Suzuki Roshi

‘Some people, you know, may be envious of bird or cats or dogs who enjoy the warm winter sunshine [laughing] near hot spring. But “return to the nature” in its true sense does not mean to be like animal or bird. If you climb up on the top of the mountain, or, you know, if you come from Jamesburg, perhaps the place you like best will be when you see some of Tassajara mountain. If it is April it is– they are covered with white snow.

If you want to go back to the nature, you should go back to the rocks on the top of the mountain [laughs]. That is much better than to be a bird, or cat, or even a lion. Be a rock. And sit forever, without being moved by rain, or snow, or storm. But weathered by rain and snow, rocks will tell us many stories. You may say that is just a rock. But buddha-nature, in its true sense, reveal itself on weathered ancient rocks on the top of the mountain.

The reason why we wanted to practice zazen, putting strength in our tanden, is to realize what is true practice and what is not.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi Archives)

I have been trying to work my way through the archive more or less chronologically, but I skipped ahead to December 1967 to be able to listen to this talk with my dharma sister Kim. It is from the first day of the sesshin held at the end of the second practice period at Tassajara (I am trying to resist getting completely immersed in the talks from the first sesshin held in August 1967, as almost all the audio for that one is newly rediscovered). I was interested in this talk as he is very explicit about the hara, or tanden, which is not at all common (using the search form from David Chadwick’s site, there are only three mentions of it – two from this sesshin, and one from a talk at Tassajara two months later), and because he presents sections from Dogen’s Fukanzazengi.

When we were listening to it though, this portion from right at the end of the talk jumped out at me in a way that it hadn’t when I was just reading the transcript. His voice has a kind of still power that makes it the climax of what he is trying to convey. Listen to it if you have the time.

I thought this photo was a good representation of Tassajara mountains covered in snow.

A Ferry Ride In The Fog

On Friday morning, I was listening to Suzuki Roshi’s Calmness talk, ahead of this morning’s third class in the series. Even though I have listened to it quite a few times already, once again, I heard it fresh (and kind of wished that I could re-write some of the accompanying article I posted for that talk).

‘When you sit you do not feel anything; you just sit. You are in the complete calmness of your mind. But in everyday life, you will find you will be encouraged by the calmness of the zazen — sitting. So actually the value of — you will find the value of Zen in everyday life, rather then when you sit.’

I used this notion for a meditation session I had during the morning. It’s something I talk about often, that meditation can be like having training wheels on a bike, learning to deal, in a safe space, with things that are usually not consequential. During the session, I could hear some music filtering up from my downstairs neighbour, a typical minor irritant, where we can pay close attention to how we respond to the situation in the moment, mentally, physically, or emotionally. And then we go out in the world and try to handle things with the same sense of equanimity and equilibrium; it takes a while to remember that we can do this, but as we continue our practice, we do start to embody that kind of response a little more regularly and consistently.

In my radio days, once you got over the initial adrenaline-fuelled thrill of doing live transmissions, they could often be quite hum-drum. I always say that the job was a good preparation for practice: it was always in the moment; you had to keep paying attention; and once it was done, it was done – there was no taking work home afterwards. When something went wrong, though, that’s when your training came into play, and your ability to focus. I used to tell people I was training, ‘Try to just make one mistake.’ I would see people (including myself), make a slip of some kind, like playing the wrong tape, and then compound it by being flustered. I would try to move on from the first mistake, and get things back to normal as soon as I could.

I have always presumed that flying a plane was rather similar, though as we would say in radio after some catastrophe in the studio, ‘well, no-one died.’ Most of the time, the pilots can maintain a relaxed awareness, and then, when things go awry, they have to call on all their training.

I got an object lesson similar this on Thursday morning. After enjoying a number of spectacular sunsets and gorgeous skyscapes on recent journeys, this time the fog was dense. The ferry was, unusually, running late. Once we were underway I could really see why. Passing under the Bay Bridge, it was barely visible. We made confident progress across the bay, even though there are once again a large number of huge container ships moored here and there. Once we approached the entrance to the Seaplane Lagoon in Alameda though, the boat slowed to crawl. There are several seawalls, with an entry gap that is not huge – and presumably a fairly narrow deep-water channel. In clear day, the approach must be relatively simple for an experienced captain, but when we couldn’t see it even from a few yards away, I appreciated how professional the skipper was being. I hope they were feeling equanimous too.

Naturally I took plenty of photographs to try to capture the mood. We are about to go under the bridge, with barely one footing to be seen.
The seawall starts to become visible.
Approaching the terminal.

Big Skies

By way of a contrast to the damp and cold weather a few weeks ago, we now have a high-pressure system anchored overhead, which has made for a succession of mild and still days, and a number of ridiculously beautiful sunsets. 

Last week I was trying to recover from all the things I did the week before, and I took the opportunity to get away from screens and out across the city to scout for the next couple of roams. I still had plenty to get done, but luckily, the long weekend allowed me a little extra space to cross more things off the to-do list. 

