Soko Morinaga

‘There is no way that you can exert yourself in this world without that exertion being of value. Each and every thing is the form that the heart is presently taking, the revelation of Buddha, the manifestation of Dharma.’ (From Novice To Master)

This seems an inocuous kind of thing to say, but I think you can savour this one deeply as well.

Gary Snyder

There is no remedy for satisfying hunger other than a painted rice cake.

—Dōgen, November, 1242.

On a back wall down the hall

lit by a side glass door

is the scroll of Mu Ch’i’s great
sumi painting, “Persimmons”

The wind-weights hanging from the
axles hold it still.

The best in the world, I say,
of persimmons.

Perfect statement of emptiness
no other than form

the twig and the stalk still on,
the way they sell them in the
market even now.

The original’s in Kyoto at a
lovely Rinzai temple where they
show it once a year

this one’s a perfect copy from Benrido
I chose the mounting elements myself
with the advice of the mounter

I hang it every fall.

And now, to these overripe persimmons
from Mike and Barbara’s orchard.
Napkin in hand,
I bend over the sink
suck the sweet orange goop
that’s how I like it
gripping a little twig

those painted persimmons

sure cure hunger

June French

‘A couple of decades of reading about Zen didn’t prepare me for the actual experience of practicing Zen. It was a wonderful feeling, and not a little frightening at first. I was rather awestruck at practicing with a real Roshi. I soon realized that we all have problems with aching legs and busy minds.’ (from the Jikoji archives)

This comes from a series of very sweet and personal reminiscences of Suzuki Roshi by people who practised at the Haiku Zendo in Los Altos – named because they were able to fit seventeen cushions into the converted garage – at which the recordings that became Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind were made. Look out for a couple more extracts coming up.

Josho Pat Phelan

‘Many of the instructions for Zen meditation are directed to the physical details of our posture. The culture that Zen grew out of made much less distinction between the body and mind than our culture does. So, the idea is that by sitting with a straight back, and aligning our spine, and being still physically, this will support our mind in settling and becoming focused. To a great extent in Zen, we practice with our mind indirectly through our body. This meditation posture developed in India as a yogic position. Zen meditation isn’t something we do only with the mind. What we practice with is much wider and more subtle than our conceptual thinking. In Zen it is said that realization must penetrate every cell of our bodies, out to each tip of our hair and down to the marrow of our bones. So, in Zen, we engage our body as an ally to enable us to practice with the totality of our being.’ (from the Chapel Hill Zen Center website)

Suzuki Roshi

‘The first paragraph is the framework of whole Buddhism.  First paragraph:

All—when all things are in Buddhist way or Buddhist phenomena, we are enlightenment and ignorance, something to study, life and death, buddha, and people.  When all things are without self, we have no ignorance, no enlightenment, no doubt, no buddha, no people, and no life and no death.  The Buddhist way is beyond being and non-being.  Therefore we have life and death, ignorance and enlightenment, people and buddha.  However, flowers fall with our attachment, and weeds grow with our detachment.

This is, you know, the most basic understanding of—of Buddhism or Sōtō Zen, which include all the teaching of Buddhism.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi archives)

I was struck by Suzuki Roshi dealing with the Genjo Koan here, from a 1966 talk, not because he was talking about it – he did that quite a few times in those early years, when he wasn’t paraphrasing in more broadly – but the translation he used. I am curious if it is a version he did himself. In any case, as I have said many times, seeing a fresh translation of a well-known passage is a great way to see it anew and to think about it in a different way.

For reference, here is the Zen Center version which I know and love:

‘As all things are buddha-dharma, there is delusion and realization, practice, birth and death, and there are buddhas and sentient beings. As the myriad things are without an abiding self, there is no delusion, no realization, no buddha, no sentient being, no birth and death. The buddha way is, basically, leaping clear of the many and the one; thus there are birth and death, delusion and realization, sentient beings and buddhas. Yet, in attachment blossoms fall, and in aversion weeds spread.’

Sylvia Boorstein

‘In a sermon the Buddha preached for his son, Rahula, he called for considering before, during, and after every action whether it was potentially abusive or exploitive or genuinely rooted in kind intent. Sufficient clarity of mind—through wise mindfulness and concentration—is required to discern negative intent, and sufficient wise effort is required to exercise self-restraint. Through wise understanding we deeply intuit the legacy of losses that we share with other livings beings, and through wise intention we find an ever-growing resolve to respond to all life with compassion.’ (from Lion’s Roar)

The Nature Of Wind

I feel a little self-conscious that when I write about my current life, the weather figures prominently in the story; then I think of Linda Ruth, and how she started almost every talk she gave during practice periods at Tassajara (I did three which she led) with some comments about the weather, as a way of grounding whatever followed in the reality that we were dealing with – and at Tassajara, the weather was always very prominent, and we spent a fair amount of time outside.

