What I think about when I am running

Not for the first time, heading out for a run in the city after running at Tassajara felt quite effortless. The first Christmas I came back from the monastery to San Francisco, after doing some runs in the mountains over the previous months that were too long and arduous ever to want to contemplate doing again, I ran down to Baker Beach from Zen Center, and having gone up the sand ladder, felt that I hadn’t had much of a challenge, so for the first and only time, ran over the Golden Gate Bridge and back before continuing home.
I am older and less ambitious these days, but having set out in the middle of a warm day on Monday – so as to have some time to recover before going over to the jail – over Liberty Hill, and then looping up and over Bernal Heights, the flat sections felt easy, and latter climb seemed rather like going up the road at Tassajara, and not particularly challenging. I have done that route once before, but on that occasion I turned straight back. This time I continued south to Holly Park, where a cooler wind was blowing up what I would call the Alemany corridor (I suspect it has another name), then across towards Glen Park, with its cute tiny cottages, to take on the Harry Street steps, just because. Though it is nominally only twelve blocks back home from there, each numbered block has a named street between it, and there are a couple of slopes in the way, the invisible-to-maps Duncan/Castro open space, and Liberty Hill again. I was feeling rather less perky by this time, though at least in this direction I got to go down rather than up the charming Billy Goat Hill, which we took in as part of the roam last Saturday, completely covered, as were some of the slopes of Glen Canyon, with white and lilac wild radish (helpfully identified for us by Loretta).

The weather turned much cooler during the week, with unusually strong winds persisting, so when I went out on Friday afternoon, there was quite a different feel. I took the tried and tested route up to Twin Peaks – most of which will feature in the next Roaming Zen. When I was up at the exposed top of the climbs, the wind was pushing me steadily from the side; for once there were no ravens to be seen. The swiftly passing clouds caused wonderful patterns of light and shade over the downtown area, far below.


Sharon Salzberg

‘It is only due to our concepts that we feel separate from the world. We are isolated by ideas of inadequacy, ideas of danger, ideas of loneliness, and ideas of rejection. While we may indeed face external difficulties, our thoughts can amplify them – or even create them, leading us deeper into delusion. If we do not want to be enslaved by our thoughts, we can choose to transform our minds. In any given moment, so I choose to strengthen the delusion of separation or the truth of connection?…
Fear is the primary mechanism sustaining the concept of the “other”, and reinforcing the subsequent loneliness and distance in our lives. Ranging from numbness to terror, fear constricts our hearts and binds us to false and misleading ways of viewing life. The fallacy of separate existence cloaks itself in the beguiling forms of our identifications: “This is who I am ,” or “This is all I can ever be.” We identify with  fragment of reality rather than the whole.’ (Lovingkindness)

This book has been a joy to read – not just because it gives me everything I need to know for the workshop on Sunday, but also because it just spells things out in such a clear manner. To be reminded how we can live is already to let go of some burdens of suffering and feeling separate, and to feel a lightness in the heart from the possibilities of being a true, kind human being.


Gyokko Sensei

‘Once I realized that the point is to be here, there is no reason to rush or be anxious. Ride the flow of nature. If you don’t do this, you suffer a great deal. With this, I saw how I didn’t have to suffer. It’s very difficult! The reasoning is not hard to understand, but to do it is difficult!
To accept everything is the final and highest form (sugata) of humanity. You complete life when you can do this. The image that guides me is of a woman simply bowing, hands together in prayerful gesture. She receives all without judging and without anguish. This is the image of Kannon [goddess of compassion]. Kannon’s heart accepts everything.’ (quoted in Paula Arai’s Bringing Zen Home)

