Willa Blythe Baker

‘We are naturally complex creatures, prone to taking a simple moment of experience—a sensory experience, a thought, or a feeling—and spinning a web of concepts around it. It is a real challenge, for example, to simply observe a thought without getting involved in its orbit. We tend to follow, resist, or judge our thoughts. Pretty soon, what started as a simple thought becomes a complex network of concepts and ideas accompanied by a swirling eddy of emotion and reactivity.

The same goes for our relationship to meditation. It is challenging for us to take a simple instruction such as “meditate on the breath every day” and just do it. Instead, we get involved in a vortex of thinking about the practice, framing the practice, resisting the practice, and comparing and judging our practice against a perceived ideal. Sometimes we even create a new identity around meditation practice. Whereas before we called ourselves a nurse, a teacher, a barista, or a jogger, now we are—in addition—a meditator, with all the self-concepts that accompany that label.

Meditation, in other words, is not only a practice; it is also a conceptual construct that carries weight in our life. That construct may have surprisingly little to do with the practice itself, yet we bring it with us as a subtle companion when we sit on the cushion.

The practice of non-meditation hastens recognition of this kind of conceptual baggage. It helps us see that concepts about what we are doing can sometimes inhibit the actual practice. When we drop the very thing we think we should be doing, suddenly the weight of everything we’ve been carrying becomes apparent. Ideas, we discover, can be heavy.’ (from Lion’s Roar)


‘One who has attained dharma is a true authentic buddha and should not been regarded as the same as before. When we see the person, someone who is new and extraordinary sees us. When we see the person, today sees today.

When arhats, pratyeka-buddhas, or bodhisattvas of the three stages and ten classes come to a nun who maintains the treasury of the true dharma eye, they should bow and ask about dharma, and she should receive their bow.

Why are men special? Emptiness is emptiness. Four great elements are four great elements. Five skandhas are five skandhas. Women are just like that. Both men and women attain the way. You should honor attainment of the way. Do not discriminate between men and women. This is the most wondrous principle of the buddha way.’ (Shobogenzo Raihai Tokuzui)

Stirring stuff from the 1240s that we have just been chewing over in the Dogen Study Group.

Away Again

Chuck is a long-time acquaintance from Zen Center, and earlier this year, he started proposing having a little retreat over the summer at his place in Humboldt. Zachary and I put our calendars together, and came up with the last weekend in June as a good time; I suggested it to my little student group and everyone was enthusiastic, though one person had to drop out at the last from over-exertion.

So on Friday, a couple of cars left the city and headed north. I was familiar with the terrain as far as Ukiah, but the rest was new for me, as we crossed valleys and headed over passes, with steep slopes more or less filled with trees on every side. At Chuck’s suggestion, we headed through a fair chunk of redwood forest on the way, before climbing a ways, and dropping down to the Mattole Valley, with its large collection of weed growing operations, and along to his place beside the river. It was quite the drive, but once we had arrived, it all seemed to melt away as we gathered in the little guest house and ate together as the sun set over the grazing cows and horses.

I was awake pretty early, and started sitting in the dark, getting up every half hour or so to stretch and take a photo of the day starting. People joined one by one, and we sat until 7:30, then cooked a great breakfast together.

Most of us planned to try to hike to the ocean. We needed to cross the broad shallow river first, then scramble up to the dirt road that dead-ended – a little further along than we had anticipated – at the beach, which was vast and empty but for driftwood. We sat, and ate, and looked at the waves and the mountains to the north and south, the temperature perfect and the wind almost non-existent.

In the evening we ate, had long discussions, and then sat again, before starting Sunday morning the same as Saturday – though this time we did kinhin, and there was a dense fog hanging over the valley which meant we couldn’t see the new moon.

Thankfully it had burned off after breakfast, as we wandered down to the river again, stopped in at the local community farmers’ market, then hit the road for a six-hour drive back south, where the weather was typically cool and grey. We all agreed that it had been well worth the hours of driving, though next year we will aim for a three-day weekend.

Some views on the drive up.
I sat about thirty minutes of zazen between each photo.
The tranquil beach
Sunday morning after zazen.

Nyogen Senzaki

‘This mind is Buddha and no other, but one who clings to words and postulates an idea of it is far away from the Path. If you meditate on emptiness, you can never empty your mind. If you aim to enter samadhi, you will never reach it.’ (Eloquent Silence)

Li Po

The birds have vanished into deep skies.
A last cloud drifts away, all idleness.

Inexhaustible, this mountain and I
gaze at each other, it alone remaining.

