‘You should step back and investigate. How do you step back? It is not a matter of sitting there ignoring everything, stiffly repressing body and mind so that they are like earth or wood – that will never do any good. When you want to step back, if there are any sayings you do not understand, or any stories you do not comprehend, they are then right before you. Step back and see for yourself why you do not understand.’ (Quoted in Zen Essence)

Have you investigated this? Do you understand?

Ontology vs. Meontology?

‘“First philosophy” in the Western tradition is ontology, which asks the question of “being qua being,” and tends to answer this question either in terms of the most universal “being-ness” or in terms of the “highest being.” For Aristotle, the primary category of being is “substance,” ambiguously thought in its primary sense as the particular entity (e.g. Socrates) and in its secondary sense the universal that makes that entity what it is (e.g. human being), and the highest being was the “unmoved mover.” Greek ontology later influenced the Christian theological tradition to think of God as the “highest being,” such that the dual threads of the Western tradition as a whole took shape as what Heidegger calls “onto-theology.” Hence, the fundamental philosophical question of the onto-theological mainstream of the West is, “What is being?” On the other hand, the counter-question which the Kyoto School finds in the East is, “What is nothingness?” In place of an ontology, first philosophy in the East is more often a “meontology”: a philosophy of non-being or nothingness.

Perhaps we should say “mu-logy” rather than “meontology”; for, strictly speaking, the Greek meon, “non-being,” should be translated into Japanese as hi-u. What I am translating as “nothingnesss,” mu, is written with a single character rather than as a negation (hi) of being (u). This is crucial since the nothingness with which they are concerned is not the simple negation or privation of being.’ (from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Apologies if this morning reading is rather denser than usual and puts you off your cornflakes; I was communicating with Wendy at Zen Center about a future Awakening the Archive post, with Suzuki Roshi discussing various lesser-known thinkers, and she sent me this link which she used in the final version. If you have been reading this blog for a while, you will know that I can be a bit sniffy about what appear to be the limitations of western philosophy, and this is perhaps a more scholarly take on my prejudices.

Shohaku Okumura

‘In the reality of Buddha’s life, we are connected with and supported by all things. The self is not the subject of reality and other things are not its objects; we are in fact one with all things in the entire universe, and this reality is itself enlightenment. Enlightenment is not something that we can possess or experience. We cannot, because of a certain experience that happened under certain circumstances, say, “I am an enlightened person.” If we judge an experience and say “I had an enlightenment experience,” we have already separated “I” from the reality of all things, when in fact there is no “enlightenment” that is separate from this reality. Rather than striving for a particular experience or goal, we should simply keep practicing without judgment or evaluation. This means approaching all that we do without selfish desire, without even the desire for enlightenment; to practise in this way is to manifest universal reality. This is difficult, of course, because even when we are helping others or making sacrifices for them, we can usually find, if we search our hearts and minds deeply enough, an ego-centered motivation for our activity. This is true even in our zazen practice.
What complicated beings we are! It is impossible to make simple judgments about the egocentricity of our actions. Yet as the Buddha’s children practicing with our bodhisattva vows, we must keep trying to help others and free ourselves of selfishness. Try as we may, however, we will never be able to declare, “Now I am completely free from selfish desires.” All we can do is to try in each moment, to practice the Buddha Way; we just keep opening the hand of thought and continuing to practice. There is no time when one can say, “I’m finished – now I have finally reached the level of an enlightened person.” As Dogen Zenji says, our practice is endless.’ (Realizing Genjokoan)

I feel this should be handed out to everyone who starts a zazen practice, though of course our minds are always going to forget how true this is, and keep grasping for things that are beyond the reach of the mind. As I was looking back through the archive, I saw this (and Blanche’s post from yesterday) alongside a commentary I made on someone who seemed to resent that they had not been able to grasp the essence of the practice, for all the time and money they had spent.

