In The Thick Of It

Being able to offer the teachings in various venues is one of the main comforts of lockdown life for me; the other principles ones were also in plentiful supply over the past last week, namely warm, sunny weather and being able to get out on my bike.

I think I worked the bike metaphor hard enough last time around; another week on, we are all still in this flow of unknowing, much as we would like to know how it will all turn out. One of the participants in my student group mentioned how he felt enraged at those who were trying to ‘liberate’ themselves from the lockdown, but how he also felt vulnerable. I suggested that these people also felt vulnerable, but only felt able to express the rage. Another, who was clear about her desire to observe all the restrictions, said she had felt entertained by her bitterness at those who were not. Again, the ability to find that space, and not merely be consumed by the bitterness, is how practice can offer us moments of grace.

For all its imperfections – and there was a piece in the New York Times by Kate Murphy, who I have quoted recently, explaining well how it limits our necessary tendencies to mirror emotions of those we are interacting with, which is the kind of material I used in last year’s talks – there is a wonderful intimacy of the sharing I have been a part of on Zoom these past few days.

Apart from the many sweet observations from my students on Tuesday evening, I participated in the weekly Hebden Bridge sitting on Wednesday – their evening, my lunch-time. Catherine Gammon was offering the dharma talk this time; I know her from Tassajara almost fifteen years ago, and in the years following at Zen Center. She has visited England to teach many times, and reminisced fondly about working in the kitchen on retreat with several of the people in attendance this time. There were also other familiar faces from around the UK who had tuned in this time, and it was lovely to see them as well.

Since I am giving the talk next week, I wanted to hear what Catherine had to say, to be able to stay in the flow of the conversation. She in turn had listened to the recording of the talk I gave last week, so in that sense the flow was ongoing. I found myself nodding to the points she brought up, and to many of the responses that people had. I could probably build a talk just on notes I took of people’s observations this time around, though hopefully I will find something new and helpful to add for these times.

I also offered the zazen instruction for Zen Center on Saturday morning, something I have done many times, but never from my own bedroom, using my own cushions and chairs as props. Normally I get to see the effect of the suggestions I am giving on the people attending, and also get to gauge the energy level in the room, but that was not possible with everybody on Zoom, many of whom had turned their video feed off; I trust that something got communicated. It was sweet that the first question came from someone who was joining from Turkey – a very smart question about samadhi that I struggled to answer coherently. As with other events I have participated in on Zoom, we can be grateful that we have the opportunity to join the practice from anywhere in the world, and be intimately connected that way.

IMG_3872.jpgOne of the bright days last week – looking south east from Twin Peaks.

IMG_3929.jpgThe warmest day was Friday – this is the car-free approach to the foot of the bridge.


‘Though perspectives differ, the Dharma is one and the same. This sutra is present in the nature of all beings. Those who don’t look within read only the words. While those who become aware of their own minds realize this sutra does not consist of words.’ (Commentary on the Diamond Sutra)

I think Hui-neng is making the same point that Kobun Chino was yesterday.

Kobun Chino

‘The question comes, “Is it important to have a lot of interviews with a teacher, or can practice be left up to zazen?” The answer is that the two biggest elements of our practice are zazen practice and “man po,” learning. If a teacher sees all practitioners as imperfect, he stands up as the direct teacher, and endlessly practices with the student to complete the pratice. But in zazen there is already “man po”; in shikantaza there is complete “man po.” This means there is no teaching in the perfecr world, no teacher or student. With complete understanding of what is the enlightened one, Buddha can speak and all Buddhas listen without any sense of “He’s teaching me,” or “We are listening to him.” Speaking and listening have the same quality as many of the sounds around us. (A duck is quacking outside.) That voice you can understand even if it is not a human word. That sound of kitchen (chopping, ringing of pans) you can understand even if it is not formal human language. Even when there are no words, there is teaching, so it is a little awkward to take the opportunity to speak. The whole thing is a little dusty. Without human language, all trees and all grasses know each other completely and they are saying, “Let’s not think whether we know each other or not. We already do.”‘ (Embracing Mind)

