Zen Psalms

Norman Fischer is a Zen teacher of Jewish heritage who wrote a thoughtful and poetic version of 93 of the Psalms called Opening to You.

Image result for opening to you fischer

The ‘you’ of the title is his way of getting round the heavily freighted nouns that are often used to refer to God in scripture – all his psalms invoke God directly in the second person and thus have an intimate feel. I have a second-hand version in which Fischer wrote an inscription to the original owners. He wrote a quotation; ‘Your unsayable name is glorious’, a verse from one of his translations.

He wrote this collection after a visit to Thomas Merton’s old monastery of Gethsemani almost 20 years ago. In a monastery, one cannot escape the Psalms – they form the backbone of every monastic office – but their language can be strange to us. Sometimes angry, sometimes vengeful, sometimes intense, sometimes remorseful but often glorious, personal and richly coloured, these ancient songs will stand a great deal of re-imagining. Fischer’s versions are faithful to the text but just occasionally angle the meaning towards the insights that have come to him from years of seated zen meditation, insights that delve deep into the nature of consciousness as it manifests itself in the sitter and reveals the nature of all that is. Here is his version of Psalm 23, which feels very recognisable but has some lovely turns of phrase that introduce some less familiar thoughts:

You lead me to rest in the sweet grasses
To lie down by the quiet waters
And I am refreshed

You lead me down the right path
The path that unwinds in the pattern of your name

And even if I walk through the valley of the shadow of death
I will not fear
For you are with me
Comforting me with your rod and your staff
Showing me each step

You prepare a table for me
In the midst of my adversity
And moisten my head with oil

Surely my cup is overflowing
And goodness and kindness will follow me
All the days of my life
And in the long days beyond
I will always live within your house

I am struck by that phrase, ‘the path that unwinds in the pattern of your name’ in place of the more familiar ‘he leads me in right paths for his name’s sake’. For it is the unfolding pattern of our footsteps that reveals Truth to us – this life and not some other, imagined, idealised life that is our true teacher, manifesting our nature as eternal, made in the image and likeness of the Creator. There is great refreshment in choosing simply to walk the path that unwinds before us and not to crave some other. Even in adversity there is a table set for us.

One thought on “Zen Psalms

  1. Response from Anne Wyllie

    Thank you John for this beautiful and meaningful rendering of Psalm 23 by Norman Fischer, and for your reflections on it. I am very drawn to the phrase you highlight: ‘you lead me down the right path, the path that unwinds in the pattern of your name’ – I find this a rich thread of thought…

    I am reminded of a book that my spiritual director lent to me some years ago: ‘Psalm 23: An Anthology’ compiled by KH Strange & RG Sandbach. I particularly liked this translation of a Japanese paraphrase of the 23rd Psalm, broadcast by Rev Eric Frost on 4 May 1965, composed by Toki Miyashina, a Japanese woman.

    The Lord is my Pace-maker, I shall not rush;
    He makes me stop and rest for quiet intervals.
    He provides me with images of stillness, which restore my serenity;
    He leads me in ways of efficiency through calmness of mind,
    And His guidance is peace.
    Even though I have a great many things to accomplish each day,
    I will not fret, for His presence is here.
    His timelessness, His all importance, will keep me in balance.
    He prepares refreshment and renewal in the midst of my activity
    By anointing my mind with His oils of creativity.
    My cup of joyous energy overflows.
    Surely harmony and effectiveness shall be the fruits of my hours,
    For I shall walk in the peace of my Lord,
    and dwell in His house for ever.

    At first glance the phrase ‘he leads me in ways of efficiency’ may seem cold and clinical, particularly if interpreted in terms of our profit-prioritising business culture. However the context of the whole phrase ‘He leads me in ways of efficiency through calmness of mind’ suggests to me that taking time to pray and contemplate then enables us to act according to the Chambers dictionary definition of efficiency: ‘capable of doing what may be required; effective; competent or proficient’. In these times of Covid 19 virus, I was very struck on Saturday by the notice posted on the door of St Andrew’s & St George’s West Church in George St, which ended thus: ‘Prayer is the bridge from panic to peace’.


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