What I think about when I am riding

Bacchanalia has never been my strong suit, and while people getting trollied (to use one of the less vulgar English euphemisms) can be entertaining, and give rise to some sympathetic joy (to get in a gratuitous brahmavihara), there is also a way that mass public drunkenness can be separating – between us and them, from both sides.
I have never taken part in Bay to Breakers, though I did consider it in my early years in the city, when it seemed that there were a few people interested in running it. Now, for me, it is just one of those events that cause havoc with traffic in the city.
Happily I was awake very early on Sunday, and got away before the roads were closed off, though probably half the people I saw on my way to the bridge were in costume and making their way to the start. There was also a small triathlon happening around Crissy Field, and I had to dodge a few people running along in wetsuits, on their way to the bike change-over at Sports Basement. They would not have looked out of place later on.
On the Marin side, everything was peaceful. I had seen fog out of my window before leaving, so had brought my wind jacket, but there was no need for it – temperatures were fine. I noticed that I was quite tired, perhaps from the Roaming Zen on top of all the other physical activity of the week, but I was also not in a hurry.
I wanted to try out the Fairfax – Bolinas road, which was still closed off past Azalea Hill. I half expected, from the signage, some complete blockage, or major repair, but there was nothing unusual except for an exposed bank where a tree had come down and ended up in Alpine Lake. While that might have made things a little narrow for two cars, frankly the road is in much worse shape on the first climb out of Fairfax, where the right side has been subsiding steadily for the last few years, and that is still open to traffic.
There was not a lot of power in my legs, no extra push for the last sections of the Alpine climb. I did have some encouraging company once I started up the seven sisters, a guy who was planning to go up to the summit. I struggled to keep up with him a few times, but dug in the best I could. I had taken a spin up to the top myself during the week, and been relatively happy with my form, at least towards the end when I could settle into a rhythm – just above the Pantoll I had looked down to check I was not accidentally in a higher gear than intended, so weary had I felt. On that day there had been sun and fog; at the summit, south of the Richmond Bridge only Mount Diablo had been visible, though if you looked closely enough, you could just make out the three topmost aerials of the Sutro Tower peaking through the fog- not the first time I have seen that phenomenon. On Sunday, once I got to look across on the way down from Rock Springs, I was happy to see it was clear all the way to the bottom, to use the zen phrase.
I was also happy that it was still early enough that most of the traffic was still going in the opposite direction, and that there were very few tourists on the bridge – perhaps they were all watching Bay to Breakers. I was getting increasingly tired, but there is always a bit of energy to get across the city – this time via the timed lights and kind slopes of Bush Street east of Laurel Hill, but by the time I got to Hayes, the party on the hill was still in full effect, people having covered about two miles in more than three hours… My party involved a hot bath, some coffee, and settling down to see how the last day of the English Premier League season unfolded; luckily, there was no sore head from that afterwards.

(If all of this is a mystery to you, take a look at some of the photos).

Paula Arai

Priest meetings have not been such a regular happening at City Center in the years since I was ordained, but they can be rewarding when they do happen.
Ahead of the priest meeting scheduled for last Friday, Daijaku had sent out some material for us to read about pastoral care; one of the pieces, more in the way of supporting material, was by Paula Arai, who I know has visited Zen Center a few times over the years, from her book Bringing Zen Home, based on studies of women in Japan.
I found the material fascinating, and will quote several pieces of it soon – not least because I have been looking for more material from women teachers – and even more if I am able to get my hands on the book itself.  To begin, some words around ritual, which articulate what I was not able to the other day when I was thinking about morning service at Tassajara:

‘Rituals shape, stretch, define and redefine the identity of those who perform them. As you engage in a ritual, your consciousness changes. The power of ritual, however, is not an ability to communicate conscious knowledge, but to frame experience in such a way that it may be apprehended meaningfully. Ritual can have the impact of lived experience because it is performed by the body. In this way, people can learn about what is important through experiencing “fresh” what those before have experienced. Real life is very messy and organic, while discourse about life tends to be tidy and linear. Ritual is found somewhere in between. Performing a ritual with a long tradition can make a person feel connected.’


As I mentioned yesterday, Blanche increasingly concentrated on lovingkindness in her last years, and at most of the Saturday lectures she gave, copies of the Lovingkindness Meditation, Zen Center’s lightly adapted translation of the Metta Sutta, were handed out for everyone to chant together. It was inspiring to witness, not just how much effort she put into being completely compassionate, but also to see that we can all keep learning and working on ourselves even into old age. I am very aware of my own shortcomings in this realm, and it has been my intention recently to work on improving my own capacity for compassion and lovingkindness. My sense of lack  does not stop me from teaching on the subject though, which I will be doing at Divinitree this coming Sunday, with Dawn Hayes. It would be delightful if any of my readers were able to make it.

ShundoPart4_8.5x11_PrintVersion copy.jpg


In one of my earliest posts on this blog, I talked about Blanche’s key role in my early years at Zen Center – these lessons will stay with me as long as I practise, and this is how a person lives on after their death. Since I was heading to Zen Center for a scheduled priest meeting on Friday afternoon, I went early to join others sitting with her body in the Buddha Hall for a while.
I don’t know that I have much more new to say; it was nice on Friday to go back to find a few posts I wrote in the Ino’s Blog where I featured Blanche, which I invite you to read, and even follow the links to her dharma talks (edited to add up-to-date links). I also delved into my photo archive to pull up a selection to offer to the web people at Zen Center, and a dharma friend who wanted a picture to put on her altar, so here are a few of the many pictures I have of her.

This is a scan of a film photograph, from my first weeks at Zen Center in 2000. Blanche and Lou in the courtyard, a personal favourite picture for many reasons.

