Soko Morinaga

‘The mind that neither ignores anything nor attaches to anything is not something that is obtained through training. It is the natural “power” with which you entered this world. Those of us who are called Zen monks enter the monastery in order to awaken through practice to this power that we inherently possess, to freely demonstrate it, and to bring it to life.’ (Novice To Master)

The first part of this post is an essential summation of our practice. The second part outlines how our practice can be beneficial:  it is not just the awakenning, but the manifestion and offering as we leave the monastery and return to the marketplace.

Tenkei

‘The sages and ancient Buddhas all had prescriptions for practice and realization. To those who were trapped in the notion of existence, they gave the medicine of nonexistence; to those who were trapped in the notion of nonexistence, they gave the medicine of existence. They measured out eighty-four thousand medicines to treat the eighty-four thousand illnesses of ordinary mortals, but Ummon’s prescription today is special. If the whole earth is medicine, what illness does it cure? Where is your self? Right at this very moment, what is this? It is all medicine! Naturally complete without cultivation, what practice or realization would you talk about?’ (Commentary on the Blue Cliff Record)

You could boil this, and indeed all teachings, down to, ‘Right at this very moment, what is this?’ Or look back to what Dogen suggested yesterday. Medicine everywhere.

Dogen

‘Spring has the feeling of spring, and autumn has the look of autumn; there is no escaping it. So when you want spring or autumn to be different from what it is, notice that it can only be as it is. Or, when you want to keep spring or autumn as it is, reflect that it has no unchanging nature.’ (Shobogenzo Yuibutsu Yobutsu)

I was reflecting on the concreteness of Dogen’s analogies (see also here), and here he sums up the whole of human longing very simply. We want it to be different now, or else we want it to remain the same forever. It’s as true now as it was when he wrote this, eight hundred years ago. And it’s especially worth reflecting on in this spring of sickness.

IMG_4804The feeling of spring in San Francisco on Monday morning, as late rains came and went.

 

Grahame Petchey

‘What attracted me in the first half hour of zazen that I did with Suzuki Roshi was that I didn’t need to have faith anymore – just the blank wall. All I had to do was sit. Suzuki demanded no more than that – and he was humble. It was overwhelming joy when I first met him. I had been looking for the genuine product, and there it was. I just dedicated my whole life.’ (from Cuke.com)

I always enjoyed hearing about Grahame Petchey, someone who came from England to be one of the early figureheads at Zen Center, and being the one of first people ordained by Suzuki Roshi, before he eventually went his own way in Japan. Appropriately enough, today is Suzuki Roshi’s birthday.

Tao-ch’uan

When you’re happy, I’m not
When you’re sad, I’m not
A crane thinks of flying north or south
A swallow thinks of its old nest
Autumn moon and spring flower thoughts never end
You only need to know yourself right now.

Suzuki Roshi

‘Zen student is not, you know, so expressive, you know. Mostly they keep silent. They do not walk so fast. They don’t act so actively, you know. You know, they have some– something, you know– something different, anyway. Especially when you sit for so long time, you yourself feel you changed a lot. You feel, you know, it is difficult even to smile [laughs]– even to say something, you know. That will be the feeling you have. And if you continue your practice, you will be more and more so. And even though you will not change into a strong buddha [laughs, laughter], a great change will happen to you, you know, and you will be someone which you didn’t like at all. “I don’t want to be like this.” [Laughs.] But although this kind of experience is not the experience you wanted to have, but this is the experience anyway you will have through [laughs, laughter] zazen.

But there is– there is no need for you to worry, you know, because this is the way, you know, upwards, and soon you will find out the way downwards, and you will find yourself in the city again as a normal person. So there is nothing to worry, but in zendo it is necessary for us to have this kind of experience through practice.

And I think one or two years we must devote ourselves this kind of practice. If you go to Tassajara, you know, even more so. And Tassajara itself will have a kind of feeling of practice center more and more. When you see this kind of practice, you may say– or people may say, “Zen practice is not for us” [laughs].” You know, you may not like it. But by the time you have a Caucasian, you know, old Zen master, you will have found out exactly what is Zen.

So I want you to be patient enough to continue this kind of practice. And it is important for you to take care of this kind of feeling and gradually extend this kind of umperturbability [imperturbability] of mind to our everyday life. When you start to work on this point, to establish, you know, to extend our practice to everyday life, you will understand– you will understand the teaching– our teaching. Or you will understand what is meant.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi archives)

It was poignant to come across this passage, as his description of a student’s progress, from fifty years ago, resonates with how I have felt practice changing me, while he did not live long enough to see it happen for his students.

