Zen Buddhist priest, poet promotes Interfaith dialogue

Zen Buddhist priest and poet Norman Fischer is taking a step beyond simply enlisting the monk and the rabbi for a walk into the proverbial bar. Instead he is bringing interfaith dialogue and understanding to a more substantial stage with his visit to the University of Alabama this week.

Fischer will lead a number of meditation sessions, poetry readings and cultural discussions today through Thursday, Jan. 19. The events, sponsored by Creative Campus, are all free and open to the public.

The series begins today with a meditation session at the Riverside Community Center from 9 until 10:30 a.m. Fischer will then lead a discussion session entitled “Compassion: Intercultural Community Conversation” from 3:30 to 4:45 p.m. in the Ferguson Center Crossroads Lounge, followed by an interactive poetry reading from 7:30 to 9 p.m. in Gorgas Room 205.

Fischer will round out his UA visit with an interfaith meditation and discussion session called “Judaism, Catholicism, Buddhism: Intersections of Spirituality” from 6:30 to 8 p.m. on Wednesday at the Bloom Hillel Student Center and another meditation meeting Thursday from 8:30 to 10 a.m. at the Riverside Community Center.

Fischer’s visit follows the recent release of his newest publication, “Conflict,” which is comprised of one long poem in book format and will provide much of the material for this evening’s reading.

This is not the first time Fischer has come to the University. According to Creative Campus coordinator Alexis Clark, he last interacted with UA students in September of 2008, following the release of his book “Sailing Home,” a Buddhist interpretation of Homer’s “Odyssey.”

“Creative Campus is not all about repeating events,” Clark said, “but we received a strong level of interest in Fischer’s last visit. We knew this was a relationship we wanted to build upon.

“Fischer has so many interests and levels of expertise, like conflict resolution and poetry, that allow us to put together several different kinds of events, so he can present many different things to campus in unorthodox ways.”

Clark said reaction surveys following Fischer’s last string of presentations displayed “overwhelming positive results,” with a majority of students conveying interest in more information on Eastern religion and further interaction with Fischer, specifically.

Hank Lazer, Creative Campus executive director and personal friend of Fischer, attributes the outpouring of student interest to the priest’s inviting personality.

“Norman is a very approachable, down-to-earth person,” Lazer said. “He has a great sense of humor, and he is a very good listener – he is genuinely curious about what students think.”

Two such students, Creative Campus interns Rachel Ahrnsen and Emma Fick, said Fischer’s visit presents a unique opportunity for the promotion of greater understanding in the Tuscaloosa religious community. They have been the driving force behind Wednesday’s “Intersections of Spirituality” program and other interfaith initiatives held in conjunction with Fischer’s series.

“My boss pulled me aside one day and said, ‘You’re really Catholic; you and Emma figure out something special to do with Mr. Fischer’s visit,’” Arhsnen said. “So Emma, who is Jewish, and I got together to brainstorm some ways of getting some interfaith discussion between St. Francis [University Parrish] and Hillel, along with Mr. Fischer’s Buddhist teachings.”

According to Arhnsen, St. Francis and Hillel have collaborated for a special event in which Hillel students will have the opportunity to be guests at St. Francis for mass and dinner, followed by a discussion and meditation session led by Fischer.

“It’ll be a really cool chance for students to broaden their minds, especially in the South where people aren’t always exposed to different religions and cultures,” she said.

Lazer feels Fischer’s gatherings are ideal for students interested in learning about Eastern religion and culture in a secure, no-pressure environment.

“Norman’s non-dogmatic practice of Zen does not threaten one’s personal beliefs,” he said. “It is a non-cloistered spirituality practice for people looking to be engaged by new ideas.”

Lazer encouraged all interested students to attend.

“The main thing I would say is, ‘Go.’ As a student, you don’t have many opportunities like this,” he said. “Some things you learn you may not realize the importance of until years down the road.”

Clark shared Lazer’s enthusiasm for the benefits of attendance, advising students planning to attend a mediation session to bring a pillow or cushion to sit on and reserve a spot by calling (205) 348-7884.

“I encourage everyone to come and bring an open mind, a willingness to look inside and a pillow if you have bad knees,” she said.