The Language of Ritual

The moon is now only half full on this auspicious leap year day, but another phrase from the full moon ceremony, Dogen’s commentary on the sixth grave precept, ‘I vow not to slander’:

‘In the Buddhadharma, go together, appreciate together, realise together and actualise together. Don’t permit fault-finding; don’t permit haphazard talk; do not corrupt the way.’


The round moon of wisdom reflects the myriad waves;
the great boat of compassion carries all across.
Looking at the moon, the ground drops away;
tracing the moon one embodies authentic light.

This poem comes from a version of a ceremony performed to mark a person’s transition from life to death.

Other Winters, Other Summers

A request came up from Tassajara the other day for some pictures. There has been a tradition of making albums with photographs of each practice period, taken when the monks are all gathered at the end of the shuso ceremony (that’s the theory; in practice one or two of them somehow manage to disappear), and I was asked if I could dig out the ones I have taken over the past few years. This was fun and not hard, going through various folders on my hard drive. Whilst doing so I came across these rather forgotten pictures, from a shade over eight years ago, the day it snowed the most in my time at Tassajara. I have told the story here.

Snowy day Coady and Marianne
This is up at the first lookout, with Lime Point in the distance. I was coming back from the Wind Caves, and a group had walked up the road; these two are David Coady and Marianne.

Snowy day Steph
A few hours later, there was much more snow on the ground. This is Steph at the work circle.

Whilst I was browsing for that post on the Ino’s Blog, I also came across this one, showing the trails of Tassajara in different conditions in the years after the 2008 fire, which I still enjoy looking at.

Just to give you an idea of what I was looking for, this is the photo from 2012 when I was the shuso.

Shuso ceremony PP shot Fall 2012 Steve-ShundoI am the one holding the fan.

Suzuki Roshi

‘Reality cannot be caught by thinking or feeling mind. Moment after moment to watch your breathing, to watch your posture, is true nature. There is no secret beyond this point.’ (Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind)


‘There was a foolish monk who made a vow never to look at a woman, birth after birth, world after world…
What is the fault of women? What is the virtue of men? There are unwholesome men and there are wholesome women. Hoping to hear dharma and leave the household does not depend on being female or male.
Before becoming free from delusion, men and women are equally not free from delusion. At the time of becoming free from delusion and realizing the truth, there is no difference between men and women.
If you vow for a long time not to look at women, do you leave out women when you vow to save numberless sentient beings? If you do so, you are not a bodhisattva. How can you call it the Buddha’s compassion? This is merely nonsense spoken by a soaking-drunk shravaka. Humans and devas should not believe in such a practice.’ (Shobogenzo Raihai Tokuzui)

I was reminded to read this fascicle again, when I went to hear Shindo, the current City Center shuso, give a talk the other day; she was asked about whether she had encountered difficulties because of her gender. Eight hundred years ago, Dogen told it like it is.

Nyogen Senzaki

‘An ideal Buddhist should wash off all kinds of dirt and walk freely in naked truth. The perfect garment shows no seams, inside or outside; it is one complete piece, and nobody can tell where the work began and how it was woven. In true Buddhism, there ought not to be any trace, there ought not to be any trace of self-admiration after giving alms, much less the thought of compensation. An ideal Buddhist may keep the precepts, but will forget what has been done. Every act will unite with ethical laws, harmoniously and gracefully. An ideal Buddhist will never use the term Buddhist. As nature’s beloved child, no name is necessary. You may be a monk. You may be a layperson. It makes no difference as long as you enjoy your emancipation, and your heart beats regularly. You will not cling to the world; therefore you will not try to escape from the world. You will be contented as a happy, peaceful dweller in this world, and will desire nothing else.’ (Eloquent Silence).

This is from a talk Senzaki gave in San Francsico in 1931 – a whole generation before Suzuki Roshi arrived. Can you imagine how it must have sounded to the audience?

