A Day in the Mountains

Last week’s day of heavy rain blew away, and was followed by a bracing north-westerly wind which brought back the cold, but also brought an amazing clarity to the light. Heading down to Tassajara early on Sunday morning for another shuso ceremony, the 101 was lined with frost-filled fields, and when we arrived, even walking down from the sunny gate to the shaded work circle we could feel the temperature drop. We heard it had been twenty-five degrees first thing.
Luckily the zendo is kept warm these days. Lauren’s ceremony was on the short end of the scale, with a small practice period, and a typical number of former shusos. Unlike the  Green Gulch assembly, the monks at Tassajara have been somewhat insulated from the day-to-day stories about the election, and the mood was softer as a result. Lauren was extremely warm-hearted in her responses, which was lovely to witness.
There was time to bathe before we sat down to lunch, and a few of us jumped into the sparkling creek between soaks in the hot plunges, all of which was deeply satisfying. I had extremely good company in the rides down and back, so the eight or so hours in the car over the course of the day passed more smoothly than sometimes happens; we even got back early enough that I could catch up with the football before falling asleep…

Linda Ruth, who led the practice period, arriving for the formal photographs after the ceremony.

Linda Ruth with Linda Galijan and Setsuan Gaelyn Godwin, all former Tassajara directors.

The difference between sun and shade was very marked.

From the hot plunge…

… to the creek. 

I don’t think anyone who loves Tassajara gets tired of this view from Ashes Corner.

Byron Katie

‘As long as you think that the cause of your problem is “out there” — as long as you think that anyone or anything is responsible for your suffering — the situation is hopeless. It means that you are forever in the role of victim, that you’re suffering in paradise.’

It might seem that Byron Katie is unforgiving in her insistence that believing in your thoughts is the root of all your problems, but having known people whose lives were transformed by doing The Work with her, and having seen her in action a couple of times at Wisdom 2.0 (the quote came in an email I recently received from them), I can attest to the deep compassion she has, and her fearless wish for everyone to be free from suffering.

Suzuki Roshi

‘The purpose of studying Buddhism is not to study Buddhism, but to study ourselves. It is impossible to study ourselves without some teaching. If you want to know what water is you need science, and the scientist needs a laboratory. In the laboratory there are various ways in which to study what water is. Thus it is possible to know what kind of elements water has, the various forms it takes, and its nature. But it is impossible thereby to know water in itself. It is the same thing with us. We need some teaching, but just by studying the teaching along, it is impossible to know what “I” in myself am. Through the teaching we may understand our human nature. But the teaching is not we ourselves; it is some explanation of ourselves.’ (Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind)

Narrows reflection down black 4

If we think we know water, we still don’t know how a fish sees it, as Dogen always reminds us.


On passing through the cloud barrier, the former road’s not there:
Under the blue sky in broad daylight, this is my home mountain.
The wheel of potential gets through and changes, hard for people to reach,
The golden ascetic gives up and goes home.

Shodo Harada

‘At the entrance of a Zen temple we often see the words kyakka shoko: “Watch your step!” What these words are telling us is to be aware of everything we do. We take off our footwear attentively and in such a way that later no one has to rearrange it correctly for us. We put our shoes at the side of the entranceway, not in the middle, so that other people may more easily slip out of their shoes. In this way, even to the way in which we take off our shoes, continual awareness is necessary.
The words kyakka shoko do not, of course, apply only to our feet and shoes. They remind us to remain attentive in our entire way of being. If we keep our room in order then our home is kept in order, and next our neighbourhood is kept in order, and next society is put in order. In this way, step by step, the nation, the natural environment, and finally the whole planet are put in order. The entire universe then comes into order. Thus, when we regulate our own mind, this circle extends to include the whole planet, and then the entire universe. To align your own mind, to put it in order, is to correct and put society in order.’  (The Path to Bodhidharma)

This is another book that I have not taken down from my shelf for quite a few years – I think I found it difficult when I first read it. As I got into it during my commutes this week, I appreciated the vitality of the words and instructions. Coming back into the city on a dismally wet evening on Thursday, I was delighted to come across this passage; it had resonated with me, but I could not remember where I had read it. For some reason I had thought it came from an Eido Shimano book, but I had searched in vain; in the meantime, I had paraphrased it many times in instruction, tending, I realise, to elide the distance between having your shoes in order and the universe in order, though I don’t think that doing so mischaracterises the point Harada Roshi is making. I have found it to be the perfect example of what residential and monastic zen training is asking us to do – moment after moment.

The Saturday morning public program at Zen Center is not a time that shoes get aligned.

I was charmed by this arrangement at the Tassajara bathhouse.


