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About Norman

Zoketsu Norman Fischer is a poet and Zen Buddhist priest. For many years he has taught at the San Francisco Zen Center, the oldest and largest of the new Buddhist organizations in the West, where he served as Co-abbot from 1995-2000. He is presently a Senior Dharma Teacher there as well as the founder and spiritual director of the Everyday Zen Foundation, an organization dedicated to adapting Zen Buddhist teachings to Western culture. For more on Norman’s poetry and dharma publications, visit Norman Fischer Books:

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 collaborated with musicians and dancers at Green Gulch to create 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 “Men in Suits: A Poem” (2022), “Selected Poems 1980-2013” (2022), “The Museum of Capitalism” (2021), “There was a clattering as…” (2021), “Nature” (2021), “Untitled Series: Life As It Is” (2018), “On a Train at Night” (2018), “any would be if (tanka)” (2017), “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  “I Was Blown Back” (2005), “Slowly But Dearly” (2004), “Success,” (2000), “The Narrow Roads of Japan” (1998), “Turn Left in Order to Go Right” (1989), “The Devices” (1987), “On Whether or Not To Believe in Your Mind” (1986), and  “Like a Walk Through a Park” (1980).

Norman has also published numerous books of prose, primarily on Zen and related traditions. These  include “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.

This was followed in 2019 by “The World Could Be Otherwise: Imagination and the Bodhisattva Path,” published by Shambhala Publications, an imaginative approach to spiritual practice in difficult times, through the Buddhist teaching of the six paramitas or “perfections” — qualities that lead to kindness, wisdom, and an awakened life.

In 2020, Sumaru Press released “Mountains and Rivers Sutra: Teachings by Norman Fischer,” edited by Kuya Nora Minogue, a series of talks given at the Upaya Zen Center in 2012 that discuss an essential text of the 13th century Zen Master Dogen in language understandable to us in the 21st century, providing a rich commentary on how to apply these principles in our daily lives.

And in 2021, Shambhala published the first collection of Norman’s writings on Buddhist philosophy and practice, “When You Greet Me I Bow: Notes and Reflections from a Life in Zen,” edited by Cynthia Schrager, essays spanning a life of inquiry into Zen practice, relationship, cultural encounter, and spiritual creativity.

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 Fischer 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.

From 1996 through 2020, Norman co-led workshops for business people with Zen teacher and executive coach Marc Lesser, entitled “Company Time,” at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center in Marin County, north of San Francisco. Together, Norman and Marc also helped Google’s Chade-Meng Tan develop “Search Inside Yourself,” a mindfulness-based training program for Google’s employees fostering emotional intelligence.

Norman leads poetry retreats in various locations on the West Coast, and regular workshops and classes at Makor Or, a 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 program 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 was the founding teacher of the Red Cedar Zen Community in Bellingham (WA) and the Mountain Rain Zen Community (Vancouver, B.C.). Everyday Zen also has several 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