‘To study the buddha way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of realization remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.’
This section of the Genjo Koan gets a lot of play on the zen circuit. Most often just the first phrase, or the first two phrases are quoted, which I guess can be called expedient means: they are striking and memorable expressions.
Recently the first pair came to mind during the beginners’ sitting that I lead at Zen Center earlier in the month. A woman asked a question about dealing with trauma: was spending time on recovery and healing a bad idea as it was just reinforcing a sense of self? Using Dogen to frame the answer, I said that the first step is to know what it is you are dealing with. If you have not spent time investigating, and where it is necessary, working to come to terms with, to resolve and heal the wounded parts that we all carry around in our human brokenness, you cannot truly let the self go. And then, since I had earlier mentioned the koan with Joshu and the cypress tree, I also talked about how that story points us towards being actualised by myriad things.
This kind of investigation always seems easier when we are in nature. I think of how I interacted with trees at Tassajara in my later stays there, allowing their stately living presence to energise me as I watched them respond to the seasons and grow towards the light in league with those surrounding them. Recently at Wilbur, having taken a book on Dogen with me – I found myself not agreeing with some of how Francis Cook characterised Dogen’s message – I got to thinking of the last two lines as well as I sat in the plunge with rain falling all around, gazing at the water and the big pine tree.
Through Dogen’s expressions, I have come to trust that everything is manifesting enlightened activity; it seems a shame not to join in. No trace of realisation remains means that when you are not telling any self-bound stories about being actualised, the process is free to continue from moment to moment. When we let go of the self, this body and mind, and the stories it holds onto, we meet it.
The pine tree by the pool, at a moment when it was not raining last weekend.
It feels a little like cheating when I use public transport to take me somewhere to start a run; somewhere in my mind it says, if you want to be self-powered, you should just be self-powered. It is the same for bike riding, though there are places – Mount Diablo for sure, and the times I have gone down the peninsula to take in King’s Mountain, Pescadero and Tunitas Creek – that I have thoroughly enjoyed the results of going somewhere that isn’t just door to door under my own steam. In the city, this has mostly been in the service of covering the ground for an upcoming roam with help from a quick Muni trip across town.
I have Fridays mostly free, but I have observed that drivers are more than usually cranky on Friday afternoons, so I tend not to do any city rides then. On my run last week, I have to admit, everyone I encountered was attentive and considerate, but I could see that there were lines building up in all directions to get across the bridge, and that what should have been quiet corners of the Presidio were turning into high-speed rat runs with drivers trying to beat the jams. I was glad to be spending some of my time in even quieter spots.
It was one of those winter days that each year make me glad I am in California; in the middle of the day it was warm enough for t-shirt and shorts, clear, and wind-free. Starting at the Arguello Gate of the Presidio, I crossed over to Immigrant Point via the Goldsworthy spire, and then tried out the Batteries to Bluffs loop for the first time – I think I was actually going from bluffs to batteries, but in any case, it was pretty wonderful, and will feature in a Roaming Zen soon, if I can get the tides right: there were people on Marshall’s Beach when I was out there, and it would be a shame not to take in that part of it.
The return leg took in the Lyon Street steps and a string of parks, Alta Plaza, Alamo Square and Duboce Park, all of which have tremendous views of the city spread out under the hills. When I got home, tired but happy, I discovered that the landlord had indeed come to fix the main heater in the house which had been out all week, and that someone I don’t know had offered a generous donation via the button on the right (along with a very kind comment; thank you for both). I was reminded of Dogen’s words once again.
The view south from Alta Plaza park.
‘A monk quoted a verse of Ch’an master Wo-lun:
Wo-lun has a skill,
Cutting off a hundred thoughts.
When mind is not aroused in face of objects,
Enlightenment grows day by day.
When the Master heard this, he said, “This verse does not yet clarify the ground of mind. If you put it into practice, that will add to your bondage.” Accordingly, he taught a verse that said,
Hui-neng has no skill,
Does not cut off a hundred thoughts.
In face of objects, mind is aroused again and again;
How can enlightnment grow?’
