Although I try to hold the single thought
of Buddha’s teaching in my heart,
I cannot help but hear
the many crickets’ voices calling as well.
Although I try to hold the single thought
‘”No place to fall” is the life of a home-leaver.’ (The Zen Teachings of Homeless Kodo)
Leafing through this book again, I was struck by how many of his remarks are about our attachments to money and status – especially as these play out in Japanese society. Many of them are quite harsh, but I think there is a corrective value in these things being expressed. And as a priest – a home-leaver – I am keenly aware, in a city as money-bound as San Francisco, of my lack of status and relative lack of money. Yet I can still feed myself, pay my rent, and buy a few things when necessary. Sometimes, as I have expressed, my life feels precarious, but that is as it should be.
‘Put your questions on the shelf and practice zazen; you’ll get your own answers.’ (Zen: The Authentic Gate)
At Tassajara recently, I browsed in the library as I usually do when I am down there. I pulled this book from the shelves, and found that no-one else had signed it out since I had, two summers ago. Then again, although I did not have time to get very far through it, this was the only line that really jumped out at me. I do still appreciate that we need our own answers for our question, not our teachers’ answers or anyone else’s, if we are to make the practice ours.
‘I appreciate your enthusiasm in copying my lectures and keeping them, but remember that I speak them with shame and tears. I do such a dirty job (this talking on Zen) because nobody else has done it here before me. Please do not show my lectures to any outsiders and say they are part of my Zen. I have no such funny business as preaching Zen. Whatever I say passes away before you record it. You only catch my yawns and coughs.’ (Eloquent Silence)
What an old Buddha he is! I was reminded recently, as I was reading of his era, that his teacher told him not to breathe a word about Buddhism for seventeen years after he had arrived in America. And he obeyed his teacher. And then made up for it afterwards, despite the shabby treatment he received, along with the rest of the Japanese community, during the war.
‘Just to feel good we study, and just to feel better we practice zazen. No one knows, you know, what will happen to us after sitting, you know, one, two, or ten years. No one knows. No one knows is right. Just to feel good we sit zazen, actually. Eventually that kind of practice, you know– practice of purposeless practice– eventually [will] help you in its true sense.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi Archives)
‘Mind states come and go. Even quiet mind states.’ (It’s Easier Than You Think)
A good reminder that we are not aiming for some blissed-out realm of quietude (I searched to see if I had a post from one of the old Chinese guys dissing ‘silent illumination’, but drew a blank). What are we aiming for? Well, if anything, just getting to be with whatever mind state happens to be bubbling up.
‘When we actually do zazen, we shouldn’t be sleeping nor should we be caught up in our own thoughts. Rather, we should be wide-awake and aim at the correct posture with our flesh and bones. But can we ever attain this? Is there such a thing as succeeding or hitting the mark? Here is why zazen is unique. In zazen we must vividly aim at holding the correct posture, but we should never hit the mark. Or at any rate, the person who is doing zazen should never perceive whether they hit the mark or not.’ (Opening The Hand Of Thought)
I loathe the twin seas
Of being and not being
And long for the mountain
Of bliss untouched by
The changing tides.
(Anonymous, Manyoshu, from One Hundred More Poems From The Japanese, tr. Kenneth Rexroth
Among the conversations I have been having over recent weeks, at Tassajara, as well as at the conference, there has been a thread around what my current teaching style is, and what I want it to look like. Obviously I spend very little time wearing formal robes and doing ceremonies these days, and more time wearing clothes suitable for hiking so that I can take people around San Francisco with some mindfulness blended in.
The main factor I consider is how best to reach people so that they can have the opportunity to live a life less beset by the suffering that is endemic in the human condition. Knowing that many people will not set foot in a zen temple, what are skilful ways to make the teachings available to them? I know that five-minute recorded sessions are not a substitute for a long, deep sitting practice, but I am also guided by the vow ‘Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them.’ Who knows what people will find if they start through the gate, wherever they find it?
All this as a preamble to a plug – not something I do very often here – to an online series that I have helped with. Suzaita reached out to me having listened to me on Simple Habit, and I was happy to help her realise her vision for how she wanted her own life to change, and also offer the benefits of what she has discovered for herself.
