Phil Olson

‘We sat down and I asked about the Zazen posture. “You have not yet learned how we put strength in our stomach,” he said. Again he got up from his cushion and came around to show me how to sit correctly in Zazen. First he adjusted my own posture and then he sat down in front of me and demonstrated the Zazen posture and the way of breathing himself. Watching Suzuki Roshi paying such careful attention to his breathing, I no longer saw Zen practice as something strange or separate from my own life.’ (from the Jikoji archives)

When I read this, I was reminded of the opening chapter of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, where Suzuki Roshi says, ‘To gain strength in your posture, press your diaphragm down towards your hara, or lower abdomen. This will help you maintain your physical and mental balance.’ This is not an instruction that I heard when I was at Zen Center, and I wonder if it is one of those things that got lost in the translation of the practice from Japan to the west. When I am offering zazen instruction, I often tell people to treat the hara, the area between the belly button and the pubic bone, as their centre of gravity and centre of energy while they are sitting, and that if they practise martial arts, they will be used to the notion of moving from that strong core.

Joy Brennan

‘The Yogacara understanding of mind as subjective and objective both accounts for and counters the invisibility of whiteness. Yogacara, unlike earlier schools of Buddhist thought, uses the term “mind” to refer both to the subjective aspect of awareness (the part of the mind that does the thinking and feeling) and to its objects, whether they are internal (like a thought or feeling) or external (like a material thing or another person’s voice). For example, the mind that becomes aware of a feeling of anger, or the mind that perceives a loved one’s voice, is not distinct from that feeling or that voice. Here, the nondistinctness means that the subjective and objective aspects of awareness share a set of causal conditions, rather than arising due to entirely separate sets of causal conditions. Subjective awareness and its objects are therefore co-constructed, or brought into being together, in relationship to one another.

However, Yogacara teaches that the ordinary person does not know that these two aspects of awareness are co-constructed. Rather, we commonly take it that the subjective aspect of awareness and its objects are distinct and arise from different sets of conditions. Yogacara uses the term “constructed” to refer to both aspects of awareness when taken as distinct from one another. And this term is meant to be a corrective to how they appear—they appear as natural, fixed, distinct features of experience, when in fact they have been constructed to appear that way and are two aspects of a single experience. Our lack of understanding of this point, according to Yogacara thought, is also the nature of delusion…

Many nonwhite writers and thinkers have identified the delusive belief white people share that while nonwhite people have a race and see reality based on their experiences as racialized people, white people are free of such “distorting” influences. White people commonly take their own perceptions to reflect reality and nonwhite people’s perceptions to be filtered by their specific experiences. In this way, white experience is taken by white people as a human norm, while the experiences of nonwhite people are taken as distinctive, nonnormative, and even distorted. But if the Yogacara school is right that all ordinary people’s experiences include subjective and objective aspects that are mutually and fully shaped by conditions—which include the past experiences and actions of white people as a collective—then white experience, too, must be shaped in this way. The call for white people to understand how whiteness as an identity construct came about and how it shapes our own experiences is a call to overcome this false subject–object divide and to see the workings of the mind for what they are…

Finally, the Yogacara school emphasizes both the intersubjective aspects of experience and the collective aspects of karmic conditioning, two points that cut against white individualism. Intersubjectivity refers to the fact that through shared language and shared conceptual constructions—or ways of dividing up the world of experience—beings actually share structures of consciousness. In this way of thinking, my mind is not in fact mine alone and awareness is not a private affair. And because the subjective and objective aspects of experience are mutually conditioned, intersubjectivity entails interobjectivity. We share an object world—a world of shared institutions, social practices and ideals, norms, and references—not because they are natural and fixed features of reality, but because they are shaped by the same shared conditioning forces that shape our subjective experiences. Collective karma refers to karmic conditioning that is shared by a group of beings. The fact of collective karma follows from the intersubjective nature of experience and the inter-objective nature of our worlds. Shared karmic conditioning is nothing other than the fact that important features of both our subjective awareness and the objects it encounters arise from the same set of conditions.’ (from Lion’s Roar)

Joy spent time at City Center while I was there; I knew she was in academia, and enjoyed this very dense unpacking of Yogacara and whiteness – I learned more about Yogacara from this article than I have previously.

Kuden Paul Boyle

‘Before I started a practice period at Green Gulch Farm, I asked Sojun Roshi if he had any advice about how practice in a residential practice period. He said, “Follow the schedule completely.” This turned out to be great advice. When I was at Tassajara I tried to follow the schedule wholeheartedly, noticing whenever my mind asserted a notion of “my time.” Eventually, it became easier and easier to give up that notion of “my time.” It turns out that what we take as “our time” is really only an idea that we superimpose on any moment. Monastic practice is an excellent way to bring clarity to this process of dividing up the moments in a day. When we follow the schedule completely, we don’t need to bother ourselves with these conceptions. For me, there is a sense of relief at letting go of these conceptions.

Giving ourselves over to practice means, letting go of the “me” centered agenda. So, when the han begins to sound, it reminds us to let go of our conceptions of “I, me, and mine.” To let go of finishing my cup of tea or coffee, or that moment of my quiet time on the back porch.’ (from the Chapel Hill Zen Center website)

I did a practice period at Tassajara with Paul years ago; it is great to see my peers taking the dharma seat, and, in his cases, leading their own centres now. This is a teaching I totally relate to; coming to terms with the lack of ‘my time’ in the Tassajara practice schedule was a major learning for me.

