Zen Abbot's Journal Vol 56 Nov. 1, 2006

by Norman Fischer | November 01, 2006 at 7:13 PM

From Zen Abbot's Journal Vol 56 Nov. 1, 2006 Charlotte's Way, Muir Beach

Vultures, red-hooded and lazy of wing fold and unfold their wings claws dangling unevenly to land on my low roof

Then flap off again low beyond the garden then up into wind's lifting drafts,

Two of them, one after the other following an impulse in concert,

Off then back again in a richness of detail, a fluid slowness, languor of wing and intelligence —

Someone sees all this — sees the birds lazily descend from the cypress tree disturbing the branches as they fall

There's no drama, no style, nothing's spoken of, signified, as the red-faced big black birds ascend and descend


Yesterday an odd quiet day up here. First there was something eating the house: I heard loud chewing sounds while I was writing. Investigated but could find nothing. Tapped on the walls and the chewing stopped, then started again, then, later on, stopped. We are not alone!

Then vultures came in much closer than usual. They've been roosting in the cypress trees many days but yesterday, while I was sitting in the garden eating a chicken leg, swooped down quite low overhead; it was a little alarming. I went inside. Later in the day two of them played some sort of game, flying low over the garden and onto the roof, walking around up there (a sound as close as, and as disturbing as, the chewing) then taking off again low over the garden then up, then repeating this again and again — as in the preceding poem. Occurred to me to write that when I read a poem in the New Yorker by Galway Kinnell about a hawk killing a blue jay, described in skillful and exact detail, with much drama.

As I write these words this morning the sky's beginning to clear and a bee drones loudly in the room. Just as I write that sentence the bee stops and the room returns to silence.

Nov. 3 Charlotte's Way

Someone asked me about Dogen's "drop body and mind" and I told the Dogen biographical story, which the person hadn't known. "Drop" really means "to be free of, not attached to, not identified with." It's not some sort of mystical erasure of all experience — an ultimate escape to oblivion. The sleeping monk whom Rujing slaps is being told "to sleep in zazen is to succumb to unconscious attachment to the body; and zazen is to be free of body as well as mind!" So simply to sit in zazen experiencing the body's sensations as they are, and whatever arises in the mind as it is (without worry or identification) is to drop body and mind. Not so spectacular a deal, yet, at the same time, the most fundamental deal there is.

Listening to old Coltrane 3 CD set of "Best of the Impulse Years." Really gorgeous music. I have not played it in many years.

Nov. 9 Loon Lake, outside Vancouver, B.C.

Dark sky — which is to say White Sky, looks as if

It could rain Some Time

Getting ready to say Something, to say This

Hidden in the Words Which

Hold so much Feeling, so much That can be felt

How high The moon etc. How long

Life cruises on Is it Exactly

Forever? Oh holy and Hardy Night

I'm not Saying any of this I'm so

Terribly unsophisticated, I'm afraid, Left here at the threshold

On my own With no References

Look! The path goes forth Into the tall Trees

Under the White Sky


Reading Tom Mandel's "To the Cognoscenti" and David Shapiro's "A Burning Interior," both good, skillful, Jewish American poets about my age writing the same poem probably I'm writing. Tom's an old San Francisco language school buddy. David I don't know (he's a New York school guy, an Ashbery follower, who was I guess a poetry phenomenon at 19, and was nominated for the National Book Award in 1971, at 24). His book was sent to me by Tenny Nathanson who says David's a fan of mine. Anyway, I want to read and digest these books (usually I receive books, many of them, and don't have time to read or if I do read don't have time to comment) and send comments possibly even short reviews for Talisman or other pubs. Tom's book is very good, though I had a hard time making much out of the long, major, title poem, except in parts here and there. The poem "Cheshbon HaNefesh" (inventory of the soul), which is more diary-like, less philosophical than the others, is quite good, wonderful to read: he'd sent it to me on email and I'd read it but it seems much better in print. Other shorter poems also are good. Reading him, you're sure you are in strong hands, sure hands, line by line. His work's expansive (in the language school manner): poems go on for many pages without clear trajectory. David's poems are shorter, punchier, witty, sophisticated. Tom's (like me I think) brooding over time, expression, memory etc., the general oddness of experience, while David's more celebrating life (like Frank O'Hara did, having had the luck and grace to die young and at an exciting time), art, humor, etc. He seems to have — or at least at the time of writing had — young children. Tom's and mine are all grown up, which makes one feel one's own life is slowly sailing off into the distance, like a big cruise ship sailing happily and slowly away from the dock out to greater comforts and pleasures, new sights.

