Kobun Chino

‘What kind of breathing you do while you sit is an important issue: how the inside of your mouth, your tongue, your teeth should be. You should keep no air in your mouth. It sounds strange to say this, but can you do it? When you tighten the upper and lower rows of your teeth, using your jaw muscles, the teeth firmly touch and press each other. Your alertness gets very strong. But don’t force the jaw muscles as some students do. Let your tongue touch the upper dome of your mouth. Let your breath go through your nose and straight to your lungs. This helps especially when you become drowsy. Naturally, saliva comes into your mouth, but you shouldn’t swallow it all at once. Little by little you should let it go down without noticing it. If you notice it, it comes more and more and you have a problem. Saliva is very important.
If you really sense the texture of the inhalation, when the air comes in and how you feel when the air goes out, you will have a different feeling. If you just count the breath, you miss it all. That’s too bad. This is a very important moment you are living. There really is no time to count.
Counting is a skill you use to quiet a restless mind, a fast mind, or a cluttered mind. It’s very helpful to finish up your breath just before you move into the zendo. “Finish up” means to take your finest breath for sitting instead of crashing into the room and starting to sit and beginning work on your breath. That’s too late.’

I never met Kobun, who died just after I started practising, but his name circulated a lot at Zen Center, and I knew people who had been very attached to him. There is a great collection of his words on the Jikoji website.

Ta Hui

‘This affair is like the bright sun in the blue sky, shining clearly, changeless and motionless, without diminishing or increasing. It shines everywhere in the daily activities of everyone, appearing in everything. Though you try to grasp it, you cannot get it; though you try to abandon it, it always remains. It is vast and unobstructed, utterly empty. Like a gourd floating on water, it cannot be reined in or held down. Since ancient times, when good people of the Path have attained they’ve appeared and disappeared in the sea of birth and death, able to use it fully.’ (Swampland Flowers)


As with other personal posts, this one has a long and slow genesis, and a hesitation before I try to commit words onto the screen. I think it started a couple of months ago reading a very successful, middle-aged, middle-class, straight, white novelist in England expressing his disdain for the idea of safe spaces in college, on the grounds that people need to be exposed to all kinds of different opinions in order to thrive in this challenging world. The question arose for me, reading that, “When did you ever not feel safe, that you can make such a pronouncement?”
I am not a successful novelist, but I meet the other criteria of privilege listed above. When have I ever not felt safe? I can think of a couple of occasions in my youth when I was suddenly surrounded by groups of men who needed someone to punch, and I got punched. If you read this blog regularly, you will know that I feel unsafe as a cyclist on a regular basis, occasionally as a pedestrian too, when the power dynamics with car drivers are firmly against me, and I know that I easily lash out with anger when things happen that make me feel afraid.
Beyond that, I can generally pass through my corners of the world not feeling threatened. So it is not my place to tell other people whether their feelings around safety are justified or not (a reminder of this amazing article). It is my job to listen and try to understand how people feel who do not have this ease of passing, for whatever reason.
Since the election, I have read any number of reaction pieces from all corners of the country and abroad. Some of them have stuck with me, and some of them are going to shape how I respond moving forward in these difficult times.

Just the other day, I received an email from Soren of Wisdom 2.0, which acts as a good starting point:
‘It seems to be an appropriate time to explore what it means to truly listen. Here are some suggestions:
In challenging conversations, can we pause, become curious,and ask questions?
Can we wait until someone is finished speaking before we share our thoughts?
Can we as Lao-Tzu suggested, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood”?
Can we take the time to see from another’s viewpoint, as if we are in their shoes? This does not mean we give in or do not share our views, only that we lead with curiosity.
Thich Nhat Hanh says this about the practice: “Deep listening is the kind of listening that can help relieve the suffering of another person. You can call it compassionate listening. You listen with only one purpose: to help him or her to empty his heart.”‘

Here are some people whose views I have enjoyed listening to,and I hope you can take the time to hear what they have to say:
Ijeoma Oluo writes fiercely on many sites, and The Establishment is a place I go to hear views I do not encounter on many other sites (if you know some, please feel free to suggest them).
This piece by Julia Serrano is long, but it spells out in compelling ways how we can move beyond some of the toxic levels of discourse that are so prevalent right now.
Pablo Das writes movingly on Lion’s Roar about wishing to feeling safe within Buddhist communities; his line ‘non-reactivity simply creates the conditions for a wise response’ perfectly encapsulates what I have been trying to articulate recently.
This piece by Briana L Urena-Ravelo was written before the election; in my initial draft for these ideas, I thought of this as the anger translator for whatever I might manage to say.


Once I passed through the cloud barrier
South, north, east, west, the living road was clear.
Lodging by night, traveling by day, neither guest nor host,
My feet arouse a pure breeze underfoot.

Suzuki Roshi 

‘We should not cling to the idea of darkness or light; we should not cling to the idea of equality or differentiation. Most people, once they have a grudge against someone, find it almost impossible to change their feeling. But if we are Buddhists we should be able to shift our minds from bad to good and from good to bad. If you are able to do so, “bad” does not mean bad, and “good” does not mean good anymore. But at the same time, good is good and bad is bad. Do you understand?’ (Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness)

The key word here is ‘cling’, as it usually is. Unless it is ‘grasp’, or sometimes, ‘dwell’. Do you understand?


