Why We Need a Plan B

Norman Fischer says that when it comes to teaching the dharma in the West, it’s important to be open and flexible.

By Norman Fischer

Photo by Aperture Vintage

One of my Zen teachers in the 1970s, an American who had trained fairly briefly with a Japanese Zen master, mostly in the United States, used to say that he kept checking to see that his students didn’t “backslide” into a Judeo-Christian Western viewpoint. This, he believed, is what would happen if we were left to our own devices. He felt it was his job to give us enough Zen input that we would learn to see the world as the masters saw it.

In the 1980s, two eminent Asian Buddhist teachers appeared on the Western dharma scene: Thich Nhat Hanh and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Each made early visits to the San Francisco Zen Center and astounded us by delivering exactly the opposite message. They had no wish to spread Buddhism or to convert anyone. Both wrote appreciative books on Christianity, and said that Buddhism’s mission in the West was not to establish a beachhead, but rather to help Westerners return, with renewed spirit, to their own religions.

Among the early voices that introduced Buddhism to the West (people like D.T. Suzuki, Alan Watts, and Christmas Humphreys) there was a point of view that Buddhism was beyond religion. All the trappings, all the Asian cultural stuff—the chanting, the robes, the incense, the piety, the family tradition—was extra, and even a corruption of what was originally a purely rational, psychological, almost scientific, approach to the mind. Meditation was the heart of this Buddhist approach. According to this view, if you sat down in meditation, with an honest effort to investigate the mind deeply, you would eventually, given enough time and energy, achieve enlightenment, a non-conceptual transformative experience that was the basis of all religions, though most had become corrupt and had lost track of it.

So when the early American Vipassana teachers came home from their Asian sojourns in the late 1960s and early 1970s it made perfect sense to them to abstract pure meditation practice from its Asian Buddhist contexts and teach what they saw as a “secular” form of dharma that anyone could participate in, regardless of tradition or circumstances. The idea that Buddhism and Buddhist meditation was nonreligious drew many thousands of Americans to the dharma, in spite of the fact they never had any intention of joining an Asian religion.

This view of Buddhism is considered completely incorrect by most contemporary Buddhist scholars I know and have read. They maintain that there is no way to strip religion from its context, and that without its texts, rituals, customs, and traditions, it isn’t Buddhism at all. Moreover, they maintain that whatever good might come from meditation practice as a so-called secular activity is pretty superficial. It won’t last. Or, if it does last, it will be so watered down, so unmoored from any cultural ballast, from any actual substance, that it will eventually be subsumed into the general American consumerist madness (as, they feel, yoga has been).

I have been considering these various perspectives about what Buddhism is and what it has to offer in the West as I try, through no intention of my own, but because I seem to have had no choice, to apply Buddhism thoughtfully and flexibly to life in post-modern Western culture.

Recently I participated in a Buddhadharma panel discussion on the future of Buddhism in a post-baby boomer world. The moderator, an old-timer like myself, asked whether there were enough young people coming up through the ranks to sustain healthy Buddhist communities.

The other panelists were much younger. One was in her early twenties, just beginning her practice. As it turned out, I was more a listener and a learner than a wisdom-spouting elder, and my impression was that for the most part these younger practitioners were not interested in doing what I and many other boomers had done: throw ourselves into an Asian tradition, give our lives over to it, and to one extent or another live on the margins of mainstream American society.

These young people seemed to be insisting that Buddhism speak to them as post-modern Americans. They seemed to feel that Buddhism was going to have to be more flexible, more open, lighter on its feet, if it is to survive in the world in which they’re living. Depending on your view of what Buddhism is or should be, you will either be cheered up or discouraged by this point of view. It will seem either self-centered and naive, or refreshingly honest and expansive. It will either mean that Buddhism in the coming generation is doomed to fade away and disappear into mainstream culture, becoming nothing more than another “brand” (and some say it already has become that), or it means that Buddhism will thrive and develop in as yet undreamed of ways.

Pick one. Or both.

I have ended up participating on both sides of this argument. I am, on the one hand, a Soto Zen Buddhist priest who leads traditional Zen sesshins with all the usual bells and whistles, and ordains lay and priest disciples in traditional ceremonies, endeavoring to take them through the intricate rituals and trainings that the tradition involves. I study Zen and other Buddhist texts and lecture on them. I am connected to my Japanese dharma brothers and sisters. All of this, I tell people, is my Plan A. I appreciate it immensely and feel quite at home with it.

But there is also Plan B, which is everything else I do that doesn’t involve any of the usual Zen stuff.

In Plan B, I teach Jewish meditation in various places and in various ways. I teach a course at Google called Search Inside Yourself, which is a meditation-based class in emotional intelligence. I work with conflict resolution professionals to help them learn to use meditation practice, and the insights it can foster, as ways of improving skills for understanding and working with disputes. I work with caregivers for the dying (doctors, nurses, chaplains, social workers) to help them use meditation to increase their ability to be present, with depth and as little fear as possible, for the dying process. I work with business people to help them reframe their work as spiritual practice, and counsel them to quit whatever jobs they have that resist such reframing (there aren’t as many as you might think). I work with lawyers to explore ways to make more justice possible in a crazy legal system, and to make legal work and legal education more humane. I have also, over the years, through my poetry and essays, tried to bring my Zen practice into the contemporary literary conversation that I have been part of my whole adult life.

In essence the teaching I am working with when I apply dharma in all these contexts is reflected in my favorite Zen dialogue: A monk asks Zhaozho, What is meditation? Zhaozho answers, It’s non-meditation. Monk: How can meditation be non-meditation? Zhaozho: It’s alive!

