The Trees on Lily Alley

It is always hard if someone asks you, at the end of the retreat, how it went. When you have just spent a week pretty much entirely focused inwardly, there is so much that goes on that there is usually not one simple answer. Sometimes there are amazing highs and lows, and we learn that we can sit with both, that life is nothing but highs and lows that come and go whether we want them to or not.
In the week of the Genzo-e I felt that I spent a lot of time just feeling really tired, and that very little of my zazen was spent in the present moment. There were, from time to time, flashes of concentration, and the first couple of days as I settled in brought wonderful and heart-opening clarity to situations I have been dealing with recently. Those kinds of moments are priceless and resonate onwards in valuable ways.
The great joy of the Genzo-e is getting to study Dogen. It is fifteen years since Shohaku’s first one at City Center, which I attended as a fairly new practitioner, just before I went off to Tassajara for the first time, and five years since I last did one, out at Green Gulch. He said that a book of the 2002 talks will be coming out soon, and it will be interesting to read this with my current ‘eye of practice’ – I probably still have my notes somewhere, and they would also be interesting to read. To be honest, I am excited to read back the notes I just took from the dozen classes we just had. The ideas are so dense (and there were moments when I was just so sleepy) that I was writing things down not knowing if they would make any sense later.
I do know that half-way through the Genzo-e at Green Gulch, I moved from a state of depletion to one of real aliveness and clarity, and absorbed how Shohaku was speaking about the interplay of relative and absolute (what we might call ‘that old zen chestnut’) that I still use when I teach now – although probably an old school zen teacher would say ‘don’t speak of it for thirty years.’ I felt that I came away from this one with a more three-dimensional understanding of this, and I hope that I can absorb it and use it in the future.
I can’t remember which day, but somewhere in the middle, during the morning class, I was sitting on the courtyard side of the dining room, and looking across the room and through the windows that look out onto Lily Alley, which were mostly filled with densely-leaved trees, when I suddenly felt completely awake and concentrated just watching the leaves move in the wind; ironic really, given the subject of the Dogen fascicle being discussed – the cypress tree in the yard.
Naturally this awakeness vanished before too long, but there were flashes of it at other times, not least in the times I spent on the roof after each meal. When I lived at Zen Center I would love being up on the roof and watching the city and the unfolding sky in each direction (and I took thousands of pictures of the various weathers); mostly last week was intensely foggy and not that warm, but it was just about the only fresh air I got all day. And, in something I first noticed in the many sesshins I sat at Tassajara, often the zendo is just the incubator; the interesting stuff happens when you go outside afterwards and meet the world with fresh eyes.
One way I did get to meet the world was walking to and from Zen Center – not every day, as Jamie kindly drove me as often as not, or picked me up en route sometime shortly before five in the morning. I have not often walked around the city in my robes. The funniest moment was leaving one evening, when a young couple who might have been living out on the streets were arguing just ahead of me. The man muttered something, and the woman replied ‘well right now I would like to shove this guitar up your – oh! there’s a monk walking by, we had better watch out!’
The five o’clock world of San Francisco was sweet to walk through: so little traffic, though there were delivery trucks unloading, and the first streetcars rolling up Market for the early birds, as well as cleaners working in the bars and restaurants, people heading to early gym sessions, baristas prepping for opening, homeless people sleeping in doorways or wandering around in their version of reality. No-one seemed to notice the robes then.
Even spending a week in robes is unusual for me now. I loved re-immersing myself in forms and ceremonies, even though, typically for Zen Center, there were many people visiting for the retreat who were not familiar with many of the forms, so things were not always smoothly flowing in the way that makes me happy. I got the opportunity to be doshi for a couple of the zendo services, which were also moments of great concentration and energy. I remembered how much I love chanting, and oryoki, which I have not done in a couple of years, but every movement of which is still in my body.
Best of all was the little kaisando service in the morning before breakfast, when the priests would gather and just silently prostrate to Suzuki Roshi in gratitude for his bringing the practice to us. There were too many of us at the retreat for us all to fit in, so sometimes I was out on the landing, but the feeling is the same – a moment of gratitude and devotion expressed through the body.
And do I have a better answer? The thought occurred somewhere towards the end, ‘moment after moment, arising is arising.’ But then that seemed a little sequential, so it became, ‘moment and moment, arising and arising.’ And then to lessen the separation, ‘moment, moment – arising, arising.’ I suspect Dogen would go on to say, ‘moment-arising, arising-moment.’
In any case, since any understanding is incomplete and temporary, perhaps I should just repeat what I said as my contribution to the closing ceremony, using one of Dogen’s favourite exhortations, when we were asked to articulate a short phrase about our retreat experience: investigate further!