‘Long ago a monk asked a master, “When hundreds, thousands, or myriads of objects come all at once, what should be done?” The master replied, “Don’t try to control them.” What he means is that in whatever way objects come, do not try to change them. Whatever comes is the buddha dharma, not objects at all. Do not understand the master’s reply as merely a brilliant admonition, but realize that it is the truth. Even if you try to control what comes, it cannot be controlled.’ (Shobogenzo Yuibutsu Yobutsu)

I was drawn to this quote while I was writing my post-election pieces; it is a koan that I often refer to, as I see how much people’s desire to control externals causes suffering. Instead, I counsel equanimity. In the end, I shelved the quote and thought I should try to identify the collection it came from – which was hard to do in the continued absence of my laptop, which has all my notes from my koan class this summer (now I have got it up and running again, I can say that it was Isan, quoted in the Shinji Shobogenzo – 1, 14).

As it happened, at a recent priest meeting at Zen Center, Steve Weintraub, who was presenting on the difference between practice discussion and psychotherapy, mentioned it. The context made it even more interesting: he was underlining how psychotherapy holds that we are operating with an unconscious mind as well as the conscious, something which was beyond the realm of the zen traditional understanding. As I was listening, I started to muse whether what is commonly referred to as the inconceivable or the formless was the zen way of signaling the unconscious.

Avatamsaka Sutra

‘If you make sentient beings happy, you make all Buddhas happy. Why? Because the heart of great compassion is the substance of the Buddhas. Therefore they develop great compassion on account of sentient beings, develop the will for enlightenment based on great compassion, and attain true awakening on the basis of the will for enlightenment. It is like a giant tree in a desert; if the roots find water, then the branches, leaves, flowers, and fruits all flourish. The giant tree of enlightenment in the desert of birth and death is also like this. All living beings are the root of the tree; the Buddha and bodhisattvas are the flowers. Benefit living beings with the water of great compassion and you can obtain the flowers and fruits of knowledge and wisdom of Buddhas and bodhisattvas.’

Again, echoes of another recent post, this time the one by master Sheng Yen.

Going Beyond

‘A monk said to Tozan,”Cold and heat descend upon us. How can we avoid them?” Tozan said, “Why don’t you go where there is no cold or heat?” The monk said, “Where is the place where there is no cold or heat?” Tozan said, “When cold, let the cold kill you; when hot, let the hot kill you.”‘ (Blue Cliff Record, case 43)

There are many different ways I can tell my life story, but in most of them, the fact that I found English winters increasingly hard to handle would be an important element. The extended trip that I took which brought me out to San Francisco for the first time, in November 1999, on my way to Australia and then South Africa, was the latest in a string of winter vacations that I started taking as soon as I earned enough money to do so. That particular trip changed the course of my life, and I am happy to be typing this on a warm, sunny and bright day in the same city, seventeen years later.

I sometimes wonder about how the family history I am best acquainted with might play a part in this. Among my father’s Cornish forebears, there were at least two generations when only one of the many children lived long enough to reproduce,  the rest succumbing largely to consumption, and my great-great-grandfather probably owed his life to the fact that he spent several years in Australia as a young man, in a drier and warmer climate than his native one.  On my recent visit home, even though the weather was kind, I had the sense of people preparing to close down and go inward for the long grey months ahead, and was glad not to be having to endure that. On my last mornings, I was already starting to feel the cold, as I started to last week here in California; my step-mother drily recommended that I get out and move around more.

The most extreme climate I have lived in is unquestionably Tassajara; the hottest day I can recall topped out at 112, a notch warmer than the indoor plunge at the bath-house, and there were spells where it was below 20 for several consecutive mornings. Often, inside the many unheated cabins, it would be below freezing, though the worst experience for me was at the beginning of my first winter, where we had a cold snap, but the zendo heating was not functioning. I wore eight layers of clothes to sit through the mornings, and feared that it would be the same for the next five months, which happily turned out not to be true. Conversely, the hardest part of being there in the summer last year was being obliged to wear my four layers of priest robes in the evening, when the temperature in the zendo would be in the 90s; any other time, the dry heat functioned as a deep relaxation for me, which I can perhaps best explain by the fact that such heat is associated in my mind with being abroad.

All of which makes the above koan an interesting  one for me to sit with. I have a sense, through zazen, of the place beyond hot and cold, which is also the place beyond good and bad, beyond self and other, but I certainly don’t live there.

Chögyam Trungpa

‘The point of realization is not to try to understand only the awakened state and pretend not to understand the other side, because that becomes a way of cheating yourself.’ (Meditation in Action)

Walking Like Lions

From time to time, Zen Center hosts venerable dignitaries from the Japanese zen establishment, and if the timing works out, they will be invited to give a talk. Usually they are quite formal and straightforward, expounding on the forms and merits of zazen, so when I saw that a rinzai teacher was scheduled to speak last Saturday, I felt I should go along, without having too many expectations.

In the event, the reverend Masaki Matsubara made quite an impression. He was much younger than I was expecting, for one thing, and also based locally, although he travels back to Japan frequently. He had the typical Japanese priestly sartorial elegance, though, with a splendid okesa, white kimono and bessu, a large mala wrapped around his arm, and a fan that ended up tucked into his sleeve. 

Sheets of paper had been handed out to the assembly with a couple of zen stories I knew, and some passages from Hakuin that I did not. As the reverend developed his theme, it was clear how he was using the Hakuin, bringing out the old master’s voice of dissent, as he put it, and reclaiming his radical tendencies, by extensively quoting from letters criticising the local nobility of that era for their waste of resources and lack of care for their fellow humans.

What would Hakuin do today, he asked, in a zen version of the Christian trope. We heard of the fundamental point of zazen, to be awake and compassionate, of not neglecting that zazen is a practice of self care, as well as something that allows us to develop and understand our moral imperative. In this way, he concluded, we can stand our ground, and when needed, walk like lions, to address the current injustices in the world.

If you have the time, I recommend that you watch the livestream recording, though it seems to cut off a few moments before the end, and if you do, I hope you find it as rousing and inspirational as I did on Saturday.