In other words, whatever you are doing, you are always operating within a circumscribed set of concepts such as “self” (who is that?), “time” (how does time pass, or does it?), and “the world” (do we know there is anything independently out there apart from what we make of it?). And, as Zhaozho points out to the monk, we don’t realize we are doing this. This knee-jerk affiliation with unexamined conceptual setups is not anyone’s mistake; it’s simply the human condition, built into our language, thought, and culture. We all make this mistake, and suffer for it.

And if you are a caregiver for the dying you’ve got, in addition to the usual human ones, a set of concepts you’ve learned from your training in that field; if you are a lawyer you also have an additional set of concepts you are working with. As with life in general so with professional life: unexamined concepts blind you, bind you. They make your life and your work less successful and less sustainable. To have some happiness—and some creativity—with what you do, you need the capacity to understand your concepts and to be able, at least to some extent, to step outside them and just be human for a minute. “Professional” used to mean, and still does in many circles, “removed from your humanness, setting your feelings aside, being objective.” But now it is being redefined—and meditation practice really helps here—as “being a feeling human being in the context of your work life.”

In recent years, there’s been much talk and research about emotional intelligence. Following Daniel Goleman’s books on this subject, numerous studies have shown that emotional intelligence is hugely influential in outcomes of all sorts, professionally and personally. And recent research has shown that one of the best ways to develop emotional intelligence is meditation practice, because it gets at it on a deeper level than the cognitive approach. We can’t think ourselves into or out of our emotional life because our basic emotional makeup is formed in childhood, its foundations largely unconscious. So meditation, which is a somatic and visceral process, is the most effective tool we know of.

In all the work I do for Plan B, I am practicing meditation with people. We sit simply, easily. On cushions or on chairs. Without incense or Buddha statues. I have been thinking about meditation, called zazen in Soto Zen, for a long time, and I have been closely studying the literature on the topic, mostly centering on the profound writings of Dogen, since the early 1970s. In the end, it seems to me, zazen, though deep, is also pretty simple. It is sitting down with presence in the middle of your life. Feeling the actual feeling of being alive, which most of the time we don’t feel. And by virtue of this, entering into a process that seems to be, by its nature, healing.

To be sure, as my Buddhist scholar friends would assert, there is some culture, some teaching, involved here. It’s not an automatic or an unmediated process. But Buddhist teachings can be, and need to be, translated from culture to culture, as they have always been.

When asked whether his words needed to be preserved in a sacred language (as are the words of the Bible and the Koran) the Buddha said, No, just translate into whatever local language people speak. So I translate into terms that people understand and work with every day—caregiver terms, lawyer terms, business terms, literary terms. I am not an expert in any of these fields, and avoid any heavy use of technical terms. I have no interest in pretending to be an expert in areas where I’m not. Mostly I use common sense and what I know about dharma and about people who practice dharma to bring the teachings down to earth for a particular situation.

And I have found that people need to know these things for themselves. It may be that in a Zen sesshin students are willing to sit in silence and to take my word for what the teachings are. But all my Plan B work involves dialogue and conversation. People explore with one another the simple points I am trying to make. They learn from listening to each other as much as—or perhaps more than—they learn from listening to me. So we do zazen, we talk, we listen. People come back to retreats like this over and over again. And little by little their views change. Their concepts become unmasked. Their best intentions become free from the constraints of fear and self-protection. They find a way to make what they do dharma—whether they use this word or not.

It has been a source of some surprise to me that my Plan B has not been criticized (at least as far as I know) for being a “commercialization of dharma,” or a “watering down.” This could be because Plan A gives me credibility among my colleagues, but I don’t think this is the reason. I think the reason is that, as we go along in this process of transmitting Buddhism to the West, we are getting a little more nuanced in our understanding of what Buddhism is and what we are trying to do as Buddhist teachers in the West.

The “don’t backslide” view of my early teacher comes from a time when he and many others in the West were pretty new to all this. I doubt whether he would say the same thing today. Now I think we all appreciate that Buddhism (as Thich Nhat Hanh might say) is made of non-Buddhist elements; that is, that while we appreciate and honor Buddhism’s many cultural expressions, and recognize their importance, we know that there is no “core” Buddhism within them that can be extracted and must be protected. Buddhism is empty of any core. It is fundamentally about the honest, real, and inevitable human confrontation with suffering, and the possibility that we can, with some wisdom, understand that suffering differently, and thus overcome it. Whatever works to effect that in a lasting and authentic way is worth sharing.

For me, Plan B without Plan A would be impossible; it’s thanks to Plan A, to the twenty-five or so years that I spent living in Zen temples, practicing every day, and to the many dedicated teachers I have known, that I can offer Plan B. And, in the end, it will be thanks to Plan B that Western Buddhist teachers will be able to make possibly their greatest contribution to society at large, and, not incidentally, survive economically (since now and for the foreseeable future most Buddhist groups won’t be able to support teachers financially).

We now know there are no hermetically sealed cultures. Increasingly it becomes meaningless to speak of “Eastern” and “Western” cultures. Cultures are now merging and mixing more than ever. And every culture has its toxic elements and its noble elements. That oddly existent-non-existent vague something we call “Buddhism” has been, to my way of thinking, one of the most beautiful aspects of Eastern culture. If it disappears into Western culture it will not do so without changing Western culture, I am sure, for the better. In addition to all the many millions of people whose suffering has been and will have been alleviated by their contact with Buddhism in that long process, the whole idea of what it means in our culture to be a person, and how one goes about being a person, also will have changed. And if Buddhism doesn’t disappear (and I very much doubt that it will) then we will have a good long time to fill the empty vessel we call “Buddhism” with our own precious elixirs.

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.