Norman Fischer
(born 1946)

Zoketsu Norman Fischer
Everyday Zen Foundation

"How Japanese Is American Soto Zen?"
Buddhism in the Modern World

Ho Center for Buddhist Studies at Stanford

Old Union, 3rd floor,
The Sanctuary, Stanford University

Tuesday, December 1, 2009, 5:15-6:50 pm

Edited by Peter Y. Chou

Preface: I received an email from Irene Lin of Stanford Buddhist Studies on Monday, November 30, about today's lecture "How Japanese Is American Soto Zen?" by Zoketsu Norman Fischer. Since I met Norman 19 years ago at Gary Snyder's Poetry Workshop (3-24-1990) and again six years ago at Stanford's "Practioners of Reality: Symposium on Poetry & Buddhism" (5-15-2003), I was excited to hear him again. I went to Los Altos Library and printed out my web pages of those two encounters as well as two recent poems as my gift to him. Then I went to Stanford Buddhist Office in Building 70 to pick up today's poster on Fischer's talk. Carl Bielefeldt was going to give me the poster on his door before Irene Lin found a copy for me in her office. I got to the Old Union around 5 pm and sat in the second row. Some Stanford students got zazen pillows and sat in meditation before the talk. My friend Rudy showed up soon afterwards. I told him that Norman Fischer is a poet and a "down to earth" Zen master whose talks are always insightful and humorous. Carl Bielefeldt introduced his old friend, saying "we met each other many years ago at the Berkeley Zendo. Norman has adapted Zen to Western culture. He is also a poet with five books, his latest being Questions/Places/Voices/Seasons." I took 15 pages of notes while Norman talked along with the Q&A session which I'm sharing below. The web links are mine as well as items in [brackets].
HCBSS News Summary— "Soto Zen in Japan and America": On December 1, Soto Zen teacher Norman Fischer explored the question "How Japanese Is American Soto Zen?" Beginning from the notion that Buddhism was a religion of the axial age, typified by individualism, universalism, and abstraction, Fischer described Japan as a culture that, although thoroughly Buddhist, had retained a pre-axial mentality of non-rationalized feeling for the immediate environment and proximate community. Among the Buddhist traditions of Japan, he singled out Soto Zen as a form particularly expressive of this combination of continental Buddhist and native Japanese styles. American Soto Zen movement founded by Shunryu Suzuki, he suggested, has managed to retain something of the feeling of the Japanese tradition, even as it struggles to adapt the tradition to its new environment.

Norman Fischer: I thank Carl [Bielefeldt] for inviting me here for this talk at Stanford. This campus is so big— turn left, turn right, could get lost here. I may find myself a Stanford student [Note: "turn left, turn right" reminded me of Fischer's 1989 poetry book Turn Left in Order to Go Right]. I met Carl at the Berkeley Zendo some 30 years ago. We use to study together in his house and read Chinese Buddhist texts using his many dictionaries. I believe that was the last time I read a Chinese text. Let's do a meditation together before my talk. Everybody meditates now. Sit up straight in your chair. Be aware of your weight in the chair. The chair supports you. This room supports the chair. The earth supports the building containing this room and you. Gravity supports all. Feel yourself breathing in and out. Feel yourself as being alive! I will strike the bell three times to end this meditation. When you hear the bell, listen to the sound until it fades away. [My mind soared to Keats "Ode on a Grecian Urn": "Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on; / Not to the sensual ear, but, more endeared, / Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone."]