Blanche Hartman

‘A monk shaving the head is symbolic of renunciation. But really what is to be renounced is self-clinging, so shaving the head is just to remind us to renounce whatever it is that we cling to, whatever it is that we attach to. We need to let it go, let our life flow through our hands like a river and not try to grab some piece of it and hold on to it. Just to be present with it and find out how to express our vow in this moment, in this circumstance, right where we are right now, instead of trying to figure out how to make it the way we want so it’ll be just what we always dreamed of. It won’t be. There will be too many surprises.
If we’re open to embracing the surprises as they arise, then there will be inconceivable joy. If we fuss and fume and say, “This isn’t what I expected, ” then there will be inconceivable misery. Just to welcome our life as it arrives moment after moment, to meet it as fully as we can, being as open to it as we can, being as ready for whatever arises as we can, and meeting it wholeheartedly, this is renunciation – this is leaving behind all of our preferences, all of our ideas and notions and schemes. Just meeting life as it is.’ (Seeds for a Boundless Life)

Just to note that ‘inconceivable joy’ was Blanche’s dharma name – Zenkei – and that I cannot help but hear her cadences and her exhortation when I read the words in the book. With the way the weather has changed over the past week or so, I have been thinking, and teaching, about transitions a lot, and this is a wonderful expression of what I have been trying to say.

Suzuki Roshi

‘I think we have very good spirit here in this zendo and Tassajara. I was rather amazed at the spirit you have. But how you should extend this spirit to our everyday life is– will be the next, you know, question. And how you do it is to respect things, to respect with each other. When we respect things, we will find the true life in it. When we, you know, respect plants, we find– there we find the real life of, you know, life power of flower and real beauty of flower. So love is important, but more important element will be respect. And sincerity and big mind. With big mind and with pure sincerity and respect, the love could be real love.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi archives)

This passage comes from the same talk as a passage which is perhaps better known; I refer to it relatively often in any case. I knew that I had posted it on here, and look at that, six years ago already.

Awakening The Archive

I have been working with Charlie at Engage Wisdom for five and a half years. I had known him through Zen Center: perhaps because I knew he had installed the sound system for the new retreat hall at Tassajara, I commissioned him to replace the sound system in the Buddha Hall when I was ino. We ran into each other a few times after that, and after I left Zen Center, I thought to check in with him, and heard about his project, which had begun with his work to digitise Reb Anderson’s cassettes, and had then broadened to include potentially preserving all the audio from the Zen Center archive. With my years (and ears) working on BBC radio back in London, it was a perfect fit.

In the time that I have been working there – before I started teaching more widely, I generally called it my day job, as it ensured that I could pay my rent each month – we have worked on the collections of a number of teachers connected with Zen Center, as well as making inroads into the eleven-thousand-odd tapes from the Zen Center archive, which includes many fascinating and historical events and people.

The Suzuki Roshi talks were always the most intriguing. Many people have worked for years to preserve what there was at Zen Center; I remember from my early years at City Center how people would spend time in the library transcribing the hundreds of talks (it is always fun to see familiar names in the transcription notes; some of those people I haven’t seen in years, others are still intimately involved). One set of digitising had been done before I arrived at Engage Wisdom, and I struggled a bit to get my head round some of the quirks in the archive, piecing together that some reels were just the ends of other talks, or had been misdated or misidentified, with the help of extensive notes and records that others had compiled.

A couple of years ago, we were able to photograph all the items from the Zen Center archive, and this allowed me to cross-check dates and titles. It was clear we had some talks that didn’t seem to appear in the current lists – or where the dates were ambiguous enough that it would be worth checking. 

Most exciting of all was the chance to handle and play – for digitising – handfuls of original reel-to-reel recordings (again, something I was familiar with from my BBC days). There was one I particularly had my eye on. There was an incomplete date, and writing on the box that was potentially promising:

I remember distinctly listening to the audio as it was being transfered from reel to the digital audio program, and the shiver that I felt to hear Suzuki Roshi using the phrase that became famous. This tape, along with all the others from the Los Altos group that were transcribed to create Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, was thought to have been lost. Perhaps I was the first person in almost fifty years to hear it, even as millions have read the phrase in the book. I played the reel through twice, just to be sure we had captured it.

