Shodo Harada

‘When the clear mind is realized, when these feelings of love and compassion come forth truly, naturally, and spontaneously out of a clear mind, then they are not something that is chosen. Love rather than hate, compassion rather than narrow-mindedness, will evolve naturally from a state of clarity, which brings forth the wisdom to express these things, in the moment.’ (The Path to Bodhidharma)

I remember hearing Daigaku Rumme express that it was important not to try to be more compassionate than you actually are. I have debated this point several times over the years, as there is something to be said for a ‘fake it until you make it’ approach, but Shodo Harada, also comes down on the other side – that forcing yourself to be compassionate in a situation just means you are suppressing other emotions, privileging how you ‘should’ feel over how you do actually feel. So, in a typical zen way, he suggests approaching it from the other side: develop a clear mind, and then the problem is solved.


‘The teaching has no dualism, neither does the mind; the Way is pure, without any signs. You should be careful not to contemplate stillness and empty your minds. The mind is originally clean, with nothing to grasp or reject. Each of you work on your own, going along as best you can according to circumstances.’ (The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch)


Chan Master Sheng Yen

I like to delve into the library at Tassajara while I am there to see what catches my eye. While I was looking over the shelves, I pulled one book out, and saw a tiny little booklet that had been hiding next to it; a short pamphlet with the title ‘The Advantages One May Derive from Zen Meditation’ (the zen was printed in red, for added emphasis, I suppose).
Since I was due to give the zazen instruction on the days that my retreats started, I thought I might glean something useful; ultimately I decided against quoting any of it, partly because I tend to adhere to the ‘no gaining idea’ school that Suzuki Roshi espoused. But I thought it would be fun to quote a passage here:

‘Since we know that Zen Meditation is the best means of uncovering and developing one’s hidden wisdom and physical power, then it is not difficult to transform an ordinary person into a brilliant one, a physically weak person into a strong one, thus enabling all people to become perfect. Therefore, Zen Meditation is the best means to strengthen human life, build up society, and improve the entire environment.’

J. Estanislao Lopez

There are days I think beauty has been exhausted
but then I read about the New York subway cars that,

dumped into the ocean, have become synthetic reefs.
Coral gilds the stanchions, feathered with dim Atlantic light.

Fish glisten, darting from a window into the sea grass
that bends around them like green flames—

this is human-enabled grace. So maybe there’s room
in the margin of error for us to save ourselves

from the trends of self-destruction.
Or maybe such beauty is just another distraction,

stuffing our hearts with its currency, paraded for applause.
Here, in the South, you can hear applause

coming from the ground: even the buried are divided.
At the bottom of the Gulf, dark with Mississippi silt,

rests the broken derrick of an oil rig—and isn’t oil
also beautiful? Ancient and opaque, like an allegory

that suggests we sacrifice our most beloved. Likely
ourselves. In one photograph, a sea turtle skims its belly

across a hull, unimpressed with what’s restored,
barely aware of the ocean around it growing warm.


‘As for what is called magnanimous mind, this mind is like the great mountains or like the great ocean; it is not biased or contentious mind. Carrying half a pound, do not take it lightly; lifting forty pounds should not seem heavy. Although drawn by the voices of spring, do not wander over spring meadows; viewing the fall colors, do not allow your heart to fall. The four seasons co-operate in a single scene; regard light and heavy with a single eye.’ (Tenzokyokun)

My class on the Tenzokyokun starts on Tuesday (there is still time and space for you to sign up if you are local); this lovely passage comes towards the very end, so we won’t look at it for a few weeks yet. But I will say that looking at things with a single eye does not mean ignoring the fact that they are different. I will also say that, for me, it echoes the point I was making yesterday.

When Preferences Are Cast Aside

To founder in dislike and like is nothing but the mind’s disease – Hsin Hsin Ming

If I had a dollar for every time I heard, while I was at Tassajara, a guest proclaiming that the creek was cold – either as a reason for not going in the water, or as a reaction to having gone in – I could have bought myself a nice treat.
My response to the statement, when I gave one, was to say, ‘you should try it in January.’ When asked how it was, after I had gone in, I tended to describe it as fresh. I know how different it can feel depending on the warmth of the day (and the weather went from warm to cool to hot to cool to warm in the ten days I was there), the depth and speed of the water.
Mostly though, I reflected on how I had made going into the creek a practice: I went in every day that I was a monk at Tassajara. In January there would be a long warm-up in the steam room before I went in, and a quick return to the warm plunges afterwards, but I always did it, as did others who were there.
In the summer I have a habit of just jumping right in, simply to take the thinking out of it, and that seems to reflect the training we get as monks: don’t contemplate whatever it is you have to do, just do it. It may be cold, it may feel great, but what the English call the ‘faffing about’ beforehand is the hardest part of it.

