Norman Fischer

‘I have always appreciated the fact that when you give a Zen talk, you make three prostrations to the Buddha before and after the talk. These bows are meant to indicate that it isn’t exactly you giving the talk. The Buddha is giving the talk using your body and voice. Bowing is praying to Buddha to help you do as good a job at channeling him as you possibly can, with the faith that whatever you say, right or wrong, will be of some use if you are sincere and try your best. After some years I came to see that this applied to anything I did as a Zen teacher: if I was honest, tried my best, followed precepts, and didn’t pretend to be anyone, everything would be okay. This sounds simple-minded enough, and it is, but it is actually not so easy to do.

And what does “everything would be okay” actually mean? It certainly doesn’t mean that things won’t ever go wrong. In fact, things will certainly go wrong. Maybe another capacity a Zen teacher should develop is the resilience and breadth of view that will enable her to live with the fact that she is going to fail. At least, this has been my experience. Occupying the teacher gear in the whirling Zen machine requires that you receive everything with an open heart and have the willingness and stamina to take full responsibility for each and every relationship you enter, which means to care and try your best to help.

People come to Zen practice, as they do to any spiritual practice, with plenty of human needs. They come with trust, mistrust, and hidden expectations. Of course, the Zen teacher, an imperfect human being, is going to disappoint a fair number of them. Some will be disappointed on the first day, others only after many decades. You, the teacher, will misunderstand them and they will misunderstand you. You will say and do things that are hurtful, even if you never intended to. Meaning to straighten someone out (always a dubious proposition), you will completely botch the job, reinforcing the behavior or view you were trying to soften.’ (from Lion’s Roar)

I scheduled this before I wrote yesterday’s post – and had thought to add that I have been listening to a number of Norman’s talks recently, and deeply appreciate his wry, compassionate take on things.

Joyful Effort

Last weekend I spent time at both temples: on Saturday I offered the zazen instruction at City Center, and had a much larger crowd than I thought would be the case for a holiday weekend. The Buddha Hall also filled for the talk, which was given by Norman, and I recognised a few of his long-time students. I did not stay, as I had to get some food in for the weekend, and turn around to get to the roam around the Presidio in the afternoon, which was also well attended, and another very enjoyable occasion in mostly warm sunshine.
I might have been more tempted to stay had I not had an inkling (correctly it turned out) that he was also giving the talk at Green Gulch on Sunday. I had an appointment with Fu, and had every intention of being early enough to attend the talk as well.

Having made the appointment a few weeks ago, I did not suspect that I would be needing to wear my favourite winter cycling jacket for a journey at the end of May: as it turned out, there was wind and rain forecast for Sunday. The wind woke me up the night before, and since, unlike the Zen-a-thon ride, I could not be guaranteed any company to cross the bridge with, I decided early on that I would take the bus over to Sausalito (having discovered that the ferries don’t run very early on Sunday).

As I started riding on the bike path north of Sausalito, there was just a hint of rain, and clouds loomed over Mount Tam, but there was also blue sky to be seen, and in the end it was a dry ride. Not without frustrations though: as I started the climb out of Mill Valley (on the back roads, rather than Highway 1), within a couple of minutes one driver had passed me at speed, another too close, a third while looking at his phone and a fourth while drinking coffee… this is the kind of thing that makes me glad I can also find car-free stretches of riding, such as I took on Friday along Crystal Springs south of the city.

Norman spoke about his new book (I assume the publication had been timed so he could do his speaking tour after his three months at Tassajara). He told some wonderful stories, but the detail that stuck with me was him talking about virya paramita, which I have usually heard translated as diligence or vigour. I have written elsewhere about how this particular practice resonates with me, and I still have Daigaku’s calligraphy on my wall at home. He translated it as joyful effort, and that very much struck home.

I mentioned this to Fu afterwards, and she had also taken note of it, as well as agreeing that what are we doing this for if not joy? It was good to check in with her again after a few months, and to catch up with people at lunch, including, as always it seems now, people I had not expected to see back in the temple.

IMG_0330.jpgAlcatraz from the window of the bus, crossing the bridge, with heavy skies.

IMG_0340.jpgMount Tam from Richardson Bay, as it was almost raining.

Martin Buber

‘Because we cannot circle above all existence—sleepless, unbroken, boundless, glowing—we content ourselves with being submerged and awakening.’

I confess I have not read “I and Thou”, or any of his other works, but I am always encouraged when I read something from a different tradition that points to the essential human quality of searching – or ‘religiosity’ in his terms, according to this recent article in the New Yorker. The writer of the article suggests this response of his, later in life –  ‘“I do not know what ideas are,” he claimed. “Whoever expects of me a doctrine . . . will invariably be disappointed”‘  – as being worthy of a zen master; while not disputing that notion, I also find the quote above as pointed and poetic as anything I read in a zen book.

Sekito Kisen

‘You can’t attain it this way. You can’t attain it not this way. Trying to attain it this way or not this way, it can’t be attained. So what will you do?’ (Zen’s Chinese Heritage)

Sekito was saying this to get his student Yakusan to let go of clinging. Yakusan went to Master Ma, who set out the options in much the same way, but the second hearing of it broke through Yakusan’s block. Whatever we want to hold onto is not it.


