Norman Fischer

Understanding a Mask as a Mask

From Sailing Home: Using Homer's Odyssey to Navigate Life's Perils and Pitfalls by Norman Fischer:

Sailing Home: Using Homer's Odyssey to Navigate Life's Perils and Pitfalls It may seem surprising, or quite counterintuitive, that finally arriving home would require us, first of all, to take great care to conceal ourselves. Doesn’t coming home mean coming home to our true selves, finally dropping all the masks and standing revealed as we are? Why then is such caution, such deception, necessary?

Perhaps dropping the masks requires that we put them on. This is paradoxical, yet true to life. It’s naïve to think that there’s a real self behind all the masks, and that when we take off the masks we will find that self. In fact, there’s no way not to wear a mask. Our masks are our deceptive, partial, social identities that enable us to operate in the world, to reach out to one another, so that we can be revealed. Wherever we are we’ve got to be somebody. We always have a role to play. At work we are workers, professionals, managers; in our personal lives we are friends, acquaintances, relatives; at home we are fathers, mothers, spouses, siblings. In the course of any day we put on and take off masks many times. These masks can sometimes make us weary, especially if we feel we have become only a mask. We can long for a freedom beyond our roles, a place of quiet and truth. This is what our hearts have yearned for; this is why we’ve been journeying all this time toward home.

But once again we’ve mixed things up, we haven’t looked closely enough, we’ve failed to reckon on the complexity and paradoxical nature of the situation. Just as we have seen that true awareness includes unconsciousness, sleep, and dreams, now we see that fully revealing ourselves requires masks. To think we can throw off the masks and emerge pristinely as “I” is to be like the father who thinks he can be a pal, rather than a dad, to his son. He can be a pal, but only by wearing the dad mask. Understanding a mask as a mask, we can wear it properly. Wearing it properly, we can find out what’s behind it. A close friend of mine, a Zen priest and business coach, states this succinctly in one of his “business paradoxes.” “At work we should be completely ourselves,” he writes. “And we must play a role.” This wise saying applies to all spheres of life.

Listening Transforms the Listener

Excerpts from Taking Our Places by Norman Fischer:

Taking Our Places “Listening is magic: it turns a person from an object outside, opaque or dimly threatening, into an intimate experience, and therefore into a friend. In this way, listening softens and transforms the listener.

Listening is basic and crucial because it is the soil out of which all the fruits of our human relationships grow. Listening takes radical openness to another, and radical openness requires surrender. This is why listening is frightening, although we don’t usually think of it that way. It requires a kind of fearless self-confidence that most of us have never developed.

…If you want to stay open to life and to change, you have to listen. To listen, really listen, is to accord respect. Without respect, no human relationship can function normally, for the pain and hurt that inevitably arise from disrespect eventually pervert it. When your mind is occupied (usually quite unconsciously) with your own thoughts and plans and strategies and defenses, you are not listening. And when you are not listening, you are not according respect. The speaker knows this and reacts accordingly.

It doesn’t take a psychic to know that someone is not really listening. We all know whether or not we are being listened to. But we are so accustomed to not being listened to that we take it for granted and even see it as normal. This is why it is so startling, and so powerful, almost magical, when we are actually heard by another person within the openness of true listening.

Perhaps the most common and pernicious form of nonlistening is our nonlistening to ourselves. So much of what we actually feel and think is unacceptable to us. We have been conditioned over a lifetime to simply not hear all of our own self-pity, anger, desire, jealousy, wonder. Most of what we take to be our adult response is no more than our unconscious decision not to listen to what goes on inside us. And as with any human relationship, not listening to ourselves damages our self-respect. It occludes the free flow of love from ourselves to ourselves. To allow ourselves to feel what we actually do feel—not to be afraid or dismayed but to open up a space inside our hearts large enough to safely contain what we feel, with the faith that whatever comes up is workable and even necessary—this is what any healthy, mature human being needs to do and what we so often fail to do.”

Wider and Deeper

“In Zen literature the word intimacy is often used as a synonym for enlightenment. In the classical Zen enlightenment stories, a monk or a nun is reduced simultaneously to tears and laughter as he or she suddenly recognizes that nothing in this world is separate, that each and every thing, including one’s own self, is nothing but the whole, and that the whole is nothing but the self. What are such stories telling us if not that love is much wider and deeper than an emotion? Love is the fruition of, the true shape of, one’s self and all that is.”

