Chan Master Sheng Yen

‘People who want to attain wisdom usually do not know how or where to begin. If you seek wisdom through words, all you will gain is intellectual knowledge. Scholars may study and even recite sutras by heart without perceiving their meaning from direct personal experience. Writing about sutras, doing comparative analysis, and so on, do not necessarily confer acquired wisdom. Not that it is impossible to gain wisdom through reading sutras; it depends on one’s attitude. If one reads sutras with an attitude of gaining intellectual understanding, wisdom will be elusive. On the other hand, if you approach sutras as a method of meditation or contemplation, and commit your whole being to perceiving their meaning, it is possible for wisdom to arise.’ (There is no Suffering)

What I think about when I am running

Last week I pushed myself perhaps a little too much. It was probably a reaction to the week before, when I had been busy with different things, but felt like I had not had the chance to be active. When my energy felt stuck and sour in the days after Roaming Zen, putting me in a bad mood, I reflected that I had not had a chance to burn it off for a while.
So I rode up Mount Tam on the Tuesday. On Wednesday I did a not-too-strenuous yoga class in the morning, and then a run in the afternoon. I knew the run was going to be a bit of a stretch, but had been itching to try it from my new starting place: over Corona Heights to the Panhandle, through the park to Strawberry Hill, up the avenues to the Moraga steps and the top of Grand View park, and then, a new section, straight across to the west side of Mount Sutro. There were some steps marked on OpenStreetMap which I wanted to try – they turned out to be very long, and very steep; I didn’t want to look around for fear of triggering my vertigo. At the top of those I felt pretty drained, but right away had to take a steep section of trail and then continue over the top of Mount Sutro.
The next morning, I was not surprised to wake up with a bit of a sore throat, but I had committed to ride with a friend that morning, and it was a beautiful morning to be heading out to San Rafael and China Camp, a mostly flat route – by local standards – so we did not push the pace and I did not feel too tired by the end.
The sickness, such as it was, passed through pretty quickly, but on Sunday, riding in slightly cooler weather, by the time I had got up onto the Panoramic Highway, I felt I had, as racers put it, burnt quite a few matches, and didn’t want to run out of energy completely. I was also feeling some lingering nervousness about the traffic from my previous experience, which tends to make me slower and more defensive. So, instead of going down to Stinson and taking the long climb up on the Bolinas end of the Fairfax road, I continued up Tam, noting how different I felt to being on the same roads five days previously – just like sitting, each time is a fresh experience –  and then descended the Seven Sisters. At the end the gate was closed, but a couple of riders told me the road was clear, just with more debris than usual from earlier slides. For the next eight miles or so, I, the other riders, and some hikers who had left their cars far behind, had a playground to relax in. It was nice to feel, too, that a ride I thought of as a stretch last month now felt like a consolidation. On the homeward leg, warmer in the lee of the mountain, churches were emptying out from Easter services, people dressed brightly, though that seemed like a different world to me.
On Monday, after plenty of rest, I felt able to tackle another run (and another yoga class in the morning). Again, having gone so hard last week, this was intended just as consolidation. Over Liberty Hill, the wind tugging here and there, the light soft and clear, I watched three crows chasing a hawk across Noe Valley, before leaving it to circle peacefully. Once I had crossed over Diamond Heights, there were other raptors, high over the valley where the freeway rumbled against the village quiet of Glen Park. Glen Canyon was, as usual, an unfolding refuge from the urban; I ran past the after-school kids, alongside the creek, wildflowers in abundance in sun and shade, and continued up to the head of the canyon, turning right to make my way slowly back to my own paved valley.

Grand View Park Moraga.jpg
Grand View is most aptly named. This is looking west along Moraga to the ocean

Michael Stone

‘Mind is always organizing. We humans classify the raw data of our experience by giving it name and form. Mind is what puts name and form together. When we can see that our mind is a kind of synthesizer, we can step back and watch the choices that our minds make moment to moment. The greatest freedom we have is being able to clearly see that in any given context, we have choice. We can decide what kind of attention and attitude we bring to the object showing up here and now. And it can change. This life-and-death cycle of thoughts and attitudes reminds us that choice is always present. There is immense freedom in choice. How we pay attention is a liberating resource’. (Awake in the World)