Enkyo O’Hara

‘Can you experience yourself without a subjective position? Just a breeze coming through the window? A drop of moisture on that flower — experiencing the rawness of this moment just as it is without telling a story about it. Without judging it as good or bad? That is Not Knowing. That is Beginners Mind. Sure, this is a zendo and we bow this way, not that way. That’s true, but beyond all that, there’s just this moment. We’re not on a mountain top, so there’s no telling what noise is liable to come through that window, but already I’m calling it noise rather than sound. Sound? Noise? Just listen! What is exciting about “not knowing” is that we have boundless possibility. When there’s no judgement, there’s just what is.’ from the Village Zendo website)

Taiyuan Fu

In olden days when I was not yet awakened, 
The sound of a painted horn was the sound of sorrow.
Now, on my pillow there is no idle dream.
Letting go, plum blossoms blow vast and small.

Willow Creek

Wednesday was the kind of day where, looking ahead to it, my schedule seemed very full. I had an hour-long presentation on mindfulness to a corporate group, through Within, at 9:00am; I had my weekly Within sit at noon, another short meditation at four, with a nice group from company I have been sitting with for a couple of months, and my Zen Center talk at 7:30.

As is often the case though, once I got into it, there was still a lot of time and space in the day, and no cause to be stressed about what needed to be done. Seeing how early I normally get up, I had a pretty leisurely morning, even accounting for setting up a second screen to be able to manage my presentation better; time for coffee and elevenses before the noon sit; a chance to watch a replay of France-Portugal at the Euros in the afternoon, as well as sitting out in the sun at the back door, running over my talk a couple of times to make sure it held together; and dinner and a bath before giving the talk – as usual, I had several good ideas in the bath, which helped illuminate the points I was hoping to make.

I was thinking a lot about Willow Creek, burning again this week. Kim had alerted me to the fire at the end of last week, and I was able to track the hotspots on Monterey County’s topographical map – and thinking about the contrast with 2008, where Bryan and I would run up the Tony Trail to scout to see for ourselves what the latest was. The fire seems now to be burning slowly – as it did for a few weeks in 2008, until suddenly it was not slow at all.

Overall I felt fairly happy with how the talk went; it was lovely to see familiar faces from my years of practice at Zen Center in attendance, and to field questions from Tim and Miguel after I had given the talk. I will listen to it again when I have a chance, and post a link to it once I have edited it for the Zen Center website. 

Next Wednesday, I have three meditation sessions before 9:00 am, but I feel confident things will be okay.

Detail from the topographic map, Friday afternoon. Willow Creek runs (unusually for the area) west to east, and is in the middle of the redder patch. I had my fingers crossed that the fire would not come over the ridge line towards Tassajara, and that seems to be the case so far.
Three photos, spanning four days, in 2008, the week before the fire came through Tassajara. These are all looking west along the Willow Creek valley, from the Tony Trail, a little way down from the ridge. In the last picture you can see an area that burnt out. I imagine it looks very similar right now.


‘Students cannot gain enlightenment simply because they retain their preconceptions. Without knowing who taught them these things, they consider the mind to be thought and perceptions and do not believe it when they are told that the mind is plants and trees. They think of the Buddha as having marvelous distinguishing marks, with radiance shining from his body, and are shocked when they are told that he is tile and pebble.’ (Shobogenzo Zuimonki)

Not that tile and pebble don’t have distinguishing marks and radiance…

Nan Shepherd

‘Well, I have discovered my mountain – its weathers, its airs and lights, its singing burns, its haunted dells, its pinnacles and tarns, its birds and flowers, its snows, its long blue distances. Year by year I have grown in familiarity with them all. But if the whole truth of them is to be told as I have found it, I too am involved. I have been the instrument of my own discovering; and to govern the stops of the instrument needs learning too. Thus the senses must be trained and disciplined, the eye to look, the ear to listen, the body must be trained to move with the right harmonies. I can teach my body many skills by which to learn the nature of the mountain. One of the most compelling is quiescence.

No one knows the mountain completely who has not slept on it. As one slips over into sleep, the mind grows limpid; the body melts; perception alone remains. Once neither thinks, nor desires, nor remembers, but dwells in pure intimacy with the tangible world.’ (The Living Mountain)

The writing of this book is so limpid, and I have been reading it aloud to my partner over the last year. I regret not knowing especially well the Scottish mountains that she writes about, but this evokes Tassajara for me, and zazen.

Looking down the Tony Trail – a view currently under threat of fire.

Suzuki Roshi

‘To attain oneness in duality is our spirit because we are not so good we, you know, try to improve ourselves. That is our true nature. And we are aware of it — we have some intention to improve ourselves. This intention is limited to human being. Flowers come up — a flower may come out in spring without fail, but they do not make any effort; they automatically come out — that’s all. We try to open our flower in spring. We try to do the right thing at the right time. We find it very difficult. In this sense we are very stupid. Even though we try to do it, we cannot make it, but this is our human nature. We always try to do something. We have always some difficulty to do something.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi archives)

This was from one of the early talks in Los Altos that became Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (though this particular talk did not feature), and I have been paying particular attention to some of these. I hope to be able to say why soon.

Dale S. Wright

‘Some gifts are so light and insubstantial that they can be given to others on a daily basis. One such gift is simple recognition, an affirmation in speech, gesture, or action, that someone else exists, and that they matter. Often we fail to grant this simple gift of recognition, and the more often we fail in that the more alienating our social world becomes.’ (The Six Perfections)

I was collecting quotes for my Zen Center talk on Wednesday, and even though I have used this one before (and posted it here before), it is too good not to use again.