Abbot's Journal Vol 64, July 28, 2008

by Norman Fischer | July 28, 2008 at 3:01 PM

Abbot’s Journal Vol 64
July 28, 2008
Muir Beach

On the road almost the whole of July traveling round the country with my new book (I ought to say “our new book” since it feels like it was written in collaboration with Everyday Zen practitioners, whose insights and questions constitute my practice and understanding these days; in fact the book is dedicated to them, to you). 

Began at Elliott Bay books in Seattle, July 2, where there was a good crowd and people seemed quite energized. I tried one of the meditation exercises, and it worked well, very lively discussion ensued. Before the reading I hung out with Sandy Taylor and some of the members of Seattle Soto Zen, the group she started there. Great people, who seem quite capable of carrying on when Sandy moves down to the Bay Area.

From Seattle north to Bellingham and Vancouver, July 3, and 4. Banyon Books sponsored me up in Canada. It was a hot afternoon and a small room, packed with people, so it was an exciting high energy event. “More chairs, more chairs!” Ran out of books, as we did in Green Gulch two days later, July 6 (the day of Michael Sawyer’s funeral). We had roughly the same number of people in Bellingham, but since the church there was so big it seemed like a poor turn out, which goes to show you how expectations condition everything. “I expected this but that happened” and now I am elated, despondent etc. The sort of trouble we could probably save ourselves if we thought about what we think and how foolish it often is. There was a little time in Vancouver to see, finally, Kate and Michael’s new home/temple out in Mission. It is a wonderful space, garden, zendo, house, where they will soon be offering small retreats and workshops. I hope Kate and Michael will also be able to practice their arts there, poetry and pottery. They do too.

Then home briefly and off again July 7 to New York. There I read at the Boundless Mind Zendo in Brooklyn, where we stayed, temporarily displacing Greg and Laura, the bright, dedicated couple who founded and run the place. Good to spend a little time getting to know them better. Again a small packed room. Lots of enthusiasm. For the book and for the topic: that we all have a spiritual life and we need to understand it and do something about it; and to share it somehow. James Levine and Lindsay Edgecombe, from the Levine Greenberg Agency were there (first time I’d met them, they were so helpful with the book) as was Sasha, who did the permissions. And Oona Ratcliffe, a painter, who’s the daughter of Stephen Ratcliffe, old poet pal from Bolinas. Kathie and I visited Noah’s studio to see the new work he’s making for his second solo show in the Fall, at Claire Oliver gallery in Chelsea. It’s called “Monitor” and consists of pieces built from tv and computer monitors (or fake monitors, made of wood). The whole idea of “monitor” and all the sinister and not sinister stuff implied (is mindfulness monitoring? I don’t think so. It may be the opposite of monitoring). Saw our son Aron and his wife Jenn, as well as our niece Hannah and her husband Laurent, all of whom live in Brooklyn too. Big happy sushi dinner after the reading. It’s good to hang around with young people. You learn a lot and hope is increased. At my age one notices more than is necessarily realistic the deaths and hospitalizations (of which there have been far too many this summer, with the near holocausting of Tassajara a deeply unsettling centerpiece for it all). 

We went up to New Rochelle, to Susan Postal’s Empty Hand Zen Center there. She’s an old comrade from our Zen Community of New York days, with Bernie. They’ve got a lovely building they managed to purchase and renovate, in simple elegant Zen style. Susan’s justly proud of it and hosted us beautifully, with gifts of incense and chocolate. It was wonderful to see her and to experience the solid honesty of the place. Several lawyers from the Conflict Resolution group were there, great to see them again.

New York to Minneapolis/St Paul, a place I’d never been. I was hosted there by Joen Snyder O’Neal and her husband Michael, old time disciples of Katagiri Roshi. They are both sweet wise and seasoned practitioners and teachers, and with great kindness and energy had set up many events for me in three of the four major Zen Centers in town, as well as a Jewish meditation evening at the local JCC (I made it just in time off the plane for that one). It was marvelous to meet the various teachers, and to see the various ways Katagiri Roshi’s teachings have been manifested by his disciples. 

Steve Hagen runs Dharma Field Zen Center with Norm Randolph. Steve’s a Duluth boy, full of wonderful stories of the 40 below zero days growing up. “Not cold like that anymore.” His plain spoken Minnesota affect belies a powerful intelligence. He writes books about zen that have a scientific belief-shattering bent (he’s a scientist, and quite accomplished as well in his studies of Western philosophy). Talking shop, he told me that he doesn’t really like to write but he has something he needs to say. I told him I’m the opposite, I don’t have anything in particular to say but have a terrible writing habit that just seems to go on and on. The Dharma Field neighborhood is Reb Anderson’s childhood home turf. Near the athletic field where he made his mark as a high school athletic star. I happened to be there on his birthday.

