Sitting Practice

On my commutes, I am still enjoying spending at least a part of the time reading zen books; this gives me plenty of material to fill this blog with, but also is an important part of my current personal practice.

Sometimes a phrase I read will just land in a way that stops everything. It happened the other day reading Kobun Chino’s book; he quoted Dogen, in a phrase I know well, but in a different translation to the one I am used to, that we are ‘conveyed by all myriad dharmas.’ Very apt to read on a train, conveyed by and through objects, space and time. I was looking out of the window at traffic on the freeway overpass, and the grubby land beneath, and suddenly felt totally settled and excited at the same time. I remembered a phrase that had come to me a couple of years ago, which I based a talk on, and pictured us all as vessels of enlightenment, conveyed by all myriad dharmas. This is so, I thought, unshakeably so.

Reading the Lotus Sutra recently, I was struck by how moving it was in the context of being on a train – there was not an incongruity as you might expect, between the sometimes hallucinatory language and the mundane surroundings I was reading it in; instead it almost felt like an invitation to imagine the worlds described in the sutra existing just out of sight of this urban world, just waiting to be summoned.

Since I do not get up and sit every morning in the zendo, as I did for so many years, I am happy to explore other ways that practice can manifest. Contemplative reading is one of them; so are running and riding, taking photographs, meditation with different apps, and leading my Roaming Zen hikes. Starting today, my dharma brother Zachary Smith and I are launching another venture, something we have been plotting for a while: meditation out in the city, for people to drop in during their lunch break.

Part of the inspiration for this was from a group from Young Urban Zen who tried it for a while; part also came from reading this, which features a former young monk from Tassajara who subsequently switched traditions.

A Meetup has been created, but you don’t have to join the Meetup to be able to come along. The aim is to do this every Monday lunch-time, down on the Embarcadero, on the grass by Cupid’s Span, which is between Howard and Folsom. We will bring the cushions; you bring your busy mind and give it a little rest over lunch-time. We will be there from 12:30 – 1:30; you can drop in any time.

IMG_2121
We did a somewhat spontaneous pilot at Wisdom 2.0 earlier in the year.

Meditation meet-up
We will be somewhere on the grass here if you are in town and can make it along.

Dogen

‘Remain solitary without dependency and drop off all of reality. Mixed together with the ten thousand forms, be clear and apparent. Eminent and vigorous on each bit of ground, be like the moon stamped on the water, flowing but not flowing. Like the wind in the sky, move but do not move. Having become thoroughly like this, when you proceed, in mean alleys do not ride on a golden horse; when turning back, wear tattered robes.’ (Extensive Record, discourse 316)

With these words I feel Dogen is channeling Hongzhi; outlining the power and energy of the adept, but also, in the marvelous images in the last sentence, counseling against arrogance and showiness in ways that are still echoed today. I hope no-one ever accuses me of riding on a golden horse.

Sharon Salzberg

‘See what motivating factor is strongest in you prior to an action, and explore it without judgement. Does it seem to have a nature that will incline the mind toward suffering, or toward the end of suffering? Toward contraction, attachment, or anger, or toward love, compassion, sympathetic joy, or equanimity? Notice that the decision to follow or not to follow an intention into action is a separate and distinct moment from perceiving the nature of the intention itself. Notice that the more fully aware you are of the nature of the motivation, the more you truly have a choice as to whether to act upon it or not.’  (Lovingkindness)

This was one of the quotes I used in my recent class. Since the distinction she makes is quite subtle, especially when read aloud, I used the example of wanting an ice cream as distinct from going to get an ice cream.

Michael Stone

‘The world is vast and the body and breath are spacious when we are at ease with others and ourselves. This ease comes through committed practice, in which we learn how to open to the life of the body, the situations of others, and the moods that move through us with equanimity and creativity. Don’t get stuck. Don’t go ahead. Just stop and look at the type on this page, the quality of light in the room where you are, the sounds in the distance. This is where you enter. Each sound is a pearl, a treasure, a wave that brings you back to your body. There is nothing subtle to find. Look at the walls and the crack in the ceiling. Look at all the cracks and the fine woodwork and the realness of the real that pervades all we are doing. All this is a gift. Set forth this miraculous gift.’ (Awake in the World)

