“No one has imagined that they can have time. We don’t know what time is, but certainly you can’t fool it or manipulate it or change it or own it. . . . But because people know they can’t own time they try mightily to own space, to own place. History is the history of property. Since people can’t have time they want space but it’s hopeless. How can you own it? You go away but the place is still there.”
From a Buddha’s point of view, the hopelessness of owning time and place is okay. Just relax and enjoy where you are when you are, one continuous interdependent present space. This is maybe the gist of Jerusalem Moonlight, set out in a poet’s kind of narrative prose—nonlinear and laden with sights, sounds, smells, revelatory detail.
Norman Fischer, co-abbot of San Francisco Zen Center, grew up in a secularized Jewish household and embraced Zen wholeheartedly in his twenties. Over the years he has turned back to his grounding as a Jewish man, practicing, studying, leading Jewish-Buddhist retreats with his friend Rabbi Alan Lew (who figures in this book). His intention is not to make two arguably distant traditions one, but to find how difference and correspondence manifest as his own life and heart. Jerusalem Moonlight is a rambling meditation on this process. Pivoting this meditation around his pilgrimage to Israel with his father and brother, Fischer stretches the boundaries of so-called “travel writing” beyond recognition by following not maps or chronologies, but the quirky, roundabout pathways of mind.
In Norman Fischer’s Israel, time and place are always colliding. Jews, Muslims and Christians find little common ground. Construction sites unearth ancient ruins. The Holocaust broods over the present day. God must be shaking his head in disbelief, in bemusement (God forbid!). But Fischer’s book is not stuck there. Jerusalem is a touchstone, returned to again and again, from Green Gulch Farm Zen Center, San Francisco, New York, Japan, sliding back and forth across years and among concerns of family, death, spiritual practice and one’s true place. And these places and times are peopled by aunts, uncles, cousins, Richard Baker, Thich Nhat Hanh, Hoitsu Suzuki, friends and numerous other wayseekers.
Fischer’s method is always language, deeply vivid and accessible, no easy answers. “. . . it is its own validation, apart from communication, it is in this sense holy, the speaking, the setting down of words, itself a kind of redemption, if I can use these words here in Jerusalem, it is the humanness of us, our curse and at the same time our blessing.”
I resonate with Norman Fischer’s words in Jerusalem Moonlight. As a Jew of the same age, as a Zen student of the same tradition, I am maybe too close for comfort. He whets my appetite to see the Holy Land, where I have never been. He refreshes my vision of familiar places. But more to the point, he helps me hone my intention to see myself wherever I am. No need to travel to dusty realms.