Norman Fischer: Soto Zen was practiced in America in the late 1950's. There are many lineage families of Soto Zen, but two in America. How did it change in America? Whenever you make assertions, you're wrong. I certainly don't want to make sweeping generalizations with Carl sitting here. He knows more about Soto Zen than I do. Once a long time ago in a span of 1000 years, people came to a state of consciousness that was not so clear before. Prophets in Judaism and Christianity, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism all began at this time. There was a lot in common. There was always religion even in prehistorical times. No one invented religion. There were as many as there were languages. Before the Axial Age, religion had local customs and traditions within their cultural milieu. Three characteristics of the Axial Age religions are individualism, abstraction, and universalism.
(1) Individualism is emphasized. Each person is sacred and related to the spirit. In Buddhism, each has relationship to Nirvana. Anatta— Buddha taught the notion of "non-self" for purpose of individual liberation. All these religious traditions taught sacredness of human life. It is unethical to kill a human being, though it is legal to do it in war. Killing is a crime, a moral wrong that will sent you to hell.
(2) All these religious traditions were abstract. They were based on practices, ideas, feelings, not limited to a particular place or local tradition. They were based on written texts. The goal was highly abstract. Salvation and Kingdom of God have nothing to do with daily events. Nirvana, release, letting go have nothing to do with the seasons or spawning of salmon. Being sacred is different from ordinary life.
(3) Traditions all have universal possibility. Nirvana is not just for Buddhists but for everyone who practices. God in the Judaic tradition is for everyone, not just the Jewish people. The Christian Jesus saves everybody. All these things are obvious, Every culture in the world was revolutionalized by these religions. They were forced to do so. The Hopis never had the idea to conquer the world to become Hopis. Maybe they'll take your horses and lands. But the Christians took steps to convert others to Christianity. They overdid their enthusiasm. The Buddhists also spread their teachings not just in India but all over Asia. Japan was the exception to this. They have been Buddhists, Confucians, and Christians for the last 100 years. None of the religions overcame their old cultural roots.
    Japan always remained Japanese. The Tibetans took in the Indian culture in their religion. Japan took in Chinese culture of Confucianism. Later they took Western culture. During the [Meiji] Restoration [1868], all the Japanese universities were revamped. Japanese culture is bifocal and schizophrenic. Japan became westernized and Christianized, but it retained its pre-axial Japaneseness. It is a culture of no text and ideology with a powerful sense of its uniqueness. The Japanese have a feeling for life. The Japanese culture is like a container with nothing in it. Put Confucianism and modernism in it, yet it remains Japanese.
