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Zoketsu Norman Fischer at podium

Zoketsu Norman Fischer, founder of the Everyday Zen Foundation, addressing the Class of 2014 at Baccalaureate in the Main Quad on Saturday. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Zen Buddhist priest urges Stanford graduates to cultivate spiritual practices

Baccalaureate speaker Zoketsu Norman Fischer told graduates that their promising lives would be filled with challenges, but love and a regular spiritual practice that has no agenda would bolster them for the journey ahead.

Video by Kurt Hickman

Baccalaureate, a multifaith celebration during Commencement weekend, featured spiritual songs and readings from a variety of traditions.

Addressing the Class of 2014, Zoketsu Norman Fischer, a Zen Buddhist priest and poet, urged Stanford graduates to cultivate regular spiritual practices to survive the difficult human journey of life with their "hearts intact" and their "love generous and bright."

Fischer, who spoke Saturday morning in the Main Quad at Baccalaureate, a multifaith celebration for graduating students and their families and friends, titled his address, "How to Survive Your Promising Life."

Fischer, the founder of the Everyday Zen Foundation, said the defining characteristic of a spiritual practice is that it must be "useless, absolutely useless."

"You've been doing lots of good things for lots of good reasons for a long time now," he said, "for your physical health, your psychological health, your emotional health, for your family life, for your future success, for your economic life, for your community, for your world. But a spiritual practice is useless. It doesn't address any of those concerns. It's a practice that we do to touch our lives beyond all concerns – to reach beyond our lives to their source."

Fischer, a former abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center, the oldest and largest Buddhist institution in the West, said his practice for many years has been simply to sit in silence.

He said spiritual practices come from love, encourage love and produce more love. They require imagination and are unlimited in their variety.

"Whether or not you believe in God, you could pray," he said. "You can contemplate spiritual texts or art, poetry, sacred music. You could just walk quietly on the Earth as a spiritual practice. You could gaze at the landscape or the sea or the sky. A little tip: If you're ever in trouble, look up at the sky for a few minutes and you'll feel better."

Among the other spiritual practices Fischer offered was compassion – going toward, rather than turning away from, the suffering of others and your own suffering.

"Can you become softened and brought to wisdom by the unavoidable pain of yourself or others?" he asked.

Or you could practice gratitude, he said. He recommended that the first thing graduates do each morning is "train yourself to close your eyes, just be quiet for a moment, and say softly to yourself the word 'grateful,' and see what comes into your mind."

Fisher urged the graduates to think seriously about creating spiritual practices, but not without a certain amount of joy and lightness.

"Today you are hurtling out of heaven," he said. "Where in the world will you land? When you get there, what in the world are you going to do? What is really worthwhile and what is just a distraction – no matter how much people tell you it's not? This is not a simple thing. You're going to have to figure these things out. Nobody but you can do that."

The Baccalaureate celebration opened with a solemn Buddhist call to prayer performed on a singing bowl and ended with a dramatic drumming blessing, Tatsumaki (Whirlwind), performed by Stanford Taiko.

In between there was an invocation, "A Prayer of the Ojibway Nation"; a benediction; and two readings: "I Have Learned So Much," by Hafiz of Shiraz, and a Zen-inspired translation of Psalm 124 by Fischer.

Stanford Talisman, a student a cappella group, performed two songs, "Wanting Memories," a song of the African diaspora, and "One by One," a Xhosa song that was inspired by the South African anti-apartheid movement.

Student reflection

Senior Konstantine Buhler, who offered the student reflection, began his address by singing a chant: May their memory be eternal.

Buhler, who majored in management science and engineering and minored in art history and computer science, said those are the words of grief and loss of a loved one in the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church.

"When these words are sung in my church, they bring my grandmother to tears," he said. "They make my mother feel pain and my father cringe. These words bring a vein to my uncle's forehead and a frown to my sister's beautiful face. They burn. But as the chant concludes, they soothe and elevate us."

Buhler said that in his religion, when someone "falls asleep into eternity," or dies, "it is the honor of those still living to carry on his or her memory, to ensure that his or her memory is eternal."

He asked the graduates to meditate with him, or pray, around three memories.

First, Buhler asked them to open their hearts and remember a loved one who was not present at Baccalaureate.

"Yes, there are only 4,000 seats in the Quad, but physical constraints do not apply to heaven or jannah or olam ha-ba," he said. "Take a moment and remember these people. Close your eyes and picture them sitting next to you. See that loved one smile. She's so happy. He's so proud. May their memory be eternal."

Buhler also asked the graduates to remember Leland Stanford Jr., who died of typhoid fever when he was only 15 years old, and to remember Jane and Leland Stanford, who built the university in memory of their only child.

Finally, he asked the graduates to shut their eyes once more and remember their time at Stanford, a chapter of their lives that was closing all too quickly.

"Yes, countless hours in the library," he said. "And yes, lots of struggle. But now, let us select what we will bring with us to eternal memory. Let us bring the love and the kindness and the peace that we have experienced on this 'gloriously paradisiacal' campus. Let us leave behind any pain. Let us bring the warmth of our friends' embraces and, of course, of the California sun. Let us hold onto the knowledge that we fought for and the friendships that we built. And of course, look around you; let us bring the jubilant memories of the loved ones who surround us today in pride and joy and love. May these memories be eternal."