Posts Tagged ‘zoketsu norman fischer’

Chicken image ps

Once a week, I stop in at Stearns Poultry Farm in Alfred, New York to buy a dozen eggs. On the wall above the egg cooler, looking worse for the wear, is a poster depicting a rooster standing on a country road. Over his head, a thought-balloon reads, “I dream of a world where chickens can cross the road without having their motives questioned.”

That riff on a well-known conundrum seldom fails to make me smile. And on certain days, it reminds me of a slogan from the lojong system of Tibetan Buddhist meditation. Based on a 12th-century text (The Root Text of the Seven Points of Training the Mind), this system consists of fifty-nine numbered “slogans,’ i.e., themes for daily living, all of them designed to generate resilience and compassion. With the guidance of a teacher, practitioners memorize a particular slogan, reflect on its meaning, and allow it to percolate into their conscious awareness during the course of the day. In this way, they train their minds and modify their outlooks and conduct accordingly.

            The slogan evoked by the poster is number 26:

Don’t figure others out.

In his book Training in Compassion: Zen Teachings on the Practice of Lojong, Zen priest Zoketsu Norman Fischer Roshi discusses this slogan in the context of interpersonal relationships. In Fischer’s view, human relationships are inherently prone to conflict. And the human impulse, however well-intentioned, to figure others out is often a source of discord. By becoming aware of that impulse, and by observing its often harmful effects, we can learn to refrain from engaging in the reflexive pondering of others’ motives. Or, failing that, we can learn to approach that self-appointed task with greater discernment and humility.

As Fischer observes, “[E]ven a cursory investigation . . . shows us that we barely understand ourselves. . . . If it’s hard to fathom ourselves, how could we seriously believe we can figure out someone else?” All of our motives, it might be argued, are ulterior, insofar as they are hidden even from us. Yet on we go, attributing feelings, thoughts, and motives to our spouses, friends, and even public figures, as if we could read their minds. As Fischer notes, “[W]e assume the intentions of others based on our understanding of their outward acts. And we are usually wrong.”

Depending on the situation, the human costs of attributing—or misattributing—motives can be slight or great, trivial or momentous. It’s fair to say that no one relishes being told, even by a well-meaning friend or relative, what he or she is feeling, wanting, thinking, or intending. “I’m really sorry,” I once said to a person whose feelings I had hurt. “No, you’re not,” she shot back. “You’re just feeling guilty.” That rebuke only widened our emotional divide. “I can imagine what you’re feeling,” sympathetic friends sometimes say to the recently bereaved, inadvertently deepening their sense of separateness and isolation. As one grieving husband, still reeling from the sudden loss of his wife, lamented, “How could they know what I’m feeling, when I don’t even know myself?”

As Fischer acknowledges, “There are times when it may be a good idea to try to imagine what someone else is feeling, thinking, needing or wanting.” “Don’t figure others out” is a motto, not an absolute. Rather than treat the slogan as a rigid rule, to be followed in every situation, it might better be understood as a cautionary mantra: a reminder, in Fischer’s words, that “we don’t really know what is in another’s heart and . . . whatever we imagine is probably incorrect.” “What heart can know itself?” asks the poet Anthony Hecht, in his poem “Upon the Death of George Santayana.” To that rhetorical question we might add: “What heart can know another’s?”

Yet, if we are not to “figure others out,” what, in times of conflict or crisis, are we to do? “In the end,” Fischer suggests, “probably the best thing we could do . . . for anyone . . . is to let them alone, profoundly alone, in the recognition that they are so much more than we could ever understand.” By doing so, he adds, we are “recognizing their full human dignity.”

Perhaps so.  But leaving others alone when they are fearful or distraught can be tantamount to abandonment—or be felt as such. To Fischer’s advice, and to the lojong slogan generally, I would add these complementary words by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, which I keep not far from my meditation cushion: “The most precious gift we can offer others is our presence. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers.” Allowing others their full human dignity by refraining from trying to figure them out, we can also be fully present for them in their time of need. The two principles are not incompatible. Held in balance, the one supporting the other, they can constitute an appropriate and compassionate response.


Norman Fischer, Training in Compassion: Zen Teachings on the Practice of Lojong (Shambhala, 2012), 105-106.

Anthony Hecht, “Upon the Death of George Santayana,” The Hard Hours (Atheneum, 1967).

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When greyhounds race on a track, they chase an artificial rabbit. Mistaking that furry object for the real thing, they pursue it with all their might.

