‘We cannot avoid understanding because we are human beings, and the human brain produces thoughts. This is not our preference, it is our reality. We simply find ourselves living in this world with a thinking brain. Thinking is not a personal choice. It’s as if we are forced or designed to think. And even before I seem to choose a way of thinking, the way I think in general is previously established by my home and educational environment, so the way I think is not really my choice. To think or not to think is therefore not a choice we can make. Even thinking or discriminating is not a product of my discrimination. This ability to discriminate also comes from our life force beyond discrimination; I don’t have the option to not discriminate. But if we are dominated by discrimination, if we think the world created by our discrimination is reality and throw our lives into that world of discrimination, we are in trouble. Yet the ability to discriminate is part of this life beyond discrimination. In reality, for everything we encounter, for all situations and conditions we meet at this moment, “understanding is of no use.” And again, to say this is still an understanding. So our life consists of an infinite number of encounters with “what’s the use of understanding?” ‘ (from the Soto Zen Journal)
Notwithstanding what I wrote a few days ago, October really is a great month in San Francisco. The temperatures did indeed rise last week, so I had my third heatwave since moving to our new place. I had time to go and sit on the beach, and to be out on my bike early morning before it got too hot, to fmy current favourite locations – Ocean Beach, Sweeney Ridge, San Bruno Mountain, and the Crystal Springs trail.
That time was a result of not having a huge amount of work on. I got to lead an evening meditation for Core on Chalk, and it was great to have the time, and the intimacy of an audio-only format, to explore a theme – something I have missed since the Hebden Bridge sessions finished. I have noticed some second-guessing going on: do I really have anything to say, or to teach? What is my practice now? But these are more invitations to keep exploring rather than notions of despair.
I know that I miss the regular reading time I had when I was commuting in normal times; it somehow feels harder to carve that out even when I have space in my schedule. And I know that has a knock-on effect with what gets posted here, so I apologise if it has sometimes felt a little lacklustre. Seeing as we have just ticked past the fifth anniversary of this blog (with more than 1800 posts published), I thought it might be time for a refresh – only the second time I have changed themes. I hope that it is easy on the eye, and that the posts continue to be taxing to the brain for a few more years yet.
‘To hold space for our pain is a way that we begin to take care of our pain. Taking care of our pain softens our hurt as we do the work of empathizing with ourselves. Empathizing with ourselves makes it easier to empathze with others around us. This empathy is at the root of the love and compassion that will begin to disrupt the systems that create harm.’ (Love and Rage)
This illuminates one of the central ‘paradoxes’ of a life of practice. Mostly, we think that we need to push pain away to function, or that if we ignore it, it might go away. Once we do hold space for it, our relationship to it changes, and softening can occur, loosening the hurt, and the power of pain.
The sacred place is not remote;
No special road leads to it.
If one proceeds where a guide has pointed
He will find only a slippery, moss-covered bridge.
‘People often ask me if zazen can ever be of any practical use in these complex and turbulent times. By way of answering, let us consider the concept of aligning. The word align signifies the idea of situating everything in its proper position relative to everything else. First we align our body, then we align our breathing, then we align our mind. And once these things are accomplished, we find that we cannot be satisfied with aligning only our individual minds, but that we must finally align ourselves with the Mind of the larger Self that pervades all existence.’ (The Path to Bodhidharma)
This seems like a good moment to dust off this post.
‘Yunmen once lived in a temple called the Chapel of Holy Trees. One morning a government official called on him and asked, “Are your holy fruits well-ripened now?” “None of them was ever called green by anyone, ” answered Yunmen.’ (The Iron Flute)
How does the fruit get to be ripe if it was never green? Maybe we can let go of the idea of stages, and just be complete right now.
‘Try to instill the habit of lingering in your life. Leave the urge to hurry on to the next thing and replace it with a hankering for the more settled, deeper conversations that develop when people commit to spending time together. Give someone the gift of saying “I have nowhere else I’d rather be than here with you.” Shed the armor of busyness and distraction and see what happens when you choose to stay in one place for a while. Dawdle. Let the conversation meander.’ (Finding Yourself In The Kitchen)
I smiled on reading this passage recently: readers with long memories may remember I addressed my struggles with this issue, and the role that monastic training may have had in exacerbating my own tendencies. I am happy to keep learning how to do the opposite.
I initially had this on the slate for the spring, and it was one of the posts that I put aside once the pandemic landed. It didn’t seem that it was time to talk about lingering with others. But we can do that with our intimates as well as with friends and acquaintances.
‘I often think about power and how quickly a situation can change with a caring and wise heart. I think about the moments when we can see beyond judgment and self-interest to choose rather than react — the moments when small, caring choices can influence a social balance. This, I think, is the power of equanimity.
Equanimity is a sustained state of balance, seeing what’s here with evenness of mind — a mind that is touched by life but unbroken by its ever-changing nature. It’s a prominent concept in Buddhism, often represented in images of stillness, ease, compassion, and strength and regarded as the fruit of spiritual practice.
Equanimity is an invaluable inner resource that is cultivated through awareness. It is the experience of knowing the movement of the mind without reactiveness, an experience of grounded presence amidst extremes. When the mind is steady and responsive, we can say to ourselves, “This moment is like this, and it doesn’t have to be different right now. I can allow what is here and offer what is needed.”’ (from Lion’s Roar)
‘If someone asks me: What is Prajna Paramita? I will answer: practice of zazen. If someone asks again: What is the practice of zazen? I will answer: To open Buddha’s eating bowl and to take bath in evening.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi archives)
I had pulled this quote out from a talk, and then posted it to Instagram having forgotten where I had got it from. I attributed it to Dogen – so I wasn’t far off really. The phrasing certainly sounds like Dogen, and Suzuki Roshi, as I often say, was channeling Dogen for his new students in America. In fact these lines came from the first Tassajara sesshin, in the summer of 1967; from the shosan ceremony, to be precise, where Suzuki Roshi answered the questions of those sincerely trying to understand their practice and zen practice. And the answer: eating and bathing, at the appropriate times. Naturally.
‘When freedom is defined as “personal liberty” it’s about being free to pursue our desires. But Buddhism is about seeing through our desires, not pursuing them. No matter how lofty our desires seem to be, they are still desires. The Buddhist teachings ask us to avoid being carried away by what we want.’ (from Hardcore Zen)
I guess that’s the difference between Buddhism and Americanism; good to remember in these times.