An interesting exchange of emails with Paul Kahn

by Norman Fischer | April 01, 2007 at 3:25 PM

April 1, 2007 Muir Beach An interesting exchange of emails with Paul Kahn, from early March

From Paul:


I will read through the poem sometime when the television is not on. Right now Dominique is listening to Segolene Royale trying to save her chances to be president of France. She's not doing too well.

I read the first part of I Was Blown Back and was impressed by several of the poems. When I write about your poetry I should make a list and say this one and that one, but when I read them, they go by and when a poem strikes me very deeply I read it again and go on to the next one. Sometimes I find it again when I start reading from the beginning. You have a rather strong sense of irony, even disappointment in the way things are and how we go on with it.

I finished a draft of my book about the Mongolia-Siberia trip, which was a great effort for the past months. Now I am waiting for some comments from our friends in Mongolia and Irina D. as well as Snyder and Koller, to see if they will tell me how I got it all wrong or remembered things that didn't happen or simply didn't make it interesting enough to read over 100 pages about someone else's vacation.

While I write I have been doing the kind of research I could have done before I went, reading about Buddhism in Mongolia, Tibet and Russia, starting to learn something about what happened there in the past 80 years. Today I came across a research report by a PhD anthropology student from Univ of Chicago which contained the bud of a thesis that seemed so obvious that it may be brilliant. For 3-4 generations everyone in the Soviet Union was subject to strong anti-religion campaigns, dogma, propaganda. The message of these campaigns was: all religions are the same, there is no difference between their gods, they are a waste of social resources, take from you and give nothing back. People remained "religious" in private, with no organized direction, from memory. Now they are as interested in god as they were when it was against the law. It's all the same, this god or that god, this cure or that cure. The religions are trying to re-establish their differences, trying to teach people how to act. People like to act, so they join in. But they often don't understand why they can't go to the Orthodox Church when they feel like it and visit the Buddhist monastery when they feel like it and ask the shaman to cure their rheumatism when they feel like it.

I wrote to him and asked him to send me one of his papers. I think I will have to rewrite part of my book.

Have you every seen the Journal of Global Buddhism ( I found here a good survey article about current Buddhism in Russia and another about the re-surgence of Buddhism in Mongolia

What is the relationship between ethnic and national identity and religion? Can you believe ideas and concepts independently of the social agreement/culture you live by? Are universal ideas such as Buddha Dharma free of ethnic and national context or are they free to be adapted differently to ethnic and national contexts? Or is that like saying they are free to be translated into different languages, when perhaps they only exist in the original language. But there is no original language, there is no beginning. Depending on which myth of time we believe.

all best,



hi paul,

i appreciate what you write about i was blown back. i write the poems knowing that in a way none of them are memorable (say the way a game winning home run is memorable) but that at the same time they might strike a reader very deeply and then you forget about it, maybe you go back and are struck again, but it would be hard to explain what it is that strikes you. and you are right that i have a strong sense of irony- i have taken to calling it a tragic sense of life, whatever that is. tragic though is not cynical, disappointed, disillusioned, or depressed. tragic is sad and noble, also beautiful, in a wistful sort of way.

good luck on the mongolia book. it sounds interesting, someone should read it when it is done. interesting too the russian sense of religion as you describe it. it is very interesting: why not go to orthodox church for one thing, shaman for something else. why would it be axiomatic that if you believe this you can't also believe that? this is taken for granted in western religion but why is it obvious? it isn't. just read some interesting lectures by wittgenstein on religion and belief in which he says there is really no way to tell what someone means when he says i believe this or that. you may not believe it but you can't disagree or refute. religion is very strange business; like language and thought is strange; people think they know what it is and this is the strangest thing of all. 

re your last paragraph: indeed! not clear whether a religion can be taken out of a cultural context or independent of a cultural context, and if it can be, whether it is then the same religion or a completely different one. anyway what is "religion" anyway? i am more and more aware that the buddhism i am supposedly practicing might be something that is an inherent feature of american literature, culture, and thought, and that its asian roots might be incidental. that is an exaggeration, but you get the point.

my odyssey book has finally been sold to free press, a div of simon and schuster - supposed to come out june 08 so i will probably travel a little to support it that summer. it sure took a while. writing the book was the easy part. what a racket!

yrs, norman


Norman Fischer