April 19, 2005
By Norman Fischer | 4/20/2005 @ 6:01 am
April 19, 2005
I am a member of the Board of the Elijah Interfaith Institute, an international think tank on interreligious dialog and peace. They have meetings all over the world in places like Taiwan, Jerusalem, and Spain and I usually can't attend. For their upcoming meeting on "The Crisis of the Holy" they asked all board members to answer some questions. Here is what I sent them:
I will follow your invitation to be brief and informal in my responses to your questions. Thank you for asking them and for the ongoing efforts you are making to try to help bring religion to a place where it can help solve the world's problems, rather than make them worse. I believe in this mission and regret very much that I have not been able to participate with you. I look forward to the day when I will be able to join you for a conference.
1) How would you describe, briefly, the leading challenges facing your society?
American society as everyone round the world knows is in a very challenged state. It is a divided society in which public discourse is difficult and confused. It is a society going down what I would consider a devastatingly problematic road in terms of ecological policy, foreign policy, social policy, and economic policy. For the first time it seems possible that America could become a thoroughly intolerant and dangerous fascist state, that there could be ecological, social, and economic collapse. The intellectual and artistic communities in America have never mattered less to the middle and ruling classes, and their voices of dismay are marginalized as never before. The rise of passionate religiosity has made all this worse, not better. With the media in a state of hyper frenzy it is almost impossible for voices of reason to be heard above the buzz and din.
2) How do these challenges affect religious institutions and religious practices in your society?
It is hard for me, a Buddhist operating to a large extent in a small world, to assess what is going on with American religion in general. While it is often remarked (and as I remarked above) that religion in America is in the ascendancy, in fact my impression is that outside the charismatic Christian churches (which are large but can by no means claim a majority of the population) and outside various New Age or marginalized religions (Buddhism being one of them!) normative American religion is not in good shape. Church and synagogue membership is I believe shrinking and conventional religion seems to be looking in vain for an approach that matters to people. In general then the conventional religious institutions have not found a way to speak to the religious foment (to a great extent caused by our social crises) that exists.
3) Do you think that religious institutions in your country are addressing these challenges?
No, as I say above. And yes, in that there are attempts here and there that are working to bring people a sense of real and engaged spirituality that includes reasonable institutional and communal practice. I like to think of the new Buddhist movement as being one of those attempts, and, more than this, influencing other traditions in that direction. I think one of the things that makes the Elijah project so important is that it holds forth the possibility of a re-definition and renewal of religious life world wide. I think religion needs to begin to be seen as a human function, a human need, that cannot be fulfilled merely through belief and affiliation, but that requires the development of a path, a way of practice, that will lead to the depths of the human heart. We need a view of religion that will help us to distinguish between religion that closes us off from ourselves and each other, and religion that opens us to ourselves and each other, so that we can identify and reject the former in favor of the latter. So that it becomes no longer a question of what anyone believes or practices but how that matters.
Seemingly, the world's problems have gone far enough by now to be beyond anything solvable by human force and reason alone. The rise of religion (for good and ill) in so much of the world should convince us that a critical mass of humanity now feels that the world's problems can only be solved by a miracle or a series of miracles, in whatever form we can or cannot imagine them. You could view this development as a descent into infantilism or lunacy, or as an opportunity to bring humanity closer to its potential as compassionate, peaceful, and true.
March 31, 2005
By Norman Fischer | 4/03/2005 @ 12:53 pm
March 31, 2005
(from Zen Abbot's Journal 48)
I keep trying to return
Nothing makes too much sense
but in various waysâ€¦
(Steve Benson, in "Open Clothes")
Read about half of Steve's book this morning — his work (after long break) as good as ever, full of disarming sincerity, craft, skill but seemingly zero artifice or posturing. Several wonderful works in prose and verse made up entirely of series of questions. This is Steve's work: questions, questions, questions, and no answers. Doubt and wonder. And why not? What else is there? What other way of going about it?
Read also a good deal of Creeley's "Life and Death," a late 90's book. Wonderful stuff — interior, anguished, (though quietly nobly and endearingly so) eloquent, and now and then transcendent. Just he had such a touch, so perfect and deft when he can do it, which is so much of the time, and that's what a great poet will do, it's not what he says that matters, it's that touch, that perfect touch, never before seen nor heard in the language (Phil had it too, but so differently, possibly not so interiorly or as movingly). And — what's said can't be differentiated from the touch I speak of, though usually what's said's no great or unique thing — since by now everything's been said — twice at least — but never before with this touch and is by virtue of the touch completely new.
