Posts Tagged ‘norman fischer’

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 Regrettably, “well-met” is no longer current in North America, either as a description or a greeting.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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One morning earlier this summer, I found myself standing atop an unstable blue object known as a BOSU Ball. Invented by David Weck in 1999, the BOSU Balance Trainer is an inflatable rubber hemisphere attached to a rigid platform. The central component of a “mindful approach to exercise,”[1] the BOSU Ball is designed to improve the body’s  sense of balance while strengthening its stabilizing muscles. I was standing on the BOSU Ball because I’d been having knee pain, and our family doctor had recommended physical therapy. In turn, the affable but exacting physical therapist with whom I was working had prescribed the BOSU Ball. “Don’t fall off,” he cheerfully warned, having just assigned me thirty squats. Miraculously, I managed to comply.

In a manner analogous to that of the BOSU Ball, Zen practice also aims to strengthen our sense of balance, physical and emotional. In Zen teachings, the capacity to maintain one’s equilibrium, especially under stressful, uncertain, and unstable conditions, is known as equanimity, a translation of the Sanskrit word upeksha. The traditional posture of sitting meditation—knees down, back erect, head balanced on the spine—supports the cultivation of upeksha, as does the practice of walking meditation, which trains the practitioner to walk with dignity and steady awareness. But these forms and practices, however essential to Zen discipline, are but the outward expressions of an inner poise. And at the heart of that inner poise is a balanced, inclusive way of experiencing the world. (more…)

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109. The Cliché Monster

For many years I taught courses in imaginative writing to college students, and when it came time to read their work, I kept three tools of the trade close at hand.

One was a fine-point pen, with which I corrected errors of grammar and usage. Another was a mechanical pencil, with which I made marginal comments. And the third was a small rubber stamp, which fit neatly into its circular ink pad. A relic of my son’s childhood, the stamp produced a miniature image of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, complete with oversized head, upraised tail, and greedy-looking paws. At once fierce and benign in aspect, this creature was known as the Cliché Monster, and whenever a cliché appeared in a student’s essay, poem, or story, he too would appear, poised to devour the offending phrase. “Don’t feed him,” I warned the students, “or he’ll come back for more.” (more…)

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Path of stone over water, Nanjing, South of China

If you have ever sung in a choir, you know that certain disciplines apply. You must sit up straight at the edge of your chair. You must breathe from the diaphragm. And you must open your mouth more widely than you otherwise would—widely enough to accommodate three fingers. Although these principles are simple, it is easy to forget them, especially if your mind is elsewhere.

Such was the case one morning in 1961, when I and other members of the Clinton High School A Cappella Choir sat upright at the edge of our chairs, rehearsing Michael Pretorius’s beautiful carol “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming.” Leading us was our director, John De Haan, a tall, ruggedly-built man with a gentle but commanding presence. Glancing in my direction, he noticed my half-open mouth. “Open your mouth, Ben,” he said, quietly but firmly, in his deep bass voice. “This is my life’s work.” (more…)

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In 1968 the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, then a young Buddhist monk, visited the United States. Meeting with church groups, students, and others, he sought to promote peace and reconciliation. Throughout his tour, the gentle monk was well-received, but when he spoke one evening at a wealthy church in St. Louis, he found himself confronted by an angry detractor, who stood up to challenge him. “If you care so much about your people,” demanded the man, “why are you here? If you care so much for the people who are wounded, why don’t you spend your time with them?” Taken by surprise, Thich Nhat Hanh had no choice but to respond. But what could he say? What might be an appropriate response? (more…)

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Since its arrival in the West, the practice of Zen has taken a rich variety of forms, ranging from the most traditional to the most iconoclastic. At one end of the spectrum there is formal Zen, with its incense, bows, and chants. At the other, there is “bare-bones” Zen, void of liturgy, hierarchy, or lineage.

Yet for all their differences, the varieties of Western Zen share a common practice, namely that of radical questioning. As Roshi Philip Kapleau, author of The Three Pillars of Zen, once put it, “the ultimate aim of Zen training is full awakening,” and “to awaken, what is most essential is a questioning mind growing out of a fundamental perplexity, or ‘ball of doubt’.”* That view is echoed by Zoketsu Norman Fischer, a contemporary Soto Zen priest, who defines the “core” of Zen as the “active, powerful, fundamental, relentless, deep and uniquely human act of questioning.”** Hearing these definitive statements, we might ask what “questioning,” as practiced in Zen, is and is not, and how it might be enlisted in everyday life.

To begin with, Zen inquiry is not the questioning born of fear. Any thoughtful person who has gone through a divorce, the foreclosure of a home, or the loss of a job knows the experience of questioning what to do next, whom to blame, and how to survive a traumatic loss. Such questioning is necessary and sometimes productive, but it is not the questioning of Zen.

Second, Zen questioning is not the same as rigorous philosophical inquiry. To be sure, Zen teachings engage metaphysical issues, most prominently the “Great Matter of life and death.” And insofar as they emphasize personal responsibility and freedom of choice, Zen teachings share common ground with existentialist thought. But unlike professional philosophy, Zen eschews definitions, abstract categories, and other components of systematic inquiry. Its way is more immediate, intuitive, personal, and concrete.

And third, Zen questioning is not psychoanalysis. While doing seated meditation, Zen practitioners keep their eyes open. The aim is awareness—full awareness—of whatever is happening in the present moment. If a memory of a deceased parent or an estranged sibling should manifest itself, it may be noted as something to look into at a later time, perhaps with the aid of a therapist. But the aim of the practice is to be mindful of whatever is happening, not to analyze or pursue the images that arise.

Toward that end, Zen questioning focuses less on specific thoughts or feelings than on the conditions that have caused them to arise. Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen master, urges us to ask the question, “What am I doing?” as a way of awakening awareness of our states of mind. Barry Briggs, a teacher in the Korean Zen tradition, asks himself periodically, “How is it, just now?” By asking such questions, we can become fully aware of the concrete circumstances in which our abstract thoughts are occurring. And we can discern whether the thought we’re having, the remark we’re about to make, or the action we’re about to take is habitual or fresh, reflexive or wisely responsive.

Beyond these practical modes of self-interrogation, Zen questioning is also a process of radical, unmediated inquiry. “Who hears the sound?” asked the fourteenth-century Zen master Bassui Tokusho. It is a question to be asked, over and again, in a spirit of not-knowing, until the truth of the self is revealed with incontrovertible clarity. “What is this?” Bassui also asked, demanding a fearless, unrelenting inquiry into the nature of reality. Norman Fischer has likened such questioning to a torch, which burns away “all the dross and scum of desire and confusion that covers ordinary activities.”

Zen questioning is hard—harder, said Shunryu Suzuki, than giving up smoking. But its aim is a life no longer governed by fear, anger, habit, or forgetfulness, and it is well worth the effort.


*Roshi Philip Kapleau, Zen: Merging of East and West (Anchor 1979), 132.

**Zoketsu Norman Fischer, “On Questioning,”  Mountains are Mountains and Rivers are Rivers, ed. Ilana Rabinowitz (Hyperion 1999), 17.

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