Roaming Zen

‘Buddhism makes mind its foundation and no-gate its gate. Now, how do you pass through this no-gate?’ – Mumon

‘As you sit on the hillside, or lie prone under the trees of the forest, or sprawl wet-legged by a mountain stream, the great door, that does not look like a door, opens.’ – Stephen Graham, quoted in Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places.

Somewhat unwittingly, the first three Roaming Zen outings of the fall season all include the shoreline. On the 11th, a group of us went from the exposed cliffs of Land’s End along secluded – but popular – trails at the edge of the city, and down to Mile Rock Beach, where you would hardly know you were within the city limits. There is a timeless quality to sitting by the water’s edge; this picture from Shalamah evokes the scene from the roam very nicely.


This Saturday, the 24th, we will be further along the Golden Gate, taking in Aquatic Park and Russian Hill; a slightly more urban setting, but with just as many opportunities to find the door that is no-door. The weather is set clear for the week, so please join me if you can.
Here are some pictures from my reconnaissance walk the other day:

I would be very impressed if anyone could identify this staircase.

These two photos were taken from the same spot, one looking ahead, one turning to the left.

I did not know that there was a street of that name. It is only half a block long, mind.

What I think about when I am riding

Consecutive weekends filled with activities meant I had not done a really long ride for a while. I had run, and ridden a certain amount, but I had also been eating more heartily, hosting a lunch for some other people who have left Zen Center in the past year, going out to dinner several times last week; I don’t remember feeling hunger all week, and I felt sluggish. I am also looking at three weeks off the bike while I am in England; I will be taking my running shoes, and hope to get out in various locations while I am there, so my energy has been moving in that direction. The other day I realised that since I am renting a car for this visit – I usually do my traveling by train – I could head out while I am in Cornwall and attempt to run the cliffs west of Fowey, through Polridmouth and Gribbin Head. This is something I used to do on family holidays when I was a teenager, and I often refer to this as my favourite running experience – just me, the sky, the sea, and the narrow path up and down some very steep hills.

This picture from a few years ago shows the hills around Polridmouth Cove, with the path visible going up the field.

Last Saturday, then, I could have taken a long ride to make up for the recent lack, something to leave me tired through and through and to burn up that heavy energy. I chose instead to return to Mount Diablo for perhaps the last time this year, to get some strength in my legs, and to enjoy some late summer heat. I chose the South Gate route again, to give myself a break in the middle of the climbing.
It was already warm by the time I was on the mountain, and there is only shade in a few gullies, but I loved every minute of it: the flash of woodpecker red among the oaks, a baby snake basking on the tarmac, the parched California colours under a deep blue sky. As usual, the camaraderie of everyone riding up was an extra boost – there were people faster than me, people slower than me, older riders, younger riders, but a shared sense that everyone who makes it to the top has done an amazing thing. As I set off on the long descent, looking out at the towns and the bay far below, I had that familiar mountain-top feeling: did I really just do all that?
I could not help but think of running the Tassajara Road. There is a certain similarity – the climb is around three thousand feet in each case, but at Tassajara the gradient is probably twice as harsh. I was counting off sections after the junction of the north and south roads on Diablo, just as I have done on the road between the bathtub and Ashes Corner (I call those the three Ls and the two Bs from the shape of the road going out and up) – the difference being that after the bathtub most of the elevation has been gained, and I always had the sense that I had done the hardest work and would make it the rest of the way. On Diablo, the hardest sections are not far below the summit, three curving Bs after the Juniper camp, where it is always just a question of seeing what is left in the legs (not to mention the lung-busting last few hundred yards at eighteen percent).
So I did not wear myself out in the way I would have on a longer ride, but I went home happy in the sense of accomplishment, and glad of the exertion. If I get to do the cliff run, I will report back on how that felt.

One time in 2012 I ran up to the top of the Tassajara Road with my camera, and took pictures on the way down. This is above Ashes Corner, looking south over the wilderness.

This is closer to Tassajara, looking down the bends from Lime Point


A worn-out robe and five copper coins – a distinctly individual hospitality
It is hard to hastily explain to others the Master’s everyday mind
His body at ease like the drifting scraps of cloud reflected in the valley stream
His bright mind like the moon’s radiance illuminating the mountains
Horse barley is sufficient to sustain his life, a result of karmic conditions
Like a honey-bee among flowers he diligently busies himself entertaining his guests
He just clutches the bowl that he been passed down in unsullied purity through the generations
And having no bottom it swallows up all in the ten directions

(Tosui osho densan)

Chögyam Trungpa

‘In order to achieve silence you would not chase the birds away because they make a noise. In order to be still you would not stop the movement of air or the rushing river, but accept them and you will yourself be aware of the silence. Just accept them as part of the establishment of silence. So the mental aspect of the noise of birds affects the psychological aspect in you. In other words, the noise that birds make is one factor, and one’s psychological concept of noise is another. And when one can deal with that side, the noise of birds becomes merely audible silence.’ (Meditation in Action)

There are problematic aspects to Trungpa’s behaviours, by all accounts, and Suzuki Roshi was fond of him and found him a kindred teacher in the days when there weren’t so many around. For those who want to discard his teachings because of this, I would not argue with them, and I find some real wisdom in this book, which I recently picked up again for the first time in a few years. What I had not remembered is that it was published in 1969, a year before Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, and was thus one of the earliest books to talk about these matters.

