Gesshin Greenwood

‘Whenever I am asked to give zazen instructions, I give the same instructions I received: back straight, full or half lotus if you can, eyes open and looking down, hands in cos­mic mudra. Take out any idea of Buddha or enlightenment and just do the posture. That’s basically all the instruction I ever got, so that’s all I say. I’ve tried to coerce teachers into giving me more instruction than that, but they never do. I was frustrated with this for years.

And yet my understanding of zazen is that, at the funda­mental level, you are just sitting there, embodying being a buddha. You’re not doing anything other than sitting there. Of course when we come to zazen, we want all these things like peace of mind, concentration, tranquility, and so on. And then the asshole teacher just tells you to sit with your back straight and get rid of any hope of enlightenment? Lame! I totally understand people’s confusion.’ (from a Lion’s Roar article adapting from Bow First, Ask Questions Later)

To be read alongside Brad’s words from last week.


The past week has been, as most people round these parts say, intense. For sure, nobody in San Francisco had their home burn up in front of their eyes, or behind them as they fled for their lives, but the smoke from the Camp Fire dwelled heavily over the area all week, and on Thursday and Friday, the air quality deteriorated further. People were tracking the numbers, and it had gone into the unhealthy zone. Here we are in the hub of one of the most powerful economies on the planet, and totally unable to do anything about the impacts of climate change.

I had a few engagements on Friday, and riding across the city- very slowly and noticing that I was not rushing to get through lights before they changed –  I felt like a renegade for not wearing a mask. The city felt quieter than usual, with schools and other places closed for the day. I taught at my student’s company, for the first time not going to sit outside by the bay, but staying in an air-conditioned conference room, talking about presence, and staying with what is happening. I wondered if the quality would improve enough to make a roam possible on Sunday, as scheduled, and noticed that I had no enthusiasm for running or riding around the route, as I had planned to do ahead of time.

People wondered when it would get better. On Friday evening, sitting in the bath with the New Yorker, I read this passage, in an article about Anthony Powell, and his great work A Dance to the Music of Time, that describes a well-known aspect of the human condition: ‘A lingering sense that almost all experience is a little disappointing. It’s what his alter ego Jenkins, on that visit to Proust’s summer place, describes as “the eternal failure of human life to respond a hundred per cent.” It can never “rise to the greatest heights without allowing at the same time some suggestion, however slight, to take shape in indication that things could have been even better.”’

My internal response to that notion was, well, that’s what happens when you allow the thinking mind to dominate. I thought of a Zen Center friend (whom some of you will be able to identify from what follows) who signs off emails with ‘Never Been Better.’ My first reaction to seeing that, a couple of years ago, was a reflexive English annoyance, but then I came to appreciate how diligent and devoted practice could be aptly summed up in that way. I thought further of the song, ‘Things can Only Get Better’, which for anyone of my age and upbringing is inevitably associated with the election of 1997, when after eighteen years of Thatcherism and its aftermath, which had begun in our adolescence, suddenly there was a moment of optimism with a new Labour government. Of course things didn’t turn out much better really; the aftermath is still playing out these days with the government-led strictures of austerity, unfettered capitalism, privatisation, the crushing of the public sector, and most recently the collective delusion around Brexit.

The air did start to improve over the weekend, and a foggy, suitably autumnal morning on Sunday made me think a roam was not completely out of the question. In the end, a handful of people joined me as we climbed up to Grand View, and Golden Gate Heights, where we were rewarded with the rocky landscape, warm sunshine and a lack of wind more than actual views, but which did not provoke a headache in me such as my other recent exertions had. There is rain in the forecast for this week, which will be a welcome relief on so many levels. At least, I think it will be better.

IMG_5009IMG_5010IMG_5011IMG_5013Mission Bay can have an other-worldly feel to it at the best of times, but especially when people are not going out because of the unhealthy air. The Salesforce Tower, about a mile away from Mission Creek, in the second photo, is barely visible.


‘Layman Pang was sitting in his thatched cottage one day, studying the sutras. “Difficult, difficult, difficult,” he suddenly exclaimed, “like trying to store ten bushels of sesame seed in the top of a tree.”
“Easy, easy, easy,” his wife, Laywoman Pang, answered. “It’s like touching your feet to the floor when you get out of bed.”
“Neither difficult nor easy,” said their daughter Lingzhao. “It’s like the teachings of the ancestors shining on the hundred grass tips.”‘ (The Hidden Lamp).

I have quoted this story before, and I was also quoting it in England. So who is right?


‘Within each of our forms lies the existential mystery of being. Apart from one’s physical appearance, personality, gender, history, occupation, hopes and dreams, comings and goings, there lies an eerie silence, an abyss of stillness charged with an etheric presence. For all of our anxious business and obsession with triviality, we cannot completely deny this phantasmal essence as our core. And yet we do everything we can to avoid its stillness, its silence, its utter emptiness and radiant intimacy.’ (The Way of Liberation)

I am going to ‘yes, and’ this by referring back to Zenju’s notion.