Here is how she describes the show she has been creating:
“Many of us experience self-limiting beliefs, self-sabotage, self-doubt, poor choices with what we put in our bodies and how we treat our bodies, unfulfilling relationships, and lack of spirituality. We also lack a healthy sense of self-awareness and therefore make poor lifestyle choices. This way of living cultivates unhappy, unsatisfying, and unhealthy lives. Another pain-point for many of us is that we do not get to be ourselves, and we struggle with finding greater meaning in life.
With Activate Your Resilience you will learn how to get to the other side of your biggest obstacles and pain-points. With each episode, you will get the tools you need to diminish all that negative self-talk, heal your body, experience truly fulfilling relationships, and appreciate spirituality.
Suzaita covers what she calls The 6 Pillars of Life. These include: food & nutrition + spirituality + body movement + ancient Eastern practices + modern-day Western philosophies + Mother Earth. Suzaita believes that these 6 pillars represent the ultimate holistic way of life. She further believes that integrating these 6 pillars into everyday life activates people’s resilience.
For Suzaita, resilience is the gateway to realizing our true potential as human beings. Because in activating your resilience, you raise your level of consciousness. And when you raise your level of consciousness, you start to fully awaken your consciousness. When this happens, you realize your infinite potential and then live your authentic purpose-driven life.”
So, beginning July 1st, you can join me and more than twenty other experts in their fields who are guest speakers on Suzaita’s online show called Activate Your Resilience. Perhaps this might be your dharma gate to become the best version of yourself, realise your deepest potential, and live your purpose-driven life.
In the Tassajara shop, there was (and probably still is) a sign hanging behind the main counter and the altar, made from a fine piece of wood, with Dogen’s line from the Tenzo Kyokun beautifully written on it: ‘The way-seeking mind is actualised by rolling up your sleeves.’ I tend to associate this with Greg, who was head of shop and plant manager while I was at Tassajara, and was fond of talking of Buddha work, but I think that the sign may have been Mel’s handiwork, or at least inspired by him. Of course the original probably talked of tying back the sleeves, as that is what you have to do with robes, but the point is clear.
I learned quite a few skills in my shop years – among them plumbing and roofing, at least at a relatively basic level, along with many opportunities to practise building dry stone walls – but the main thing I learned, which has stood me in very good stead in many realms of life, was that work practice was just the opportunity to meet a situation, whatever it was, and do what was asked.
My time at Great Vow in 2006 was an example of this. As a small sangha, everyone pitched in with everything. I remember morning soji sometimes being spent picking blackberries from the many hedges on the property, as well as outings during the day to nearby blueberry farms to harvest fruit for our breakfasts, not to mention washing dishes and cleaning bathrooms, which are par for the course in any communal living situation.
The main focus of the time I was there, though, was a huge project to install under-floor heating for the zendo. Built as an elementary school around fifty years ago, when energy conservation was not really an issue in the States, the largest rooms at Great Vow had heating vents at ceiling height, right next to the large windows, which could not have been less efficient. While the project manager had construction experience, and another sangha member had flooring expertise, the rest of the crew comprised monks and residents, who brought muscle power and enthusiasm to the process.
I took a lot of photographs of the different stages of the project, and was very happy to have assisted in such a great undertaking. While it was happening, we were sitting in the gymnasium, where many of the conference sessions were held last week, so it was lovely to have the opportunity finally to sit in the zendo itself, which looks good as new (though I ended up doing most of my sitting out among the trees…)
The floor plan was very intricate.
The first stages were covering the concrete floor, and then assembling the pipe runs.
Then we filled each section with insulating foam.
Unravelling the hot water pipes was a big job.
Eventually everything found its place.
Filling the channels with sand was the next task.
I seem to remember that getting the plywood sub-floor down was the most laborious part of the whole operation, mainly because of the need to nail it down in exactly the right places over the 2″ x 4″s. Once that was done, some auspicious paintings and calligraphy were added for the benefit of the room.
I contributed verses from the Lotus Sutra, imperfectly.
At the entrance.
Laying the first course of bamboo right across the Brahmaviharas.
Slowly the whole floor was covered.
With special attention to the corners.
The finer cuts were made with a jigsaw – something else I had never tried before.
What it looks like now, thirteen years on.
At the same time, exterior colour choices were being considered.
I am not sure that I see this warm ochre in any of those samples, but that is what won out.