Surviving Intact – Norman Fischer on Zen, Language and Growing Old

Norman Fischer is a poet and a writer, a zen teacher and director of the Everyday Zen Foundation; he is also the co-founder of a Jewish meditation center in San Francisco, as well as a husband and a father. His latest book, When You Greet Me I Bow, is a collection of essays on Buddhism written over the last 30 years that were brought together and edited by Cynthia Schrager. The Dewdrop was delighted to have the opportunity to speak to Norman over Zoom one afternoon in June, and to journey with him into the murky places where Zen, writing and poetry meet. Interview by Vanessa Able.

Norman Fischer

VA: The title of your book, When You Greet Me, I Bow, comes from a Zen story that you include at the beginning. Can you say more about the significance that story holds for you and why you chose it?

NF: Over the last 20 or 25 years, I have realized how important relationship is as a Dharma theme. When I say relationship, I don’t mean only what we usually mean by relationship, you know, interpersonal relationships, colleagues, friends, lovers, spouses and so on—I’m also referring to reality as being radically interactive. There is no independent entity anywhere; all things that arise, arise together, constantly. That’s the essence of the emptiness teachings, which are foundational to Mahayana Buddhism, and certainly to Zen. So, the more I practice, and the more I practice with people, I realize that this is all about our meeting. Every moment and in every moment, we’re always meeting something or someone, even if it’s a thought, in our own mind, it’s a kind of relationship. It’s a meeting.

Practicing together is so important. In Zen, the emphasis is on practicing together. It’s a radical together practice. Zen literature, instead of being the discourses of an enlightened person, is rather records of interactions between people in which the Dharma arises in the course of their interaction. A lot of the time, people interpret Zen stories as the enlightened master enlightening the unenlightened disciple, but when you when you step back and think about what’s really going on, it’s the Dharma arising through the connection between people.

VA: That reminds me of how, in your essay Notes on the Joy and Catastrophe of Relationship, you say: ‘This is what I have discovered after many years of Zen Buddhist practice: that the religious life isn’t about truth as much as it is about relationship. Or that, perhaps, truth and relationship are one and the same.’

NF: We think of relationship as being only on the interpersonal level, but actually, it’s a profound thing. I’ve also been influenced by my reading of Martin Buber’s work. Buber distinguishes between the profound I—Thou connection, and the I—It connection. I—It are those kinds of relationships where we’re satisfying one another’s needs and desires, like commercial relationships or professional relationships. But then there are moments when we really, really connect beyond ourselves and we call each other out to be more than we are. My understanding of the Buddhist tradition is that it extends that idea beyond relating to other human beings to relating to a thought in the mind, a perception in any moment of time. Consciousness is a meeting moment.

VA: Why do you write? And why poetry, why words?

NF: That’s a great question, especially from the point of view of practicing Zen, in which words and writing have a bad rep. Zen has a whole discourse about being beyond words and letters and being beyond intellectual understanding. At the same time, we note that there’s a vast Zen literature, the vast majority of which is not translated into English. We haven’t even scratched the surface of translating what’s there in Chinese, Japanese and Korean – maybe 5% of all Zen texts have been translated into English.

So there’s a sort of explicit denial of literary endeavor in Zen, and at the same time, a lot of engagement in it. But another theme in the book and in my writing over the years has been Zen’s particular understanding of language. So, the Zen understanding is actually in the same ballpark as contemporary language philosophy starting with Wittgenstein, Heidegger and other writers who have talked about language. There’s a legitimate mistrust of language at the heart of Zen practice, and silence is our practice; to sit in zazen is to sit in silence, even though mostly we’re not silent in our minds, even so, we’re sitting in the direction of silence as a horizon.

My take on Dogen’s understanding of language is that it radically imprisons us in the self, yet it can also liberate us if we understand it in the proper way. I’m highly aware of the prison house of language, how language is not going to explain to us who we are and what we are; it’s not going to explain reality to us. And yet at the same time, language is being human.

My take on Dogen’s understanding of language is that it radically imprisons us in the self, yet it can also liberate us if we understand it in the proper way. I’m highly aware of the prison house of language, how language is not going to explain to us who we are and what we are; it’s not going to explain reality to us. And yet at the same time, language is being human. And so we’re going to exercise our language-making capacities; we’re never going to transcend that. But can we exercise it in a way that’s deliberative, rather than being confining?

