I’ve already written three earlier posts about Norman Fischer’s Lojong book. Lojong is a set of 59 slogans used as “basic training” in Tibetan Buddhism, and Fischer wrote a commentary on it from a “Zen” point of view. He used to be the abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center.
I’m trying to explain the disconnect I feel between myself and what seems like the other people into self-help hippie stuff. For me, the whole point of Buddhism was that it was supposed to have the psychological advantages of religion without the self-lobotomy required by Christianity. This seems to be in contrast to many other Western “seekers,” including the abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center, who like their magical thinking just fine. I’m trying to break with mainstream Western cultural things, and they’re trying to rebrand Western cultural things.
With this extended book review, I’m trying to show how I predict major problems getting along with people from innocuous-seeming “spiritual” stuff they write. They’re calling their normal person stuff Buddhism instead of using Buddhism to overcome it. The first thing to stand out was that Fischer was apologetic that Buddhism has anything to do with philosophy, and he made a big deal out of how “counter-intuitive” it is to place ultimate organizing principles at the start of a text. This is bringing American anti-intellectualism to Buddhism. Then he went on to equate absolute compassion, based on understanding emptiness, with the god of Judaism.
Next, lacking an interest in the philosophy of emptiness, he turns it into a justification for living in childlike denial of reality. Instead, he uses “childlike” to describe actually believing in Buddhism, i.e., the idea that that we can improve and the world doesn’t have to be like this. Really, this is rooted in white guy social Darwinism stuff. It’s important for everyone to believe that we couldn’t possibly just be nice, or else they might try it! He also says that we shouldn’t let “the other, more difficult side of life…completely colonize our hearts and minds.”
Then, he explains Tonglen as a dissociative form of magical thinking, revealing that he finds it quite difficult to feel compassion for other people. The reader is told that they can just come back to it later if they can’t bring themselves to empathize with someone.
All of this is insidious, as far as it goes. The book keeps going, though!
One of the Lojon slogans is “Don’t put an ox’s load on a cow.” Jamgon Kongtrul’s classic commentary:
To give someone else an unpleasant job that is your responsibility or, by resorting to trickery, to shift a problem you have encountered to someone else is like putting a horse’s load on a pony. Don’t do this.
That’s about as incompatible with capitalism as you can get. This interpretation emphasize that the load belongs to the ox, not the cow.
Fischer’s interpretation emphasizes that oxes are stronger than cows. He felt it necessary to change the slogan to “Don’t unload on everyone,” which changes the target of wrongful loading from singular to plural, even universal. Before explaining the meaning, he has to exoticize things for the modern reader, who of course uses cars unlike ancient primitives:
The traditional slogan reads Don’t put an ox’s load on a cow. This gives you a picture of life in ancient India or Tibet, as do some of the other slogans. You can imagine people hiding behind bushes and waiting to ambush each other [like cops?], people eating poisonous food or trying to serve poisonous food to their enemies [Western diet], people cutting down trees with evil tree spirits in them [Amazonian and Indonesian deforestation causing global warming] or peeing in sacred streams [industrial activity in general], and, as here, people in their villages with their oxen and their cows. Oxen are sturdy animals. They pull heavy burdens, they’re made for that. Cows, on the other hand, give milk. They are not build for carrying heavy burdens. So don’t put an ox’s burden on a cow. The idea is: you are the ox, other people are the cow. The burden of your suffering is your own; not theirs. So don’t unload on them; don’t try to give your burden to them.
By focusing on his ego and how he’s a strong, manly ox and not a weak, feminine cow, he’s turning Lojong into White Man’s Burden. After lip service to the importance of opening up, he explains the real meaning as “niggers should stop acting like pussies and receive my spiritual guidance.”
