Answers to questions

by Norman Fischer | September 06, 2007 at 3:22 PM

Answers to questions posed by Kelly Tarnow, La Lumiere Scool, LaPorte, Indiana.

April 2007

1.Have you achieved Nirvana?

This is a question that ends up being about language. What do you mean by "Nirvana?" Why do you capitalize the word? Does the word actually have any sensible referent, in the normal way we think of when we use ordinary words? If you had asked me "Can you ride a bicycle?" I would know how to answer because it is fairly clear what you mean by "ride" and "bicycle," but it is not at all clear to me what you mean when you ask about "achieving nirvana"- and I do not think over the generations it has been all that clear to Buddhists what is meant by that phrase. The simplest thing might be to say "nirvana refers to exactly and absolutely nothing. This is how Buddhists have understood it." If so then what could it mean to "achieve" it? To achieve nothing? Does that make any sense? So I will answer like this: doing Buddhist practice for many years has changed my life and my point of view thoroughly. I am usually pretty happy and content, even when things don't go well. Whether or not I will die with dignity and full composure, full of wisdom and peace, is something that remains to be seen. I cannot predict. I have emotions, thoughts, like everyone else. I like almost all foods, some a bit less than others, but I will eat pretty much anything as long as it's not alive. In fact I would say that I am petty much exactly like everyone else. I see myself in others all the time.

2. If so, to what extend have you achieved Nirvana?

See answer 1.

3. Are there any misconceptions about your religion that you would clarify if given the chance to do so?

I really don't know what misconceptions people have about my religion. If I thought I did it would probably mean that I have misconceptions about people's misconceptions. If I could talk to one person maybe I could see what his or her misconceptions were. But even if I could, I think it would be hard to explain away those misconceptions to that person, because, I have found, misconceptions are very much embedded in the way someone thinks and sees the world, and so when you point out someone's misconceptions (assuming such a thing is even possible, in fact it is doubtful) the chances are very good that the person will misconceive what you are saying so the whole things is a little hopeless. But talking to people is never hopeless, it is rather fun, and you do get to know them, which is an unending source of amusement, dismay, and joy. I am also uncertain about the phrase "my religion." First because I am not sure if I "have" a religion. And second, I am not sure what a religion is or whether Zen Buddhism qualifies as a religion. It is a practice. I do the practice. 

4. How do you maintain your Buddhist beliefs amongst the pressures of modern society? Is this a struggle?

I suppose I would say that I do not have Buddhist beliefs. At least, it would be hard to identify and list them. But I do understand myself and the world very much in accord with what I have experienced and understood over my many years of Zen practice. So I suppose I have a Buddhist belief, although it would be better to call it a vision, a vision of life, maybe Buddhist. Far from finding it difficult to "maintain" this vision in the "pressures of modern society" I find it essential, obvious, and easy. The "pressures of modern society" (and I put these words in quotation marks because I am not sure I feel pressures; besides, I think we live in post-modern society) are picture books illustrating my "Buddhist beliefs." 

5. What would you call Siddharta Gautama's most admirable quality? Why?

His innocence. He saw life's most intractable problem (impermanence, sickness, old age, and death) and decided that it was unacceptable and so he would have to solve it. He was too childish to notice, as most people do, that it is an impossible problem. And not seeing the problem's impossibility, not framing it that way, he was able to solve it! 

6. Why is there suffering?

See answer 5.

7. Do you have any doubts about karma? Do you believe in chance/coincidence? 

No I don't have any doubts about karma. (By now it's probably not necessary for me to point out that probably neither you nor I know exactly what we mean by "karma.) Or yes I have the same doubts about karma that I have, say, about whether I am myself, or whether the world exists. I don't see much difference between the usual idea of chance/coincidence and karma. Everything happens by "chance." Everything has a "reason." If you aren't sure what the reason is you call it "chance/coincidence." If you think you know the reason you are entirely or at least partly wrong.

8. Describe someone who has influenced you and your faith.

Zenshin Philip Whalen was a Zen priest and a poet. His loved to eat (was big and fat), was very short tempered and fussy about a lot of things. Often threw fits that were painful to him, frightening to others, and endearing to the people who loved him. (There's a lesson in that, somewhere). But he was most of the time very kind and always soulful. He managed to avoid all the things in life that are routine and trivial. No matter what he thought or felt on any given day he got out of bed and did his practice.

9. Have you ever had any insights regarding your past or future lives?

I once had a clear vision of myself picking tomatoes on a big farm. I must have been a migrant Mexican worker, a woman, in a past life. Either that or her visual memory got mixed up with mine.

10. What are the qualities of a good friend?

Someone who cares more about your ultimate welfare than about whether or not you give him what he needs. 


Norman Fischer

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