Gudo Nishijima

‘The true meaning of emptiness in Buddhism has been misunderstood for so many years as nothingness, or void. But if we have understood that Buddhism is a realistic philosophy, it is impossible for us to understand emptiness like that. In Buddhism emptiness is just “as it is.” A cup is a cup. A cup never more than cup, or a cup is never less than cup.’  (from Hardcore Zen)

I would go on to suggest that you are you. You are never more than you, or less than you. How does that sound? Does that sound like emptiness?

Hui-neng

‘On the best of paths there are no impure dharmas to avoid, not are there any pure dharmas to seek. There are no beings to liberate, nor is there any nirvana to realize. There are no thoughts about liberating beings, nor are there thoughts about not liberating beings. This is the best of paths.’ (Commentary on the Diamond Sutra)

Better still, it is the path that you are already on, as long as you realise that you are already on it, and that you don’t have to seek it elsewhere. When you meet a person, help – whatever that looks like.

Jenny Odell

‘Practices of attention and curiosity are inherently open-ended, oriented toward something outside of ourselves. Through attention and curiosity, we can suspend our tendency toward instrumental understanding – seeing things or people one-dimensionally as the products of their functions – and instead sit with the unfathomable fact of their existence, which opens up toward us but can never be fully grasped or known.’ (How To Do Nothing)

Coming Home

So today marks the twenty-year anniversary of my arrival in San Francisco. I packed up my mostly happy life in London (see here), and flew in with two bags, and a bicycle in a box. I was in love, and happy to be starting a new phase of life – which also included living at the Zen Center.

I have never been much of a one for imagining the future, but I think I had the idea that I would give residential practice a try for six months, and then we would move on if I didn’t take to it. Having already heard about Tassajara on my one previous visit to San Francisco, I knew I wanted to see it for myself (and indeed, I did get there for a day later that summer). Perhaps we would do the practice for a couple of years. I guess that’s what you could call beginner’s mind, eh?

Certainly, I would never have guessed that I would spend fifteen years living at either City Center or Tassajara (with a couple of short breaks around the five-year mark). We had moved to Tassajara in 2002, and a couple of years after that, I really started to have the clear sense that I wanted to ordain as a priest. I remember reading a remark that Richard Baker had supposedly made early on in Suzuki Roshi’s time to a Zen Center colleague (I expect I read that in Crooked Cucumber): ‘if we had any sense, we would just do this for the rest of our lives.’

And at a certain point, it did seem clear that there was nothing else I would rather do with my life. Speaking with Zachary yesterday, he was asking about the process of how I had changed through practice; I answered that it had been rather as Blanche used to describe monastic practice, like a rock tumbler where everyone is very slowly having the rough edges smoothed out. If I look back, it seems clear that I have changed; I think it is mostly for the better, and I think it can be largely attributed to practice. And I trust that people can change for the better, cultivating the kindness and compassion that we all know how to access, and I hope I can help people see how that is possible.

Neither would I have guessed that right now I would be doing my teaching on video conferencing apps (as a sound engineer at the BBC in the nineties, I had been used to satellite phones and ISDN for audio, but back then, internet audio was still in its infancy, as I discovered in my first job over here). It is an imperfect intimacy, but it is all we have right now.

At some point, maybe from around 2012, I started feeling that it might be time to go home to England, where there would be opportunities to teach. I had been feeling a little homesick, missing the landscapes and the history (if not some aspects of the culture). But leaving Zen Center and moving back (with more than two bags and a bicycle now) seemed like a big leap, so I settled for just leaving Zen Center, and that clearly felt like the right choice.

In the past year, I suppose, I have started to feel much more settled here (despite some aspects of the culture). I am in love, and looking foward to starting a new phase in my life, hopefully when the pandemic eases its grip somewhat. My vow is to continue on this path, and to embody upright teaching. Who knows where this will all take me?

Twenty years ago, I arrived in the middle of one of the heatwaves that San Francisco can sometimes experience. Everyone warned me not to get used to the high temperatures, but I enjoy them when they come round, and this is time of year it typically happens . This week has been a little different, and much less typical to my mind: on Monday, during the Zoom version of the outdoor lunchtime meditation, I had to set up inside, as there was rain in the forecast, and indeed we had several bands of it passing through during the afternoon. One of the participants was sitting in her car, and I noticed on the screen, as the wind suddenly whistled through the open window in front of me, that her hair was blowing around at the same moment. I thought it might be the 21st Century version of Hui-neng’s story.

ZC group 2001.jpegI had the idea to go back and look at my earliest San Francisco photo album. This is probably from the spring of 2001. If you look closely, you can see the current abbot in the front row. I also see at least three people who now run other centres. I can name all but a couple of people in the picture still, and I think five of the people shown have died.

Twin Peaks 2001.jpegIMG_4310.jpgIf you read this blog regularly, you might remember that being up on Twin Peaks has been the symbol of my feeling at home here. The oldest picture I have of the view from there reminds me so clearly what the last two decades have done to this city.