Love letters from Buddhism
By PAT CAHILL, The Republican, July 22, 2007
Northampton, MA (USA) -- People looking for quick answers to the meaning of life should probably steer clear of "Answer Your Love Letters: Footnotes to a Zen Practice," by Adam Genkaku Fisher of Northampton.
"Simplicity is not so simple," Fisher writes. And elsewhere: "In order to be centered, you must stand at the center of all things and realize there is no center."
Abstract stuff. But Fisher also describes an intense joy in the tangible and the present, whether it's a Brahms waltz, a misspelled card from his son, a hawk in a friend's back yard or a well-intentioned lift from a driver who, literally, takes him nowhere.
His prose swings between the lyrical and the profane, anchored by expletives. Fisher offers ethereal insights ("It can be purely frightening to recognize even the edges of aloneness") and terse self-admonitions ("Cut the crap!").
While the questions he takes on are big ones, he is wary of too much trust in the intellect. As the son of a college professor and a professional writer who divorced very early in his life, he observed that intellect wasn't enough to achieve happiness.
He discovered Buddhism at age 30, finding in it a warmth and wit he had never associated with the intellectualism of his parents.
The "love letters" in his title are the teachings of the Zen masters, those who "knew the aching of the human heart" and reached out to help.
Even before Fisher began studying Buddhism, there were hints that he would follow his own path.
He recalls a lecture for entering freshmen at Colby College in Maine. The speaker was a philosophy professor and head of the college. The subject: the whiteness of chalk. The talk went on for an hour and a half.
Finally, thought Fisher, here was somebody who talked the way he liked to think! "I tell you, I was sitting on the edge of my seat," he says.
He likes it when people tell him they would never know he was a Buddhist. "That's good," he says. "I'm glad."
He spent two years in Germany with the U.S. Army, translating intercepted calls between East German authorities. He also worked for an earlier incarnation of this newspaper, which he loved. Eventually he returned and is now a copy editor at The Republican.
In between, he went to New York to study Buddhism. He supported himself by painting apartments, and threw himself into his study with a "Marine Corps"-like fervor.
At the same time, he writes, his quest "was shot through with doubt, with skepticism, with questions I hardly dared ask."
From the vantage point of 35 years, he hopes his book will encourage others. "I want them to feel comfortable asking the questions they don't dare ask," he says.
"What people who sniff around the edges of spiritual life are doing - assuming they get serious - is looking for something that is more credible than belief.
"Belief is very important, but it's limited. It implies by its nature that there is doubt. If you didn't doubt, you wouldn't need belief."
Fisher built his own zendo, or meditation hall, in his back yard. He welcomes people to meditate with him on Sundays from 9 to 11 a.m. He and his wife, Elizabeth, have three children, none of whom are Buddhists.
"Black Moon Zendo," as his meditation space is called, is simple and pristine, its wooden walls unpainted, cushions on the floor. Fisher has put little statues of Bodhisattva, or spiritual beings, on the altar.
As he talks, it becomes clear that his favorite is the one named Gizo. "He's so great!" Fisher enthuses. "He takes care of drunks and bums and kids.
"He's a chum, a friend, someone who would know why you do naughty things. He enters the hell-realm and takes on your demons.
"He's very accessible to the average Joe, and much less 'magical mystery tour' than some of the others."
But each Bodhisattva has a counterpart, Fisher explains, and Gizo's is Kokuzo - Bodhisattva of infinite space.