To me, language is always ironic and every word I say is wrong. Even as I want it to be true, it’s untrue, and so I have to find truth within that medium. And so that’s what I’m doing. In writing a magazine article for an audience, I’m trying to communicate something sensible, so I’m necessarily in some way lying. With poetry, I’m almost always writing about language, and how language does this to us and how in the poem, we can stand within language, and undo that trap, at least for a moment.

VA: What does your writing process look like today and how has it evolved?

NF: Mostly my poems are improvised. Sometimes I have a vague idea of something that’s on my mind, but on purpose, I don’t work it out or think it through; I improvise and see what happens. I have a sense of poetic form that allows me to include all kinds of things in a way that is not necessarily logically distributed, but by feel, or by a hidden analogy, of one part to the next. So that, hopefully, there’s a sense of these things, following one after the other, but not necessarily in any way that you would anticipate. I’m trusting my mind, which I don’t conceive of as me or mine. My mind is like intersections: like, you go down to town, and there’s a red light there, and there’s an intersection where four roads come together. And then at that intersection, various cars are going by that you can take a picture of at any moment and always have a different image of that intersection. My mind is like that intersection, and all kinds of things are coming through. A poem is a photograph, taken in an instant of what’s passing through that intersection.

VA: How do you then move from that moment of improvisation to something that is ready to be published?

NF: Well, I usually write afterwards. I look at it, I see something and then I eliminate or add. And then mostly, I just forget about it. I set it aside for a lengthy period of time until I’m thinking about something completely different and I’ve totally forgotten about what it was that was going on at the time I originally wrote the poem. Then I go back and see if it’s interesting to me, if it has any life. I think what is important for me in a poem is the energy and the life force.

There is a place for bad writing too, and that’s all right. I leave the bad parts in sometimes, because they need to be there. Just like life, right? There’s parts that are not so interesting, but you can’t get from today to the next day without this in-between day.

None of my works are perfect; they’re funky in a lot of ways, and I’m okay with that. That’s part of my aesthetic. When I first started writing, I was studying whatever I could find of Zen poems and also brush painting. I realized that compared to other brush painting, the Zen brush painting was done rapidly, and almost carelessly, on purpose. I adapted that for my poetry.  

VA: I once read that Mary Oliver revised her poems an average of 17 times each. This sounded like a lot to me: is it?

NF: It’s not so surprising. 17 times sounds like a big deal, but it’s not because your revision just means you read the read the poem over and you think about it. And maybe you change one word, or a comma, or you put a word in one line or change lineation. So it’s not a big deal to revise a poem. And so revising a poem 17 times is not doesn’t seem like that much to me.

I have a friend called Joseph Lease who’s a really good poet. He is one of the poets who inspire me. Joseph’s poems use very few words; a whole book of Joseph’s might have just a handful of words in it. But Joseph revises his texts, maybe 3-400 times. I’ll get a text from Joseph maybe every couple of days and the text will say, ‘the manuscript is even better’ at version 347. He will have changed a comma, or a space in a line. But from a poet’s point of view, those are really important changes. And they make a huge difference when you’re looking that closely.

VA: What is the experience of the transition from writing to being read?

NF: I don’t know that much about that, because my poetry books are more or less obscure. I have my own little poetry universe that I’ve been occupying for my whole life as a poet. And within that universe, I’m probably read a little bit, but I’m off to the side. In my mind, I’m not really writing for an audience, I’m writing in a community. So I’m aware that I’m writing as part of a community and that community has aesthetic commitments and values.

VA: Do you think you could be writing if that community wasn’t there?

NF: No, I need that community. I usually advise younger writers to do that, to find your community and value it and support it. And that means supporting other writers, reading their books, buying their books, setting up a reading space, going to readings, reading the magazines, commenting on other people’s works, writing blurbs; to me, all that stuff is my duty. And also, it’s self-serving in the sense that I depend on the community and so I serve the community that I depend on. And I think that we all need that.

