The World Could Be Otherwise

Imagination and the Bodhisattva Path

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Norman Fischer
  • Boulder, CO: 
    Shambhala Publications, Inc.
    , April
     224 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In our time of widespread violence, systemic greed, and terror, only a bold author proposes that “the world could be otherwise.” The poet and Buddhist priest Norman Fischer does so in this accessible and lively book, holding forth on the promise of the human imagination to set us on the path of spiritual liberation.

By zooming in on imagination as a major feature of Buddhist spiritual practice, Fischer helps to invigorate the notion that Buddhists are engaged and concerned about others and attuned to world events and issues. Instead of taking refuge on the cushion and dedicating themselves solely to their own private peace of mind, Fischer’s imaginative bodhisattvas seek a wide, all-encompassing view of reality. These spiritual seekers—driven by broad, aspirational, imaginative vows—are fueled by a boundless energy that enables them to free numberless beings and enter infinite dharma gates without worrying about their own survival or happiness.

When I think of imagination, my mind’s eye turns to dream states, science fiction, or any emotional device that a creative artist might use. On the negative side, delusion and psychosis depart from reality or rational thought. Fischer clarifies it this way: “Imagination opens and frees us; fantasy reinforces our smallness, our desire” (163).

By drawing on canonic male European philosophers and poets (Plato, Aristotle, Immanuel Kant, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley) as well as ancient and classic Buddhist texts and teachers (especially Dо̄gen), Fischer expounds upon the value of imagination as a human faculty with positive potential and elevates the uniquely expansive, extravagant, and thus imaginative character of Mahayana Buddhism. He also invokes Judaism, opening the book with an incredible tale of a Jewish poet who narrowly escapes the Nazi death chambers through a radical act of imagination. Ultimately, Fischer’s goal is “to advocate the development of the imagination as a necessity for human survival . . . [imagination] needs a path . . . a process, a discipline, to support it. My intention is . . . to propose an imaginative path of spiritual practice that can be used by anyone” (10).

The Sо̄tо̄ Zen Buddhist tradition identifies many steps on the way to liberation, and often these steps are condensed down to six pāramitās (qualities or goals): generosity, ethical conduct, patience, joyful effort, meditation, and understanding. Each quality is a “perfection,” whose highest state can never be fully attained; moreover, each depends upon and nourishes the others. Conversely, the absence of a quality brings detriment to the others. If I am stingy, it may be difficult to proceed with joyful vigor or patience. But if I am generous, joy and patience come more easily.

At the end of each chapter devoted to the perfections, Fischer offers different ways to meditate and a set of daily “practices,” concrete suggestions for self-care and reflection. Here are some of my favorites because they are so fundamentally down-to-earth: “Eat vegetables at least twice a day . . . Exercise for at least an hour every day, five days a week . . . Rest when you are tired” (139).

Meditation (bhāvanā, samādhi, dhyāna) and understanding (prajñāpāramitā) constitute perfections of a different and complex nature. Not just good traits, they are more “intense and esoteric” spiritual qualities that require cultivation (171). Fischer deepens the colloquial definitions when he asserts that meditation is a “specific and technical skill” (141), a “somatic” practice (148), and a “devotional” practice (161) whose main point is “to help me see beyond myself” (156).

Indeed, I am glad to be reminded that the goal is to see beyond myself, not to do a complete inventory of all my character flaws! The chapter on meditation offers a clearly detailed and persuasive discussion of the intent and purpose of meditation in a Buddhist context, and therefore would serve as an excellent stand-alone primer.

Fischer’s emphasizing of these distinct features of Buddhist meditation helps open up a conversation about the Asian origins of Buddhism and the proliferation of Buddhism in the West. He argues that “we tend to see meditation, more than any other teaching, as a special gift from the East” (141). Later he pushes further by saying meditation “is Indian culture’s great gift to the world. So radically simple! Yet, as far as we know, no Western person ever thought of doing such a thing” (142).

Encountering these passages from the vantage point of Asian American Studies, I am disturbed by this well-intentioned view. The transfers of cultural practices from “East” to “West” over the past five centuries or more did not occur via friendly ceremonial gift exchanges, but rather through violent colonial encounters often instigated by war and sexual assault. There is not room here to elaborate upon my argument that seeing meditation as a “gift from the East” papers over the brutal nature of these encounters and produces the white, Western Buddhist as innocent, and simultaneously grateful, for colonialism’s advantageous results. This mentality also erases the significance of Asian American narratives in Buddhism.

The book’s goal of opening the doors for all could have been boosted by more attention to the exclusion and inclusion of certain perspectives and voices. For example, I would like to know more about how Buddhist women—and practitioners of all genders for that matter—have contributed to the imaginative powers of Buddhism. What happened to the “lineage of the matriarchs” and the “first nuns who realized the way”?

I appreciate Fischer’s occasional references throughout the book to women teachers, including his wife. But part of imagining the alternative world that “could be” requires a direct and sustained acknowledgement of the already present changing currents within our universe. I wish Fischer would have made a more concerted effort to uplift non-male voices in this book. 

Even so, The World Could be Otherwise offers tremendous insight and is worth reading closely. My review copy is heavily annotated and dog-eared. Fischer writes generously out of devotion and care for the suffering world, and this book helps Buddhism to play the social justice role that liberation theology played in prior decades.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Karín Aguilar-San Juan is Professor of American Studies at Macalester College.

Date of Review: 
September 1, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Norman Fischer is a Zen priest, poet, translator, and director of the Everyday Zen Foundation.


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