Judith, who is head of Clouds in Water Zen Center (where I did a day long retreat on the book) is an equally impressive person, solid and sincere. We had maybe 50 people for the retreat, a good serious group. Several priests there too. I was impressed that their building has a big sign, is located on a downtown street. I always think of our practice as marginal, off to the side somehow. I guess this is changing.

Tim Burkett, abbot of the original place on Calhoun, on the Lake, told me that he was actually the one who’d started the famous Los Altos group in the 1960’s, the site for Suzuki Roshi’s “Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind” lectures. He’d been a Stanford student and invited the Roshi down. The lectures given in a messy dorm room, with just a few students in attendance, most of whom were sleeping during the talks. Tim however was so impressed he dropped out of school and moved up to San Francisco. He told me he got fed up with Zen Center too, and dropped out, moved to Minnesota. When Katagiri showed up there he practiced with him but again got fed up and dropped out. (Fed up I guess with the sort of official religious attitudes that always seems to assert themselves when groups have been going for a while). So he was a little surprised to find himself taking over the center when Karen Sunna decided to retire a few years ago.

All in all an inspiring visit. At one point I said to Page, who was taking care of me and driving me around, “It’s good to hang around with Zen people. They are very kind and balanced and pleasant to be around.” True. Everywhere I go I am surrounded by good friends.

Washington DC where I spoke at Tara Brach’s very large Vipassana group that meets in a Unitarian Church. Maybe 300 people there. I had the unusual experience of ten, twenty, maybe more people walking out in the middle of my talk. This is a little dismaying. You don’t know quite what to make of it. I guess they had expectations I wasn’t fulfilling. Later I remembered the Lotus Sutra’s account of Buddha giving a talk and 5,000 monks and nuns getting up and walking out because they didn’t like what he was saying. So twenty-five or thirty dissatisfied customers isn’t that bad. Later on someone suggested to me that maybe my talk was so potent that these people had gotten enlightenment entirely within the first couple minutes, so, satisfied, went on their way. This is an even better way of looking at it.

We were hosted in Washington by Rose Mary Dougherty, a bone fide saint. She is a School Sister of Notre Dame, fifty years living in vow, and also a Zen teacher, who’s got a small zendo in her house where we sat in the mornings, and a little group that meets weekly and has all day sits now and then. Rose Mary, in her humble understated way, took care of everything for us, and even drove us all the way from Silver Spring to Bel Aire, to visit Kathie’s Uncle Hubert and cousin Cynthia. (“God told me I am to take you there.” “Well I never argue with God,” I said, and off we went). Hubert, who’s now 92 and had been a brilliant physicist, worked on the Manhattan project, explained to me the burden of his 1992 book: it shows, he said, following information theory, that science will never be able to discover the origins of life. That it is mathematically impossible. This astounded me. Hubert seemed quite certain of this conclusion.

In Boston I was hosted by Nishmat Hayyim, the Jewish meditation group at Temple Beth Zion in Brookline, but stayed with Lewis Hyde and Patsy Vigderman in Cambridge. Great to see them as always and to catch up with what they are thinking and writing. Lewis has a February deadline for his commons book, another ambitious multi-year project. Visited also with Patsy’s sister Linda Bamber, whom I hadn’t seen in a long time, and read while I was there her first book of poems “Metropolitan Tang” which is really terrific. Reminded me of Ted Berrigan’s old line “feminine, marvelous, and tough.” The events in Brookline were good and very well attended, a reading at MIT, a Shabbaton and a half day retreat at TBZ. Many people there with whom I was connected in various ways, Seila, and Bobbi, whom I had sat with before; Sara Shostak, from early Makor Or days; Traci, who used to be the assistant rabbi at Beth Shalom; many others from Green Gulch days and elsewhere. Got to hang around with Reb Moishe Waldoks, a genuinely funny man, and a great singer, a Jewish Pavarotti crossed with Mort Sahl. He talks a lot, which made my appearances with him pretty easy. I mostly listened and only had to say a few words when called on to do so. After that went up to Wood’s Hole to visit with Jon and Myla Kabat-Zinn. A lovely time, swimming in the ocean (their daily practice, morning and evening), hanging out with Serena, their lovely youngest daughter, wise and deep beyond her twenty-four years, eating good meals. John Bailes drove me from Boston up to Brunswick, Maine where I read at Gary Lawless’s Gulf of Maine Books. Good visit with Jeff and Ellen, my brother and sister in law, who live a powerfully sane and grounded life in rural Maine. Sitting on their screened in porch, looking out at their big vegetable garden, talking about our children, the love of whom we share, as if we were all the parents of all of them. One more airplane then home.


Norman Fischer