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The beautiful secret

Zoketsu Norman Fischer Roshi

In his e-book Suffering and Possibility, the Zen teacher Norman Fischer discloses what he calls “the great and beautiful secret” of meditative practice. Elementary in nature but far-reaching in significance, the realization to which he refers has the capacity to transform both our outlook and our experience of everyday life.

Fischer’s general subject is the human condition, of which human suffering, broadly defined, is an inescapable part. Like other teachers in the Zen tradition, Fischer distinguishes between necessary and unnecessary suffering. The former arises from external conditions over which we have little or no control: war, famine, disease, aging, natural disasters, and the like. The latter is created by our own minds, specifically by our conditioned and often unskillful responses to the troubles we incur. Yet, whether human suffering, known as dukkha in Buddhist teachings, be deemed necessary or self-inflicted, it is an integral and unavoidable aspect of human experience.

This is not a popular view. As Fischer pointedly observes, many people regard the suffering they experience, especially the travails and setbacks of ordinary life, as “some sort of mistake,” a “minor problem that [they] could overcome with a little bit of meditation and a positive attitude.” For Fischer, this view is the “towering pinnacle of human self-deception.” Far from being a mistake, suffering is woven into the fabric of human existence. Rather than try to get rid of it, he advises, we would do better to understand it as an existential truth, which Zen practice may help us to ameliorate.

According to classical Buddhist teachings, the root cause of conditioned suffering lies in a fundamental ignorance of the laws of reality, particularly those of impermanence and interdependence. Whether consciously or not, most of us view the world from a self-centered perspective. And quite naturally, we want the things of the world to be graspable, knowable, and stable. But reality thwarts that desire at every turn, and the discordancy between our wishes and things as they are creates continuous suffering. In Fischer’s words, dukkha arises from the “profound fact that everything is impermanent, ungraspable, and not really knowable.” Because that fact is at odds with our expectations, “pain, suffering, and loss are built into every moment of consciousness.”

Fischer’s analysis is disquieting, to say the least. But, having propounded this unsparing view of human existence, he offers this reassurance:

The great and beautiful secret of meditation practice is this: you can experience dukkha with equanimity. Isn’t equanimity the secret of happiness? If you tried to eliminate dukkha, it would be like trying to eliminate life. But if you can receive dukkha with equanimity, then, in a way, it’s no longer dukkha. Impermanence can be the most devastating fact of life, and often is. But impermanence can also be incredibly beautiful, if you receive it with equanimity. It can be peace itself.

Receive dukkha with equanimity? Fischer’s abstract formulation, akin to Ernest Hemingway’s “grace under pressure,” presents an inspiring vision. At first glance, that vision might seem idealized, if not wholly unrealistic. But with patience and persistence, Fischer contends, it can indeed be realized, if supported by three attendant practices.

First, we can practice turning our attention toward whatever suffering we encounter. Whether it take the form of anxiety or fear, impatience or frustration, we can make our suffering an object of sustained contemplation. Rather than try to expunge it, we can endeavor, in Fischer’s words, to “take it in, find the meaning in it, and let it open a path for us to a new life.” The aim is not to dwell on our suffering or its causes; rather, it is to see and clearly recognize our experience for what it is.

Second, we can cultivate an attitude of active acceptance. Confronted with a personal loss, a financial reversal, or a grave diagnosis, some of us may adopt an attitude of stoic resistance; others, a stance of passive resignation. But there is a third possibility, which is that of wholehearted engagement. We can accept the reality of what has occurred, while also working to effect the best possible outcome. And by fully accepting the facts at hand, we can ground our hopes on actual conditions.

Third and most important, we can avail ourselves of what Fischer calls the “balm” of Zen meditation:

I don’t know of anything more effective in helping us be with the truth of suffering than a basic, unadorned meditation practice, just silence. To simply sit in the present moment of being alive here and now . . . feeling the support that comes from the life force in us, that we are alive, that we are breathing—when we do that, we can experience whatever arises and passes away in the mind, without fear.

By such means, employed over time, we can discover for ourselves the “beautiful secret” of meditative practice: that the suffering of this world, our own included, can be met by the healing presence of a balanced mind.


Norman Fischer, Suffering and Possibility (Parallax Press, 2014), Kindle Edition.

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Matthew Arnold

In his sonnet “To a Friend” (1849), the Victorian poet Matthew Arnold offers “special thanks” to the tragic dramatist Sophocles, whose “even-balanced soul . . . / Business could not make dull, nor Passion wild.” The “mellow glory of the Attic stage,” the author of Antigone and Oedipus Rex “saw life steadily, and saw it whole.”

To see life steadily, which is to say, to remain continuously present for the present moment, is a fundamental aim of Zen practice. Toward that end, a  variety of means are available to the serious practitioner, most prominently sitting meditation, conscious breathing, and mindful attention to everyday life. With proper instruction and sufficient diligence, all of these methods can eventually be mastered. Being fully present can become a dominant mental habit, replacing older habits of inattention and distraction.

