BG 129: Buddhism May Need a Plan B

Episode Description:

As Buddhism transitions to the West, we see that it is doing so in a couple different ways. Some forms look more like their original Asian roots, while others are secular and non-Religious in their presentation. Zen teacher Norman Fischer, an early 2nd generation teacher in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, calls the more traditional forms part of “Plan A” and the more secular forms, “Plan B.”

In this interview we discuss with Norman the importance of Plan B approaches, like Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction. We also discuss his personal experience teaching Plan B at places like Google. Finally, we explore how the livelihood of trained and competent meditation teachers may rely heavily on Plan B approaches.

This is part 1 of a two-part series. Listen to part 2, Buddhism and the Evolution of Religion.

Episode Links:


Vince: Hello Buddhist Geeks, this is Vince Horn. I’m back again, and today I’m speaking over the phone with Zen Teacher Norman Fisher. Norman, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today. I appreciate it.

Norman: My pleasure, my pleasure.

Vince: And just a little background, so that people who aren’t familiar with you can have a sense of kind of what you do in the world. You’re a Zen abbot, a poet, an author, and you’re also teaching in various non-Buddhist contexts as well, which we’ll get into. And in terms of your Zen background, you were a senior student of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, is that correct?

Norman: Actually it’s not. I came to the Zen Center just as he was dying. So I was ordained originally by Richard Baker and my root teacher is Sojun Weitsman.

Vince: Oh, okay. Very cool.

Norman: So I, uh all my teachers, I mean I studied with Asian teachers, but all my basic Zen teachers have been Americans.

Vince: Okay, nice. So you’re kind of like a second-generation teacher.

Norman: Exactly, exactly. Yeah.

Vince: Interesting. And you also have a strong background in the Jewish tradition as well. So, that’s something that you also bring to your work and to your life.

Norman: Yes.

Vince: Very cool. So you’re quite an eclectic dude, Norman. I like it.

Norman: I guess. It turned out that way, yeah.

Vince: [Laughing]

Norman: That wasn’t the intention, but it turned out that way.

Vince: And that kind of ties into part of what we wanted to speak with you today about, which is your wrote an article recently in Buddhadharma magazine and it’s entitled “Why We Need a Plan B.” And, in that article, you discuss different ways that Buddhist principles and practices are being transmitted in the west. And I was wondering if you could say a little bit about what these different plans are. What is Plan A and what is Plan B?

Norman: Well, my idea is that Plan A is basic religious Buddhism in all the different traditions, with all the trappings. You know, like when I teach Zen retreats, as I just completed one up in the Pacific Northwest, we do a very traditional Zen retreat: in silence, with robes, with Buddhist services, with prostrations. My Dharma talks are usually on Buddhist sutras, Buddhist themes, and we study normative Zen and other Buddhist texts. So that’s Plan A, and that’s my kind of Dharma root and something that I find gives me a lot of strength. And, I keep coming back to it; it’s important to me; it’s my commitment and my obligation.

But there are so many people who want to access Dharma and for one reason or another, either they have a different religion or they are allergic to religion or they just don’t want to be too much of a groupie, you, like, really joining something even if they are interested in Buddhism. So, for those people, a more open and eclectic approach is really necessary if they are really going to be able to access the teachings. And besides that, there are a lot of people who are very committed to their professions and who feel like their work is at the center of their lives. And, so to apply meditation practices to their work, and to make work a spiritual path, or part of their spiritual path, is a very interesting proposition for me, and a lot of the work that I do is that, adopting meditation practices to specific professions.

So I have, I work with lawyers, and we talk about how to use meditation practice to be more effective, more kind, have more depth. In legal practice, I work with conflict resolution professionals in the same way, with business people, people in the technology industry, so that’s been really quite interesting to me as well. So I think we need all this; I think the old idea of religion that fits inside a box, inside a package that’s inside the church or the monastery, needs be revised. We need to have that; because I think there’s depth in that, but we also need to open the box and open the package and let people have access.