Dale S.Wright

‘According to the Wisdom Sutras, one of the reasons that profound questioning is required is that the practice of inquiry brings us to an awareness of the role of language in our experience of the world. These sutras, along with other Buddhist texts, are extraordinary in the extent to which they have engaged in penetrating reflection on language. The bodhisattva is pictured as understanding what few of us ever encounter, the connection between what we experience and our language about it. Although these can never be entirely separated, bodhisattvas are pictured as able to see that bearing one has on the other and to avoid mental mistakes that arise from assuming their identity. In teaching, therefore, bodhisattvas show others where language is blocking rather than enabling insight. They realize that the language in which the perfection of wisdom in articulated can either prevent or evoke the dawning of insight.
In order to call attention to the role of language in shaping human experience, one sutra has Subhuti say: “To call it ‘perfection of wisdom,’ that is merely giving it a name. And what that name corresponds to, that cannot be got at.”‘ (The Six Perfections)

I find it easy to spot when a student is getting caught on words to the extent that it is preventing them really meeting the moment, so I appreciate this passage, which also serves as a nice companion to the one from Jenny Odell last week.


The Buddha’s teaching of the Dharma
Is based on two truths:
A truth of worldly convention
And an ultimate truth.
Those who do not understand
The distinction drawn between these two truths
Do not understand
The Buddha’s profound truth.
Without a foundation in the conventional truth
The significance of the ultimate cannot be taught.
Without understanding the significance of the ultimate,
Liberation is not achieved.

I think this is exactly what Ryumon was saying last Sunday.

Dana Velden

‘Paying attention to posture is a way to focus our awareness and to practice presence. Posture is an indication of who we are in a particular moment, what we are feeling, and how we are coping. When we are droopy or hunched over, it’s an indication that perhaps we need to rest or stretch… When we are upright and supported, we can carry on with the task at hand, offering it our energy and ability, simultaneously holding and being held by our efforts.
Our posture is echoed in our thoughts. There is a posture of the mind as well as the body, a basic open and aware stance that we can cultivate in order to encourage a more balanced and receptive mind. When we are upright in all aspects of our lives, we create a core stability from which we can draw, like a deer drinking deeply from a pond in the middle of a forest.’ (Finding Yourself In The Kitchen)

Shinshu Roberts

‘Logically we can understand that, without suffering, there would be no need for the compassion, wisdom, and skillful means of bodhisattva practice. This is a difficult teaching. It requires us to stay and investigate that which is troublesome and inconvenient in our world. Yet, it is only under these circumstances that our own buddhanature can bloom and bring forth the full flowering of realization. Over and over again, we renew our bodhisattva vow in the midst of this samsaric life. Who else can enact this practice but each of us?’ (from Lion’s Roar)

Norman Fischer

‘Musicians, athletes, and orators practice to get ready for their performances. But doctors, lawyers, psychotherapists, architects, artists, craftspeople, and other professionals practice in a different sense. They are not preparing for something more signifcant that is going to happen later. Practice for them is ongoing daily effort to develop their field. They respect and honor their field, and they know they can’t ever completely master it. As long as they practice they will extend themselves, improve their skills, work toward mastery.
For spiritual practitioners, life is the field of practice. Spiritual practitioners try to master the art of living. They pay attention to how they live, which means how they think, speak, and act. They pay attention to states of mind and body, relationships to self and others, perceptions, feelings.’ (The World Could Be Otherwise)

Taking It Easier

Over the years, as I have exercised, either on my bike or running, I have found it hard to take it easy on the route that I have chosen. Obviously, if I am going a shorter distance, I will be pushing harder; if I am going longer, I will measure my effort in accord with how long I need to keep going. If I don’t know the route, then I have to keep more back in reserve, just to be able to last the distance and navigate whatever hurdles there may be.

I was musing on this on Sunday afternoon, as I undertook a planned long ride: on the way out of the city, I wanted to tackle the Guadeloupe Canyon Road running up San Bruno Mountain (it features in the famous Bullitt car chase – any of the segments that are obviously not urban). If I were just going up the mountain and back, as I sometimes do, I would be working harder up the climb; this time since I was going further, I put my bike in the lowest gear and took it easier.

The next climb on the route was up from the Camino Real in San Bruno to Skyline. The road I chose is one I have only ridden once before, but quite recently, so I was well aware that the hardest sections were near the top, and paced myself accordingly.