It doesn’t matter to me how many readers I have—I’m writing for the poem itself. In the beginning I thought to myself, as a priest, how could I have a career as a poet, and be worried about that, about advancing my career? So why and what am I doing here? And I thought to myself, well, what I’m doing is I’m expressing the Dharma through this art form. And that’s part of Dharma culture, and I’m given to that.

VA: Your description of the little poetry universes sounds a lot like sanghas (Buddhist practice communities). How would you describe the one you find yourself in?

NF: Well, I think nowadays, they use the term Innovative Poetry. It’s a different term from Experimental Poetry. When I was young, there was a very robust movement that created a lot of disturbance and trouble called Language Poetry. Charles Bernstein, Ron Silliman, Lyn Hejinian, Rae Armantrout, Kitt Robinson, Steve Benson; all these people were close friends of mine when I was first starting out as a writer, and remain close friends of mine. That movement had a very powerful influence on poetry of at the end of the 20th century, and was very controversial, because it rejected and even attacked the conventional personal poem.

To me, language is always ironic and every word I say is wrong. Even as I want it to be true, it’s untrue, and so I have to find truth within that medium.

Innovative poetry would be the opposite of a poet like Mary Oliver; whereas Mary Oliver has a poem which centers around the character called Mary Oliver who is experiencing a moment in her life and reflections about her life and things she’s seeing and feeling and hearing, innovative poetry is usually very language centered. That’s why they call it language poetry, because it was centered on the phenomenon of language. I was very influenced by those poets and still am because of the relationship to Zen and the Dharma: when you’re writing and you’re paying attention to the present moment, you notice that that’s what’s going on. And what’s going on is not the thing that I think I’m writing about; what’s going on is the writing of words and the mind occupied with the writing of words. That’s actually the primary experience that is happening when you’re writing poetry. So, I’m quite aware of that experience as I’m writing. And that is more an immediate experience than something I think I’m writing about.

VA: Do you have a favorite Zen poem or poet?

NF: Yes. I think my favorite Zen poem is Issa’s famous Haiku. He wrote on the death of his two-year-old daughter. ‘The world of dew is the world of dew/And yet, and yet…’ Yeah, that’s a poem about everything, right? That could be a poem about writing—the words we use are meaningless, and they blow away in the wind. And yet, and yet, we keep writing. We keep living, you know; we’re going to die in a minute—and yet, and yet, we keep living and it means something, anyway.

VA: In the foreword that Cynthia Schrager wrote for your book, she said that poetry has always been a steady counterpoint to your Zen practice. I was wondering how you saw that, and what is your idea about the relationship or the crossover between practice and poetry? How has that played out for you?

NF: I was writing before I was studying Zen. And I probably, started studying Zen because of writing, because I was really struggling as a writer, as writers often are. And practicing Zen really liberated me to a great extent from the struggle. Now, writing for me is a joy. It’s not a struggle, ever. And I think that it’s because of Zen practice that that transformation happened.

In the beginning of my writing, I didn’t really speak about Zen explicitly, or with my poetry community. Although, of course, everybody knew that I was involved in it. And vice versa: I wasn’t talking about poetry or sharing poetry in my Zen world, although there were a few people in the Zen center, notably, Philip Whalen, who was also a poet, and we and we did share that in common.

I saw them as separate, then after 25 years or so, I realized they’re really not so separate. And guess what, there are lots of people practicing Zen, who, like me, have this interest in an innovative, experimental kind of poetry. Even though the average quoted poem in a Dharma talk is not that kind of poetry, there’s a minority of people in the Zen movement who are interested in this kind of poetry. So, a lot of my readers are Zen practitioners who are interested in the art of literature rather than the message.

Although I’ve been to Japan and had encounters with Japanese teachers, all my main teachers were Americans, and all my practice happened in the United States. So, I’ve been concerned with making an American Zen poetry and American Buddhist poetry. And that means that although I can be influenced by Asian Buddhist poetry, to make an American poetry modeled on Asian Buddhist poetry doesn’t make sense as much as it does to make an American poetry that comes from the tradition of poetry in English. I feel like my whole work has been that effort.