    The Japanese philosopher Kitaro Nishida [1870-1945] said "Japanese culture is absolute nothingness." Japanese culture is unique in this fashion. They say "You'll never understand us." This contradiction doesn't make sense. Westerners had a hard time understanding Zen. Suzuki Roshi [1904-1971] started the San Francisco Zen Center in 1962. Getting rid of desire to attain Nirvana may be easier to understand than the Zen of Suzuki Roshi. The sociologist Robert Bellah [born 1927] in his book Imagining Japan: The Japanese Tradition and Its Modern Interpretation said "The split between abstract foreign culture carried by relatively isolated intellectual coteries and emotional native culture more widely shared among by the people has never been entirely overcome by Japanese culture." [Cultural Identity and Asian Modernization] One part of Japanese Zen is deeply emotional. Our feeling as Westerners are more abstract. Our emotional life is abstract. We think our feelings. The Japanese feel their feelings. I see that in the Zen practice, in zazen, in Zen life. Feeling for life filtered through Japanese in the detail of our life together. 20th century Japanese intellectuals mastered Western language and thought. They critiqued it from Japanese perspective of our Western mechanized culture, rationalization and production.
    The bloodbath of the 20th century— dismay what we have wrought. We were misguided and hubristic. Fascism and communism tried to remake human culture by killing millions of people. We're outgrowing the concept of killing people to change them. Soto Zen started in Japan during the Kamakura period [1185-1333]. It was wonderful and indefineable. There was a profound acceptance of life's sorrow. Dogen's zazen taught that meditation is not to get you to another state, but to open up to our humanness. When we do that, ultimate truth is realized.
    Kokan Shiren [1278-1347], was a Japanese Rinzai Zen patriarch who said that practice is totally impossible. Instead throw yourself at the mercy of Buddha. Suzuki Roshi [1904-1971] lived in Japan during a period of transition. When he came to America [1959], he tried to teach Zen to Americans during the Vietnam War. He was not a nationalist. He felt that the Japanese way of life was useful to Americans. I have archives of his original talks. His books have been cleaned up, so you can't see his revisions. I came to the San Francisco Zen Center in 1970, so I didn't practice with Suzuki Roshi since he was ill and died soon afterwards [1971]. His successor was Richard Baker who had lived and studied in Japan. He would say "Japanese culture is sane and wonderful while American culture was insane and confused."
    We were disciplined and kept our mouth shut. Suzuki Roshi said very little. He didn't cut off his feelings. He was just Japanese. We reacted against that and became anti-Japanese. We'll excise Buddhism from Japanese. Now we'll appreciate more humane and tender feeling of practice. See Japanese as humaneness. Don't subsume it into American lifestyle. Suzuki's son Hoitsu is now 70 years old abott at Eiheiji Southern School. We met at San Francisco Zen Center and saw the photo album of 1967. Hoitsu was around 25 years old at the time and was scared to death when his father ordained him. Suzuki performed ritual and was in tears. I feel deep connection to Hoitsu and Rinzai temple, feel their spirit, humane and deeply. Popular Zen in Japan is based on Chinese Ch'an.
    Stanley White's father was a wealthy Jewish banker and came to San Francisco Zen Center to investigate Suzuki Roshi's effect on his son. Afterwards, he asked Stanley, "Is Suzuki Roshi Jewish?" Steve Weintraub owned many luncheonettes. When he came to see Suzuki Roshi, he felt that Suzuki Roshi also owned luncheonettes. This is because Suzuki Roshi received and understood others so well and cared for their feeling for life. Thus everyone felt rapport with him. I'll close my talk by reading a selection from Shunryu Suzuki's talk to his students.

