Last week I found I was dreaming about wide open spaces, no doubt a trace of the hours spent under the wide open skies on the headlands of Sagres, and around Chichester Harbour. The last days of my trip felt like a welcome time of stepping aside – both from my regular life and from the other parts of the trip. In my waking hours, I found myself musing on how going back to to my home country gives me the opportunity to reflect my life in San Francisco in a particular, reductive way – how I choose to summarise to people in England my current activities, my usual feelings about living in California – and also throws me back into relationships and dynamics that I generally view as distant in time or space: recreating lived roles within my family, spending time with friends as an echo of the times we spent together twenty years ago – while sometimes stepping into my role as a teacher, which is much of my current identity.
There was also a sense of landing very slowly in San Francisco last week, picking up the different threads, remembering that, as much as I can romanticise it to people in England, my life is quite marginal, and that really I can barely afford to live here.
I remember the first time I left Tassajara, in 2004, after two years of living there and deepening my practice, how unequipped I felt to maintain that practice in the outside world, a hothouse flower exposed to cold winds. My intention at the time was to ordain as a priest, and it seemed to make the most sense to me to return to the monastery to do that training, a determination that threw other parts of my life into turmoil. Now, even as practice is more deeply embedded in my heart and my body, I still wonder how it holds up as I put aside most of the formal elements of it, and especially when I revisit the parts of my life that predate it.
I was offered another chance to reflect on all of this on Sunday afternoon, when I went down to Jikoji for a shukke tokudo. Tom, one of the ordinands, had invited me to come and take pictures (and also offered to pay me to do so, which meant I could write my November rent cheque without worry). I have visited the place a few times before – first as part of a residents’ retreat the weekend after 9/11 (many senior people decided to stay in the city to be available to help people who were struggling to cope with the events), in more recent years for a Young Urban Zen retreat, and to offer a photography and hiking workshop. It is a serene spot in the hills, and on Sunday was warm and bright, with the dry scent of California country.
There were familiar faces from various sanghas in attendance; the ceremony was intimate, and as with all formal occasions, imbued with the sense of what it means for two people to take on a life of vow. Having taken those same vows, I get to check in on how I am managing, and I feel encouraged to see others so willing.
Ryotan Cynthia Kear, the preceptor, asking Tom if she can shave the shura, the last piece of hair.
The lighting was quite dramatic at times.
Afterwards there was much hugging, and cake.