The Great Matter

To say last week was quite a week would be the kind of English understatement that I am quite comfortable making.

Chronologically speaking, it went like this: 

On Sunday afternoon I officiated my first wedding of the year, a small and lovely affair at the San Francisco Botanical Garden. It was a bright afternoon with a chilly breeze. In addition to the fifteen or so people in attendance, family members of the bride were watching on a video link from Colombia. As always, it was an honour to be able to facilitate this milestone moment in people’s lives.

Early on Monday morning I had the first of four extra corporate meditations for the week. I came out of that to a message from my sister to call her. I knew what was coming: my father had died, four and a half years after first developing Motor Neurone Disease (aka Lou Gehrig’s disease/ALS). He had a bout of pneumonia a couple of weeks ago; after some days in the hospital he came home, and had a peaceful last few days. We sent messages over the weekend which he was able to hear and enjoy. There will be no funeral, but it would be hard to contemplate trying to travel to England if there were.

On Saturday morning, I lined up outside SF General to get the first shot of the Pfizer vaccine. It took a couple of hours from arriving to leaving, and while I was waiting, a TV crew asked why I was getting it (‘to feel safe’ I found myself saying) and whether it was worth waiting in line (‘absolutely!’) Even though it was a sunny weekend, I stayed off my bike, and have felt very tired for the past few days. 

This week is relatively quiet, and then next week I have more extra meditations. At some stage, all of this will sink in;  I do not expect the emotions to arrive in a tidy or linear way, but I trust there will be space for that to happen.

Waiting for the guests to arrive for the wedding at the Botanical Garden last Sunday
In line for my vaccine appointment. The drop-in line was much longer, and many people were turned away from that one.

Kodo Sawaki

‘Once you’ve been taught a good posture, you feel gratitude and spontaneously do gassho. You feel good and want to sit in zazen, but if your posture is bad, your mood is as well.’ (Commentary on The Song Of Awakening)

I might add, and vice versa. Many times, when my mood was bad, my posture in zazen was not upright…

Dogen

It seems that the mountain spring wind 
Has begun to blow - 
On the peaks and in the valleys, 
Myriad flowers are shining.

Trusting WordPress to have done its sums right, this marks the 2000th post of this blog. It seems appropriate to have Dogen mark the occasion with one of the waka poems from the book compiled by Shohaku Okumura a few years ago, which I was lucky enough to be able to buy when he visited Tassajara to speak about the poems when the book was released.

As I have said before, compiling this blog is good practice for me, encouraging me to read widely. It feels great to share meaningful pieces every day, and little snippets about my life sometimes, and I hope it is beneficial for you as well. Thanks for being a part of this creation over the past five and a half years. I think I will keep going…

Myriad flowers are shining across San Francisco at the moment, none prettier than the California poppy in profusion. Even though Twin Peaks has been re-opened to cars, and is not the haven it has been for the past year, it was quiet enough to take this picture the other day when I went up on my bike.

Hongzhi

‘People of the way journey through the world responding to conditions, carefree and without restraint. Like clouds finally raining, like moonlight following the current, like orchids growing in shade, like spring arising in everything, they act without mind, they respond with certainty.’ (Cultivating the Empty Field)

Cathering brought some Hongzhi into yesterday’s talk to the Hebden Bridge sangha, which was lovely to listen to, and inspired me to take the book down off my shelves again. When I checked when I had used favourite line before, a couple of Wilbur-related posts showed up, poignant reminders of pre-pandemic springs.

The city workers were trimming trees along my street on Monday, and I rescued some late blossoms

Dogen

‘What I previously saw of words and phrases is one, two, three, four, five. Today what I see of phrases is also six, seven, eight, nine, ten. My junior fellow-practitioners, completely see this in that, completely see that in this. Making such an effort you can totally grasp one-flavor Zen through words and phrases.’ (Tenzokyokun)

I have had this open for a few days as I contemplate using another passage in a teaching. I could explain exactly what he is talking about, but if you really want to know, I suggest you listen to one of my classes on the subject.

Shodo Harada

‘The central most important quality of practice is that we do it bravely, without wavering. We cannot do it with a weak heart, full of hesitation; nor can we do it while being concerned with what is to the left or what is to the right, or with what others are doing or thinking, with our physical problems or with how we feel about things, or how insecure we might feel – if we pay attention to each and every thing that comes along, there is no way we can possibly encounter that true essence of mind, cut that root of life and death, or clarify the essence of what it really is to exist. Our training is not a scholarly study. We are not sitting toabsorb philosophical information. If we wanted to do that, we could go to college. We are not doing this for information, but to separate from that dualistically oriented mind. We have to completely throw all of that away or we cannot encounter directly that true root of our life energy.’ (The Path to Bodhidharma)

I should note that this passage comes in a chapter on sesshin; I don’t think it is necessary to be sitting sesshin to cultivate this kind of attitude, but it is definitely a helpful container for doing that. One thing I ponder, as I am sure many other teachers do, is how to stimulate this attitude out in the world.