Shohaku Okumura

‘Take, for example, how European people though that the sun, the moon, and the stars all moved around the earth, until the discoveries of Galileo proved otherwise. From a certain perspective, Galileo’s discoveries were indeed a great accomplishment, yet in reality, the earth has been orbiting the sun since its birth forty-six billion years ago, regardless of what Galileo or anyone else has ever said or thought; human thought has only existed a fraction as long as the earth and sun. Although we usually place great importance on what we think, our thinking cannot change the vast reality of all beings.’ (Realizing Genjokoan)


‘After great will, faith and determination are aroused, you should then constantly ask, “Who is the host of seeing and hearing?” Walking, standing, sitting, lying down, active or silent, whether in favorable or unfavorable circumstances, throw your mind into the question of what it is that sees everything here and now. What hears?’  (The Four Ways of Knowing)

The Essential Art of Zazen

Last night I went out to meet a friend for dinner so we could catch up with each others’ lives. She suggested a Thai restaurant that was convenient for both of us, and, as it happens, not too far from Zen Center. I first ate there in 1999, in the week I spent in San Francisco that changed the course of my life.
When I arrived, my friend was not there, but sitting by the door were Leslie and Keith from Tassajara, and Robert from City Center. I heard the latest fire news and other stories while I waited for my friend, and in return told them what I have been up to since I last saw them.
It is just about a year since I came back from my summer at Tassajara and began my process of transitioning out of Zen Center – and coming up for the first anniversary of this blog quite soon. What I am noticing at the moment is that the pendulum is starting to swing again.
Just about the first thing I did when I started my transition was to stop getting up every morning to sit in the zendo, as I had been doing almost constantly for fifteen years. Instead, I sat two or three times a week, and that has continued through much of this year. When I first moved out, I sometimes experimented with sitting in the way Dogen talks about for his monks who slept in the sodo:

‘Toward the end of the night… the assembly gets up gently, not rising precipitously. Do not still remain sleeping or lying down, which is rude to the assembly. Quietly take your pillow and place it in front of the cabinet, not making noise as you fold it. Be careful not to disturb the people on the neighboring tans.
Stat at your seat for a while, cover yourself with your quilt, and do zazen on your zafu. Strictly avoid shutting your eyes, which will bring forth drowsiness… Never forget that passing away occurs swiftly, and you have not yet clarified the conduct of the Way. Do not distract the assembly by stretching, yawning, sighing or fanning yourself. In general, always arouse respect for the assembly. Do not cover your head with your quilt. As you become aware of sleepiness, remove the quilt and with a buoyant body, do zazen.’ (Bendoho)

Right now I am feeling that I am not sitting as much as I need to. The old stories take hold in the body, and my recent sits have not been enough to shift that energy. This afternoon, sitting quietly on the BART on the way home did not allow for the upright posture that seems to stretch that stuckness and start to dissolve it from the front of the body. Perhaps, as the mornings stay darker longer, I will again try to rise quietly and sit upright, wrapped in my quilt to start the day.

Uchiyama Roshi

‘In our everyday life, when we want to talk about something, we freely talk about it. When we want to go somewhere, before long, we are on our way. No sooner do we intend to possess something than we find ourselves grabbing for it. Our hands, feet, and tongue work so freely that we have no doubt that our thoughts are the sole master of our body, and that these thoughts are the “I” itself. But, when we try to measure and manage everything through thought alone, we find that things do not work out so well and we suffer in the end. For example: I can enjoy a delicious feast placed in front of me as much as I like, but if I want to digest it quickly and smoothly, my stomach might not be able to…
When we consider these facts carefully, we come to understand that our thoughts are neither the masters of our bodies nor the “I” itself. It would be better to think of thoughts as secretions produced by our brains, just as salivary glands secrete saliva and the stomach secretes gastric juice. In any case, the sense of “I” which is produced by the thought is not the master of the individual.
If you realize that your activities are not based on though alone, you let go of thought. Strangely enough, whether you think about it or not, the heavy meal in your stomach gets digested completely. When sleeping, we continue breathing the necessary number of breaths per minute and the “I” continues to live. What on earth is this “I”? I can’t help but feel that this “I” is the self that is connected with the universe. In the spring, shoots come out of the ground. In the fall, leaves turn colors and drop from the trees. All these things are an expression of the life force of the true self.’ (The Zen Teaching of Homeless Kodo)

I have used Uchiyama Roshi’s observation of thoughts being merely the secretions of the mind on many occasions while teaching. I have found it a wonderfully concrete way to remind ourselves that we spend way too much energy and attention on them, and that there are other things we can listen to, in the body, through zazen especially.

Blanche Hartman

‘Life is too short to waste it on judging other people by whatever standards we may have. It’s actually not good to judge yourself in a disparaging way either. Just like loving-kindness begins with yourself, really being conscious of not disparaging begins with yourself. You can hardly be open and friendly and accepting of everybody else if you’re squashing yourself all the time. You can begin by not disparaging right here at home and let it spread out to include everyone.’ (Seeds for a Boundless Life)

In my little talk in Ventura, I read this quote, as I knew there were people listening who needed to hear it – and I find I need to remind myself of this pretty regularly. I can easily find words and thoughts to put myself down when I don’t get things right, though they don’t stick as much as they used to. Knowing Blanche, and how she always strove to uphold her own high standards, I imagine she was reminding herself of this as well.

Sunday Poem

Bamboo shadows sweep the stairs,
Yet not a mote of dust is stirred;
Moonbeams pierce to the bottom of the pool,
Yet in the water not a trace remains.

(Quoted in The Zen Koan)