Nanao Sakaki

Within a circle of one meter
You sit, pray and sing.

Within a shelter ten meters large
You sleep well, rain sounds a lullaby.

Within a field a hundred meters large
Raise rice and goats.

Within a valley a thousand meters large
Gather firewood, water, wild vegetables and Amanitas.

Within a forest ten kilometers large
Play with raccoons, hawks,
Poison snakes and butterflies.

Mountainous country Shinano
A hundred kilometers large
Where someone lives leisurely, they say.

Within a circle ten thousand kilometers large
Go to see the southern coral reef in summer
Or winter drifting ices in the sea of Okhotsk.

Within a circle ten thousand kilometers large
Walking somewhere on the earth.

Within a circle one hundred thousand kilometers large
Swimming in the sea of shooting stars.

Within a circle a million kilometers large
Upon the spaced-out yellow mustard blossoms
The moon in the east, the sun west.

Within a circle ten billion kilometers large
Pop far out of the solar system mandala.

Within a circle ten thousand light years large
The Galaxy full blooming in spring.

Within a circle one billion light years large
Andromeda is melting away into snowing cherry flowers.

Now within a circle ten billion light years large
All thoughts of time, space are burnt away
There again you sit, pray and sing.
You sit, pray and sing.

A Love Letter


‘A monk asked Lung-ya: “What did old masters attain when they entered the ultimate stage?” He replied, “They were like burglars sneaking into an empty house.”‘

I think I first heard this phrase from Shohaku Okumura, who talked about his dharma grand-father Kodo Sawaki using it regularly. It is a compelling image which rings true, and is a wonderful companion to his phrase about zazen being good for nothing. Whatever effort you have to make, in the end it is wasted, because you find no there there.


‘You must understand one thing in Buddhism: there is no mystery in authentic Dharma. Some people misunderstand Buddhism. They think anyone who studies Buddhism will acquire supernatural power, not knowing the real meaning of “supernatural.” Especially in America today, everyone wishes to have some form of power. They have enough power materially, therefore they wish to have some mental power. Their idea is to see through the wall, or to hear some voice the ordinary ear cannot hear. They are not trying to find repose of mind; their endless desire is some grasp something supernatural. I do not know what they would do with it if they had it. They are like children who wish to go to the circus – it is the childish element in their minds. Others think they will find in Buddhism the power to cure illness. They think Buddhism is a kind of hospital. But you must know that Buddhism is to bring repose to your mind. When you come to religion, you must relinquish your desire to possess power, material or spiritual. You must cultivate your immobile mind. Religion is simply for your soul. That is all.’ (The Zen Eye)

These words, from the earliest days of zen in America almost a hundred years ago, are perhaps more true now than when they were spoken. I often read blurbs for corporate meditation that seem to offer this kind of power, and, when I have to write similar material for myself, try to avoid this kind of language as best I can. People need enticements and encouragement for sure, but I don’t like to promise any outcome from meditation.

Koun Yamada

‘Put your questions on the shelf and practice zazen; you’ll get your own answers.’ (Zen: The Authentic Gate)

If I recall correctly from reading this book a few months ago while I was at Tassajara, specifically he is referring to questions that new practitioners have when they enter the temple or monastery. Why do we have to follow the forms? Why do we turn this way and not that way? Why do we bow? Why do we get up so early?
In my early days of practising at Zen Center, I think I had a fair number of these questions; having heard senior teachers saying that ‘why’ questions were not always helpful, I did not articulate many of them, but stuck to carrying out the forms the best I could. In time, as it became less about of doing them right or wrong (always a concern for the beginner), and more about of noticing how they became embodied, I had no questions about them, just a deep appreciation of them. When this is published, I should be in the midst of the Genzo-e, seeing, as I did at Tassajara, how well my body remembers the various intricacies of formal zen practice, and trusting how it does.

