‘Fayan asked Elder Jiao, “Did you come by boat or by land?”
Jiao said, “By boat.”
Fayan said, “Where is the boat?”
Jiao said, “The boat is on the river.”
After Jiao had withdrawn, Fayan turned around and asked a monk standing by, “You tell me, did that monk just now have eyes or not?” (The Book of Serenity)

Hopefully the monk was not stupid enough to hazard a reply. So did he or not? The replies to the master’s questions, are they banal, or are they the truth? Should Elder Jiao have started making pithy observations about letting go of the raft once he had crossed the river? Perhaps you just had to be there to see his eyes.

On the water

I have had occasion to take the ferry across the bay recently. It is a wonderful way to see the city from a different angle, and to be reminded that the water is an important part of San Francisco’s history and development. Each time I have been on the boat, the weather has been different, even between the outward leg and the return, and I have been happy to have my camera on hand as well.
One foggy morning there was almost nothing to be seen, but it was still incredibly beautiful (it reminded me of the time I took the train across Australia, as part of the same trip that brought me to San Francisco for the first time in 1999; I happily stared out of the window at the countless miles of the Nullarbor Plain, subtly shifting all the time, while hearing a fellow passenger lamenting that there was nothing to look at). I posted a series from that crossing on my Patreon page; here are a couple more from another trip:

I have long appreciated how the downtown skyline – to the left in this picture, with Alcatraz in front of it – takes up less of the coastline than the wooded green of the Presidio – to the right. The amount of green space in the city is remarkable, and of course makes for many great roams.

A few hours after the previous picture, with a band of rain having passed through, and another on the way. Though not really distinguishable, most of the land in this picture  is green.

Shohaku Okumura

‘Usually, taking a vow is like making a promise: if we don’t keep it, we feel bad, or fear that we might be punished. But vow in Buddhism is not like that. It’s not something we do with our intellect or shallow emotion. We vow toward the Buddha, toward something absolute and infinite. As a bodhisattva, we can never say, ‘I have achieved all vows’. We cannot be proud of our achievements, because in comparison to the infinite, anything we achieve is insignificant. Each of us has different capabilities of course. If we cannot do very much, we practice just a little. There is no reason for us to feel small or to say we’re sorry. We just try to be right there with this body and mind and move forward one step or half a step. This is our practice in a concrete sense.’ (Living By Vow)

Sekito Kisen

Long abiding together, not knowing its name,
Just going on, practicing like this,
Since ancient times the sages don’t know.
Will searching everywhere now make it known?

Shinshu Roberts

‘The whole world is constantly teaching us. I have noticed that when I am being unskillful, when I need to let go or drop my ideas about what is happening, the world responds with a lesson. Sometimes I don’t like the messenger. Sometimes the message is not delivered skillfully. But it is delivered. We must keep our eyes and heart open to this wondrous reality. Can we drop the self? Can we practice the real renunciation of being completely alive to the moment?’ (The Hidden Lamp)


‘A monk asked Zen master Yunju Daoying, “What is the one Dharma?”
Yunju said, “What are the ten thousand dharmas?”
The monk said, “I don’t understand how to comprehend this.”
Yunju said, “The one Dharma is your own mind. The ten thousand dharmas are your fundamental nature. Are they one thing or two?”
The monk bowed.’ (Zen’s Chinese Heritage)

It is to be hoped that the monk was being facetious when he said he didn’t know how to comprehend this. Still, worth pondering: one thing or two? Answer, quickly!


What I think about when I am riding

My usual cycling route out of the city takes me to the Panhandle, the first part of Golden Gate Park, and then Arguello north to the Presidio, and on to the bridge. A couple of years ago, I noticed that most early mornings there were two lines of people at different parts of Arguello. The first was outside a relatively non-descript bakery that won an award for having the best croissants, though whether that was in the Bay Area, or all of California, I don’t really know. The people waiting were young, on the whole, and looking at their phones as they waited their turn in line (very similar to lines at well-reviewed places elsewhere in the city).
Just a few blocks further north, the line of people skewed much older, mostly Asian-American women leaning on their wheeled shopping carts, outside St John’s church, where boxes of food were being brought in and then distributed.
I have often thought about the nearness of these two very disparate waitings and what it says about the current state of the city; more recently I have observed that the line for croissants is generally shorter now, while the line for donated food is just as long as ever.