~ Norman Fischer, from Taking Our Places

We’ve Seen it All Before

Excerpt from the introduction of Taking Our Places: The Buddhist Path to Truly Growing Up by Norman Fischer:

Taking Our Places Another characteristic of maturity — one that any of us would mention — is experience. A grown-up is someone who is experienced and, through having lived long enough to have seen many things, has a point of view and a measure of savvy about how life works. There is certainly no substitute for the experience that accumulates as the years go by, but it is also possible to be alive for a long time and not really experience our living, not really see our life. The human capacity for self-deception and blindness runs deep. We may be alive, but we have not necessarily lived. If we accumulate experiences without really engaging with them, then our experience tends to make us stodgy and boring. As we catalog and define our experiences, possessing them without ever really being possessed by them, we begin to expect that new situations will just be repetitions of old ones. Soon we feel as if we’ve seen it all before. We know what to expect. Our point of view gradually becomes a set of blinders rather than a searching flashlight.

But if we pay close and open attention to our experiences, life’s larger patterns begin to come into view. We see that all things are transitory and unique. Nothing repeats. We understand that, though always instructive, the past can never tell us what the future will be. Within the larger pattern that experience reveals, there are endless variations. Insofar as we see this, our experience increases our wonder at and appreciation of all that happens. With little life experience, we might be naively excited by the novelty of a person we meet or an event that occurs. But when we truly appreciate our experience, we respond to that newness with a deeper understanding of its meaning and wonder as we relate it to what we have seen before. Far from dampening our sense of wonder, real experience refreshes and mellows it.

Become What You Are

Excerpt from the introduction of Taking Our Places: The Buddhist Path to Truly Growing Up by Norman Fischer:

Time is strange. We live within it, depend on it, take it for granted, yet it relentlessly passes, and our lives slip through our fingers moment by moment. Where does time come from, and where does it go? How is it that every moment we are different, we grow, we develop, we are born, we die? What are we supposed to be doing with this life?

After many years of grappling with these questions during the course of my long spiritual journey, I have come to have a feeling for their answers. We don’t really know what appears, what time is, where it goes. But we are here to try to understand. And we all have our own way of understanding, and of expressing that understanding through the living of our lives.

Each of us has a place in this world. Taking that place, I have come to feel, is our real job as human beings. We are not generic people, we are individuals, and when we appreciate that fact completely and allow ourselves to embrace it and grow into it fully, we see that taking our unique place in this world is the one thing that gives us a sense of ultimate fulfillment.

Bantu tribesmen, it is said, sneak into the rooms of their children as they sleep and whisper in their ears, “Become what you are.”

To take our place is to mature, to grow into what we are. Mostly we take maturity for granted, as if it were something that comes quite naturally and completely as our bodies grow and our minds and hearts fill up with life experience. In fact, however, few of us are truly mature individuals; few of us really occupy our places. We are merely living out a dream of maturity, a set of received notions and images that passes for adulthood. What does it really mean to grow up? How do we do the work that will nurture a truly mature heart from which can flow healing words and deeds? Each of our lives depends on our undertaking the exploration that these questions urge us toward. And the mystery is that the whole world depends on each of us to take this human journey.

Offering the Self

This poem is a retelling of one of the Jātaka tales, Asian folktales which recount various acts of self-sacrifice performed by earlier incarnations of the Buddha. I came across this poem in Norman Fischer’s Talks on Dogen's Genjokoan published in "Moon in a Dewdrop" (Part 4).

The Rabbit in the Moon
by Ryōkan Taigu

Moon rabbit It took place in a world long long ago they say:
a monkey, a rabbit, and a fox struck up a friendship,
morning frolicking field and hill,
evenings coming home to the forest,
living thus while the years went by,
when Indra, sovereign of the skies,
hearing of this,
curious to know if it was true,
turned himself into an old man,
tottering along,
made his way to where they were.

“You three,” he said, “are of separate species
yet play together with a single heart.
If what I’ve heard is true,
pray save an old man who’s hungry!”
then he set his staff aside,
sat down to rest.

Simple enough, they said, and presently
the monkey appeared from the grove behind
bearing nuts he’d gathered there,
and the fox returned from the rivulet in front,
clamped in his jaws a fish he’d caught.

But the rabbit,
though he hopped and hopped everywhere
couldn’t find anything at all,
while the others cursed him
because his heart was not like theirs.

Miserable me! he thought,
and then he said
“Monkey, go cut me firewood!
Fox, build me a fire with it!”
and when they’d done what he’d asked,
he flung himself into the midst of the flames,
made himself an offering
for an unknown man.

When the old man saw this his heart withered.
He looked up to the sky,
cried aloud,
then sank to the ground,
and in a while,
beating his breast, said to the others,

“Each of you three friends has done his best,
but what the rabbit did touches me the most!”

