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By: Norman Fischer, Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 01/04/2003
Location: Headlands Institute
In Topics: Writing / Art / Creativity

Zoketsu discusses his own life story, poetry, being a priest, and the unknowable nature of our life.

Whenever anyone asks me how I came to be a Zen priest and abbot I always tell them it was an accident. This is really the truth. While I admire religious people, people who seem to have a religious destiny and interest – and now I know many people like this – I am afraid that I am just not such a person. Mainly I am and have been most of my life bewildered. I mean this in the literal sense- “bewildered,” meaning being aware of the many situations there are in any one situation, the many ways there always are of looking at anything, of understanding anything, the basic perplexity inherent in being human and living in a world that we make with our senses and our minds. The dictionary tells me that the “be-” of “bewilder” means be, as in “to be”; but it also means “completely and utterly.” “Wilder” means to be lost in a place where there are so many paths you can’t tell where to go. It means to be in the wilderness where there aren’t any paths at all – just open spaces or full spaces without any clearings. So to be bewildered is to see many many paths and also to see that the whole world is open and wild- and there aren’t any paths. Wherever you go wherever you are whatever happens is a path – an also a question: a path that leads to a new path. This is how I have always felt. The world is truly bewildering and this is what makes it so marvelous. You can’t explain it. Of course you can and probably will explain many things- but these are explanations, beautiful in their own way but not really telling you anything about anything. The real world- and anyone’s life- is too strange – too bewildering- to be explained.

I started my Zen practice not as a spiritual person but as an poet. Although I did not become a poet on purpose, neither was it an accident. I was forced into it by circumstances. I was born at the very end of World War II, when the soldiers were returning home from the battlefield with a great hope that things could now be normal and life could be even better now than it had been before the war. People in general are admirably able to find hope – hope keeps coming back no matter how hopeless things might seem at any given time. This is something to remember and to count on in hopeless times. To be human is to have the capacity, against all the odds, to hope. But although everyone in those days was trying to hopeful in fact they were traumatized by what had happened to them in the war. As a child I felt this universal trauma as a kind of coating on top of things, like dust that was constantly swirling around in the air and would inevitably settle on whatever you brought into the room. I could feel it but no one ever talked about it or even seemed to know that it was there- but children always know what’s there, even if they can’t say what it is. Instead they feel it mythically, and they are bewildered by it. Which is, I think, fairly normal. We all grow up knowing somehow that there’s a gap between how the world actually is – how we feel it to be – and how the adults in our world see things and explain them to us. It is one of the great travesties and mistakes of human culture that we always think of children as childish. Actually it should be just the opposite- we ought to honor children, seek their advice, and try our best to consider their point of view as being of the essence for human understanding. Of course it would make no sense to ask children for practical advice about how to run the government – this is our unfortunate task as adults. But when running the government causes us to forget the profundity of the child’s point of view we are truly sunk. Jesus said something like this I think: “You should be as little children.”

At any rate, because of this being bewildered in a traumatized world I was forced to constantly doubt the world as it was given to me to understand and to try to understand the world on my own. This was the only form of self defense I could think of. It is why I began writing poetry- as a means to try to understand what I otherwise could not understand because thinking could never get me there. I could see how limited thinking was. Although poetry has never helped me understand anything, it has helped me to keep on trying to understand by giving me a method larger than my own mind and personality. But poetry also makes it clear that the gap between how things are and how we live is immense. So poetry can make your life a lot worse. This was what happened to me.

Here is a recent poem of mine that may have something to so with this:

These pages are years, days, nights
Words pasted on like flashes of black light
Points of space that swallow apples and dates
Until all that’s occurred- places, moments, events
Folds into the general whole
As a sea humps waves that fall and spray against rocks
Then rock out again, swaying –
How the heart can be like a rock
How it can be blue, like a curtain or a sky
How it can be a royal crown upon a noble skull
Sliding out from the general scheme of things-
I walked along the shore and saw
Two dead cormorants, an eyeless pelican, flies walking in the sockets
Sky with banks of golden pearl gray cloud
A smeared rainbow flaring indistinct against the horizon –
Objects are neither solid nor discreet
Subjects repeat themselves as waves
With variations, spray, trajectory, rhyme –
Birth comes this time of year
To those who wait it, doubled

Poetry was making life really impossible so I could see that what was required was to close the gap by finding a way to turn all of life into poetry. This was the only hope. I was feeling this when I encountered the first Zen books I read, and they seemed to provide me with what I was looking for. This is how I understood Zen then – as a way to live so that all of life could be poetry- that the gap between the way things actually are and the way people live and think could be somehow closed and you could live life whole and true, and it could be beautiful and purposeful, even if things were difficult, and even if you could never really know the purpose of your life. So my motivation to practice Zen wasn’t really spiritual I suppose you could say. My motivation was aesthetic and practical. I just wanted to find a sustainable way to live. When I found out about zazen practice it immediately struck me as desperately important. I don’t know why- possibly because I could sense that in order to do what I wanted to do one needed to approach things from an entirely different angle. I didn’t like Buddhas and bowing and robes and so on – it all seemed faintly ridiculous to me, an iconoclast by temperament and upbringing – but I really liked zazen – the idea of zazen but also the actual doing of zazen. It was never boring. I could never figure it out or get tired of it because it was so simple it was almost nothing at all. I started doing zazen every day and I have continued ever since. It just so happened that keeping on doing zazen intensively required me to bow to Buddhas and, eventually, to wear robes and take ordinations. Of course I had a lot of resistance to all of that but the resistance was small compared the certainty I had that it was absolutely necessary to live in such a way that I could keep on trying to understand life. The resistance was only me and my little preferences and conditioning, whereas zazen and the necessity to keep on with it was something much wider than that. So I persisted. This may sound more noble than it actually is. The fact is, I was terrified not to practice zazen, not to live out this desperate quest for the truth. I imagined I wouldn’t be able to bear life in any other way. I could not imagine any other possibility. So I was willing to do whatever it took to go on.