‘When Mazu heard that Damei lived on the mountain, he sent a monk to call upon him and ask the question, “When you saw Master Mazu, what did he say that caused you to come and live on this mountain?”
Damei said, “Master Mazu said to me, ‘Mind is Buddha.’ Then I came here to live.”
The monk said, “These days Master Ma’s teaching has changed.”
Damei said. “What is it?”
The monk said, “Now he says, ‘No mind. No Buddha.'”
Damei said, “That old fellow just goes on and on, confusing people. Let him go ahead and say, ‘No mind. No Buddha.’ As for me, I still say ‘Mind is Buddha.’
The monk returned and reported this to Master Mazu.
Mazu said, “The plum is ripe.”‘ (Zen’s Chinese Heritage)

Well, isn’t this confusing? Just yesterday, Shohaku was cautioning us not to cling to a teaching, yet here is Damei holding tight to one of Master Ma’s sayings, and being approved for it. I say that the monk makes the mistake by saying that the master’s teaching has changed. What do you say? Perhaps I should not be clinging to Shohaku’s teaching…

Shohaku Okumura

‘Usually we start to study or practice because of some problem or question. When we are lucky we find some answers, some way we think we can solve our problem. Then we think this is Dharma, this is the Buddha Way – and we cling to it. Even if the teaching is not mistaken, our clinging is mistaken. We are tied to this pole and walk around it the rest of our life.’ (The Mountains and Waters Sutra)

Revisiting Winter

I am fond of saying that I arrived to live in San Francisco during a heatwave, right in the middle of May (nineteen years ago now), and was firmly told not to get used to it. This May has been far from hot and sunny: in the last week we have had several storm systems moving through, including some thunder on Sunday morning, and a number of heavy downpours – with the cold and damp, it felt like we had turned the clock back to January or February.
Amongst the current chatter is a feeling that this is quite unprecedented, but I do happen to remember a year when there were similar spells of wet weather in May – the year I decided to do a spring road trip in California rather than going back to England. It was a beautiful trip, but I remember heavy rain as I left the Bay Area, snow falling in Yosemite, as well as the temperature of 32 degrees with more falling snow as I drove around Lake Tahoe on Memorial Day…

Generally speaking, you don’t expect to have to plan around the weather at this time of year – and I hope things are dry for this weekend’s roam – but I was scheduled to officiate a wedding last weekend. The young couple had chosen a beautiful spot in the Santa Cruz mountains for the ceremony, and when the forecast talked of rain moving through the area during the morning, they asked if we could move the time from 10am to 8am; since the day was the anniversary of their becoming a couple, there was no talk of changing the date!
Of course this necessitated an earlier start from the city in my rental car, but nothing out of my usual morning range (although I tend to sleep badly when I have an alarm set, and this was no exception).
We did manage to complete the proceedings without getting wet (unlike my last wedding), even with the groom taking some time to get a drone launched to snap some atmospheric shots of the wedding party after the ceremony. I joked to the next couple on my docket (a mid-July wedding in the East Bay hills) that I expect nothing less from now on.

As it happens, there were also drones when we sat at the Embarcadero on Monday. Every so often, one of the city’s art schools brings a bunch of people down to fly drones over the water right by where we are – with someone from the FAA in attendance to ensure fair play. In a lovely juxtaposition, the drones were matched, at least in number and agility, if not size and noise, by some dragonflies, which have been appearing recently. It was a day of sunshine and piled white clouds, with the usual profusion of birds (especially the seagulls who tend to dive on the drones much as crows harass hawks, though to even less effect), boats of all sizes, bicycles and butterflies, dogs and skateboards, traffic and insects, runners and walkers. All part of the rich scenery of the sit.

Just for good measure, it rained on and off through the day on Tuesday as well, though now, fingers crossed, we may have seen the back of it for a while.

Screen Shot 2019-05-22 at 08.40.19A screenshot from the drone footage the couple kindly sent on.

Rev. angel Kyodo williams

‘Everything I see, everything I say about liberation comes from this very dharma, the same dharma that you hold dear, these fundamental truths that give us the path to see ourselves. The only way I can sit here and not be absolutely furious, livid with every man, every white body, every straight body, is because of my path. Even when I want to be mad or hating on folks because they represent dominant paradigms, I cannot, because liberation wants nothing else but liberation for all. That’s the only reason I can speak from this place—because one day I woke up and much to my chagrin, I loved the very same people who would rather see my body lying in the street. I loved the very same people who would ignore me in my dharma center. I loved the very same people who would make me invisible. I didn’t say I liked them! But I do love them. This is not the path of “Everything is going to be neat.” This is not the path of “All the answers will make you feel good.” This is a path of complexity. And that love is not an easy burden.’ (from Lion’s Roar)

Reading these words feels bracing – as it should. I have dwelled in the kind of position of dominance the Rev. angel addresses throughout the article. I don’t feel personally attacked – I am being asked to keep waking up, to keep looking, to keep supporting everyone to be the buddhas they are. I don’t always know what that looks like, but I am resolved to keep trying, and I am always grateful for these reminders to make my best effort.