I was aiming for the Sweeney Ridge trail; once out on the trail, which was paved from the end of Sneath Lane (as far as I had ventured before), to the summit, I had no idea what to expect, beyond seeing the ridge line some way above me. It turned out to be a great climb, tough in the middle, but very doable. There was a great sense of accomplishment – not to mention outstanding views – once I reached the top. To add to the adventure, I had decided to try the dirt trail to get down from the top to Pacifica, which I wasn’t well equipped for, but managed, more on foot than not. And then I had one big climb left to get home, but this was one that I knew well enough, and knew I could manage, even with tired legs.

With the shelter-in-place world continuing without a clear sense of the exit (however much some people are trying to “liberate” their states), I feel like I will have to adapt a similar approach to this unknown duration. And some parts of it are going to be hard. I get texts from friends expressing how depressed they are, especially from lack of physical contact – having devoted much time in my most recent talks to highlighting the nourishing aspects of in-person interaction, I can entirely sympathise.

Finishing up articles from a New Yorker of a couple of weeks ago, the descriptions from the novel phase of the lockdown already seem passé. We know how this feels now. And we will keep on knowing new dimensions of it as it continues, even if we don’t know exactly what those are now. Sometimes the future looks grim, and sometimes the present might not be as scary as you may think. We can learn fresh ways to discover how interconnected everything is, and also learn more about what it is that some people are experiencing.

In this fluid world, I do trust that our practice helps us: having few desires, being more attuned to interiority and living in the moment. Hopefully using skillful means and compassion to navigate the complexities and unpleasantness.

While I was waiting in line at Rainbow the other day – one of those things we have just somehow accommodated to – I was also reminded of something I have already posted from La Peste:

‘Tarrou added: “Query: How contrive not to waste one’s time? Answer: By being fully aware of it all the while. Ways in which this can be done: By spending one’s days on an uneasy chair in the dentist’s waiting room; by remaining on one’s balcony all a Sunday afternoon; by listening to the lectures in a language one doesn’t know; by traveling the longest and least-convenient train routes, and of course by standing all the way; by lining up at the box office of theaters and then not buying a seat; and so forth.”‘

So our time continues on, and we don’t know the course, so we have to try to manage our energy for the duration, and hold a little back just in case.

In ways I am hoping to help this week – beyond apparently having steered a few people to take roams – there is a Zoom talk to the Hebden Bridge group and friends today, starting at 11:30 PST, and this Saturday, the 25th, I will be offering the zazen instruction for Zen Center’s online zendoThat starts at 8:10 PST.

IMG_3789.jpgAlmost at the top of Sweeney Ridge.

IMG_3801.jpgAlmost back down at sea level.

Jenny Odell

‘When I try to think about thinking, for instance retracing where an idea of mine came from, the limitations of English force me to say that “I” “produced” an “idea.” But none of these things are stable entities, and this grammatical relationship among them is misleading. The “idea” isn’t a finished product with identifiable boundaries that one moment sprung into being – one of the reasons artists so hate the interview question, “So what was your inspiration for this?” Any idea is actually an unstable, shifting intersection between myself and whatever I was encountering. By extension, thought doesn’t occur somehow inside of me, but between what I perceive of me and not-me.’ (How To Do Nothing)

I doubt the author was thinking of Dogen when she wrote this, but the way she expresses this illuminates not just the standard Buddhist notion of interconnection, but the way that Dogen chose to pull language apart to signal the unreliablility of its building blocks.

Interestingly, when I went on a hunt through the archive to find a typically dense passage, I did not find one – though I am sure I have posted a couple over the years. But I did come across this passage, from a very early post, that is perhaps Dogen expressing the same idea:

‘You are an accoutrement that exists in the entire world of the ten directions. How do you know it to be thus? You know it because your body and mind are not you; they appear in the world of the ten directions.
Your body is not you; your life is transported, moving in time without stopping even for one moment. Where has your youthful face gone? When you search for it, there is no trace. When you ponder deeply, there are many from the past whom you cannot encounter again. The pure mind does not stay; it comes and goes in fragments. Even if there is truth, it does not stay within the boundary of yourself.’ (Shobogenzo Immo)