No umbrella, getting soaked,
I’ll just use the rain as my raincoat.

The Emptiness of Emptiness

As an undergraduate, one of the courses I took was in Saussurian linguistics. It was revelatory to my still-forming mind in pointing to the arbitrary relationship between signifiers (the words we use), and the signified (what the words refer to). This, in turn, was a helpful hand-hold when I started to navigate the intricacies of the Diamond Sutra:

‘What do you think, Subhuti, is there any dharma which the Tathagata has taught? Subhuti replied: No indeed, O Lord, there is not. The Lord said: When, Subhuti, you consider the number of particles of dust in this world system of 1,000 million worlds – would they be many? Subhuti replied: Yes, O Lord. Because what was taught as particles of dust by the Tathagata, as no-particles that was taught by the Tathagata. Therefore are they called ‘particles of dust’. And this world-system the Tathagata has taught as no-system. Therefore is it called a “world system.”‘

For a little while I have been thinking I needed to pick up Red Pine’s book on the Diamond Sutra, and so, with the need for a new commute read, I decided that now was the time. At Zen Center, the beautifully poetic Edward Conze translation is used for the Friday morning service; it is helpful for me to read the words in different phrasings, to see the deep understanding of the sutra from different angles (something I frequently say about translations).

As usual, I feel that I grasp some of what is being expressed better, or at least differently, than before. And, as sometimes happens, I experience a moment of clarity around a phrase when I am on the BART, and when I come back to look at the same phrase again to express it here, I am at a loss to know exactly what to say.

One of the notes I made to myself on my journeys this week was to fold in Reb’s words on the Samdinirmocana Sutra, where the emphasis is equally on not getting caught in the imputed character of phenomena. And (an and here always works better than a but) the Diamond Sutra also cautions us not to be caught in denying the reality of phenomena. Yes, the words we put on things are arbitrary, and the things themselves have an existence that is not the existence we think it is (i.e. permanent and independent); stopping at the notion of non-existence is also missing the point.

I am not much of a historical scholar when it comes to the Buddhist sutras, but I understand that, if we accept the usual timeline for the unfolding of the teachings, this is the moment when the Buddha starts to work on a deeper level, encouraging his disciples not to stick to whatever understanding they may have already arrived at:

‘Therefore, Subhuti, fearless bodhisattvas… should not give birth to a thought attached to a dharma, nor should they give birth to a thought attached to no dharma. They should not give birth to a thought attached to anything.’

I see this as the going beyond, but it could also be called the middle way. I see this in the Chinese ancestors’ teachings (recently here), and in Dogen’s ‘leaping clear of the many and the one’. I see this as the accepting of whatever arises in zazen without needing to act on its arising. I see this as our practice.

Getting Things Done

As it happens, I still haven’t really started working on the photos from my trip beyond the initial selection. I know how many hours it will take, and this past week, as I slowly drag myself into the right time zone, I have had some other things that have felt more important to take care of, to help me re-enter my life in San Francisco.
It has felt good to sit on the Embarcadero with Zach again, this time in bright warm sunshine; to return to the jail (where I had a fairly boisterous large group to deal with this time round); and to check in with students. Tomorrow there will be a roam, on a route we have taken before, which offers some places of peace right in the middle of the city.
I have also taken the time to edit a few of the talks I gave while I was in England, and have posted them on the audio page. The talk from Hebden Bridge is probably the most formal, and the brief remarks from Glastonbury the least (you can hear the clinking of tea cups and plates of cake in the background); I hope that you find something useful if you take the time to listen to any of them. Now I have to start focusing on some recordings that have been commissioned, which will help me keep paying my rent, and if I have some energy left, I may even finally put away the remnants of my trip which are still scattered around my room.

Suzuki Roshi

‘When I start to talk, it is already a smoky kerosene lamp. As long as I must give a lecture, I have to explain: “This is right practice, this is wrong, this is how to practice zazen…” It is like giving you a recipe. It doesn’t work. You cannot eat a recipe.’ (Not Always So)

I suspect that Suzuki Roshi knew very well what Dogen had to say about painted rice cakes and hunger, but did not want to confuse his students further (which is what you call skilful means).


I am now at the stage of my trip where I summon up the energy to pore through the sixteen hundred or so photographs that I took, to see which of them are worth keeping, and then, laboriously, begin the editing process; I also try to pick up the various roles I inhabit in my life here, and see how they feel. Landing back in San Francisco on a Friday meant that I had a mostly unscheduled weekend to try to correct my sense of time and adjust my sleep, and renew a sense of forward momentum after the disruptions of travel.

Last year’s few days in Sagres were so restorative that I had it in mind to do something similar this time. Beach time was involved again, only a different coast – the Costa de Luz in south-western Spain. Lying on the sand on Tuesday afternoon and watching a spectacular Atlantic sunset, thirty-six hours after running along the Thames on Monday morning, I reflected that there had been eighteen months of planning to get to that point – not to mention twenty years of memories.

