This film, Quiet Mind: Meditation in Real Life, introduces Zen Buddhism and features Soto Zen roshi Norman Fischer, founder and spiritual director of the Everyday Zen Foundation, which is dedicated to expressing Zen Buddhist teachings in contemporary form.
Highlights and excerpts from the video:
Norman Fischer: “When you sit, you notice that every moment is different, every moment is new. You don’t hold on to the last moment. And when you do, you suffer, and you could feel it. You could feel it when you’re sitting. There’s only the truth that’s so now.
“Zen is the school of Buddhism that really focuses all of its intention on meditation practice. But with a very special twist, and that special twist is, that zen understands meditation as notbeing merely a technique of calming and focusing the mind. But it understands meditaion as being itself. Life itself is meditation. Life itself is awakening. And the effort to really understand that and live it is the goal and the process of zen practice.
Michelle Meyrink (zen practitioner): “What attracts me most about the zen practice is that there is a sort of intelligence to it. It’s an understanding of what living is. It is a study of living and the byproduct is maybe being a good person. But it’s a byproduct and it’s not the practice.”
The central practice of Zen Buddhism is called zazen. “Za” means to sit, “zen” means meditation. Meditation which is described as one-pointed concentration or absorption. An experience of union with the world just as it is. Among practitioners, zazen is affectionately called just “sitting.”
NF: “In zazen we’re just sitting with the feeling of being alive. Feeling the feeling of being alive. And to help us stay focused for that we pay attention to our posture and our breathing. So we rotate our pelvis forward a little bit, arch our lower back, lift up the chest, the back part of the head pressed up toward the ceiling, and the chin tucked in. So the whole body feels stretched, open, and then we feel our breathing in our belly. Breathing in, breathing out, the belly rises and falls. Breathing in knowing that we’re breathing in, and breathing out knowing we’re breathing out. After all we come back to the feeling of the posture and the feeling of the breathing, to keep us anchored and present, right where we are, being alive, feeling of being. When the mind wanders, then very gently we bring it back.”
“In the zazen posture, your mind and body have great power to accept things as they are, whether agreeable or disagreeable.” ~Suzuki Roshi
NF: “The point of ritual and formal practice in zen is first of all it creates a very strong atmosphere in the meditation room. The practice of bowing is a kind of practice of softening yourself to really accept your real nature as a human being. The nature of being an awakened, wise person. You are, but you don’t know it yet. You’re struggling to get to know that. Our lives are very surface oriented and in many ways what concerns us is kind of trivial. And so we need some help to get into that which is inside us, deeper, calmer and wider than that. Often we can’t find that stuff no our own but with the help of these ritual containers, we get to that…
“Meditation on Zen is very strong, very quiet, very focused, very concentrated, and also, little by little it dawns on you, very beautiful. The rituals themselves are quite transformative. Somehow they really touch you deeply.”
Samu comes from two words in Japanese. “Sa” for work, and “mu” meaning to devote one’s attention to something. In traditional Zen monasteries samu is work that encourages mindfulness.
NF: “Typical Zen work is that kind of work and it’s really good because you focus your mind. Simple repetitive work and you just stay with what you’re doing. It’s kind of a way of meditation in motion. When you chop wood, you just chop wood. You give yourself completely to chopping wood. When you carry water, you give yourself completely to carrying water. There’s a kind of beautiful appreciation and clarity and gravity that comes out of whatever that it is that you’re doing… If you can really be faithful to every moment of your experience, this is meditation.”
“Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.
After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. “ ~Zen saying
Forms of Zen
The two main forms of Zen Buddhism are Soto and Rinzai. Each has its unique approach to practice and study.
NF: “Rinzai Zen has much less ritual than Soto, and the students are facing each other in the meditation room. In Soto Zen there is more ritual, chanting and so forth, although, still, sitting is the main thing. It’s hard to, in the abstract, think about which school of Zen is best for me or which kind of practice is best for me¸ I think that, go and see. Trust your gut, trust what feels right…
“Don’t you think that we should all feel that what we’re doing is the best? You realize that what you’re doing is the best, but also each person, what they’re doing is the best. We don’t have to compare. In order for me to be committed to my life. I don’t have to make my life better than yours. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. If I need to compare my life to yours and make sure that mine is better than yours then I’m not really committed to my life. I’m committed to some sort of shaky notion of my life.”
“If you understand, things are just as they are.
If you don’t understand, things are just as they are.” ~Zen saying
Family Work Practice
NF: “Work practice then becomes the idea of taking on work as part of the practice with an attitude of giving and serving, and with as much focus and friendliness and love and compassion as you can possible bring to bear in the world.”
Poetry and Practice
NF: “I write poetry because I can’t help it. I’ve been doing it ever since I was a child. So it seems to be just part of my function of living. It’s to write poetry. So I do it. I surrender to my nature. When I write poetry I’m really more in communion with reality, with what’s on the other side of the poem. So I don’t sit down to write a poem about something I know or something I’ve experienced. I sit down to write a poem because I don’t know. The poetry is the deepest expression of my practice.”
Death and Impermanence
NF: “Religious practice helps us to incorporate death as part of our lives. To understand it in whatever human way we can understand It and to be able to release ourselves to it when the time comes. So it’s a very important part of practice.
“But there is no such thing as death. There’s only breathing in once and then breathing out and now you’re not breathing in anymore. There’s only time. Death is happening in every moment. In every moment we die to the past moment. It’s over, it’s gone. As time is passing, that’s what time is. Time is the dialectic between living and dying. So that means that death is something that liberates our lives and awakens our lives. Because how can we be fresh now if we don’t let go of this last moment. Died this last moment, receive this new moment. Fresh for this moment because we let go of the last one. So our practice is about that, and then when the last moment comes, we’re completely alive in that moment. We give up that moment. And the only thing, another one doesn’t come.”
“Life and death are of supreme importance…
Awaken, take heed, do not squander your life.” ~Dogen Zenji
NF: “Only human beings can question their being. Question what being is, what it means to be alive. Religious practice is a device for opening up that question.
“I think enlightenment is releasing ourselves to our lives. Finally saying to ourselves, yes, I guess this is my life. I guess this really is my life and what a miracle it is. What a problem, perplexity, what a miracle.”
Zoketsu Norman Fischer is a Soto Zen roshi, poet and Buddhist author practicing in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki. He is a Dharma heir of Sojun Mel Weitsman, from whom he received Dharma transmission in 1988. Having served as co-abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center from 1995—2000, he has published several works of poetry and books on Buddhism. Fischer founded the Everyday Zen Foundation in 2000, a network of sanghas with chapters in Canada, the United States and Mexico. He has authored several essays on interreligious dialogues.