Our second class went as well as the first – at least for me, and according to the feedback I received. At the end I got to give what I thought of as my stump speech for jijuyu zanmai, as the talk we were listening to seemed to be a strong paraphrase of what Dogen proposed in Bendowa. When I get a chance to speak like this, I can feel the emotion coming up, the joy of practice, a strong reminder of why I am living life the way I am. It boils down to this, in my view: everything is expressing its enlightenment, so we might as well join in.

And with that, a selection of the photos I was lucky to take over the last week:

Tuesday’s sunset colours from the ferry
Just before we arrived at the Ferry building
Thursday was even better.
Friday overlooking Visitacion Valley.
Saturday at Mile Rock
Sunday sunrise from my bike – I was overdressed.
Sunday afternoon at Lake Merritt
Monday sunset with a holiday crowd at Alamo Square.
And just steps away, at the same time.

Dale S. Wright

‘To live wholeheartedly… is to live a life of integrity, the unity of will through which choices, acts, and energies are integrated around a “thought of enlightenment.” When we are unified in this way, we act in accord with ourselves rather than at odds with ourselves. Living wholeheartedly, the feelings and energies that are signified by the “heart” are joined in harmony with the mind and will, such that what we desire aligns with our largest vision of the good. This condition, as we all know from occasional experiences of it, gives rise to an ecstatic form of freedom, a liberation from destructive forces of self-contradiction.’ (The Six Perfections)

I take this to mean (and I can vouch for it in my own life) that when we can stop second-guessing ourselves, we have much more power to move freely – but that does not mean that we run roughshod over everything. The thought of enlightenment is our compass, even if we sometimes go astray.

Big Numbers

It was a busy dharma week to start the year off, one of those weeks where I just had to stay focused on the most immediate task while also remembering those that were coming down the pipeline. 

I was happy with how my talk went on Wednesday (I shall post the link to it once I have managed to edit and post it on the Zen Center website – that’s one of the tasks that had been sidelined this week). It was lovely, as always, to see who showed up, including Abbots Ed and David, some names and faces from over the years, and new friends as well. I kept it relatively short, and I think the overall flow was helped by my having written a skeleton out in long hand, during which process I was able to re-jig a few points I wanted to make. I certainly felt more connected to the words on paper than I usually do when they are on screen, so perhaps I will revert to this method going forward. There were several fairly weighty questions afterwards, which I hoped I managed to navigate skilfully.

On Friday I participated in a webinar on mindful eating for Core, and had a couple of meditation sessions, one regular, one a one-off for Within, which was for a lively group. The rest of the day I spent reading up for the class. Going through old Wind Bells gave me some new nuggets, so on Saturday morning, during fifteen minutes of pre-amble, I had lots to say. 

After we had listened to the talk itself, the comments that came from the participants were full of amazing insights and thoughts that captured much of why Suzuki Roshi resonates for people so much. We had more than fifty people signed up for the class, which is more than I have had in a formal class before, and more than forty were listening live (others get access to the recordings). After Abbot Ed and I signed off, I was buzzing for the rest of the morning. 

And then I rode over to the Embarcadero for the first roam of the year. It had been a week of mixed weather, some rain and a couple of days with low low cloud, but Saturday was bright and felt warm in the sun. We ended up with seventeen people and an energetic dog, my largest group in quite a while, as we climbed over Telegraph Hill, crossed North Beach and Chinatown on the way to Russian Hill, and back. One of the attendees had some wonderful bits of historical knowledge, which he shared as we went round. I saw a hawk perched low on a tree above us in Washington Square, and many bees and a butterfly enjoying the flowering Ceanothus at the foot of the Coit Tower.

With all the teachings I had to take care of, plus a couple of days at the studio, I felt like I had not been especially active this past week – the days in the studio each involve about an hour on my bike, and the roam certainly gave my legs a workout, but by my standards, it wasn’t much. So I was glad to get out on Sunday morning and ride for a few hours, from Ocean Beach to Foster City and back past the airport. It was clear and still, and not as cold as last week – I was slightly overdressed in the end, but that is much better than the alternative. It feels like the time of year where I am just doing maintenance rides – keeping an easy tempo, and not trying to charge up a lot of hills.

I don’t know if I have seen the bridge disappear like this.
Certainly there was no way to see across to the East Bay
By way of contrast, sitting at the top of Telegraph Hill during the roam.
Late afternoon sun as weclimbed back up the Filbert St steps.
Never get tired of this early morning glow.
Still and clear in Foster City.
San Francisco is to the right of the visible hills.

First Footing

The Robert Burns quote most apposite for my new year would not be the ‘Auld Lang Syne’ one, but rather the ‘best laid plans…’

The 30th was a bright and clear day after all the rain, and while it was tempting to squeeze in a short ride before I left, I made sure I had taken care of some odds and ends instead. Four of us were going down from City Center to Tassajara; the other three were all returning for the practice period, and included the incoming tenzo and the outgoing fukaten. I enjoyed hearing their dharma bios, and having the sense of them as settled in their practice – demonstrating what Suzuki Roshi called composure, or constancy.

