Breathing in, I wash the dishes,
Aware of their usefulness in holding
Nourishing meals that have sustained my family for many years.
I wonder why it is always, always me doing the dishes
And whether, interconnected as all human beings are,
This may be the one exception.
Breathing out, I release my feelings into the universe, ever hopeful that someone, somewhere,
Will sense my need,
And offer to help.
I open my heart to the possibility of this miracle.
This, and other similar gathas by Jenny Allen, were in a recent New Yorker.
There are many gathas available for daily activity at Zen Center; I tended to use the one for bathing more than most, with the head-shaving one also prominent in my post-ordination years.
‘The secret doctrine nonsense: it’s secret because no one understands it. When they think they do, that’s when things really go awry. In reality, nothing is hidden. The whole point is that it’s there always. but we have to uncover the wisdom that is.’
This is quoted in Radical Dharma, and obviously comes from the Tibetan school, but these are things that Dogen also said, especially ‘nothing is hidden.’ All dharma teachers point you at the same reality. Can you see it?
I am regularly asked what drew me into zen practice, and a part of my usual reply is that reading Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind opened up a whole new way of relating to the world. If I expand on this point, it is usually to say that I was never very interested in how western philosophy looks at the human experience. A recent article in the New Yorker demonstrated this point admirably – at least to my way of looking. While there are many insights offered by this tremendously intelligent and accomplished woman, I came away feeling that they are fragmented, not looking at the whole scope of human life, and that, as usual, the thinking mind is expected to do all the heavy lifting, and to maintain control of all experiences. It has been a continual relief to me that meditation takes away this burden and allows me to feel alive in my mind and body in a wholly different way.
‘To my surprise, a number of people here have said, “I know about you. I’ve heard about you.” So do you have an image? Knowing about Toni, having an idea about her, maybe you’ve read a little booklet, heard stories, and now you have an idea of what she is or propagates. And does one have an image on oneself, of the group or tradition one belongs to? Is there the ever-readiness of the mind to compare what is being said to what one already knows? Then one is not listening. One is comparing, and what is actually said flows by unheard.
So, at least for the short duration of this talk, is it possible to suspend what one knows, to suspend comparison? Can one just be open, completely open, not knowing how one will react, just receiving? If one has an image of oneself, or of this person who is sitting here, pure listening is impeded or distorted. Once reads into it or subtracts from it, or one will not want to listen to some things as all. It may be too painful or too threatening.’ (The Work of this Moment)
Toni Packer, like Adyashanti, is someone who trained in zen, but then set aside the formal elements of the practice to focus on what made most sense for her wisdom. I read this book many years ago, and it always bears picking up again. Reading it alongside yesterday’s post, I see no difference in understanding.
‘When thoughts, judgments, or evaluations arise in zazen and we engage with them, there is separation between subject and object. When we let go of thought, subject and object are one; there is no one to evaluate and nothing to receive evaluation. At that time only manifesting reality exists, and manifesting reality includes our delusions. When we sit in the upright posture, keeping the eyes open, breathing through the nose, and letting go of thoughts, reality manifests itself. This is genjokoan (actualization of reality).
In our daily lives, however, we cannot simply keep letting go of thought in this way. In order to live we must make choices using our incomplete conceptual maps of the world, and to make choices we must distinguish positive from negative. Yet the practice of zazen can help us understand that our pictures of the world our incomplete, and this understanding allows us to be flexible. Being flexible means that we can listen to others’ opinions knowing that their biases are simply different from ours, according to the circumstances and conditions of their individual lives. When we practice in this way our view broadens and we become better at working in harmony with others. By continually studying the nature of reality, of the Dharma in its universal sense, and by awakening to our biases, we keep working to correct our distorted views. This is how letting go of thought in zazen informs practice in our daily lives.’ (Realizing Genjokoan)
About a month ago I felt like I had hit the sweet spot. After many months of trying to get to the place I consider my peak form, which I last experienced before I went to Tassajara last summer, it seemed like I was there. A couple of ascents of Tam in the warm weather we were having, and I felt strong enough to try the harder challenge of Mount Diablo.
There are two ways up Diablo – the north gate road and the south gate road. They both have their appeal, so I try to alternate, and I started with the south gate. It is steeper for the first few miles, but spectacular as you climb along the side of a deep valley, then it flattens off around Rock City, and then you have to pick up your rhythm for the last few miles.
