Norman Fischer is a poet, a prose writer and the guiding teacher of the Everyday Zen community, with sanghas in the US, Canada and Mexico. He was a resident of Tassajara Zen Mountain Monastery and Green Gulch Farm, and for several years he served as abbot of San Francisco Zen Center. One of the signatures of his teaching is his interest in different religious traditions and his valuing of the very idea of religion. He lives with his wife in Muir Beach, California. Their sons, daughters-in-law and grandchildren live on the East Coast. Fischer’s most recent books are The Strugglers (Singing Horse Press, 2013) and Training in Compassion: Zen Teachings on the Practice of Lojong (Shambhala, 2013). Susan Moon interviewed him via e-mail.
Inquiring Mind: When you were a child growing up in an observant Jewish home, did you believe in God?
Norman Fischer: My impression of “ belief in God” in Judaism—at least the way I grew up Jewish—is that it isn’t a question. It was never discussed because it wouldn’t have made sense to discuss it. It was just assumed—deeply assumed. The ideas of “ belief” and “ faith” seem to be inherently Christian concepts. But growing up we had no such idea. You were Jewish whether you liked it or not: if you tried to escape being Jewish, eventually you’d be found out, so there was no use denying it. It was for better or worse a fact of life. Like being a man or a woman. And then if you were Jewish you did Jewish—that is, you went to synagogue, observed kashrut [dietary laws] and so on. So God wasn’t an issue; God was just a basic assumption that had to do with being Jewish. You were you, ergo God was God. To tell the truth, this still seems true to me.
As a child the way it seemed true to me (and still does!) had to do with the strangeness of the experience of being alive: literally perceiving, feeling, thinking and so on. The world just seemed strange. This must have to do with God—that was the reasoning. So, for instance, walking to synagogue holding my dad’s hand and seeing the sparkling substance in the sidewalk as we glided by: how else would that be possible if not for God?
In Judaism as I knew it there was no theology; there were just stories. You read stories in the Torah every week—stories about people trying to engage God—not because they believed but because God was involved in their lives as a fact: experientially. Clearly these were stories. Not exactly historically true: more true than that. I remember being very small and listening to a recording of Bible stories. God spoke in a booming baritone male voice—very intimidating, very frightening. I used to hide under the table. On the other hand it was thrilling, and I listened to this record again and again.
IM: How did your sense of God change when you were a young man?
NF: As I grew up my sense of God didn’t particularly change. I studied religion and philosophy and became more sophisticated in my way of thinking and speaking about God. I no longer believed (but I don’t think I ever did) that God was watching over and protecting us in some anthropomorphic way. But this increased sophistication did not change my earliest ideas about God. I was just learning more and more developed ways of thinking about what I knew all along.
Now I do believe in the benevolent protection of God. Not in the sense that good things will always come to good people whom God loves, but in the sense that something always happens, and that what happens is what it is and not something else, and that therefore there is a special virtue in it. Whether or not we discover the virtue is our problem. That seems to me to be ample evidence of God’s tremendous compassion and grace. We can absolutely depend on it!
IM: When you began to practice Zen, did you think about God? Did you miss God?
NF: When I started to practice Zen, I was just going on to the next thing that naturally called to me, assuming that the religion stuff was still relevant and would still be there when I needed it. I guess I had an enormous confidence in my sense of Jewish identity, backed up by God. I didn’t think I needed to tend to it; I could move on to whatever was next and it would all be okay. When I started to practice Zen, it was like that: my explorations had led me to Zen naturally and this is what I was going to give myself to, with the same kind of full-on hysteria with which I’d given myself to the great American triumvirate of baseball, football, basketball—and to girls.
Now it was Zen. But I didn’t miss God or wonder whether I was abandoning God or God was abandoning me. I assumed that God would always be around. Because if God is simply embedded in the strange fact of existence, then how could God not always be part of the equation? The fact that God is officially not an issue in Buddhism—or is, in some forms of Buddhism, apparently denied—didn’t trouble me at all. Different language game. No problem. Anyway, Zen seems not to be invested in denying the idea of God. Suzuki Roshi mentions God several times in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, with apparent approval.
