Even if a thought
of the firefly grass
it may light up as a firefly
in a remote field.
Even if a thought
‘Master Dogen, founder of the Soto sect in Japan, said:
“It isn’t that we do zazen; zazen lets us do zazen.”
I also say this to you now, whether you are new to Zen or an old practitioner. I regularly emphasize that there can be no gap in our practice of zazen for “me” to enter. We must really be zazen itself. Consequently, if we have the idea that we should put some force or strength into the lower belly or concentrate on something, then precisely this force or effort will somewhere defile your zazen. Even the thought I’ve got to make an effort is excessive, from the standpoint of purity. Our condition right now, at this very moment, is truly transparent, clean and clear. Dirt cannot adhere to it. It cannot be tarnished.’ (Unfathomable Depths)
I am preparing these posts at the beginning of July; if all goes to plan, today I will be in Hebden Bridge offering some words about zazen as we sit for the day.
Being in England is inevitably a return to my past, the one I left twenty-two years ago when I moved to California. It has had different weights over the years. It took me a few years to start dreaming about being in the US; now, people and places from across my life blend together in my dreams – in a recent example, people were setting up meditation cushions on the unpaved road where the house I grew up in was. About ten years ago, I was feeling homesick, I thought, and considered going back, though eventually I realised that what I needed to do was to leave Zen Center and start a new phase of life.
I have often observed that my friends and family in England have a continuity of past that I don’t – I have a ‘then,’ and a ‘since moving.’ At my sister’s this week, we tackled the things that I had stored at my father’s house when I left, that she had taken when that house was sold after his death. I wasn’t sure how much of it I would be able to manage, while at the same time realising that it needs to be dealt with. I had slimmed the number of boxes down once with my step-mother, on the same visit that made me remember how little I enjoyed English winters, and we managed to do more of that this time.
The main thing we did was go through all my old photos – from childhood Instamatic shots to the hundreds of rolls of film I shot from teenage years onwards – first on the SLR that my mother had bought and then lost interest in, and after that camera was stolen in my last days at college, a couple of others that, it seems now, produced a lot of rubbish and only a few things worth keeping. But looking at all the albums I had made, for the first time in more than twenty years, was quite a trip. I snapped plenty of shots of the prints with my phone to share them with the friends I have been staying with, since we have known each other for thirty years, and there we were, fresh-faced and a bit slimmer, with other friends and occasions more or less well-remembered. My friend Heather on the south coast had shown me some pictures of our early days at the BBC, and I could more than reciprocate, feeling very grateful that I had taken my camera to work on quite a few occasions.
This was followed by a drive up to my mother’s. When I had been planning my trip, my brother suggested he was free on the 26th to come over from France and meet me, and I mentioned that this was the day I was arriving in Hereford, so he sorted out a flight and a car rental, and showed up in the early afternoon. We hadn’t told my mother about it ahead of time, and let her know he was coming only once he had landed at Heathrow, just in case the current travel chaos interfered. Most likely, we thought, the four of us had not been together since my nephew’s christening in 1999. I had moved after that, and my mother had stopped traveling as she found it too stressful.
Part of the afternoon was spent trying to convince my mother that having a chair with a mechanical lifting mechanism would be a good idea. She is stubborn about her independence, even as her mobility and eyesight have declined considerably since my last visit, and extremely resistant to any kind of change. We prevailed in the end, though I am sure she will take time to accept this new reality, once it is delivered. My brother-in-law also worked hard during the afternoon to raise her favourite spot, the sofa, several inches higher so she could get in and out of it more easily.
Once everyone else had gone back, I had a couple of very quiet days there, walking a fair amount, doing chores, and preparing for the weekend at Hebden. Walking has also been time in history: for my last day on the south coast, we took a long walk in the hills that aren’t quite the downs, but there, as well as the tracks and paths around Hereford (ones that I have happily run in the past) I always have the sense of following in ancient footsteps.