I say "he had" a touch because yesterday morning Creeley died. Don't know how or why but only that he's gone, a third great blow, after Phil and Jackson, a journey long anticipated by him, directly grappled with in word and line, for many years now, so beautifully. What was it like for him to slip away out of this life? Could he finally release his searching thinking mind and find a little peace, some recognition ("oh, there I am, just as I'd anticipated, but differently, so differently"). Driving in the car last night thinking of him, could almost be there in that moment of his going — could feel the sudden dismay, the surprise, the leap. Jarring as I drove into the night.
Day before I'd had my long anticipated lunch with Michael Palmer, and he was as always warm, generous, kind, quiet, a dear soul, so smart about the world's undercurrents and so not worldly at all — a true poet, a poet's poet. Had sent him "Slowly" to read in Ms as I usually do with books before publication and he had read it generously- also now sent him "I Was Blown Back" (coming out from Singing Horse in June) which he's in the middle of, and says he likes even better. Told him something about the long poem that he said will help him in his reading of it. This is what one writes for in the end, that small audience of poets, stream of poets flowing along, that Creeley's now more than ever part of, beyond all time, in the language itself, the meditation on the language of what questions there constantly are in being human, never answered. It was Michael who told me that day that Creeley was ill, though neither of us had any idea he'd die. But next morning word of that, with emails from Michael, and Hank Lazer, and Neelei Cherkovsky. Neeli sent a poem of Creeley's that I circulated to poets in my address book, now everywhere online I am sure words of by for Bob Creeley.
Now I recognize
it was always me
like a camera
set to expose
itself to a picture
or a pipe
through which the water
or a chicken
dead for dinner
or a plan
inside the head
of a dead man.
Nothing so wrong
when one considered
how it all began.
It was Zukofsky's
"Born very young into a world
already very old..."
The century was well along
when I came in
and now that it's ending,
I realize it won't
But couldn't it all have been
a little nicer,
as my mother'd say. Did it
have to kill everything in sight,
did right always have to be so wrong?
I know this body is impatient.
I know I constitute only a meager voice and mind.
Yet I loved, I love.
I want no sentimentality.
I want no more than home.
For Robert Creeley 1926-2005
How we meet now having had in how now in meeting in seeing hearing a person, what person over the years sound of voice as
Words, words, words, their falling
That sense of the possible in a different way another way measured way but now still
another different way, absence, calling
That it could ever have been possible in any way otherwise and
Your sense of love deeply interior in the terrible spaces you sometimes
locked in inhabited reached all of
Pretty clear and distinct by who saw how surefooted
A word can be not dumped or parked or emblazoned there by a soul
assuming something but one wondering muttering looking to and fro
On the page
Where you'd put it
Time after time
So often in later years
So simply, funny
That anyway you'd we'd all'd be lost in them gloriously lost
In "divers" "company" of "poets" not a single word of disparagement to say of that
For in communion of poets in supporting and planting aiding and distributing largess
You folded or filtered or fomented
Drew forth poetry
as precisely love
that love looking greatly
at what one would be
If one had
to look and see
March 7, 2005
By Norman Fischer | 4/01/2005 @ 14:18 pm
March 7, 2005
(from Zen Abbot's Journal 47)
Reading in Merton's "The Inner Experience" of three categories of contemplation. "Active contemplation" is what we call "practice:" intentional activity to cultivate calm, peaceful wholesome states, whether through meditation or liturgical practice. Active contemplation is always done in the context of a tradition; you don't simply make it up on your own (the obedience that a tradition requires prevents the contemplation from becoming self centered or solipsistic: my comment, not Merton's). "Infused" or passive contemplation is grace, a gift from God, having no direct causal relationship to active contemplation, though somehow the accident of grace tends to happen more often when you do practice. "Practice makes you more accident prone," as Jack (Kornfield) says. Infused contemplation is the deep contemplation, "beyond conceptual mediation" (Merton); "inconceivable" (Dogen). Beyond words or even experience and yet somehow vaguely (Merton uses the word "obscurely") sensed, felt, or known, though never as an object. As if a dream dimly recollected. Then there's "hidden" or "masked" contemplation. This is the non-contemplation of the active person who only wants to do on behalf of others, the faithful servant who doesn't have time for, or in fact lacks the talent for or interest in, contemplation — who doesn't in other words engage in active contemplation or experience infused contemplation but who lives, without even knowing it, God's life. The obscurity of deepest contemplation, Merton says, which goes to the heart of contemplation at its deepest source, suggests that the less you know it, the less you identify it in yourself, the more sincere it is, and so masked contemplation (a non-contemplation) is the highest form of contemplation.