Seeing life whole is another matter. What, exactly, Arnold meant by that phrase is open to question, but whatever else his words might imply, they suggest a balanced and comprehensive vision of the human condition. Such a vision would, as Zen teachers put it, “include everything”: illness as well as health, sorrow as well as joy, death as well as life. To attain to so equable and inclusive a view is a noble objective, but many practical obstacles stand in the way. Three in particular come to mind. (more…)

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Roshi Joan Halifax

Altruism. Empathy. Integrity. Respect. Those abstract words enjoy an exalted status in contemporary discourse, perhaps because the qualities they designate often seem in short supply.  Those who embody them earn our admiration, both for their courage and their moral example. In many spiritual traditions, Zen included, the manifestation of such qualities is both an aim and a fruit of dedicated practice.

Yet even the noblest human qualities have their shadow sides. Practiced unskillfully, they can harm both the practitioner and those whom he or she purports to serve. In her new book Standing at the Edge (Flatiron Books, 2018), Roshi Joan Halifax, founder and Abbot of the Upaya Zen Center, takes a hard look at five such qualities, examining their nature, their agency in the world, and their capacity to relieve human suffering. At the same time, she acknowledges the emotional damage that even such commendable qualities as empathy and compassion, practiced without sufficient knowledge or wisdom, can inflict on oneself or others. As a longtime caregiver for the dying, a volunteer in maximum-security prisons, and the director of clinics and service projects in Tibet and elsewhere, Halifax knows whereof she speaks. Grounded in her practical experience and her scholarly training in the social sciences, her book is at once a manual for caregivers and an illuminating collection of cautionary tales, detailing the hazards and the fulfillments attendant to a life of selfless service. (more…)

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Jane Hirshfield 2009

Shizen ichimi, an old Zen saying asserts: “Poetry and Zen are one.” And in the poems of Jane Hirshfield (b. 1953), a leading American poet and longtime Zen practitioner, that adage is borne out in concrete images and recurrent themes. Such is the case in this elegant poem, which hangs on a wall in our home:

                        A CEDARY FRAGRANCE

                       Even now,

                       decades after,

                       I wash my face with cold water –


                       Not for discipline,

                       nor memory,

                       nor the icy, awakening slap,


                       but to practice


                        to make the unwanted wanted.

 In these lines Hirshfield examines a daily ritual: splashing cold water on her face in the early-morning hours. In so doing, she also articulates several core principles of Zen practice. (more…)

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Michael Longley (b. 1939) is the foremost living poet of Northern Ireland. Born and reared in Belfast, he was educated at Trinity College, Dublin, where he studied classics. Although he has traveled widely, he has lived in his native city all his life, and some of his most admired poems address what he has called the “Years of Disgrace”—the thirty-year period of sectarian warfare in twentieth-century Ulster. But Longley’s poetic imagination is most at home in the townland of Carrigskeewaun in Co. Mayo, where he and his wife, the distinguished literary critic Edna Longley, have owned a cottage since 1970. Over the decades, they have regularly returned to their remote retreat, and many of Longley’s most compelling poems are exquisite miniatures, set in the Mayo landscape. Many feature birds and flowers.

Longley’s most recent collection, Angel Hill, includes a poem as remarkable for its diction as for its concentration: (more…)

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Consider, if you will, the peculiar status of the word special. Whether employed as adjective or noun, the word means distinctive, uncommon, out-of-the-ordinary. Yet the word itself could hardly be more common. On what seems like a weekly basis, retailers announce their Special Offers and Special Sales. For breakfast, some of us eat Special K, which presumably is superior to Regular K. When we go out to dinner to celebrate a special occasion, we are likely to hear at length about that evening’s specials. In some contexts, as in “special needs,” “special effects,” and Special Counsel, the word’s function is chiefly descriptive, but more often it serves to praise, sell, or persuade. If someone calls you a “very special person,” you can safely take it as a compliment. With rare exceptions, both the literal meaning and the connotations of special are reliably, if vaguely, laudatory. (more…)

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Wallace Stevens 1879-1955

In his poem “Sunday Morning,” the modern American poet Wallace Stevens depicts a leisured woman enjoying her late-morning coffee in a sun-drenched room. “She dreams a little,” the narrator notes; and in her reverie she revisits moments of heightened emotional intensity:

            Passions of rain, or moods in falling snow;

            Grievings in loneliness, or unsubdued

            Elations when the forest blooms; gusty

            Emotions on wet roads on autumn nights;

            All pleasures and all pains, remembering

            The bough of summer and the winter branch.

I first read those lines as an undergraduate, some fifty years ago. They have stayed with me over the decades, partly because of their formal beauty but also because they exemplify what the English poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) viewed as a principal aim of the poetic imagination: the “balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities.” In this instance, the qualities being reconciled are the disparate emotional states associated with spring and fall, summer and winter. Passion and its absence, grief and elation, loneliness and excitement, pleasure and pain—all are held in balance in one harmonious whole. (more…)

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