Thursday, January 15, 2009

And Yet, and Yet....

Last night I was attending the weekly seminar that my Zen teacher, Norman Fischer, offers in Corte Madera. Two days before, Norman lost his closest spiritual friend, his anam cara of 40 years, Rabbi Alan Lew. Rabbi Lew was teaching at a retreat on the East Coast, went for a walk, and died on the side of the road.

Norman and Alan practiced together at Tassajara Zen Monastery in the 1980's, and became life-long friends there. One became a Zen priest, one became a rabbi, seemingly divergent paths, but for the last three decades they have continued to practice and teach together, illuminating each other's lives and bringing back contemplative practices into American Judaism in ways that have reverberated throughout the world and have touched hundreds or thousands of people. What finer example of spiritual friendship could there be?

I didn't think Norman would be at the seminar this week. I knew he'd been with Rabbi Lew's family since Monday, carrying not only his own huge grief but the grief of the people who most loved and needed his friend. But he came and sat and spoke to us. This month we're studying the Heart Sutra , which is the most important and widely chanted text from the Buddhist emptiness teachings...teachings that form the basis of both Zen and Tibetan Buddhism.

The emptiness teachings offer a radical, fluid and open view of reality - one that emphasizes interconnection, grasplessness, boundlessness. We think we know what we are and what the world is, but it (and we) are essentially ungraspable, beyond categories and thought, not independently existing in the way we tend to think we are. This can be either frightening or freeing, depending on how comfortable one is with not knowing exactly what's going on.

There is a poem about life and reality from the end of the Diamond Sutra:

"As a lamp, a cataract, a star in space
an illusion, a dewdrop, a bubble
a dream, a cloud, a flash of lightning
view all created things like this." (trans Red Pine, 2001)

So from this perspective, even life and death are not what they seem and there's nothing to mourn. Rabbi Lew has simply (as Norman said at one point in his talk), "radically changed form". And there's truth, and sometimes even comfort in seeing things this way. But then there is the matter of the human heart.

The 18th century Haiku poet Issa endured a life of extraordinary tragedy, including the early deaths of his wife and all three of his children. His most powerful haiku was composed at the grave of his daughter, Sato:

The world of dew
is a world of dew, and yet
and yet...

No matter what we know, no matter how clearly we know that the nature of the world and our lives is fundamental impermanence, we cry when the flowers fall, or as Norman said last night, "Love dictates that I not give up my tears."

There's a beautiful koan, a Zen story, about a woman, a student of the famous teacher Hakuin, whose beloved niece had died. She was standing in front of the altar, sobbing, when another of Hakuin's students entered the hall. He scolded her and said, "I thought you were a true Zen person. Why are you crying?" (in other words, "I thought you understood the emptiness teachings, but it looks like you don't"). She turned to him and said, "My tears are my offerings to my niece, the candles and flowers on the altar to honor her life and death."

I've heard the teachings of the Heart Sutra many times, but seeing my teacher sitting in front of us in all of his tremendous sorrow, teaching with his whole body the deep paradox of life- that everything slips away, and nothing slips away, and still we cry, still we love, still we break over and over again - well, last night I felt the Heart Sutra in my bones, in the center of the center of my heart.

You can hear Norman's talk here.


  1. Thanks for this, Florence. A great reminder of what we all know and yet need to practice remembering. And I couldn't help but remember the end scene from "Enlightenment Guaranteed" where chanting the Heart Sutra shows up! (Have you seen that movie?) I appreciate your sharing your experiences.

  2. "Enlightenment Guaranteed" is one of my all-time favorites. I also think it's one of the funniest movies I've ever seen. I haven't seen the most recent film by the same director, about Ed Brown, "How to Cook Your Life", but would really like to someday. Hard to find those videos.