Suzuki Roshi

‘How to help people is very– not very difficult thing, but it is rather difficult to explain how to, you know. To help people, in its true sense, is just to join their life, and lead their life as they do, and to be always friend of others. That is the only way. And if they find me something different from them, even though we are in same condition and living same way. This is, I think, how to help them and how to teach them real practice of Zen.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi archives)

Interestingly, I had just pulled this quote up when a student texted me to ask how it was that they could help people.

Issho Fujita

‘In zazen our mind pervades throughout, resting with the body that is sitting and breathing. It does not engage with any other activity…

To do zazen means just to sit solely aiming at a correct posture. There is no other need to reach a certain state of mind as a goal or to attain a special experience. Therefore we are freed from anxiety and frustration which comes from seeking for a special state of mind and experience which we have not yet attained and are able to peacefully rest in the here-and-now as it is, nothing special.’ (Polishing A Tile)

Dale S. Wright

‘In their effort to establish a more comprehensive understanding of Buddhist morality, Mahayana sources frequently classify morality into three increasingly significant categories. First, morality as restraint, which aligns with most concerns of early Buddhist moral precepts. Steadfast in renunciation of ordinary worldly desires, the bodhisattva observes the precepts with great care and exactitude and does this with no thought of reward. Second is morality as the cultivation of virtue. Mmore comprehensive than following the Buddhist precepts, the second level of moral practice is grounded in meditation and its concerns for mindfulness. Attentive to all the ways in which enlightenment can be cultivated, the bodhisattva undertakes these regimes of training in order to prepare for the final stage. Third is morality as altruism. This dimension of morality shows the bodhisattva’s overarching concern for the welfare and enlightenment of others. Moral action at this stage, therefore, entails loving service to others, which includes everything from teaching to care for the poor and the sick. In the final analysis, moral action is not individual but collective, and the bodhisattva engages in morality for the betterment and enlightenment of all.’ (The Six Perfections)

We turned back to this book in my student group last week, and this paragraph provided some food for thought.

Jisho Warner

‘Our practice depends on our personal initiative and energy, and yet that is only part of it. We are oriented and taught by the world around us, by what we don’t yet know. The energies we call on for inquiry and action rise in us but don’t originate in us as our own independent entities…

Great energy is native to the four great elements of earth, air, fire, and water. It is equally native to our human selves, so often described by the five aspects of self (skandhas: form, feeling, perception, volition, and consciousness), which are of course made of the four elements. It is no different whether we think in terms of the four great elements or the hundred-plus elements of the periodic table. The basic elements interact energetically in all things, functioning with the power we call life, or ten-direction universe, or buddha, or dharma. Dogen says that all naturally practice; that is all fulfill their nature completely. And he says that the power of this fulfilled nature is the basis of our practice; it is the motive power, the engine.’ (Receiving the Marrow)

I took this book to Wilbur with me, and it informed and articulated what I felt as I walked and sat in the landscape. Look out for more posts from this chapter soon.

Back to the Land

Many parts of the trip up to Wilbur felt incredibly familiar, from the roads and freeways taken, to the stop at Trader Joe’s in Fairfield, to turning off the 20 to take the bumpy dirt road up the river valley. It was nice to see that a few changes had been made (positive ones in my book) and that the place was in great shape. I was welcomed back by the people I knew who were still there, and warmly welcomed by the new managers, all of which felt very nourishing.

And as I walked back to the buildings, having parked the rental car, I could feel my body relaxing as it did when I arrived at Tassajara a couple of months ago. Only this time, I did not subsequently tweak my back and have trouble moving. In fact, with a combination of walking, sitting, being in the baths, and ignoring the projects I thought I might take care of while I was there, I came away feeling in better shape than I have for a while. 

Although I was used to running the trails when I went before the pandemic, just focusing on walking this time allowed me to take in the landscape much more slowly, to appreciate the trees and the fauna – the rabbits and deer, quail and turkey families, and that really fed my enjoyment of the slow pace of life there. Having my camera with me, and taking an abundance of photographs also enlivened me.

It was cooler than expected when I arrived, and on Saturday it didn’t warm up much. I took that as a good sign to take a hike in the early afternoon, and found myself half way up to the ridge hearing thunder off to the north, with ominous clouds that came our way, and then dropped rain for about half an hour while I sheltered under an oak – more concerned for my camera than for myself. Sunday was clear, and the sun started warming everything early, so it was pretty toasty by the time I headed home in the afternoon. I had managed to turn a little pink from sitting out at the end of the afternoon on Saturday, so I thought it best not to linger in the sun this time.

It seemed quieter than usual, but the people who came for meditation had a lot of good questions, so I enjoyed the interactions, as well as other conversations I had over the weekend. I can’t wait to go back!

A Friday evening walk upstream along the valley.
Saturday afternoon with looming clouds.
Looking down onto the valley.
The rain heading our way.
Soft light after the rain.
Bright sun first thing on Sunday morning.