Hōkō Karnegis

‘There’s no distinction to be made between ordinary mind and awakened mind. We don’t have to try to find it. When we stop looking for awakened mind outside of this moment and outside of ourselves, we see that it is vast and limitless. Then we see that there is no actual right or wrong about our true self — there’s just our idea about our true self, which is already there.’ (From Ancient Way Journal)

Suzuki Roshi

‘Even if you sit alone in the zendo, you are helping others.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi archives)

I have been spending a little time dipping in and out of the archives, and this line jumped out at me. I often hear – and perhaps most often at Tassajara, which feels most remote from the ‘outside world’ – the query as to whether secluding oneself in what seems to be a solitary, even selfish practice, is of benefit to the world. When there is so much to fight for, what is the value of this practice?
The longer I practise, the more I feel that there is nothing better that we can do for this world than follow these teachings and manifest them in our lives. This does not stop me from thinking I may be complacent in that belief, but I will keep trying. As I have heard often as well, when we sit in zazen, at the very least we are not creating more harm.

Brad Warner

‘Every time you get lost in some train of thought, your posture will change according to that train of thought. So when you notice that you’ve been thinking about something during zazen, check your posture. You’ll see that something has gone astray. Maybe your shoulders are rising up. Maybe your head is tilted at a funny angle. Maybe your back is curving or the mudra shape you’re making with your hands has gotten weirdly out of kilter. Whatever it is may be subtle, but I guarantee you’ll find something wrong with your posture. Fix that, and continue sitting. When it happens again two seconds later, fix it again. Repeat as necessary.’ (Posted on Hardcore Zen)

I always enjoy reading what Brad has to say, even if I don’t always agree with him. I definitely agreed with this post, and especially the above observation, from my own hours of experience at Tassajara, where it gets a little easier to tune into the more subtle shifts. I also learned something about the Fukanzazengi, which helps open up the idea of ‘think of not-thinking’; I have memories of discussions about the radicalness of Dogen’s notions of zazen as objectless meditation rather than meditation as cogitation or rumination, and this appears to back that up.

Everything Is Burning

As anyone who lives locally knows, the Bay Area is sitting under a cloud of smoke at the moment. I was working in the Presidio last week, and as we looked out of the windows at lunchtime on Thursday and saw the change in the light, word went round that there was a big fire; we soon learned that the dull skies were coming all the way from Chico. It felt like those summer weekends at Wilbur all over again.

When I read about Paradise burning, there was some small glimmer of recognition in my brain, but it took Shalamah calling me on Friday to bring it to the fore: John, who I have met often at Wilbur and who leads tai chi when he is there, and his family lost everything in the fire. I heard there was a GoFundMe set up for them by the management at Wilbur, and was sorry I do not have more to contribute.

On Saturday I took a ride, trying to keep things as gentle as possible, having felt the sting of smoke in my lungs when I had ridden back over the hill from the Presidio on Thursday. Few people were out, especially on bikes, and you could not see across the bay from Sausalito. The temperature was noticeably colder than recently with the sun blunted (in the evening we turned the heater on in the house for the first time this season). As I rode through Marin, I thought about what I would rescue if I had to grab possessions rapidly before a fire – San Francisco is not exactly in the front line for that, though there is always the possibility of losing everything in an earthquake, and I have relatively few possessions (somebody asked me a while ago what my most valued possession was, and after some thought I replied that my okesa was, but I wouldn’t necessarily go for that as the first thing to save as I could easily sew another) – and I suspect a photo album from my last years of London might be top of the list; I thought of how this fire that impacted so many, and is not even the only fire burning in California right now; about how the climate has been so warm and dry these past few years; of the various fires that have resulted from that; how, all over the developed world, but especially here in the States, where there seems to be a cultural belief in the endlessness of resources to be plundered, people won’t stop driving long distances in inefficient SUVs, or think about minimising energy use in other ways, or try to buy less, or consume less because there doesn’t really seem to be any urgency in the idea of the climate turning against just about everybody in the world. And I also reflected on the hundredth anniversary of the Armistice – there aren’t poppies being worn here, as has been much more publicly obligatory than it was in the UK even twenty years ago, but there were flags being set up in the National Cemetery in the Presidio while I was there. I know that the soldiers were sent to kill and die to maintain the vestiges of empire and all the inhuman resource extraction implicated in that, but perhaps there was also a sense of that war – as the Second World War more clearly was – being fought to make the world a better place for everyone. And still everything is burning.

The National Cemetery in the Presidio on Friday – these photos are from my iPad.

The view over Doyle Drive on Thursday afternoon.

The sun setting over Baker Beach on Thursday afternoon.



Before the birth of mother and father,
One solid circle;
Even Shakyamuni didn’t understand it –
How could Kasyapa transmit it? (quoted in the Book of Serenity)