Vince: And, one thing that I find interesting is that I’ve seen in other places, is you kind of acknowledge that mindfulness, even that is not value-free and so it’s not as if we just strip everything away from Buddhism and create this completely secular thing and that it’s completely independent of people’s values or people’s moral sensibilities. So I was wondering if you could say a little bit about that; how Plan B is not a stripped down version of Buddhism.

Norman: No, I don’t think it’s a stripped down version. And I don’t think… In other words, it’s not like when I’m doing so-called Plan B work, I’ve got all of these Buddhist secrets that I’m withholding, you know what I mean? I’m not taking some watered down version and offering it to these other people. I don’t feel like that at all. I think it’s just a matter of translation. It’s the matter of translating the whole of it from one language to another. And, you know, as a writer and a poet, I realize that there’s always something lost in translation, but there’s always something gained too. So it’s not a matter of watering down or withholding something, and just giving something else. It’s really a matter of translation, with all of the upsides and downsides of that.

But when I first started thinking about this stuff many, many years ago, of course at that time, and still today, the most dramatic presentation of dharma without the Buddhist language was the mindfulness-based stress reduction course at the University of Massachusetts that Jon Kabat-Zinn created. So I wanted to investigate that, so I actually went there and sat in on some of the courses and had a dialogue with Jon, because at that time people were saying just what you said, that this must be a watered down version of Buddhism. There must be something wrong with this, how can you take the Buddhism away from the Buddhism? But I was really quite astonished by the effectiveness with which Jon was seriously able to communicate the whole of the dharma, the essence of the dharma. And in terms of mindfulness and stress reduction, there was no watering down, there was no fooling around, he was being very straightforward and very honest with people, but simply using a language that they could understand and meeting them where they were. So I became instantly converted to his approach, and saw that he really knew what he was doing. He and I have remained friends ever since then, and I really admire him. He’s a one man Plan B all by himself.

Vince: Right.

Norman: He’s been traveling all over the world, seeding all kinds of projects and groups well beyond the original project at U Mass. So no, I don’t think that these other efforts are in any way watering down or somehow stripping away. I think they are just different versions.

In a way, Buddhist teachings, especially Zen teachings, can tend to be a little esoteric. Even though Zen is dedicated to the application of practice to daily life, sometimes it can appear a little esoteric. And so, directly apply Zen insights and Buddhist insights to let’s say, a particular profession, is to really articulate them in a much more detailed way than you would in Zen, where you really… traditionally you’re applying it to sweeping the floor and cutting vegetables, here you’re applying it to much more complicated questions of human interaction, and interaction with society and the world we live in. You may argue the translation loses something, but it also gains in that department, quite a bit.

Vince: All right.

Norman: But I find it really interesting. It’s really creative work, and very, very interesting.

Vince: Yeah, I saw that you were giving a series of teachings and lectures at Google, and I thought that was really fascinating.

Norman: Oh, it was! I mean, I learned a lot. It was great to work with these really bright young people who, you know… the person who comes to the Zen center already has read books and you know, and has lots of ideas about why this is important and why this is worth doing. So a lot of stuff, you don’t have to engage, everybody just assumes it. But at Google, people are saying, “Well why would we want to sit there in silence? What’s the point of that? How does it help? How does it help the world? How does it help me?” So this kind of like rude questioning from some very intelligent people who are not shy about bringing these things up, I found really challenging and really interesting.

Vince: What kinds of things did you find from that group of people, like those young, engineering, programming, geeky types?

Norman: (laughs) Well what was interesting there, was we developed a language of emotional intelligence. So, this was not about ‘get more efficient in your programming by focusing your mind with meditation’, it wasn’t that. It was all about, ‘increase your emotional intelligence, increase your ability to listen to other people, to be empathetic with others, to be aware of what’s going on within yourself’, on the theory that these things are really valuable. Not only for your ability to work together in a team, to get good results and develop great stuff, but also for your personal life, for your human relationships, for your well being, for your happiness.

So, that was the kind of language that we developed at Google, because people really needed to know that there was something in it for them, you know, why were they going to do this? They really needed to know that. And they really demanded, ‘show me”, so we did that, and the courses were very effective there, and at Google they’re big into measuring…

Vince: Oh yeah.

