Rosy-Fingered Dawns

Thanksgiving could be a mixed bag at Zen Center. The food was always exceptional – the traditional nut roast with mushroom gravy was one of my favourite dishes, and there was always a variety of pies.  At Tassajara, the huge meal was one of the most special occasions in all the monastic winter months, with (usually) the rare treat of no evening zazen. I remember, one of the five Thanksgivings I was there, being totally immersed in some random gadget catalogue for hours, just because I didn’t have to be anywhere else.

At City Center, the big spread was sometimes on Thursdays, sometimes on Wednesday – some people wanted to have a totally free day on Thursday, others wanted the meal at the traditional time, and there were many guests from the wider sangha who had nowhere else they would rather be. The City Center weekend was, though, somewhat overshadowed by the beginning of Rohatsu sesshin on the Saturday evening, so when I was tenzo and ino, there wasn’t really much of a break, with the biggest retreat of the year needing to be organised.

Happily this year, I had very few engagements – and I declined to look at work emails – so I felt like I had two consecutive weekends. The dinner I was invited to was just a couple of blocks away, filled with lovely people I know through Zen Center, former and current residents, though we talked about many other things as well. 

The weather has got a little stuck – high pressure is keeping the rain at bay. There have been many glorious sunrises, clear days, and heavenly sunsets, with the moon receding each night in the sky. I actually got a little worried to see that no change was forecast. On the one hand, I love the sunny weather and, selfishly, as I am trying to make it down to Tassajara over the New Year, I would love the road not to be too treacherous. But we need the rain so much, and the fire prospects for next year are already about as depressing as the newest variant.

Still, I was getting in the miles and the hours outside while the sun was shining, with rides on Thursday, Friday, and Sunday, a couple of walks, and a roam. This last was another really lovely outing, following the Tennessee Hollow watershed in the Presidio from the ridge to the beach, and encountering frogs, hawks, pelicans, and a coyote along the way – and then I saw another in the park while I was riding home. I think that is my first double same-day sighting in the city, and followed from catching a glimpse of one when I was on Sweeney Ridge on my Friday ride. Most auspicious.

This week I am slowly picking up all the threads of work again, and hope that I can turn up two negative tests which will allow me to attend the City Center shuso ceremony on Saturday in person.

First light at Bernal Hill on Thanksgiving morning.
Up at Sweeney Ridge on Friday morning.
Walking along the Bay Trail in the East Bay on Friday afternoon.
The first sun at the bridge on Sunday morning.
Across to Ocean Beach on the same ride.
Newly restored Quartermaster Reach during the roam on Sunday.
A handsome coyote on the ridge in the Presidio at the end of the roam.


‘Monks in zazen do not turn their heads to look and see who is entering or leaving. When you want to go out to the washrooms, before you leave your seat, first take off the okesa and put it on the quilt. Then gassho and get down off the tan, turning clockwise to face the edge of the tan. Put your feet in your slippers as you get down. Going in or out, do not look at the backs of the people doing zazen, but just lower your head and proceed. Do not walk with long strides, but advance your body together with your feet. Look at the ground about six feet straight in front of you and take half-steps. Walking with unhurried calm is exquisite, almost like standing still. Do not slide your slippers noisily so as to rudely distract the assembly. Keep your hands together in shashu inside your sleeves. Do not droop your sleeces down alongside your legs.’ (Eihei Shingi Bendoho)

Once again, it is fun to read the details Dogen expounded for his monastic sangha. While some of the particulars pertain more to a sodo, where the monks sleep as well as sit, the overall tone is exactly what would be expected at Tassajara – though generally you would wait for a period of kinhin to leave the zendo.

Michio Mado

When I came back home on a rainy day,
A cleaning rag was waiting for me in the entrance hall.
“I’m a cleaning rag, ” it said, with a friendly look,
Though it hadn’t wanted to become one.
Until quite recently it had been a shirt.
It was as soft as my skin.
Maybe in America or somewhere
It had been a cotton flower,
Smiling in the sun and the wind.

Kodo Sawaki

‘It’s an idea of the mind to believe that the ego can escape itself and project itself into the fundamental universe.’

I was chatting with my dharma sister Kim about her recent visit to sit sesshin at Tassajara, and in the course of the conversation, pulled out the notebook I had when I was shuso there, nine years ago now. It is full of quotes that resonated for me, observations, notes for the dharma talks I gave, and sketches of the encouraging words I was asked to provide for the evenings of sesshin. This is from the first category, and there may be a few more snippets appearing here soon.

Dale S. Wright

‘As the Buddhist tradition evolved, relations between the two basic types of meditation were worked out in considerable detail. Calming meditation came to be regarded as a necessary condition for advancement in inshght meditation, because it gathers the mind out of distraction, teaches it the power of concentration and focus, and enables the mind to forgo the pleasurable distractions in which the rest of us are frequently engaged. Similarly, insight meditation came to be regarded as a prerequisite for advancement in calming meditation, since only in reflection on the dharma does the rationale for the pursuit of enlightenment become cogent and clear. In insight meditation, the Buddhist worldview is articulated and cultivated to the point that it becomes a part of the mental makeup of the practitioner.’ (The Six Perfections)

A paragraph like this reminds me that, at Zen Center, there was not a lot of emphasis placed on this kind of analysis of different types of meditation – there is just shikantaza, sitting without ‘gaining ideas,’ as Suzuki Roshi would say. Perhaps if I had asked my teachers about it more in my early days, I might have heard more about these distinctions.

