Taking Fear Apart
The Practicality of the Impossible
In this article Zen priest Norman Fischer explains how the absurdity of the bodhisattva ideal demonstrates a much needed way of reimagining the world.
The challenges of the world can seem insurmountable. They stretch back before we were born and will almost certainly remain after we die. But Zen Buddhist teachings suggest that this is no reason to despair, and that we should embrace the impossibility of our task. At many Zen temples, practitioners will chant four seemingly self-contradictory lines known as the Great Bodhisattva Vows (trans. the Zen Center of Los Angeles):
Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to save them.
Desires are inexhaustible, I vow to put an end to them.
The dharmas are boundless, I vow to master them.
The Buddha Way is unsurpassable, I vow to attain it.
Rather than feeling pointless, these vows inspire believers to follow the path of the bodhisattva, one who resolves to generate bodhicitta (the wish to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings).
Zen priest and poet Norman Fischer says this is exactly the type of attitude we need to work toward a better world today. He makes his case in his new book, The World Could Be Otherwise: Imagination and the Bodhisattva Path (Shambhala, April 2019), which reframes the six perfections—a classical teaching on the virtues of generosity, ethical conduct, patience, joyful effort, meditation, and understanding—for the current moment. The first step, Fischer says, is strengthening our imaginative capacity to see how things can be radically different one day.
Tricycle spoke with Fischer about his new book, the significance of the six perfections, and how our imagination literally shapes the world around us.
You write in the opening chapter of The World Could Be Otherwise, “The saving grace of bodhisattva ideal is that it is so outrageously extravagant, so absurdly imaginative that we are clear from the start that we can never realize it.” That notion of the impossible ends up being central to the book. Can you explain what you mean?
The book is an argument against the pervasive contemporary attitude of Let’s not promise what we can’t deliver, and let’s do something doable. There’s a whole set of assumptions embedded in that kind of thinking. The problem is that we will always become dissatisfied with whatever “real world” solutions we come up with because we can always see beyond them. Human beings have an imagination that can conceive the impossible. We can always say, Well, that’s okay, but that’s not enough. I’m old enough to have seen a million bad political regimes fall and be replaced by the wonderful new regime, which 15 minutes later is now disappointing and terrible.
I want to be clear here. It’s not that I don’t believe in a rational scientific world. I see that worldview and accept its validity. But if we don’t have other ways of imagining the world, if we only pay attention to data, then the conclusion is inescapable: We’re definitely doomed. Dystopia is like five seconds away. That’s what the data tells us. That’s what scientific materialism tells us. We can’t live in that world. We have to live in a world in which the imagination goes beyond that.
In what way can this solutions-oriented approach limit us?
One example is climate change. There’s a tremendous amount that we have to do, but if it’s only about the scientific fixes with no vision and no impossible hope, then we can’t get anywhere. It’s pretty clear that climate change could be fixed or greatly improved, but it’s not political feasible because people believe that altruism doesn’t makes sense—that I’ve got to get mine or the other guys are going to take advantage of me. For political reasons, for psychological and spiritual reasons, we will destroy the Earth, not because of technical reasons.
Why did you frame this book around the six perfections (paramitas)?
Generosity: to cultivate the attitude of generosity.
Discipline: refraining from harm.
Patience: the ability not to be perturbed by anything.
Diligence: to find joy in what is virtuous, positive or wholesome.
Meditative concentration: not to be distracted.
Wisdom: the perfect discrimination of phenomena, all knowable things.
We require a path that engages our need for the impossible. The bodhisattva path, which proposes a horizon of universal love that we will never see in our lifetime, is the only thing that will continue to inspire us, and the six paramitas are the simplest way of describing the bodhisattva’s way of life.
You write that each parimita is “beyond” itself. For example, “ generosity beyond generosity” or “ethical conduct beyond ethics.” What does that mean?
The word that we translate as perfection, paramita, means to go beyond. The sixth paramita, the Paramita of Wisdom, which is said to pervade the other five, specifically means the wisdom that understands the emptiness of all dharmas—that this materialistic world is an illusion and that everything is just a point of connection that rises and falls away in the same moment. That insight gives us a love for everything that arises in every moment, and it’s the way that we practice all the paramitas. They are perfections that take into account the normal virtues, but they go beyond them to a more imaginative, more open, more expansive sense of what those things are.
When Zen practitioners recite the four vows, you say that we’re not really promising to keep it. Could you explain that?
We usually think of a vow as a promise. “I vow to pay you back the $100 I borrowed from you.” But bodhisattva vows are really extravagant and impossible. Sentient beings are infinite in number, and I vow to save them all. What does it mean to recite that vow in earnest? It means, I vow to do my best, to practice kindness and benefit for anyone and everyone. Even though I know that I’ll forget, this is my commitment. Every time I find myself being selfish, I’ll remind myself of this vow, and I’ll pull myself back together again. This is my path. I can forgive myself for all the times that I fall down on the job because inevitably I will.