What is most incredible for me about the tape is that, just a minute or two before this moment, there is some electrical interference on the tape, and Suzuki Roshi’s words are lost. In the transcript this is noted as a blank space. I wonder what would have happened if the interference had lasted longer and the phrase itself had been lost. Would the book have ended up with a different title?

Now that we have (most likely) digitised all the new and previously inaudible talks from our collection – though we hope other tapes might come to light – there are a number of other talks I am excited by: other recordings that were transcribed and edited for Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind; tracks that appear to have been overlooked from tapes of sesshins and one-day sittings; extra talks from a series on the Genjo Koan; all the audio from the first sesshin at Tassajara, which had previously been incompletely transcribed. I have spent hours listening and transcribing them myself, mainly in my free time. It is part of the gratitude I feel to Suzuki Roshi for having been able to create the sangha that I was able to join almost thirty years after his death, and which still continues to thrive, and part of my vow to help all beingss benefit from the dharma. Now that it is fully out in the world, I hope you get a chance to check out the archive and listen to some of the treasures.

Tachibani Akemi

What a delight it is
When on the bamboo matting
In my grass-thatched hut,
All on my own,
I make myself at ease.

What a delight it is
When, borrowing
Rare writings from a friend,
I open out
The first sheet.

What a delight it is
When, spreading paper,
I take my brush
And find my hand
Better than I thought.

What a delight it is
When, after a hundred days
Of racking my brains,
That verse that wouldn't come
Suddenly turns out well.

What a delight it is
When, skimming through the pages
Of a book, I discover
A man written there
Who is just like me.

What a delight it is
When everyone admits
It's a very difficult book,
And I understand it
With no trouble at all.

What a delight it is
When I blow away the ash,
To watch the crimson
Of the glowing fire
And hear the water boil.

What a delight it is
When a guest I cannot stand
Arrives, then says,'I'm afraid I can't stay long,'
And soon goes home.

What a delight it is
When I find a good brush,
Steep it hard in water,
Lick it on my tongue
And give it its first try.

The Rainy Season Starts

All the talk was of the coming rain, and it blew in right on schedule; the transition from the last hot days, Friday and Saturday of last week, was abrupt. 

Luckily I was able to make the most of the last heat and stillness, getting outside on my bike, and on a well-attended and enjoyable roam, as well as sitting on my deck listening to such a variety of birds in the trees. On Sunday, I volunteered with the Bicycle Coalition for the first Sunday Streets in a while; it was wonderful, even in this age of Slow Streets, to experience the party atmosphere of Valencia Street hosting booths and dance troupes; I had many nice conversations with people about bikes and the city. And I made it home before the first wave of soft rain.

Seeing how the forecast was shaping up, I planned to take a short ride on Wednesday after an early class, but the rain got there first, so it turned into a day mostly filled with studying for the final Zen Center class on Hyakujo and the fox. Even though co-leading is way less pressure than being the sole teacher, I noticed feeling stressed about what I was going to present most weeks (except the third week where we focused on Dogen), perhaps because the material is not what I would have chosen, so I didn’t feel like I was on such firm ground; I am grateful to Zachary for all his teaching work and presentations for the class.

I had to get all my wet-weather bike gear out to go over to the studio on Thursday morning, and though it had blown away by the end of the day, I felt a little depleted before the class started; I still managed to say what I wanted to, and we had some wonderful contributions from the attendees, as we have each week, but I could definitely feel some spaciousness at it being over. That said, I have plenty in my schedule that I need to work on, which I had consciously set aside until the class was done.

In the midst of all of that, there was a wonderful response to the public release of the Suzuki Roshi archive, which I have been working on extensively for the past couple of years, and that felt very gratifying. I will write more about that on Monday.

An early morning ride past the Conservatory of Flowers last week
We roamed slowly as the temperatures hit eighty.
Red skies in the morning on Sunday when I went out to ride
Tuesday skies.
Thursday rain clouds.
Checking out a new trail for an upcoming roam on Friday.

Kosho Uchiyama

‘By nature, we are all living out the reality of the life force. Therefore, if we act accordingly, that is, in accord with that life force, the the truth of that life force will manifest. That is cause and effect in practicing the Buddha Way.’ (Deepest Practice, Deepest Wisdom)