issue 23 Summer 04
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Positively Puzzled

Bewilderment has been a lifelong experience for Norman Fischer - and has spurred his urgent search for the truth.

Whenever anyone asks me how I came to be a Zen priest and abbot I always say it was an accident. This is really the truth. While I admire people who seem to have a religious destiny and interest - and now I know many people like this - I am afraid that I am just not such a person. Mainly I am, and have been most of my life, bewildered. I mean this in the literal sense: 'bewildered', meaning being aware of the many situations there are in any one situation, the many ways there always are of looking at anything, of understanding anything, the basic perplexity inherent in being human and living in a world that we make with our senses and our minds.

The dictionary tells me that the 'be' of 'bewilder' means be, as in 'to be'; but it also means 'completely and utterly'. 'Wilder' means to be lost in a place where there are so many paths you can't tell where to go. It means to be in the wilderness where there aren't any paths at all - just open spaces or filled spaces with no clearings. So to be bewildered is to see many paths and also to see that the whole world is open and wild, and there aren't any paths. Wherever you are, whatever happens, is a path, and also a question: a path that leads to a new path.

This is how I have always felt. The world truly bewildering and this what makes it so marvellous. You can't explain it. Of course can probably will many things, but these explanations, beautiful in their own way, do not really tell anything. real - anyone's life too strange, bewildering, to be explained.

I started my Zen practice not as a spiritual person but as a poet. Although I did not become a poet on purpose, neither was it an accident. I was forced into it by circumstances. I was born at the very end of World War II, when the soldiers were returning home from the battlefield with a great hope that things could now be normal and life would be better than it had been before the war. People in general are admirably able to find hope, no matter how hopeless things might seem. This is something to remember and to count on in hopeless times.

But although everyone in those days was trying to be hopeful, they in fact were traumatised by what had happened in the war. As a child I felt this universal trauma as a kind of coating on top of things, like dust that was constantly swirling around and would inevitably settle on whatever you brought into the room. I could feel it but no-one ever spoke about it or even seemed to know it was there. But children always know what's there, even if they can't say what it is. Instead they feel it mythically, and are bewildered by it. This is, I think, fairly normal.

We grow up knowing there's a gap between how the world actually is - how we experience it - and how adults see things and explain them to us. It is one of the great travesties and mistakes of human culture that we tend to treat children as childish. Instead we ought to seek their advice, and try to consider their point of view as being essential to human understanding. Of course it would make no sense to ask children for practical advice about how to run the government - this is our unfortunate task as adults. But when running the government causes us to forget the profundity of the child's point of view we are truly sunk. Jesus meant something like this I think when he said, 'You should be as little children.'

Being bewildered in a traumatised world, I was constantly forced to doubt the world as it was presented and to try and understand it on my own. This was the only form of self-defence I could think of. I began writing poetry as a way to understand what I otherwise could not, because thinking could never get me there. I could see how limited thinking was. Although poetry has never helped me understand anything, it has helped me to keep on trying to understand by giving me a method larger than my own mind and personality. But poetry also makes it clear that the gap between how things are and how we live is immense. So poetry can make life seem a lot worse. This was what happened to me.

Here is a recent poem of mine that may have something to do with this:

These pages are years, days, nights
Words pasted on like flashes of black light
Points of space that swallow apples and dates
Until all that's occurred - places, moments, events -
Folds into the general whole
As a sea humpswaves that fall and spray against rocks
hen rock out again, swaying -
How the heart can be like a rock
How it can be blue, like a curtain or a sky
How it can be a royal crown upon a noble skull
Sliding out from the general scheme of things.
I walked along the shore and saw
Two dead cormorants, an eyeless pelican, flies walking in the sockets
Sky with banks of golden pearl gray cloud
A smeared rainbow flaring indistinct against the horizon -
Objects are neither solid nor discreet
Subjects repeat themselves as waves
With variations, spray, trajectory, rhyme -
Birth comes this time of year
To those who wait it, doubled

Poetry was making life really impossible, so I could see I needed to close the gap by finding a way to turn the whole of life into poetry. This was the only hope. I was feeling this when I first encountered Zen books, which seemed to provide what I was looking for. This is how I understood Zen then - as a way to live so that all of life could be poetry, so the gap between the way things are and the way people live and think could somehow be closed. And you could live life whole and true; it could be beautiful and purposeful, even if things were difficult, and even if you never really discovered the purpose of your life.