Suppose someone does some really bad things to you; she may oppress you a great deal, treat you unfairly, and so on. This is really bad, and one way or the other the person is going to have to bear the burden of what she has done [LOL]. In other words, in relation to these misdeeds of hers, she is the ox. But in relation to you, she is the cow–the suffering that you are feeling as a result of her deeds is not her burden, it is yours, though her deeds have caused you to feel suffering. After all, if someone were to abuse you, and somehow or other you were able to gobble up the abuse and deal with it cheerfully and make your practice stronger [good nigger], so that by the time he was finished abusing you, you were happier and stronger than you had ever been before, then his abuse wouldn’t have hurt you, it would have helped you [it’s for your own good]. It wouldn’t have been a cause of your suffering, it would have been a cause of your joy. The reason the abuse is so painful is because of the way you have reacted to it. If you’re not there when an attacker is hitting you on the head, or if you don’t have a head, the attacker is just hitting air or some other object. It’s because you are there and because you do have a head that the harm is happening. I realize this is odd reasoning, but it’s true. All suffering is your own burden, an ox’s burden. Ultimately the burden of your suffering is your own, you yourself are the immediate cause of it, even though the occasion may have been someone else’s misdeed.
This is dualistic and a half. Somehow, the rest of the time, we need to contemplate emptiness and interdependence, and see the ultimate lack of separation between ourselves and others. When someone complains to Norman Fischer about what the white guys are doing to them, it’s important that we make a very firm distinction between self and other. It couldn’t possibly be that the white guys not dealing with their issues are causing immense pain to everyone else. Nope, not possible. Norman Fischer is busy imagining black sludge turning into healing light by some process in his body he has no insight into.
Norman Fischer’s model of spirituality is someone getting too high or drunk to care and then getting degraded in a porn film and appreciating that pleasant physical sensations are involved, and you gave someone the gift of orgasm. He really is saying that, but I think the idea is so unpalatable that I’m going to quote something from the post linked in the last sentence (source is Dissociation and the Dissociative Disorders):
I can disregard my emotions when I am on the drug. I couldn’t care less about myself because I hardly felt myself. It is pretty awful to be myself you know…I’d rather not feel the stuff that makes me feel so bad, the sadness and the emptiness, those endless internal quarrels. This white stuff helps me not to feel my depression, I can ignore all the threats and the dangers in this fucking world they don’t even seem real anymore, I couldn’t give a shit about nothing. This world is full of all sorts of creeps who always want to fuck you or hurt you. When I was on the drug, they could take my body and do what they fucking pleased with it. I wasn’t home.
I could still be charitable to Fischer here and explain it this way: Fischer is so used to his socioeconomic status that he can’t imagine not being “the ox” in a situation. Why the fuck should he care what anybody thinks? At the end of the day, he’s still a professional holy person and people will listen to him because of his costume (a theme in stories about Zen masters!). I mean, can’t sit still for long enough to get holiness points for going to retreats. Is it weakness or is it because it’s miserable not to stim? Either way. I’m not formally part of any sangha, I don’t have a “teacher,” “guru,” or “master.” I have a psychotherapist and a book collection. I consider getting high all the time a good way of integrating meditation into daily life activities, so I’m “breaking the precepts.” For authenticity points, I encountered an actual lineage long ago, in a land far away.
Norman Fischer leads the sangha. I don’t go to the sangha, because Norman Fischer says shit like this:
So, although we might suffer at the hands of others, if we blame others for our suffering, if we try to put the burden of our suffering on them, it doesn’t do a thing to them, but it increases our own burden, because now we have become the victim of others, which means now we are completely dependent on them to relieve our suffering and now we are pleading and begging with them to relieve our suffering. They must be punished or they must make amends or apologize, and if none of this happens, we are going to continue to suffer. But the truth is that only we can bear the burden of our own suffering. If we take responsibility for the suffering, then we have the power to lift that burden off even if the other person continues to abuse us and is never punished and never makes amends.
I’m not pleading or begging Norman Fischer for anything. He can go fuck himself, truly. I like reading Shunryu Suzuki’s books and everything, though I realize he did shitty things IRL, but white people don’t usually find a new church and then the preacher stands up, points at them from the stage, and calls them a little bitch in front of everyone. That’s what he’s doing, condescendingly! He’s like, “I’m never saying sorry, motherfucker! What now?!”
