‘Although empty of desires, with deliberations cut off, transcendent comprehension is not all sealed up. Perfect bright understanding is carefree amid ten thousand images and cannot be confused. Within each dust mote is vast abundance. ‘ (Cultivating the Empty Field)
‘A monk asked, “What is the ultimate teaching of all buddhas?”
Fayan said, “You have it too.” (Zen’s Chinese Heritage)
This is the fundamental point. Can you believe it for yourself?
One of the notions I tend to rabbit on about when I am teaching is to let go of goals – it was one of the messages that struck me when I first read Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, and I think it is a useful way to steer people away from their usual tendencies and have them pay more attention to what is going on in the moment. As Blanche articulated, in an appropriate analogy for this story, if you are driving to a mountain, do you keep your eyes on the road, or on the mountain?
Nevertheless, when it was warm a few weeks ago, and I rode up Mount Tam for the first time in six months (I thought I wrote about this, but I can’t find it) with less effort and pain than I thought it was going to take, I formulated the goal of riding up Mount Diablo before I left for England.
I probably could have just tried to do it without setting a goal, but it would have hurt; planning my next few rides gave me a good chance of being in better shape to tackle the long ascent. So first I went up Mount Tam again – this time with a colder north wind that made the last few miles of the climb less fun, but helped push me along the road home. Then I tried coming up the mountain from the far side – a long steady climb on the Bolinas – Fairfax Road I enjoy greatly, followed by the ‘seven sisters’, which are always gruelling because of the climbing you have had to do to get to the bottom of that stretch. That was another gorgeous spring day, and I don’t remember ever seeing so many people on the mountain – on foot, on two wheels, or in cars. Luckily I had left very early and was on my way back as many of them were heading out. I also made a point of doing a couple of Monday morning ‘commutes‘ to the Headlands, trying to notch up the intensity a little on the familiar slopes.
The weekend before this one I set off for Highway 1, which is currently closed above Green Gulch and north of Slide Ranch. As in other winters when nature has got the better of engineering, the closures mean roads without cars, which to me these days means real relaxation. My main aim was to tackle the climb north of Muir Beach, another favourite. It was so quiet that all I could hear were songbirds; I saw hawks settling in the roadside trees. On one section very close to Slide Ranch, the downhill edge of road had sunk away; there was grass growing out of the cracks (which reminded me of this song), and a snail crossing the road. I figured it had a pretty good chance of making it to the other side without being squashed.
My final preparatory ride was going to be helping people pedal over to Green Gulch as part of the zen-a-thon. The weather was perfect, unlike last year, fairly warm and with no wind, and I took my fixed gear again for the stately procession, with the added detour around Muir Woods – which allowed us to ride up along the farm road from the beach end, something I realised I had never done. When it came time to leave, it was clear we could not get past the crews we could hear working on the road above the temple entrance, and most of us did not fancy battling both the harder climb from Muir Woods and the heavy traffic. One of our number suggested we take the back way out – up the Middle Green Gulch trail (which we mostly walked except the flattest parts, as none of us had appropriate bikes for off-roading), and then down a fire road to Tam Junction, which was a revelation for most of us, offered wonderful views across Mill Valley, and definitely avoided having to deal with traffic.
The downside of spending Saturday doing that was that it was the best weather of the weekend. It rained for most of Sunday, so I went out for a long and slow run in the morning; I had Monday in reserve as plan B for heading over to Walnut Creek (hoping to get to BART in the early part of rush hour) and up the mountain, but I woke up to a steady drizzle, which continued even when my weather app insisted it was merely overcast.
So I ended up letting go of the goal anyway – I could have pushed myself to go out in the rain, but I am pretty soft these days and would not have enjoyed myself. Besides, it was always going to be a fairly fruitless goal, since today is the day I leave for a month in England, and I won’t most likely get on a bike again until I am back. The trick is not to hold onto these things.
Assembled zen-a-thon riders before we set off for Green Gulch.
‘This mountain monk has not lectured for the sake of the assembly for a long time. Why is this? Every moment the Buddha hall, the monks’ hall, the valley streams, and the pine and bamboo endlessly speak on my behalf, fully for the sake of all people. Have you all heard it or not? If you say you heard it, what did you hear? If you say that you have not heard it, you do not keep the five precepts.’ (Extensive Record, discourse 49)
I watch over
the spring night –
but no amount of guarding
is enough to make it stay.
‘Desire – grasping, clinging, greed, attachment – is a state of mind that defines what we think we need in order to be happy. We project all of our hopes and dreams of fulfillment onto some object of our attention. This may be a certain activity or outcome, a particular thing or person. Deluded by our temporary enchantment, we view the world with tunnel vision. That object, and that alone, will make us happy. Who has not been greatly infatuated with some idea or some person, only to look again two months later, six months later, a year later, and think, “What was that all about?” (Lovingkindness)
I would only add that not only do we all do it, but we all do it all the time.
