s new novel, a family is upended. A wife loses her husband, a son loses his father. “In that sense,” Ozeki says, “The Book of Form and Emptiness is the story of a response to grief and the overwhelm of the modern world—and how we cope with that. And the message is that we cope with it through interaction, through relationship.”
Ozeki’s writing often features Japanese-American characters. Her latest is no exception, even though Ozeki wasn’t brought up to embrace her Japanese heritage. “My mom was a pretty typical nisei—second-generation Japanese. She lived through World War II. She encouraged me to be more American.”
But Ozeki was always fascinated by her background. She studied in Japan and learned the language. She also dove into Buddhism and meditation. But it wasn’t until she was in her 40s that she embraced the distinctly Japanese Zen school of Buddhism—the tradition of her mother’s parents.
“When I came back to practicing in a Zen tradition, I
really felt a sense of coming home. It was very comforting
... the simple Japanese aesthetics that sort of imbue the
practice. The relationship with objects, the relationship with the physical world,
the emphasis on really
taking care of things—
all of that felt so familiar
ON WRITING AND ZEN: “I used to feel a
sense of tension between the two.
The more I do both, the less I feel any tension between them. In fact, I feel that they are the same practice. ... I see that they inform each other and in so many ways support each other.” —RUTH OZEKI
Led by teacher and author Norman Fischer, Ozeki embraced the Zen path, a process that culminated a decade ago when she was ordained a priest. “My writing has become a kind of—I guess the way I think about it now—a way of enacting the Zen teachings in the world,” she says. “The Book of Form and Emptiness is a kind of long meditation on exactly that: form and emptiness.” At the same time, the novel doesn’t require its reader to have any interest in Buddhism. “It is sort of an invitation to a conversation,” Ozeki says. “There’s a Mahayana phrase, ‘Only a Buddha and a Buddha’ ... it’s this sense that you can’t be enlightened by yourself. It’s only through relationship that you can achieve any kind of connection or liberation, freedom, understanding, insight. And I find that writing books and publishing books is exactly that—it’s only a Buddha and a Buddha. The people who read it meet me. The book is the meeting ground.”
Which, Ozeki points out, dovetails nicely with the message of The Book of Form and Emptiness: “Relationship is the primary spiritual practice. The relationship we have with each other, with our parents, our children. With the planet, with the earth, with our objects, the things in life.”