Residents' Retreat Blanche copy
Blanche at a residents’ retreat at Green Gulch, enjoying herself along with everyone else.

Ren and Blanche 4 copy
There were always hugs. This is Ren’s shuso ceremony at Tassajara in 2007.

Jukai Blanche copy
Blanche as the lead preceptor at a jukai in 2010.

Pride - Blanche at the end copy
Blanche was outspokenly progressive in many areas, and made a point of supporting Pride, and Zen Center’s contribution to the parade.

Blanche seeing them off copy
Blanche in Lily Alley, seeing off a carload of monks heading down to start a practice period at Tassajara. This was part of her being the ‘grandmother’ of Zen Center, and she did it for as long as she was physically capable of it.

Mountain Seat - Blanche soji copy
Blanche on the morning of Christina’s Mountain Seat ceremony in 2012, making herself useful. During morning soji she would often have a dustpan and brush and be sweeping the stairs from the main hallway up to the kaisando.

Mountain Seat - current and former abbots copy
Later that same day, looking a little more formal.

Greens - Steve Blanche copy
At a Zen Center meeting at Greens. When I looked at pictures from that day recently, it was poignant to think that at the time, nobody would have thought that Steve would die before Blanche.

Fire ceremony Blanche copy
At the bonfire which marks the end of the New Year’s Eve celebration, after midnight.

Blanche New Year ceremony copy
She would also be present for the New Year morning procession. Here she offers words of encouragement in the kaisando.

Lucy shuso - photo Lucy Blanche copy 2
Her last visit to Tassajara, for Lucy’s shuso ceremony in 2014

Blanche lecture copy
Her last Saturday lecture (I think), March 2015. In her last years, she spoke almost exclusively about lovingkindness.

Blanche Age Song - Djinn's cold hnads
From my last visit to the care facility where she stayed before her death – she was frail, but still sharp and full of love.

Blanche tokudo copy
Looking positively regal at a tokudo ceremony.

Days at Tassajara

Any time I get to visit Tassajara is a good time. A few people on this trip asked me if I missed living there, and right now I don’t, but it is still a place where I feel more alive than I do just about anywhere else. I was reflecting this week on why that is, and I think a lot of it has to do with the way I feel radicalised by the landscape – never having lived anywhere else nearly so wild before – and how it enables a certain physical way of being that I relish, as yesterday’s post probably demonstrates.

I had forgotten how pervasive the flies are when it is still warming up at the beginning of the summer, especially the biting deer flies. But there are also the flowers, and the butterflies – I think I saw almost every variety of both that I could think of –  birds of all sizes, newts, the burgeoning greenness of spring that has not yet dried out, the returning vigour of the creek after some moribund drought years, and of course, any number of wonderful people. At night I fell asleep too early to go out and admire the radiant display of stars, but I slept so well in the deep darkness and silence that is unimaginable in the city.

It was lovely to get up in the fresh early morning and go to sit with everybody else. On my first morning, Greg came by after the jundo to offer me his kotsu, an invitation for me to be the doshi for morning service. Despite not having done this for six months, the movements were all in my body, and the chants still in my head. Having that position in the middle of the chanting assembly felt very powerful again; there is a particular kind of presence that I feel in that situation, face to face with the Buddha on the altar.

There were some clouds in the sky when I arrived, and that lends a softness to the light that was helpful for taking pictures, which is what I was down there to do. Even after all these years, and many thousands of photos, I was still able to find some new angles.

Flag Rock and the ridge above the Horse Pasture from up on the Tony Trail

Upper Tassajara Creek valley from the Tony Trail

The creek upstream from the waterfall

The creek towards the narrows

Larkspur by the bridge

Chinese houses

Baby blue eyes on the overlook trail

Aloe and yucca in the lower garden

Poppies by the stone office

Iris in the lower garden

Roses in the lower garden and Flag Rock

What I think about when I am running

The schedule at Tassajara can make it hard to get a run in at the right time. Last summer when I lived there, I managed to get out at 6am a few times, to get some miles in and be back and bathed in time for student breakfast at 7:30; otherwise, I usually waited until after I could get my bag lunch at 9:30, when it would already be warming up. If heat was not a factor, I would not normally choose to be out that early, and would aim for something after lunch.

This past week was not so hot, so leaving at 9:45 was manageable. There are a few routes you can take, and they all involve a lot of climbing. For me, the Horse Pasture is the default option, and that is what I did this week. Most often it involves, as does the run to the Wind Caves, heading up the road for more than a mile before the start of the trail, and my experience is that my body is usually protesting even before I have left the guest parking area. It is always just a case of keeping going, plugging away until I have found a good rhythm and my legs remember that they can do this. When I have been there for a while, and am in better shape, I tend to prefer starting along the creek and going up the cut-off trail, which is intensely steep, then running the main portion of the trail as far as the road, before turning around and doing the same in reverse.