Kobun Chino

‘Gathering all elements, body and mind function somewhat together. We all know this life phenomenon of us is short, and when the time comes, all elements scatter again.
Day and night, day and night, the heart beats regularly, whether or not you are aware of it. The breathing continues with a certain rhythm. Your sense organs function amazingly, and brain, eyes, hands, which way you move every moment, are all spontaneous. These are taken care of in a split second. What kind of life is it? Do you call it a human being? In the Buddhist custom, we don’t name it human. It is simply life, and with surprise and amazement we call it Buddha nature. This is the total dynamic of awakening nature. This life force is seeking an object to love.
“Love,” in this case, means “give something of yourself.” Legs move you, compassion drives you to move toward the object. When you see a knowledgeable, experienced person, naturally you feel deep admiration, causing a magnetic pull toward that person. When you start to observe such impulses, you finally find out what are the contents of this magnetic force. When you see somebody suffering in pain or illness, immediately you go closer to find what you can do for this person. The same life force makes you want to share your knowledge and wisdom. All beings have inborn Buddha nature.’ (Embracing Mind)

The Lotus Sutra

‘If there be any who receive and keep, read and recite, rightly remember, practice and copy this Law-Flower Sutra, know that such are attending on Sakyamuni Buddha as if they were hearing this sutra from the Buddha’s mouth; know that they are paying homage to Sakyamuni Buddha; know that the Buddha is praising them – ‘Well done’; know that the heads of such are being caressed by the hands of Sakyamuni Buddha; know that such are covered by the robe of Sakyamuni Buddha. Such as these will not again be eager for worldly pleasure, nor be fond of heretical scriptures and writings, nor ever again take pleasure in intimacy with such men or other evil persons, whether butchers, or herders of pigs, sheep, fowl, and dogs, or hunters, or panderers. But such as these will be right-minded, have correct aims, and be auspicious. Such will not be harassed by the three poisons, not be harassed by envy, pride, haughtiness, and arrogance. Such will be content with few desires, and able to do the works of Universal Virtue.’

The sutra contains a number of passages like this, bestowing merit in advance on those who uphold it in various ways. I am endeavouring not to have ulterior motives by copying it; more to the point, I am still harassed by some of the negative traits that I am assured will not afflict me, and I may even hang out with panderers from time to time. As elsewhere in the sutra, some of the language can be problematic (I chose this one because it was one of the few that did not default to the men-only language that does pervade other parts), but the important take-away is the intimate connection to Buddha and his experience. This is the same connection that Sekito affirms at the beginning of the Sandokai , and that Dogen insists on in the Jijuyu Zanmai: ‘This being so, the zazen of even one person at one moment imperceptibly accords with all things and fully resonates through all time. Thus in the past, future, and present of the limitless universe this zazen carries on the Buddha’s teaching endlessly. Each moment of zazen is equally wholeness of practice, equally wholeness of realization.’ Wonderful benefits, and can we do this without ulterior motives?


The disciples Daowu and Yunyan stood in attendance to the master. Master Yaoshan pointed to two trees, one flourishing and one withering, and asked Daowu, “Better to flourish or to wither?” Daowu replied, “To flourish.” The master said, “Shining everywhere, bright and glorious.” Then, he asked Yunyan, “Better to flourish or to wither?” Yunyan replied, “To wither.” The master said, “Shining everywhere, let it wither and fade.” Another disciple, Novice Gao suddenly came, and the master asked him also. Gao replied, “Let the withering one wither, let the flourishing one flourish.” The master looked at both Daowu and Yunyan and said, “wrong, wrong.”

As the old conjugation has it: better, best, bested.


Friends of my childhood
Are all well-known now,
They discuss philosophy,
They write essays, criticisms.
I am getting old,
I am good for nothing,
This evening the rain is my only companion
I burn incense and lay myself in its fragrance;
I hear the wind passing the bamboo screen at my window.

Kodo Sawaki

‘What is zazen good for? Nothing! We should be made to hear this good-for-nothingness so often that we get calluses on our ears and practice good-for-nothing zazen without any expectation. Otherwise, our practice really is good for nothing.’ (The Zen Teaching of Homeless Kodo)

I may have used this quote before. I was wondering about going and checking, but then thought that even if I had, it is worth hearing again and again, just as Sawaki Roshi says. Uchiyama Roshi, in his commentary, mentions how frequently Sawaki Roshi used this phrase, and we have to keep underlining that expectation is alien to true zazen, however much we might pine for benefits.