when you greet me i bow : “… simply being together with warmhearted kindness, dropping story lines, and appreciating each other’s profound human presence is the whole of the teaching …” ~ Norman Fischer
Indeed! … Norman captures the essence of Zen in such simple yet profound words …
He shares his thoughts on this essence of Zen in a talk on his book, When You Greet Me I Bow: Notes and Reflections from a Life in Zen, shortly after its publication last year: “… I’ve come to this thought … after all this time … that … dharma is all about … and maybe you could even say … only about relationship …” and …
He goes on to add: “… what does Nagarjuna’s great analysis of the concept of shunyata (emptiness) come to if not relationship … emptiness, he says, isn’t anything other than relationship …” … but here relationship, he adds: “… includes more than what we think of as relationship … relationship includes solitude … silence … perception … includes the mystery of the thinking mind … and the uncanny fact that we live in a world – somehow – that is always on the point of fading away …”
Norman’s talk was a regular Wednesday evening dharma talk at Upaya Zen Center that is also available as a podcast … where he focuses on relationship: the 1st of the four themes covered in the book, the other three being emptiness teaching, culture & the shaping of it, and engagement …
So, in this post – and the next – we offer the entire chapter When You Greet Me I Bow … which is the 1st chapter in PART ONE: A Buddha And A Buddha that’s focused on the relationship theme …
This post is a continuation of our excerpt based preview of Norman’s book … and it is the 2nd post in our recently launched Shambhala Publications series (that offers substantive previews of selections from Shambhala Publications new and classic titles) … click here to read more about the launch of this series starting with Norman’s book.
All italicized text below is adapted from When You Greet Me I Bow: Notes and Reflections from a Life in Zen by Norman Fischer, edited by Cynthia Schrager © 2021 by Norman Fischer. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO. Shambhala Publications has also generously offered a free downloadable PDF of the Table of Contents (link is at the bottom of the post).
You can purchase the book at Shambhala Publications or Amazon.
When You Greet Me I Bow
Most people come to Zen practice not quite knowing what to expect. Popular images of tough Zen masters, rigorous retreats, and hard-won enlightenment experiences may obscure the fact that, when you come down to it, Zen is as much about relationship and interaction as anything else. Think of the koan literature for which Zen is famous. On the surface, these stories flash with enigma and a wonderful patina of the exotic (to Westerners anyway). But scratch the surface and you realize that the stories are basically about encounters between people.
Zen koan literature is essentially dialogic. The typical Zen story involves two or more people, who seem to be on intimate terms with one another, bringing up the teaching in dynamic, even amusing, ways. Because the protagonists know each other so well and share a serious and long-standing commitment to the dharma, they don’t need to stand on ceremony. Their discussions (which are sometimes wordless) are always laconic, rough, and full of affectionate slang and jokiness, and relationship itself—with all its glitches and contradictions—is often the subject matter. So, contrary to expectations, Zen stories may have something fresh to say about the tricky and problematic nature of relationship. Here’s one:
Longtan made rice cakes for a living. But when he met the priest Tianhuang, he left home to follow him. Tianhuang said, “Be my attendant. From now on I will teach you the essential dharma gate.” After a year, Longtan said, “When I arrived, you said you would teach me. But so far nothing has happened.” Tianhuang said, “I’ve been teaching you all along.” Longtan said, “What have you been teaching me?” Tianhuang said, “When you greet me I bow. When I sit you stand beside me. When you bring tea I receive it from you.”
One day, while Guishan was lying down, Yangshan came to see him. . . .
Guishan said, “Let me tell you about my dream.” Yangshan leaned forward to listen.
Guishan said simply, “Would you interpret my dream
for me? I want to see how you do it.”
In response Yangshan brought a basin of water and
a towel. Guishan washed his face and sat up. Then Xiangyan came in.
Guishan said, “Yangshan and I have been sharing miracles. This is no small matter.”
Xiangyan said, “I was next door and heard you.” Guishan said to him, “Why don’t you try?”
Xiangyan made a bowl of tea and brought it to him. Guishan praised them both, saying, “You two students surpass even Shariputra and Maudgalyayana [intimate disciples of the Buddha] with your miraculous activity!”
