Shodo Harada

‘When the ego is affixed to something, we only see a very narrow view; when that something is let go of, a greater wisdom, a greater awareness, a greater ability to function is able to live through us and be present at each and every moment. It takes time to learn how to let go of that ego, but once we have experienced that place of freedom from it, we feel less threatened by the prospect of letting go of it and allowing that greater awareness to work through our lives. When we can let go of that ego at any given moment, rather than being left without the ability to function, we are full of a much greater wisdom. We are able to move and act and behave in a richer way because we are no longer caught by some idea of how things should be. ‘ (The Path to Bodhidharma)

I think this follows on nicely from Hongzhi’s expression yesterday. It is all too clear how the ego tricks us into thinking it is indispensable, but mostly that is just its fear manifesting, and eventually we can learn not to fall for that trick.


‘Traveling the world, meeting conditions, the self joyfully enters samadhi in all delusions and accepts its function, which is to empty out the self so as not to be full of itself.’ (Cultivating the Empty Field)

The footnote to this sentence points to Hongzhi’s expression pre-figuring Dogen’s exposition of jijuyu zanmai, and observes that ‘the Chinese compound that means enjoyment or fulfillment translates literally as “receive function.”‘ I have noted before how hard it was for me to get my head around jijuyu zanmaibut I think the idea that we can simply accept our function, our place in the world, makes things a lot clearer and smoother – and perhaps then we can enter samadhi in all delusions without thinking that somehow we should be doing something different.



Kobun Chino

‘Speaking and listening have the same quality as many of the sounds around us (a duck is quacking outside). That voice you can understand, even if it is not a human word. That sound of kitchen (chopping, ringing of pans) you can understand, even if it is not formal human language. Even when there are no words, there is teaching, so it is a little awkward to take the opportunity to speak. The whole thing is a little dusty. Without human language, all trees and all grasses know each other completely, and they are saying, “Let’s not think whether we know each other or not. We already do.”‘ (Embracing Mind)

Christmas with Coyotes

It would be an exaggeration to say that I was woken up on Christmas morning by coyotes howling on the hillsides around Wilbur at first light; I had already been awake for a couple of hours and had my breakfast. Still, the noise was not one I had ever heard before, nor one I associated with Christmas, and I took one of the free bikes and rode up toward the parking lot to see if I could see any of them, but in vain.
I have happy memories of childhood Christmases with my family, but since I am several thousand miles away from them these days, and have not been back in England for Christmas since 2005, I don’t really go for festivities so much any more. And much as I love the traditional carols (I invoked In The Bleak Midwinter during one of my little talks, since the bright, slightly chilly days of the weekend in the part of California we were in are a far cry from the colder, darker days of my upbringing), I am always happy to avoid the constant piping of festive music in the run-up to the 25th. Spending the season at Tassajara was always a great way to do that, and I was also reminiscing about a trip I took to Zanzibar in December twenty years ago, where the only carols I heard were at the airport in Doha, which seemed entirely incongruous.
Wilbur was a good place for that too; signs of the holidays were few and far between. There was plenty of good cheer, though that is almost always the case up there.
I was happy to have the chance, once again, to get out of the city, and start my quiet last week of the year with some sitting, some soaking, and some running.

The main building at Wilbur at first light on the 25th.

I didn’t take too many other pictures, but here are a couple of the creek – and a tributary – further up the valley.


‘Master Kasan quoted, “To study is mon [the character meaning ‘hear’]. To cut off study is rin [the character meaning ‘near’]. Above these two there is shin [the character meaning ‘true’].”
A monk asked, “What is shin like?”
Kasan answered, “To be able to beat the drum.”
The same monk asked again, “The essence of shin, what is it like?”
Kasan answered, “To be able to beat the drum.”
The monk asked once more, “I won’t ask about the-mind-as-it-is-being-Buddha, but the no-mind-no-Buddha, how about that?”
Kasan answered, “To be able to beat the drum.”
The monk asked again, “If a person who is earnestly and wholeheartedly seeking for the truth comes to you, how will you treat him?”
Kasan answered, “To be able to beat the drum.” (quoted in The Sound of One Hand)

Apparently the ‘answer‘ to this is ‘boom, boom, boom, boom’, and frankly I am not surprised, though to my taste, two ‘booms’ would be sufficient (perhaps recalling early memories). The monk exhausts all the stages he can think about, and still gets nothing special. Perhaps if he can burn through the seeking, the drum will appear for him, just waiting to be hit.

The Monastic Life

I don’t remember how exactly I came across this passage, but it was probably a couple of weeks ago while I was sifting through my computer archives for pictures that I could print out and send as Christmas cards. In any case, it comes from a letter that I wrote to a loved one in the spring of 2008, as I prepared to leave Tassajara after my second two-year stretch, before I moved to City Center to become the tenzo (I seem to recall, if you wonder why I would be writing on my laptop when Tassajara famously has no internet access, that I would put the words, and perhaps a few photos, on a thumb-drive, and send them out in the mail whenever Keith came in).
I was surprised to read these words, not for the content, which feels very familiar, and still true, but for the fact that I felt that way at the time – in the way I tell the story now, as I do on the Roaming Zen page here, I thought the feeling came more to light during my next spell of monastic training in 2012:

‘I do love life here, as you know, and have been thinking about how many amazing things have happened in the last month, it’s just that very few of them happened in the zendo. I just have to keep remembering that life here is not just about sitting, though I want to make the most of this opportunity to do so much, but also about the beautiful expeditions and the crazy weather, and the bathhouse and the stars and hot water bottles and playing with rocks and studying with a cup of coffee and all those other things.’