Loon Lake: big trees. White sky. Clear unmoving lake. Crunched gravel on the pathways. Some rain falling now and then. Big machinery in the buildings, the heating system, which periodically rumbles on, like an engine in hell, swallowing up all of time and space with its throaty roar.

What I meant to say about Tom and David, what I admire so much in their work, is how sophisticated and smart they are. Unfortunately, unlike me. Introducing me at Black Oaks books recently Richard Silberg said "I've never seen a poetry so unpretentious. Other poets know they are writing a ‘poem' but Norman is always much more modest and straightforward than that." Which I appreciated, and is so. That was always my plan; following Hakuin's rough painting and Monk's careless music and considering I am a priest I thought my poetry should be dumb and unadorned, unsophisticated, modest, plain, straightforward, crude almost — and this of course enabled me to make all my deficiencies into virtues. Well, hurrah for me I've achieved all that it looks like. 

Nov. 15, Charlotte's Way

At sesshin read Bodiford's essay on Manzan's reformation of Soto Dharma Transmission in Tokugawa Japan. Interesting and useful piece. In arguing against guaranbo (transmission not requiring face to face meeting between teacher and disciple, so that you could, say, receive transmission from a priest long dead) Manzan misses some crucial and useful points in its favor: first, it emphasizes the spiritual aspects of the transmission relationship rather than the interpersonal ones; it stresses that, as I am always saying, Buddha is our teacher, rather than the face to face teacher, who is, in the most salient aspect of his being anyway, only a living stand-in for, a place-holder for, the Buddha. Also, guaranbo allows for much freer movement of priests from temple to temple and lineage to lineage so would tend to develop more cross-fertilization in the school. The flip side of this is of course more superficiality in relationships and in understanding. I've always maintained that the face to face relationship stressed so much in our lineage is a human to human relationship; it includes yet transcends hierarchy (this is made concrete in the ceremony itself). Another interesting point: Manzan explicitly says that a priest receiving transmission need not be awakened. That even a deluded priest can receive shiho, because the shiho process is a larger category than awakening — it includes awakening as well as nonawakening. 

Weekend before leaving for Canada K. gave me a delightful birthday present. She took me on a surprise trip, which turned out to be a special day and overnight in the City. On Saturday we went to see the Anselm Keifer show at the MOMA — monumental paintings of great, if broodingly tragic, beauty, and, literally, depth. Hard to figure out how Keifer could, physically, produce these immense canvases, always quite dark, that show tremendous physical and also metaphysical landscapes or skyscapes, that seem to include all of space and time. Full of mystery. Often with various stuff stuck onto them, wooden posts, steps, string, seeds, hair, clay, etc. Keifer, in a video, says something like "Art is the way to escape from the world and find meaning." He seems to have many quite whacky spiritual theories that originate in several sources, among them Kaballah, and these theories, though wild and probably useless, account for the sense of profound meaning and urgency in his work. Keifer's earliest work was photography: he photographed himself from the back as he faced various vast landscapes — looking out to sea — from the top of a mountain — while making the "Heil Hitler" salute. These works of course created a stir, but were meant as a confrontation with and exorcism of the past rather than a glorification of it. Later he moved to a remote farm where he painted the inside of his wooden studio over and over again, with haunting symbolic elements, sometimes Christian (three fires on the floorboards, father, son, and Holy Ghost, a coiled serpent off to one side) and sometimes pagan.

Also saw some lovely early photos by Tina Mondotti and Edward Westin, delicate abstract things they both did in Mexico, when they lived there in 1920's (in Andres and Marisa's house!). All the prints were small, grayish or sepia-toned, lovely little windows through the world, the objects they depict, to something beyond.


Norman Fischer