Mind Training for Today

Norman Fischer on why 52 sayings formulated almost a thousand years ago are more relevant than ever.

Norman Fischer7 March 2013

Times are tough. We need a way to cope. Halfway measures probably won’t work. We need to really transform our minds—our hearts, our consciousness, our basic attitudes.

Such transformation has always been the province of spiritual practice, but these days cognitive science also tells us “the brain is plastic.” Our personalities, our default tendencies, our neuroses—they are not as fixed as we once thought they were. We are not the inevitable products of our genetics and childhoods. We can change.

The trick is that we have to work at it. Just as training the body takes more than proper equipment and good intentions—it takes repetitive work over time—training the mind/heart takes patience and practice. Compassion is the goal of such training. Surviving—and thriving—in troubled times requires compassion and the kindness, love, and resilience that it fosters. Caring for and working to benefit others is also the best thing we can do for ourselves. In the twelfth century, the Tibetan sage Geshe Chekawa Yeshe Dorje composed a text on the lojong, or “mind training” practices. Based on the Indian pandita Atisha’s original list of fifty-nine pithy sayings for repetitive practice, this text has been taught extensively ever since, and there are a number of translations and commentaries now available in English. It has become one of the best loved of all Buddhist teachings for generating compassion.

I decided to write a “Zen” commentary to this text for two reasons. First, because the plain-speaking tradition of Zen might lend something to the power of the text, and second, because although Zen is a Mahayana school (and therefore based on compassion teachings), it is nevertheless deficient in explicit teachings on compassion. The great Zen masters of old focused on other things; they assumed the compassion teachings but did not necessarily discuss them. So we Western Zen students must go outside the confines of our tradition to find them.

Of the many important teachings presented in the lojong text, none is more useful than those discussed under the heading “Turning Difficulties into the Path.” As I often tell students, “If your practice only works when things go well—if you turn away from it when things fall apart, if you don’t know how to turn your difficulties into strength and wisdom—then your work probably won’t be very effective.” If, on the other hand, you are able to increase your forbearance and open your heart even more in the face of serious setbacks, you will have achieved the most prized of all spiritual accomplishments: the ability to continuously deepen your strength and love, no matter what happens.

Norman Fischer

Zoketsu Norman Fischer is a poet, essayist, and Soto Zen Buddhist priest who has published more than thirty volumes of poetry and prose, including most recently When You Greet Me I Bow. He is the founder of Everyday Zen, a community based in the San Francisco Bay area, as well as former abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center. He and his wife, Kathie Fischer, also a Soto Zen priest, have two children and three grandchildren and live in Muir Beach, California.