Kodo Sawaki

‘The practice of zen is exactly like pickling a radish. Let’s say that the taste is the radish’s satori and that zazen is the pickling brine. The taste is the result of good brine. So, you ask, “What does the radish get out of being pickled?” Well, they’re pickled radishes.’ (Commentary on The Song Of Awakening)

Not having ever pickled a radish myself, I can’t vouch for the accuracy of this analogy. Of course Japanese monasteries are fiends about pickling, so I suspect he knows what he is talking about, and, to be fair, the analogy continues for more than a page…

bell hooks

‘A form of wisdom that I strive for is the ability to know what is needed at a given moment in time. When do I need to reside in that location of stillness and contemplation, and when do I need to get up off my ass and do whatever is needed to be done in terms of physical work, or engagement with others, or confrontation with others? I’m not interested in ranking one type of action over the other.’ (From Tricycle magazine)

The wisdom of the appropriate response.

Ejo McMullen

‘The Buddha called it out as the first noble truth, dukkha. The boundless nature of suffering, the Buddha called “noble”; he did not say, “Oh, this is the first truth, which we will quickly dispense with.” Right up front, the noble truth of dukkha, the fountainhead of dharma—you can’t get around it. You can’t get over it. You can’t get past it. You can’t get through it. It is the actuality of our lives. That doesn’t mean it stands in the way of ease and joy, but our attempts to dominate it may make it seem so. We can’t get around, over, past, or through, not because the world is a horrible place filled only with disease but because, like all things, suffering is empty. It is ungraspable. It has no edge. If you examine it in yourself, there’s no place to take a firm hold. We can push against it, try to hold it, but it will not succumb to our containment.’ (from Lion’s Roar)

Nevertheless, we continue our practice.

Mary Oliver

My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird—
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.
Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,
which is mostly standing still and learning to be
The phoebe, the delphinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all the ingredients are here,
which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
that we live forever.

Dale S. Wright

‘The most important forms of experience transform us. They show us weaknesses in our prior understanding of things and point in some new direction. In that sense, experience disillusions us. It divests us of the “knowledge” that is sometimes so dogmatically held that it stands in the way of learning. Those who are wise undergo a continual process of revision based on life experience. They expose themselves to situations where conceptual holdings are thrown into question and where fundamental reinterpretation of the world might be mandated. In this sense, wise learning is a form of suffeing, something we live through at the cost of some disruption and discomfort. The counsel of wisdom, however, is not to avoid this disruption but instead to seek out the transformative powers within it.’ (The Six Perfections)

This passage reminded me of some geographic history: in the US, and other large countries like South Africa, the coasts were the most liberal places because people living in coastal cities were always exposed to new, and potentially transformative, experience. In the interior, with less influx and less change, conservative mindsets could be more easily maintained.

Stretch Goals

One of the benefits of not having really gone anywhere in eighteen months is that I have continued to ride my bike steadily (even the weekend I was just away had a two-wheeled focus too!). Over the winter I was focusing on getting in steady hours, nothing too spectacular, but the arrival of spring – and a new rear cassette which had one gear that was easier than the previous one – got my attention back on hills. I tried a varied collection of them, San Bruno Mountain, Sweeney Ridge, the climbs in and out of Pacifica, and without my usual taster of going up Mount Tam a few times, decided that I might as well try Diablo before I went away, and lost that edge of fitness for a few months.

Last Saturday I ended up on the first BART out of the city, unexpecedly in the company of several women who were joining an AIDS Lifecycle training ride; one had never been up Diablo, and was asking for advice. They got off a couple of stops early to add in some more miles; I was just getting up and down the mountain. 

It was fresh along the valley, but a perfect temperature for climbing. I knew I hadn’t been since before the pandemic (in fact it was the summer before that even), but it felt intimately familiar in terms of the effort required, the turns that followed each other. About half way up the wind got a little stiffer, but I wasn’t going in the same direction long enough for it to be a problem. At the top, another cyclist and I shared that we would take it easy on the way down in case of unexpected gusts. 

It was so early still that there were very few cars out – even though people were preparing for a running event most of the way up. Only one person tried to pass on a blind corner – despite the numerous new signs warning against it – just as I was indicating that I would move over into the turnout, and I smiled to see a couple of rangers who were parked on the corner chase after the driver to give them a talking-to.

About half way down the north gate road (I had gone up the south gate road on the assumption I would do better having a break in the climbing), I decided that the experience was so great I would have to do it again this weekend. And then I saw the forecast. 

Like the first spring of the pandemic, when the rain seeped regularly back until May (hence my amateur conclusion that our weather seasons have been running a month late for a few years now), we went from eighty-plus degree weather last Thursday, when I rode to work in my thinnest shirt and shorts, to barely scraping fifty, with a couple of days of serious wind blowing me around on my bike in the city, and several bands of rain, with more to come over the next week.

There was another reminder of the past this week as well, as I went up to a nearby Kaiser clinic and got my second booster, a year to the week after my first jab at SF General. Luckily this time, though there was steady foot traffic, the safety waiting afterwards was the longest part of the process. This time, unlike my first booster, where I just had a nasty headache that reminded me of a day with a hangover, I woke up the following day after some very vivid and fast-moving dreams, feeling rather groggy, and called in for a sick day, probably my first in a couple of years. So perhaps even if the weather had been grand, I might not have had the energy for another crack at the mountain. Another goal to let go of.

In theory I will be leaving for Tassajara a week today, but, as with my trip to England in the summer, I confidently make plans while suspecting that something will cause things to be cancelled. My fingers have been crossed for some time.