The generation before me, the Beat writers, several of whom were serious Buddhist practitioners, including Phil Whalen and Alan Ginsburg were, in the first generation, writing by explicitly mentioning Buddhist terms and themes. I don’t do that very much; I do it on the inside. The whole shape of my poetry comes from my Buddhist practice and I’ve been very conscious of creating a western, Buddhist, poetic, cultural artifact and form so that my work will be understood on that basis.

VA: You talk about poetic forms moving from west to east, which also makes me think about the Buddhist forms that have made the same journey, and the way in which they are developing here in the United States in the second and third generation.

NF: Yeah, that’s right. That’s true, although it’s a little bit different in that in practicing Zen, we are necessarily constrained by the forms. We’re not saying, let’s just throw them out and start over, because that wouldn’t work out. We’re evolving slowly. I suppose maybe it’s analogous, except that instead of taking Buddhist forms, I’m using Western forms and shaping them to Buddhist ones.

When you’re writing and you’re paying attention to the present moment, you notice that that’s what’s going on. And what’s going on is not the thing that I think I’m writing about; what’s going on is the writing of words and the mind occupied with the writing of words. That’s actually the primary experience that is happening when you’re writing poetry.

There are people who write Haiku in English, and there are people who write Japanese-style or Chinese poems in English, more or less. And you can do that, it’s not that it’s not authentic. It’s just that that’s not what was given for me to do. I wanted to be influenced by my contemporaries. I wanted to find a different way of writing in the continuity of the English language tradition.

VA: You studied at the Iowa Writers Workshop. And then you came to San Francisco, in the 60s in the midst of a culture of poets, beatnik writers and truth-seekers. I have a pretty romanticized version in my mind of this period, and I imagine you there. Then you became a teacher, and your writing was published. At the same time, you had a family. My question is, do you see your life as having been successful? What is success?

NF: One of my books is called Success.

VA: Oh! That’s good to know. What’s it about?

NF: It’s a serial poem where I wrote 28 lines a day, a double sonnet, every single day for a year. The book is a selection of about 125 of them. It has nothing to do with success, although I think that it has everything to do with success, insofar as actual success, to me, is survival—that’s success. Can you survive as an intact human being? Period. Nothing more is necessary, but it turns out that’s not easy to do, than to survive as an intact human being with an intact heart, and an intact imagination, and an intact spirit, a whole life long. That’s to me is what success is. I think it’s much easier to become famous, or make a lot of money, or have a lot of power than it is to have that kind of success. I don’t know that I’ve achieved it, but that’s what I’ve been working toward. And that’s been my effort all along.

VA: Is remaining intact easier or harder as you get older?

NF: Well, both in a way; it depends. This is where I’m very, very grateful to Dharma practice and poetry practice, too. When the two of them go together, it really gives you a support for keeping your mind and your heart and your imagination open. And I think if you’ve been able to do that all along, then it’s much easier to do it in old age. Because by the time you’re old, whatever you needed to do and build in your life, including a family, you’ve already done. So now all you have to do is be alive and open your eyes and look at the world. It doesn’t take anything more than that to just be okay.

I don’t have to do anything anymore. Every book that I don’t publish is a book that someone else will who is younger and needs to do it. And every Dharma talk that I don’t give is a Dharma talk that someone else will give who’s younger and who needs to do it. Everything that I need to say, it’s already there. There’s so much that I’ve said that is available already that I don’t need to say another word. I feel like it’s pretty complete and all I’m doing is living another day with my eyes open, I hope.

My life is much easier now than it used to be. On the other hand, if during your life you haven’t paid attention to keeping your heart open and your eyes open and your soul intact, then old age can be very, very bad because after all, it’s a disaster being old, right? Complete disaster! Everything is going to pot; your mind doesn’t work right, your body hurts, everything is wrong. And the only thing you have to look forward to is that you’re going to fall apart entirely and get sick and die and lose everybody you ever loved. And you’re going to feel bad and scared and horrified in every way. That’s happening any day now, maybe tomorrow, and that’s really scary.

You project that onto the whole world, and then you’re totally freaked out about climate change and politics, and you think the whole world is going to pot, and the younger generation is all addicted to their devices, and they don’t know anything. And all that was good is all gone now. And that’s horrible. To be old and have that point of view could not be a worse situation. But both the worst and the best, depending on how you’ve taken care of your life. All the way through.

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