August, 2009 - Letter to Everyday Zen Community

by Norman Fischer | August 27, 2009 at 1:04 PM

August, 2009, Falls Village, Connecticut

Dear friends,

Letters, words, sentences.  Paragraphs.  Chapters.  Books...

I often joke that I have an incurable reading and writing habit.  That’s a Zen joke.  Gary Snyder’s emails used to come with a little self-mocking motto after the closing, lines from Japanese Zen Master Ikkyu (also a poet!) to the effect that literary people are the lowest scoundrels on earth.  But the exact phrase “writing habit” comes from my dear teacher, friend, and fellow poet, the late great Philip Whalen, who used it all the time in reference to himself.

These jokes aren’t implying that we shouldn’t read or write, that language and intellect are to be denigrated.   I have always appreciated Dogen’s direct discussion of this.  He says that language and thought are not the enemy – it is the violent use of them that is the enemy (violent in the sense of dominating: if our lives are tyrannized by the mind and by thought, without balance from the heart and the body and the breath, we do violence to ourselves and others).  As Dogen teaches, language and thought lie at the very center of our humanness; they can be a great aid in the process of our awakening.

In our Everyday Zen practice we study.  Most of the talks on the website, are, first of all, talks, organized talks, most of them actually written in advance.  And most of them refer to texts, teachings that are also written.   The point of this isn’t to encourage us to become experts on Zen or Buddhism.  The point is not the words or concepts, but our lives and how we live them.  Everyone’s a philosopher.  Everyone’s got some theory of who she is and what her life – and life in general – is all about, a theory that is probably unconscious and probably productive of suffering and limitation.   The right kind of study, reading, or writing can offer a pathway out of that thicket – a “counterword” as poet Paul Celan puts it: a word to counterweigh the word that has been holding us in its thrall, keeping us imprisoned in lives that don’t have enough confidence, enough vision, or enough love.  Sitting does this too.

These thoughts come to mind as I await the first copies of another new book of mine, a big collection of poetry, Questions/Places/Voices/Seasons, that contains many new long works in a variety of formats and voices.  I am very pleased with it and am looking forward to sharing it with you and other friends.  It is published by Paul Naylor at Singing Horse Press in San Diego, a small poetry publisher, so you probably won’t find it in most bookstores.  But you can get it online in many places, including my own new poetry website , that comes to you via the hard work and initiative of Monica Heredia, from our Bay Area group, who has been a tremendous help to me in all literary matters.  Thanks Monica!  Beautiful site.  Take a look.

I am not the only Everyday Zen author.  We are blessed with many writers and artists. Denise Newman, a comrade since Green Gulch days, is bringing out her own new book of poems early next year The New Make Believe, to be published by Simone Vittal’s Sausalito-based Post Apollo Press.  Denise is a lovely poet and this new work is tremendous.  Sue Moon will also have a new book of essays out next year from Shambhala Press called This Is Getting Old: Buddhist Thoughts on Aging with Humor and Dignity. We all know Sue from her talks at seminar.  Her writing is humane and humorous and getting better and better as she gets older, so this one will be the best no doubt.   Sue is also the editor/interlocutor of a wonderful small interview book with my teacher Sojun Mel Weitsman called A Path Unfolding.  That book, as well as another one about Mel, Umbrella Man (both to commemorate his 80th birthday; this one has a piece by me in it) are available through the Berkeley Zen Center; both lovely tender books you will want to have.  Ruth Ozeki, of our Northwest groups, is our most prominent author.  She’s always zipping around from campus to campus reading from her great novels My Year of Meats and All Over Creation.  If you haven’t checked these out, please do.  (Ruth is also the editor of, a very big job- thanks Ruth!)  Another book to check out this Fall is by my dear Dharma sister and colleague Grace Schireson, who, after a decade of research, will finally publish her Zen Women book with Wisdom Press in October.  This  important book traces the history and sociology of women in Zen.  We will be studying it in November and December in the Dharma seminar.

And there are more.  Our literary sangha on the East Coast includes Brian Unger, of the Elberon New Jersey group (I ordained Brian as a priest a few years ago at Loon Lake in Canada) who edits the excellent magazine Zen Monster, and has an article in the International Encyclopedia of Revolution and Protest [Wiley-Blackwell] on “Enclosure” (land grabbing) and how it affected 19th century English writers.  Poet John High from Brooklyn will soon publish a wonderful new book of poems, very mysterious and profound, called A Book of Unknowing  (Talisman House Publishers).  Larry Lane, from New York, who usually sits with us at Samish sesshin, is a playwright and director whose last play, an adaptation of Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener was an off-Broadway hit garnering rave reviews from The New York Times and Village Voice.  My apologies to the probably several others whose books and other artistic productions I have forgotten to mention here.  

As summer ends and fall begins, a new yearly cycle gets rolling.  Life is always beginning over again.  Practicing together provides us with a path for renewal, and with strength. 

Thanks in advance for your contributions and your support.  We are lucky to have each other.

Yours, Norman


Norman Fischer