About half way up the mountain, with a fair distance still to go.
The views from the top, including the road down (on the right) are always inspiring.

Sharon Salzberg

‘All of us instinctively want to be happy, but all too often, lasting happiness eludes us. We may cherish an exquisite afternoon, try a new recipe to great success, or dare to imagine a better day, but a steady feeling of self-worth, inner strength, and genuine connection may seem unattainable. No matter what our circumstance, a daily mindfulness meditation practice can help us recognize the potential for true happiness that is within our grasp. In my more than four decades teaching, I have witnessed again and again how meditation transforms lives. It reduces our stress, focuses us, grounds us, connects us to ourselves, and gives us a sense of purpose. Meditation was my path out of fragmentation and emotional pain. By the time I left for college at age sixteen, I’d lived in five different households. Each move was precipitated by the death of one of my family members or some kind of traumatic event. I felt alone and didn’t know how I could be happy in life, but deep within me I believed it was possible.

In college, I took an Asian philosophy course, which introduced me to meditation. The possibility of not just studying about meditation in the abstract, but actually experimenting with it and putting it into practice drew me like a magnet. I created a project and proposed that I go to India to study meditation. The university’s independent studies program approved the proposal, and I arrived in India in the fall of 1970.

One of the first things I discovered was that meditation wasn’t as exotic or mystical as I’d expected—no magical set of instructions delivered in a darkened chamber with a supernatural aura. Instead, my teacher launched my practice with the words “Sit comfortably and feel your breath.” Feel my breath? I thought in protest. I could have stayed in Buffalo to feel my breath!
Over time, I learned how to place my punishing self- judgments in the broader context of the fullness of my life. I saw how every moment contains so many shades of meaning. I understood that learning to slow down, to attend to each breath as it arises and passes—and ultimately to attend to each moment and each encounter in the same way—establishes a sustainable form of happiness that naturally springs from living an authentic life. Through meditation I found the bright vein of goodness that existed as a constant potential within me. As I grew to trust it, I saw that potential more clearly in the world around me. I realized that this ever-present potential was where true happiness resided.’ (from Instagram)

Lew Richmond

‘I spent many years slowly incorporating, testing out, asking, “Does my practice really reach that area?” Some of the first things I noticed when I went into the corporate world and got a job were, (a) how angry people were a lot of the time and (b) how often they expressed it, and (c) how much that was kind of alright! Very different than here. I’m not saying it was OK. Some of this anger was quite destructive. But you would go into a meeting, and people would pound on the table, they’d yell, they’d express themselves, and I started to do it too. And I thought, well, I’m feeling much more like myself, all my fifteen years of Zen training hasn’t totally eliminated my capacity to get angry, and it felt kind of like a relief. I didn’t feel like I wanted to show anything of my Buddhist years in that situation, but it’s interesting that somehow, over time, people saw it. They would come into my office and close the door and they would say, “I’d like to talk to you about something; I can’t really talk to anybody else.” I didn’t want to be a priest, but people seemed to want me to be a kind of priest, in that situation. I began to realize that that was another way in which what I had done here couldn’t be easily rubbed off-that it changes you, it changes you in some fundamental way. And other people can see it.’ (from Wind Bell)

Suzuki Roshi

'Student: Docho Roshi, what am I asking you?
SR: I know what you want to ask me pretty well. But as you don't ask me now, I also don't want to answer you [laughter].
Student: But I'm not sure that I know. That's why I thought maybe you would know [laughs, laughter].
SR: I know [laughs, laughter].
Student: Will I know sometime to ask you?
SR: Yes. But not now [laughter].' (from the Suzuki Roshi Archives)

Wednesday evenings with my dharma sister Kim have resumed, now that she has completed her shuso practice period at Zen Center. Since I know she likes listening to shosan ceremonies, I chose one from Tassajara in 1969. The intimacy and playfulness is plain here.

Issho Fujita

‘While we are sitting in zazen, we definitely have a feeling of disappointment and unsatisfactoriness, a sense of uncertainty or fruitlessness. We think, “I am working so hard but I’m not experiencing the ’response’ or ’effect’ that I wish. Maybe I am doing something wrong. Maybe my effort is not enough. Or maybe I am not suited for zazen…” These kinds of doubts and questions arise one after another in our mind. At that time we feel at a complete loss, thinking, “Should I keep doing such an unresponsive thing or not? Is not this a waste of time?” But that is totally all right for zazen. Rather, it is a good sign that we are doing zazen in the right direction. 

Buddhism teaches that we human beings cannot be fully satisfied after all, however hard we strive for it. I think that is the true meaning of the word dukkha in Sanskrit which is the first truth of Four Noble Truths. This word is often translated as “suffering” but it should be understood as a description of the fundamental fact in life that it is impossible for us to get ultimate satisfaction in this transient world. 

When this feeling of unsatisfactoriness is driving us, we are never able to be settled and rest in peace and relaxation at the bottom of our heart. We need to let go of our deep-rooted tendency to look for exciting experiences to fill up the empty feelings of unsatisfactoriness or to try to distract ourselves from confronting unsatisfactoriness by indulging in all kinds of diversions. And we also need to settle down to unsatisfactoriness itself without trying to change it. To do zazen, we should clearly and deeply admit that there is no other way to authentic peace and just sit down with unsatisfactoriness.’ (Polishing A Tile) 

Probably a better explanation of the points I was trying to make in my recent talk.