‘You need only let go of your body and relinquish your life therein only once. When the time comes, it happens suddenly, and you only know this experience. This is called letting go of your grip over a sheer cliff, then after perishing, coming back to life. Suddenly, in an instant, you recognize the root source: your own nature, the nature of others, the nature of living beings, the nature of afflictions; the nature of enlightenment, the nature of Buddhas, the nature of spirits, the nature of bodhisattvas, the nature of the created, the nature of the uncreated, the nature of the ultimate end, the nature of the sentient, the nature of the insentient, the nature of ghosts, the nature of titans, the nature of beasts, hells, heavens, polluted lands and pure lands – you see through them all at once, without exception, finishing the great task and passing through birth and death. How could it not be pleasant? (The Undying Lamp of Zen)

A bit more of that Rinzai rhetoric – it does all sound rather pleasant doesn’t it? I wouldn’t know…

Frank Ostaseski

‘Sharing our stories helps us to heal… Listening without judgment is probably the simplest, most profound way to connect. It is an act of love.’(The Five Invitations)

The Lingering Colours Of Fire

On the way up to Wilbur last Friday, I could see the first autumnal shades on the hillside – maybe it was just the poison oak in Cache Canyon, but the reds were starting to show. While I was there, the temperatures were a notch lower than the previous two visits, in the nineties during the day – with a little chill in the mornings – and it felt like the last time I would be in such temperatures this year. When I am next there at the end of October I know things will feel very different.
On Friday night the moon rose a steady orange; on Saturday the sky was barely blue, just a hazy brightness, and in the evening, there were no more stars visible than you typically see in the city; on Sunday morning, as I was running along the ridge above the cemetery, the sun came over the lip of Bear Valley as a wan red disc. Later in the day, clouds were visible – perhaps the wind had shifted – and the light brightened. As people left on Sunday afternoon, I lingered at the baths, enjoying the warmth and the quiet as I had all weekend, ready for a last sit.
After the sittings I gave some of my short, rambling talks, with whatever phrases had come to the fore in the silence, ‘settling the self on the self’, ‘like a tiger taking to the mountains’ – having done tai chi with John in the mornings on the bridge where we practised stepping like tigers among other movements. Once again, I wondered afterwards how I had got from my starting point to my ending point, and whether recording these little talks to listen back to them afterwards would end up being rather embarrassing; they are designed for the moment, for the space we are sitting in and the people who are there. I just hope that they helped contribute something to people’s sitting experience. I am mainly happy that people get a chance to sit together as we do when we are there.

The ubiquitous hares on the main path at Wilbur as the sun set on Saturday


The different light at the bathhouse on Saturday and Sunday

Reflected sunset colours in the pool on Sunday evening

The moment before sunrise on the Bear Valley Road on Monday morning.


Deshan 1 copy.jpgDeshan 2 copy.jpgDeshan 3 copy.jpgDeshan 4 copy.jpg
(Zen Speaks)

This is one of the best-known stories in Chinese Zen, and this version was one of my favourite renderings in the books, especially the opening panel. It is also another wonderful tale of an arrogant monk being bested by an unassuming woman.


‘The words of the teachings all have three successive phases – the beginning, middle, and final good. At first one should just be taught to produce a good mind; in the middle the good mind is dissolved; only the final good is really good. Thus, ‘A bodhisattva is not a bodhisattva; this is called a bodhisattva,’ and ‘The Dharma is not Dharma, nor is it not Dharma.’ It’s all like this. If you expound just one phrase, you cause sentient beings to go to hell; if all three phrases are expounded at once, sentient beings will go to hell by themselves. This is not the business of a teaching master. To explain that the present mirroring awareness is your own buddha is good in the beginning. Not to keep dwelling in the present mirror awareness is good in the middle. Not making an understanding of not dwelling is final good.’ (quoted in The Book of Serenity)

Kakuan Shion

REACHING THE SOURCE (Number 9 of 10)

Too many steps have been taken returning to the root and the source.
Better to have been blind and deaf from the beginning!
Dwelling in one’s true abode, unconcerned with that without –
The river flows tranquilly on and the flowers are red.

