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Posts Tagged ‘norman fischer’

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?”

Part historical record and part Zen parable, this story is instructive on at least two levels. Like many stories of its kind, it depicts an enlightened master teaching his student by hauling him down from the realm of abstract thought and into the concrete reality of the here and now. The professor has come to Nan-in to learn about Zen, but instead of listening he chooses to lecture his teacher. By mirroring the professor’s profuse outpouring, Nan-in awakens his guest to that immediate reality.

Beyond this fundamental lesson, Nan-in’s action also demonstrates how acquired knowledge can become a hindrance to clear seeing and intuitive understanding.  Knowledge itself, if based in fact, is an invaluable asset. Abstract knowledge can enrich and illuminate our lives, and its practical application, in such fields as medicine, law, and clinical psychology, can alleviate suffering. But an egoistic attachment to one’s knowledge is quite another thing. It can fuel a delusive sense of superiority, moral and intellectual, and it can impede the process of selfless inquiry. By overfilling an already full cup, Nan-in alerts the professor to these hazards of his profession.

The story of Nan-in and the professor is popular in Zen circles, perhaps because Zen students and teachers can readily identify with one or both of the characters. Unfortunately, the story has sometimes been enlisted to support what Zen teacher Norman Fischer calls the strain of “romantic anti-intellectualism” in Zen teachings. In a manner more vivid than just, the story portrays the professor as Nan-in’s inferior, at least in wisdom, and it places intellectuals in general in an unflattering light. Partly as a counter to those tendencies, I would pair the story with another, complementary tale from the Zen tradition.

In this story from 9th-century China, the monk Fayan sets out on a pilgrimage in his straw hat, robe, and sandals. As he progresses on his journey, he encounters the Zen master Dizang, who asks him where he’s going.

“Around on pilgrimage,” Fayan replies.

“What is the purpose of pilgrimage?” asks Dizang.

“I don’t know,” Fayan confesses.

“Not knowing,” replies Dizang, “is the most intimate.”

As in the previous story, this exchange portrays knowledge as a potential impediment to fresh perception. To an extent we may or may not realize, we can be imprisoned by our expertise. What we know or think we know can bolster our resistance and immure us to the evidence of our senses. By contrast, an attitude of radical openness, known in Zen as “don’t-know mind,” can awaken our senses, strengthen our tolerance for uncertainty, and allow us to see things as they are.

Yet, if the theme of this story is much the same as in the first, its tone is far more affirmative. In this story the operative word is “intimate,” which suggests both close proximity and a direct, unfiltered experience of the object of knowledge.  By engaging in open inquiry with a “don’t-know” mind, we not only meet that object on its own terms. We also become intimate with what Zen calls its “suchness,” whether the object be an unfamiliar sound, an unidentified bird, or a sudden, unsummoned state of mind. “Intimate” derives from a Latin root meaning “inmost.” And paradoxically, by practicing “don’t-know mind” we come to know the things of this world at a depth not obtainable by discursive analysis alone.

So far as I’m aware, Gwen Ifill was not a Zen practitioner, but in her resolve not to know what she thought about a subject until she had intimately and exhaustively explored it, she embodied the wisdom depicted in these ancient stories. Perhaps that is one reason why her early death last month was so widely and deeply mourned, and why her exemplary work as a reporter remains a beacon for her successors.


Gwen Ifill’s remark was reported by Sam Roberts in his article, “Gwen Ifill, Political Reporter and Co-Anchor of ‘PBS News Hour,’ Dies at 61,” New York Times, November 14, 2016.

“[M]aybe, as Nan-ch’uan implies, we valorize ‘not knowing,’ a kind of romantic anti-intellectualism, as the true Zen.”  Norman Fischer and Susan Moon, What is Zen? (Shambhala, 2015), 126.

Photo: The Dalai Lama and Gwen Ifill. Al Behman / AP

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Zoketsu Norman Fischer

“Why do we like being Irish?” asks the Irish poet Louis MacNeice (1907-1963) in his poem Autumn Journal (1939). In subsequent lines, he answers his own question:

Partly because

      It gives us a hold on the sentimental English

As members of a world that never was,

      Baptized with fairy water;

And partly because Ireland is small enough

     To be still thought of with a family feeling,

And because the waves are rough

     That split her from a more commercial culture;

And because one feels that here at least one can

     Do local work which is not at the world’s mercy

And that on this tiny stage with luck a man

     Might see the end of one particular action.

Because Ireland is a relatively small country, and because in MacNeice’s time families tended to stay put for as long as economic conditions allowed, Irish people could reasonably hope to see the “end”–the consequences as well as the completion–of any particular action. (more…)

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Shinge Roshi, Abbot, Dai Bosatsu Zendo and the Zen Center of Syracuse

Shinge Roko Sherry Chayat Roshi, Abbot,
Dai Bosatsu Zendo and the Zen Center of Syracuse

The practice of Zen contemplation, Zen teachings tell us, is the “action of non-action,” grounded in silent awareness. At the same time, the “non-action” of Zen is best described in active verbs. In her essay “What is Zen?” Shinge Roko Sherry Chayat Roshi offers this description:

What is Zen? Stop now. Stop trying to get an intellectual lock on something that is vast and boundless, far more than the rational mind can grasp. Just breathe in with full awareness. Taste the breath. Appreciate it fully. Now breathe out, slowly, with equal appreciation. Give it all away; hold onto nothing. Breathe in with gratitude; breathe out with love. Receiving and offering–this is what we are doing each time we inhale and exhale. To do so with conscious awareness, on a regular basis, is the transformative practice we call Zen.