What I am noticing is that this swimming in the past makes me feel more three dimensional, that touching the deep past; remembering all the experiences, good, bad, pleasant, unpleasant; all the people I have cared for and who have cared for me, are all supporting the person who is alive in this moment. The past selves stepping into the present self simultaneously feels like the self melts away, and feels like heft that I can bring to my teaching.
‘Dogen drew a circle in the air with his whisk, held up the whisk, and said: If I hold this up, you call it buddhas appearing in the world. If I put it down, you call it the ancestral teacher coming from the west. If I draw a circle, you call it what is protected and cared for by the buddhas and ancestral teachers. When I do not hold it up, put it down, or draw a circle, how do you assess this? Even if you can assess it, you should laugh at both the view of the unconditioned and at the livelihood in the demon’s cave. Although it is like this, students of Eihei, there is another excellent place. Great assembly, do you want to see that excellent place?
Again Dogen held up his whisk, and after a pause said: Great assembly, do you understand? If you understand, the Dharma body of all buddhas enters my nature. If you do not understand, my nature in the same way joins together with the Tathagata. Great assembly, what is the meaning of “the Dharma body of all buddhas enters my nature”, and of “my nature in the same way joins together with the Tathagata”?
After a pause Dogen said: In the early morning eat gruel, at lunchtime rice. In the early evening do zazen, and at night sleep.’ (Extensive Record, 518)
It’s just a whisk, but also not just a whisk. Look at it this way.
‘Fundamentally, there is no morality and no immorality. Saying this may sound scary, as if anything goes and we can, once we appreciate emptiness, commit as many sins as we want. But this isn’t the case. Seeing that there are no actual persons, that everything is only the flow of love, that that’s what being is, makes us much more passionate about doing good and not doing harm. Insight into emptiness doesn’t erase our moral sense; it makes it more flexible, joyous, open, and forgiving. We know we can never condemn anyone, neither ourselves nor anyone else. Everyone is doing what they can, as are we. Sometimes self-restraint or restraining another is necessary. But such restraint is understood as an act of kindness, not punishment based on moral superiority.’ (from Lion’s Roar)
‘Few people are powerful enough, persuasive, persistent, consistent, and charismatic enough to change the world all at once, but everyone has the ability to affect the three feet around them by behaving more ethically, honestly, and compassionately toward those they meet. Just picture it: If more people acted from this space of love, there would be more and more terrain covered…
Committing to speaking truthfully and without the intention to do harm, to listening carefully to what others have to say and to remembering that all of us are struggling to make sense of a changing world, will allow us to stand strong amid the chaos. You cannot control the world, the country, your town, the mood swings of those you love, but you can try to create around you a little bit of space that is all your own, a place where the rules of interaction you’ve chosen make sense and your actions have integrity.
We can be the kind of people who lead with their hearts and behave to those around them in an ethical, honest, and kindly manner that creates for those who enter that three feet around us a feeling of peace that also serves to steady the self.’ (from Instagram)
Ruiyan asked Yantou, “What is the fundamental constant principle?”
Yantou said, “Moving.”
Ruiyan said, “When moving, what then?”
Yantou said, “You don’t see the fundamental constant principle.”
Ruiyan stood there thinking.
Yantou said, “If you agree, you are not yet free of sense and matter; if you don’t agree, you’ll be forever sunk in birth or death.” (The Book of Serenity)
If I had been Ruiyan, I would not have stood there thinking.
The monkey reaches for the moon in the water,
Until death overtakes him he’ll never give up.
If he would let go of the branch and disappear in the deep pool,
The whole world would shine with dazzling pureness.
This drawing accompanies the poem – or vice versa:
‘First of all you enter, you know, you bow. The bow means to– we say gotai-tochi. Gotai is “our body.” Our– to- — tochi is “to throw away our body.” It means that, in short, practice of selflessness, you know, to throw away our physical and mental being. And– or we offer, you know, ourselves to Buddha. That is our practice of bow. To bow– when you bow, you bow and lift your hand. That means to lift Buddha’s feet, which is on your palm, like this, and you feel Buddha on your palm. So in this way, you– when you practice bow, you have no– or you shouldn’t have– you are supposed not to have any idea of self, you know. You give up everything.