Reading from Shunryu Suzuki's not always so:

Find Out for Yourself (pp. 72-76)
In your zazen or in your life you will have many difficulties or problems. When you have a problem, see if you can find out for yourself why you have a problem. Usually you will try to solve your difficulty in the best way as soon as possible. Rather than studying for yourself, you ask someone why you have a problem. That kind of approach may work well for your usual life, but if you want to study Zen, it doesn't help.
    The moment you are told something by someone and you think you understand, you will stick to it, and you will lose the full function of your nature. When you seek something, your true nature is in full activity, as if you are feeling for your pillow in the dark. If you know where the pillow is, your mind is not in full function. Your mind is acting in a limited sense. When you are seeking for the pillow without knowing where it is, then your mind is open to everything. In this way you will have a more subtle attitude toward everything, and you will see things as it is.
    If you want to study something, it's better not to know what the answer is. Because you are not satisfied with something you are told, and because you cannot rely on anything set up by someone else, you study Buddhism without knowing how to study it. In this way you find out for yourself what we really mean by "Buddha nature", "practice", or "enlightenment".
    Since you seek freedom, you try various ways. Of course you will sometimes find that you have wasted your time. If a Zen master drinks sake, you may think the best way to attain enlightenment is to drink sake. But even though you drink a lot of sake, as he does, you will not attain enlightenment. It may look like you've wasted your time, but that attitude is important. If you continue to try to find out in that way, you will gain more power to understand things. Whatever you do, you will not waste your time.
    When you do something with a limited idea, or with some definite purpose, what you will gain is something concrete. This will cover up your inner nature. So it is not a matter of what you study, but a matter of seeing things as it is, and accepting things as it is.
    Some of you may study something only if you like it. If you don't like it, you ignore it. that is a selfish way, and it also limits you power of study. good or bad, small or big, we study to discover the true reason why something is so big and why something is so small, why something is so good and why something is not so good. If you try to discover only something good, you will miss something, and you will always be limiting your faculties. When you live in a limited world, you cannot accept things as it is.
    Even if a Zen master had just two or three students, he would never tell them our way in detail. The only way to study with him is to eat with him, talk with him, and do everything with him. You help him without being told how to help him. Mostly he will not seem to be very happy, and he will always be scolding you without any apparent reason. Because you cannot figure out the reason, you will not be so happy and he will not be so happy. If you really want to study with him, you will study how to please him, how to make your life with him a happy one...
    When I was a Eiheiji assisting my teacher, he did not tell us anything, but whenever we made a mistake he scolded us. The usual way to open sliding doors is to open the one on the right, but when I opened it that way, I was scolded: "Don't open it that way! Not that side!" So the next morning I opened the other side and got scolded again. I didn't know what to do. Later I found out that the day I opened the right side his guest was on the right side, so I should have opened the other side. Before opening the door, I should have been careful to find out which side his guest was on.
    The day I was appointed to serve him, I gave him a cup of tea. Usually you fill eighty percent of the cup. Since that is the rule, I filled eighty percent, or seventy percent, and he said, "Give me hot tea. Fill the cup with very hot strong tea." So the next morning when there were some guests, I filled all the cups with hot strong tea, almost ninety-nine percent and served them. I was scolded! Actualy there is no rule. He himself liked very hot, bitter tea, filled to the brim, but almost all the guest didn't like hot, bitter tea. For him I should serve bitter, hot tea, and for the guests I should offer tea the usual way.
    He never told us anything. When I got up twenty minutes earlier than the wake-up bell, I was scolded, "Don't get up so early! You will disturb my sleep." Usually, if I got up earlier, it was good, but for him it was not so good. When you try to understand things better, without any rules or prejudice, this is the meaning of selflessness. you may say that something is a "rule", but rules are already a selfish idea. Actually there are no rules, so when you say, "This is the rule", you are forcing something, the rules, on others.
    Rules are only needed when we don't have much time, or when we cannot help others more closly in a kind way. To say, "This is the rule, so you should do it", is easy, but, actually, that is not our way. For the beginner, maybe, instructions is necessary, but for advanced students we don't give much instruction, and they try out various ways. If possible, we give instructions to people one by one. Because that is difficult, we give group instruction or a lecture like this. But don't stick to the lecture. Think about what I really mean.
    I feel sorry that I cannot help you very much. But the way to study true Zen is not verbal. Just open yourself and give up everything. Whatever happens, whether you think it is good or bad, study closely and see what you find out. This is the fundamental attitude. Sometimes you will do things without much reason, like a child who draws pictures whether they are good or bad. If that is difficult for you, you are not actually ready to practice zazen.
    This is what it means to surrender, even though you have nothing to surrender. Without losing yourself by sticking to a particular rule or understanding, keep finding yourself, moment after moment. This is the only thing for you to do.

Calmness of Mind (pp. 5-7)
Shikantaza, our zazen, is just to be ourselves. When we do not expect anything we can be ourselves. That is our way, to live fully in each moment of time. This practice continues forever...
    To take care of the exhalation is very important. To die is more important than trying to be alive. When we always try to be alive, we have trouble. Rather than trying to be alive or active, if we can be calm and die or fade away into emptiness, then naturally we will be all right. Buddha will take care of us. Because we have lost our mother's bosom, we do not feel like her child anymore. Yet fading away into emptiness can feel like being at our mother's bosom, and we will feel as though she will take care of us. Moment after moment, do not lose this practice of shikantaza.

Q & A Session:

Q: Can you place your style of Buddhism in context with Korean and Tibetan Buddhism? And secondly, are you familiar with Zen Shorts, a children's book with panda talking about Zen?
Fischer: I don't know Zen Shorts. It sound interesting. I'll be happy to look into it. On your first question— every Buddhism has its own flavor. Tibetan Buddhism is Indian Buddhism. Korean Buddhism is filtered through their culture. Chinese and Japanese Buddhism is not referred by Tibetan Buddhism. I don't know enough about Korean and Tibetan Buddhism to critique them.

Q: How did San Francisco shape you?
Fischer: San Francisco is an open place. I was influenced by the Bay Area culture.