Reasons To Be Cheerful

After my last teaching session on Wednesday, I went out to pick up my weekly bread order, from the bakery I used to buy from at the Mission market. The afternoon was still warm, and I felt a sense of deep ease. I have a class on Saturday morning, but the long weekend had started, with a lot of free time and very few obligations. The work emails and messages dwindled away.

A friend of mine in England, whose mother died recently, has been cleaning out the home she grew up in, and determining what to do with everything – her possessions and her mother’s. I have of course been dealing with a version of that at one remove – and when I next travel to England I will have to devote a fair amount of time to sifting, organising, and perhaps shipping. My friend happened to mention a couple of plates she was going to move on, and I half-jokingly said that I would have loved to have them. 

The other evening I found on my doorstep a package from England, with familiar handwriting, which indeed contained the little plates mentioned, so they now have pride of place in my kitchen built-in. I also received, that same day, a stimulus cheque from the State of California – something I remember reading about in the summer, but had completely forgotten was going to be distributed.

So I feel wealthy. Having already received one holiday bonus, I had treated myself to a couple of things; the rest has gone in the bank, though I expect to put most of it to good use soon. By the standards of the last couple of decades, and especially the first few years out of Zen Center, I feel like I have no money worries. And that is something I can feel thankful for.

While I rarely have any problems getting to sleep in the evening (and at monks’ hours, as well), I do sometimes wake up in the small hours, and usually have to read myself back to sleep. This past week or more, my sleep has been longer and largely uninterrupted, so I feel rested and healthy.

I am more grateful that conditions in the Bay Area allow for some socialising, as I wrote about the other day, and that I can see friends again. I have also been invited for dinner this evening, and I know I will have a good time with the assembled company.

I am always grateful for sunny days, and I shall also be grateful when the rains return, as I hope they do soon.

So even though this year has been difficult in some important ways, there seems to be much room for gratitude along with the sadnesses. I hope you can easily think of things you can be grateful for.

In a break on Wednesday afternoon, I traced the route of Sunday’s roam.

Shohaku Okumura

‘When we don’t see the reality of our lives, we are ignorant of impermanence, egolessness, that is, emptiness and interdependent origination. We think protecting and strenghtening our ego is most important. When we meet with an object, we judge whether this thing is useful to make our ego happy, and if so, we want to get it and make it our possession. This is greed. When we meet things we don’t like or value, we want to stay away, but somehow those things come toward us. Then we get angry and we hate it.

When we sit facing the wall, it is very clear that all things welling up from our minds are illusions because there are no objects. We only have the wall in front of us. Facing the wall is facing the buddha. We simply sit still in front of the absolute and let go of our thoughts.’ (Sitting Under The Bodhi Tree)

Typing out the first paragraph, I thought that this way of behaving is what small children do – but that is really just a less nuanced version of what we do for the rest of our lives.

The Stars Align

This week I have a sense of things easing up for Thanksgiving – at least I can say that for myself, since I am not burdened by expectations of providing food and entertainment for others. As always, I enjoy the extra free time offered by the holidays to get out more on my bike, and the weather looks like it will be co-operating with this wish. There will also be a roam on Sunday afternoon which I am looking forward to very much.

As my schedule has felt a little lighter, I have started trying to brush up on my in-person social skills again – which is definitely easier to do when it is warm enough to sit with friends in the park, or as happened on Sunday evening, on the beach. I had already ridden along Great Highway in the morning, right before the sun came up, and the moon was descending towards the horizon in the ocean. The whole day was clear, and the sunset gorgeous. It is so easy to feel thankful to be able to spend time in such a way, in a place I can ride my bike to easily – and I know we could use a lot more rain soon!

After the sun went down, we could start to see stars and planets: for the first time in a while, I took out my star chart app – the brightest one was Venus, then we spotted Jupiter close by; a few moments later, Saturn was visible, in a straight line between the other two, and all three lining up to point down to where the sun had just set. It must mean something…

Before the clear weekend, Thursday was a day of mist and cloud
I was lucky enough to catch the last of the sunset from the ferry home on Thursday
I was on my way to meet a friend for an early dinner on Friday at the peak of sunset, seen from my local park.
Mid-morning on Saturday, a short outing on my bike to get some fresh air – this shot and the next one were taken on the move!
I get out earlier than many people on bikes, but the surfers were already numerous on Ocean Beach on Sunday morning.
The beach was quite busy for the sunset.
I was glad I could cajole my phone into at least capturing Venus before we left.


‘Freedom from form means detachment from forms in the midst of form. Freedom from thought means having no thought in the midst of thought.’ (The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch)

How does no thought in the midst of thought feel like to you?

Jane Hirshfield

You must try,
the voice said, to become colder.
I understood at once.
It's like the bodies of gods: cast in bronze,
braced in stone. Only something heartless
could bear the full weight.