In any case, once you get to the trail head on the road, most of the climbing is done, and then you can ease back and enjoy the rest. Like any run at Tassajara, you need to be constantly vigilant to see where your feet are landing – I have turned an ankle a couple of times over the years. Luckily my mental map of the trails includes the places where I most need to pay attention to poison oak. Over the years I have done the Horse Pasture so many times that I know almost every turn, though it was fascinating how that memory was undone by the change in landscape after the 2008 fire – particularly a section leading up to the cut-off, where the tree cover had burned and ground plants shot up as a consequence, which left me very confused in a couple of places.

There are other memories I have as well. The first time I ran the trail, in 2002, I went with Zenshin, a very keen and elegantly fast monk, who showed me the route; the next time, out for the first time by myself, I saw a bobcat in the beautiful oak meadow past the east side of the horse pasture, mostly just its tail sticking up as it bounded through the high grasses (I have referred to this spot as bobcat meadow ever since).

I was forcibly reminded of another notable encounter this time: coming down the switchbacks on the east side of the Flag Rock ridge, I pulled up very quickly hearing a rattle just ahead. Some years ago I had actually jumped over a rattlesnake which was lying across the trail at about the same location, with its head and tail both hidden, before it started shaking its rattle at me. As I happened to have my camera with me that time for some reason, I stopped at a safe distance to take pictures of it, and a short video of it slithering reluctantly away. The snake this time was mostly at the side of the trail, so I couldn’t see its full size, though it was definitely fully grown, and it was not in a hurry to go anywhere, continuing to rattle more than I am used to hearing; I guessed there might be a nest somewhere in the thick undergrowth. After a few minutes waiting for it to move along, I found a long stick and used that as to encourage the snake more out of the way, since there was not enough space to safely get around it. Eventually I figured it was far enough in the chaparral for me to skirt by, though it was also not so far from where the trail passed after the next switchback, as I could still hear it very clearly…

Even without that memorable adventure, there was so much to enjoy along the way – a huge profusion of wild flowers of many different varieties, the wonderful views of Junipero Serra and Piñon Peak off to the east, the last of the winter water courses still trickling down different gullies, the freshest of morning airs, and of course, the chance to jump into the tinglingly cold water at the narrows afterwards.

Angry rattlesnake 2 copy
This is the rattlesnake I met a few years ago on the Horse Pasture

Junipero Serra and Piñon Peak from Flag Rock Ridge

The surviving oaks in bobcat meadow

Horse Pasture Bobcat meadow copy
The same view a few weeks after the fire in 2008

It was nice to see so much water in the creek – this is the narrows.

Suzuki Roshi

‘Hui Neng, the Sixth Ancestor, said, “To dwell on emptiness and to keep a calm mind is not zazen.” He also said, “Just to sit in a cross-legged posture is not Zen.” At the same time, I always say to you , “Just sit.” If you don’t understand what our practice is and stick to the words, you will be confused, but if you understand what real Zen is, you will know that the Ancestor’s words are a kind of warning for us.
Now  our sesshin is almost at an end, and soon you will be going back to your homes and becoming involved in your everyday activity. If you have been practicing true zazen, you may be happy to go back to your everyday life. You may feel encouraged to go back, but if you feel hesitant to go back to your city life or everyday life, it means that you still stick to zazen. That is why the Sixth Ancestor said, “If you dwell on emptiness, and stick to your practice, then that is not true zazen.”
When you practice zazen, moment after moment, you accept what you have now, in this moment, and you are satisfied with everything you do. Because you accept it, you don’t have any complaints. That is zazen. Even if you cannot do that, you know what to do. Then sitting zazen will encourage you to do other things as well. Just as you accept your painful legs while sitting, you accept your everyday life, which may be more difficult than your zazen practice.’ (Not Always So)

This idea of the divide between formal practice and the ‘outside world’ is often expressed at Zen Center. I remember when I first went to Tassajara, a long-time resident who had recently left said on his next visit, ‘I realised it was okay to leave Tassajara when I was walking the streets of New York and it was still Tassajara.’ At the time I thought he was being a little pretentious, but now I can see where he was coming from. If you are going to cling to the idea of a ‘pure’ practice, as I certainly did for a time, you are not going to get vey far. Once you can let go of any notion of tension or division between different ways of being, then you will not, as Suzuki Roshi says, have any complaints.