Chan Master Sheng Yen

‘The process of maturing involves both leaving behind concern for yourself and reorienting yourself to the benefit of other sentient beings. Then you will be ready to bear inconvenience, trouble. and suffering on others’ behalf. To save sentient beings from suffering, as Buddhists vow to do, requires that you give whatever is needed – time, money, or all your effort. When you give, it might seem that you lose something, but that is only the view of selfishness. A bodhisattva, an enlightened being, has no thought of loss or gain. It is the well-being of other sentient beings that is important.
To voluntarily abandon your own benefit, to actively help, and when necessary, to suffer for the sake of sentient beings, is the correct attitude, or “right view”. When our actions in the interest of others are voluntary, our own suffering diminishes. It is when suffering and vexation are involuntary that they are difficult to bear. Those on the Bodhisattva Path, even if they are only at the beginning, must disregard their own benefit despite the discomfort this may bring. If the sentient beings we help do not express gratitude, we should have no regrets. This is wisdom and compassion.’ (Subtle Wisdom)

Katagiri Roshi

‘Spiritual life is not done for a particular purpose – it’s huge. Zen practice is just to open the heart and be intimate with the truth. It’s very vague. You don’t understand it.’

I was leafing through some of my notebooks the other day and came across a quote by Katagiri, and wondered if I had posted it. Turns out I had. I had been thinking that it would do no harm to post it again – as with all things, there is a tendency to forget, and it is nice to be reminded afresh – then when I was checking, I found this one. The last sentence caught my attention. I reckon that most people might read that as a dismissal, ‘you just don’t understand,’ but right now, and perhaps this was also a year ago when I posted it, I took it to mean, ‘don’t try to get your head around it, it is not a question of understanding.’ This is a lesson that I think is always good to be reminded afresh, because our minds are so conditioned to search for understanding; letting go of that seems to me to be a key part of practice.

Not Knowing, Together

While I am happy to be living away from Zen Center these days, I enjoy returning, because I always run into people I want to talk to. On Monday I walked up to City Center at lunchtime to get a ride to the shuso ceremony at Green Gulch, and had half-a-dozen conversations in the fifteen minutes or so before getting in the car. At the other end it was the same.
It turned out there were a handful of English people present: Simon, my long-time YUZ colleague, Myoyu who lives at Green Gulch, Rebecca from Hebden Bridge, who had been there for several weeks attending practice period and sesshin, Lucy who I know from teaching in England and who had come for sesshin, Cath who had been at Tassajara over the summer, and Chand who I hadn’t met before.
Thiemo, the shuso, is originally from Germany; there were also some other German speakers in the assembly, though everyone stuck to English. No-one mentioned – as I had intended to include in my congratulations – that it is hard enough to expound the dharma in your native language, let alone a second one (it was said that Suzuki Roshi was not as compelling to listen to when he spoke in Japanese, and it was the effort he had to make to say things in English that caused his teaching to be so vital).
The quiet inside the zendo was striking to me as we waited for the ceremony to begin, and there were other moments of intense quiet during the questions and answers. My own shuso ceremony, four years ago now, took place a few weeks after the Sandy Hook shootings, and I had expected to get a question or two about it, as I did, though not phrased as I had anticipated. Since Thiemo had chosen case four of the Book of Serenity, about creating a sanctuary, many of the questions revolved around the notion of a sanctuary in these times, and how to respond to the particular suffering that is arising post-election. He handled affairs with a grounded humility that I did refer to in my congratulations, and skillfully invoked not knowing as a response. Perhaps this is how the zen community, even if it seems isolated, and privileged (which was called out during the ceremony as well), can meet this current reality, for ourselves and for those we vow to help: not knowing, together.

The light in Cloud Hall is very low, and not many of my photos turned out. This is the gaggle of the English after the ceremony; I am the blurry one in the middle, which is just fine.


‘What does planting roots of goodness mean? It may be briefly set forth as follows:
It means wholeheartedly supporting the buddhas and following their teachings, while always being respectful and obedient to bodhisattvas, spiritual friends, teachers, parents, old folks, experienced worthies, and venerable elders. This is called planting roots of goodness.
To develop an attitude of mercy and compassion toward all beings suffering because of craving, not conceiving disdain for them, giving them what they need according to one’s ability – this is called planting roots of goodness.
To be gentle and tolerant with all bad types, treating them affably and not provoking them, causing them to develop a sense of joy, and stop being stubbornly perverse – this is called planting roots of goodness.
Not killing or harming living beings, not cheating and not despising them, not defaming and not disgracing them, not riding or beating them, not eating their flesh, always acting to their benefits – this is called planting roots of goodness.’ (Commentary on the Diamond Sutra)

I have always taken great comfort in the fact that Buddhist teachings, even when they come from half a world and a different culture away, and from many centuries ago, still speak to essential human foibles and qualities.

Radical Dharma

‘Lama Rod: Healing can be started now. I get pushback from people who say. “No! We need to end oppression. Or we need to end all these systems.” I think that’s how we get lost and distracted from the work of healing. I’m working to end racism and oppression, but at the same time I want to be liberated. I want to thrive. I want to be happy. How can we bring that ethic of healing back into our communities, into our sanghas, into our households, into our relationships, into our organizations?
Rev angel: This is something that is challenging for people to understand – the notion of transforming society from the inside out. We’re so in a framework of dichotomies that many people are like, “We have to do it outside first.”
Understanding that part of our capacity to make change outside in a way that’s actually generative comes from having done work inside so we can actually have empowerment that doesn’t have to do with external conditions.’

It seemed like a good time to open this book again, and to find inspiration in the words and discussions, seeing fresh through the new lens we find ourselves looking through.