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?

What I think about when I am running

It seems that each year I get a chance to trot out the line ‘rough winds do shake the darling buds of February’, which amuses me, if nobody else, and this year is no exception. After the balmy weather of the weekend, the winds picked up on Tuesday, and the rain finally skidded in on Wednesday – the skies were full of fat, fast-moving clouds, getting darker as the morning went on.
By the time I went for a run, around four o’clock, there was the faintest of drizzles. As part of planning some future Roaming Zen destinations, I wanted to investigate Mount Davidson. I have ridden my bike up one side of it – a slope as ferocious as anything in the city; when I first came to the bottom of the road, not being able to see the top put the fear of god in me, and that feeling has stayed with me every time I try that climb, something I only attempt when I am feeling fully fit.
I approached from Glen Canyon, which I am still learning my way around, and then up the quiet streets on the north side of the woods. Once in the woods, the paths seemed to meander, but I worked my way up to the giant cross, and then over to where the hill abutted to the south, with incredible views of the rain clouds lowering over from Colma and San Bruno Mountain.
For the return leg, I tackled Twin Peaks from the reverse side to my recent efforts. Only the wet and noisy ravens for company this time, and suddenly an amazing opening of the city before me – the tall buildings downtown seemed to be dissolving into a spectral mist, while amid all kinds of shifting colours in the sky, the straight line of lights along Market far below shone with a pale glow. I was completely exhilarated to have witnessed this, even as I negotiated the steep staircases down to my valley floor with tired legs.

Perhaps I was still feeling the endorphins the next day, as I was enthused enough to go out again, which is not my usual pattern. Perhaps it was knowing I would be spending most of the weekend indoors. This time I worked my way to the summit of Mount Sutro, where I was delighted to find the first flowering lupins of the year. Descending the cooler shaded gullies, which I first explored about a year ago, I found them, as then, filled with birds and white blossoms.  Coming out onto 17th Street and heading slowly up to the crest, there was the waxing moon, straight ahead.

High winds on Tuesday were the harbinger of rain on Wednesday. I do wish I had been able to photograph the light on Twin Peaks

Green Gulch

People often asked me if I have ever lived at Green Gulch. I haven’t – the longest time I spent there was a Genzo-e sesshin with Shohaku Okumura in 2012 – and a part of the reason for that, beyond the fact that Tassajara and City Center both kept me very busy over the years, was that it took me about a dozen visits for me to see the temple in sunshine. Cold, damp and fog are not my favourite conditions, and that seemed to be the default setting for Green Gulch – even when the sun was shining elsewhere in the area.
Last Sunday I took myself over there by bike, and it was a beautifully warm day, with soft spring light ideal for taking photos, which was my main intention. I did not go to the talk, although I have enjoyed hearing Wendy Johnson in the past, and I did not stay for the Arbor Day work on the valley. I did get to meet a lot of people I knew, and some I didn’t, most of whom I was not necessarily expecting to meet, so it was a very sociable occasion.

Plum blossom by Cloud Hall

Teacups ready for the crowd

The fields were green

The newly reworked watershed in action

Suzuki Roshi

‘Truth is truth. There are not two truths, only one. When you understand truth only with your mind, you may feel that is the truth. But compared to your actual activity or feeling or life, the truth that you understand with your mind is not the actual truth. Because our actual life is not as easy as our thinking, it is easy to be convinced that some idea we have is the perfect truth. Yet for us it is not true because that kind of thinking does not accord with our actual life.’ (Branching Streams flow in the Darkness)

I left the previous quote short to emphasise his basic point, but the way Suzuki Roshi expands on that reveals the depth of his understanding.

Bird Song

I would no more claim to be an ornithologist than a naturalist. I enjoy meeting trees and flowers, and birds, but often don’t know the names of what I am encountering. Sometimes I think this is a shame, other times I don’t worry about it.

Right now, in the tree behind my house, there is a bird singing enthusiastically in the morning – I am not up early enough for the dawn chorus these days, but this is the next best thing. I assume it is a sparrow-sized bird, though I have  not seen it. During the day, I often catch the twitching chatter of a hummingbird as it alights on the top of the blossoming tree next door. As I am typing this, I can hear a crow calling out further away, probably up the hill. I have see a red-tailed hawk circling around the hillside from time to time, usually with crows in close attendance, trying to shoo it away.

Perhaps most unusually, by my limited understanding, a scrub jay will come and land in the yard and call out in its slightly squawking voice. I associate these birds much more with the open country, usually seeing them as the underdog – especially around Tassajara where the more aggressive Stellar’s jay has dominated the prime territory, leaving the scrub jays to the more remote areas. I hear them around Marin when riding, and always feel glad of their company.

At Zen Center, I would occasionally stay on the roof and see how birds, seemingly unconcerned if they were landing on a tree or something man-made, navigated the wide open air above the buildings.

‘A bird flies in the sky, and no matter how far it flies, there is no end to the sky’ (Genjo Koan)


A scrub jay sitting on the fence behind my house