‘The Heart Sutra tells us that form is emptiness and emptiness is form; if that’s true, then our practice is to try to recognize the integration of form and emptiness, and to let ourselves sit in the utter discomfort of that. From this discomfort emerges a greater capacity to hold space for contradictions. Ultimately, we are not these identities, which is awesome. But relatively, we are, and that’s awesome too! Privileging one over the other is not the practice here. The practice is to bridge the relative truth of I am with the ultimate truth of I am not, to hold them together while exploring the tendency to want to bury ourselves in one extreme. This practice can be deeply unsettling, but if we can hold the ultimate truth together with our relative truth, then space opens up within our identity locations, and we can recognize them without being firmly planted. For example, for me to identify as Black is to first recognize what it has meant to be conditioned as a Black body; at the same time, I see that ultimately I am not Black but still conditioned to perform and to relate to the Black cultural conditioning.’ (Taken from Lion’s Roar website)
In my teaching and studying, I spend a lot of time grappling with the co-existence of form and emptiness, or the harmony of difference and equality. With so much current talk about identity politics, it is great to read a cogent teaching piece on how this looks from a dharma perspective.
I have also been wanting to post a link to this since I read it; I go to the Establishment regularly to learn views that are different to my own, and found this a helpful exercise. I said yes to several questions.
‘Old Yellow Face (Buddha) has said, “When the mind does not vainly grasp past things, does not long for things in the future, and does not dwell on anything in the present, then you realize fully that the three times are all empty and still.” You shouldn’t think about past events, whether good or bad; if you think about them, that obstructs the Path. You shouldn’t consider future events; to consider them is crazy confusion. Present events are right in front of you; whether they’re pleasant or unpleasant, don’t fix your mind on them. If you do fix your mind on them, it will disturb your heart. Just take everything in its time, responding according to circumstances, and you will naturally accord with this principle.’ (Swampland Flowers)
Another fine demonstration of energy saving…
Regarded from one side, an entire range;
From another, a single peak.
Far, near, high, low, all its parts
Different from the others
If the true face of Mount Lu
Cannot be known,
It is because the one looking at it
Is standing in its midst – Su Shih
In a recent roam we passed by the foot of the Sutro Tower, which looks impossibly large when you are so close to it. Not long after, meeting someone for lunch on a sunny day downtown, I wandered for a while with my camera around the constant construction that is going down there; I watched workers hauling barrows and carts at the entrance of the Salesforce tower, which rose high into the blue sky – a reminder that no matter how glossy the building looks when it is finished, it still depends on huge amounts of basic physical labour to reach that state.
At other times, these built landmarks can be seen from all across the city and beyond. When the fog descends on the city, sometimes the Sutro Tower, or even just its three tips, is all that can be seen rising clear of the fog from the clear slopes of Mount Tam. From the east bay, coming home on BART as the sun sets, it silhouettes the skyline atop the range of hills that frame the city. I have a particular fondness for it; in its somewhat unique shape, it seems to represent the city – not as clearly as the Golden Gate Bridge does, but in other representations I have seen.
The Salesforce Tower, by contrast, and perhaps just because it is new, seems like a terrible mistake. There are many places I have been since it reached its topping-out height where it alone juts up above the skyline. Even in the Zen Center dining room, it is the only thing that peaks above the neighbouring roofs. In the Presidio, from the Legion of Honour, where you can feel at a remove from the busier side of the city, it seems to loom as an unwelcome reminder. Coming home by bike from Mill Valley recently, it was the only thing that rose into view from one scenic spot.
Perhaps age and custom will wither this dislike, though I suspect it is going to end up alongside the unlikable hulk of the Bank of America building rather than the elegant TransAmerica pyramid. Perhaps it is just a visible sign of the priorities of this city these days, which were not the ones that made me feel it would be a lovely place to live, almost two decades ago. Perhaps older residents still feel the same about the Sutro Tower, an alien robotic shape imposed over the natural contours of the city, but I have not met anyone who says so.
The Sutro Tower from an adjacent path through the woods.
The Salesforce building from 2nd St.
This is a view I think of often – returning to town on the freeway at sunset.
This was returning from Marcia’s shuso ceremony on Monday. Look for the tallest building.
‘The mind of the Buddhas and the minds of ordinary people are not two different minds. Those who strive earnestly in their practice because they want to attain satori, or to discover their self-mind, are likewise greatly mistaken. Everyone who recites the Heart Sutra knows that “the mind is unborn and undying.” But they haven’t sounded the source of the Unborn. They still have the idea that they can find their way to the unborn mind and attain Buddhahood by using reason and discrimination. As soon as the notion to seek Buddhahood or to attain the Way enters your mind, you’ve gone astray from the Unborn – gone against what is unborn in you. Anyone who tries to become enlightened thereby falls out of the Buddha-mind and into secondary matters. You are Buddhas to begin with. There’s no way for you to become Buddhas now for the first time.’ (The Unborn)