In November, members of the Seattle Insight Meditation Society and others had the opportunity to sit with a teacher from outside their own tradition at a weekend retreat led by Zoketsu Norman Fischer.
Guiding teacher of two Northwest sanghas, the Mountain Rain Zen Community (Vancouver, B.C.) and Red Cedar Zen Community (formerly Bellingham Zen Practice Group of Bellingham, Washington), Zoketsu Norman Fischer is a poet and Zen Buddhist priest. He studied and then taught for many years at the San Francisco Zen Center, where he served as Co-abbot from 1995-2000. He is currently a Senior Dharma Teacher there as well as the founder and spiritual director of the Everyday Zen Foundation, an organization dedicated to adapting Zen Buddhist teachings to Western culture.
Eclectic by nature, Norman is active in inter-religious dialogue and has written about both Judaism and Christianity. He collaborates with Jack Kornfield and others at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, teaching students and training teachers.
Introduced to Rodney Smith, guiding teacher of the Seattle Insight Meditation Society, by a mutual student a few years ago, Norman visited Seattle and gave a Dharma talk to the group in the summer of 2006. He has returned since to give other short talks. November’s non-residential retreat was the first longer teaching he has presented through SIMS.
“The basic practice is identical,” he says, comparing Zen and Vipassana. “It’s sitting in the present moment, returning to the present with awareness.”
Norman observes that the two traditions also have in common certain basic techniques such as: “labeling thoughts, focusing on the breath, noting sensations in the body, attending to the present moment of being alive.” In a Zen setting, meeting with a single student at a time in the traditional Dokusan interview, he would likely suggest a particular practice for each individual. This was not possible at the November retreat where students met with their teacher in groups of fifteen.
In addition to commonalities there are differences, of course. Zen’s emphasis on “the form of practice”—how to sit, how to chant, how to strike bells, etc.—is notably absent at an insight meditation retreat. “In Vipassana groups people are more concerned about psychological states and conforming them to their sense of Dharma,” says Norman. Partly as a result of teaching Vipassana students he, too, places considerable emphasis on the psychological but he notes a “cultural difference” between Zen’s objective of “letting go by abandoning whatever mental state arises” and the Vipassana students’ concern for “eliminating negative mind states and cultivating positive ones.”
While comfortable conducting a retreat without introducing Zen rituals, Norman believes that ritual plays a meaningful role in Dharma practice. He suggests that experienced members of the Vipassana community are ready to move in this direction and would do well to look to Mahayana sources and traditions. Preparing and carrying out the traditional Jukai (taking of precepts) ceremony, for example, “can give people a powerful sense of commitment.” As another example, he cites the benefit of ritual in addressing a sangha’s concerns for the sick and the dead.
“Meditation is a compassionate offering to people when there is a ritual container for it.”
Zoketsu Norman Fischer visits the Northwest this month to conduct opening ceremonies for the Bellingham Red Cedar Zen Community’s newly completed Dharma Hall. He will return to Seattle Insight Meditation Society in November 2008 to offer a daylong retreat on “Creativity.”