A New Place To Sit

The first time I went to Ventura was about eighteen months ago. My friends Thomas and Leslie had started a sitting group at a local mattress-factory-turned-arts-centre, and asked if I would come and perform an opening ceremony. It was a lovely weekend, and they were very generous hosts. Since then they have moved house, and converted a part of their garage into a small zendo, so they invited me back to do it all over again and I was very happy to accept.
Last year I rented a car and drove down the inland route – not least because I was curious to see the southern half of the Los Padres National Forest (Tassajara lies in the northern section). It was a long drive, but very rewarding, especially the last stretch crossing the mountains from the Cuyama Valley towards Ojai.
This time I went by plane. Once I was done with transit to SFO, and through the security lines at the domestic terminal, it became a very relaxing experience. I haven’t taken such a short flight in a while (I remember hopping over the sea from Dublin to Bristol on one visit back home a few years ago), and Santa Barbara airport was small enough to be completely stress-free in both directions. I had the thought, as I did the one time my brother got me a first-class seat across the Atlantic with his air miles, that flying should always be like this.

On Saturday we got to participate in another short morning of sitting, with Kevin at the Vietnamese mission across town, housed in a sweet old church, with the original stained glass offering a contrast to the various statues and instruments more familiar in a zen temple setting. I was struck by the novelty, for me, of sitting in such a location, and in the discussion afterwards, spoke of how our zazen is informed by our surroundings, and also goes beyond them.

Being in the body was a theme for me over the weekend: after getting to relax with the flight, and the warm weather further south, I unwound further in Leslie and Thomas’ cosy back yard, surrounding by a handful of mostly friendly cats and a couple of lovable dogs. It has been a long time since I was in the company of animals to that extent. They appreciated kindness and expected only food. Speaking in the zendo on Sunday I wondered aloud why we think humans are any different.
Walking around the town and elsewhere over the weekend, as well as repeating a run I had done last time, I was noticing how much my body remembered the sensations of having been there before. Wearing robes, which I don’t do so often these days, was also a physical experience for me, noticing how I carry myself when fully dressed up, with bessu on my feet and carrying a kotsu.

We talked, as I often do these days, about how rationality tends to take up most of our attention, to the detriment of other ways of receiving and perceiving the world. It was interesting, then to read this in the New York Times on my return to the city after another painless flying experience. My abiding sense of well-being after the weekend had very little to do with the rational realm, and much to do with the kindness and generosity of my hosts, and the sweet sense of community we generated on Sunday.

Leslie took this picture of their zendo while I was giving my little dharma talk after the opening ceremony.

Most of the group after the sitting, with the new han built by Alan, who is not in this picture.


‘Once someone asked: “Suppose a student, hearing it taught that he himself is the Buddhadharma and that one must not seek it outside, should acquire great faith in these words, abandon the practice, study under a teacher that had occupied him until then, and spend his life doing both good and bad in accordance with his own inclinations. What would you think of this?”
Dogen instructed: “This view fails to match the words with their meaning. To say, ‘Do not seek the Buddhadharma outside,’ and then to cast aside practice and study, implies that one is seeking by the very act of casting aside. This is not true to the fact that practice and study are both inherently the Buddhadharma. If, without seeking anything, you detach yourself from worldly affairs and evil actions, even though they may attract you; if, even though you may not feel like practice and study , you carry it out anyway; if you practice wholeheartedly with this attitude and still gain the good rewards – then the very fact that you have practiced seeking nothing for yourself accords with the principle of ‘not seeking the Buddhadharma on the outside.’
“When Nan-yueh made his remark about no trying to polish a piece of tile to make a mirror, he was warning his disciple Ma-tsu against striving to become a Buddha by practising zazen. He was not trying to proscribe zazen itself. Zazen is the practice of the Buddha. Zazen is the ultimate practice. This is indeed the True Self. The Buddhadharma is not to be sought outside of this.”‘ (Shobogenzo Zuimonki)

Shundo Aoyama

‘In Japan, when we talk about cherry-blossom viewing, cherry blossoms must be in full bloom; if we talk about moon-viewing, it is understood that the moon has to be full. But it is possible to enjoy buds before they open, or to enjoy the scene of the petals floating to the ground in the wind or, even more so, to savor the bare trees in winter, bereft of leaves. Rather than a bright moon in a cloudless clear night sky, what about a moon adorned with clouds; how about the enjoyment of a crescent moon rather than a full moon, or anticipation of a moon not yet risen, or the charming thought of a moon that has just set? All things are in a state of constant flux. Our attitude toward viewing cherry blossoms or the moon reflects the enjoyment and savoring of all the vicissitudes of life just as they are.’ (Zen Seeds)