Of course we all have theories – to be human is to theorize – and all our theories are autobiographical – so my theory is that to be human is to need to live a life that is whole and meaningful and beautiful, a life devoted to the pursuit of the real. It seems to me, starting with my own experience, that all human beings want and need to make this kind of effort in their living- and that this is why there is always in human cultures art and religion of some kind. From childhood we have dreams and images and longings that ripen into a vision of life that we need to understand for ourselves, uniquely. and experientially. This is why there is such a thing as spiritual path. To me, spiritual path isn’t separate or apart from ordinary life, an unusual life, an alternative to emotional life and material life. Spiritual path is simply a way to stay true to what arises in the course of a human lifetime, whatever that may be. It’s true we need some methods and some rules and some techniques and some teachings. These things are practical- like food and clothing. Maybe they are the food and clothing of the soul. There are many kinds of good food and many kinds of appropriate and useful clothing – there can also be foods that are bad for you and clothing that is uncomfortable and wrong for the weather. We need to find what works. But, in any case, the teachings and techniques and beliefs and so on of a spiritual path aren’t themselves the spiritual path. Spiritual reality, spiritual truth, is always bewildering, never entirely knowable. We can know some things. For a little while anyway we can feel we know something that is true. Mostly we can be surprised by a feeling of wonder – or a feeling of gratitude or gentle perplexity. But we can never really possess the truth. That’s a kind of craziness, to think we know the truth. My favorite line in the Zen ordination ceremony is “the path is vast and wide- not even a Buddha can define it.”

I say that everyone without exception wants and needs to live with spiritual integrity, but I know that there is not much evidence for this. Now and in the past the vast majority of people alive are not concerned with spiritual integrity. They may say they are, but they actually aren’t. They are concerned with economic well being, with their families, with social status, power, and so on – or maybe they are concerned with mere survival. It is now and has always been a minority of people who have devoted themselves to a thoroughgoing exploration of reality. Nevertheless I believe that all human beings have that need in them, and that everyone has some native sense of its importance. Anyone is stopped short on entering a silent meditation hall or a cathedral. Taking a minute to just sit still there, anyone feels something larger and wider than the literality of mundane life. Sometimes the same thing happens when you read a poem or see a great picture. We all know about this because we all know, whether we think about it or not, that we have come here from nowhere and that when we are done here we are going to return to nowhere. The minority of people who are devoted to thoroughgoing exploration of reality, to spiritual practice of some sort, do it on behalf of all the others. In the end, this is the only way it can be done.

Another recent poem:

How can a shadow appear in a fog
Where the sun’s hidden like a flaming
Baked potato
Muffled in snow
Similarly there’s no way a person
Can reappear upon a tablecloth
Once he is gone inevitably
From any singular moment of time
Or any place which has changed
The moment the tablecloth has been whisked off suddenly
Leaving a bold or a bald table
Or the shining head reflecting light –
At this juncture a robbery takes place
Or – at least – the alarm sounds alarmingly
It may be a false alarm
But no alarm is false when it sounds

There’s a wonderful exhibit on at the MOMA- I think it is nearly over but there may be a week or so left. It’s called “Forty Years of Painting,” retrospective work by the German contemporary painter Gerhard Richter. The paintings in this show are beautiful and quite various- this is one of the main things about Richter- he doesn’t have a style- he has many styles. Growing up under the Nazi regime during the war, and then under the Communist regime, and then coming to maturity under enthusiastic German free market capitalism, he had a chance to develop a tremendous sense of doubt about how people live, what they think, and about what the world actually is. Somehow it all made him want to look more deeply at things, and to use painting as a way of looking and exploring. Through this exploration and doubt he was able to find his way to beauty. I have many favorites in the exhibition but maybe my most favorite is a small painting, done in blacks and whites and soft grays, of a roll of toilet paper hanging on a toilet paper rack tacked onto a wall. You would think that such a subject could only be painted ironically or preciously. But it is painted very straightforwardly, and it is a quietly beautiful, almost serenely beautiful, picture, one of the most beautiful I have ever seen. I would like to close my talk today with some quotations from Richter:

“I am fascinated by the human, temporal, real, logical side of an occurrence which is simultaneously so unreal, so incomprehensible, and so atemporal. And I would like to represent it in such a way that this contradiction is preserved.” (Gerhard Richter, “The Daily Practice of Painting: Writings 1962-1993.” MIT Press, Anthony d”Offay Gallery London, 1995. ed H-U Obrist, trans D Britt. p 58.)

“I pursue no objectives, no system, no tendency; I have no program, no style, no directions. I have no time for specialized concerns, working themes, or variations that lead to mastery. I steer clear of definitions. I don’t know what I want. I am inconsistent, non-committal, passive; I like continual uncertainty. Other qualities may be conducive to achievement, publicity, success; but they are all outworn – as outworn as ideologies, opinions, concepts, and names for things.” Ibid. p 58.

A final poem:

Body in poses – or in poesy
Supports the floor – or the war
Clinging to the lip of a drain, resisting going down
But the inevitable wash and gurgle marches through,
Time passing as it generally does –
You remember the heart of it, little steel balls with tiny black dots in the center:
A spider going up the waterspout
Not coming in, not getting out

® 2003, Norman Fischer