Then he made the rabbit whole again
and gathering the dead body up in his arms,
took it and laid it to rest in the palace of the moon.

From that time till now
the story’s been told,
this tale of
how the rabbit came to be in the moon,
and even I
when I hear it
find the tears
soaking the sleeve of my robe.

Something Fresh and Inspired

"Although my way of life and understanding have been thoroughly saturated by Zen, I am still a Westerner, so I have found in the Psalms a very familiar music that seems to express my own approach to enlightenment: the passionate, prickly, and lively noise that naturally seems to rise from the silent depths of my own heart.”

~ Norman Fischer

A Disappointment with a Mask

“Expectations are very dangerous things. The more of them we have, the more fixated we are on them, the more miserable we will probably be. Every expectation is a disappointment with a mask on it. Even when it happens that we get exactly what we expected, it’s never exactly what we expected because the anticipation is never the reality. And even if it feels like it, then the next minute it’s gone anyway. So this is not going to work out. It’s clear.

We need to have some drive, some desire, some feeling that it’s necessary to go forward and some energy to propel us forward, but to expect some particular result is to construct a gigantic roadblock right in the middle of where you’re trying to go.”

~ Norman Fischer, from a talk on Art Making

What Was There All Along

What Was There All Along

"Though we think of metaphor as a mere figure of speech, something poetic and decorative, in fact metaphors abound in our lives, underlying many concepts that we take for granted. And metaphors condition, far more than we realize, the way we think about ourselves and our world, and therefore the way we are and act." ~ Norman Fischer

Tree of Contemplative Practices

From the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society:

The Tree of Contemplative Practices illustrates some of the contemplative practices that have been developed over the past few thousand years. This is not intended to be a comprehensive list; the practices listed on the Tree are drawn from those mentioned by survey respondents during our 2001-2004 research project.


The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society helped design the Search Inside Yourself program at Google.

Sailing Home

From Authors@Google (October 10, 2008):

Sailing Home: Using the Wisdom of Homer's Odyssey to Navigate Life's Perils “In Sailing Home, renowned Zen teacher Norman Fischer deftly incorporates Buddhist, Judaic, Christian, and popular thought, as well as his own unique and sympathetic understanding of life, in his reinterpretation of Odysseus's familiar wanderings as lessons that everyone can use. We see how to resist the seduction of the Sirens' song to stop sailing and give up; how to bide our time in a situation and wait for the right opportunity; and how to reassess our story and rediscover our purpose and identity if, like the Lotus-Eaters, we have forgotten the past. With meditations that yield personal revelations, illuminating anecdotes from Fischer's and his students' lives, and stories from many wisdom traditions, Sailing Home shows the way to greater purpose in your own life.”

“So this is the mystery and the pain of our lives: every one of us is exactly where we need to be, but we don’t know it. We’re looking for somewhere else to be. The spiritual odyssey, life’s deepest and most significant undertaking, involves a great effort and inevitably it leads us on through many disasters and troubles in the checkered course of our living and growing. And where to we end up? Back where we started from. Back to ourselves. Only now maybe with more wisdom.” ~ Norman Fischer 


A Little Out of Scale

Norman Fischer speaking with Vince Horn on Buddhist Geeks (Episode129 -- Buddhism May Need a Plan B):

BG ...twenty-five years ago nobody went to the gym. Now we've well established through research in our society that exercise is really important so there's a gym on every corner. Well, why isn't there a meditation hall on every corner? Haven’t we established the fact that some spiritual endeavor is just as important for inner health as exercise is for the body? So there ought to be meditation halls on every corner and people should know how important this is and feel like it makes sense to access it and pay for it so that there could be people to offer it.

I mean that there is tremendous spike in research on meditation. Just in last three or four years. It’s exponentially increased and all the research is always showing the same thing that meditation is actually a effective, that it really works, and that it has all kind of benefits. So people seem to believe in research and scientific data, but just talk to your friends who do this practice and that’s probably enough to convince you even without the scientific data.

...It's funny, you know? I'm gone do a retreat for the army for Norman Fischer      caregivers and chaplains. So the Army's going to spend fifty cents to pay me to do the retreat and then a million dollars to study the effects of the retreat over time.’s very expensive to conduct research. Very expensive. A million dollar research grant is not an unusual grant. A million dollar gift to a dharma center or for a teacher training or something like that is very, very rare. So it’s a little out of scale.

[The conversation continues in Episode 130 -- Buddhism and the Evolution of Religion. Check out Norman Fischer’s article, “Why We Need a Plan B,” in the summer issue of Buddhadharma.]