Briefly, Adam Fisher was born in New York City in 1940 and became involved in formal Zen practice in 1970. Over the years, he has been employed in construction, lumbering, book publishing, journalism and as an army linguist. His most fattening job was during one summer, packing Popsicles. He currently lives in Northampton, Mass., with his wife, Elizabeth, and three children, Olivia, Angus and Ives. His Dharma name, Genkaku, was given by his teacher, Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi, abbot of Ryutaku-Ji Monastery in Japan. The name means "original understanding" or "original realization." Of this name, Kyudo Roshi once commented, "The Buddha did not solve 1,700 formal koans." Behind the Northampton house where the Fishers live is a small zendo (Black Moon Zendo) where people are welcome to practice zazen, solve whatever formal or informal koans life has presented to them, and actualize their own original understanding.
Below is a longer narrative of spiritual adventure. It is here because I used to be both curious about and suspicious of spiritual life and suspect others may feel the same.
Being closer to death than birth, I look back with mild curiosity on a life that brought with it a willingness to practice Zen Buddhism. It was not a life marked by overt catastrophe. There was no grand sickness, no brush with death, no fall from greatness, no wall I hit on my way from here to there. For me, the wall was always there, somehow, seeming to hem me in, squeezing, curtailing, restraining. No doubt it had something to do with parents who were distant and in their own despair. Or karma. Or some other explanation. Does it matter? I was a watchful child, an attentive child, an interior child, a child hoping to please, a child longing for what could not be given.
My curiosity about this life is tinged with shyness as I sit down to write something about it. "It's past," says some voice in my mind. "And besides, you had to be there." Of course experience cannot be shared in a general way. This is part of the loneliness. But even so, I recall my own limping beginnings in spiritual endeavor and think of the tales I read about other people - not fancy people, not holy people, not monks or nuns or bright-light people. Just people who were more or less like me - sniffing, snooping, longing, doubting, recognizing and failing to recognize. I think of how much easier they made my way as I read or heard their stories. I would hope to do the same. I only wish it were all more exciting.
I was born in New York City March 9, 1940, the only son of a college professor and a writer, two very bright people. My parents were divorced before I was really conscious of it and I lived with my mother, a freelance woman writer in a time when being a freelance woman writer took courage and quality. My mother's writing had both. My father's father was a Presbyterian minister, a man who coaxed or perhaps ordered his sons to memorize great pieces of the Bible by candlelight. My father abominated religion and turned his zeal to the world of the intellect, of thinking things through, of disdain for what was not seen. His zeal, from my point of view, was not accompanied by the courage to question that zeal with much care.
About 30 years after my birth, having physically survived my mother's alcoholism and my father's inherent distance, having done three years in the army as a German linguist and several years in book publishing, I found myself in Massachusetts as a reporter for a middle-sized daily paper. I loved reporting. The office was full of cigarette smoke, swearing, guys who kept pint-bottles of Wild Turkey in the lower right hand drawer, and a general sense of liveliness. Reporting gave me the opportunity to be nosy and write and learn without ever tipping my own hand. Life was framed in words and stories of a certain length. Life was explained in ways that seemed reliable. If it was written on paper, you could take it to the bank. The written word was holy writ.
But one day in 1970 as I was driving a car towards Rhode Island, my mother read a letter she had received from a woman at a California ashram. The letter was full of what went on at the ashram together with encouragements of a spiritual sort. Something in that letter spoke to me. It led me to read what I once guessed was something like 250,000 pages relating to Hinduism as framed by the Ramakrishna followers of Vedanta. The approach was both gentle and intelligent. I was more used to intelligence as a didactic and chilly thing, but the books I read and the lectures I attended were full of warmth and wit, a time to be serious and a time to laugh. The laughter felt very good. So did the warmth.
This was a period of 'ecumenism' as well. On the altar of one of the centers I visited were words from the Vedas: "Truth is one, wise men call it by many names." So I read Hindus and Buddhists, Christians and Jews, Jains and Sikhs, Moslems and self- helpers. I looked for the "one" and seemed to catch distant glimpses rising up off the page.
But there came a day when two discoveries landed on my doorstep almost simultaneously. The first was a certainty that, "if they can do it, so can I." If all those monks and nuns and swamis and other good people could attain some sort of equanimity, there was no reason why I couldn't too. I was shocked at the audacity of my own thought. How could I possibly match the clarity and holiness that I ascribed to those I read about and met? They were holy people, I imagined. I was merely mortal. I was flawed in a thousand-thousand ways. I wasn't going to leave home and throw away everything I had. How could I possibly ...? But even as I questioned and doubted myself, the thought would not let go. It refused to be silenced. I could do it.
