In the summer of 1974, when poet Jane Hirshfield drove down the steep and dusty road to the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center just inland from the rugged northern California coast, no one was expecting her. “But I unwittingly sat my first tangaryo,” says Hirshfield, alluding to the Zen tradition of a student demonstrating her commitment by sitting steadfastly at the entrance to the monastery, for days if necessary. “I just refused to leave.” Twenty-one years old, pitching herself from East Coast to West Coast, Hirshfield couldn’t have imagined where this journey would ultimately lead her, what future success she would have as a poet, or how deeply Zen and poetry would intertwine in her life. She stayed only a week that first time at Tassajara—the first Zen training monastery in the West, founded by the late Shunryu Suzuki Roshi—but would soon return for three years in residence.
Hirshfield had been writing since she was a child and won The Nation prize for undergraduate writing, but during her residence at Tassajara she did not write at all, focusing instead on her Zen studies. Since leaving Tassajara she has published six collections of poems and a book of essays on “the mind of poetry.” In 2004, she was awarded the Academy of American Poets Fellowship, which puts her in the company of legends like Robert Frost and Robinson Jeffers. Her most recent collection, After, will be published in February by HarperCollins. Although she no longer has a formal Buddhist teacher, she continues to practice Zen sitting meditation, or zazen. “Life is a good teacher, I find, if you pay attention,” she says.
Hirshfield was born in New York City in 1953 to Robert Hirshfield, who worked in the garment industry making housecoats, and Harriet Miller Hirshfield. “No one in my family was literary,” she says, acknowledging that there’s no definitive answer to the question of why she became a poet. It’s easier to trace her spiritual inheritance. Though Hirshfield had minimal exposure to the traditions of her Jewish heritage during her childhood, her maternal great-great-grandfather was a rabbi, and her maternal grandfather, who she describes as “something of a mystic,” was a member of the secretive Rosicrucian Order.
Currently, Hirshfield lives in the Bay Area with Carl Pabo, a molecular biophysicist she affectionately refers to as her “sweetie.” She wears her long, wavy brown hair pinned loosely away from her face, a veil drawn back to frame wide, green eyes. She moves like one who’s practiced at sitting still—with a sense of gatheredness, of curiosity and a capacity for absorption. Her face is deeply expressive, shifting readily between grief, sympathy, and joy—whatever the moment brings.
In the poetry world, Hirshfield is not identified as a distinctly Buddhist poet, partly because there are few direct references in her work to Zen: a reader is just as likely, perhaps even more likely, to find a Greek god or goddess as a monk or Buddha. But it’s also due to Hirshfield’s own desire for her work not to be limiting, or limited, in its relevance. “Teahouse practice—one of four traditional modes of practice in Japanese Buddhism—is a kind of hidden practice,” says Hirshfield. “It describes the old lady who runs the roadside teahouse that everyone likes to go to, but no one can quite say why. That kind of hidden practice is what I’ve always felt appropriate for my poems. It feels truest to my own relationship to practice as something essential in my life—intense, central, pervasive—yet also nothing special.”
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