The Intimacy of Sangha

After my nourishing week in the mountains, and a turn-around in the city just long enough to do my laundry and catch up on emails, I headed up to Oregon last Wednesday to attend the Gen X Buddhist Teachers Conference at Great Vow monastery. This is my third time attending the conference, after 2013 and 2015 (I missed 2017 for various reasons that were extremely frustrating at the time – thus there is no record of these in either of the blogs I have written); I knew at least half the people in attendance, and even if we have only spent a few days together over the years, the sense of sangha connection was very strong for me.

The basic premise of the group is peer support across lineages, and this was amply offered throughout, from the large group meetings, to breakout conversations, and of course just in the joy of hanging out with people who have spent years practising the dharma. There was a small contingent of people who had trained at Zen Center, David Z, Charlie P, Mako and myself, and it was great to have time to sit with them, especially David in his new role, to talk about things. I also got to meet some lovely new people from various traditions and countries of origin, as well as talking to some of the young monks in residence at the monastery about their practice.

That aspect of the visit was also very sweet for me, having spent a little over a month at Great Vow in 2006, on my way back to Tassajara after a little sabbatical. I kept getting flashes of memories, and enjoyed seeing how much had been done over the years (I will post some recollections of that time tomorrow), as well as the energy that the residents brought to supporting the conference.

The main theme of the discussions was ethics: a number of attendees have been directly impacted by scandals involving teachers in their organisations breaching ethical guidelines. Since we had very clear confidentiality guidelines, I won’t go into details, but the energy around this was strong, and the mutual support around such painful topics felt very valuable, and also nourishing. For the same reason, I won’t post pictures here of the participants, but I also had a good time taking photos of the venue, so here are some of those:

DSCF7942.jpgThe heatwave in San Francisco followed me up to Oregon, and the first day was very hot.

DSCF7997.jpgIn many places the foliage was denser than on my previous visit.

DSCF8026.jpgThe jizo forest was a beautiful place to spend time in, when I needed a break from interactions for a while.

DSCF7957.jpgThe entrance to the jizo forest, with later evening sun from being further north.



‘The great way originally has no names or words. Recognizing this principle, still we are compelled to call it the great way. Buddhas and ancestors appear one after another. The wooden man and the iron bull follow on each other’s heels, ascending and descending. However, they leave no traces to appear before us. But assuredly [the great way] does not depart from this very place, but is always deep and calm. We should know that when we seek we cannot see it.
A long time ago, a monk asked Zen Master Guizong [Zhichang], “What is the way?”
Guizong answered, “You are it.”
Also a monk asked Mazu [Guizong’s teacher], “What is the way?”
Mazu said, “Ordinary mind is the way.”
Also there was a monk who asked an [unknown] ancient worthy, “What is the way?”
The person said, “What you have been going through is it.”
Are these three venerable masters’ sayings ultimately the same or different? If you say they are the same, ten are just five pairs. If you say they are different, eight ounces are half a pound. Ha!’ (Extensive Record Volume 8, 2)

Keizan Jokin

‘Do no say that “I alone am honored” is Buddha, and do not say that he either comes or goes. Who can speak of “before my parents were born,” or “prior to the empty eon”? Aiming at this place, one transcends birth and no birth, one is liberated from mind and no mind. It is like water conforming to its container, like space which rests against things. Though you grasp it, your hands are not filled; though you search for it, you cannot find a trace. This is the Wondrous Dharma of the Buddhas.’ (Transmitting the Light)

I am half-tempted to provide links to to the quotations Keizan uses above, but I trust that, if you have not heard them before, you might investigate for yourselves. Instead I will point to the lines that stick in my head – the idea of space resting against things, and the echoes of Dogen’s phrasing, as I have come across a few times in these teisho.

Kobun Chino

‘Why do we forget the self? To attain supreme prefect enlightenment? I am sorry, it isn’t so. Facing the wall means to shoulder the world and forget yourself. Maybe we’d better not think of this action too much. It is a kind of discovered wisdom, like our posture and breathing. Each of us discovers our best way. We drop all kinds of preconceptions of what we are, what we have been, what we wish to be, or will be. We give those thoughts about ourselves a rest. You eventually go back, but you do not stick on the habitual way of knowing yourself, rather you let yourself be free to see yourself among all things.’ (Embracing Mind)

As with other pieces of his that I have posted, Kobun is making a very subtle point here, but one that resonates with me. I never felt that I have completely forgotten my self, but my ways of being with it and handling it are different to how they used to be, and hopefully freer.

