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.

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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.

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Plum blossom by Cloud Hall

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Teacups ready for the crowd

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The fields were green

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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)

DSCF2251A scrub jay sitting on the fence behind my house

The Language of Ritual

This is the time of year that Buddha’s Parinirvana is traditionally celebrated. Usually there is a reading in the zendo at City Center during morning zazen, the only time of the year when this will happen, telling the story handed down around the death of the historical Buddha. This section always moves me:

‘And the gods in all the heavens uttered verses, and the deer from the hillsides came to watch in rapt attention, and the stars and the planets shone brightly, and the small plants turned their leaves a little to the north, the trees arched more closely toward the sky, foxes slowed down in their loping, frogs ceased their croaking for a moment, birds perched, and children in their beds turned over and awoke in wonder.

Those monks who had not yet let go of their desires wept, and tore their hair, raised their arms, threw themselves down, twisting and turning and crying out, “The light of the world has gone out!” But those monks who were free of clinging endured mindfully and clearly aware, weeping softly and saying:

“All things in this world break up
Even the Buddha without peer,
This day has passed on.”

And they remembered the Buddha’s last words:

“If you have doubts about the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha or about the path or the practice, ask other monks. Do not afterwards feel remorse. Let one friend ask another. Encourage each other in the way.
It may be that you will think the teacher’s instructions have ceased, but it should not be seen like this. For what I have taught shall be your teacher, all living beings shall be your teacher, this bright world, and your very mind itself, shall be your teacher.
Be as lamps unto yourselves. Light your dharma candle and pass on the light throughout the generations and to everyone in this world .”‘

Soen Nakagawa

‘I came to this mountain
Looking for enlightenment.
There was no enlightenment on the mountain.
Whether laughing or crying
All I hear is an echo
From the other side of the mountain’

This poem dates from 1939, and is in the collection Endless Vow. Although he trained in Japan, Soen had a big influence on the spread of zen in America.

Suzuki Roshi

Student: “What is the difference between understanding things or activities from both sides and not understanding them at all?”
Suzuki Roshi: “Oh – there is no need to talk about understanding at all [laughs].” (Branching Streams flow in the Darkness)

Soyen Shaku

‘Buddhist ethics is the simplest thing to practice in the world. It has nothing mysterious, nothing superstitious, nothing idolatrous, nothing supernatural. Stop doing anything wrong, which is against the reason of things; do whatever is good, which advances the course of reason in this life; and finally help those who are still behind and weary of life to realize enlightenment: and here is Buddhism in a nutshell. It has nothing to do with prayer and worship and singing and whatnot. Our simple everyday life of love and sympathy is all that is needed to be a good Buddhist.’ (Sermons of a Buddhist Abbot)

These words come from 1905-6, as Soyen Shaku presented Buddhism to America for almost the first time. The translation is by D.T. Suzuki. I would quibble with the use of the word ‘reason’ in this passage, but, as with Nyogen Senzaki, a student of Shaku, they were making their best effort to communicate in language that would be easily absorbed.

Michael Stone

‘The vortex in a stream is a structure that is created out of the swirling gravitational movement of water. All living things are flowing structures like this. Our identity, sexuality, economics, and relations are all temporary and flexible. One of the aspects of practice in the context of community (sangha) that I’ve deeply appreciated is the way people can relate to one another with less competitiveness, less egoic strategizing. With a focus on practice and expressing this practice in everyday situations, we can dismantle the prominence of individual egos pursuing individual ends, replacing it with a more inclusive and community-based understanding. Watch people change over time; it’s interesting to see how elastic our egoic habits  are, and also how spiritual practice on the context of sangha supports and cares for others.’ (Awake in the World)

When we chant the Three Refuges as a part of our morning practice – usually one of the first things we articulate in the day, we ‘take refuge in sangha as the perfect life.’ Of course, while you are a part of the community, it may not always appear so, as the petty aggravations of being around others can unbalance you, but there is so much truth in what Michael says here.

Sekito Kisen

“I’ve built a grass hut where there’s nothing of value.
After eating I relax and take a nap.
When it was completed, fresh weeds appeared.
Now it’s been lived in—covered by weeds.
The person in the hut lives here calmly,
Not stuck to inside, outside or in-between.
Places worldly people live, he doesn’t live.
Realms worldly people love, she doesn’t love.
Though the hut is small, it includes the entire world.
In ten square feet, an old man illumines forms and their nature.
A Great Vehicle bodhisattva trusts without doubt.
The middling or lowly can’t help wondering;
Will this hut perish or not?
Perishable or not, the original master is present.
He does not dwell south or north, east or west.
Firmly based on steadiness, it can’t be surpassed.
A shining window below the green pines—
Jade palaces or vermillion towers can’t compare with it.
Just sitting with head covered all things are at rest.
Thus, this mountain monk doesn’t understand at all.
Living here he no longer works to get free.
Who would proudly arrange seats, trying to entice guests?
Turn around the light to shine within, then just return.
The vast inconceivable source can’t be faced or turned away from.
Meet the ancestral teachers, be familiar with their instruction,
Bind grasses to build a hut and don’t give up.
Let go of hundreds of years and relax completely.
Open your hands and walk, innocent.
Thousands of words, myriad interpretations,
Are only to free you from obstructions.
If you want to know the undying person in the hut,
Don’t separate from the skin bag here and now.’ (Soanka)

I have always enjoyed this poem by Sekito, a contrast to the deeply formal Sandokai, expressing the view of the mature monk who has given up striving.
Even just hearing the line, ‘Let go of hundreds of years and relax completely’ I feel at ease.