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Wisdom and a good heart

Zoketsu Norman Fischer

Zoketsu Norman Fischer

Like the words freedom, justice, and virtue, the word enlightenment can mean quite different things to different people. As a proper noun, the word denotes a specific period in Western intellectual history: the so-called Age of Enlightenment of the mid-18th century. As a common noun, however, enlightenment can refer to experiences as diverse as a religious conversion, an intellectual discovery, or, more casually, a shift of perspective occasioned by an influx of fresh information. We can be enlightened by a lecture on astrophysics, a new history of the American Civil War, a Nova program on monkeys or spiders.

In the American Zen community, the term enlightenment is heard only rarely. By and large, contemporary Zen teachers prefer to speak of “awakening.” But when the word does arise, its meaning varies according to the teacher’s training and affiliation. In the Rinzai Zen tradition, enlightenment refers specifically to kensho (or satori): a sudden, direct experience of absolute reality. This transcendent experience is viewed as an aim attainable—if it all—only after a period of dedicated practice. By contrast, in the Soto Zen tradition, enlightenment is neither a distant goal nor a possession of the spiritually advanced. From the Soto perspective, formal seated meditation (zazen), with due attention to posture, breath, and the practice of “opening the hand of thought,” is itself an expression of enlightenment. It is an experience available to any serious practitioner.

Given these conflicting views, it is heartening to come upon a simple and straightforward description of “enlightenment” from an authoritative source. In his book What is Zen? Plain Talk for a Beginner’s Mind, Zen priest Zoketsu Norman Fischer Roshi asserts that enlightenment “amounts to nothing more or less than being fully and deeply human.” In Fischer’s view, all of us harbor the seeds of “enlightenment,” so defined. All of us embody the potential to awaken. An “enlightened person” is someone who has fully realized that potential. Whether by luck or effort or “natural inclination,” he or she has developed “wisdom and a good heart.”

Lest Fischer’s definition be viewed as reductive or incomplete, it bears mentioning that in Zen the word wisdom means something more specific than what is meant in ordinary conversation. To embody wisdom, from the vantage point of Zen, is to realize and remain continuously aware of the impermanent, interdependent, and egoless nature of all conditioned things. For reasons of survival and self-interest, we tend to view our so-called selves as solid entities, separate and apart from a world of solid things. We situate our cherished egos, replete with our desires, aversions, and expectations, at the center of the universe and perceive the world accordingly.  In absolute reality, however, neither the self nor the world is solid or independent. What we commonly mistake for solid things are actually selfless processes, phenomena in flux, whether the “thing” in question be a tree, a transitory thought or feeling, a passing state of mind, or what we conventionally call the personal self. In the language of Zen, each is “empty of a separate self.” Each depends on changing causes and conditions, and each is supported by everything else. By losing touch with this reality, we bring suffering upon ourselves and others, time and again. By maintaining awareness of it, primarily through the practice of zazen, we cultivate what Zen calls wisdom.

As Norman Fischer explains, this “special form of wisdom,” once attained, gives rise over time to a change of heart. By discovering through direct experience that both the self and the world are less substantial and more transient than we had thought, we open ourselves to a radically altered way of seeing. Having realized, in our hearts as well as our minds, that there is nothing solid to which we might cling and no fixed self with which to identify, we can begin to release our attachments, our ego-centered notions, and our longstanding habits of self-preservation. In their place we can cultivate what Fischer calls a “good heart,” by which he means a constellation of wholesome qualities, including wakefulness, kindness, generosity, ethical conduct, compassion, and humility. These marks of “wisdom and a good heart” are also the marks of an enlightened person.

Such an outcome is hardly guaranteed. The attainment of wisdom, especially in the sense that Zen teachings use the word, is neither a precondition nor the sole path to becoming “fully and deeply human.” Over the years I have known longtime Zen practitioners who have exhibited, in their speech, attitudes, and demeanor, few if any of the qualities listed above. And conversely, I have known wise, good-hearted people who have never practiced Zen. But as a practical, achievable aim, Norman Fischer’s concept of “enlightenment” is a welcome contrast to the usual arcane formulations. To the lay practitioner as well as the ordained monastic, it offers clarity, inspiration, and grounds for persisting in a demanding practice.


