‘Mindful of transiency, pursue the path with diligence and care.’
This phrase will resonate with anyone who ever endured a nenju ceremony (I wrote about that in the very early days of the blog, here).
I had been teaching on transiency in my last session of the day, as the sun had, for perhaps the first time in six months, been at an angle to shine down on my dharma seat from between my building and the next just as I began the session. I had intended to get some fresh air afterwards, and having just seen some photographs from cherry blossom season in Tokyo, I thought to ride over to the cherry blossoms in the park, which were indeed flowering. Continuing round to the National Cemetery in the Presidio only served to underscore the point.
As it happened, in my reading time today, I also came across some old photographs I had taken at Zen Center from the few weeks of the year when the morning sun reached in to the statues in the Buddha Hall. Those moments, and their equivalents at Tassajara, were always a treat for me as a photographer.
‘The monastery is not some particular place. Whether you can make Tassajara a monastery or not is up to you. It may be worse than city life even though you are in Tassajara. But when you have wisdom of Prajnaparamita Sutra, even though you are in San Francisco, that is perfect monastery. This point should be, you know, fully understood.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi archives)
This was the most recent talk that I have written an article about for the archive. I have been very interested in how Suzuki Roshi laid out his vision for teaching at Tassajara in the first sesshin held there, and the early part of this talk is given over to his ideas about work practice. But, as he points out in this closing paragraph, what he is hoping to instil is a mindset.
I remember a more senior student telling me that he felt it was okay to leave Tassajara when he could feel that walking the streets of New York was the same as being at Tassajara. I didn’t understand it at the time, but I came to see exactly what he meant.
‘Change is the basis of human life, so don’t attach yourself to birth or death, continuation or discontinuation. Just live right in the middle of the flow of change, where there is nothing to hold on to. How do you do this? Just be present and devote yourself to doing something. This is the simple practice of Zen.’ (Each Moment is the Universe)
‘To give zazen instruction, we often say, “straighten your back,” “keep your eyes half-open, half-closed” to regulate the body, “make your out-breath long,” “do abdominal breathing” to regulate breath, and “do not think anything,” “focus your attention on your breath” to regulate the mind. I think there is a big problem here. Zazen should not be something forcefully built up by imposing a ready-made mold onto our body-mind from outside. It should be what is naturally and freely generated from inside as a result of non-fabrication.’ (Polishing A Tile)
Following on from where I left off last week, it did indeed rain for most of Saturday. I was able, thankfully, to get out at first light and ride the short loop I had wanted to do – south on Skyline to the 84, taking the descent to Woodside, and coming back up King’s Mountain Road. It was still mostly quiet out, and it only rained for the last five minutes; the ride itself felt like pretty hard work, though I was glad I did it.
I spent the rest of the day relaxing, watching football, observing the rain fall from the inside of the cabin, and seeing the mist and cloud roll through the redwoods. I decided against trying to explore any trails, as the rain never seemed to move on as forecast.
On Sunday morning it was chilly, but I dressed up and went out at sunrise, to the 84, this time descending in the other direction to La Honda, which was even colder, before emerging in the comparative warmth of the coast, and having a decent go at the climb of Tunitas Creek Road, as the sun shone through the trees, illuminating the evaporating damp. I was torn about wanting to take the longer loop to Pescadero, but I was on a timeline.
I dropped off the rental car at noon, and wandered over to the start of the planned roam. It was a sunny afternoon in the east end of the city, and I enjoyed taking people around the old and new spaces.
We had a warm day on Tuesday, which I enjoyed until I started riding back to the ferry in the afternoon, and suffered a double pinch flat on my way to the Park St bridge. At first I though only my front tyre had gone, but when I stopped on the other side, I realised both were out. I had one spare and some patches and a mini-pump, but it took a while to even find where the tell-tale parallel slits in the tubes were. I knew right away that I would miss the ferry, so I rode back to Fruitvale BART and was glad of the little bike store there, where I could pump my tyres properly and buy a new spare tube.
Unusually, the warm, still weather moved on – the wind picked up again that evening, and the temperatures dropped. The extra roam on Wednesday afternoon took place on the cusp of the rolling fog, as we made our way around the five squares that were first laid out in the plans for the western addition to the city (west of Larkin, the previous edge of the street grid) in the 1850s.