So anyway, after the last post, the fog came back with avengeance (if you read my stuff on Patreon you will have already seen the pictures); I read that it has been the coldest April and May round these parts for decades (unfortunately it has been a long way from being the wettest, so now we have drought to face again). This all feels part of the way the weather has been tilted off axis through the course of my life.

What blew away the fog and brought some clear, if not especially warm, weather, were some mighty winds, loud enough to rattle the chimneys on our roof. These at least allowed me to pull out the old analogy of the oak and the willow when I was teaching meditation last week, encouraging flexibility from our strong roots on the cushion (though I am aware that very few, if any, of the people I am leading in the sittings are going to be on a cushion).

After which, rather embarrassingly, I felt like I had run out of things to say about meditation. I had a recording due, and couldn’t think of what I wanted to talk about. The live sessions are easier, because there is always somewhere to start, depending on the mood of the participants – including myself – but I have the notion that an enduring recording should have more heft. In the end I talked about basic awareness practices.

Of course, the nature of wind is that things change, and I am sure I will come up with some resonant phrases again soon.

One way I have noticed change in myself recently is, now that I am fully vaccinated, and with the sudden shift in CDC guidelines, I am considerably less agitated to see people walking around without masks; out on my bike, I have stopped riding with a bandana around my neck, ready to pull up, and instead have a mask in a pocket, ready to pull out if needed. It has taken a few weeks of adjustment, but now it feels almost normal.

Another, more banal change is that the regular football season has finished in England. There are still a couple of European club finals and the European nations tournament to come in the next few weeks, but I know I will suddenly have quite a few more hours in the week – especially weekends – without matches to get absorbed in. I may even manage to finish a book. I picked up a new book by Shodo Harada on the Platform Sutra from the Zen Center bookstore on Friday, and I am excited to dig into it.

And to wrap up, here are some photos from the last couple of weeks:

A somewhat typical view of the fog as it wraps around Twin Peaks and heads dowtown
Also somewhat typical, deep in the fog on top of San Bruno Mountain
High winds, and entropy, reduce two lanes of the Great Highway to an extension of the dunes
On Saturday morning, I did some exploring in Pacifica in the sun.
Two views of Oyster Point from consecutive weekends
This past weekend was a little more spectacular
I was out early enough on Sunday that for the first time I tried taking the road that runs into the belly of SFO – it has a bike lane the whole way, and was bascially deserted
Just south of the airport, on the Bay Trail, the tranquility belied by the loudness of the plane taking off
In other realms, it was a joy to be volunteering for the Bicycle Coalition again, as things get back to normal. Here we are engaging with a family of cyclists on Market St on Friday morning, with Bike to Work Day rebranded as Bike To Wherever Day

Nyogen Senzaki

‘Monks have no monopoly on Zen. Zen belongs to the world. Laymen and laywomen adherents shoud study Zen – even children in kindergarten should be trained in the Zen way. The shrubs and grasses around this humble house also study Zen. They show the color of Zen through their own natural green… Zen monks are like street cleaners. They do their work so that others can go their different ways.’ (Eloquent Silence)

I was quite surprised to discover I had not posted this sharp little paragraph before. Senzaki, once again, showing that he had the right idea, decades before others were hawking their wares around the same locales.

Alison Gopnik

‘If you’re thinking about intelligence, there’s a real genuine tradeoff between your ability to explore as many options as you can versus your ability to quickly, efficiently commit to a particular option and implement it. And it turns out that even if you just do the math, it’s really impossible to get a system that optimizes both of those things at the same time, that is exploring and exploiting simultaneously because they’re really deeply in tension with one another. And the way that computer scientists have figured out to try to solve this problem very characteristically is give the system a chance to explore first, give it a chance to figure out all the information, and then once it’s got the information, it can go out and it can exploit later on. So, explore first and then exploit. And I think that evolution has used that strategy in designing human development in particular because we have this really long childhood. But I think you can see the same thing in non-human animals and not just in mammals, but in birds and maybe even in insects. So you see this really deep tension, which I think we’re facing all the time between how much are we considering different possibilities and how much are we acting efficiently and swiftly. There’s, again, an intrinsic tension between how much you know and how open you are to new possibilities. So, again, just sort of something you can formally show is that if I know a lot, then I should really rely on that knowledge. And I should, to some extent, discount something new that somebody tells me. Whereas if I don’t know a lot, then almost by definition, I have to be open to more knowledge. But I think it’s more than just the fact that you have what the Zen masters call beginner’s mind, right, that you start out not knowing as much. I think we can actually point to things like the physical makeup of a child’s brain and an adult brain that makes them differently adapted for exploring and exploiting.