During a recent greyhound race in Australia, however, a living, breathing rabbit wandered onto the track. Spotting that hapless creature, a greyhound named Ginny Lou took off in hot pursuit, leaving the other dogs to their delusion. Apparently, Ginny Lou could distinguish between the illusory and the real, and she chose to pursue the latter.

To make that distinction is also the work of the Zen practitioner. And to reconnect us with our actual lives is a defining aim of Zen meditation. The poet Czeslaw Milosz once described the art of poetry as the “passionate pursuit of the Real,” and much the same might be said of Zen practice. During the course of a day we might expend the bulk of our energy chasing artificial rabbits, but when we are practicing Zen meditation, we are pursuing the real one: the moment-to-moment reality of things as they are.

That pursuit often begins with the body. The Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing, a foundational text for Zen students, directs the practitioner to recite, “Breathing in, I am aware of my body // Breathing out, I calm my body.” In keeping with that prescription, the contemporary Zen teacher Zoketsu Norman Fischer advises us to begin a sitting by sweeping our awareness lightly through our bodies. “The point,” he explains, “is to arrive in the body, to be aware of the body as sensation and process, to ground [ourselves] in the body as basis so that thought and emotion don’t fly too far afield.” * In similar fashion, Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh directs us to bring compassionate awareness to the various parts of our bodies, including our internal organs: “Aware of my lungs, I breathe in. / Smiling to my lungs, I breathe out. / Aware of my heart, I breathe in. / Bringing kind attention to my heart, I breathe out.” By such means, we return to our bodies, grounding ourselves in our physical lives.

Having established ourselves in that awareness, we can then turn our attention to our states of mind. In Zen teachings, mind and body are often seen as aspects of each other. “What happens to the body,” Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us, “happens to the mind.” By being aware of the present state of the body—relaxed or tense, energetic or fatigued, balanced or imbalanced—we may already be aware of our present state of mind. To sharpen that awareness, however, we might ask ourselves, “What is my state of mind just now?” Or, more concretely, “Is my mind/body tight or loose?” Employing that classic analogy (which originally referred to the strings of a lute), we can then investigate the causes of tightness or looseness, identifying such specific states as craving, fear, or anger, on the one hand, or balance, elation, and equanimity, on the other. And as with awareness of the body, we can bring kind attention to whatever state of mind we may be experiencing, noting the effect of our awareness on our fear or anger, our craving or agitation.

Meditation of this kind steadies the body and mind. In Zen practice, however, it also serves a broader aim, which is the recognition and acceptance of our present lives, just as they are, just now.  “Do not get carried away,” Dogen Zenji admonishes us in his Instructions to the Cook, “by the sounds of spring, nor become heavy-hearted upon seeing the colors of fall. View the changes of the seasons as a whole, and weigh the relativeness of light and heavy from a broad perspective.” ** Commenting on this passage, the Soto master Kosho Uchiyama urges us “to be resolved that whatever we meet is our life,” and to “see the four seasons of favorable circumstances, adversity, despair, and exaltation all as the scenery of [our lives].”  Such an attitude, which Dogen identifies as “Magnanimous Mind,” can profoundly alter our experience of the world, engendering a deeper realism as well as a more balanced perspective. Uchiyama Roshi describes its impact in this way:

When we have developed this kind of attitude toward our lives, the meaning of living day by day changes completely, along with our valuation of the events and people and circumstances that arise. Since we no longer try to escape from delusion, misfortune, or adversity, nor chase after enlightenment and peace of mind, things like money and position lose their former value. People’s reputations or their skills at maneuvering in society have no bearing on the way we see them as human beings, nor does a certificate of enlightenment make any impression on anyone. What is primary and essential is that as we develop this vision, the meaning of encountering the things, situations, or people in our lives completely changes.***

Artificial rabbits abound, as do encouragements to chase them. But as Dogen’s observations and Uchiyama’s commentary make clear, we can indeed develop another kind of vision, in which things appear as they actually are, not as our conditioning would have them be. Like Ginny Lou, we too can pursue the real.


*Norman Fischer, Sailing Home (Free Press, 2008), 79.

**Eihei Dogen, Tenzo Kyokun (Instructions for the Cook), q. in Kosho Uchiyama Roshi, How to Cook Your Life: From the Zen Kitchen to Enlightenment (Shambhala, 2005), 47.

***Uchiyama, 49.

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