(The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch)
‘People often ask me if zazen can ever be of any practical use in these complex and turbulent times. By way of answering, let us consider the concept of aligning. The word align signifies the idea of situating everything in its proper position relative to everything else. First we align our body, then we align our breathing, then we align our mind. And once these things are accomplished, we find that we cannot be satisfied with aligning only our individual minds, but that we must finally align ourselves with the Mind of the larger Self that pervades all existence.’ (The Path to Bodhidharma)
I am giving the zazen instruction at Zen Center this morning. It would be tempting to quote this piece to the people who come, or yesterday’s piece, but I will probably stick to the first three parts of the alignment process. It is not that there are esoteric teachings, but I think you can only truly hear how succinctly these masters are explaining things when you have a real experience of it yourself. As I was quoting to a questioner last weekend, ‘you see and understand only what your eye of practice can reach’ (from the Genjo Koan, naturally). My eye is open a little wider than it was fifteen years ago, but I know there is still more to take in.
‘We sit to make life meaningful. The significance of our life is not experienced in striving to create some perfect thing. We must simply start with accepting ourselves. Sitting brings us back to actually who and where we are. This can be very painful. Self-acceptance is the hardest thing to do. If we can’t accept ourselves, we are living in ignorance, this darkest night. We may still be awake, but we don’t know where we are. We cannot see. The mind has no light. Practice is this candle in our very darkest room.’
The story of how I found this quote is a little funny: I was asked if I had any pictures of zazen I could share. Going through my hard drives, I came up with almost nothing. I tried searching for ‘sitting’, and did not fare much better as far as pictures went – except for various sitting rooms in different countries – but did discover this, and other quotes on the subject by the venerable teacher.
It has been almost a year now that I have been commuting across the bay three days a week; it takes the best part of an hour each way, with five minutes or so on the bike at each end, and thirty minutes riding on BART. I have made a point of looking at it as a practice, and as in so many areas of life, even living at Tassajara during a practice period, much of this practice is about navigating space with other people in a way that I hope causes a minimum of inconvenience all round.
Before long I had learned the tricks of where to stand on the platform to be able to get my bike best situated. In the mornings I am getting onto already crowded carriages, so the best place is usually right at the back of the train. Coming home, I know which door will give me a bike space on the side that will open on my home platform, so I do not have to push past people to get out.
Only one half of the journey is crowded as a rule. At Montgomery in the morning, the carriages empty out, and once we are past Embarcadero and crossing under the bay, there is always a place to sit. On the way back, I sometimes get into an empty carriage, and watch it fill progressively until I get off. What I have found though is that arriving at the station in the evening I am often confronted with a wave of people who have got off their train and are intent on getting home, often paying very little attention to anyone coming the other way. One evening I watched as people flowed through the bi-directional wider gate that was the most convenient one for them, ignoring a woman with a stroller who needed to use that one to get through to get to her train; while it is easier for me to use those to roll my bike through, rather than get exasperated with the unseeing flow, I just shoulder my bike and go through the thinner one-way gates, and down the escalator, even if it is against regulations, rather than trying to go against everyone on the narrow stairs.
On these journeys I have done a huge amount of reading; many blog posts have come from ploughing through books and noting sections that seem like they would be good to use. Sometimes, if I am tired, or feeling a little travel sick, which does happen with all the rattling and stopping and starting, I will just sit quietly and pay attention to what is going on.
There are a few people I have recognised from previous journeys, though not one of those seems to have noticed the fact themselves. Unsurprisingly almost everyone has their head bowed to their phones; some have headphones in, some are both looking and listening. Occasionally people have books or magazines; in the evening there might be a conversation – class-mates getting on at Berkeley, or work colleagues traveling together. Mostly there is just the din of the wheels on the track.
The journey starts underground in both directions, and comes up for air on either side of Oakland. In the course of these months, I have seen every kind of weather. It is always worth looking up when we arrive in the east bay to see what the sky is doing over the docks. Many days have been blue all the way; others the clouds are so dense the Berkeley hills are hidden. Rain lashes at the windows on one side; I have seen golden sunsets glowing in every direction. Apart from the urban scenes close at hand, there is San Francisco laid out under the hills, with the Sutro Tower uppermost; there is Mount Tam reclining at ease; the Golden Gate Bridge at full stretch; the Bay Bridge curving up and away. The door opens and I feel the warmth of the sun on my neck; the plume of a container ship in the docks merges into the heavy low clouds; streetlights arc through the darkness in varying patterns.
