Shambhala: How did you first encounter Zen, and what was your introduction to practice like?
Norman Fischer: I got involved at first through reading—reading and thinking about my life. This was in the very early days, when there were no Zen centers or practice centers of any kind (at least that I was aware of) and the idea that Buddhism could be practiced in the West was not even thinkable. What a difference from today! So, as a young man searching for religious and philosophical meaning, reading literature and philosophy and religion looking for answers to what were, for me, highly personal, existential—not at all abstract!—dilemmas, I found D. T. Suzuki’s writings and immediately took to them. It was some years later that I discovered that there was a practice of Zen (D.T. Suzuki did not make this clear in his writings) and resolved to do the practice, and moved to San Francisco for that reason (that and the fact that it never got hot there in the summer; I hated the summer heat). I learned how to do zazen and then mostly practiced on my own for a while. Eventually I saw the need to practice with others and did that.
S: You’re known for taking Zen teaching and practice outside the zendo to people who don’t necessarily identify as Buddhists—or who very definitely don’t identify as Buddhists—like committed Christians and Jews. How does that work? What sorts of teachings do you bring them?
NF: I am not so self-conscious about taking something—Buddhist teachings—and adapting it. More or less what I have always done is just to respond to what people are concerned with and to the way they see the world. I have always been convinced that the practice and teachings are completely relevant always, and that it is just a matter of approaching each situation on its own terms, and the way to practice within those terms will be clear. As Zen indicates, the Dharma is a knack, a sense about life, not limited to a particular set of concepts. So it has been very interesting and not at all difficult to adapt—if this is what I am doing—the teachings and the practice to a variety of settings, religious and secular.
S: Does it go both ways? Do teachings from these other paths have an effect on you—either ostensibly or subtlely?
NF: Oh yes it does go both ways. If not you couldn’t be effective I think—you’d be imposing something on a situation, not creatively responding. So yes, each thing I have gotten involved with has changed my understanding—every day changes my understanding.
S: Your new book, Training in Compassion, might be seen as a kind of cross-pollination of Buddhist traditions, in that it’s your Zen-influenced view of a Tibetan Buddhist practice. Can you describe it?
NF: The book comes out of many many talks, workshops, retreats, seminars and so on that I did on the lojong text. I have long felt that as a Mahayana school Zen is all about compassion—but since the Chinese monks who developed the tradition’s style assumed compassion teachings and didn’t feel they had to emphasize them, Zen literature contains only a few explicit teachings on compassion. So Western Zen practitioners need a remedial course, and lojong brilliantly fills the bill. Of course when I comment on these or any other texts—or anything at all—I can’t escape seeing it the way I would see it, through my own personal experience and way of looking at things—which at this point is inevitably influenced by my long life in Zen practice. Tibetan Buddhism is a different approach, different flavor, different set of feelings, ideas. I thought it would be useful to look at the same text from a new perspective. Usually that has the effect of bringing out new angles and aspects. People I practiced the lojong teachings with were so enthusiastic they made transcripts and recordings so I had lots of material to work with. They really wanted me to publish the material and that’s why I decided to do it.
S: What special perspectives does Zen offer for lojong practice?
NF: Zen is so simple and direct and iconoclastic: “kill the Buddha” and all that. Tibetan Buddhism is more elaborate and more literal in its fealty to tradition. Probably a Zen approach to lojong is refreshing. Not that I have any problem with the many Tibetan-style commentaries to these teachings: most of them are very good and can’t be improved on. But to bring the teachings across to Zen students and other people I encountered in other venues I had no choice but to do it in my own way, and this book is the result.
S: And how is Zen practice affected by lojong?
NF: It brings out the compassion side more. Zen could be too severe, too stripped down, too focused on meditation experiences if you forget the compassion side.
S: Is any of the lojong slogans a particular favorite of yours?
NF: Don’t expect applause.