Nancy asked me if I would offer the dharma talk on the 2nd, which I am very happy to be able to do. I am kind of at the magpie stage, just pulling in loose threads of ideas while letting things roll along (something I wrote about on Patreon after my last talk). On Friday I had a couple of corporate meditation presentations to do, and I also have some recordings to take care of, including a trio designed for middle school students, so I need to focus just on one set of things at a time, which, in this realm, is not so hard to do.
That will be my third consecutive weekend of donning robes; today, assuming I return a second negative COVID test in the morning, I will be attending Kim’s shuso ceremony at City Center, which will be a treat.
‘People often ask me, “What is the Soto Zen view of rebirth?” This is a difficult question because Dogen Zenji, I believe, advocates “not knowing” in this case. Rather than offering us a consistent view on rebirth, he teaches us that we should let go of our limiting concepts and beliefs and simply practice right here, right now. When we do so, we naturall and responsibly care for the future as our practice in the present. I also believe this is the reason Shakyamuni Buddha did not deny transmigration, although he refuted the idea of the atman. His teaching of anatman shows us that the truth of emptiness applies even to our own bodies and minds, allowing us freedom from the reification of ourselves and our views, while cause and effect as the underlying principle for transmigration illustrates that we must nonetheless take responsibility for our activities of body, speech, and mind.’ (Realizing Genjokoan)
‘The teachings of Buddhism have tremendous breadth and width. Different teachers have emphasized different textx. Dengyo Dashi, the founder of the Tendai school said that the Lotus Sutra was the best to read. Honen Shonin and Shinran Shonin said the best was the shorter Jodo Sambu Sutra. But everyone is too busy to read all of those long sentences in those long sutras. So they said maybe it’s okay to just repeat one short line. And first it was Nam Myoho Rengo Kyo, from the Lotus Sutra, but then Honen Shonin and Shinran Shonin said even that was too long, and they offered instead Namu Amida Butsu. For Zen even that’s too long. Joshu said that one character, mu, is enough. For Zen it is the truth beyond words and phrases that has to be experienced and realized. And so Joshu said, “Mu.” Ummon said, “Kan,” or “reflect.”‘ (Not One Single Thing)
Now, if you think I am going to transform this blog into simply a daily post of mu, then you are very much mistaken. You would very soon take it for granted and not investigate, even if each day’s mu was a choice of fine calligraphy. As Dogen liked to point out (even as he led you astray with his phrases), we can also – and sometimes must – express what is beyond words and phrases with words and phrases. They are not left out.
‘After starting meditation practice, many individuals encounter resistance to continue, even when they know – and have experienced – that practice is one of the best things they can do for their lives. They are not aware of the reason for the resistance; it remains unrecognized by consciousness. It has to do with the perceived “cost” of practice, what individuals feel they have to “give up” to get what they want. They go through an unconscious “cost versus value” tradeoff. Fundamentally, people come to Zen practice out of a feeling to be more in touch with their spiritual nature. But this intention gets short-circuited by the mind’s craving for comfort, excitement, entertainment, and fame. Practice does not provide such things. Instead, what people first experience is boredom, which is not what they expected. And they do not recognize that their boredom is not inherently negative – the mind is free of the cravings and so can be spiritually creative. It is an opportunity for hidden things to appear: our old habits and reactive tendencies that have been getting in our way, the inherent beauty of everything, and the wisdom that we never knew we had. So, many quit out of impatience and disappointment for not getting what they want. The best way to respond to boredom and disappointment is through determination to continue despite the feelings and to recall what brought us to practice in the first place.’ (from cuke.com)
Only to add, that during however many hundreds of hours I sat zazen at Tassajara, I had a lot of opportunities to work through boredom. Disappointment is not really something I struggled with, fortunately.
Daowu visited the assembly of Shitou and asked, “What is the fundamental meaning of buddha dharma?”
Shitou said, “Not to attain, not to know.”
Daowu said, “Is there a further turning point in going beyond?”
Shitou said, “The vast sky does not keep white clouds from flying.”
Daowu auditioned for the role of a white cloud, but couldn't nail it.