When Buddha was begging, his follower, you know, spread his hair on the ground, muddy ground, and let Buddha pass that place. That is– is supposed to be the origin of why we bow. And in ritual, you know, you bow and work. You do everything by some sign [laughs], you know, that is, you know, that kind of thing is– maybe the things you may not like so much [laughs]. Just– it looks like very formal, you know, to– to– to do everything by sign, by bell. Whether you want to do it or not, you must do it [laughs]. But it looks like very formal. And actually you– as long as you are in Buddha hall– hall, you should observe our way according to the rules we have here. But why we do it is to forget ourselves and to become one– to feel or to be, you know, Zen student actually in this Buddha hall. That is why we– we observe our rituals.
And this is very important point. To feel your being here, right in this time, is very important practice for us. And actually, that is the point of observing precepts and observing rituals and practice of zazen. To feel or to be yourself at certain time, in certain place. For that purpose, we practice our way.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi archives)
It’s fun to try to rewind in my mind what has happened since I last posted. The days of the gathering were relaxing and rewarding, as conversations continued. On Saturday I walked with one of the resident ministers and another attendee on the trails that surround the retreat centre, ending up at the shady creek; in the evening I was one of the comperes for the “no-talent” show, which was another excellent reminder that Buddhist teachers are extremely good at letting their hair down.
Fond partings on Sunday morning were followed by a train ride back down the Hudson with three other participants, chatting about various issues as we caught sight of eagles and herons by the water. I had had no agenda for the day in New York, and had happily agreed when someone I just know through Instagram suggested we meet for a cup of coffee, which turned into several hours of great conversation.
After that, and taking care of my camera battery issue, I took the subway all the way out to JFK for my hotel stay. When researching for the trip, I had been delighted to discover that I could stay at the TWA hotel, which was a little more expensive than the chain hotels around the airport, but way more stylish, and considerably closer and more convenient for my early morning departure. When I arrived, as soon as I entered the red-carpeted tubes, I just felt happy to be in such a beautiful space; after dropping my bag I wandered around taking photos, and it seemed that everyone else was enjoying themselves too. I wasn’t sure what to expect about the rooms, which were new additions to the space, but mine was pretty nice!
Per my recent habits, I was awake well before my early alarm, though I actually drifted off again listening to a recent dharma talk, so I was glad I hadn’t turned it off. I set off the short distance to the Airtrain and the next terminal well before I needed to, but the long security lines ate into most of that time. There were also very few breakfast options at the terminal, so I was especially glad of the friendly crew on the plane who happily offered me a second breakfast and more coffee when I asked, as well as keeping some of us very entertained with pre-take off chatting.
It was quite something to watch the sunrise in New York and see it set in London. It was also quite something to arrive at my friends’ place and not be sleep-deprived as usually am after an overnight flight from San Francisco. The biggest disruption to my sleep was how warm it was. Monday had been pretty hot, though that had eased off by the time I arrived. Tuesday broke the records.
I went for a short walk in the morning, then went into town and met a friend in the park. I opted for shade whenever possible, but with my experiences at Tassajara and Wilbur, I didn’t feel like I was in unknown territory dealing with it – though I wish I could have filled my water bottle at least once more during the afternoon. The last time it was 100 degrees in San Francisco I was moving house, so this didn’t feel especially arduous. We dipped our toes into the Serpentine, which was quite a scene, and then I headed out via slow and heavily packed tubes to meet my hosts at a riverside pub.
There was something about the light that I found fascinating – a hazy intensity, which then became heavily glowering as clouds massed and a heavy burst of rain passed through during the evening. We were eating outside, but thankfully under a sturdy awning.
The rain broke the heat, though what remained would be considered hot here in other circumstances. I remember warm summers in my childhood, and also days when I lived in London when the temperature reached 90, which was considered freakish at the time. Now it has topped 100 degrees, and people in the UK are definitely waking up to the idea that the crisis is only going to get worse.