At Year’s End

I tend to keep a lot of notebooks where I scribble down thoughts, ideas and quotes that resonate – though these days I am equally likely to do that on Apple Notes, especially on my commute, where I jot down page numbers from the book I am reading, as part of my practice to find material for this blog.

Recently I unearthed a little notebook from ten years ago, about the time I was back at Tassajara after a painful couple of years of upheaval and uncertainty, during which one of things I cleaved most closely to was my intention to ordain as a priest. I had received permission to sew my okesa, and was investigating what that meant for my life. I had a notion that it made most sense to continue monastic practice at Tassajara, which was not easy to do given what was going on in my life at the time – hence the pain and upheaval. Some of the pages are filled with notes from talking with Norman Fischer and reading articles by Mel Weitsman, as well as more traditional zen sources. I was amused to read a little aside under the title ‘priest – monk’: ‘giving up the world – helping the world. How can I embody the practice in the outside world?’

Fast forward ten years, and here I am, still trying to see how that works. Almost exactly a year after leaving the temple and settling in the marketplace, I notice how my preoccupations of those first few weeks (then, as now, a time of rain, and feeling that things were on hold for the duration of the holidays) have resurfaced: Am I going to be able to pay my rent? What does my practice look like? The rent issue has been particularly pressing this past month or so, and I watched myself move from anxiety to acceptance, with a trust that it would somehow work out (I think it more or less will for January). I know that I will be doing more work at Zen Center next year than I did this, having made an effort to establish some independence, and there are other ideas in the pipeline. Alongside Roaming Zen, my dharma brother Zachary and I are plotting to launch Sidewalk Zen (unless we decide to change the name soon), which will be just what it says on the tin, a chance to do zazen out in the city – we have been chewing over the idea of a pop-up zendo truck, and then I saw that perhaps the truck was not necessary.

Another dharma brother has been wrestling with the idea of giving up his livelihood and spending time at Tassajara. I encouraged him to read some Dogen, with this kind of passage in mind, and I have been holding these notions close as well as I move forward:

‘When one thinks about it, everyone has their allotted share of food and clothing while they are alive. It does not come from thinking about it; nor does one fail to get it because one does not seek for it. Laypeople leave such matters to fate, while they concern themselves with loyalty and develop their filial piety. How much less then should monks be governed by worldly concerns! Sakyamuni left the remaining portion of his life to his descendants, and the many devas give food and clothing in offering. Each person naturally receives their allotted share in their life. They need not think of it, they need not search for it; the allotted portion is there. Even if you rush about in search of riches, what happens when death suddenly comes? Students should clear their minds of these non-essential things and concentrate on studying the Way.’ (Shobogenzo Zuimonki 2,6)

Thanks for reading, and if you are on the same calendar, happy new year.

On the subway - one moment of calm
I have been wondering about a picture to use for publicising Sidewalk Zen – this isn’t quite right, and it was taken in New York, but it has some of the qualities I am thinking about.

On a recent rainy morning, I was going through my picture archive for some representation of me from ten years ago. This is one of me doing what I love, playing with rocks.

Crossing the creek at Tassajara – perhaps this is a good visual for what I talk about above.

Marian Mountain

‘A wind sweeps through the trees behind the cabin. The sound is enough to awaken the whole world from its dreams of childhood. Tonight we may make our home in this zen environment, surrounded by marble peaks and looking down into lost valleys, while an immense sheet of of shining water stretches beyond the horizon. But tomorrow we may drift along with the snow that wraps the world in white. Forever to travel is our destiny, through a dream world of echoes and shadows.
This tattered life is my only robe; the wind my only refuge. It was here a moment ago, but already it has blown away.’ (The Zen Environment)

Black cone hike - Black Cone final section Big Sur river valley 2.jpg
Black cone hike - Black Cone fourth section ocean gap.jpg
I don’t know exactly where the cabin was where she wrote this, but this is probably as close as I got, hiking the Black Cone trail in the summer of last year.