Norman: …the effectiveness of everything. Everything is codified, and they want numbers. In fact, if you offer a course there, I didn’t know this at the time, it would have made me nervous, but it turns out if you offer a course there, they rate the course. At the end of the course, and you can’t go on unless you get a certain rating…

Vince: Oh, wow.

Norman: …and above. Yeah. But we consistently had those ratings, and people consistently reported rather amazing changes in their ability to listen to other people in their human relationships, in their senses of themselves, and their degree of happiness and engagement. So, we would do a six or eight-week course, and in the process of that, pretty amazing changes were reported afterwards.

Vince: Yeah, that really doesn’t surprise me, being kind of geeky myself, that especially people that are engineers, I mean, that might be the thing that would draw them in the most is emotional intelligence, because that’s the…

Norman: Exactly.

Vince: …thing the geeks tend to be the worst at, for some reason. (laughs)

Norman: Exactly. Exactly, and it’s something that they feel they need work on, so it really appealed to them. But this whole line of thought, I have to give credit to my colleague at Google, Meng, who was one of the first 100 engineers at Google, one of the early, early guys at Google, and now he’s sort of a grandfather, even though he’s in his thirties.

Vince: Yeah…

Norman: At Google, his job title is Jolly Good Fellow.

Vince: Oh yeah.

Norman: That’s what is says on his business card. And it was him who really wanted to bring in the meditation, and he got a hold of us. Also, it was him who thought of the idea of emotional intelligence, applied to meditation as the way to go.

Vince: Brilliant.

Norman: So, I really give him credit for that. He’s a wonderful guy, and really instrumental in bringing meditation to Google.

Vince: Yeah, and he’s the “Google Guy”, right? He’s the person that gets his picture taken with all the celebrities?

Norman: Yeah, that’s right. That’s right, that’s him.

Vince: Yeah, I heard about him, that he was a Buddhist practitioner, that’s cool. Another thing that you mentioned that I thought was really fascinating, just as a side note in that article, was that the plan B stuff is really important, too, because you can reach more people as a meditation teacher, and really make a living that way, whereas you’re just doing the plan A, traditional Dharmic approach, there might not really be enough people to support you in doing what you love. I wonder if you could say a little bit about that?

Norman: Yes, well, this is something really, really important to me, because I’m training people to be teachers, and I’ve got a whole bunch of people in my groups who are beginning to teach now. I mean, it really gives me a lot of pain that they’re all ready to teach, they’re capable of teaching, they’re really good at it, but they all have to do other jobs. Because as things stand now, even though many of them are running their own centers, the centers don’t supply enough income for them to live on. And when you think about it, this might be the pivot point of the whole Buddhist/meditation movement. If people can’t earn a living doing this, and people are doing it in their spare time, in the midst of busy lives, the movement is tremendously limited. Whereas if you have a whole a cadre of people who are going to be able to earn a living at this, by entrepreneuring their skills, the movement is way stronger, and the goodness that can be offered to people in the general is much, much increased.

So, in the Buddhist movement all the Buddhist schools are somewhat different, but in general I would say that when you compare, say, Christianity, where there are ministers who are living doing that and all kinds of church people who get paid, Buddhist teachers on the whole can’t support themselves or if they can they’ve got to do other things or they handle them pretty marginally. That there be livelihoods for people who are skilled in these areas I think is a crucial step. In a sense, since the Buddhist movement was begun in a very idealistic way, thinking of financial security was not something that anybody was ever thinking about, and so it’s built up a kind of attitude in the community that that’s not something we do; that’s not something we’re about. And so nobody has really taken on discretion, or thought about it, but in fact, the long-term health of the movement, with all the good that it can offer, pretty much depends on this I think.

Vince: And would you say this is also part of the way Buddhism is adapting to our culture?

Norman: It is, but I think the returns are not in. In other words, by ideas about Plan B… now I’m a fully supported teacher. I don’t have any other things that I do other than my work, but, and there are others too of course, but not that many.

Vince: Right.

