The Shipping Forecast

The skies cleared as I flew over the Welsh coast and Anglesey on Sunday morning, which set the tone for my time in Belfast. I was collected from the sleepy airport by some sangha members who were also attending the jukai at Benburb; we arrived in time for lunch, where the sesshin participants were partaking of the last silence. I was very happy to see a couple of St Bernards at the priory, the dogs we had when I was growing up, and of course even happier to see a number of friends, many of whom I had not expected to be there: Djinn and Richard, Garret and Esther, Ann, Myles, Nuala (who kindly hosted me for my visit and, along with Myles and three other sangha members, was receiving the precepts from Paul), Andre, Heather, Bai and Annette.

Last week I had a few very quiet days with my mother in Hereford; the weather was mostly sunny, but there was a persistent east wind that felt cold. I got outside every day, running my familiar loop along the Wye, past blossoming fields of apple trees and flowering riverside meadows, as well as exploring trails alongside smaller brooks at the edge of the city that were new to me. On Friday I returned to London, for a rewarding return visit to the Wimbledon group, with a full room of people getting their head around the Genjo Koan. After being taken to lunch with some of the group, I went to Alan’s house to record a podcast with him, which was a lot of fun, and which I will link to when it is up.

This week I have been sitting every morning with the Black Mountain sangha, and joining the relaxed tea and chat afterwards. On Tuesday, when Djinn usually gives a talk, she suggested that she, Ann and I do a round table discussion in the zendo, which was well attended and nice to participate in – we all riffed off each other easily, and had some great questions to ponder. I added the Lagan to the list of rivers I have run by – my limited geographical sense of the city was aided by starting to walk around, and I felt confident enough to do a loop of Ormeau Park and then head to Lagan Meadows on the towpath cycle route, and back via Belvoir Park, all of which felt a long way from the city.

On Wednesday, the last full day, we went up to Malin Head. Ann and I had independently had the idea of wanting to see it (I had watched a television programme while staying with my mother which featured it, and of course know it from its role in the shipping forecast), and Djinn was willing to drive the hundred miles each way with us. We stopped in Derry for lunch and a walk around the walls, then drove across the increasingly rugged terrain to Ireland’s most northerly point, which was uncharacteristically warm and sunny, with very little wind.

The last leg of this lengthy journey is going to be in Brighton (Hove actually), to stay with old BBC friends, and to sit with the Brighton group on Saturday, where I expect to meet some old sangha friends, and hopefully run up to Devil’s Dyke again, before the long flight home.


The cathedral at Hereford from the banks of the Wye.


Fields of rape seed outside Hereford 


The sesshin group at Benburb on Sunday afternoon, featuring some brand new rakusus.


A patch of bluebells in Ormeau Park.


One of the many beautiful views at Malin Head.

Dzogchen Ponlop

‘The term “ordinary mind” can be confusing if we understand “ordinary” to mean “mundane”. If that were the case, then “ordinary mind” would mean mundane consciousness, confused mind, klesha mind – a mind that is totally caught up in the this world of samsara. However, in this context, “ordinary” means “unfabricated”. When we experience this ordinary mind, we experience buddha mind. Buddha mind is not some special mind that we always seem to be searching for elsewhere. It is simple and ordinary in the sense of being totally free from elaborations, from fabrications, and from all conceptual thinking. It is the best part of the mind. Usually we think of buddha mind as something extraordinary, extra-special, but at this point we cut through all these concepts and go back to the fundamental nature of mind, which is the mind of buddha, or the heart of buddha mind. It is ordinary because it is so simple.’ (Wild Awakening)

When I started practising, you would not have been able to convince me that there was a mind that was free from conceptual thinking, but I am glad to have a different feeling about it nowadays.

Sharon Salzberg

‘Equanimity’s strength derives from a combination of understanding and trust. It is based on understanding that the conflict and frustration we feel when we can’t control the world doesn’t come from our inability to do so but rather from the fact that we are trying to control the uncontrollable.’ (Lovingkindness)

Once I get back from England, I will be starting to focus on preparing for my upcoming classes at Zen Center; this book will be an important source of material, for sure.

Uchiyama Roshi

‘Japanese people have a preconception that Buddhism is something special for a special kind of person. I repeat that the starting point of Buddhism is searching after the truth of the life of one’s self. Since it is the truth of the life of each self, it is only natural not to distinguish old from young, men from women, or noble birth from humble birth. Buddhism lies behind our practice of zazen. Behind Buddhism, there should be one’s own life. It is essential to see Buddhism from the ground of our own lives and to examine our zazen on the basis of Buddhism. In doing so, it is apparent that the idea that we can attain some special satori like a superhuman power is off the mark.’ (The Wholehearted Way)

I think it is normal for us to start to practise with the hope of gaining these superhuman powers, or resolving all our human problems and perfecting ourselves somehow. Hopefully, as we continue, these ideas drop away, and we allow ourselves to become ourselves.