170530_bernasko_Tassajara-HikeDay1_039.JPGCorinna got this shot of me jumping in at the Narrows last year.

Losing Another Friend

While I was at Tassajara, news came through of Jordan’s decline. He had been battling cancer for a while, and had given a number of dharma talks on the subject. Recently, he had been given the all-clear, as he discussed in his most recent talk. And then it came back with a vengeance – he died on Sunday morning.

Word was sent out that we could come and sit with the body, so I went over to Zen Center on Monday morning; there was a collection of Zen Center people, some long-time students of his, and family members.

Jordan was always fairly solidly built, but had been shrunk by his final illness, evidently. Sitting with him, I remembered other similar occasions, with Blanche, Lou and Jerome, laid out in their robes, all older when they died than Jordan had been. I remembered time spent with him over the years at Zen Center – not the many meetings we were both at, or the hours sitting in the zendo together, but the time it took us two days to get out of Tassajara because of the snow and fallen trees (Jess, who was staying at Tassajara last week, was part of that story); watching the 2010 World Cup Final in his apartment with Anna and Seguin, a very gentle and warm afternoon with good food; even a mundane trip together over to Berkeley to buy a new fridge for the small kitchen at City Center, stopping, perhaps typically, at his favourite wine merchants on the way back.

I remember the tone of his talks: he told stories of his school days when he was tanto at Tassajara; sometimes he could almost seem formulaic, but then he would add a poignant detail, a telling phrase. He was never afraid to be tender.

The first time I sat with a body was my grandmother; it was a long warm midsummer evening in England. Having spent the afternoon with her, and her three children, we were eating dinner outside with swallows circling overhead when the phone call came. After visiting, I walked back across the town where she and my parents lived; it was a Saturday night, noise drifted out from the pubs. Life continued, I observed, because it had to. On Monday I left Zen Center and rode down to the Embarcadero for our lunch-time sitting. It was warmer than usual, and we had more people on our cushions than ever before (including two who had attended the retreats at Tassajara). The promenade was crowded, even without the scooters. A small sailing dinghy beat its way up the Bay from under the bridge, seemingly battling the tide, but making headway until it was lost from sight.

Daigan tokudo - Jordan.jpg
I discovered I had more pictures of Jordan than I remembered. This is him as a preceptor at Daigan’s tokudo in 2011.

Driving the road day 1 Jordan chainsaws.jpg
Somewhat less formally, here he is wielding a chainsaw to clear the road up from Tassajara as we tried to get him out for a meeting. We ended up turning back due to deep snow drifts.

Greens Jordan.jpg
This is how I would picture him most normally – taken at a Zen Center meeting at Greens.

What I think about when I am running

I thought about going for a run when I arrived at Tassajara on Memorial Day, but it was already in the eighties when we got out of the car, and relaxing seemed like a better idea. During my first week I was happy hiking and doing a lot more yoga than usual; having been feeling some misalignment in my spine since my last visit to Tassajara in April (which I partly attributed to the long hours of driving), it was wonderful to feel things seeming to fall back into place on the last full day of yoga with Lirio.

The following Monday, when the retreats were over, I set off for a run to the Wind Caves; it was getting hotter by the time I left, and these days there is less shade than when I first ran the trail. It felt like hard work with all the climbing on the way up; in the baths afterwards I felt completely wiped out.

People at Tassajara had been getting sick, and by the end of the day I had the onset of a sore throat, which did not lay me as low as it had some residents, but curtailed my physical activity, at least in relation to what I had been planning to do.

On Friday, the last day I was there, trying not to put any pressure on myself (I slept in rather than going to the zendo, but could not bring myself to run before breakfast as I had contemplated), I decided that I felt up for running the Tony Trail, and surprised myself by plugging away right to the top. My body memory of these trails is very distinct, even down to where I might need to avoid poison oak. I remember running the Tony Trail with Bryan many times, and having to dig hard as he pushed up the hardest middle sections; this time I paced myself over the earlier easy slopes, and just had to grit my teeth as I counted down the various middle stretches before the final more gentle sections. As with all climbs, coming back down gave me a real sense of what I had accomplished.