It would be difficult to find a more lucid or concrete description of Zen practice. Follow Shinge Roshi’s instructions, and you will not go wrong. Yet, for all its clarity, this description is at one point ambiguous. “Hold onto nothing,” Shinge Roshi advises. “Give it all away.” But what is the antecedent, a grammarian might inquire, of the pronoun “it”? What, besides our breath, are we giving away? (more…)

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730px-Old_book_gathering_2I have a friend by the name of Janet, who regularly consults what I call the Book of Janet, especially when she’s feeling blue or vexed or insecure. If she makes some trivial error, like misplacing her car keys, the Book of Janet reminds her that she is not well-organized. If she enters a competition and receives a letter of rejection, the Book of Janet informs her that her work is not all that good. And if she’s feeling less than beautiful on any given morning, the Book of Janet confirms her worst fears. On all three counts, the Book of Janet is wide of the mark. It is out of touch with the present reality. Unfortunately, that makes little difference to Janet, who swears by her Book as if it were her Bible. (more…)

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Amish_-_On_the_way_to_school_by_Gadjoboy-cropIn his poignant essay “The Old Order,” the Irish-American writer James Silas Rogers recalls his conversation on an Amtrak train with a young Amish man named Johann, who was crossing Wisconsin with his extended family. Curious about Amish faith and belief, Rogers inquired as to the significance of Johann’s distinctive attire: his plain shirt, suspenders, and broadfall trousers. “People ask us,” Johann replied, “if we think that wearing these clothes will get us into heaven. We absolutely do not. . . . But I do know that if I wear these clothes, it will keep me out of places where I should not go.”*

Reading Johann’s explanation, I was reminded of formal Zen practice, which also employs special clothes to remind practitioners of their moral commitments. In Japanese Zen, one of the most conspicuous of those clothes is the rakusu, a bib-like garment worn (and often hand-sewn) by those who have “taken the precepts,” which is to say, have publicly affirmed a set of ethical guidelines. Known as the “jukai precepts,” those guidelines differ from sect to sect, but in essence they enjoin the Zen disciple to refrain from harmful behaviors, particularly killing, stealing, engaging in false or injurious speech, using sexuality in hurtful ways, and abusing intoxicants. The unadorned rakusu, viewed as a miniature monastic robe and inscribed on the back with its wearer’s “dharma name,” signifies a commitment to that fundamental code of conduct. (more…)

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The Crown Bar Belfast, Northern Ireland

The Crown Bar
Belfast, Northern Ireland

“For Ben Howard, well met in Belfast, July, 2004.”

So wrote a gentlemanly Irish poet, whose work I had long admired, in the flyleaf of his most recent book. At the time, he and I were having lunch in the upstairs dining room of the Crown Liquor Saloon, a storied old pub in the heart of Belfast, Northern Ireland. I had come up on the train from Dublin to meet him.

Of the many inscriptions I have acquired over the years, few have proved as memorable as the one above, partly because the poet’s chosen phrase, faintly archaic but resonantly apt, sorted well with the Crown’s Victorian decor–its ornate tin ceilings, stained-glass windows, and dark-paneled “snugs.” Regrettably, “well-met” is no longer current in North America, either as a description or a greeting. Once the equivalent of “Nice to have met you,” that old-fashioned phrase evokes a singular event: two people meeting, in the fullness of human relationship, at a particular place and time. (more…)

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Allegra Rose Howard, three days oldOn Friday, June 14, my granddaughter, Allegra Rose Howard, arrived in the world, weighing eight pounds and twelve ounces. As I reflect on that glad event, I am reminded of a phrase from Tibetan Buddhist teachings.

The phrase is this precious human birth. Its source is the Chiggala Sutra, where the Buddha speaks of the chances of being born a human being. Those chances, he observes, are infinitesimally small. They are analogous to those of a blind tortoise swimming in an ocean as large as the planet, where an ox’s yoke is afloat on the waves. Every one hundred years, the tortoise surfaces. The chances of being born human are no better than those of the tortoise surfacing with his head in the yoke. Human birth is extremely rare and therefore most precious.

In the lojong system of mind training practiced by Tibetan Buddhists, phrases such as this precious human birth are known as “slogans.” Contemplated and absorbed during sitting meditation, they are subsequently applied to everyday life. As the Zen teacher Norman Fischer explains, the best way to work with a lojong slogan is to develop it “as an almost physical object, a feeling in your belly or heart.” Once the slogan has embedded itself, you can work with it throughout the day, until it becomes “part of your mind—your own thought, a theme for daily living.”* (more…)

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