Firewood Becomes Ash

Last week I was reading that the UK was expecting record temperatures – it might reach 100 degrees. Knowing how excitable people there get as soon as it gets over seventy, I could only imagine what the scenes were like. And I was heading somewhere even hotter.
It was 104 when I arrived at the end of Friday afternoon at Wilbur; smoke hung in the valleys as I came across from Williams, and the light was soft and a little eerie. That was nothing compared with Saturday evening; it had been 111 that day, with something of a wind all day, and haze that diffused the direct heat of the sun. A few people had come to sit for the afternoon session, and when we came out the sky was the colour of copper. I had seen this before, a couple of years ago with the Lake County fire; there was some discussion as to whether this was blowing all the way down from the huge fire at Redding, or east from new fires in Mendocino County – in either case, far enough away not to pose immediate danger. The moon, when it came up, was bright orange – not from the eclipse that was visible over in England, but from the smoke.
It was a quiet weekend; perhaps guests were put off by the continuing fires, or by the heat, but in any case, it made for better connection with the people who were there. On Sunday morning, going up to the deck to find it covered in ash, I spoke about that and somehow connected it to Mazu’s ‘This very mind is Buddha,’ and ‘No Mind, No Buddha.’ I almost wish I had recorded that one to listen back to how I did that. In the evening I asked someone who had sat with me at Wilbur before, and came to several sessions again, if there was something she would like me to talk about, and she offered ‘romantic love, and lost love.’ It was easy for me to find things to say about that, and there were lovely contributions from a young relationship counsellor and a man who had been married for thirty years.
As usual when it is that hot, the only chance for running came at first light; I did my usual loop up to the Medicine Wheel on Sunday. Reminiscing about the time I saw a bobcat, I saw instead only a young man in dark camouflage carrying a crossbow. However, when we left the yoga deck after that morning’s sit, right by the steps and the large oak, I saw a bobcat crouching in a little gulley. It turned and made for the slopes, pausing to check if we were still a danger, so others got to see it as well. I think I can count the number of times I have seen bobcats in my time in California on both hands, so it felt most auspicious.

The view across the valley on Saturday evening

A wan sunrise in the Capay valley on the way home on Monday morning.

Chan Master Sheng Yen

‘When negative attitudes like greed and jealousy dominate our mind, we tend to commit actions that cause frustration and dis-ease in ourselves and others. Conversely, when wholesome factors like compassion and humility pervade the mind, our actions lead to wellbeing and stability. Hence, our persistent striving to manipulate the external environment to find happiness and dispel suffering is futile, for it is the negative mental factors dwelling inside us that cause all our suffering and confusion.’ (There is no Suffering)

Sekito Kisen

Though we’ve been dwelling together, I don’t know his name;
Abandoned to fate, we go along as ever.
Even the great sages since the remote past do not know him;
How could the later rabble understand him?
(Written for his teacher Yakusan Igen)

Zenju Earthlyn Manuel

‘True interrelationship means to recognize our interdependence with other beings. There are always others present in the field of life, whether we care to look or not. The word “true” indicates that the interrelationship we are speaking of is not just about being of the same species or about what we “do” for each other, such as grow food, build houses, provide services, oro share material possessions. “Interrelationship” does not mean the cliché, “we all have a part in making the world go round.” It refers to the unseen life force that is an expression of nature. It is ever present between forms of nature, between us. What makes our interrelationship “true” is the unseen  life force that exists between and sustains us. It is a collective experience of life that moves in us and between us like the breath we breathe.’ (The Way of Tenderness)


A monk asked, “What is the substance of the true person?”
The master said, “Spring, summer, autumn, winter.”
The monk said, “In that case it is hard for me to understand,”
The master said, “You asked about the substance of the true person, didn’t you?” (The Recorded Sayings of Zen Master Joshu)

And remember, each has the feeling of itself.

