‘The minute you see some old monk open his mouth, you should shut him right up. Instead you act like green flies on a pile of manure, struggling to consume it. Gathering together in groups for discussion, you bore others miserably.’

Just in case you should get any ideas.

Off For A Few Days

I am not prone to catastrophising, but I was convinced, with the way the new variant has exploded on the scene in recent weeks, that I would end up testing positive when I took a test on Monday morning. Apart from the roam, there are only three people I have spent any amount of time with in the last couple of weeks, and when we gathered for the roam I masked up, but I didn’t want to take anything for granted. Happily, nothing showed up on the test, so the way is clear for me to visit Tassajara today for the first time since June 2019 (it’s also the first time I have set my email to a ‘vacation response’ since then – and the first time since October 2020 that I have spent a night away from my own bed).

The Tassajara road itself might not be so clear, of course. With all the rain we have had, I can imagine what the state of it might be, and the temperatures have been low enough that there will most likely be snow on the upper reaches. The Tassajara director sent out word on Wednesday that there was a tree blocking the road near China Camp, though apparently the county will send a crew in today to clear it, so fingers will remain crossed for a while.

I don’t think I will be actually driving the vehicle, though it might end up that I do; I have driven the road enough times in all kinds of conditions that I am not too stressed about that. I am pretty sure I will be driving when I leave there on Monday, when I also have to get the vehicle over to Green Gulch; I will have to come back from there to the city on my bike, so I am anxiously scanning the ever-shifting forecasts: I have got wet enough times in recent weeks that it would be nice not to have to do that trip in the rain as well.

The forecast for the roam last Saturday changed each time I looked at it; in the end it started raining after we set out along the beach, and didn’t really let up. The wind blew in from the ocean, the surf roared, and it wasn’t an afternoon to sit and linger in the beautiful locations at the Sutro Baths and Sutro Heights, but I certainly benefited from a dose of fresh air, and I think the group did as well.

On Monday, with the rain forecast to move on at the end of the morning, I was just leaving the house to sit, with blue skies out of my east-facing windows, when a shower rolled in from the west. I put my bike back and went down on the streetcar, to find mostly clear skies on the Embracadero, though it was pretty chilly, and we had a short sprinkling of drizzle for a few seconds in the middle. We sat through it, and the sun came out again, creating a brief sliver of rainbow over the bay.

A rather soggy moment of sitting at the Sutro Baths on Saturday.
The view from Sutro Heights is always inspiring, and I was happy to stand and just listen to the waves breaking below.
Having opted not to ride down to the Monday sit through a shower, by the time I was walking to MUNI, it had blown over.
I managed a brief sortie on my bike later on Monday – here is the view south from Twin Peaks as clouds blew through.
I paused on the way down to catch this rainbow.


‘Remain solitary without dependency and drop off all of reality. Mixed together within the ten thousand forms, be clear and apparent. Eminent and vigorous on each bit of ground, be like the moon stamped on the water, flowing but not flowing. Like the wind in the sky, move but do not move. Having become thoroughly like this, when you proceed, in mean alleys do not ride on a golden horse; when turning back, wear tattered robes.’ (Extensive Record 316)

Reading this, from Dogen’s later years (1249), I was surprised how much it read like a retread of Hongzhi (passim), though perhaps the latter would be less inclined to the humility and circumspection of the last sentence.

Shodo Harada

‘People are constantly in a state of desire, and that makes us confused and unclear. Even recognizing our foolishness and vowing to help each other won’t resolve everything. The clear bright essence of mind has to be awakened to. You only have one life. Don’t waste it. It’s not about being praised and complimented, but about realizing how joyful you can be that you have been born. Let go of your small self and know that you are the life energy of all people, not a small isolated piece of living matter. You illuminate the whole globe, as does everything that is alive! The Buddha said the most important precept is giving, to humbly offer and to humbly share.’ (Not One Single Thing)

All In The Mind

Another recent New Yorker article got many of my neurons firing – it was all about how scientists are discovering ways to tune into thought patterns, and how they understand the brain a little better as a result. It is all worth reading, but this bit caught my attention especially:

‘On one of my last visits to Princeton, (Ken) Norman (chair of the psychology department at Princeton University) and I had lunch at a Japanese restaurant called Ajiten. We sat at a counter and went through the familiar script. The menus arrived; we looked them over. Norman noticed a dish he hadn’t seen before—“a new point in ramen space,” he said. Any minute now, a waiter was going to interrupt politely to ask if we were ready to order.

