‘Master Shoku was asked by a monk, “What is the meaning of our founder coming from the west?” The master said, “It is like getting a man out of a thousand-foot-deep well without using one single inch of rope. This answers your enquiry.” The monk said, “The monk O of the district of Konan recently became famous and the subject of people’s gossip.” Upon this Shoku summoned the young monk Jaku and said, “Drag out the corpse.”

Master Kyozan (who heard about this dialogue) asked Master Tangen, “How can you get the man in the well out?” Tangen said, “You stupid fool! Who is in the well?” Kyozan said nothing. Again, he later asked Master Isan, “How can you get the man in the well out?” Isan called out, “Kyozan!” Kyozan answered the call and Isan said, “He is out of the well already!”
Kyozan always used to tell the story described above to the people saying, “I got the principle from Tangen and learned the use from Isan.” (The Sound of the One Hand)

More on koans, following on from yesterday. My dharma friend Jamie gave me a battered copy of The Sound of the One Hand a little while ago, and it has been my commute read recently. It purports to give away all the standard ‘answers’ to koans that Japanese Rinzai monks have got in the tradition of giving to their masters.

At the risk of a bad pun, on the one hand, just looking at so-called standard answers misses the point, as the essential element of the exchange between student and master is the student’s ability, or otherwise, to embody the expression.
At a Japanese shuso ceremony, the same principle applies, as far as I understand it. There are stock questions and answers, but the shuso is expected to express themselves fully and with vitality. At Zen Center, spontaneity of question and answer is the custom, but there are still very Japanese elements in the ceremony, especially in the closing statement where the shuso professes ‘I am deeply ashamed’ at their lack of understanding and ability. In the assembly we listen to that, and sometimes a depth of emotion is exposed. I remember in my own ceremony, five years ago, even though I felt I had acquitted myself reasonably well over the course of responding to sixty or more questioners, I put more into that phrase than I imagined I would.
Jamie and I are plotting our visit to Tassajara in a couple of weeks, with some former shuso colleagues to put Yuki, the current shuso, who is Japanese, to the test. I am sure she will do wonderfully – her vitality is certainly not in question.

Nyogen Senzaki

‘All Zen questions ask for buddha-nature, and nothing else. All answers must come, therefore, directly from it, that is to say, from the inner being of one’s own self.’ (Eloquent Silence)

Good advice on approaching a koan.

What I Think About When I Am Running

Over the weekend, having had a couple of sunny mornings out on the bike, I planned to go for a run on Sunday, when it was forecast to rain through the day. I was lucky in that the rain petered out around the time I was aiming to leave, and so motivation was not a problem.
What I noticed, though, as I was thinking about the route I wanted to take, was a familiar disconnect between physical distance and what I would call ‘psychic distance’. I wrote about this in connection with riding last year; right now I am pushing at those boundaries again, having made it out by bike to Fairfax on Thanksgiving morning, allowing me to feel ready to go further in the near future if I get a chance.

In terms of running, I had thought about getting to Mount Davidson. We had a very pleasant roam on Saturday afternoon, up to the top of Twin Peaks, where it was unusually free from wind, and talked about the possibility of revisiting the city’s highest point. There is a fairly direct route from where I live to the summit, via Market and Portola, but I thought I would save that for the return, which left me plotting an outward leg over Diamond Heights and down Glen Canyon. That part I have done enough times to feel totally okay with, but it was the stretch between Bosworth St and the top of Dalewood that added the sense of unknown – as I have noted before. The roads meander around as they climb the southern slopes of the mountain, making it seem much more arduous than it really is, though of course I had already climbed up two long inclines by the time I got there.
It was dramatically misty on the open spaces at the top of the mountain, with no real views, though eventually the looming shadow of the Salesforce building appeared on the horizon. Coming down from the top of Portola, the city stretched out in a wan wintry end-of-afternoon light, with a stream of car headlights marking the city side of the Bay Bridge. From that angle, the city looks pretty small.
And the entire loop took me just over an hour, much as the run to the ridge had the previous weekend, well within my comfort zone after all.