The Language of Ritual

As the season of the winter training periods draws to a close across all three of Zen Center’s practice places (I am hoping to attend all three shuso ceremonies, which are spread across ten days), one ceremony will be discontinued.
Nenju has a mixed reputation, it might be fair to say. At Tassajara, on the afternoon before the personal day, the main feature always seemed to be a long wait outside the zendo for all the monks, sometimes in freezing temperatures, while the Abbot or practice period leader did a tour of various altars around the monastery. At City Center, it is usually shoe-horned in between the Saturday lecture and lunch, the start of the weekend, but much less formal, with attendees rustled up by the ino.
The intention for the ceremony is for everyone to express their gratitude for the week of practising together by circumambulating while bowing. This part is usually lovely, but for me the most fun part was always the dedication, which the kokyo pronounced after approaching and bowing to the Abbot. At Tassajara there were two versions, and this is the longer one, which I always enjoyed chanting or hearing:

Carefully listen everyone.
25 hundred years ago the Great Tathagata entered nirvana.
When this day is gone, your life also decreases.
Like a fish in a puddle, what pleasure is there here?
We are to practice constantly, as if to save our head from fire.
Mindful of transiency, pursue the path with diligence and care.
Throughout Zenshinji the Dharma safely resides,
Bringing all peace. (this line is at a lower pitch)
Everyone in ten directions knows an increase in joy and growth in wisdom.
Thankfully we recite the names of Buddha.

After the assembly has chanted the ten names of Buddha – something done on various occasions – the kokyo returns to the Abbot and asks in a whisper for hosan – a time of no practice discussions. The Abbot whispers a reply, and the kokyo announces hosan in a long booming tone, while doing a special bow called a great circle bow. The quality of the hosan announcement can give rise to much discussion and sometimes gentle ribbing afterwards….


Clearly it’s ungraspable within the Three Worlds
An empty sky swept clean away – not a particle left
On the zazen seat, in the dead of night, cold as steel
Moonlight through a window, bright with shadows of the plum!

What I think about when I am riding

In the south London borough of Southwark, where I used to live, there is a building I remember. A building made with typical brick, touches of art deco in its facades, built for the local government almost a century ago. Over the doorway, engraved in stone, the phrase, ‘The health of the people is the highest law.’ This is the detail I most remember about the building, marveling that there was a time when this was such an explicit aim of government. A little research shows the phrase comes from Cicero, and that the building indeed resides near Elephant and Castle (I have come across that delightful blog before). The sentiment expressed in stone seems as old-fashioned these days as the architectural detailing.

A phrase that has been sticking in my head recently is ‘the dominant narrative’. I don’t usually like to steer a personal blog into the political realm, but I have been finding it particularly depressing to read articles such as this one, and this one, from the world of politics and economics, and this, thisthis and this dealing in the spectrum of race and power, where it is clear how much particular narratives reside at the forefront of cultural thinking, and how other ways of thinking continue to be marginalised.

To bring it back to a personal and more quotidian level, I have written about the ways I benefit from privilege, and it has often occured to me that the only time I get to experience life from a position of less power is when I am riding. The other day, on my way up Mount Tam, a couple of cars passed me in quick succession. The first I had heard coming up behind me (car drivers are probably not aware of how loud they are on less busy roads; I can very often hear cars coming from at least a hundred yards away). I had noticed the change of engine sound, which meant they were slowing down on the twisty road to wait for a safe moment to pass. Often I will move slightly to the left if I feel it isn’t safe for someone to pass, in an attempt to discourage them, and then swing further to the right when there is a clear stretch. The first car came by on a straight section, well to the left of me, in a way that felt courteous and appropriate.

I hadn’t heard the second car, because of the first, but as we approached a tight right-hander, he came by me at speed, well over the double yellow lines, but then cutting back in front of me. I don’t know how much visibility he had, but it did not seem in any way a safe manoeuvre. Had I time and occasion, I would have pointed out to the driver that – in addition to crossing the yellow lines in an unsafe way, seeming to be breaking the speed limit, and not allowing me the now legally-required three feet of space while passing – had someone been coming the other way (let’s say a car, though when I take these corners while descending on a bicycle, I will take the full lane in order to corner safely), the instinctive reaction  of this driver passing me would have been to swerve right back into our lane, and either hit me, or force me off the road. I know this because it has happened to me – luckily I was riding at a slow enough speed that I was able to stay in control of my bike as the car cut across in front of me. Of course there was no opportunity for discourse, so my reaction, as it often is in such circumstances, was to make an angry gesture. Unsurprisingly, the driver wound down his window and returned the favour (I was reminded as I continued of the lines in the Dhammapada:  ‘for hate is not conquered by hate: hate is conquered by love. This is a law eternal’).

This is a small and somewhat trivial example (I try, as I have written before, to balance my reaction of fear and anger from an experience of being endangered, with the occasions when drivers behave like the first driver in this story), but as I rode on, I thought of all the times when people in positions of less privilege are told that their responses are out of proportion, too angry, inappropriate, when no amount of reasoned discourse has met with any shift in the dominant narrative. Over time, as the old-fashioned slogan demonstrates, the narrative may bend, and we can only hope that it bends again to accommodate the well-being of all people. My feeling is that for that to happen, we all need to find the space and willingness put aside our attachment to ego and identity, especially when we are a part of the dominant narrative, and be able to listen to other stories and experiences.

Identity and Opinions

My sister-in-law, who is more attuned to social niceties than other members of my immediate family, asked early on in my practice if I thought of myself as a Buddhist. For me, that was less troublesome a question than whether I was a monk. Living at Tassajara, in monastic seclusion, as I had been at the time, the term seems inevitable, but for some reason it was a harder mantle for me to take on; I didn’t have any problem calling myself a Buddhist.
These days I would say that anyone who is at Tassajara over the winter training periods is a monk, but that is the only time I would think of myself as such. I know that some residents of City Center also consider themselves to be monks, and I would not try to argue the point with them.
People often ask about the differences between being a monk and a priest, and what one has to do to become one – at Tassajara, to become a monk you have to be accepted into the practice period, which means you have something of a solid practice foundation already, and sit tangaryo, which is a challenge (five days of sitting throughout the day), but a brief and not insurmountable one. At Zen Center, becoming a priest usually involves at least five years of solid practice, two practice periods, at least six months, at Tassajara, and your teacher assessing you to be mature enough to begin taking responsibility for other people’s practice as well as your own.
I think other people struggle with whether to call themselves Buddhists (I was trying to see if I could link to a clip from the Simpsons here, but am not managing it; perhaps you know the episode I mean). Depending on your upbringing, it might be a challenge to your family and culture (I have heard several gay sangha members talking about the difficulty of coming out in both spheres). There isn’t a test you have to take, or a badge you have to wear. You could consider lay ordination, but none of these things are obligatory.

The other day I wrote about reminding myself that I am a cyclist any time I get on the bike, and a runner any time I put on my shoes and run. The quote from Dogen yesterday affirms that any time you sit in meditation you are manifesting enlightenment, and that is the most important thing. Everything else is just a label.



‘The zazen of even one person at one moment imperceptibly accords with all things and fully resonates through all time. Thus in the past, future and present of the limitless universe, this zazen carries on the Buddha’s teaching endlessly. Each moment of zazen is equally wholeness of practice, equally wholeness of realization.’ (Shobogenzo Bendowa)

I think this is a hard proposition for us to accept – my reaction used to be, ‘well I can’t really be sitting zazen, because it does not appear that way to me’ – but the key word here is ‘imperceptibly’. These days I trust that Dogen knows what he is talking about, and that this is indeed so, and sometimes allowing that response brings about a great ease.

What I think about when I am riding

‘Each moment is perfect if you don’t compare it’ (Byron Katie)

A friend of mine noticed recently that I have been talking more about running than about cycling, and it is probably true. I have been covering enough miles in my running recently that I am feeling like a runner again – when I started training in the city a couple of years ago, I felt rather self-conscious, and it took getting fit through last summer at Tassajara  to wash that away. Now, even though I am so much slower than in my youth (in my college years, my criterion for feeling ‘fit enough’ was to be able to run ten miles in less than seventy minutes and not feel completely exhausted afterwards), I feel happy if I am able to run for ninety minutes, over whatever slopes I may have put in my way.