Frank Ostaseski

‘The habits of our lives have a powerful momentum that propels us toward the moment of our death. The obvious question arises: What habits do we want to create? Our thoughts are not harmless. Thoughts manifest as actions, which in turn develop into habits, and our habits ultimately harden into character. Our unconscious relationship to thoughts can shape our perceptions, trigger reactions, and predetermine our relationship to the events of our lives. We can overcome the inertia of these patterns by becoming mindful of our views and beliefs, and by doing so, we make a conscious choice to question those habitual tendencies. Fixed views and habits silence our minds and incline us towards life on automatic pilot. Questions open our minds and express the dynamism of being human. A good question has heart, arising from a deep love to discover what is true. We will never know who we are and why we are here if we do not ask the uncomfortable questions.’ (The Five Invitations)

It has taken me a while (mainly due to needing to read other things for my recent talks and classes) to dive back into this book, but I am glad I have. It is a wonderful reflection on how being close to death (in both senses of the phrase) can show us how to live, while reminding us that we can learn these lessons any time.


‘Spring has the feeling of spring, and autumn has the look of autumn; there is no escaping it. So when you want spring or autumn to be different from what it is, notice that it can only be what it is. Or, when you want to keep spring or autumn as it is, reflect that it has no unchanging nature.’ (Shobogenzo Yuibutsu Yobutsu)

I have posted this before – just over a year ago in fact – but such treasures bear repeated exposure.

angel Kyodo williams

‘We are very fortunate that the Buddha set out on his journey and ended up plopping right down into deep meditation. He gave up a lot to practice Right Concentration and to get to the bottom of life. He pointed out a way for us to yank the veil off our eyes for ourselves. He taught that we can and must empower ourselves. Now we know that we don’t have to wait for anyone to do it for us. But the Buddha has been dead for a long time and we can’t ever gain the benefit of his experience by talking about it. We can talk and write and theorize it to death, and still we won’t get one step closer. We have a good idea that his method can work because it has been passed down generation after generation for all these years. It’s not the only way to enlightened being, but it is a way that works for anyone that puts patience and effort into practicing it.’  (Being Black)

Sitting under the olive tree

This Monday lunchtime, Zachary and I will be sitting on the Embarcadero, as we try to do every week. I will be coming by bike and taking the cushions away on a trailer borrowed from the Bicycle Coalition, as I have done a few times. Looking back, I noticed that this week marks the one-year anniversary of our first sit.

Sometimes we have sat alone, sometimes we have filled the cushions. We have listened to cars, trucks, buses, boats, streetcars, helicopters, seaplanes, drilling, horns, and sirens, and watched birds (pelicans and cormorants in line over the water, seagulls facing off pigeons on the lamp-posts, parrots squawking in the distance, hummingbirds zipping by, sparrows grubbing around us), dragonflies, drones, bikes, scooters (ubiquitous for a while, and no doubt they will be back), dogs, skateboards, dogs on skateboards. We recognise many regulars, especially among the joggers – there are three or four very elegant athletes we see every week (last week I saw two of them for the first time gliding by together, which made me wonder if they had just met, or known each other all along) – but also the chef from the nearby restaurant with his electric buggy carrying supplies around, and the elderly stall owner from the Ferry Building who trundles his wares behind him on an electric scooter.

Sometimes people have offered us donations; I have been given a loaf of bread, and bought lunch. Other times we walk away empty handed, without even covering the cost of the parking meter. It’s an offering we make – part of teaching the dharma is being generous with the teaching, and we agree constantly that it is a wonderful thing to do, regardless of financial reward.

People often stop to read our sign, to eye us up, or take photographs – we were even filmed recently by a local TV crew who told us they were looking for shots demonstrating for tourists what people in the city get up to. Very occasionally a passer-by will come and sit with us. As I say in other contexts, we never know just what impact it may have (I wrote about this when I was the ino at Zen Center – the comment underneath is as important as the piece itself).

Amazingly enough, despite a couple of close shaves, we have only once had to go indoors to sit. Every other time, we have had the privilege of sitting in the open air, gazing on the sky, the water, the Bay Bridge and Yerba Buena Island, not moving in this bustling little corner of the world. As we say on the sign: we bring the cushions; you bring your busy mind and give it a little rest over lunch-time. We will be there from 12:30 – 1:30; you can drop in any time.

Uchiyama Roshi

Water isn’t formed by being ladled into a bucket
Simply the water of the whole Universe has been ladled into a bucket
The water does not disappear because it has been scattered over the ground
It is only that the water of the whole Universe has been emptied into the whole Universe
Life is not born because a person is born
The life of the whole Universe has been ladled into the hardened “idea” called “I”
Life does not disappear because a person dies
Simply, the life of the whole Universe has been poured out of this hardened “idea” of “I” back into the universe