Zen of the Ordinary
Find Peace in Everyday Zen PracticeBy Zoketsu Norman Fischer | May 08, 2007
In a dream I have had, someone asks me to write a piece about my life. They want me to write about my early religious life and training, how I became interested in Zen, any events, characters, things that seem important and salient to me in my spiritual development. In this dream I sit with a blank stare looking at the person who is asking me for this writing. I have no idea what he is after, why he interested in such stuff, how to go about writing this material, because I recognize in the dream that I can’t say no to his request.
I suppose I have an anti-biographical bias. I’m not sure why. I notice how interested people are in biography. I am a poet, and I note that most popular poems are forms of biography. But I write lyric poems, which is to say poems that are not about me or how I feel but about the world, and words, and all the things that can’t be said. Biography is a mystery to me. The story of anyone’s life: how immense, ineffable, impossible! So many dubious assumptions not even noticed in raising the prospect, “Tell me about your life.” Still, we want to know, and we want to tell. That in itself may be the most important thing about the story.
I discovered the most important facts of my spiritual biography a year or so ago when I realized two things, first, that, having be born at the end of World War II, I grew up surrounded by people who were traumatized and didn’t know it. I probably should have guessed this years ago: when I was seven or so years old and playing on the roof of our building, which afforded a view of the bridges that fed traffic into our town, I managed to fly a red and black Nazi flag that my father had captured in the War. Traffic stopped, panic ensued, and my father was summoned home from work to take the flag down. That might have been a clue that people were by and large on edge all the time. The second important fact is the realization I recently had that I must have been enormously effected in my early life by the fact that I grew up in a household of Yiddish speaking people, in which my grandfather was ill and always on the point of dying. This cast a pall over everything, and since the family drama was conducted in a language I didn’t understand, gave every moment a mysterious sense of dread, confusion, and expectation. I remember I had an English-language bible record that I played over and over again. When the voice of God came on I’d hide under the dining room table to listen with great fascination (did I imagine that God does not look underneath furniture?).
When I was seven my grandfather died. I have no memory of this. Don’t know if I attended the funeral or burial, but I doubt that I did. I do remember being a lonely boy. Mostly an only child (my brother was born when I was five) and living far away from other children, I spent a lot of time alone or in silence with my grandmother, now a widow who was cheerfully awaiting her own departure, which she always felt was immanent. We’d spend hours looking out our second story window at the cars going by on the street. Since there weren’t many of them, each car was an event, suddenly appearing and then just as quickly gone, in an otherwise still and quiet scene. At night there were the lights that you saw approaching before the car itself appeared. Death, sadness, mystery, seemed to be my playmates. I took this for granted. I was probably quite unhappy but I don’t remember that.
I was nine or ten years old when our small congregation hired a young lively Orthodox rabbi, just out of the seminary. A slight, energetic, and intellectually restless man, Rabbi Maza was as free-thinking as he was committed to his tradition in all its details. Lacking anyone to talk to in our small and largely uneducated community (He was from Jewish New York, and used to lively discussion) he took me on as a protege. So from ten years old till fourteen, I was a very religious boy, studying not only Torah and Talmud with the rabbi, but anything else we could get on our hands on, from Plato to Freud. I became proficient in prayer, could read the vowelless Torah script, and often led the services that I attended daily. I remember how much pleasure this gave the old men, all of them immigrants from Europe, to see a young American boy so fluent in Hebrew and so resonant with the old melodies. I enjoyed the chanting and took pride in it. Everything about Jewish religious practice pleased me. It was complicated and challenging and you could get good at it.
When I was fourteen the rabbi left town to take on a congregation in New York, no doubt a relief to him. At the same time I was beginning high school, having friends, dating, playing sports. I was an absolutely normal American small town boy. Whatever dark thoughts I had had as a child, whatever religious feelings I had had as a pre-adolescent, simply disappeared. They came back to me in my twenties, years of torment and suffering. I had no good reason to suffer, other than the fact that the world appeared confusing and impossible to me, but this was only a feeling I had. Still, one doesn’t need good reasons to suffer. Reasons or no reasons suffering feels like suffering. Through the suffering I developed an interest in questioning life’s oddness and unworkability, an interest that I felt had always been with me, but that I’d forgotten about for a while when I was busy having fun. That interest led me, step by philosophical step, to Zen, the only form of Buddhism that was being written and talked about in the West at that time. It appealed me to immediately, largely because I had become a poet by then, and Zen seemed inherently art-friendly. I ran into someone who had practiced at San Francisco Zen Center with Suzuki Roshi. I learned how to do zazen, which the zen books I had been reading never mentioned, and took to it immediately. As soon as I could, I moved to California (as exotic and far away to me as India was to my contemporaries), made contact with the Zen Center, and went off on my own to practice, a copy of Kerouac’s “Dharma Bums” in my knapsack. I did a lot of solo backpacking, days of sitting, writing, reading, being a hermit. This went on for some years. Finally I saw that more organized practice was necessary and I went to the Berkeley Zen Center, and later to Tassajara where I lived for five years or so. I liked the Berkeley Zen Center and Sojun Weitsman, my root teacher, was quietly supportive of me. His zen was simple and plain, and that suited me. I liked the more official San Francisco Zen Center less well, but it was tolerable, and it gave me the chance to practice full time for about twenty-five years, for which I am grateful.
In those twenty-five years I had the chance to do a lot of zazen, and to encounter many teachers. Also many students, whose lives were always, against the silent backdrop of Zen practice, starkly revealed, giving me a profound picture of the human heart. The time went by very quickly. I learned many things about communication, organizations, cooking, farming, accounting, and other such things, without really trying to learn anything. I’m afraid I have forgotten most of what I’ve learned. In meditation I had a lot of strong experiences, even memorable flashes of transcendence, but nothing that distinguished me as an exceptional practitioner. There were some exceptional practitioners, and I admired their achievements.
I have had a career as a Zen priest. Ordained in 1980 by Zentatsu Richard Baker, a teacher who was always very kind and supportive of me, if a bit too busy to particularly notice me (nowadays he tells me he did notice me), I received Dharma Transmission quite unexpectedly from Sojun, was elected some years later, by an odd process of elimination (there seemed to be no one else willing or able to do it), co-abbot of Zen Center, served a five year term, respectfully declined a second term, and went off on my own in 2000 to establish the Everyday Zen Foundation. I remember that I had had a hernia operation about a week before my very complicated Abbot’s Stepping Down Ceremony that was held in February of 2000, and was still in recovery, walking with great difficulty and concentration, which made the ceremony more impressive I think.
Reviewing all these apparent facts organized around what anyone would conventionally call a person’s life I wonder what it all means. People often ask me how Zen practice has changed or influenced my life. This is a hard question to answer. I am sure I must be different from the sad boy of five I once seemingly was. But I can’t say how. Every day I have new problems, nothing is solved. But I am willing for that to be the case, possibly forever, which I suppose is my main achievement.
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