I mean, I’m not going to get into a fistfight with Norman Fischer. I’ll email him a link to these posts so he knows “fuck you” (lol wrathful deity meditation). I’ll move on with my life.
This bothers me more than usual because it’s a case of whiteness destroying everything that is beautiful, and I had hoped to find more insight into compassion and empathy so my life can be less fucked up from autism. Sometimes I’ll buy books just to complain about them on this blog. But that’s not why I bought Fischer’s book. I was, like, integrating what I’d learned recently about Tibetan Buddhism into my existing Zen practice.
But THEN Fischer is the kind of person to make a show of turning the other cheek and quoting Martin Luther King. It’s all self-serving bullshit!
People don’t want to stop and dwell on the fact that that really is a painful betrayal of trust, for the sake of their inability to deal with feelings like adults.
Fischer is about as welcoming as Christianity is to gay people: insincerely.
When you stop and think about it, I bought a religion book as part of a generally hopeful life trajectory, and then it caused me enough distress to motivate hours and days of writing just to express the full extent of how OMGWTF it is. The cortisol is literally taking time off my life, which is what happens to black people who live here. I suppose I’m just too attached to my life.
Shoes Outside the Door is about life at the San Francisco Zen Center:
To practice zazen, Suzuki-roshi often reminded his students, is to study the self. By 1983, the senior priests at Zen Center had logged a lot of hours in the study hall. The work and meditation schedule they kept was famous for its rigor Typically, they sat for almost two hours every morning, beginning at five, attended a midday service, and sat again for an hour or two in the evening until nine. During the two annual Practice Periods, the daily meditation periods were extended. Once a month, they sat for twelve or fourteen hours–a one day sesshin (intensive retreat)…In fifteen years, Reb, Yvonne, Lew, and the other senior students who’d kept the daily schedule had each sat zazen for at least 10,000 to 15,000 hours.
And yet, by any common-sense standard, the most seasoned meditators at Zen Center repeatedly flunked simple tests of self-awareness. “I wonder,” wrote a former Zen Center student in a letter to Yvonne in 1987, “if in some cases doing zazen doesn’t augment or aggravate the dissociative process–as if in some way it cauterizes the personality and seals it off, encapsulates it, widens the breach between heart and mind.”
A few pages later, this is how Suzuki’s successor (i.e., a predecessor of Fischer’s) reflects on the epic disaster of his time as abbot:
“I am practicing at Zen Center, and I’m trying to learn what impact I have on people as the teacher, and it was two or three years before I got the first glimmer that you have a big impact on people as their teacher. I just didn’t get it. Teachers never had a big impact on me–I didn’t give a damn about my teachers at Harvard. Maybe I’m just too self-centered or self-motivated or self-something…I realize now,” muses Richard, as if it were a subtle point, “that being the landlord, the employer, the teacher, and the manager/president of the businesses, I had a tremendous influence on people’s lives. I decided where they lived, worked, practiced, and what salaries they got. I didn’t see it, then.”
“To this day I feel oppressed when I go there” is how someone described life at the farm affiliated with the Zen Center. There was a guy who liked to smoke weed and thought of the farming as his practice, who was bummed to leave the farm. He said something about sustainably feeding people and how at San Francisco Zen Center they looked down on him for having hair and pants. There was a racist alcoholic lady named Nancy the community was providing with servants. Really great at the tea ceremony or something. I think most of that stuff predates Fischer (?), but it’s the history of the community he’s representing.
I really don’t belong there, and I really can tell from the way he explains things. It’s as obvious to me as body language is to normal people. But this is how normal people are receiving the book!
Everybody loves it, except for the person who thought there was too much philosophy.
