Sunday, October 28, 2012

Sweeping Zen interview

Yesterday, I was gossiping with Adam Tebbe, the maestro of the Sweeping Zen site. As an aside, he remembered that I had once asked him to make corrections to my biographical interview on his site and he still hadn't gotten around to doing it. So ... if I would resend it, he would post it, he said. This morning I did a rewrite and decided to slap it in here as well, partly to know where I can find it easily and partly to display how insufferably humble I am.

Adam Genkaku Fisher was a student of the late Kyudo Nakagawa-Roshi and is the founder of Black Moon Zendo ( in Massachusetts. He is not a priest or anything, just some wise guy with more than forty years of practice whom I’ve corresponded with over time. Adam is author of the book Answer Your Love Letters: Footnotes to a Zen Practice and also regularly blogs (


SZ: What about Zen attracted you and when did you begin practice?

AGF: In a literal, whole-life sense, I sometimes like to say that I took up Zen practice because I had a blue tricycle when I was little. This answer attempts to convey the ridiculousness that I see in trying to answer such a question in any real terms. But in a linear, let's-tell-a-story, sense, I fell in love with Hindu Vedanta sometime in the late 1960's or early 1970's. I read and read and read. I knew more long Hindu words than Bayer has aspirins. It was truly delicious. But one day as I was reading a thought sprang up and hit me in the face: If they -- all these monks and nuns and wise people I was reading about -- could do it, then so could I. This thought truly embarrassed me. Where did I get off imagining I could claim a place at the table with all of these elevated beings? But as embarrassed as I was by my presumptuousness, still the thought refused to be silenced. And close upon that initial, gob-stopping thought, another thought rose up like a fiery sword: If spiritual life -- whatever that meant -- could not walk into a barroom on a raucous Saturday night with me, I wanted nothing whatsoever to do with it. I didn't want to sell it to anyone else. I didn't want to play the Tupperware salesman. I didn't want to be a shill for God or heaven or enlightenment or whatever the big bingo turned out to be. I just wanted to know for sure and from my own experience that it was true. These two thoughts became my bed-rock inspirations. But there was a problem: As much as I had read and pondered and delighted and been confused by what I had read up until that time (and I once calculated it was something like 500,000 pages), I really didn't know what I was supposed to DO. Literally -- what do you do and how do you do it? I really didn't know. I felt like a hungry man sitting in front of  a plate of delicious food: The food was right in front of me, but I couldn't find the knife and fork. Eventually, I scraped together the basics of meditation. I went outside and found a wooden milk crate in the garbage outside the apartment building I lived in. I put an orange cloth over it, set up a picture and incense burner on it and created an altar. Then I began to sit cross-legged in front of it each day. Doing what, I wasn't quite sure, but doing something. I got pretty pissed off that my knees hurt so much while doing whatever I was doing: If I was doing this for "God," the least s/he could do for me in return was to make my legs stop hurting. During this period, I worked as a news reporter and went to several Hindu centers to get the lay of the land of spiritual practice. Over time, I realized that such places were not to my taste. And then one day, I got taken to a Zen center in New York. It scared the crap out of me -- all that silence, all that preciseness, all that attentive care -- but I knew it was home ... a place in which to go for the throat ... no more sissy stuff ... go for broke!  And so I stayed with it for nine years, tried out a monastery and quit, lived through three sex scandals ... and finally ended up on Kyudo Roshi’s doorstep.  

SZ: You were a student of Kyudo Nakagawa and I wondered if you’d tell us about your memories of him.

AGF: It was Kyudo who gave me the Dharma name I currently have: Genkaku, meaning “original understanding” or “original realization.” It was a pretty sneaky name, given the past … but it worked OK. Kyudo had a kind of arms-wide-open approach … disdaining no teaching, yet quick as a fox to point out that no teaching could ever reach. “There is no such thing as 1,700 koans,” he said to me once, for example. I was and consider myself to be a student of Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi, former abbot of Ryutaku-ji Monastery in Japan. Our relationship was somewhat unorthodox in the sense that very shortly after I joined the now-defunct Soho Zendo, I got married (Kyudo married us) and moved away from New York. Thereafter, I would periodically take a 175-mile bus trip to NYC to visit …. sitting at the kitchen table in the zendo, a pack of cigarettes between us, sipping tea and just talking about this and that … most of it Zennie sorts of things, but often just whatever came up. It was as good a dokusan session as I ever had … straightforward, easy-going and not relying on something called “Zen.” Kyudo died in 2007, but he bequeathed to me at least two teachings I will forever be grateful for. One was that he said to me not once, but twice (and for a Japanese teacher to say something twice is a bit like having a Marine Corps drill sergeant screaming in your ear): "Take care of your family." And his second bequest, as I see it, was wordless: Kyudo left no Dharma heirs. For this I will be eternally grateful. To my mind, this was and remains honest Zen ... no nonsense necessary.