On the one hand, I know it’s impossible, but on the other hand, I have some imaginative faith that someday, someway sentient beings will be saved. It will work out somehow, not while I’m alive in this short human life, but in some future time, this will happen. I believe it in some crazy way. I can’t convince you of it, I can’t argue for it, but I feel hopeful about humanity because I’ve taken this vow and I’m practicing it every single day. That’s the idea.
Why, then, is the phrase, I vow to save all sentient beings, rather than, I vow to try my best to contribute to the saving of all sentient beings?
Stating it in the most positive and extravagant way is important because I’m committed to that impossible task of saving all sentient beings, even though I’m not doing it perfectly. “I vow to like try my best to the best I can” is not strong enough—the strength comes from the impossibility and that’s what inspires us.
I see two ways of reading what you lay out in the book about how imagination functions: One is as a secular way of explaining how these practices work—how we can recite the bodhisattva vows and through imagination, the vows can have a practical psychological effect. The other interpretation is that through imagination, something miraculous happens—something impossible. Which of these readings is correct?
I’m saying both those things. It’s actually true that when you change your way of seeing life, the whole world around you literally changes. I hate to say that because it sounds so mystical and weird, but it is, practically speaking, true. If you imagine kindness and that you can see every human being as a worthwhile wonderful person—if you actually imagine that and practice it—it strengthens your imagination, increases your kindness, and then it turns out that you bump into a lot more kind people as a result.
Before, you were living in a world with a whole lot of mean people who are not to be trusted, and now you’re suddenly living in a world where mostly people are benign and trustworthy—and even the people who aren’t, instead of being threatening and looming large, seem like children to be cared for. When a little kid grabs a toy from another kid, you don’t think, Oh, what an evil person! You can think, Oh, what a my poor child! Obviously, the child doesn’t know any better. You don’t think of it as being evidence of a horrible world.
The world around you literally changes in a miraculous way the more thoroughly you practice this path. It is a kind of miracle. What if a lot of people started practicing that way?
How does that work? When is it imagination, and when does it become reality?
Asking the question in terms of imagination on the one hand and reality on the other is already within the framework of materialist philosophy, which we all completely accept and believe, but it’s too limited. Reality and imagination are not two opposing things. We make reality with our imagination. According to cognitive science and according to philosophers from Immanuel Kant on, we are seeing a world that is created by a whole complex of factors within our human organism, including our sense organs and our imaginations.
We put together the world imaginatively. If we ask, “Is the Eucharist really the body of Christ or are we just imagining it?” The answer is both. It really is the body of Christ, plus we’re imagining it. Scientifically, we can’t say that we can detect in this wafer molecules that were part of the body of Christ, but in our knowing, in our feeling, and in our hearts, we are making something real. So the real question is, What kind of imagination do you want? What kind of imagination do you validate? Do you validate the imagination that reduces the world or do you validate the imagination that expands the world?
If Buddhists, Kant, and other great thinkers across traditions and cultures all find faults in this materialist view, why do we keep falling back on it?
The reason is that it has done a lot of really important work culturally. For one thing, the concept of human rights came out of the materialist moment, which was a big reaction to the excesses and the injustices of hegemony of religion all over the world. Another reason is that the emphasis on science has created a huge amount of good—medical science, the ability to feed the world, and so on. Life was very brutal before we learned that we could understand and manipulate the material world.
I don’t mean to demonize this worldview. We’ve just over emphasized that point of view at the expense of everything else, and now we’ve painted ourselves into a corner. You could argue that it’s the materialist world that is now poisoning the planet as a result of manufacturing plants, fossil-fuel-burning cars, and a huge burst in human population. These were all essentially good things when they came along, but they need to be balanced. I’m not advocating that we go back to old-time religion—that’s impossible and it wouldn’t be a good idea—but we need to see past our exclusivity of world view to a bigger, broader way of holding on it.
You write that in meditation we have to leave the world to find solidarity with it. That seems to speak to a common criticism about meditation being self-absorbed. In other words, why should we spend time looking inward when there are people—right now—out on the streets suffering?
I just came back from a three-month monastic training period, and I thought, How many hours of my life have I spent just sitting there? Just think of all the things I could have done in that time. But considering the fact that so much helping ends up being counterproductive, it is worthwhile to take some time to find within yourself an attitude shift that may make your activity less self-serving, less counterproductive, and perhaps better for the world. And when you sit there long enough, you see all the ins and outs of being human. You see through your own individual spin to the basic stuff at the very, very bottom—which we all share in exactly the same way. Paradoxically, secluding yourself and sitting in silence brings you to a tremendously heartfelt compassion, which is not only, I care about others, but, I am others. I am nothing but others. Others are nothing but me. This is the bodhisattva attitude.