The second certainty seemed to rise simultaneously. It was not a politely-put thought. It was a thought that spoke as I spoke, breathed as I breathed. That thought was: "I really want to know if spiritual life is bullshit or not." I did not want to know so that I could then go out and convince others. I wanted to know for me. I wanted to know with the same certainty that is contained in a sneeze -- whole-hearted, no books necessary, no heroes or heroines -- a certainty that would be the same on a crowded street or a desert island. I wanted, without then knowing the phrase, to attain the "teaching outside the scriptures."
But how? For all the reading I had done, I wasn't sure how to go about it. Should I sell everything and retire to a Himalayan monastery where I would put on clothes that didn't seem to have any buttons? Should I call someone and say, "Hey, I want to do this. What do I do?" I really didn't know, but I knew I had to DO something.
For starters, I found an old, wooden milk crate in the garbage, put a piece of cloth over it, put a picture of Ramakrishna on top together with some flowers and an incense holder. Then I tried to sit cross-legged and still in front of this home-made altar. I did this at the end of each work day. Being knock-kneed, my legs hurt. I couldn't figure out why, if I was doing all this for God, God was busy making my legs feel like the fires of hell. But still I did it. Then I began tucking in visits to nearby ashrams, experiencing weekend retreats. Everything was a bit weird (strange languages, chanting, people with what seemed like vacant stares), but I could do weird if I could get my questions answered -- those gut questions that remained as strong as when they first arose. But there was a new nagging feeling that also began to grow: Somehow what I was doing wasn't enough. Weekend retreats and Sunday meetings were OK, but they didn't have the forceful, go-for-the-throat intensity I was looking for. There was not enough DOING.
Then I got taken to a Zen center in New York City. I would like to be able to write "and the rest is history," but things are never that simple. The one certain thing was, Zen answered my nagging question about doing in spades: Zen practice was, in my eyes, nothing but "doing." Buddhism was more austere than the Hinduism I knew, but, since Buddhism took many of its cues from Hinduism, Zen was not completely foreign. I could listen to and appreciate the Four Noble Truths: "There is suffering. There is a cause of suffering. There is an end to suffering. There is a way to end suffering." This was practical stuff. Look around - suffering is easy to see. Look within and the same is true - the uncertainty, anxiety, and pure pain are not hard to find. I looked around and found myself at home. My knees, of course, were ready to leave home forever.
Zazen, or seated meditation, is the core practice of Zen Buddhism. To sit still and silent in a hall full of still and silent people wasn't easy for me. Everyone was doing it better. Everyone had legs that didn't hurt like my legs. Everyone was more advanced, holy, serene than I was. But I kept after it, having moved from Massachusetts to New York in 1972 specifically for that reason. I supported myself at first by driving a cab and then taking up apartment-painting. I was single and could manage this.
As I continued to sit, I started learning the lingo. "Nirvana," "satori," "kensho," "roshi," "unsui" "koans," "shikantaza," "Mind," "emptiness" -- the list went on and on. I made new friends, both at the Zen center and on the page. On the page, it was Huang Po (who always seemed to be yelling at me), Hui Neng, Rinzai, Dogen, Ta Hui, and some Tibetan fellows. Naturally, I felt better knowing the lingo, the theory. I could sound as if I knew what I was doing. But a little at a time it occurred to me that language was one thing and experience was quite another. Talking the talk was not walking the walk. I didn't want to be some spiritual on-looker, sitting in the bleachers at a baseball game like some beer-bellied know-it-all. I wanted to get on the field and play. I wanted experience. But what WAS the experience?
When it came time to become a member of the Zen center, I went to see the teacher, as required. We sat on the floor across a low table, he in his robes, I in my street clothes. We talked about this and that, mostly membership, what it meant, how it was pretty special. It wasn't at all certain that I could become a member. I left the room feeling a bit odd. Not sick or upset, not glad or uplifted - just odd. I walked home feeling odd. I went to bed feeling odd. I got up feeling odd. And then I went for a walk on Lexington Avenue.