Q: How Japanese is American Soto Zen?
Fischer: Pretty much American.

Q: What are the characteristics of American Buddhism?
Fischer: American Zen had men and women meditating side by side. In Japan, they do zazen separately. The language has indelible effect. Take text in one language and translate it into another makes it automatically different.

Q: What about egalitarianism in Japanese society?
Fischer: We have lots more committees here in America.

Q: In our meditation you conducted at the beginning, you told us to pay attention to breathing, the feeling of being alive. Then you mentioned the Japanese paradigm of the empty container. When paradigm becomes non-paradigm? Breathing and embodiment are images of more life than emptiness.
Fischer: I don't see connection. You're not more alive when you're meditating. When you're dead, it's different. I really don't know [the death state]. When you're sitting zazen, you're not concerned with your bank account or other activities. All the content is the feeling "I'm alive." The container is that we're alive. When you're in touch with the fact "you're alive" and just remember that, then you leave those other problems. Dogen says sitting in that way has nothing to do with sitting. Meditation is the best practice, then sitting down is better. Need more religious cultivation to remind us. Remembering to do it is the hard part.

Q (Linda Hess): On the matter of gender equality. The committee in America is a democratic idea. Another index is form and custom such as bowls, chopsticks, and rice. What custom did we put on the white lacquered tray?
Fischer: That's an interesting subtle point you brought up. The Japanese have many formalities. We don't have any many customs and bowls. The Japanese monks and nuns who come here see our funkiness. In my own case at the San Francisco Zen temple, I couldn't do this because the committee wouldn't let me do it. The Zen robes we wore were too formal. So we changed them to be more comfortable while travelling in airplanes. Vipassana meditation in American stripped away many of the Asian cultural rituals, so some of the traditional Oriental practices are lacking here. Recently we had an all-day Sunday sit. Some of the sitters had family members or loved ones who had just passed away. So we performed some ritual for the departed as part of our zazen meditation. In this way we put tradition together with our meditation practice.


Afterword: The Q&A session ended at 6:50 pm. I approached the podium and introduced myself as having met him 19 years ago at Gary Snyder's Poetry Workshop and told him about the number 28. Norman connected right away with that occasion. I asked him for the source of his Shunryu Suzuki reading which I enjoyed immensely. He showed me Suzuki's book not always so: practicing the true spirit of Zen [2002], saying the long passage he read was from page 72. He then signed the flyer of today's talk which I obtained at Irene Lin's Stanford Buddhist Office earlier this afternoon. I gave Norman a folder containing two poems from March 24, 1990, Poem based on his words exercise, Silicon Numerology of 28, Practioners of Reality Symposium, 5-15-2003. I also included two poems— "Most Evil Man in the Universe" (Notes) and "Thirteen Ways of Looking at Completion" (Notes). I asked Norman for his business card which he found one in his wallet and gave it to me. I introduced my friend Rudy who told Norman how much he enjoyed his talk. Carl Bielefeldt had an extended chat with Norman. When Norman was ready to leave, I requested a photo with him. We put our arms around each other's shoulders. Rudy snapped the photo, however, it never showed up when I checked my camera chip at the Art Library later. I went to Green Library at 10 pm and checked Shunryu Suzuki's books online. All five copies of Suzuki's 1970 classic Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind were checked out with one missing copy. Stanford Library does not have Suzuki's not always so, but Los Alto Library does have a copy. I went there on Wednesday, December 2 at 5:30 pm and found it along with Shunryu Suzuki's Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness (1999). Next to these two books on the shelf was Wanting Enlightenment Is a Big Mistake: Teachings of Zen Master Seung San (2006) which included a foreword from an old friend Jon Kabat-Zinn. I checked all three books out and headed for Stanford where I typed the part Norman read from Suzuki's Not Always So which he closed his talk. Later I found Found Norman Fischer's "Japanese Influence" talk at Santa Sabina September 26 2009.

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