A person of unusually wide-ranging interests, his Zen teaching is known for its eclecticism, openness, warmth, and common sense, and for his willingness to let go of everything, including Zen. His chief interests in addition to poetry and traditional Zen and Buddhist teachings, are the adaptation of Zen meditation and understanding to the worlds of business, law, conflict resolution, interreligious dialog (he works especially with Jewish meditation and Catholic intermonastic dialog), care of the dying (he has for many years been a teacher with and is emeritus chair of the board of the Zen Hospice Project), the world of technology, and anything else he can think of.
Norman was a member of a lively group of Bay Area poets in the 70’s and 80’s, and participated widely in readings, publications, and poetry performances during those years. He’s collaborated with musicians and dancers to create at Green Gulch pageants for Buddha’s Birthday and Parinirvana Day (Buddha’s death day), annual events that have become San Francisco Bay Area institutions. He has often participated with the Beat Generation poets, especially Phil Whalen, Gary Snyder, and Michael McClure, close friends and mentors of his.
Norman’s poetry is noted for its linguistic investigation, humor, off-beat spiritual insight, and variety. Of “Precisely the Point Being Made, ” his 1992 collection, the poet and critic Charles Bernstein has written, “incandescently tranquil, the writing of Norman Fischer refuses to confront or confirm, preferring to give company along the way.” His writing has been taught and written about in universities, and he has often read in the academy. Audio files of reading can be found at PennSound.
His latest collections of poetry are “Magnolias All At Once” (2015), “Escape this Crazy Life of Tears (Japan, July 2010)” (2014), “Conflict” (2012), “Questions/Places/Voices/Seasons” (2009), and “Charlotte’s Way” (2008). Earlier collections include “Like a Walk Through a Park” (1980), “On Whether or Not To Believe in Your Mind” (1986), “The Devices” (1987), “Turn Left in Order to Go Right” (1989), “The Narrow Roads of Japan” (1998), “Success,” (2000), “Slowly But Dearly” (2004), and “I Was Blown Back” (2005).
Other important books include his “Opening to You: Zen-inspired Translations of the Psalms” (Viking Penguin, New York, 2002) which is used liturgically by many Christian and Jewish groups and individuals. In 2003 his book about spiritual maturity “Taking Our Places: the Buddhist Path to Truly Growing Up” came out, and was greeted with critical and popular acclaim. It was on the San Francisco Chronicle Best Seller list, and won an award as one of the best spiritual titles of that year. In 2008 his Dharma book, “Sailing Home: using Homer’s Odyssey to navigate life’s perils and pitfalls,” was published by Free Press. In 2013, he published “Training in Compassion: Zen Teachings on the Practice of Lojong,” a commentary on the Tibetan Buddhist practice of working with short phrases (called “slogans”).
In 2015, a long-awaited collection of Norman’s essays, “Experience: Thinking, Writing, Language & Religion,” was published by the University of Alabama Press. These essays trace the history of Norman’s thoughts on experimental writing as a spiritual practice, representing the distilled insights of a lifetime spent immersed in words and Zen.
In 2016, Shambhala Publications released “What Is Zen: Plain Talk for a Beginner’s Mind,” co-authored by Norman with Susan Moon. Presented in a reader-friendly question-and-answer format, this is an accessible introduction to Zen Buddhist practice by two highly regarded teacher-writers.
Norman is also the author of a prose memoir about Judaism and Buddhism called “Jerusalem Moonlight” (1995) and co-author of a book edited by Patrick Henry called “Benedict’s Dharma: Buddhists Comment on the Rule of Benedict” (Riverhead, New York, 2001). His poetry and essays have often been anthologized. Perhaps the book of his he most enjoys is one he co-authored with a group of African-American high school students called “Racism: What About It?” which was a local best seller in Mill Valley, CA.
For more on Norman’s published writing, please visit the website Norman Fisher Books.
Norman has been particularly interested in the application of Zen to issues of Western culture and everyday life in the world. His Zen essays on topics ranging from racism to monasticism to romance appear frequently in “Tricycle,” “Shambhala Sun” and “Buddhadharma” and have been included in every issue so far of the annual “Best Buddhist Writing.” In addition to his regular work at Zen Center, and with Everyday Zen, he has taught extensively, with his old friend the late Rabbi Alan Lew, on the relationship between Buddhist and Jewish practice (work which has been discussed in Judith Linzer’s book “Dharma and Torah”). He teaches Buddhist principles to business people, Buddhist compassion-in-action to lawyers and conflict resolvers, and poetry writing and appreciation to children and adults. He’s led workshops at Esalen Institute in California, the Open Center in New York City, and Hollyhock Farm, in British Columbia, as well as at Zen Center, and teaches Zen regularly at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in California, as well as in Canada, Mexico, and Europe. He’s participated with His Holiness the Dalai Lama in conferences on Buddhist Christian dialog and non-violence.
Norman’s workshops for business people entitled “Company Time,” are held several times a year at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center in Marin, north of San Francisco. He does poetry retreats in various locations on the West Coast, and regular workshops and classes at Makor Or, the new Jewish meditation center in San Francisco founded by Norman and Rabbi Alan Lew. Norman was the “zen advisor” to Zoza, a now defunct clothing company started by a boyhood friend of his, Mel Zeigler, who created Banana Republic with his wife Patricia.
In 2002 he began work on the faculty of the Metta Institute, a new program to dedicated to training health professional to serve as mentors for the dying.
In addition to his teaching with the Everyday Zen sangha in the Bay Area, Norman is guiding teacher to the Red Cedar Zen Community in Bellingham (WA) and the Mountain Rain Zen Community (Vancouver, B.C.), and Everyday Zen has many smaller affiliates in Mexico, Canada, and around the Pacific Northwest.
Norman was born in a small town in Pennsylvania where he attended public schools; he went to college in upstate New York, and graduate school at the famed University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop (MFA) and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, where he received an MA in the history and phenomenology of religion. He was a Danforth scholar and a Woodrow Wilson scholar.
He lives with his wife Kathie at Muir Beach, CA. a mile and a half from the Green Gulch Zen temple where he lived for many years. Their twin sons Aron and Noah live in Brooklyn; Aron is an attorney and Noah an installation and performance artist (see his website www.certainlynot.com).