March 2003 Founder's Letter
by Norman Fischer | February 01, 2003 at 7:58 PM
Muir Beach, CA, March 2003
This spring in San Francisco a Traveling Jewish Theater produced a theatrical version of my psalms translations (Opening to You: Zen-inspired Translations of the Psalms - Viking Penguin, 2002). I have been a fan of ATJT for many years, since they first played at the Zen Center in San Francisco when I was a student there in 1978. Corey Fischer, one of the founding artistic directors of the theater (and director of the "Opening to You" production), has become a close personal friend. The play was quite powerful, and it was well reviewed in the newspaper. But it was quite different from what I had expected.
Taking up a thought that I'd discussed in the book's introduction - that the speaker of the psalms is someone who is oppressed and in terrible suffering, and who finds relief and inspiration through that very suffering - Corey decided to use actors who represented oppressed or disadvantaged communities. The three actors were David Roche, who from his youth has had a terribly disfigured face, Rhonnie Washington, an African American man, and Annie Kunjappy, a Malaysian woman of Indian descent. At the beginning of the play the three characters are at work in what seems to be an immigration office responsible for interrogating refugees. The interrogations eventually turn on the interrogators themselves, and each character is forced to tell his or her story. In fact, the stories are actual events from the actor's own lives, intercut, as the play proceeds, with lines from the psalms.
I sat listening to it all with great sadness. I realized that any one of us, regardless of our background or social status, has a story to tell of sorrow and deprivation. As the Buddha taught, all conditioned existence is suffering. Being human is tragic; no one escapes difficulty and grief. With these thoughts in my mind, I found the first part of the play quite difficult to watch. As the play develops however, the characters find that they can express their suffering more and more fully, and through that expression, can reach out to each other. Something begins to happen. Gradually, and then finally in a great rush of joy (the stage flooded with light), the characters are able to embrace each other, and to find great release. The play ends with the joyful recitation of the 104th psalm that celebrates the beauty of the world of God's creation.
Suffering is like this. Whether it is caused by outer conditions, such as bigotry, war or political oppression, or inner conditions, such as one's own jealousy, greed, or stupidity, suffering is always terrible. But as the psalms teach, and the play so wonderfully demonstrated, suffering also always holds within it the possibility for redemption if we can find a way to express ourselves, and to really connect with what we are feeling. To suffer, and to use our suffering to reach out to others who suffer is the beginning of peace and healing. It is the basis of compassion.
As I write these words the long awaited war in Iraq seems about to begin. If it does, may the devastation it brings be as small as possible, may its end come swiftly, and its aftermath be without trouble. I am always for peace. I can't see any other way. But when war comes we have to face it, suffer with it, express ourselves, and try to find a way to turn the suffering around, so that when the war is done there can be more peace, and more compassion, than there was before it began.
Yours, Zoketsu Norman Fischer