So my motivation to practise Zen wasn't really spiritual. You could say it was aesthetic and practical: I wanted to find a sustainable way to live. When I found out about zazen practice it immediately struck me as desperately important. I don't know why - possibly because I sensed that to do what I wanted to do I needed to approach things from an entirely different angle. As an iconoclast by temperament and upbringing, I didn't like Buddhas and bowing and robes; that all seemed faintly ridiculous to me. But I really liked : both the idea of it and actually doing it. It was never boring. I could never figure it out nor tire of it because it was so simple it was almost nothing at all.

I started doing zazen each day and I have continued ever since. It just so happened that doing zazen intensively required me to bow to Buddha figures and, eventually, to wear robes and take ordinations. Of course I had a lot of resistance to that but it was small compared to my certainty that it was necessary to live in a way that kept me trying to understand life. The resistance was only me and my little preferences and conditioning, whereas the necessity to continue with zazen was much broader. So I persisted. This may sound more noble than it actually was. In fact I was terrified not to practise zazen, not to live out this desperate quest for the truth. I imagined I would not otherwise be able to bear life. I could imagine no other possibility. So I was willing to do whatever it took.

We all have theories of course - to be human is to theorise - and our theories are autobiographical. My theory is that humans need to live a life that's whole and meaningful and beautiful, a life devoted to pursuing the real. It seems to me, starting with my own experience, that all human beings want and need to make this kind of effort, which is why art and religion have evolved in human culture. From childhood we have dreams, images and longings; these ripen into a vision of life that we need to understand for ourselves, uniquely and experientially.

This is why there is such a thing as a spiritual path. To me, a spiritual path isn't separate from ordinary life, not an alternative to emotional life and material life. The spiritual path is simply a way to stay true to what arises during a human lifetime, whatever that may be. It's true we need some methods and rules, some techniques and teachings. These are practical matters, like food and clothing of the soul. There are many kinds of good food and appropriate clothing - there can also be foods that are bad for you and clothing that is uncomfortable or wrong for the weather. We need to find what works. But, in any case, the teachings and techniques of a spiritual path aren't themselves the spiritual path.

Spiritual reality, spiritual truth, is always bewildering, never entirely knowable. We can know some things. For a little while we can feel we know something that is true. Mostly we can be surprised by a feeling of wonder - or gratitude or gentle perplexity. But we never really possess the truth. It's a kind of craziness to think we know the truth. My favourite line in the Zen ordination ceremony is: 'The path is vast and wide. Not even a Buddha can define it.'

I believe everyone without exception wants and needs to live with spiritual integrity, but I know there is not much evidence for this. The vast majority of people are not concerned with spiritual integrity. Even if they say they are, they actually probably aren't. They are concerned with economic well-being, with their families, with social status, power and so on. Or maybe they are just concerned with survival. It is today, and has always been, a minority of people who devote themselves to a thoroughgoing exploration of Reality.

Nevertheless I believe all human beings share that need, and that everyone has some native sense of its importance. Anyone is stopped short on entering a silent meditation hall or a cathedral. Taking a minute just to sit still there, anyone can feel something greater and wider than the literalism of mundane life. Something similar can happen when you read a poem or see a great picture. We know about this because we all realise (whether or not we think about it) that we've come here from nowhere and that when we are done we'll return to nowhere. The minority of people devoted to a thoroughgoing exploration of Reality - to spiritual practice of whatever kind - do so on behalf of the others. In the end this is the only way it can be done.

Zoketsu Norman Fischer is the former Abbot of San Francisco Zen Center. His new book of poetry, Slowly but Dearly, will be published later in 2004 by Chax Press.