Mumon

The blue sky, the bright day.
It is most detestable to hunt around;
If, furthermore, you ask, “What is Buddha?”
It is like shouting your innocence while holding the loot.

Suzuki Roshi

‘When you do something with a purpose based on some evaluation of what is useful or useless, good or bad, more or less valuable, your understanding is not perfect. If you do things that need to be done regardless of whether the results are good or bad, successful or unsuccessful, that is real practice.’ (Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness)

Katagiri Roshi

‘Change is the basis of human life, so don’t attach yourself to birth or death, continuation or discontinuation. Just live right in the middle of the flow of change, where there is nothing to hold on to. How do you do this? Just be present and devote yourself to doing something. This is the simple practice of Zen.’ (Each Moment is the Universe)

Of course this is a time to pull out the old saying, simple is not the same as easy…

Dogen

‘Last night a clear wind blew down from the vast sky. This morning the cypress tree instantly attained buddhahood.’ (Extensive Record, discourse 81)

I wonder what took it so long.

Mountains and Rivers and Planes and Trains 

It’s not often I get to set foot in four countries before lunchtime, but that is how my day was on Friday, taking two cars, two planes and two trains from France to England via Switzerland and Germany. 

From Cornwall I had taken the train up to Bristol, had a cup of coffee with my sister and her husband who happened to be in the area, then flown to Geneva, where my friend was visiting for a few meetings, staying in her chalet on the slopes of Mont Blanc. Arriving in pouring rain, we only had the fireplace for warmth as the heating and hot water were out. I spent Wednesday exploring Geneva on foot, as my friend took care of her business, and was glad of the hammam at the Bains Paquis at the end of a cold day – I also jumped briefly into the lake after the sauna there. The overnight rain turned into snow, and Thursday we hiked through the snow-laden mountain woods to the nearest town, where most things were closed, though we managed to get a hearty lunch at an open restaurant. 

On Friday morning, getting up before first light, everything was covered in fresh snow. Luckily the LandRover used to get us down the dirt road, and the rental car, both started first time. In the valley autoroute into Geneva, it was raining heavily, as it had been on the other journeys to and fro. My first plane took me to Dusseldorf, and was running a little late. I was sweating a little about missing my connection (as I had briefly sweated when we had left the autoroute and had run into a long line of traffic on the way through the city). We disembarked onto a shuttle bus, I ran up the stairs, marched from one end of the terminal to the other, through passport control, down the stairs, onto another bus… and back onto the same plane I had just been on. As I said to the cabin crew head, if I had known that as I got off, I would have been a bit more relaxed going from A to B to A.

Then I ended up in Newcastle, took the metro into town, grabbed some lunch at the station and got on the train to Leeds, taking care to avoid the boisterous stag party that was already enjoying their weekend. The last stress had been about a strike on part of the rail network, but happily I arrived in Leeds just as the expected train to Hebden rolled in. It even had functional wi-fi on board.

It felt great to be back in Hebden Bridge again, and I managed to navigate from the station to Rebecca and Dave’s house, where I was welcomed as warmly as last time. After a shower, a rest and some food, I was ready for the first part of the weekend, a couple of hours studying the Genjo Koan. Saturday we had an all-day sitting, which felt very well contained, though I didn’t find my talk especially convincing, and on Sunday a very intimate half-day, followed by joining the regular Sunday evening sit, where I faced the wall with the rest of the group. There were also chances to have discussions with my hosts, and with Wendy who I had met at Tassajara almost fifteen years ago, about the current state of English zen and what the next steps might be for the various groups.

There was also time for me to repeat my run of last time, up the stingingly hard climb to Heptonstall, along the top, through the fields and the bluebell-covered woods to the little bridge across Calder water, and back down along the other side of the valley, cutting over to the canal to get back into town. Again, it was satisfying to have my body remember the terrain from one previous encounter, and it was a wonderful run. Next stop is my mother’s house, and hopefully a chance to run along the Wye valley.


The sky over Lake Geneva.


Geneva from the Bains Paquis pier after a little dip.


A clear mountain stream in the Alps.


Beginning the half-day journey taking in four countries.


The bottom of the Buttress at the beginning of my run in Hebden Bridge.

Fayan

‘A monk asked, “What is the thing toward which an advanced student should pay particular attention?”
Fayan said, “If the student has anything whatsoever which is particular then he can’t be called advanced.”‘ (Zen’s Chinese Heritage)