Norman: So I don’t think the returns are in. In other words, whether this is going to work or not, to me, is still in doubt. I mean, and that’s why I’m writing these articles. I’m arguing for it, and I want people to think about it. But at this moment, I don’t think it’s clear, at least as far as I know, whether people who want to devote their lives to Buddhist practice and offering it to others will be able to earn a livelihood or not, truthfully, I don’t think it’s clear.

Vince: I see.

Norman: I think that, you know, but in the end the need for it is there, the public understanding of the virtue of it is there, so I’m hopeful that that will lead to ways for people to earn a living. But at this moment, you couldn’t really say that we’re there yet.

Vince: Do you feel like there’s got to be something of a shift in the cultural attitude of western Buddhists in order to have a shot at this? Cause like you’re saying, there’s this, at least in the beginning of, you know, the 70’s and stuff, there’s this idea that the dharma has to be free in some way.

Norman: Yeah. Yeah. In the beginning, the Buddhist movement of the west was very self consciously counter-cultural. We don’t want to mess with mainstream people; we don’t like them; we’re different, you know. We reject those values. And that was the beginning of it and that was true in my case as well. That is, little by little, changing. I think the movement is changing.

There was a time, like when John first started doing Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction; I think a lot of the Buddhist world was very dubious about it, exactly because he was going mainstream. But now, its many years later and I think the Buddhist movement has changed quite a bit. And I think most people who are involved in the Buddhist movement in the west, particularly, I know, most people in America, are positively disposed toward all this kind of stuff now and support it and think it’s a good idea.

So I think that is changing, but I think what mostly needs to change is, also, society, and its expectations and needs. For instance, the argument has been very well made that a person in our society who’s been suffering some sort of spiritual and emotional, psychological difficulty will go to a therapist and will spend $150.00 an hour, maybe go twice a week, for six months, a year, five years. That’s a well-established path in our culture.

But that same person might realize that a path of meditation with a spiritual mentor in a community might do just as well and perhaps even more, to engage his or her problems, and that that’s worth supporting at a similar level that he would support the therapist. That’s not very well established in our society. I think people it have to do with like how we do with religion.

People in early 19th century had attitude about religion well I’m not a Buddhist I’m not a believer well why could I go to a Buddhist center or why could I access Buddhist style of meditation because I’m not a Buddhist I’m a Christian, or I’m a secular person. Therefore it never occurred to someone that God it might be more helpful than my therapy so we need to change that attitude in society people need to realize that regardless of what your god or God believer or Buddhist or not there’s a lot of benefits of practice and they ought to be really available and accessible.

Meng’s idea, you would always say well 25 years ago nobody went to the gym now we’ve well established through researched in our society that exercise is really important so that the gym on every corner. Why isn’t there meditation halls on every corner? Why we haven’t established the factor that some spiritual endeavor is just as important for inner health and exercises for the body? So there are ought to be Meditation halls on every corner and people should know how important this is and feel like exercises and paid for it so that there could be people to offer it.

Vince: Yeah that makes perfect sense to me. I couldn’t argue with that like thinking.

Norman: (laughs) Well I know it makes sense to you. You did this program. It’s the rest of the people who are listening to the program that has to be sense to. Right? Yeah and I think it will. I mean that there is tremendous spike in research on meditation. Just in last 3 to 4 years it’s exponentially increased and all the research is always showing same thing that meditation is actually a effective that it really worth its all kind of benefits. So people think to believe in research and scientific data but just talk to your friends to do this practice and that’s probably enough to convince even without scientific data.

Vince: Like that one piece of reading your writing in one journal you mentioned that basically all the scientific experiments and data showing us some kind of what we already know and it gone be nice if go ahead and use that money for supporting some of the infrastructure.

Norman: Right. Yeah I know its funny you know like I’m gone do a retreat for the army for caregivers and chaplains. So the army is gone sent 50 cents to pay me and do the retreat and then a million dollar to study the effects of the retreats you know over time so…

Vince: Nice

Norman: You know that think idea that all this money huge amount it’s very expensive to conduct research very expensive. A million dollar research grant is not an unusual grant. A million dollar gift to a dharma center or a teacher training or something like that is very, very rare. So it is little lot of scale.


Norman Fischer