“You have to carve the world at its joints, and figure out: what are the situations that exist, and how do these situations work?” Norman said, while jazz played in the background. “And that’s a very complicated problem. It’s not like you’re instructed that the world has fifteen different ways of being, and here they are!” He laughed. “When you’re out in the world, you have to try to infer what situation you’re in.” We were in the lunch-at-a-Japanese-restaurant situation. I had never been to this particular restaurant, but nothing about it surprised me. This, it turns out, might be one of the highest accomplishments in nature.

Norman told me that a former student of his, Sam Gershman, likes using the terms “lumping” and “splitting” to describe how the mind’s meaning space evolves. When you encounter a new stimulus, do you lump it with a concept that’s familiar, or do you split off a new concept? When navigating a new airport, we lump its metal detector with those we’ve seen before, even if this one is a different model, color, and size. By contrast, the first time we raised our hands inside a millimetre-wave scanner—the device that has replaced the walk-through metal detector—we split off a new category.

Norman turned to how thought decoding fit into the larger story of the study of the mind. “I think we’re at a point in cognitive neuroscience where we understand a lot of the pieces of the puzzle,” he said. The cerebral cortex—a crumply sheet laid atop the rest of the brain—warps and compresses experience, emphasizing what’s important. It’s in constant communication with other brain areas, including the hippocampus, a seahorse-shaped structure in the inner part of the temporal lobe. For years, the hippocampus was known only as the seat of memory; patients who’d had theirs removed lived in a perpetual present. Now we were seeing that the hippocampus stores summaries provided to it by the cortex: the sauce after it’s been reduced. We cope with reality by building a vast library of experience—but experience that has been distilled along the dimensions that matter. Norman’s research group has used fMRI technology to find voxel patterns (areas of activation that are roughly a cubic millimetre in size) in the cortex that are reflected in the hippocampus. Perhaps the brain is like a hiker comparing the map with the territory.”

As I have often pointed to before, I love when science can put its finger on something that has been posited by Buddhist understanding for centuries. To whit:

“The Buddha taught that consciousness is always continuing, like a stream of water. Consciousness has four layers. The four layers of consciousness are mind consciousness, sense consciousness, store consciousness, and manas.

Mind consciousness is the first kind of consciousness. It uses up most of our energy. Mind consciousness is our “working” consciousness that makes judgments and plans; it is the part of our consciousness that worries and analyzes… The brain is only 2 percent of the body’s weight, but it consumes 20 percent of the body’s energy. So using mind consciousness is very expensive. Thinking, worrying, and planning take a lot of energy…

The second level of consciousness is sense consciousness, the consciousness that comes from our five senses: sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell. We sometimes call these senses “gates,” or “doors,” because all objects of perception enter consciousness through our sensory contact with them. Sense consciousness always involves three elements: first, the sense organ (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, or body); second, the sense object itself (the object we’re smelling or the sound we’re hearing); and finally, our experience of what we are seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, or touching.

The third layer of consciousness, store consciousness, is the deepest. There are many names for this kind of consciousness. Mahayana tradition calls this store consciousness, or alaya, in Sanskrit. The Theravada tradition uses the Pali word bhavanga to describe this consciousness. Bhavanga means constantly flowing, like a river. Store consciousness is also sometimes called root consciousness (mulavijñana in Sanskrit) or sarvabijaka, which means “the totality of the seeds.” In Vietnamese, we call store consciousness tang. Tang means to keep and preserve.

Store consciousness is like a museum. A museum can only be called a museum when there are things in it. When there is nothing in it, you can call it a building, but not a museum. The conservator is the one who is responsible for the museum. Her function is to keep the various objects preserved and not allow them to be stolen. But there must be things to be stored, things to be kept. Store consciousness refers to the storing and also to what is stored—that is, all the information from the past, from our ancestors, and all the information received from the other consciousnesses. In Buddhist tradition, this information is stored as bija, seeds.” – Thich Nhat Hanh, from Lion’s Roar.

(This post first appeared on my Patreon page)

David Wagoner

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.