These are wonderful stories about people who know each other so well and whose minds and hearts are in such harmony that they don’t need to explain or discuss. They are so close they can communicate everything with a bowl of water or a bow. Simply appreciating being together, sharing life basically and intimately, they understand one another at a level far beyond ordinary needs and wants and arguments. Of course, not all Zen stories illustrate this perfect accord between practitioners, but those that do are eloquent in just this way; they are saying that simply being together with warmhearted kindness, dropping story lines, and appreciating each other’s profound human presence is the whole of the teaching. No mention here of meditation insights, esoteric ritual, or fancy Buddhist doctrine. Intimate and caring relationship is the miracle that moves Guishan so much.
Someone said to me recently, “I know your feet.” This is a funny and intimate thing to say. In Zen practice we spend a lot of time in the meditation hall together, doing things in unison—sitting down and getting up, standing, walking, and eating. It is not unusual for us to spend a week together in retreat like this, with no speaking or looking into each other’s faces. But we appreciate and recognize each other’s presence. Some of us wear robes, and our feet are bare. We see each other’s feet and hands, and we acknowledge with a bow each other’s bodies in passing.
In the world at large, we can know someone quite well—they can even be a good friend—but we might not know their feet or their hands or fully take in the sense of their body as they stand near us. Though we know what they look like, we may not really have taken in their face, or their voice, or the way they move when they are deeply connected to their feelings. Yet what are we if not our feet, hands, face, voice, and the way we move?
Instead of our bodies, what we know of each other in the ordinary world is our stories, our social words and beliefs, our wants and needs and complaints. A relationship operates across the divide of two people’s needs and wants and opinions, which may or may not, at any given moment, harmonize. And when they don’t harmonize, then what? No wonder relationships are so rough!
In contrast, the relationships in these Zen stories are pristine in their clarity and simplicity. Whatever conflict or controversy there may once have been has been worked out through years of mutual practice. Willing, finally, to be present with what is, the protagonists can be perfectly present with one another as they are. Sharing mutual commitment, they can share life. They can know each other with an intimacy that goes beyond the abstraction of story line and desire. They seem to appreciate each other enough to feel comfortable bringing up life’s most challenging questions.
In his book The Social Animal, New York Times columnist and television commentator David Brooks summarizes the plethora of recent studies about the brain and emotion. He quite wisely finds this research germane to his interest in politics and society. Most of what goes on between us, he says, isn’t what we think is going on. Unconscious and unintentional, our interactions are subtle and by and large unknown to us. Our relationships really are as mysterious and resistant to explanation as the Zen masters of old understood they were. We stand in each other’s presence; we drink in each other’s being; we know and influence each other; and we turn each other inside out simply by being in each other’s presence. We are always breathing, sitting, walking, and standing together—the togetherness is just more noticeable in quiet meditation halls.
It’s true that the Zen masters of old lived lives of silence, meditation, ritual, lore, and teaching that created a nonordinary atmosphere in which their needs and desires could be clearly seen and seen through. So over time they could realistically hope to come to a feeling of living at a more basic, visceral level, and, at this level, relationship is heartfelt and clear. You drink in the other’s presence, hands, feet, face, voice, until, over years and decades, friendship ripens and deepens into brotherhood and sisterhood—true kinship of the spirit. You are living the same dream, and you know it. You don’t need to explain or contend.
~ Norman Fischer
Part 3 – conclusion – of the launch of this Shambhala Publications Series will offer the remaining excerpts from the chapter When You Greet Me I Bow … so stay tuned …
All italicized text above adapted from When You Greet Me I Bow: Notes and Reflections from a Life in Zen by Norman Fischer, edited by Cynthia Schrager © 2021 by Norman Fischer. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO. And, click here for the free, downloadable PDF of the Table of Contents.
You can purchase the book at Shambhala Publications or Amazon.
Part of a balanced relationship with ourselves and others includes being aware of the needs of others … such as the Colorado communities that are dealing with devastating fires:
Go Fund Me has set up a trusted relief fund to urgently help verified fundraisers started for people affected by the Marshall and Middle Fork fires. Donate now to help someone in need recover from the wildfires.
Also, … help for COVID remains a key need too …. so here’s a GoFundMe blog post Fundraising for Coronavirus Relief: How You Can Help the Fight that offers a very comprehensive map for the COVID relief efforts including how you can help, what to give to, and lots more …
We are supporting some of these campaigns personally and also as Stillness Speaks (through donations).
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May you remain safe and healthy as you navigate these unsettling times across the globe.