Talk at Village Zendo, NYC

by Norman Fischer | January 11, 2005 at 7:44 PM

January 11, 2005 On Airplane En Route New York City to San Francisco (from Zen Abbot's Journal Vol 47)

I gave a talk at the Village Zendo. Very odd to go to a Zen place via elevator, coming in off noisy, busy, hip-hoppy, super chic street, music blaring. Sixty or seventy people were there and the local sangha was surprised at the numbers and hard pressed to find room for everyone. There were eight or ten different Zen groups represented, and many friends and students from everywhere, who are now in or near New York. The small band of New York Everyday Zen regulars were also there (they had organized the talk). It was so nice to see all the familiar faces, dear people I hadn't seen in a long time, I wanted to say hello and give everyone a kiss but such a thing is not possible in the forbidding silent Zen atmosphere. I had come in the middle of kinhin, everyone walking with great solemn dignity in tight lines all around the room. I had to join in without cracking a smile or acknowledging anyone I knew. Inside though I felt quite loose and informal. Amused. It seemed actually rather silly, all this Zen business, and I said this as soon as the sitting periods were over and my talk began. "How silly our practice is- and how marvelous." My talk was about compassion. Several people wanted to know how it was possible to sustain real feeling for the suffering of others in the middle of a world so full of suffering. Practice makes life harder: you feel more suffering more deeply. Practice also makes life easier: you can bear the suffering with some equanimity because you know that things are already empty and complete. How to explain this or give instructions for developing this view? After the talk plenty of kisses and hugs. So delightful to see so many friends not often seen - and all at the same time. One person who attended, someone I didn't know, works as the personal assistant of the great poet Stanley Kunitz. She invited me to come over to visit Stanley the following day, and I was happy to do it. Stanley's place, in the West Village, is large and full of art and a long lifetime of memorabilia. I particularly noticed the Philip Guston paintings- Guston was a dear old friend, as Stanley told me. In the bathroom several funny Guston anniversary and birthday cards, hand drawn, framed. Lots of paintings too by Elise Asher, Stanley's wife of 47 years, who'd died a few years ago. Forty-seven years together, and it had been the third marriage for both of them! Stanley came out finally on his walker, wearing an informal shirt, gray dress pants, and slippers. He made an energetic entrance, waving his arms. The place was full of the various caregivers and hospice workers who take care of him. We sat down side by side and chatted about poetry, Judaism, and death. But mostly this meant I talked to him or with Janine (the assistant I mentioned) as Stanley listened. He seemed to know exactly who and where he was but I had the sense that, at 100 years of age, his mind was operating at a different pace from the rest of us, very slowly, with large lacunae, and breaks for reconnoitering. I asked, for instance, whether he'd ever met Paul Celan, and he said "yes" right away and with pleasure (we'd been discussing how important Celan's work had been for us both), then said "wait," and after a long pause, during which he'd seemingly been searching through his mind, roaming through space and time and thought, it seemed, he said, "Now I'm not so sure… I don't know." He read a few poems for me, "King of the River," and another one, and his reading style was grand and poetic, an early Modernist flavor to it, the years coming brightly to light in the voice, and it colored for me the sense of his poetry, which I'd read before, and had appreciated for its elegance, guilelessness, and depth of thought, but had used my own ear to push out the more rhetorical elements, which in fact are much more there than I had thought. Hearing him, I felt like I was transported to another era, which was true and is just right. A one hundred year old man ought to continue to inhabit the era in which he came of age and to offer it to visitors lucky enough to be able to appreciate it. I told him I'd send a book of mine but wasn't sure he would like it and he said with great assurance that he was certain he would. I had brought a book of his for signing and he took quite a long time doing this, losing track of it several times as he held his pen over the page. Jeanine said he takes inscriptions in books quite seriously and sometimes has to hold the book overnight till he is sure what he wants to write. But, with some prompting by Jeanine, he managed to get through it and give the book back to me. As I left he was full of emotion and squeezed my hand and kissed it, and I took his hand and kissed it too. His old face is full of character, completely Jewish in appearance, a little like Stravinsky's face. Jeanine walked me down the hallyway out of the building and told me that this was an unusually deep expression of feeling for Stanley. She said that for Stanley, whose father had committed suicide before Stanley was born, death had always been a taboo subject, as was religion. Even as recently as a few years ago he'd be upset at any mention of death. He and I did talk about both death and religion — or rather I talked about it, as I so often do, quite normally and casually, death being an old friend and cheerful companion of mine, and religion being death's partner, but Jeanine suggested that it wasn't precisely what I said but that my presence seemed to give Stanley confidence, and to evoke without fear or denial the presence or idea of death in way that comforted him.


Norman Fischer