Life and Death

I don’t remember exactly how old I was when my last grandparent died. One of my grandfathers had died before I was two, the other when I was five – I have only the faintest of memories of him, already bed-ridden. My paternal grandmother had a stroke when I was twelve or thirteen, and lived on for another five years, but much diminished from the feistiness I enjoyed being protected by as a child.
My mother’s mother was the religious one, from a family that had a number of Anglican bishops and curates in the preceding generations. I have always thought that if she was around now, she would certainly be ordained; as it was, she uncomplainingly did was available to her, which was to run the local church behind the scenes. She had had a bout of cancer when she was approaching eighty, and the family moved her to an apartment in an assisted living facility, where, true to form, she ended up looking after the ‘old people’ as she called them, even as she began to slow down.
Her death was very gradual; she had plenty of time to arrange her own funeral service, with particular attention to the speed at which the hymns were to be played – ‘too slow and it becomes a dirge.’ With her robust faith, she was not at all afraid of what was coming, and maintained a dignified steadiness. She eventually slipped into a coma, and was given a couple of days to live at most. It was three or four days before her three children – my mother, her brother and sister – and I of the five grand-children, were all able be present; we gathered around her bed on a Saturday afternoon, chatting about various things, just to keep her company.
My parents were divorced and my father remarried, but just this once my mother came back to their house for dinner, a strained civility in the conversation between my parents, my step-mother, not unusually, working to put everyone at ease. It was approaching mid-summer, and warm enough to eat outdoors. I remember swifts circling overhead as the sun went down. There was a phone call.
My mother and I walked back over to my grandmother’s apartment. I kissed her forehead, but apart from the coolness of the skin, there seemed very little change in her. We agreed that, even in her comatose state, she had waited until all her children had had a chance to come before she had left.
I took a different route back through the town, walking along streets I had known since childhood. The long summer evening was slowly diminishing; in the pubs I could hear the loud joyful chatter of a Saturday night; the glow of the TV shone through house windows. I noted, with some comfort, that life was continuing.

Glennie, Marrgot at 70 1978 june 13My grandmother at her 70th birthday celebration, looking much as I remember her as I was growing up.

The Language of Ritual

This is the time of the full moon, and the Ryaku Fusatsu ceremony performed at Zen Center connects us back to the earliest days of Buddhism, when itinerant monks in India would gather together at the full and new moon to renew their vows.
Perhaps the highlight of my whole summer last year at Tassajara was to be doshi for the full moon ceremony, thus being the person who spoke for the assembly the words of Dogen’s commentaries on the precepts. These commentaries are among my favourite lines of Buddhist text.
One that has particularly held my attention over the years is the commentary on the tenth grave precept, ‘I vow not to disparage the Three Treasures’:

‘To expound the dharma with this body is foremost. The virtue returns to the ocean of reality. It is unfathomable; we just accept it with respect and gratitude.’

Calendar spring-cleaning

In case you are not inclined to visit other pages on the site regularly, I would draw your attention to the calendar page, which I have revamped this week, so that it is now chronological for the next few months, and with pages for different events – including the new Roaming Zen series which I will be offering over the summer.
I have listed this on Eventbrite, but you are also welcome to contact me directly if you are interested in attending one or more of these.
Additionally, booking for Tassajara summer retreats is now open, for those thinking of heading that way.

Plum blossoms at Green Gulch


‘Great teacher Sakyamuni Buddha sat on the vajra seat under the bodhi tree, saw the bright star, realized the way and said, “When the bright star appeared, I accomplished the way at the same time as the great earth and all sentient beings.”
The great earth and all sentient beings say it this way; old man Sakyamuni says it this way; what does the great assembly say? If the great assembly cannot say it, then I, Eihei will speak.
Dogen held up his staff, pounded it once, and said: This is what I was able to study on the long platform. Can you say something that goes beyond it?
Again Dogen raised his staff and pounded it once and said: Without being involved in two sides, what more can you say?
After a pause Dogen said: I have already met with you all in front of the monks’ hall.’ (Extensive Record, discourse 240)

Just as with the quote from Suzuki Roshi the other day, the two sides (relative and absolute) are not sufficient in themselves. Perhaps I would add, how could he have expressed this without using his staff?