Fischer’s influence far exceeds the influence of this blog (although I don’t count visitors). I wish he wouldn’t confuse people by teaching Judaism as Buddhism. I’m actually more OK with “cultural appropriation” and blending religions than a lot of people, but at least keep it logically and emotionally consistent. I’ve read about Bon, and got something out of passages about going to power places to do rituals for the elemental spirits, to get your elements back in balance. The elements as shorthand for psychological things like “groundedness,” “spaciousness,” or “fluidity.” I might stop somewhere nice on a hike, look at the sky, and think about Dzogchen. I’ve thought about Kali and Shakti, but I’m not a Hindu.
However, it would be stupid if I started performing rituals and doing meditations, in the spirit that Kali is a literal deity, because I thought they were pretty and inspiring. I would start to get very confused about the meaning of what I was doing, if I still thought of myself as Buddhist.
With people like Fischer, it’s as if preserving the white patriarchy is their prime directive, which they bring to whatever they do. They’ve already got the Christians on lock, but it’s alarmingly easy to draw egalitarian conclusions from Buddhism. It’s as if the white people got together and sent a messenger to keep those who think they’re straying in the flock. “Look, you’re an ox, not a cow. Don’t be a victim. Worrying about other people is difficult and not urgent. Try this really avoidant way of spending your meditation time. You don’t need to learn the philosophy of Buddhism as part of training your mind with it.”
So then he writes about what it’s like to get dishonest and squeamish support from people, so he knows what it’s like, and the reader will charitably assume he’s not bullshitting them in the same way. He’s careful when he knows it’s getting close to people’s bullshit detection thresholds: “Abusing people wouldn’t hurt them if they didn’t have heads, now would it? Nevermind!” It’s a mystical Zen thing, whatever.
Here I want to make a point about mentalization. Deities and spirits are projections of people’s emotional stuff. They aren’t literally real, but they serve a lot of social functions. They aren’t required to have any empirical basis for believing in them.
A few paragraphs up, I wrote “as if” white supremacy is a conspiracy where they have secret meetings and send agents like Norman Fischer to infiltrate liberal-tending spiritual communities and prevent them from turning into leftist spiritual communities. That’s not how it works. Fischer just has to make lazy assumptions and live in a bubble.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses say that Adam and Eve were perfect until they ate the fruit of the tree which gave them knowledge of good and evil, which the serpent had said would make them “like Jehovah.” Satan, along with other rebellious angels, made a bet that humans could rule themselves, without Jehovah. The meaning of human suffering is that we’re demonstrating to Satan that God told him so. Eating of the tree made us stop being perfect, so we lost eternal life. Satan has dominion over the world. God is abstaining for now until Jesus marches in to fuck Satan’s shit up all kinds of terrible.
The world is ruled by Satan the Devil, which will lead to certain disaster without divine intervention. I don’t think that there’s literally a Satan the Devil, but it’s a great metaphor. There’s Satan, poisoning Fischer’s mind and turning his teachings into advice on how to maintain liberal racism. I attribute the problem to very well-taught cultural assumptions and psychological tendencies, which are designed to be self-reinforcing and impenetrable. It might as well be a malicious demon with a name, leading people into temptation.
I accurately perceive it to be a social system that doesn’t depend on individual intentions. It’s mechanistic. I guess I’m not biased towards looking at everything socially and organizing experience that way. It’s not Satan. It’s the privileged squeamishness of people like Norman Fischer.
It’s disturbing to think about what it means that the overwhelming majority of readers loved the book, judging by Amazon reviews. It means they don’t recognize, or maybe care about, the things I’ve written about here. Those are a sample of the other people who purchased Training in Compassion: Zen Teachings on the Practice of Lojong. Nothing that would take a star off the review.
I guess I could be glad they’re trying, if I believed they were trying. Instead, I think they’re seeking and receiving validation from Norman Fischer in their crappiness. His blessing, you might say. I got the book because it spoke to my specific situation of being a Zen practitioner encountering Lojong. I was assuming basic doctrinal compatibility and trying to get a sense of the stylistic differences. It just occurred to me that a lot of people probably got it because they don’t give a shit enough to know that “Zen” and “Lojong” are from two different languages! The person who was unhappy with the book thought there was too much academic detail. Haha. I do everything like a weirdo.