I invoked Terry many times on both runs and the hike I took up the creek during the week; he had been living at Tassajara in the years before I did, and we only overlapped in my first summer I think, but I remember all the work (mostly single-handedly as far as I can tell) he did to reroute the first third of the Tony Trail, which had previously been brutally steep, by adding in switch-backs across the first gullies. He had also maintained the upper creek trail for a couple of miles, and I had followed it happily many times. Now, even with the trail re-cut a few summers ago to allow crews to access the small fire that had occurred up on the Church Creek, it was over-run with poison oak in many places. When I went this time, I stayed almost entirely in the creek – though I still had a rattlesnake rattling at me from a few feet away while I was on the bank one time (happily it was much more interested in slinking away than attacking).

Had I not been sick I would also have gone downcreek as well, where Terry had discovered and maintained a horse trail that bypassed the second narrows by going over the cliffs. I would have been curious to see if that was still there. Maybe next year.

Tony Trail - further down trail.jpeg
A view back down the Tony Trail from a previous summer.

These photos show how the fire has affected the trails as well. The first valley section of the Church Creek Trail up to the Wind Caves is traditionally called The Pines. This first photograph, from 2007, shows them growing up the valley side.

Flag Rock from Church Creek trail.jpg

The following year, they were all burnt:

Flag Rock from Church Creek trail .jpg

The chaparral has grown up in the absence of the tree cover, and the trail was rerouted on the way up the hillside to help fight erosion on the barer slopes. The Tony Trail, by the way, winds its ways up the gullies of the hill in front of the tallest one on the right hand side of the picture.

Lime Point cut-off view over the pines.jpg

Becoming Butterflies

When I am co-leading retreats at Tassajara, I feel that most of my job is to be the Tassajara translator – not just of the forms and guidelines, but also about the experience of living here, especially as summer guests are often curious about monastic life in the winter. I am rather embarrassed to realise these days that some of my stories about Tassajara are fifteen years old, and many of my best ones, to do with the 2008 fire, are ten years old now. Nevertheless, because the place has been such an important part of my life since I moved to California, I hope that my enthusiasm makes up for the datedness.

It was striking this year that my visit coincided with a number of other people who form a part of those stories being at Tassajara, for longer or shorter stays: Siobhan (whose car I drove in for her on my first visit in 2000), Laura, Tim, Tenku, Amy, Jess.

This year, there was a new story that I imagine will be told for a few years to come: when we hiked around the Horse Pasture trail on the first of the two retreats, we were struck by the number of chrysalises on various bushes. It seemed an auspicious thing to have got to witness, but then a week later, the inevitable consequence appeared at Tassajara: countless butterflies enjoying warming themselves in the sun and nourishing themselves by the creek.

Having already relaxed from a week of moving at human speed, and without constant digital distraction, I found myself even less stressed: it’s hard to feel cynical when you are surrounded by a cloud of butterflies – except, perhaps, when you see Stellar’s jays hopping around chomping on them seemingly for wanton sport. Even the ground squirrels eventually figured out they could eat them, though none of the predators had much impact on the overall numbers.

I was not the only one with stories this time around, either: on the first retreat we had someone who had been at Tassajara in 1970 when Suzuki Roshi had been giving the talks on the Sandokai that were eventually turned into a book.
Someone else introduced themselves at the opening circle by saying that his great-grandfather had been the person who had built the road to Tassajara and the hotel back in the 1880s; his father had grown up here, opening the various ranch gates for the stage journey, and he himself had last been there in 1954 – mainly he remembered the pool.

It felt amazing to have these connections to Tassajara’s past, although, as we acknowledged, the waters have been enjoyed by people for way longer than Europeans have been in this country. I saw that there was a gathering for the Esselen tribe due to take place at Tassajara this week, and was sorry not to get to witness that, and to hear their stories of the amazing land.


Back From The Mountains

I came back from Tassajara at the end of last week with the usual assortment of scratches, cuts, insect bites and the remnants of some poison oak rash – and a deep sense of well-being and goodwill towards all beings. The latter didn’t seem to translate too well in the city when I was going places on Saturday, but I didn’t mind so much.
It seemed all too easy to slip into gazing at screens again, and apart from a couple of roams and a bike ride, I felt very lazy over the weekend; my main focus was to sort through the 1500 or so photographs I had taken, mostly in the second half of my stay.
So, for want of more organised words – there will be more, promise – a very quick selection of a few of my favourite shots.

Lupins covering the hillside near Chew’s Ridge

Up at the solar panels

I took a hike up the creek

The writing desk in cabin 18, where I stayed on my last night.