Norman Fischer

‘Vulnerability is built into our hearts, which can be sliced open at any moment by some sudden shift in the arrangements, some pain, some horror, some hurt. We all know and instinctively fear this, so we protect our hearts by covering them against exposure. But this doesn’t work. Covering the heart binds and suffocates it until, like a wound that has been kept dresed for too long, the heart starts to fester and becomes fetid. Eventually, without air, the heart is all but killed off, and there’s no feeling, no experiencing at all.
To practice forebearance is to appreciate and celebrate the heart’s vulnerability, and to see that the slicing or piercing of the heart does not require defense; that the heart’s vulnerability is a good thing, because wounds can make us more peaceful and more real’

We had a reading from Sailing Home at our small group last night, and while we didn’t all completely engage with the references to the Odyssey, I think this passage spoke to us most strongly.

Pure Precepts

A jukai ceremony, such as we had on Saturday afternoon at City Center, with five people receiving the precepts, usually also counts as a family affair. The ordinands are taking a big step in their practice, and are supported in this ceremony by their friends, family and community. There are a few stages in the ceremony where, instead of just having the ordinands chanting (there was a notable level of enthusiasm when they did, which does not always happen), everyone in the Buddha Hall joins in, and the harmony lifts everybody.

Linda Ruth got me into the practice of reciting the three-fold refuges while doing prostrations during morning service, which also has the practical value, when you are ringing the bells, of helping you keep count up to nine. For the three prostrations at the end, I recited to myself the pure precepts, drawn from the Dhammapada. There are many different translations used at Zen Center; this version is the one we recite during the full moon ceremony where we all renew our vows:

I vow to refrain from all evil;
I vow to make every effort to live in enlightenment;
I vow to live and be lived for the benefit of all beings.

Right now I am not doing prostrations as regularly as before, and I miss them as much as I miss zazen when I am not doing it. Nevertheless I try to keep these in mind as I go about my life.


I have been to many events at Zen Center over the years which are more family gatherings than anything else, and last night was one of those, under the guise of a reading for Blanche’s new book.

It was lovely to see her back in the building again, among friends and students, people who have practised together over the decades in this community.

When I first came to Zen Center, Blanche was the Abbess; one of the things that encouraged me to continue the practice was the feeling that, if I kept at it, there was a possibility of growing old as gracefully and wisely as she was so manifestly doing. The first practice period I did at Tassajara, in 2002, was the last one she led as Abbess, and I appreciated her equal enthusiasm for zazen and for work days. As I learnt how it was to be a monk at Tassajara, one phrase she used stuck with me: ‘Everyone can see how you are – you might as well see it for yourself’.

Over the years of living at Zen Center I came to a deeper appreciation of how her teachings were not just in her words – though when they were being read last night, they all came across as so clear and kind –  but in her day-to-day conduct in the temple, her dignified bearing and constant great expressions of love. It was fitting that the first section read was her echo of Suzuki Roshi’s admonition to treat chairs – and all other objects –  with respect. I think of her instructions and reminders about this every time I am in the dining room, and can feel how her influence is missed now she does not live in the building.

An evening like this reminds me that even while living in community has its challenges, the rewards of being around such wonderful teachers, day in and day out, will resonate through my life and the lives of so many others she has touched with her teaching.

DSCF9243 Blanche blowing kisses to her friends while Abbot Ed introduces her.DSCF9294
Mary Mocine of Vallejo Zen Center reads while Blanche listens.


“What is wholeheartedly engaging in the way?”
“In the whole world it is never hidden.”

All of the conversation between Dogen and the venerable Chinese tenzo is worth cherishing, but this response always resonates most strongly for me. Why are we looking for it when it is never hidden?


In the second class on the Tenzokyokun, we got to what I was unironically calling the meat of the piece – marrow would be the more suitable zen term, I realised later. At the heart of it is Xuedou’s poem, which we read in three different translations; more than other parts of the text, the variations made for interesting thinking. I like to use a variety of translations where possible so that we don’t lean too heavily on individual words, but learn to triangulate and see what might lie in the middle.

Dogen has been talking about the relative and the absolute leading into this section, and his encounters with a skilled Chinese monk show him how to approach the burning questions of his own practice – ‘What are words and phrases? What is wholeheartedly engaging the way?’ –  which Xuedou’s poem adds resonance to:

One character, three characters, five and seven characters.
Having thoroughly investigated the ten thousand things, none have any foundation.
At midnight the white moon sets into the dark ocean.
When searching for the black dragon’s pearl, you will find they are numerous. (Leighton and Okumura translation)

One, seven, three, five –
The truth you search for cannot be grasped.
As night advances, a bright moon illuminates the whole ocean;
The dragon’s jewels are found in every wave.
Looking for the moon, it is here, in this wave, in the next. (Tom Wright translation)

With the letter of ‘one’, that of ‘seven’, or that of ‘three’ or that of ‘five’,
I have thus exhausted myriads of phenomena,
And yet I have found no substantial basis behind them.
The night grows late and the white moon
Sheds its beams over the ocean.
Having sought a black gem, I’ve found many of them in the depths of this ocean. (North American Institute of Zen and Buddhist Studies translation).

Dogen goes on to say, crucially, that you can reach understanding ‘through words and phrases’. While we typically think of realisation as being beyond conceptual thought, Dogen is not allowing words and phrases to remain separate from the conditions for realisation.


‘Grass, trees and lands which are embraced by this teaching together radiate a great light and endlessly expound the inconceivable, profound dharma’ – Bendowa

I have long appreciated this line, and while I first regarded it through the lens of environmental awareness, these days I tend to think of it as expressing the complete interconnectedness of everything through the dharma of the insentient. In recent years I have nurtured my practice off the cushion, especially in the mountains at Tassajara, but just as much by walking around San Francisco. As I went to meet someone this morning, seeing so many people walking along looking at their phones, I felt sad that they were missing the opportunity to experience this for themselves.


Katagiri Roshi

‘Spiritual life is not done for a particular purpose – it’s huge. Zen practice is just to open the heart and be intimate with the truth. It’s very vague. You don’t understand it.’

Suzuki Roshi

‘You should not be tilted sideways, backwards or forwards. You should be sitting straight up as if you were supporting the sky with your head. This is not just form or breathing. It expresses the key point of Buddhism. It is a perfect expression of your Buddha nature. If you want true understanding of Buddhism, you should practice this way. These forms are not a means of obtaining the right state of mind. To take this posture itself is the purpose of our practice. When you have this posture, you have the right state of mind, so there is no need to try to attain some special state. When you try to attain something, your mind starts to wander about somewhere else. When you do not try to attain anything, you have your own body and mind right here’.

I have often used this paragraph when teaching workshops. I find it interesting that this is in the first chapter of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, and I feel like it expresses the very root of what we do, clearly and simply.

Learning to swim

I am very happy to see the Ino’s Blog up and running again. I was helping Caitlin with some details of the job in my first week back from Tassajara, and she outlined an idea for a post that very neatly encapsulated a ceremonial life in an urban temple (though that one has not appeared yet). As for today’s post, I would say that really no-one can teach you how to swim, or to ride a bike – or practice zen. Instructions will only take you so far; you have to manifest it in your own body.