A light rain was falling and the macadam glistened. The stop lights reflected from the black surface of the road. The taxis were very yellow in the grey day. And all of a sudden I knew, knew without any doubt, that none of it existed. Lexington Avenue, the taxis, the stop lights all continued to fill my eyes. I could smell the exhaust fumes. I could feel the rain dripping off my nose. And it didn't exist. I went home and sat on my couch for a couple of hours and cried and laughed in waves. I thought I was going nuts, but knew I wasn't. Something was OK, but if something was OK, then everything that had gone before seemed to be a dream, a foolishness, a mistake. I was confused and at the same time I wasn't confused at all. When my mother called later in the day, I told her some of it. "Take some dirt back," she said. "The ego's scared. Watch TV or something." Some days later, when I told the teacher about it, he said shortly, "Forget it!" Forget it? How could I forget such a thing? But memory fades, experience dwindles and becomes inexact, a thing embellished but lacking in substance. So, because things always change, I forgot and the experience settled into what I think of today as advertising - something that beckons like a song heard through the fog.
Similar experiences would follow, none exactly the same, each of them beckoning, as time went by. I spoke with friends who had experiences that pointed in the same, ineffable direction. They were never the same as my own, but they were clearly compelling, convincing. They were experience, not talk -- you could feel it in the telling.
All of this is fairly easy to put on a page. Sentence flows into sentence without any particular barrier. But in fact, my practice was shot through with doubt, with skepticism, with questions I hardly dared to ask. What the hell has a hall with a statue in it got to do with my peace of mind? Why am I sitting on this cushion killing myself? How is it that people run around using words like "enlightenment" or "compassion?" The only way to use such words would be if you knew what you were talking about, from within, from the get-go. If you know what enlightenment is, why are you looking for it? The questions rolled off my mind's tongue one after another. They were cranky, they were filled with sadness, and sometimes they laughed with a nanosecond's worth of clear light. And always, the central question remained: "Is this bullshit or not?"
In yet another effort to answer, I went back to an old habit. Crank up the heat. If 30 or 40 hours per week of practice in the city was good for my soul, imagine what it would be like at a monastery. Sitting, serenity, away from the wiles of the world -- ahhhh. I would become a monk and somehow that would settle matters.
In 1975, I signed up for a six-month stay at a monastery in upstate New York that was affiliated with the zendo I attended in the city. I lasted two months. Monk-dom was not for me. (Please pardon my laziness, but I have written about blackmoonzendo.comonzendo.com under "monastic mishap" and haven't got the energy to repeat it all.)
I returned to the city and resumed going to the city zendo. I felt as if I had failed. Somehow I "couldn't cut it." I would never get my questions answered because I didn't have the purity or the stick-to-it-iveness that the big boys had. But I was also overjoyed to be back in the city. One morning I set out for a painting job. I had a satchel of painting tools over one shoulder. I had another satchel of carpentry tools in one hand. I had a five-foot ladder in the other hand. Burdened like a pack animal, I was walking towards the subway when a young woman in very short shorts and a very tight blouse approached me. "Goin' out, honey?" she invited me. It was wonderful -- so ridiculous it made me laugh within. But also, it was real life to me, full of sass and sorrow, full of the kind of juice that I realized would have to be part of any spiritual understanding I had or would ever have.
It wasn't long before I got a snootful of sass. Three sex scandals rocked the zendo. The teacher was having sexual relations with women students and the word got out. There was turmoil within the sangha. There was a sense of betrayal that no amount of talking could ease. It hurt. There is a prohibition in Buddhist practice against upsetting the sangha. But prohibitions are not always observed -- which is why they exist. Day followed day. Talk followed more talk. Ache heaped upon ache, not just for me, but for everyone else as well. After the third incident occurred, I left the center. I left angry and uncertain about my course. But I also left with my own answer to the matter: "The teacher may or may not be a liar, but zazen is no liar."
It was during this period as well that I spent time with an ex-Jesuit psychologist, sorting out the background of my life. What inspired me to go initially I'm not quite sure, but part of it was this: I recognized that Zen practice covered all life and was not just some pure and elevated endeavor. To answer real questions, I needed to address the whole of whoever I was. There was a fear within that I might be using spiritual practice not only to advance real understanding but also to cover it up, to hide from things, to camouflage and escape. I look back on that fear as well-founded, both in myself and in others. Hiding out wouldn't do. I would rather be straight and honest in life than be the holiest guy around. I'm not sure if I knew the line when I first went to see the psychologist, Jack, but I know it now -- words attributed to Shakyamuni Buddha: "Better your own truth (Dharma), however weak, than the truth (Dharma) of another, however noble." Honesty counts. Not intellectual honesty, but real, warts and all honesty.
