Norman Fischer is a Zen teacher, poet, writer, and Jewish meditation instructor. As we say in our Living Spiritual Teachers Project feature about him, read his writings for:
- The essentials of spiritual maturity from an interreligious perspective;
- Kind, intelligent help navigating life's perils and pitfalls;
- A willingness to explore ever-changing conditions and let go of everything, including Zen.
When You Greet Me I Bow is the most comprehensive, wide-ranging collection of his teachings ever published. It gathers together his best essays, several of them first written in the 1990s (the earliest from 1992), with a sampling from each decade since, including as recently as 2019. Many of these short writings first appeared in Buddhist magazines such as Tricycle, Shambhala Sun/Lion’s Roar, and BuddhaDharma.
Norman’s introductory remarks were written, he tells us, in May 2020, as he anticipates and hopes for a recovery from the pain of the pandemic. He wishes that we might all be “overcome with a moral imperative to take care of one another,” and this is the very spirit of all these writings, whether the essay is about falling in love, finding a teacher, the writing life, caring for your body, death and suffering, bowing, landscapes, understandings of God, or plucking the ripe fruit from religious texts in the Pali Canon of Theravada Buddhism or the Hebrew scriptures of the Psalms.
This short passage from an essay titled “Suffering Opens the Real Path” reflects Fischer’s easy style of communicating a lifetime of study and mediation practice:
“There’s something beautiful about quiet and peace. There’s something beautiful about not trying to do anything, but simply, in some way, your heart joining the whole world. There’s a time in life when we should be running around doing things. We should go out dancing; there’s a time in life for that. There’s a time in life for building something up in this world, a family, an institution, a business, a creative life; there’s a time for that. There’s also a time for becoming quiet, a time for slow conversations with people that we love, and a time for reflecting on all the things that we’ve seen in many years of living. When the time for those things comes, it’s beautiful. It’s not a terrible thing, it’s sweet. There’s also a time for letting go of our life, not ‘Damn, somebody’s snatching this away from me,’ but ‘Yes, it’s beautiful to exhale after you inhale.’ At the right time, when the chest is full, breathe out and let go.”
Then he explains how this teaching relates to Buddhist cosmology. This is a wise book.
The universality in these teachings will appeal to anyone on a spiritual path and speaks to people of any religious tradition, or none. What matters most, as Fischer writes in the excerpt that accompanies this review: “Friendship is the most important element in the spiritual path … [it] ripens and deepens our capacity for compassion.”