The ridge with snow.jpg
This is one of the pictures I sent family and friends for Christmas – the wonderful experience of driving out of Tassajara at the end of a three-month practice period and having deep, almost untouched snow up on the ridge. It was not like that when we went in last week

D laying concrete.jpg
I came across this picture from roughly that time period while looking for something else recently; it isn’t exactly playing with rocks, but it was part of putting together the largest wall I worked on at Tassajara, below the old bathhouse bathrooms, which had been washed away several times. With some help from a concrete crew – notably Antoine in the background, who was back at Tassajara this last practice period after some years away – I put in a mortared wall below where the hot spring water pipes ran, and then dry stone walling for the rest – the space on the left of the picture. It is almost entirely intact, though I didn’t top off robustly enough in a couple of places.


In the stillness by the empty window
I sit in formal meditation wearing my monk’s surplice,
Navel and nose in alignment,
Ears parallel with the shoulders.
Moonlight floods the room;
The rain stops but the eaves drip and drip.
Perfect this moment –
In the vast emptiness, my understanding deepens.

Sekkei Harada

‘We know that Master Dogen did not lie down to rest for three years, yet he tells us not to stand out or go to extremes. How can he say this? He can say this because he made the great effort of not lying down to sleep. Because of his own great effort he was able to instruct us, to tell us, “You needn’t experience the same hardships that I have. I’ve realized that it’s all about now. So the most important thing is to realize that everything is already the way it should be. It isn’t good to look for something special.”
But we should be very careful. Just because Master Dogen said this doesn’t mean that we needn’t do anything. A delicious piece of cake will not simply fall in to our lap by just thinking about it. Cake is not going to fall out of the sky, no matter how long we wait for it to. We won’t fill our stomachs that way. Only after having made great effort is someone able to say, “The practice of the Three Vehicles is totally unnecessary.”  (Unfathomable Depths)

So is Sekkei Harada telling us that if we want to have cake, we don’t need to bake it from scratch, but that, since cake shops exist, it is okay to go and buy a ready-made cake when we want it?
Seriously, though, there is a strong point here that seems hard to grasp at the beginning of practice. I did not go anything like as far as Dogen, or the other stories we read of diligent students poking themselves in the leg with an awl to stay awake; yet I know that my experience of doing a number of practice periods at Tassajara would seem pretty extreme to most people. And I know that it is not essential to do this. It just does seem to take a radical shaking of our conventional world-view, however it comes about, to have us awake to the crucial point expressed above: ‘the most important thing is to realize that everything is already the way it should be.’

Robert White

‘Feelings are, among other things, your brain’s way of labeling the importance of thoughts, and importance (in natural selection’s somewhat crude sense of the term) determines which thoughts enter consciousness…
After all, feelings are the original motivators. Good and bad feelings are what natural selection used to goad animals into, respectively, approaching things or avoiding things, acquiring things or rejecting things; good feelings were assigned to things like eating and bad feelings to things like being eaten.’ (Why Buddhism Is True)

I was given this book to read, by a practitioner who had read the first chapter and then lost interest in it. Having read both the New Yorker review of the book (which, as the dharma friend I discussed it with and I agreed, seemed to miss so many points), and a (more palatable) rebuttal by the author in the New York TimesI was somewhat curious to read that actual book itself.
And… I found it to be a great exposition on evolutionary psychology, and how that has caused the brain to function in the way that it does, to our benefit and detriment. Alongside this, there is a good sense of how a meditation practice – Vipassana in the case of the author – can work to make ourselves aware of these mental formations and to sidestep or mitigate the less beneficial effects of them.
I can’t say that I enjoyed it much as a manual on Buddhism. There were many times I felt the author got stuck in words, mental constructs and definitions, and found myself wincing at how he characterised ‘illusion’, ‘essence’ and ’emptiness’, and talked of ‘disowning’ or ‘separating’ ourselves from our feelings, as if they were something we could put outside ourselves, when he was encouraging establishing a critical perspective on them. Even speaking of the ‘non-self’ seemed to be mired in intellectual exercise, while all the while pointing to the need for an experiential understanding rather than a mental one.
A typical frustration for me, as Wright discussed Buddha’s various pronouncements on ‘non-self’, was reading a quote from a modern-day Western scholar, introduced to propose a theory of the self, followed by Wright’s line, “Who knows, maybe that was the Buddha’s view of the matter. Maybe he wasn’t really trying to articulate a doctrine, but rather to draw you down a path.” Wright seems to be in thrall to current ‘skilled meditators’, and uses them as a lens to examine the potential inconsistencies of Buddhism as a philosophy, while trying to maintain the stance of an ordinary scientific kind of guy who happens to have noticed some benefits from his years of retreat practice.

I suspect I am not really the target demographic for the book, in that I am not very interested in what scholars have to say about Buddhism. I am certainly interested in how the latest science supports the truth of what Buddha awoke to, and my experience of practice has led me to trust most the accounts of those, in the past, and the present, whose experience has pointed them to the fundamental truth of things.