You’ve returned to the origin, went back to the source – such wasted effort.
How much better to just be blind and deaf?
From inside one’s hut, you don’t see outside your hut,
Let the streams just flow on, the flowers just bloom red.


‘Dropping off body and mind is good practice. Make a vigorous effort to pierce your nostrils. Karmic consciousness is endless, with nothing fundamental to rely on, including not others, not self, not sentient beings, and not causes and conditions. Although this is so, eating breakfast comes first.’ (Extensive Record, 306)

Another gem I am happy to reproduce, having come across a print-out I had made with this quote on it (I think I used it at Tassajara last year, when we were sitting before guest breakfast). Apart from my comments from last time, I would add: it is always one thing after another. But we pay attention to each thing as it comes.


‘A monk asked, “An ancient said, ‘Conceal the body in the Big Dipper.’ What does this mean?”
Xuedou said, “Hearing it a thousand times is not as good as seeing it once.”‘  (Zen’s Chinese Heritage)

Zazen Instruction

I had my own brush with impermanence recently, a salutary reminder that there are many things in our lives we can’t control and don’t happen the way we want them to or think they will. My practice right now is to watch how this play out in my body and my mind, trying to take care of myself and letting go of expectations as best I can. It helps that I have my trip to England coming soon, and I can focus on getting the last details sorted out – the train journeys, the flights, and the car rental.

When I offered the zazen instruction at Zen Center last Saturday, one person wanted clarification on something I said about the impermanence of emotional states. If I understood his question correctly, he said that he meditated to relieve his anxiety, to try to return to a less-stressed baseline, and wondered if I was also proposing that, if happiness is fleeting and we should be wary of clinging to it, we should be meditating when we are happy to return to a less-happy baseline as well. In other words, that meditation should function as an emotional regulator, keeping us away from the transient highs and lows.

It was a tricky question to respond to; I told the story of the data scientist who was happy when he could measure his meditation, with my usual admonition about what happens when your numbers don’t keep improving, when you have a spell, as we all do, where nothing works well, you are still stressed, and you are starting to wonder if meditation ‘works.’

I had talked in my instruction, as I always do, about posture, emphasising that sitting upright has a physiological benefit that I noticed in my own practice, especially in my second two-year spell at Tassajara. I never feel like enough of an anatomy expert to be able to explain it, but I have read other teachers talking of this, and it chimes with my own experience, so I trust in this process. And I know that at certain times, I use meditation techniques to notice my own levels of stress and tension at particular moments and to try to soften whatever it is I am feeling in my body.

I also trust that, through this practice, we tend to end up with a more stable contentment, and the ability to take a profound joy in many things, which is not the same as happiness. I am remembering various books and articles where this is discussed – some are sceptical of this whole notion, but don’t seem to me to have pursued practice for long enough to have found this out for themselves.

Beyond that, though, and this was where my answer ended up on Saturday – though I am not sure that my argument was well-constructed or convincing – zazen is beyond any transactional demands we place on it, beyond (as everything is) our ideas of what is happening or what we want from it. And that getting to participate in something that is on that different level from our other human activities and concerns can only be a good thing – though I did throw in Kodo Sawaki’s quote for good measure.


‘Buddhas are those who have comprehended and completed things in the realm of sentient beings; sentient beings are those who have not yet comprehended and completed things in the realm of buddhas. If you want to attain Oneness, just give up both buddhas and sentient beings at once: then there is no “comprehended and completed” or “not comprehended and completed.” (Swampland Flowers)

If you detect echoes of the opening paragraphs of the Genjo Koanyou would not be alone. I am not enough of a scholar to know for sure whether Dogen would have read Tahui, but I think he made no pretence at being entirely original in his writing, and was mainly concerned with transmitting correct understanding, which he did sometimes grudgingly admit to finding in the words of his Chinese predecessors.