(Thanks to Alex for sharing this poem)

Shohaku Okumura

‘Enlightened or deluded, we are living out our as-it-isness, and yet we are always blind to it. This is our life as human beings. First we have to realize that we are deluded. Then we have to go back to the reality of life through the practice of this reality. As-it-isness for human beings is dynamic. We live in the reality of life, yet always lose sight of it, so we must return to it… To go back to the reality of life in the midst of this reality is our practice. This practice is based on vow. This vow is not a promise we make to the Buddha, but rather a manifestation of the foundation of our being. This is the most fundamental meaning of taking a vow. We go back to the reality of life within that reality.’ (Living By Vow)

Dale S. Wright

‘At earlier stages of “self-” cultivation, where one hopes to achieve something for oneself, the merit and progress accrued in virtuous acts is very important as motivation. But by the time the sutras work up to the perfection of wisdom, all talk of merit and individual accomplishment disappears in the texts. Wisdom entails overcoming the isolation of the selk, not just for the self but on behalf of a larger collective reality beyond the self. It imagines stages of self-cultivation where self-concern is no longer the focal point of the activity, where doing what is right, doing good on behalf of all members of a community are the images of perfection.’ (The Six Perfections)

I read this, and think that currently I am a long way from doing things on behalf of a collective reality, because the idea of that is so fractured right now…

Around The Panhandle

The rain has set in again, and it looks like it will stick around over the Christmas weekend. The roam on Sunday afternoon is still on, regardless of the weather (the forecast for the day shifts every time I look at it), but it seems that oppportunities to ride without getting wet are going to be limited. I got pretty lucky with my commute on Tuesday, which was slightly damp only on the last leg, but I am not sure I will be so fortunate today.

Running, however, is something I don’t mind doing in the rain so much – like walking – so it seemed like it would be helpful to get some running in while I have some days off. The problem there is that I haven’t run at all since the first couple of weeks of the lockdown in the spring of 2020. The combination of the slight sickness I had at the time – which in retrospect seems more likely to have been an extremely mild case of covid – and the general anxiety at the time about runners breathing over everybody, was enough to put an end to running. 

On Wednesday afternoon I gave it a try. Knowing my limitations, I thought a trot to the end of the panhandle with an extra loop around Alamo Square if everything was still functioning, would be enough. I made it, and had the physical effects that I was expecting, with muscles a little grumbling and sore at being asked to move differently, and feeling a little stiff in the legs afterwards. But otherwise, it was a good start.

I noticed how quickly and happily I veered towards the grass when I reached the green space, and how much better my legs felt for it. My shoes are minimal and probably due to be replaced. They quickly got sodden, but that made me happy too. I noticed that a small part of me was telling me I could stop any time, but really I had no need to. I noticed how I saw the neighbourhood a little differently to how I do when I am passing through on my bike, with more time to notice details and buildings. And I noticed, once again, how dogs pay so much more attention to the world they are passing through – by sight and by smell – than the people walking them.

Looking for a post that referenced my sickness at the beginning of the lockdown, I took a browse through the archive; I always find interesting, and mostly unremembered, material in there (some of which will get reposted over the coming weeks), and generally enjoy re-reading the personal posts as well. I thought to do a word search for ‘lungs’, and most of the posts, unsurprisingly, referenced running – with one exception for wildfire. This is the world we live in. With my upcoming dharma talk at Zen Center, which I will use as an opportunity to look back on the talk I gave right at the start of 2021, there is a poignancy about how I wrote about the pandemic in its earliest stages – because of course we could have had no idea.

The view from the Tuesday evening ferry, with a little rain in the clouds.

Katagiri Roshi

‘When we live in the vow we constantly live in our lives, seeking our own true nature, the real treasure of our own house. At that time you find your life worth living. Maybe you say I find life worth living by running into Zen Buddhism. If you believe in that way, consider again. Are you sure? Maybe there is something – some object – which you expect, consciously or unconsciously, in your mind, by your intellectual sense. After you start to practice zazen you are very happy for a while. You experience wonderful things you have not experienced before. “How wonderful zazen is.” But the more you practice zazen, the more you realize there is nothing to get, nothing to improve… neither character nor personality. Then you will be discouraged. In order to turn your practice into the power of your life is not so easy. It takes time… a long time.
Your practice is the end itself, because your practice is your life. Practice must be identical with your life, otherwise when you realize your progress in the practice you will be discouraged.’ (from Wind Bell vol X no.1)

I am trying to think how many years it took me to get a glimpse of the point he is making here.