IM: Did you return to your Jewish practice after you were a Zen practitioner/teacher, or was it always there?
NF: I didn’t practice Judaism much when I began doing Zen. I was living in a Zen temple and it was a very full life, no time for it. But when our kids were old enough we did seders and other stuff, and then when my mother died in 1985 I wanted to say Kaddish (prayer for the dead) for her so I went to the nearest synagogue and told the rabbi who I was (a Zen priest by then) and why I wanted to be there. He said okay; he was a very nice man. I got involved with regular attendance there, with my mother in mind.
Then in 1990 my dear and now departed friend Rabbi Alan Lew returned to the Bay Area, and from then on I began doing a lot of Jewish practice with him. We started a Jewish meditation center, Makor Or, that I still direct and teach at. I learned a lot from him, and he got me to study a lot, which I still enjoy. Judaism is fascinating. So I actually have quite a lot to do with Judaism.
IM: How does your Jewish meditation practice frame the idea of God?
NF: Our Jewish meditation theory is that God is presence—presence both within and beyond your life (within and beyond turn out to be completely mutually implicated, when you look closely). And that while Judaism knows this and Jewish practice is meant to foster it, in fact most contemporary Jews do not have access to the richness of God-encounter that Judaism contains, because a major motivation for Jewish observance is to strengthen the community—which is not only reasonable and salutary, it is also self-protective conditioning from a long history of oppression. So this is where the meditation comes in: it is easy access to God-encounter, through encountering your own body, breath, mind and presence. I speak of God all the time at Makor Or—and sometimes at Everyday Zen too.
IM: What, if anything, did you tell your children about God?
NF: I communicated to my children what my parents communicated to me—God is obvious, necessary and ubiquitous. It is not a matter of belief or faith. And you don’t need the word God if it seems to cause you problems. After all, does it make sense that God would be limited to positive feelings about a three-letter word in the English language, and that if you had a problem somehow with that word (because maybe where you live it is socially unacceptable) that God would cease to exist for you? No, this makes no sense! There is no doubt there is more to life than meets the eye, more to being alive than the material world. In fact, there is more to the material world than the material world! What is this “ more” if not God? It’s also fine to call it something else. As to the question of God as personal: as [philosopher Emmanuel] Levinas says somewhere, of course God is personal, because we are persons.
IM: Do you pray? If so, to whom?
NF: I pray all the time. To God. I am asking God to help out with this and that, mostly friends who are ill, people who have died, the crazy messed-up sad and foolish world. Please help with all of this, God, as I know you will. I am never disappointed with God’s active response. Because I know what to expect. And I am thanking God a lot for almost everything.
IM: Have you had moments of feeling directly connected to God?
NF: I usually feel directly connected to God. I’m alive and I can tell I am alive.
IM: What is God like?
NF: God is like life, like being. Which of necessity involves death and not being—and this is where the God part comes into it.
IM: What is your responsibility as a Zen teacher, in talking to Zen students (like me) who yearn for God, or to other students who come to Zen relieved that at last they don’t have to “ believe in God” ?
NF: As you know, I resist the idea of myself as a Zen teacher. There are roles to occupy, and I have mine; everyone has his or hers. I am interested in responding honestly to anyone I meet, as far as I can understand that person. I hope it helps but I never really know. If it does help, the reason is not my wisdom and brilliance, it is the luck (you could also call it karma) that produces a fruitful encounter between two people meeting in the middle of a dazzlingly complicated world. Since I am sensitive to language because of my long-standing poetry habit, I don’t get caught up in debating with someone about their choice of words. I think useful truth is in the meaning, not the words. The art is to find the words to indicate something to this person now. Speaking of which, I’ll close with a poem from my 2004 collection Slowly But Dearly.
God arrives in the transitions—
the times between before and after
the shatterings, bendings, breakings
moments of devilment and blasted pose—
The feeling then arises,
a draft in the system
tiny shaft of light in the visual field
which, when noticed and affirmed,
opens out to an aura on the screen of eclectic ineffability—
One’s arms open in quietude and perplexity
There’s nothing to say, do, or think