Traffic was heavy along various stretches of the 101 – and this was midweek, in the middle of the day. I always feel glad that my life does not involve this kind of driving on anything like a regular basis. We were in the hills north of Salinas when Leslie got in touch to say that, while the county crew had taken one tree out, when people had tried to leave Tassajara earlier, they found the tree that had blocked their way before still there – the crew had not gone as far up the road as requested. So there was no way in, we would have to turn around and perhaps, after the crew returned in the morning, it would be possible to try again.

We drove the couple of hours back to San Francisco. I figured that as my planned stay was not very long, and the work I was supposed to do not urgent, there was not so much point trying again the next day. So I had that happy buoyancy, as I walked back to my place, of having some unexpected free time.

As it turned out, after getting some unwelcome news, I found it hard to get motivated at all the next day. I went out on my bike mid-morning, but while the light was radiant, my spirit was not. It didn’t seem a hardship to go to bed early, and get up to repeat my early morning New Year’s Day ride, where I take roads that are usually too busy to feel safe on. I made it over to the bay for the sunrise – there were a number of people on the Embarcadero with the same idea – then across to the ocean.

Apart from some spontaneous exchanges with people – in that way that people are more relaxed and open over the holidays – what lifted my mood was tackling my large backlog of unedited photos from the past year. I had about 2500 to work through, and had planned to spend some time at Tassajara doing that. My eyes went square in the process, but I was happy to get it done over the course of three days, and I also discovered a way to process some of the phone camera photos in a way that made them a little less bland.

I rode on Sunday as well, as temperatures dropped towards freezing – a rarity in the Bay Area. There was frost on the cemetery lawns in Colma, and on the roofs of San Bruno. I had intended to take the reservoir trail, but it had been closed due to flooding, so I had to reprise the alternative route I got used to after the fires of 2020.

With the photos done – though I will go through the finished folder to select my favourites from the year – I can turn my attention to my dharma talk on Wednesday, which I had also planned to think about while I was at Tassajara, and make sure I am up to speed for the first class on Saturday.

The first sunrise of 2022.
Above Ocean Beach.
By way of contrast, a silimar view from the roam on the 26th.

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.

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)

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.

In All Kinds of Weather

It was only a few weeks ago that I was trundling around in shorts most of the time, and actually looking in my wardrobe and musing why I had so many cold-weather clothes when I so rarely needed them. In the past week, our second atmospheric river of the season has come along, and the temperatures dropped at the same time. I dug out my hat and gloves along with my winter layers for a ride on Saturday morning, before the roam in the afternoon, which was sunny but with a chilly breeze. On Sunday it rained right on cue, and that continued almost non-stop through to Tuesday morning. My only planned outing on Sunday was volunteering with the Bicycle Coalition at the annual party in the afternoon, and I opted to take the streetcar over to the park, and then walk home at the end of the event, as I find walking in the rain preferable to riding. I met many people I knew at the party, and enjoyed getting to mingle, even masked, with bike people again.

On Monday I walked, also getting pretty soaked, down to the Hall of Justice – my fourth visit in the last couple of months- to support someone I met while I was leading meditation sessions in the county jail. On the previous occasions, there had been substitute judges that the lawyer thought would not be well-disposed to the case, and then also a new assistant DA who had not had time to master the brief. This time around, even with the assistant DA’s reservations, the judge was inclined to offer a treatment program rather than even more jail time. I found myself deeply moved at how a person’s life can sometimes have the opportunity for transformation.

Happily the rain eased up in time for my commute on Tuesday – though it was cold enough that I was glad of hat and gloves on my bike and on the ferry. I also got lucky on Thursday, as another band of rain blew through, and it warmed up a little as well. Next week’s forecast has more rain in it though.

As we roll towards the end of the year, I am not taking much of a break from my usual commitments, and indeed am filling in for three extra classes in the next week on Within (see also my Calendar page). We are starting to plan for the class on Suzuki Roshi’s talks in the new year, and I have also been invited to give the dharma talk at Zen Center on Wednesday 5th, which I will probably use as a prelude to the class.

Oyster Point on a chilly and still Saturday morning.
I rode from the bay over to the ocean, here overlooking the cliffs of Daly City.
Mount Tam in the backdrop of this photo as well, from the top of Bernal Heights on Saturday’s roam.
Walking back from the Bike Coalition party on Sunday evening, with the giant Christmas tree at the entrance to Golden Gate Park
A view form the Hall of Justice as rain blew through on Monday morning.
Weather front from the ferry on Tuesday morning.
Another spectacular city view on Tuesday evening.
Wet evning on Wednesday.
Beautiful sunset on Thursday
With a nearly full moon rising as well.