So there’s two big areas of development that seem to be different. So one of them is that the young brain seems to start out making many, many new connections. So what you’ll see when you look at a chart of synaptic development, for instance, is, you’ve got this early period when many, many, many new connections are being made. And then you’ve got this later period where the connections that are used a lot that are working well, they get maintained, they get strengthened, they get to be more efficient. And then the ones that aren’t are pruned, as neuroscientists say. They kind of disappear. The consequence of that is that you have this young brain that has a lot of what neuroscientists call plasticity. It can change really easily, essentially. But it’s not very good at putting on its jacket and getting into preschool in the morning. It’s not very good at doing anything that is the sort of things that you need to act well. And it’s especially not good at things like inhibition. It’s especially not good at doing things like having one part of the brain restrict what another part of the brain is going to do. So that’s one change that’s changed from this lots of local connections, lots of plasticity, to something that’s got longer and more efficient connections, but is less changeable. The other change that’s particularly relevant to humans is that we have the prefrontal cortex. That’s the part of our brain that’s sort of the executive office of the brain, where long-term planning, inhibition, focus, all those things seem to be done by this part of the brain. And what happens with development is that that part of the brain, that executive part gets more and more control over the rest of the brain as you get older. So that the ability to have an impulse in the back of your brain and the front of your brain can come in and shut that out. Or there’s a distraction in the back of your brain, something that is in your visual field that isn’t relevant to what you do. And the frontal part can literally shut down that other part of your brain. But that process takes a long time. So when you start out, you’ve got much less of that kind of frontal control, more of, I guess, in some ways, almost more like the octos where parts of your brain are doing their own thing. And then as you get older, you get more and more of that control.

So those are two really, really different kinds of consciousness. One kind of consciousness — this is an old metaphor — is to think about attention as being like a spotlight. It comes in. It illuminates the thing that you want to find out about. And you don’t see the things that are on the other side. And I think that in other states of consciousness, especially the state of consciousness you’re in when you’re a child — but I think there are things that adults do that put them in that state as well — you have something that’s much more like a lantern. So you’re actually taking in information from everything that’s going on around you. And the most important thing is, is this going to teach me something? Is this new? Is this interesting? Is this curious, rather than focusing your attention and consciousness on just one thing at a time. So, a lot of the theories of consciousness start out from what I think of as professorial consciousness. So, surprise, surprise, when philosophers and psychologists are thinking about consciousness, they think about the kind of consciousness that philosophers and psychologists have a lot of the time. And that sort of consciousness is, say, you’re sitting in your chair. You have the paper to write. You’re desperately trying to focus on the specific things that you said that you would do. And then you kind of get distracted, and your mind wanders a bit. And you start ruminating about other things. And that kind of goal-directed, focused, consciousness, which goes very much with the sense of a self — so there’s a me that’s trying to finish up the paper or answer the emails or do all the things that I have to do — that’s really been the focus of a lot of theories of consciousness, is if that kind of consciousness was what consciousness was all about. And we even can show neurologically that, for instance, what happens in that state is when I attend to something, when I pay attention to something, what happens is the thing that I’m paying attention to becomes much brighter and more vivid. And I actually shut down all the other things that I’m not paying attention to. You can even see that in the brain. So the part of your brain that’s relevant to what you’re attending to becomes more active, more plastic, more changeable. And the other nearby parts get shut down, again, inhibited. So there’s a really nice picture about what happens in professorial consciousness. That’s kind of how consciousness works. And again, maybe not surprisingly, people have acted as if that kind of consciousness is what consciousness is really all about. That’s really what you want when you’re conscious. And what I would argue is there’s all these other kinds of states of experience — and not just me, other philosophers as well. There’s all these other kinds of ways of being sentient, ways of being aware, ways of being conscious, that are not like that at all. So, one interesting example that there’s actually some studies of is to think about when you’re completely absorbed in a really interesting movie. You’re kind of gone. Your self is gone. You’re not deciding what to pay attention to in the movie. The movie is just completely captivating. In the state of that focused, goal-directed consciousness, those frontal areas are very involved and very engaged. And there seem to actually be two pathways. One of them is the one that’s sort of here’s the goal-directed pathway, what they sometimes call the task dependent activity. And then the other one is what’s sometimes called the default mode. And that’s the sort of ruminating or thinking about the other things that you have to do, being in your head, as we say, as the other mode. When you look at someone who’s in the scanner, who’s really absorbed in a great movie, neither of those parts are really active. And instead, other parts of the brain are more active. And that brain, the brain of the person who’s absorbed in the movie, looks more like the child’s brain.’ (from the New York Times)

I had initially thought to break this part of the transcript into smaller pieces, but I figured they all go together, and hopefully you find this subject as interesting as I do. I’m happy to try to manifest the child-like side of my brain as often as I can.