Blanche Hartman

‘In the ongoing, kaleidoscopic chaos of our life there is nothing substantial to hold on to. Our lives arise moment after moment after moment, and we can’t identify with any of it because it arises and passes away. In the midst of the openness of this question, “What?… What?…What?…” When you touch that really open place, let it enlarge, let it expand, let it explode your limited view of a substantial separate self and allow you to experience the boundlessness of your being.’ (Seeds for a Boundless Life)


‘A monk asked, “All of the buddhas and all of the Buddhadharmas come forth from this sutra. What is this sutra?”
Qinshan said, “Forever turning.”‘ (Zen’s Chinese Heritage)

Shohaku Okumura

‘Our practice includes all activities of this body and mind – including our thoughts, which are one way to understand this wondrous Dharma. We don’t need to cut off our thoughts. Thinking is, in fact, a function of the Dharma. But we should understand that thought cannot grasp reality. So we have to open our hands and work with the reality we encounter daily.’ (Living By Vow)

This is perhaps a level deeper than we often get to look at things. I usually stick to telling people to let go of their thoughts, because that is what we are most attached to. If you tell people that their thoughts are indeed part of the unfolding reality of each moment, they can take that as an excuse not to work at cultivating our awareness of the moment through other means, because we trust that thoughts can do everything for us and solve every problem.


‘When you see a speck of dust, it is not that you do not see the world of phenomena. When you realize the world of phenomena it is not that you do not realize a speck of dust. When buddhas realize the world of phenomena, they do not keep you from realization. Wholesomeness is manifest in the beginning, middle, and end.
Thus, realization is reality right now. Even shocks, doubts, fears and frights are none other than reality right now. However, with buddha knowledge it is different; seeing a speck of dust is different from sitting within a speck of dust. Even when you sit in the world of phenomena, it is not broad. Even when you sit in a speck of dust, it is not narrow. If you are fully present, you are free of how large or narrow it is where you are.’ (Shobogenzo Hokke Ten Hokke)

If you are confused, I think this passage (and, let’s face it, all of Dogen – as when I was typing this out, phrases from the Fukanzazengi came to mind) can be boiled down to these four words: realization is reality right now.

Under the Stars

I don’t remember how long it has been since I sat and looked at the Milky Way. At Wilbur and Tassajara, in the middle of the summer, generally speaking I do not stay up late enough for it to get really dark. Sometimes if I woke up in the middle of the night, or before it got light, I would go outside to be dazzled, but only briefly.

On Friday I arrived at Wilbur towards the end of daylight. The sun had been cutting into a few open spots on the Cache Canyon, setting the yellow trees ablaze. Once it had dropped behind the hills, you could feel the temperature dropping rapidly towards freezing. A far cry from the 112 degrees the last time I was there; in the morning, a hard frost was visible on the plants and the roofs.
The little tub by the fountain is a great place to sit at any time, with the valley stretching away in front of you. To watch the light drain from the sky on Friday after arriving, and have myriad stars come alive, including a few shooting stars – that beautiful space debris – was deeply peaceful, in a way that I last felt during my days in Sagres. I was glad to feel connected to that sense of spacious ease again, as it had felt in short supply in the city since my return. There was no hurry to be anywhere else, and so I gazed upwards for a couple of hours.

As often happens, I slept deeply, with manifold dreams, as if my mind was unraveling many stories I have been holding. During the meditation sessions I talked of boundlessness and the ‘body exposed to the golden wind’. I hiked in the morning sun under blue skies, and ran up to the ridge again as Sunday clouded over ahead of a rainy night, deeply quiet apart from a few small birds. On the way down I gathered a few chestnuts, and as my legs tired on the valley trail, I looked forward to one last soak.

Steam rising from the water as the morning temperatures hovered at freezing.

The creek in the early sun

Rain had turned some of the grasses green.

Autumnal colours on the valley sides.

Heading out on Bear Valley Road on a damp Monday morning.


‘Yangshan asked his teacher Guishan, “How is it when millions of objects emerge all at once?”
Guishan said, “A blue thing is not yellow. A long thing is not short. All things abide in their own positions. Why should I be concerned?”‘ (Shinji Shobogenzo)

This exchange came to mind again recently, and I spent some time trying to find the translation I had in my head, to no avail. Nevertheless, the translation is not the point. The point is the point. Can we let go of worrying about things that do not concern us?