Back In The Dharma Seat

Today I will be joining the Hebden Bridge sangha for a sit, well-being ceremony, dharma talk and discussion – the same as we were doing for a few months last year. I imagine it will be a time of reflecting back over the past year, and sharing how we all feel now. For want of a theme, on the basis of teaching from what is most alive for you (which was standard advice at Zen Center) I thought of the line from Kodo Sawaki that I posted a few days ago.

You can join if the time works for you – zazen is at 12:30 PST (or whatever it is called in summertime, since the clocks have gone forward here, but not there – and typing that out reminded me that I would have logged on an hour early if I hadn’t thought about it), and the talk will be around 1:10. Zoom link is here.

The current iteration of the dharma seat

Lama Rod Owens

‘When silence is intentionally used to understand ourselves, then it will reveal many secrets to us. I see silence in this respect as being compassionate, because it does tell me the truth and it calls me to do the work of holding space for that truth, which is the work of spiritual transformation.’ (Love andRage)

I often ask, in my meditation sessions, what arises in the silence? The first step is to pay attention to it, to allow it room; the second step is to respond to what it tells us.

The Great Matter

‘The novice monk Dayi Daoxin asked “I entreat the master, with your compassion, to teach me the truth-gate that provides release and liberation.”
The master Jianzhi Sengcan said, “Who has bound you?”
The novice said, “Nobody bound me.”
The master said, “Then why are you seeking liberation?”
Daoxin, hearing these words, experienced a great awakening.’ (from The Record of Transmitting the Light)

I thought of this exchange when I was reading an article on ‘near-death experiences’ the other day. I have long been fascinated by the stories involved, as I imagine most of us are. These days, when I read people saying things like “How do you describe a state of timelessness, where there’s nothing progressing from one point to another, where it’s just all there, and you’re totally immersed in it?” or “I can’t put it into words. There’s no way to express this,” or “I’ve spoken to people who were policemen, or career military officers, who couldn’t go back to their jobs, couldn’t stand the idea of violence. The idea of hurting someone becomes abhorrent to them,” I think of how people try to describe the experience of enlightenment and how they live afterwards.

I would not claim to understand this, or be able to explain it, but it seems to me that such an experience – that is, a near-death experience or an enlightenment experience – is an unbinding of the mind. I think it is the case the our minds severely filter the amount of incoming sense information, and limit the amount of processing power it uses to make sense of what it does receive (because thinking does use up a lot of calories), so a filter bypass might look like the mind presenting what it is actually capable of, if all the barriers, including the many we add consciously or unconsciously ourselves, were suddenly unbound.

Such A Time

This is the last week before the clocks go forward here. It’s the time of year when robins sing before light, cheerfully heralding the day, as I used to hear them do during morning meditation at Zen Center.

Recently the light has been clear, and then soft; the other evening a short squall of rain lashed the windows on all sides of our flat, and sent the blossoms to the ground around the neighbourhood. I remember how much rain we had after lockdown started last year, and I hope for a similar amount this year so that we do not suffer from drought.

Out on my bike last Sunday, I took to the bay trail, without having intended to beforehand, as I felt it would be good for my spirit to be beside the water. I passed the ceanothus bushes on a short stretch of trail that follows a creek – sandwiched between the airport parking lots and the various freeways. My first view of these bushes was on one of my earliest lockdown rides – and they symbolise that time for me in the same way that Sweeney Ridge does (along with the associated revelation that the presence of the ridge, and the protection it offered the stretch bay to the east from the fog made the decision to expand the old airstrip into the principal airport an inspired one). 

I don’t know that there is much to say about the pandemic these days. I hope to be vaccinated in due course (and hope that the rollout of the vaccine becomes more efficient than it has hitherto), and I hope that I will be able to travel to see my declining parents before the end of the year. In the meantime, I don’t plan on doing any indoor dining or going to the cinema, and as I walk around, I am glad, still, to be in a place where people widely demonstrate their compassion and kindness by wearing masks.

Ceanothus starting to flower underneath the 380 beside the airport.