September 10, 2007
By Norman Fischer | 9/10/2007 @ 5:53 am
Abbot's Journal Vol 60.
June 1, 2007
Reading a bit more Heidegger, "On the Origin of the Work of Art." Surprising how simple and straightforward it is (compared to my memory of reading "Being and Time" years ago, which seemed so impossible). Like Stein. Like some of the theory I write: just start from first principles, like an idiot, and think "What is it?" and see what it is, what you think it is, what thinking suggests to you. So Heidegger writes, well art must be what produces artists and art works (which produce each other) and of course there's no "art" to be found outside artists and art works so it's a circle, it can't be sensible. When we think about art we revolve in that circle. Then he says, "Well all arts works are things, though we know they're more than mere things, but to appreciate the difference between an art-thing and a regular thing we have to think, â€˜what is a thing?'" Which he goes on to do for many more pages.
Images: what's an image?
This is the age of the image, a billion images. Am I an image to myself?
June 5, 2007
"What could be more obvious than that man transposes his propositional way of understanding things into the structure of the thing itself?"
Heidegger, "Origin of the Work of Art" In "Poetry, Language, Thought" p 23.
"Much closer to us than all sensation are the things themselves."
Sunday at Green Gulch gave a dharma talk on the senses; how a close experience of them shows there are no things, only intimate relations, that all "things" are "concepts of things." Heidegger seems to recognize this — but also seems to want to say that sensation too is conceptual (I guess this is like the Buddhist analysis of samjna, perception, which is understood to be conceptual, "direct" perception isn't, yet in Mahayana there is no direct perception of anything, all things and perceptions being illusory — yet is Heidegger positing some sort of Platonic eternal "thing" beyond even this, outside human engagement?)
.... reading, I am not yet clear on this point (not yet having the time to come to the end of this page-turner of an essay). Heidegger is criticizing all of Western metaphysics, which says (starting with the Greeks) that "things" are matter and form, and this matter/form dichotomy is the basis of aesthetics, as well as of the mind/body dichotomy. All this, he says, is an "imposition" on things, a "violence."
June 8, 2007
A few more pages of Heidegger. Art works, he's saying, "put truth to work." That is, through them you discover, experience, an active, living truth (and maybe there is no other sort of truth?). Usual aesthetic theory (concerned with why and how things are beautiful based on the matter/form distinction) misses this most crucial point entirely, he argues. So art, for Heidegger, fits into his more general ideas about metaphysics, language, being etc. Here I seem to be on the same page — art as truth, as practice, as essential work, rather than decoration. (Will always remember Phil's line "don't want to be another cute poety-boo"). He shows — as I've written in "Want to Make Something Out of It?" in "Success" (2000) — the rarity and evanescence of the art work, art in museums, art as cultural history, as idea etc etc — all this is not the actual work, it is ancillary to it. We seem to be unable to leave anything alone. You could be standing next to the great painting, looking right at it, and it wouldn't be there, though you could have a lot of information about it as a cultural product. You could even own it.
Sept 6, 2007
By Norman Fischer | 9/06/2007 @ 9:36 am
Answers to questions posed by Kelly Tarnow, La Lumiere Scool, LaPorte, Indiana.
1.Have you achieved Nirvana?
This is a question that ends up being about language. What do you mean by "Nirvana?" Why do you capitalize the word? Does the word actually have any sensible referent, in the normal way we think of when we use ordinary words? If you had asked me "Can you ride a bicycle?" I would know how to answer because it is fairly clear what you mean by "ride" and "bicycle," but it is not at all clear to me what you mean when you ask about "achieving nirvana"- and I do not think over the generations it has been all that clear to Buddhists what is meant by that phrase. The simplest thing might be to say "nirvana refers to exactly and absolutely nothing. This is how Buddhists have understood it." If so then what could it mean to "achieve" it? To achieve nothing? Does that make any sense? So I will answer like this: doing Buddhist practice for many years has changed my life and my point of view thoroughly. I am usually pretty happy and content, even when things don't go well. Whether or not I will die with dignity and full composure, full of wisdom and peace, is something that remains to be seen. I cannot predict. I have emotions, thoughts, like everyone else. I like almost all foods, some a bit less than others, but I will eat pretty much anything as long as it's not alive. In fact I would say that I am petty much exactly like everyone else. I see myself in others all the time.
2. If so, to what extend have you achieved Nirvana?
See answer 1.
3. Are there any misconceptions about your religion that you would clarify if given the chance to do so?
I really don't know what misconceptions people have about my religion. If I thought I did it would probably mean that I have misconceptions about people's misconceptions. If I could talk to one person maybe I could see what his or her misconceptions were. But even if I could, I think it would be hard to explain away those misconceptions to that person, because, I have found, misconceptions are very much embedded in the way someone thinks and sees the world, and so when you point out someone's misconceptions (assuming such a thing is even possible, in fact it is doubtful) the chances are very good that the person will misconceive what you are saying so the whole things is a little hopeless. But talking to people is never hopeless, it is rather fun, and you do get to know them, which is an unending source of amusement, dismay, and joy. I am also uncertain about the phrase "my religion." First because I am not sure if I "have" a religion. And second, I am not sure what a religion is or whether Zen Buddhism qualifies as a religion. It is a practice. I do the practice.