For a while after leaving the Zen center in the early 1980's, I did zazen with friends. Once a friend of mine, Frank, and I decided to sit all day. We began the morning with chanting. Halfway through an energetic version of on particular chant (Kanzeon), we both began to laugh. We couldn't stop. When one would stop and look severely at the other, the other would try-try-try to serious-up, only to be defeated by more gales of laughter. Somehow we got through it, but the laughter remained like a wonderful taste on the mind's tongue. Jesus, did we laugh!
After a time I found a new center and a new teacher, Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi. But at almost the same time, I found my wife to-be. Kyudo Roshi married the two of us in 1986. It was a very nice wedding, with members of my wife's mostly-Catholic family being curious and courteous about the small man in strange clothes. One of Elizabeth's uncles, not wishing to offend anyone at the wedding and wishing to be a good guest, asked in advance, "Do we have to wear turbans?" Elizabeth and I stayed in New York for a while, but when Olivia, our first-born, came along, it was time for me to find work that was steady. It was also time to leave New York, where people who are very rich or very poor get along pretty well, but those in the middle have a hard time.
I got a job back at the old newspaper and we moved to Northampton, Mass., home of Smith College where my father had taught so many years before. Before too long, Angus and Ives, our other two kids, appeared. Kids in my book are very much like spiritual endeavor in two ways: 1. Both require attention and responsibility, and, 2. Any conclusion you reach about either is bound to be premature.
After we moved, I looked unsuccessfully for a place to practice zazen. While there were several centers, none of them had a schedule that dovetailed with my own - a 3-11 shift with Sundays and Mondays off. One night, sitting at a center that did have sittings at a time I could go, I heard the fellow who was leading things read a quite long description of how to discern a "false teacher." He read and read and read. There was nothing of his own experience or his own understanding. By the time he had finished, I realized I had never heard such unmitigated nonsense (I used a less polite word) in 27 years of practice. I was very cranky about it. But out of that reading, that "nonsense," grew the realization that I would just have to build my own place to sit. So I built it out in the backyard. A small place where people are welcome to come and practice if they like. Black Moon Zendo. Not many come or if they do come, they seldom return. This is par for the course in Zen, I think, because Zen is too simple and too hard for most people. The philosophy may be attractive, but the practice -- well, not many do it anywhere in the world.
My wife and children are used to seeing me get into a robe on Sunday mornings and head out to the zendo for a couple of hours. During the other daytime hours, they are at work or at school, so they don't see. They are used to it, I think, and patient with me. Ives, my littlest, is the only one who ever tried sitting with me. Once. The others figure sitting still and silent is "bo-ring." I don't mind. And I don't say much about Buddhism otherwise unless they ask. When it comes to rearing kids I figure, "which would I rather have, good Buddhists or good human beings?" Naturally there are situations that arise in which Buddhism comes into play (schoolyard violence, a child who comes home later than promised, or some needful lie), but adding "Buddhism" on top strikes me as extra. It's just my way. It's not in any sense 'the way.'
My wife and kids have taught me in innumerable ways. One of the most compelling came when Ives, then in about first grade, made me a birthday card. Above a monster or a submarine or a dog (it's a little hard to tell at that age), he had written the words, "Happy Birthday Papa. We luv echuther." We love each other. A perfect koan. A perfect sentiment. A sword of wisdom beyond compare. We love each other. I read the words and cried. But for Ives, it was as obvious as leaves on a tree. Doh!
Likewise I look back on other teachers far and wide. Huang Po 'yelling,' a hooker asking me for a little business, a bunch of sex scandals that hurt like hell, a shrink, an unstoppable bit of morning laughter, a child's birthday card - the list is literally endless. These days I think that there is only one way to honor those who have upheld the practice of Zen. It is not enough for me to call them "enlightened" or "compassionate," "holy" or "pure." It is not enough to worship. These men and women may be or may have been all of those things and more. I have no way of knowing. But the only way I can truly understand and respect their effort is to be them - breathe their air, sleep their sleep, snore their snores. This is not an encouragement. It is just the only possible choice.
Is it bullshit or not? Is this effort to find ease where things are uneasy a sham or a reality? Is there truly an end to suffering or is this merely pie in the sky? Is the practice of attention coupled with taking responsibility a fool's quest or a wise (wo)man's adventure? You tell me.
My own answer to the question "Is it bullshit or not" is: