The reality of all things

‘When we go to the moon I am not sure we are following the best direction for human beings. I don’t know what we are doing. When we find the spirit of zazen, we find the way of life to follow as a human being. In other words, we are not fooled by things or fooled by some particular idea.’ (Not Always So)

I have often wondered how this talk that Suzuki Roshi gave on the day of the first Apollo moon landing was received. In the past I have offered it as a teaching, though I don’t necessarily agree with how he expresses himself in some parts of the talk as published. What I do agree with is that technology is not necessarily the way for us to find the way to the heart of human existence.

There was a fascinating piece about virtual reality film making in a recent edition of the New Yorker, and I can imagine how much fun it must be to be working in a medium where not only the technology is advancing at a fast pace, but the way we interact with it is still being established; visual language is being created and our responses to it are being learned at the same time. A few lines stood out for me:  Janet Murray is quoted as writing in 1997, ‘Every age seeks out the appropriate medium in which to confront the unanswerable questions of human existence,’ to which she adds now, ‘Through this machine, we become more compassionate, we become more empathetic, and we become more connected.’ One of the entrepreneurs in the article notes, ‘All I know is we’re addicted to technology as a society, and once we move forward we don’t tend to go back.’

A couple of Fridays ago, I arrived at the tech company where I lead meditation, to find a buzz in the air. The CEO’s assistant was embarrassed that she had forgotten to email me to tell me not to come, as there was going to be a demonstration. When I found out what was being demonstrated – a new app and head gear for measuring your meditation – I thought it would be fun to stay and join in.
The person leading the demonstration was a sweet young guy with a longstanding meditation practice, and the size of the group was about what it was last year when I started going to the company, in the days when the CEO was always there and encouraging her senior people to follow her lead.
It took a while for everyone to get set up, and the head gear calibrated; I was borrowing the instructor’s phone, so I don’t know if I got the same exercise as everyone else, but there was three minutes of listening to waves – the quieter the sound, the less mental activity was being measured; and when your mind got very still, there were bird songs.
The CEO got to tease me at the end of the first demonstration when her screen showed that she had better numbers than mine, in terms of the percentage of time spent in the calmest of three states shown on a graph. Then she realised that as we all had our own baseline, perhaps I was just starting from a calmer place. Maybe so. For the following two run-throughs, I noticed how my mental activity was shaping the sounds, and also ways in which it didn’t. I went from stillness, especially at the end of an exhale, to wondering what I had to do to hear the sound of the bird anyway. All over the course of three minutes – I  would like to think in my defence that I would do better over forty.
It was fun to see the chief data scientist, who has never come to join the meditation sessions, though he says he enjoys them from his desk, getting excited at the prospect of something he could measure. One of my regulars, on the other hand, was disappointed that his style of visualisation meditation didn’t seem to get good scores…
As I said to the instructor, Buddha was all about skillful means, and we agreed that however people come to be on a cushion is good, because who knows where it might end up. I could see how it might form strong habits and show people how much thinking they do and that they can slow down the mental flow. At the same time I was worried how people might get discouraged if their numbers didn’t hold up or show good improvement. If there is one thing I have learnt from more than fifteen years of meditation is that the most important thing is to keep going when it doesn’t seem to be working for you, because some days it is going to seem like a complete disaster from start to finish.

I am not sure I am going to be rushing to check out a virtual reality film; these days I find I have almost no appetite for drama, as I have watched very little in recent years that has been convincing enough to suspend my disbelief. I am perfectly content with this reality – the reality of all things, as Dogen puts it in Shobogenzo Shoho Jisso. Or as he says in Genjo Koan, ‘Meeting one thing is mastering it. Doing one practice is practicing completely.’ This is the way to the heart of the human experience.


‘Question fourteen: Monks quickly depart from their involvements and have no obstacles to wholeheartedly engaging in the way of zazen. But how can people who are busy with their duties in the world single-mindedly practice and be in accord with the buddha way of non-action?

Reply: Certainly the buddha ancestors with their great sympathy keep open the vast gate of compassion in order to allow all living beings to enter enlightenment. So which of the various beings would not enter?
If we search, there are many examples of this from antiquity to the present… This only depends on whether or not one has aspiration, without relationship to being a monk or layperson. Also, anyone who can deeply discern what is important or trivial will thereby have this faith. Needless to say, people who think secular duties interfere with buddha-dharma only know that there is no buddha-dharma in the secular realm, and do not yet realize that there is nothing secular in the realm of buddha.’ (Bendowa)

Walking meditation

People still ask me regularly about my meditation practice in my new life. It is true that I don’t sit every day, but usually my teaching commitments have me sitting three or four times a week, which feels like an acceptable minimum right now, as I adjust from having scheduled zazen six or seven days a week. Usually I mention my other forms of meditation – cycling and running – but it occurred to me the other day that for several weeks I had not done one of my other practices: going out for a walk with my camera.
This is something I have done in the city for five or more years – typically, during my Zen Center life, on a free Saturday afternoon. So, on Monday, having some errands to run in the afternoon between preparing for my study group and going to the jail, instead of hopping on my bike, I put on my walking shoes.
The weather was bright, with the same hefty breeze that had featured on Sunday’s ride. As is most often the case, I was looking to see how the sun was meeting buildings, where the interplay of light and shadow was, and which colours looked vibrant.
Being a little rusty, it definitely took a few blocks to loosen up – especially since I started on Market. I find it easier to take pictures on quieter streets, where I don’t have to worry about feeling self-conscious, as I tend to at first. And as often happens, by the time I was on the homeward leg, having chosen not to take a bus that would have dropped me right by my door, I felt that my scrutinising eye was getting a little tired, that some combinations I might have found charming an hour previously did not seem worth the effort. Looking back at the hundred-odd shots I took in the intervening period, I was pretty happy with the results.

Of course, if you fancy a walk in the city this weekend, with or without a camera, there is always the opportunity to join me for Roaming Zen on Saturday afternoon.

Crossing Guerrero

Under the freeway

Katagiri Roshi

In my conversation on Saturday with my friend over from New York, the subject turned to the state of the dharma there. Her experience reinforced my impressions from reading about various venues and teachers: the pressure to succeed and emphasis on self-belief in the city is reflected in how some present their mindfulness and meditation offerings, with an eye to fostering media endorsement and celebrity connections to help them make money and make their mark. 
I was reminded of a story that Blanche used to enjoy telling about Katagiri Roshi, which my friend had not heard before. He was asked to give a speech addressing donors who were attending a fund-raising dinner, presumably for the Minnesota Zen Center. People were doubtless expecting pleasantries and expressions of gratitude. According to Blanche, Katagiri stood up and said, ‘You’re all going to die.’

Karen Maezen Miller

‘Whatever the scenery, our practice is the same. Our practice is to face and feel everything life is, and everything it isn’t. Everything we think and feel and everything we don’t. Wall gazing is a very thorough practice in facing the fleetingness of things and not getting trapped in momentary apparitions. All apparitions, it turns out, are momentary. When your eyes are open and you are intimately engaged with what appears in front of you, it’s hard to stay bored because nothing stays one way for long. Even walls disappear.’

This is from a 2012 article in Shambhala Sun on boredom, which I would like to be able to link to, but since they relaunched their website, it does not appear to be possible.

What I think about when I am riding

Sunday was my first completely unscheduled day for almost two weeks, so I did what I did the last time and went for as long a bike ride as I could contemplate.
Despite Saturday being a long day (though very enjoyable with my third trip down to Santa Cruz, being well taken care of by Hannah, and then going out for dinner with a long-time zen friend in town from New York), and despite my housemate having a belated birthday party, I was awake pretty early and out of the door before inertia set in – though it was not as early as I often managed when I was at Zen Center. Any lingering tiredness was mitigated by remembering the pleasure of being out on the roads while they were still mostly empty.
Riding with someone through Sausalito, he mentioned the north-westerly wind that would be picking up, and as soon as I was over Camino Alto, I noticed it – more continuously so once I was through Fairfax and heading up White’s Grade, where it was cutting through the gap in the hills, like a hand pushing on my face.
Even if I had not been this way for almost a year, as I remember on many occasions in the past, once I got into Nicasio, headwind or not, I settled into the rhythm of pedalling. Riding up to and around the reservoir – which looked in good health – I am always reminded of the upland roads on the southern edge of Bodmin Moor, from St Neot to Dozmary Pool and Jamaica Inn, that I used to ride when staying with my dad. Skirting the flanks of Black Mountain in the last few miles before Point Reyes Station, I was starting to look forward to my coffee and morning bun from the Bovine – and they did not disappoint.
I was also looking forward to the tail wind on the way home, which became like a gentle hand on the small of my back pushing me on (I doled out a few of those on the Zen-a-Thon ride). Having been buzzed by a gang of high-speed motorbikes on the way up from Olema to the Bolinas Ridge (there is a notorious regular Sunday ride I do my best to avoid usually, who are the only motorcyclists I have found problematic in years of riding bikes), I was glad of the few traffic-free miles through Samuel Taylor Park, though everything was hurting already, as it continued to do for the two remaining hours it took me to get home, for all that the wind helped, and the good-natured group of riders I fell in with on the way back through Sausalito. I had been mentally planning this ride for a couple of weeks, which definitely helps contemplate the distance, but there is still the actual experience of being out on the road for the best part of six hours and making it happen.


The monkey reaches for the moon in the water,
Until death overtakes him he’ll never give up.
If he would let go of the branch and disappear in the deep pool,
The whole world would shine with dazzling pureness.

This drawing accompanies the poem – or vice versa:

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The Gateless Gate

‘A monk asked Tozan, “What is Buddha?”
Tozan replied, “Three pounds of flax.”

From Nyogen Senzaki’s commentary: ‘I am reminded of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, who was one of the world’s greatest educators of the eighteenth century. When he was a young school teacher, he was talking to his class about a window, so he drew a picture of a window on the blackboard. But one young pupil raised his hand and asked, “Teacher, why do you take such trouble, drawing a picture of a window? Can’t you see we have a real window in this classroom?” It is said that Pestalozzi’s new system of pedagogy was inspired by this child.
Yes, the child was right. Why do you draw a picture of a window when you are in a room with many windows? Some of you may say that the Buddha exists everywhere, and yet in all honesty you do not see it clearly. So you ask continually, “What is Buddha?”‘ (Eloquent Silence)

What I think about when I am riding

After four months at my new address, I am still overestimating the times that my commutes take. I think the distance may be a tad longer, but in terms of my spatial sense of the city, the two locations both seem further away, so I allow more time. Getting to the jail it is not so easy to relax en route, but for the tech company, once I get to the traffic circle at the end of Division and check my watch, I always find that I have more than enough time to pedal softly along Townsend.
Even though there is a bike lane, there are always obstacles: every week there is someone double-parked in the bike lane across from the Adobe building; at Caltrain there are taxis and shuttles manoeuvring across the space, and people turning right onto Fourth St, which has been under construction for a long time. Elsewhere on that little stretch, I get to see other typical facets of the city – old industrial buildings being torn down or gutted; plots of land being flattened and redeveloped; the freeway overhead with lines of vehicles waiting to be disgorged onto the streets; a dairy transformed into a coffee shop.
As I noted in the previous post, I don’t seem to be in much of a hurry these days, and it is nice to slow down even more (even nicer to find that I can cover four or five blocks ambling along on a bike in the same time as someone in a high-end car who is acting impatient, revving and speeding and then getting stuck in a line of cars).
These days I find I gravitate towards streets with cycle lanes – not that it is a guarantee of safety, but because there is at least some sense of visibility and shared ownership; maybe I am getting tired of constantly having to assert my presence on the road after almost thirty years of urban riding. Even with the waves of riders around town in the spring weather, the sense of vulnerability does not diminish.
I have also recently been commuting to North Berkeley to work on a project I will doubtless say more about in the future, and the five minute ride from BART to the workplace consists of two designated ‘bicycle boulevards’, so apart from crossing a couple of busy streets, I get to ride down peaceful wide avenues, with so little traffic I don’t usually bother to put on my helmet, something I would not contemplate doing on this side of the bay.

Pema Chödrön

‘The hermit of Lotus Flower Peak held out his staff and said to his disciples, “When in olden times, an adept reached the state of enlightenment, why did they not remain there?” No-one could answer , and he replied for them, “Because it is of no use in the course of life.”‘ (Blue Cliff Record, case 25)

‘Even though peak experiences might show us the truth and inform us about why we are training, they are essentially no big deal. If we can’t integrate them into the ups and downs of our lives, if we cling to them, they will hinder us. We can trust our experiences as valid, but then we have to move on and learn to get along with our neighbors.’ (The Places That Scare You)

I doubt that Pema Chödrön had that koan in mind when she wrote that passage, but having picked up her book, and having looked at the koan this week ahead of Saturday’s workshop, I was struck by the similarity of the message.