Norman Fischer and Susan Moon, What is Zen? Plain Talk for a Beginner’s Mind (Shambhala, 2016), 41-42.


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“Grandpa,” my granddaughter asked me over the holidays, “why do you have hair in your nose?”

At the time, Allegra had tucked herself snugly into my lap, and I was reading her a story. She is now three-and-a-half, the age of unending and sometimes unanswerable questions. On an earlier occasion, she had asked me why the sky is blue, and I replied as best I could. But this question was of another order.

As I looked down at her open, eager face, I remembered George Orwell’s observation that small children, being small, view adults from the least flattering angle. More happily, I also recalled the explanation a longtime friend provided when his grandchild asked him a similar question. Putting on his best poker face, he explained that when we have reached a certain age, our hair can no longer make it to the tops of our heads, so it comes out our ears and noses.

I considered offering this explanation to Allegra but thought better of it, knowing that my son, who once asked such questions himself, might not appreciate my filling his daughter’s head with misinformation.  So I offered the rather lame explanation that as people get older they have hair in their noses. Fortunately my son, overhearing our conversation, judiciously noted that all of us have hair in our noses. With that, the matter was laid to rest.

I tell this story in part because I tend to dote on whatever my granddaughter says and does but mainly because Allegra’s spontaneous question exemplifies a quality common to children her age: the quality of radical innocence. Had she been a year or two older, I might have suspected a streak of mischief in her question or caught a hint of Grandpa-baiting, concocted to provoke an entertaining response. But the tone of her question was entirely neutral. Her inquiry was an expression of pure curiosity, free of judgment or critique. And it arose from a source unsullied by social conditioning.

In the Zen tradition,  that source goes by a variety of names, including “original nature,” “original face,” “true self,” “true nature,” “unborn buddha mind,” and, most often, “buddha-nature.” Whatever you choose to call it, this primal source of wisdom, compassion, and equanimity is considered to be our true essence and that of the world at large. “Buddha-nature,” Zen students chant in their morning service, “pervades the whole universe.” To be out of touch with one’s buddha-nature, as manifest in one’s “ordinary mind” and everyday activities, is to propagate delusion. To awaken to it, principally through seated meditation (zazen) but also through conducting an awakened, ethical life, is a central aim of Zen practice.

And how does one accomplish that purpose? In the Rinzai Zen tradition, a school sometimes dubbed “samurai Zen,” the practice of returning to one’s essence is likened to the swift, decisive action of a sword. In the iconography of Zen, that action is embodied in the figure of Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom, who wields a flaming sword and represents wisdom cutting through delusion, time and again.

That revelatory action may occur in a micro-second, but its enabling external conditions include long hours of formal sitting—as many as ten a day during the retreats known as sesshin. Shinge Sherry Chayat Roshi, abbot of the Rinzai monastery Dai Bosatsu Zendo, describes this aspect of Zen practice as “the great deconstruction process of Zen,” in which “that small self, that constructed self, that imposter self” is exposed for what it is, and one’s “true self” is revealed. Grounded in silent, motionless sitting, the process is also one of active questioning:

Who am I? What is this? Questioning everything. That is the study we’re doing . . . Studying the self, relentlessly questioning, becomes an infinite regress—like that blue Morton’s salt canister with a picture of a girl carrying a yellow umbrella who is holding a blue Morton’s salt canister with a picture of a girl carrying a yellow umbrella who is holding a blue Morton’s salt canister.  . . no end to it.

By such means we “study the self,” as Zen master Eihei Dogen exhorted us to do. “Body and mind fall away,” and our “original face” comes into view.

In his poem “Innocence,” the 17th-century Anglican clergyman Thomas Traherne recalls his childhood, when “all within was pure and bright / No guilt did crush, nor fear invade / But all [his] soul was full of light.” And in his closing line, he declares that he “must become a child again.” Good luck with that, one’s seasoned mind replies. But to spend time with a three-year-old child is to be reminded that the state of radical innocence—one’s “true nature”—is more than a literary conceit or romantic ideal. It is a reality that one can witness, investigate, and with luck restore, whether serendipitously and in a moment’s time, or through the disciplined, arduous practice of zazen.