Darlene Cohen

‘We’ve all been conditioned since childhood to focus on getting things as an indication of achievement, be it material like a new car, or intangible like a promotion. We experience this striving in endless subtle forms all the time. We cook our food in order to have dinner. We wash our clothes in order to have clean clothes. We go to work to make money in order to eat, to have shelter, to buy things we desire. We get on the bus in order to go someplace, and o on. Much of our activity is to produce a desired result. This makes a lot of sense. It’s common sense. The trouble with thinking this way, though, is that it tends to focus us on the outcome rather then on the effort of our activity itself. We barely notice the cooking, the cleaning, the  bus ride, the working, except that it takes time away from what we think we really want to do. And after so many years of looking ahead to the results of our doing rather than focusing on the doing itself, we don’t even notice the taste of the food, the smell of the clean clothes, the moment we leap off the bus at our destination (“Wow! I’m here!”), the brief but hallowed moment of receiving our paycheck. We’re trained now to focus ahead – to the next paycheck perhaps. This one’s already spent and therefore no fun. We miss whatever’s in front of us.’ (The One Who is not Busy)

Roaming Zen

The seasons have turned in San Francisco. Last week the skies cleared; grey mornings were replaced by high clouds, and we had a couple of spectacular sunsets. September is a month I have always enjoyed, a time of shifting, where new years begin.

This week sees the return of Roaming Zen for a second season. It will be shorter than the first season, as I don’t intend to continue into the rainy months any more than I wanted to hike through the fog; I hope the five weekends I have scheduled will bring memorable views and moments of quiet clarity in different parts of the city.

We will start on Sunday 11th, meeting at the Land’s End Visitor Center on Point Lobos Avenue, between 48th Ave and the Cliff House, at 1:30pm, to explore the ups and downs of Land’s End, from the baths to the heights, and the route of the old narrow gauge railway.

As always, you can book through Eventbrite, or just show up and pay me ‘on the door’.

Here’s to another season where we wander and wonder.

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Suzuki Roshi

‘Rinzai, an early Chinese Zen master, analyzed how to teach his disciples in four ways. Sometimes he talked about the disciple himself; sometimes he talked about the teaching itself; sometimes he gave an interpretation of the disciple or the teaching; and finally, sometimes he did not give any instruction at all to his disciples. He knew that even without being given any instruction, a student is a student. Strictly speaking, there is no need to teach the student, because the student himself is Buddha, even though he may not be aware of it. An even though he is aware of his true nature, if he is attached to this awareness, that is already wrong. When he is not aware of it, he has everything, but when he becomes aware of it he thinks that what he is aware of is himself, which is a big mistake.’ (Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind)

I remember a shuso at Tassajara saying, years ago, ‘You are so much bigger than your ideas about yourself,’ which took me a long time to parse correctly, but which now seems to align exactly with what Suzuki Roshi is saying here.


The Great Way is gateless,
Approached in a thousand ways.
Once past this checkpoint
You stride through the universe.

The true imperative

Another Sawaki Roshi quote I have been carrying around with me for the last few months, but not bringing to a teaching situation, goes like this:

‘People often say, “In my opinion…” Anyhow, “my opinion” is no good – so keep your mouth shut!’ (The Zen Teaching of Homeless Kodo)

It does not seem so kind to offer this to others, but I realise I can reflect on it for myself. I have a dozen or so unfinished drafts for this blog, usually full of my opinions. I have published quite a few more over the last year, with the hope that the leavening of practice makes them somewhat useful. Back last summer at Tassajara when I was starting to think of producing this blog, I noted a few ideas to pursue, one of which was notions of success.
Recently on Medium I came across a very popular piece with fifty pieces of advice for people to adopt in order to be successful, healthy and happy (I think it was in that order). It seemed that it would make the good basis for an article about the criteria for success, and I had some ideas floating around in my head this week. But I have not written it, and perhaps I won’t.
Instead, a poem, which Myogen Steve Stücky wrote on my shuso rakusu at the end of the practice period at Tassajara in 2012, which I have since discovered comes from the second case of the Book of Serenity, to accompany the story of Bodhidharma meeting Emperor Wu.

Empty – nothing holy – approach far off.
Success – swinging axe spares the nose.
Fail – dropping pitcher – no looking back.
Still and silent, cool Shaolin zazen.
Brings up the true imperative. – Tiantong Hongzhi


Sawaki Roshi

‘I can’t help a human being who is not able to live without money.’ (The Zen Teaching of Homeless Kodo)

Sawaki Roshi is quite popular among some Tassajara monks, probably for his iconoclastic approach, which was very much against the grain of the twentieth-century Japanese zen establishment. Sometimes it feels like he is just being provocative, but it is coming from a place of deep practice, most of which was carried out in complete renunciation. In that sense, he made a great successor to teachers of former times like Tosui.

Michael Stone

‘What constitutes our image of ourselves is a subjective story that we construct over the course of our lives, and others help us create it as well. A subject only remains a subject because the person constantly rearticulates himself or herself. We can all feel what it’s like to rehash old stories of ourselves and others that are stale. And yet we continue to do so through a kind of addiction to gluing and lacquering old stories, as we paste ourselves together moment to moment, like some kind of collage. Societies and nations do this as well, through creating identity and enemies. After a time, it becomes hard to shift the groove of these stories. The coherence of a story depends on repetition. What is so powerful about attentiveness as a practice is that it disrupts these habitual stories so we can enter our lives more fully. According to both the Yoga and the Buddhist traditions, many of these stories are rooted in fear, which is itself rooted in the three poisons: greed, anger and confusion.’ (Awake in the World)