From The Beauty of the Primitive: Shamanism and the Western Imagination:
The “New Age” and nature spiritualities might appear bizarre to a person immersed in materialism or to an academic who measures cultural and social life by the nineteenth-century Marxist yardstick. There is no doubt that many people coming from underprivileged or third world backgrounds might also find these Western spiritual pursuits to be peculiar. Most probably, they will subscribe to the Harrington quote above [“chic primitivism of a bored affluence”]. Much of what Western seekers do might appear equally preposterous to Native American fundamentalists or to some scholars who still think that a culture is something old, remote, and frozen in time and space.
The view that the attempts of Western seekers to become tribal are superficial is the most widespread criticism leveled against the “New Age” and modern pagans. Indeed, cast against the ideal traditional culture, their recently invented rituals and creation tales do not look genuine and authentic. Although the attempts of Western seekers to position themselves as the spiritual successors of Native American or, alternately, Celtic and Nordic traditions will certainly never withstand serious scrutiny, there is no doubt that we are dealing here with a new spiritual movement that has a large number of adherents. Since this is the realm of the sacred, there is nothing illegitimate or superficial in these spiritual quests simply because, in matters of religion, the debate about what represents genuine and nongenuine does not make much sense. For example, the creation story and rituals pioneered by Joseph Smith similarly appeared preposterous to mainstream Christians in the first half of the nineteenth century Still, nobody will deny that out of his prophecy grew the powerful Mormon Church with hundreds of thousands of followers within and outside the United States. In fact, using the arguments of the critics of emerged or emerging “New Age” and nature spiritualities, one could equally dismiss as inauthentic such American Indian beliefs as, for example, the Handsome Lake Religion or the Native American Church. The first one was the result of the prophesy of Handsome Lake, the early nineteenth-century Indian spiritual leader who blended the Iroquois and Quaker beliefs. The second one was invented at the turn of the twentieth century and merged pan-Indian elements with Christianity.
I don’t think that cultural authenticity is the real problem. Existential authenticity is the problem. Existential inauthenticity is fundamental to American culture, and people are attached to it, and bring that attachment to their religious practices. I’m sure that Norman Fischer is exceptionally good at pretending to be Japanese.
This tendency that I’m complaining about has “a large number of adherents.” That’s why it’s bothering me so much. I wish they wouldn’t waste my time creating the superficial appearance that we’re on the same team.
I’m black and autistic and believe strange things. Presumably that’s a stretch for most people, and “the person holds no attitudes or beliefs that are detrimental to me” is way too high of a bar for dating. My issues aren’t even familiar to most people, so there needs to be a certain level of open-mindedness and social deviance as a meeting point. In theory, I should have an easier time with the audience of a book specifically about improving your compassion for everyone. Norman Fischer makes that less true, by actively discouraging solidarity with my cause.
If this pisses me off and I feel this makes him responsible for my social difficulties on one level, he washes his hands of it because that’s just my problem and he feels peaceful just fine. I have to accept that Norman Fischer exists in the world, and he isn’t going away. That’s practice for me, and it is someone’s fault. It’s many people’s fault.
I’m not on the same page with the organized religion, so the “spiritual but not religious” should be my people. I guess I didn’t stop to ask why they weren’t religious. Oh…they’re not turned off by the irrationality, corruption, etc. They’re wishy-washy and avoiding religion that would demand anything of them. Religion never has bad news for them about how they’ve been living. It’s there to make them feel good, preferably in a group with others. Maybe they’re even cool people in the early stages of development, but for now they suck as part of my life.
It really is amazing to me that, the way I understand it, normal people can look at a sign on a building that says “Baptist,” and if they’re Baptist, they’re immediately part of a community that helps each other out.
My experience is that, most of the time, there are clues it’s not the place for me. It’s really so frustrating that normal people don’t just decide their beliefs using logic and evidence, but they get to belong to multiple groups where membership influences reality. It’s becoming the downfall of our society.