Shinge Sherry Chayat Roshi, “Sanctity and Responsibility,” in Teachings by Shinge Sherry Chayat Roshi, Zen Studies Society, 2016. Privately printed.

Photo: “Return to Innocence”

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408px-representation_of_laozi“Do your work,” wrote Lao-Tzu in the Tao Te Ching, “then step back—the only path to peacefulness.” Sage advice in itself, this admonition also points toward two complementary practices in the Zen tradition. Undertaken individually, these practices can deepen and illuminate our everyday lives. Undertaken together, they can promote a wholesome balance of action and insight, engagement and contemplative awareness, enabling us to live more wisely. (more…)

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gwen-ifill-the-dalai-lama“My job as a reporter,” the late Gwen Ifill once remarked, “is not to know what I think.” Humble in spirit but incisive in content, that remark calls to mind two essential stories from the Zen tradition.

In the first, a learned university professor pays a visit to Nan-in, a renowned Zen master of the Meiji period (1868-1912), with the intention of learning more about Zen. The two men meet for tea.

Eager to impress his host, the professor holds forth at great length, demonstrating his extensive knowledge of Buddhism and expounding his personal views. Meanwhile, Nan-in pours tea into the professor’s cup. When he has filled it to the brim, he continues to pour, spilling tea all over the table.

For a time the professor ignores this distraction, but when he can bear it no longer, he exclaims, “The cup is overfull! No more will go in!”

“Like this cup,” Nan-in replies, “you are full of your opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?” (more…)

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Shohaku Okumura

Shohaku Okumura

“I live in America as a foreigner and need a great deal of patience,” writes Shohaku Okumura Roshi, a respected Zen scholar, priest, and teacher who lives in Bloomington, Indiana. In the United States, he explains, “the spiritual and cultural backgrounds are very different from Japan.” And actually, he adds, “any two people who live and work together will sometimes have conflicts and need to practice patience.”

Like other spiritual traditions, Zen Buddhism accords the mental factor of patience a place of honor in its hierarchy of values. By cultivating and exercising patience, we forestall unnecessary suffering. By developing patience as a quality of heart and mind, we avoid causing harm to others and ourselves. With that end in view, Zen teachings offer a wealth of insights and practices, which those willing to make the effort can incorporate into their everyday lives. Four of the most helpful might be summarized as follows. (more…)

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25-10-16-adelchurch3aThe wisdom of the ages, some would contend, is lost on the young. Looking back on my own youthful follies, I’m inclined to agree. But if my thoughts and actions at the age of twenty sometimes lacked the component of wisdom, that lack cannot be blamed on my formal education. On the contrary, I was a student of English literature. I had read my Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton.  And as it happened, on many a morning I was reminded of ancient wisdom in general and the brevity of life in particular. (more…)

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sk3Although you may not be aware of it, September is National Mold Awareness Month. It is also National Pain, Campus Safety, Child Obesity, Lice, and Menopause Awareness Month. That is a lot to be aware of, and the designated objects vary widely. Common to all these constructs, however, is the term awareness and the assumption that we are agreed on what it means.

In ordinary usage awareness refers to a mental faculty compounded of thought, experience, knowledge, and attention. It is sometimes spoken of in vertical metaphors, as when others purport to “raise” our awareness. It may also be framed in horizontal figures, as when we are admonished to “broaden” our awareness, or in quantitative tropes, as when we attempt to “increase” our awareness of this or that. But whatever metaphors might be at work, the common view of awareness is that of a tool which the sovereign ego, the owner and operator of an autonomous self, can direct or otherwise control. And though awareness, in this view, may comprise functions other than thinking, it is essentially an extension of thinking, which the governing mind can train wherever it sees fit. In September we should turn our awareness to mold, pain, campus safety, childhood obesity, lice, and menopause. Having gathered information about those important subjects, we can then digest that information and take whatever action we deem appropriate. (more…)

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