After a dry December, we have had a decent amount of rain in January, and in between the showers, the skies have been blue and the air clear. The wind has come down from the north, which makes riding out over the bridge more of a struggle; one morning it felt as  if I had not drunk my pre-ride coffee – of course the payback on the way home is quite a sweet relief. I have been climbing a lot of hills this month; after making use of my friend’s car to revisit a favourite ride on the Peninsula, up King’s Mountain, down Skyline, out to San Gregorio and back up Tunitas Creek, I wanted to follow up with the two great climbs up the back of Tam, from the Bolinas side, and the Fairfax side via Alpine Dam. Both rides felt hard, and I had less energy than I wanted, but it was still great to try them. I also enjoyed the pockets of warm and cool air: at Richardson Bay, not flooded this time, it was cold enough for frost on the bridge planking; a few miles further north in Ross, a large magnolia was already blossoming in vivid purple; through the shaded tree-covered slopes, a sense of dampness; on the south side of the mountain, almost balmy warmth – all so close together, and yet so different, all making part of the interdependent whole.

Chan Master Sheng Yen

We practice to lessen vexation and gradually illuminate the mind. But the road to that end, where the environment no longer gives rise to vexation, is marked with obstacles. When you scale a mountain, there is rarely a straight path to the top. More likely, you will encounter twists and turns, rises and dips, objects to get around and over. As you overcome these obstacles, you may get closer, but it is not a straight walk to the summit. As practitioners, we have an ordinary being’s body and mind. We can tire mentally and physically. When this happens, it is very difficult to make progress even if you want to keep going forward, making breakthrough after breakthrough.

Therefore, if you are constantly motivated to accumulate positive experiences, the opposite—negative experiences—is likely to happen. Under these conditions, one is likely to feel frustration. This leads to negative feelings and thoughts like, “This is not for me. I’m not the kind of person who can practice well.” When you try to move forward you meet an obstacle, or find yourself going in circles, or even going backwards. There comes a temptation to give up and leave practice to others.

We need to remind ourselves that the purpose of practice is gradually to leave behind self-clinging and to illuminate one’s mind. Its aim is to slow down and eventually end our struggles to satisfy our cravings and to find complete security. Craving happiness, we make sacrifices to attain it, and this sacrificing causes suffering. The quest for happiness causes our suffering, and to escape suffering we seek happiness. This cycle of happiness and suffering constitutes the ego-centered self.’ 


‘A monk asked Caoshan, “How can one be in charge all the time?”
Caoshan said, “Like passing through a village with poisoned well – don’t touch even a drop of water.”‘ (quoted in The Book of Serenity)

This is an intriguing little exchange, which I don’t remember hearing before. My first thought was, ‘why would you want to be in charge all the time?’, and my mind brought up the case with Kueishan (not for the first time). But then I thought of all the introductory verses in the koan collections where the suggestion is that mastery of the teachings mean you experience, as Suzuki Roshi put it ‘being the boss.’ And then I thought about Caoshan’s analogy, and that the way to be the boss is to be aware of the dangers of taking in things that we might think are beneficial but fundamentally do us no good. Or to put it another way, as Linda Ruth always used to say to us at Tassajara, remember that there is no fundamental to rely on.

Sharon Salzberg

‘In reality,  love is fluid; it’s a verb, not a noun. Love is a living capacity within us that is always present, even when we don’t sense it. And there are many kinds of love. Sanskrit has different words to describe love for a brother or sister, love for a teacher, love for a partner, love for one’s friends, love of nature, and so on. English only has one word, which leads to never-ending confusion.’ (Real Love)

I noticed, when I typed out the title, that I thought of what might be a typical zen rejoinder to the point she is making: which of these many kinds of love is real love? And of course the answer is: all of them. The working of my mind there was part of an inner voice asking, well, what has this to do with zen practice? It is true that you can scour a lot of zen texts looking for words about love and find them thin on the ground, but I think it is also true that an experienced practitioner (I am not going to say an enlightened practitioner because I think that would add a sense for people that they are excluded from that category) loves everybody, because they see exactly who they are. Suzuki Roshi might not have mentioned love, but people who talk about him felt loved by him because he saw them fully.
I was also remembering, as I typed, one of the few sermons that I sat through in my early life that has stayed with me. One of my headmasters spoke of the Greek words philia, eros and agape, and spoke eloquently of what each of them meant to us as humans; it inspired me to explore more, not God’s love, necessarily, but the idea of a bigger, selfless love.