Over the years I have realised that nothing really counts until you get to the junction of the two roads, about four miles below the summit. Then the road continues pretty steadily upwards, with a hard steeper section just below the corner where the view across towards Tam starts to include the city as well, at Junipero camp. Then, more relentless slopes, and a question of how much is left in the legs. On that first climb a few weeks ago, I had felt very strong to that point, and caught up with someone I had been closing slowly in on for a few miles. I regretted the extra effort that the catch took, though. It was really hard to keep my rhythm after that, and though he and I chatted for a while, he was still stronger and rode away over the last mile.
This past weekend I returned, worried that having skipped a good ride the previous weekend from being at Wilbur, my form might have tailed off from that high point. These peaks are always temporary, but I like to enjoy them when they do happen.
Climbing on the north road is much steadier, and though I didn’t feel so great at the end of the long arroyo valley and turning left onto the real slopes at the state park boundary, I know the climb well enough to pace myself over the harder sections – going up to the 1000′ elevation marker, before and after the series of switchbacks that unspool above the ranch house. My legs felt okay, so I was determined not to push too hard before the final couple of miles. It was also pretty warm; I was glad that I am now free to go out on Saturday mornings, when the BART runs much earlier than it does on Sunday, allowing me to be on the mountain before it really heats up.
There were fewer riders this time; the guy I had ridden with, and a few others at the top the previous time, had been talking about the Death Ride, which was the following weekend; I imagine a lot of them were fine-tuning their climbing form for that event. Few cars too, which made for very quiet moments on the upper slopes. One veered across the road near me to avoid a rattlesnake that was basking on the tarmac. Little by little I pushed up to the summit, and then cruised all the way back down on the south road, savouring the views.
Every time I go to Diablo I come away with a nagging feeling that I have not really seen the mountain. Even with the intimacy of the slow climb, seeing every fold, every hillock of golden grass, all the stately oaks, I don’t feel like I completely enter it – it always seems to come and go in a flash. I don’t feel that when I am on Tam, even though I am on a similarly small slice of the mountain spread; it is as if the magic of the mountain is speaking to me, but slightly out of reach.
I have only been up Diablo in a car once. This is coming up to the 1000′ elevation marker.
Diablo is often visible from a plane coming and going along the bay.
‘Sometimes the wall we face is a bare white wall, where we are looking at nothing. This wall is called a wall. At other times we turn around and face another kind of wall, where we are looking at everything. This wall is called the world. There always seems to be a wall of some kind or other in front of us; the question is whether or not we can face it.
Whatever the scenery, our practice is the same. Our practice is to face 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.’
In the somnolent midday heat
Tirelessly the creek still runs
The breeze still plays in the trees
‘Our great masters of olden times have described the experience [of kensho] in various ways. One master said that kensho just like coming back to life again after having lost your hold on the edge of a precipice and fallen to your death. Another master has said that kensho is the moment when you die the Great Death. And another has spoken of it as the state in which Great Life clearly manifests itself.
Though there are many ways of describing this state of seeing into one’s own nature, all are merely something our old masters have said about it. The actual experience of true kensho can be attained only by yourself through your own self-awakening in your own body. There is no other way. In order to reach this state of seeing into our own nature, we Zen monks labor diligently and painstakingly day and night. A Zen monk without kensho is not worth a penny’ (The Zen Koan)
This book is fifty years old; I picked it up sometime at one of Zen Center’s book sales, and have looked at it once or twice. Ahead of my classes in August at City Center, I picked it up again, and read the bulk of it while I was at Wilbur. I appreciate that he refers to the body rather than the mind.
‘In general, when you are a beginner you cannot fathom the buddha way. Your assumptions do not hit the mark. The fact that you cannot fathom the buddha way as a beginner does not mean that you lack ultimate understanding, but it does mean that you do not recognize the deepest point.
Endeavor wholeheartedly to follow the path of earlier sages. You may have to climb mountains and cross oceans when you look for a teacher to inquire about the way. Look for a teacher and search for understanding with all-encompassing effort, as if you were coming down from heaven or emerging from the ground. When you encounter a true teacher, you invoke sentient beings as well as insentient beings. You hear with the body, you hear with the mind.’ (Shobogenzo Keisei Sanshiki – Valley Sounds, Mountain Colours)