By Acharya Samaneti
I love books. Those who know me know that I have my nose in a book most of the time, and I love books about Buddhism the most.
When I started on my Buddhist path I read a lot of books from different schools, one could say that I was shopping for which Buddhism I would take as my home. I mostly identify as Theravada, Thai Forest Tradition more specifically; but there is no school that I love their books as much as Zen.
All dharma is good; all dharma has the possibility of waking the reader to the deeper truths of this world and this life.
I have found, however, that Zen has offered some of the books that have touched me most deeply (I still think that Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind is a book that touched me deeply and completely revolutionized my practice), I always feel that they are closest to me reading a philosophy book (my first love in my search for meaning and truth). Zen has an intellectual element that I find most of the other schools just don’t transmit in their teachings and texts.
I was very excited to check out the new book, When You Greet Me I Bow: Notes and Reflections From a Life in Zen by Norman Fischer, a student of my all-time favourite Zen teacher, Suzuki Roshi, from the San Fransisco Zen Centre (which for me is a US historical landmark, maybe it’s because I am from Canada, but it is an important centre for the foundation of Zen Buddhism in the USA in my eyes). I had also read an article in Tricycle by him in the past and had loved his style, so I knew I was in for a treat.
As a prison chaplain, I find myself becoming kind of picky with my books.
I want to be able to find teachings that will be useful for the men that I serve and for the teachings to be simple and impactful. I find myself more and more being struck by a phrase or blurb that will stick with me and play over and over in my head. This book is full of them, as I read it I found myself walking the halls of my prison reflecting on a line or paragraph that stuck with me and changed my view just slightly.
Two examples for me, I often work with the men on acceptance (they are newly incarcerated and suffer greatly by pushing against the new reality that they are living, a refusal of acceptance of their current situation); Fischer writes, “Acceptance is not resignation. Acceptance is a lively engagement with conditions as they are.”
These two simple sentences stayed with me, I still come back to them today, it is simple and yet it is so profound and useful for us all. This is what I love about Zen, these short, simple, and profound statements. I don’t know about you, but just carrying these words in my heart makes me feel lighter—my sept seems to bounce more and I feel so much more connected to the present moment.
I really liked Norman Fischer; I feel that his personality really shined through his words and the pages of the book.
I feel like I know him, and I think that we would really get along, especially with our shared love of philosophy. I love it when dharma teachers bring Socrates to the discussions and teachings; I really believe that he shares certain similarities (besides the one where they both didn’t write down any of their teachings/ideas and they were written by their students which can make one doubt if this is the single wisdom of one person or the collected wisdom of a group) and Fischer I think would agree and confirms it with this great paragraph on a similarity that is shared between Buddha and Socrates:
“Buddha spent his life talking to people. Like Socrates, he was one of the greatest masters of talking to people in recorded history. One gets the sense in the sutras that the Buddha talked not because he was particularly loquacious, or because he was given to elaborate explanations, but in order to help people see through the smokescreen of their own language and views.
Once someone asked him for his secret in answering questions as effectively as he did. He said that he had four ways of answering questions: One way was categorically-simply to say yes or no without ambiguity. The second way was to examine the question analytically, clarifying definitions terms, trying to determine what was actually being asked, usually by deconstructing the question.
Most of the time when the Buddha employed this method, there was no need to answer the question: under analysis the question proved meaningless. The third way was by posing a counter-question, whose purpose was to bring the questioner back to his or her own mind, redirecting attention away from the entanglement of the language of the question to something real that stood behind it.
The fourth way was simply by putting the question aside, because some questions are so hopelessly entangled that to take them up on any terms at all would be to get stuck in them like flypaper—which doesn’t help. Trying to answer these questions is like trying to get through a wall by beating your head against it—it is ineffective and you get a sore head. To put the question aside is to walk around the wall without beating your head bloody. This way you do get to the other side, which is, after all, the important thing. So sometimes the Buddha’s response to a question was silence.”
I appreciated his wisdom and all that he shared with me.
It is a perfect mixture of life experience with the Buddhist teachings—the foundational ingredients of a great dharma teacher and their teachings. He is funny, open to seeing the truth that was offered to him by the dharma and life, gifted in sharing teachings that feel deep, true, and very human and touching. I also really liked how this book is a collection of chapters that stand on their own, divided into four section: A Buddha And A Buddha; Form Is Emptiness; East/West; Difference And Dharma, it is a book that we can keep at our bedside and turn towards when we need to lean on the dharma.
This book is for seasoned practitioners or very green beginners; this is a beautiful gift for Buddhists everywhere, not just Zen students. This is a great book for this summer, going to the park, reading a chapter and letting Fischer’s words and wisdom inspire your reflections. I leave you one last gem from this book; get the book and see what touches you most deeply…
Longtan made rice cakes for a living. But when he met the priest Tianhuang, he left home to follow him.
Tianhuang said, “Be my attendant. From now on, I will teach you the essential dharma gate.”
After a year, Longtan said, “When I arrived, you said you would teach me. But so far nothing has happened.”
Tianhuang said, “I’ve been teaching you all along.”
Longtan said, “What have you been teaching me?”
Tianhuang said, “When you greet me I bow. When I sit you stand beside me. When you bring tea I receive it from you.”
Photo: Shambhala Publications