In 1999 I had visited a friend who had escaped London and gone to Seville, with a boyfriend who her parents disapproved of (I think for his relative youth more than anything else, as I thought he was a nice chap). We had taken a road trip down to Tarifa, and then stayed a couple of nights on the coast. How did we find such a place in those days? I don’t really remember. We rented rooms in a farmhouse, probably just by asking, a few blocks back from the sea, and I mainly recall the long expanse of gorgeous beach, where people seemed to be entirely relaxed and happy, and where it was warm enough to stay out late into the evening.

Eighteen months ago, Nancy was driving me back from Green Gulch where we had attended the shuso ceremony (which I don’t seem to have written about here), and confiding her plans to take a break from her work and Zen Center to go to Seville, where she had lived earlier in her life. When I heard that she had equally fond memories of the same stretch of coastline, I said I would come and visit.

And so it was that she picked me up at the airport in Seville on Monday afternoon. There were some potential hitches: the friend’s place that she had planned for us to stay at was not available, and when we went to pick up the rental car, she had not thought to bring her passport, so, after a call or two, the booking was modified to be in my name, with my passport and credit card – even though she was going to be keeping it for longer than my stay.

Once those hurdles were navigated, we had a splendid time. She had been staying at an apartment in the city for a few weeks already, with her college-bound daughter and friend with her as well for most of that time. It turned out that Barbara, who is based in Berlin, but whom both of us know from her visits to Tassajara and Green Gulch was also in town with her eighty-one year old sister (when I mentioned this to Bev in Glastonbury, she told me that she and Barbara had shared a cabin in 2003), and so we had an evening of tapas and small glasses of beer, continuing long past my usual bedtime…

The following morning we left the city, having secured rooms at a hostal that Nancy remembered and had called ahead to. We were the only guests, and we arrived on the day when the place was closed, but the owner handed us the keys before she went to pick her daughter up from school.

We spent much of the next forty-eight hours on the beach, even though, by local standards, it wasn’t necessarily beach weather. There were also incredibly high tides, with the new moon, that left lagoons and powerful streams running across the plentiful sand. On Tuesday afternoon, after a quick dip and some lunch, we walked a long way south to find the best spots, which is more or less where I remember being, though I was somewhat hazy on the details, and then we drove a little further along the next day to spend the bulk of the day by the water, although it clouded over and started to spot with rain by the end of the afternoon, which encouraged us to go back to clean up before having a wonderful dinner in the little hill town inland from where we were, Vejer de la Frontera.

On Wednesday morning, still completely dark at seven, I tried running along the beach. Since the way north looked rather uncertain between the inland water and the ocean (even though I was fairly sure the tide was still going out), I retraced our steps from the previous afternoon, navigating the shifting slopes and textures, unsure of how deep and fast the water on the beach might be flowing. When I got past where the streetlights ended, it felt even more trippy. There was just the quick-slow-slow sweep of the light house at Cape Trafalgar (a name more steeped in history than actual geography as far as I was concerned) to orient myself by. Even after forty minutes or so of running, there was barely a glimmer of light, beyond the orange-purple glow of the streetlights.

On Thursday I began the long journey back – thirty-six hours from a view of the beach to the welcome sunshine of San Francisco. There were trains and tubes and buses on the way back to London and my sister’s house (which was all fine except for several delays with Ryanair), and then the long flight west; I spent more time than usual staring out of the window – at Greenland, and then the astounding landscape of Oregon and California. From one home to another.

DSCF3600.jpgDSCF3675.jpgThe view from the apartment in Seville, evening and morning light.

DSCF3725.jpgA very high tide on the beach.

DSCF3756.jpgHorses were a regular sight on the beach.

DSCF3782.jpgDSCF3793.jpgThere were many surfers, but not much surf. A glorious sunset, however.

DSCF3808.jpgDSCF3876.jpgDSCF3877.jpgViews from the roof of the hostal at different times.

DSCF3951.jpgA glimpse of Greenland from the plane.

DSCF4024.jpgThe salt flats of the South Bay.

Uchiyama Roshi

Like the sunbeam
In a beautiful
I, both body and mind, would like to
Completely become one
With the transparent,

(Poem for Leaving Home)

Nyogen Senzaki

‘Zen students often seem peculiar, but that just shows that they are on their way to accomplishment – they are not yet there. We wash our hands with soap, and the odor of the soap remains on our hands for a little while. That is an effect of washing, but it has nothing to do with cleanliness itself.’ (Eloquent Silence)

Katagiri Roshi

‘Your life constantly gives you a chance, a great opportunity to touch the truth. If you touch it, everything becomes alive in a refreshing way. This refreshing life is called flexibility, fluidity, or freedom. At that time you can really do something – something more than what you have thought. This is spiritual security. Spiritual security cannot be given to you – you have to find it yourself, and it can only be found within the source of existence that makes your life alive. That is called energy, or emptiness.’ (Each Moment is the Universe)

And of course we know that emptiness is wonderful existence!