Often enough there are delays. I rarely have to be somewhere exactly on time, so I don’t have to be stressed about it; my fellow passengers seem mostly quite phlegmatic, perhaps because of the commonness of the hold-ups. I look out at the frequently stationary cars on the adjacent freeways and know that I would always prefer to be in a train, even one that is stuck, so that I can read and relax even in the unwanted stillness.
The east side of Oakland through the windows of a BART train – they are never very clean
The other day I was heading home early enough to catch the sun going down with my iPad – San Francisco in the distance, with the Salesforce building making its presence felt as it does from seemingly every angle these days.
It seemed to be auspicious timing to get out of town on Friday morning and be offline for three days, and I allowed another visit to Wilbur to be something of a retreat, with ample opportunities for silence, for contemplation, reading and writing – and some scheduled meditation, all of which felt very welcome.
‘Lorsque la pluie tombait, j’aurais pu enfanter des mondes’
I thought of this quote from Proust as I sat in the outdoor plunge at Wilbur and the rain came down (I can’t find a link to it online, but I think my memory serves me well enough to have it right). There was a stillness with it, even as I watched the drops dipping and bouncing back off the surface, and the ripples that could not help but spread in perfect circles.
The weather on the drive up had prefigured the rest of the weekend. I felt glad to be able to get across to the north bay while the traffic was flowing and the roads were temporarily dry. Then there were squalls of rain, a series of rainbows, and on the flats around the 505 heading north, piled clouds of various laden colours, heavy downpours moving across the land. My usual route, up the 16 through Capay Valley had been closed, so I had to continue north and then cut through the line of hills on the 20. As I took the Bear Valley Road, conscious of having slid along a couple of times on my last visit, I drove very cautiously as rain lashed against the glass and the river surged below. Ten minutes after I arrived, there was blue sky above.
The way back was dry until I crossed into the east bay, and then there was a fierce deluge even when I could see clear skies and sunshine ahead. In the rear view mirror, another flat arc of a rainbow. I felt ready to see what exactly it was that I had missed.
Looming clouds heading north on the 505 on Friday.
The swollen creek reminded me of being at Tassajara in stormy winter weather.
‘None of us thought to be born into this world, at this time, to these parents. We received from the source, totally and innocently, the circumstances into which we were born, with no expectations, no knowledge, and no preconceptions about what this life would be like when we entered it. We accepted our situation of birth. We never thought about how we would not want to be born into this difficult-to-live-in house, into this period of history. After the term of pregnancy we are merely born, and we arrive, with a big cry and total acceptance. Our mother’s, father’s and ancestors’ habits are given to us without our expectation. Therefore, to say “This is good” and “This is bad” is to add something on afterward – it is not something that is part of our pure mind at birth.’ (The Path to Bodhidharma)
‘Naturally the wind blows and grasses sway, and seeing wind we use our sails, so how could there be anything ultimate [beyond this]? When we experience some new particular situation, naturally our affirming mind will not stagnate. This is not done by personal force, but is simply the expression of the way.
Furthermore, within Dharma joy, naturally there is vastness. At the top of a steep cliff, we can casually stroll. We truly know that the way is not false, and directly understand that realization is significant. At this time, using a monk’s staff we strike and scatter the explanations about the profound and wondrous, so that there is not the slightest trace of delusion. Holding up a bamboo staff, we strike and destroy explanations about nature and mind, so how could the old ruts remain? Raising a single stalk of grass, we make a sixteen-foot golden body, which radiates light and expounds the Dharma, so that from the beginning nothing is deficient. We use a sixteen-foot golden body to make a single stalk of grass, so the bud blossoming as a flower is not a matter of quick or slow. How can the great work of buddhas not be the play of samadhi?’ (Extensive Record, volume 8, 5)
Birds chirping, dogs run, mountains are high,
valleys low. It’s all perfect wisdom!
The seasons change, the stars shine in
the heavens; it’s perfect wisdom.
Regardless of whether we realize it or not,
we are always in the midst of the Way.
Or, more strictly speaking, we are
nothing but the Way itself.