Shinshu Roberts

‘If we understand our practice as attaining the absolute, we may encounter the problem of thinking our everyday life is of no consequence. We might believe that our effort is to transcend daily life and enter a rarefied and imagined spiritual state. It is imperative that we understand our everyday life as being-time’s complete expression. A bodhisattva’s liberation is enacted as the activity of entering the water, entering the mud.’ (Being-Time)

Sekkei Harada

‘The main purpose of practice is to bring an end to the seeking mind and to live accepting your present circumstances. It is important that you sit in zazen and are content with the result. As you sit, inevitably the thought arises that somehow you should be able to sit better. This is a fact. But sit without thinking that because you cannot sit well, you want somehow to sit better. If you cannot sit well, then accept it and leave it that way. If you are not settled, then accept it and leaving it that way. I would like you to make the effort to live peacefully in whatever condition you are in.’ (The Essence of Zen)


‘A monk asked, “What is the one word?”
The master said, “If you hold on to one word it will make an old man of you.”‘ (The Recorded Sayings of Zen Master Joshu)


Frogs In Cabarga Creek

Perhaps the most surprising thing about my week at Tassajara is that the temperature in San Francisco when I returned on Monday was as hot as anything we had down in the mountains. It adds to my theory that our weather has been running a month late for a while – this feels like a typical May heatwave, rather as the last similar spike in temperatures, eighteen months ago, was a September heatwave in October.

Of course it was delightful to be back at Tassajara, even if a week never seems like enough. We talked about intentions at the beginning of the retreat with Ann, and mine was to be in my body, and to share my love of Tassajara to the retreatants, which are fairly closely related as far as I see it. As I said to the guests, I always feel completely in my element when I am there. Certainly a week of yoga made a huge difference to the mid-spine issues I have been having this year, which also affect my shoulder, and after getting the area warmed up with Ann, Lirio’s careful structuring of her poses helped me get more strength back to the area, and a much greater sense of mobility.

A few people in the group understandably struggled with hiking the Horse Pasture when it was ninety degrees, and several took it a little easier for the remainder of the retreat. I took a group up the Overlook the following day, and then around to the waterfall, which, like the other creeks, was still running strongly. One brave soul even agreed to keep me company up the Tony Trail that afternoon, which we fairly raced up, despite the heat. A larger group came up to the Wind Caves, aided by a drop in temperature and being able to drive just about everyone up to the trail head, which made it feel like a comparatively short hike. I was trying to remember when I last hiked the three big trails on consecutive days – it may have been after the fire in 2008, when I was keen to document the transformed landscape…

After waving goodbye to that retreat, there was a slightly smaller number for Lirio’s retreat, but it felt like possibly the most good-natured group I can remember, with much connection and laughter – not least at Lirio’s notorious patter during the poses.

I was a little sad not to have the chance to offer a dharma talk while I was there, but Hakusho was kind enough to invite me to be morning doshi on a couple of occasions. Since this is now the only time to get to do it during the year, I was a little rusty the first go round – and rather mortified that I did not unfold my okesa correctly after the Robe Chant, which never happens, and which slowed me down getting to the bowing mat. The second time felt much smoother, and I enjoyed digging the chants and names of the ancestors out of the recesses of my brain.

There were reports of rattlesnakes, and I was almost disappointed not to see one. There was a wonderful profusion of tortoiseshells, from cocoon-shaken bushes on the trails to morning flocks on the watered Stone Office lawn in the morning (if not quite the super-bloom of last year); a turtle sunning itself by the old bathhouse on the last morning I was there; I thought I might perhaps have seen an eagle over Flag Rock, since the silhouette did not seem to be that of a turkey vulture; there was a Stellar’s Jay nest right outside the dining room, with four fledglings starting to shake their wings, and being fed regularly, as we were (no other bird would dare to build a nest so openly around Tassajara as the jays would undoubtedly sabotage it); and frogs in Cabarga Creek, which was also flowing well, croaking during evening zazen, something I don’t ever remember hearing before.

DSCF7584.jpgOdys is getting to be middle-aged now, and a little slower about the place, but still enjoying the morning sun, as any cat would.

DSCF7794.jpgSeeing this out of my cabin window one morning caused me a surprising amount of joy.

DSCF7687.jpgPeople making the climb to the Wind Caves where we ate lunch out of the sun.

DSCF7607.jpgI visited the waterfall several times over the week – this picture turned out rather old-fashioned looking, and I rather like it.

DSCF7642.jpgA longing-inducing image, as Zachary opined when I sent this to him – the view north from the top of the Tony Trail.


Charlotte Joko Beck

‘People often do just what we are objecting to. When they do what they do, however, it’s not necessary for us to judge them. I’m not immune from this; I find myself judging others, also. We all do. So I recommend a practice to help us catch ourselves in the act of judging: whenever we say the name of another person, we should watch what we add to the name. What do we say or think about the person? What kind of label do we use? Do we put the person in some category? No person should be reduced to a label; yet because of our preferences and dislikes, we do it anyway.’ (Nothing Special)