Saying I am a fair-weather cyclist may be going a little far (in London I commuted by bike every day through the nineties, and when I was living at City Center and only going out for big rides on Sunday, the weather was not a deterrent, though I would usually temper my plans accordingly), but in this wet winter, when I have supposedly had more free days to ride, I have found myself not progressing much – if you have been following the blog for a while, none of this will be news to you, and as such, I have not been feeling like I could really call myself a cyclist.

Last month, in consecutive weeks, I managed to ride Alpine, which is local cyclists’ shorthand – the route takes in Fairfax, Azalea hill, Alpine Dam on the north side of Mount Tam, Ridgecrest or Seven Sisters, Pantoll, the Panoramic Highway and Mill Valley. I did it once in each direction, but that way round is how I prefer to tackle the climbs. This is a tough ride – I was glad to get round it and feel okay afterwards. I was noticing that I consider myself a cyclist when I am at that level of fitness and endurance, or better, whereas going out and doing two or three hour rides I still feel like I am not really there. These rides were followed by travel, work, and rain, and not so much decent riding.

Yesterday, the squally rain having blown through for a while, I set off to climb Mount Tam. This is not such a long ride – in my early years in San Francisco I could get up there in two hours, and back in an hour and a half, whereas now it is pretty much four hours round trip – but the amount of climbing, and the sense of achievement when you get to the end of the summit road, make me feel once again like I am a cyclist.

I have written about riding up Tam before, and remembered today that I have been riding up it since 1999, when I rented a mountain bike and made my way to the top on my first trip to the west coast, imagining that I would never come that way again… how little we know of the future.

Even though it was sunny, what wind there was blew in from the north west, making it less warm than advertised, and I was glad I had brought a jacket for the long descent. As so often (and I might get into this more in a forthcoming post), it was a relief to turn off the Panoramic, where drivers are sometimes impatient enough to pass on blind corners, and onto the quieter summit road. The remaining miles are pretty steady, so it is a case of setting a sustainable rhythm. There is a corner below the rock springs junction where you are suddenly presented with a view of the ocean, stretching out from far beneath, which always energises me for the last stretch. At the top, the chance to sit on the bench looking back to San Francisco, surveying much of the road just taken; today there was a lovely play of light and shade, as the clouds seemed to have stalled over Throckmorton Ridge. My legs were sore – I took it pretty gently on the descent and the run back from Sausalito, and the bridge was packed with tourists on bikes and on foot, which was predictably messy to navigate.

The truth is, any time put on my shoes and run, I am a runner, and any time I ride my bike, I am a cyclist, but it is interesting to see the extent to which my stories get in the way of that simple fact. I was going to add, any time I sit zazen, I am a buddhist, but that one may not be so simple.

Roaming Zen

Over the weekend I was imagining how I would write up the inaugural Roaming Zen, not least as I have not been in a great mood for the past couple of days, and the idea of writing a booster post didn’t seem so authentic.
As I told a few people, I had a kind of anxiety dream about it the night before, only the tone of the dream was not anxiety – in the dream, I had been somewhere else (in reality I was wanting to get out on my bike in the morning), and when I got back, a number of people were waiting for me to start, even though it was not yet the time. I got myself ready, finding things very slowly but surely, and made it outside just about on time. People I hadn’t expected to be there had come, and it felt good. This is more or less what happened in real life as well…

It was nice to have a group of dharma friends, young and old, gather for the event, and I think people had a good time. The weather co-operated; in fact it epitomised San Francisco’s micro-climates, with sunshine, warmth, wind, low cloud and a drizzly fog all featuring at various times.
Perhaps what I remember most is the smell of ceanothus and looking up to see hawks circling far above, but there were also lupins and irises and yellow clover everywhere, eucalyptus and cypress, ravens and sparrows and hummingbirds, sand, dirt, wood chips and pavement underfoot planes, cars, helicopters and the thwack of golf swings to listen to, climbs and descents, military bunkers, the Golden Gate bridge, rocks, dunes and watersheds, looking around to see that everyone was still wandering along.

Certainly I feel encouraged to continue the series – you can check out the calendar, Eventbrite page, or even the Facebook event, though I was finding that disappearing on me, so perhaps it does not really exist.

Mt Olympus view
One of the views we will be taking in next time