SZ: Where would you place yourself in the “world of Zen”?
AGF: I am not ordained. I am not a priest. I’m a guy with three kids (mostly out the door), a mortgage and am retired from the world of newspaper writing and editing. As to the nine years I spent under Eido Shimano's aegis, I like to say, "I wouldn't wish my training on my worst enemy ... and I wouldn't trade it for all the tea in China." As to my links and connections with Kyudo, well, thank you very much. But as time passes, I am no longer very interested in "Zen Buddhism." Not long ago, I gave away the majority of my books on the topic ... they were just gathering dust. I am a "Zen Buddhist" when the occasion calls for it, but the occasions are not so many and not so insistent any more. If I had to pick a hip-pocket saying to sum things up or aspire to or whatever, I might agree with Ikkyu Sojun who once remarked, "I am not a Buddha. I am just an ordinary fellow who understands things." This is not to play the implicit or explicit Zen-teacher game of quoting others as a means of elevating my own status. It's just a line I like in the same way I like chocolate. Whether I can live up to what I like, I haven't got a clue. I also like, "Just because you are indispensable to the universe does not mean the universe needs your help" and "Smile just one smile." If you want to come over to my house and play Zen, we can do that. If you want to come over and watch the World Series, we can do that too.

 SZ: You founded Black Moon Zendo in your backyard I’ve read. What prompted you to build it and open it to the public, rather than attending one of the local Dharma groups in Massachusetts?

AGF: When I got to Massachusetts where I currently live, I was working a swing shift at the newspaper — 3-11 or 4-12 — and even if I got up early enough to join any local sitting group, there were the kids to get off to school. Evenings were out because I worked. I did find one group that sat on Monday evenings (one of my days off) and I sat with them until the evening when the instructor (a martial arts guy) pulled out a sheaf of papers and began to read … it was instructions on “how to spot a false teacher.” I had never run into such unmitigated bullshit in my life, so I didn’t go back.
That left me with no setting in which to sit. So, although I had never done such a thing before in my life, I built a little 12×16 house, set up an altar, got some cushions and gave it the Great Big Name — Black Moon Zendo. I made it available for anyone to come sit on Sunday mornings, and occasionally during the week if people asked and I had time … three kids doesn’t make for a lot of time. Luckily, not too many people came or come. It’s a pretty small-potatoes operation … you want to do zazen, come ahead; you want to talk a little about spiritual endeavor, we can do that too. But there’s not a lot of sex appeal and for that reason it’s probably too strict. We chant a little sometimes, but not a lot. If someone brings up a sutra, OK … but basically it’s sitting, chanting, chatting and perhaps a bit of coffee after.
I suppose in some Sunday-go-to-meetin’ sense, I do run the place. People have called me “teacher,” “sensei” and even “roshi.” I can’t help it but I certainly don’t encourage it. OK, I run the place for the few who occasionally show up. And lord knows I can run my mouth, given the opportunity. I tell the people who have come for a while that if they don’t interrupt and get their licks in … well, whose fault is that? I have been practicing since about 1970, so it is likely I know a couple of things that newcomers might not … just the tactical stuff and some of the mental wiliness. But in general, I really do look on visitors as I might look to Kyudo Roshi … these are serious teachers … but of course I wouldn’t tell them that. It might ruin their day.

SZ: What books would you recommend to someone interested in Zen?

AGF: I don’t  read books much any more. When I do, it’s usually Swampland Flowers: The Letters and Lectures of Zen Master Ta Hui. But I always liked the old guys … Huang Po, Hui Neng, Hui Hai, Dogen … and, although I am hesitant to mention him because so many think he was just some wildman, Ikkyu… Ikkyu who said, “I am not a Buddha. I am just an ordinary fellow who understands things.” I always liked that … it’s enough reading for me. But I also liked Trungpa Rinpoche’s stuff, Suzuki Roshi’s stuff, Kapleau’s stuff … but hell, I liked the Quran and parts of the Bible and several Christian orthodox books. Read what seems to appeal. If you don’t like it, read something else. Read the stuff that makes you happy, that opens your heart, that confuses the hell out of you. And if you want to make me rich, read my book, “Answer Your Love Letters: Footnotes to a Zen Practice.” When you’ve read yourself out, sit down and do zazen … or, if you like, skip the reading and just do zazen. Zazen will tell you everything you really want to know.

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