4. How do you maintain your Buddhist beliefs amongst the pressures of modern society? Is this a struggle?
I suppose I would say that I do not have Buddhist beliefs. At least, it would be hard to identify and list them. But I do understand myself and the world very much in accord with what I have experienced and understood over my many years of Zen practice. So I suppose I have a Buddhist belief, although it would be better to call it a vision, a vision of life, maybe Buddhist. Far from finding it difficult to "maintain" this vision in the "pressures of modern society" I find it essential, obvious, and easy. The "pressures of modern society" (and I put these words in quotation marks because I am not sure I feel pressures; besides, I think we live in post-modern society) are picture books illustrating my "Buddhist beliefs."
5. What would you call Siddharta Gautama's most admirable quality? Why?
His innocence. He saw life's most intractable problem (impermanence, sickness, old age, and death) and decided that it was unacceptable and so he would have to solve it. He was too childish to notice, as most people do, that it is an impossible problem. And not seeing the problem's impossibility, not framing it that way, he was able to solve it!
6. Why is there suffering?
See answer 5.
7. Do you have any doubts about karma? Do you believe in chance/coincidence?
No I don't have any doubts about karma. (By now it's probably not necessary for me to point out that probably neither you nor I know exactly what we mean by "karma.) Or yes I have the same doubts about karma that I have, say, about whether I am myself, or whether the world exists. I don't see much difference between the usual idea of chance/coincidence and karma. Everything happens by "chance." Everything has a "reason." If you aren't sure what the reason is you call it "chance/coincidence." If you think you know the reason you are entirely or at least partly wrong.
8. Describe someone who has influenced you and your faith.
Zenshin Philip Whalen was a Zen priest and a poet. His loved to eat (was big and fat), was very short tempered and fussy about a lot of things. Often threw fits that were painful to him, frightening to others, and endearing to the people who loved him. (There's a lesson in that, somewhere). But he was most of the time very kind and always soulful. He managed to avoid all the things in life that are routine and trivial. No matter what he thought or felt on any given day he got out of bed and did his practice.
9. Have you ever had any insights regarding your past or future lives?
I once had a clear vision of myself picking tomatoes on a big farm. I must have been a migrant Mexican worker, a woman, in a past life. Either that or her visual memory got mixed up with mine.
10. What are the qualities of a good friend?
Someone who cares more about your ultimate welfare than about whether or not you give him what he needs.
Sept 6, 2007
By Norman Fischer | 9/06/2007 @ 9:35 am
August, 2007. Muir Beach, CA
The other evening I heard a talk by Robert Sharf, a U.C. Berkeley Buddhist Studies professor well known in the Buddhist world for his controversial article on religious experience. (A recent interview with Bob was published an issue or two ago in Tricycle magazine). In that article, and in his talk, Bob seems to be critical of the Western Buddhist movement for its almost exclusive emphasis on meditation and meditation experience as the only relevant part of Buddhism, the rest being mere ritual, institution, and dogma. His historical analysis of how so many Westerners came to this view of Buddhism is eye-opening. He shows, rather convincingly, the ironic twists and turns of history by which all the Asian teachers who introduced Buddhism to the West were themselves influenced by modern Western thought, and were presenting therefore a Western-inflected Buddhism in which the pure, undogmatic, cosmic experience one could have in meditation was seen as the essence of all religion, the so-called "perennial philosophy" of Aldous Huxley. Skeptical of this, Bob seems to be advocating a return to a more "religious" or traditional Buddhism, and to be critical of most Western Buddhist teachers and groups as superficial and uninformed.
As you can imagine, this has not made Bob a popular guy in some circles. But I appreciate his critique. Anyone who follows post-modern thought notices that the idea of pure experience, unmediated by language and culture, is suspect. Contrary to earlier, probably more naive viewpoints, it is probably true that any human experience, including meditation insights, even so-called enlightenment "experiences," is partial. "Absolute truth" (a term that must appear in quotation marks) is probably simply not available to what we usually mean when we use the word "experience."
I do not come to this view through Bob or even through post-modern thought, though they both point to it. In fact it was Dogen's view in the 13th century, and it is the basis of Soto Zen.
Certainly Dogen, Suzuki Roshi, and Soto Zen are not saying that meditation practice is unimportant. (And neither is Professor Sharf). Far from it. But the view of meditation in Soto Zen is unique. For Soto Zen, and for all of us who practice in the Everyday Zen community, meditation is not an exercise we do in hopes of having powerful, even transformative, experiences. It is spiritual practice that we see as part of a full texture of many other practices (compassion, right speech, mindfulness in daily living, following precepts, to name a few), all of which go to making a religious culture. This culture includes our dharma relationships, our customs and various formal practices, and, yes, as Bob Sharf so much insists on, our ongoing, critical, study of Buddhist scripture and doctrine. (See the study curriculum on the webpage). We know that our participation in this culture changes our lives for the better.
In Everyday Zen we are willing to share whatever we can of this culture outside the Buddhist framework. So in my own practice and in the practice of the other teachers who are now beginning to emerge in our various groups, there is always an effort to share the meditation practice and the meditative understanding with others, whether they are interested in Buddhism or not.
Our practice is not "either/or", it is "both/and." This is probably illogical and inconsistent, so there is no use arguing for it. But in real life it works out.