Soyen Shaku

‘In these days of industrial and commercial civilization, the multitudes of people have very little time to devote themselves to spiritual culture. They are not altogether ignorant of the existence of things that are of permanent value, but their minds are so engrossed in details of everyday life that they find it extremely difficult to avoid their constant obtrusion. Even when they retire from their routine work at night, they are bent on something exciting, which will tax their already overstretched nervous system to the utmost. If they do not die prematurely, they become nervous wrecks. They do not seem to know the blessings of relaxation. They seem to be unable to live within themselves and find there the source of eternal cheerfulness. Life is for them more or less a heavy burden and their task consists in the carrying of the burden. The gospel of Dhyana, therefore, must prove to them a heaven-sent boon when they conscientiously practice it.
Dhyana is physiologically the accumulation of nervous energy; it is a sort of spiritual storage battery in which an enormous amount of latent force is sealed – a force that will, whenever a demand is made, manifest itself with tremendous potency.’ (Sermons of a Buddhist Abbot)

Leafing through this book again,  I noticed how stilted the language is, but then again, the book consists of talks given on the west coast in 1905-6, by a monk who had attended the pivotal World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893 – the event that did the most to trigger an interest in Buddhism in the United States. In his writings he is at pains to place Buddhism in a context that contemporaries might understand, and still, some of it rings even more true a century later.


‘I remember that a monk asked Touzi [Datong], “What are the causes and conditions of this single great matter?”
Touzi said, “Minister Yin asked me to open the hall and give a Dharma hall discourse.”
The teacher Dogen said: If it had been Eihei, I would not have spoken like this. Suppose someone asks me, “What are the causes and conditions of this single great matter?” I would just say to him: In the early morning I eat gruel and at noon I eat rice. Feeling strong, I practice zazen; when tired I sleep.’ (Extensive Record, discourse 191)

I would not have spoken like this. I would just say, in the early morning I make toast and coffee and at noon I eat a sandwich.

Radical Dharma

‘Healing is movement and work toward wholeness. Healing is never a definite location but something in process. It is the basic ordinary work of staying engaged with our own hurt and limitations. Healing does not mean forgiveness either, though it is a result of it. Healing is knowing our woundedness; it is developing an intimacy with the ways in which we suffer. Healing is learning to love the wound because love draws us into relationship with it instead of avoiding feeling the discomfort.
Healing means we are holding the space for our woundedness and allowing it to open our hearts to the reality that we are not the only people who are hurt, lonely, angry, or frustrated. We must also release the habitual aggression that characterizes our avoidance of trauma or any discomfort. My goal is to befriend my pain, to relate to it intimately as a means to end the suffering of desperately trying to avoid it. Opening hearts to woundedness helps us to understand that everyone else around us carries the same woundedness.’ – Lama Rod Owens

Chan Master Sheng Yen

‘The Buddha can manifest in any form as a transformation body to help sentient beings. According to an Indian myth, Shakyamuni Buddha was the ninth incarnation of the god Vishnu. In China some people believe that Lao Tzu, the Taoist philosopher, was an incarnation of the Buddha. Some Westerners believe that Jesus was also an incarnation of the Buddha. Essentially, we can say that whenever a good person appears in the world to help sentient beings, this is another form or incarnation of Buddha. Buddhists do not restrict the phrase “the birth of the Buddha” to Shakyamuni. It can also describe the arising of any event or person that helps sentient beings to overcome suffering and ignorance. In a theoretical sense, anyone can be an incarnation of Buddha. So, in remembering Buddha on his birthday we are in effect reminding ourselves of the potential that exists within each of us.’ (Subtle Wisdom)

Liu Tzung-Yuan

A thousand mountains –
not one bird flying.

Ten thousand trails –
no sign of human tracks.

One boat with an old man,
in rush hat and rain cape,

fishing the cold river snow.



‘Our true teaching does not make an issue of whether one is a monk or a layperson, a male or a female; it does not choose between the aristocrat and the commoner or the old and the young. It’s not a question of great or small faculties, or of being smart or slow. As long as they have a great heart, ultimately none fail to succeed.’ (The Undying Lamp of Zen)


‘Freedom from form means detachment from forms in the midst of form. Freedom from thought means having no thought in the midst of thought.’ (The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch)

Chögyam Trungpa

‘It is often mentioned in the scriptures that without theories, without concepts, one cannot even start. So start with concepts and then build up theory. And then you use up the theory and it gradually gives way to wisdom, to intuitive knowledge, and that knowledge finally links with reality. So to start with, one should allow and not react to things. And if one wants to help a person, for example, there are two ways of doing it: one is that you want to help them, because you want them to be different, you would like to mold them according to your idea, you would like them to follow your way. That is still compassion with ego, compassion with an object, compassion finally with results, which will benefit you as well – and that is not quite true compassion. This plan to help other people may be a very good one, but nevertheless the emotional approach of wanting to save the world and bring peace is not quite enough; there has to be more than that, there has to be more depth. So first one has to start be respecting concepts and then build from there. Though actually in Buddhist teachings, concepts are generally regarded as a hindrance. But being a hindrance does not mean that it prevents anything. It  is a hindrance and it is also the vehicle – it is everything. Therefore one must pay special attention to concepts.’ (Meditation in Action)