At Zen Center, a phrase that used to circulate regularly was ‘death is certain; time of death is uncertain.’ I particularly hear Blanche, while she was still alive, saying it, but I know it did not originate with her. Reading of the death of Michael Stone was hard to take in, beyond the suddenness, and the sense of the untimeliness of it. I couldn’t say that I knew him so well; we met at a conference in 2013, at Zen Center once or twice after that, and he came to stay the night on his way out of Tassajara last summer. In our exchanges I found him to be a warm person who was full of life, honest and clear (his dharma name – Shoken, ‘Sees Clearly’ – was most apt), and a wonderful mentor with whom it was easy to talk through issues and problems. Since the mahasangha is intimately woven, I was alerted to the news by Djinn in Ireland, and was later reminded that my room-mate was helping him to edit his next book. Not having much of profundity to say, I will quote again the last line above (you can see other quotes I have used on this blog here): Set forth this miraculous gift. This is what he did while he was alive.

Deer Park Michael.jpg
Michael at Deer Park monastery in 2013

Shishuang

‘All of you each has what is fundamental. There’s no point searching for it. It’s not to be found in right or wrong, nor in anything you can talk about. The entire source of the teaching of a lifetime, capable of setting people’s lives to order, all comes down to this very moment, directly to the fact that the Dharma body has no body. This is the ultimate teaching of our school.
We monks have no set path. If we have partiality then we’ve strayed. We just impartially sit in the mud. Delusive speech, sight, and hearing all come from the mind’s intentions.’ (Zen’s Chinese Heritage)

Well, if ‘the Dharma body has no body’, who is it that is sitting in the mud?

Dogen

‘Spring has the feeling of spring, and autumn has the look of autumn; there is no escaping it. So when you want spring or autumn to be different from what it is, notice that it can only be what it is. Or, when you want to keep spring or autumn as it is, reflect that it has no unchanging nature.’ (Shobogenzo Yuibutsu Yobutsu)

When I went back to look at Only a Buddha and a Buddha, I found not only Dogen’s manifestation of the Lotus Sutra, (I first wrote echo, but realised that implied more of a separation), but also this paragraph, which reminded me of what I posted recently by Shundo Aoyama. More to the point, reading it, with a cup of coffee in hand, on a partly sunny weekday morning in San Francisco, I could feel my stomach tightening in a kind of excitement that is hard to put into words, but which always feels like yes – and not the yes of yes-and-no, where everything is divided in half, but the yes of yes, which includes both.

What I think about when I am riding

Holidays are a good time to go riding. I had a lovely time early on New Year’s Day taking streets in the city I would never normally think to ride on (I wondered if I had written about it at the time, but looking through the archive of the month drew a blank – though I enjoyed reading a couple of other pieces I had forgotten about). Since I was awake at first light on the 4th, it seemed a good time to repeat the exercise.
It had seemed pretty quiet in town when I got back on Monday, and it was even more so on Tuesday. I went up to Twin Peaks via Market Street, which I have not done since my earliest days in the city when I did not know the quieter side roads (Corbett or Roosevelt in this case), down to the zoo, and then around the coastal edge of the city all the way to Mission Bay and Cesar Chavez (which is okay to ride on now it has a bike lane, though the lights are poorly timed to make it enjoyable). The volume of traffic was very low – in both meanings of the word: I rolled down Potrero (another road I would usually avoid) able to hear birds, conversations of people getting of buses, and the click of my gears. Those drivers who were out seemed to be less stressed and in less of a hurry than on a regular day, and I could not help but wish it were always like this. The only crowds were around Fisherman’s Wharf, where the tourists were already out and about at eight.
The following morning I went over the bridge, through Mill Valley and tested my meagre climbing legs on the roads up to Four Corners, and after descending to Muir Woods, back up past Green Gulch where the highway is now open again, having been closed all year so far (the other stretch north of Muir Beach is still closed, so the traffic was all local, and there were fewer cars than usual). There were two places where the new embankment work could be seen, and others where cracks in the road showed that previous shoring up jobs looked like they already needed repair. On the way down to Tam Junction, there was work on one of the lower hairpins, which meant I didn’t get the clear fast descent I had hoped for – though I did have that going down to Muir Woods. Returning through Sausalito, I fell in with a guy commuting into the city, who turned out to have grown up less than fifty miles from where I did in the Home Counties, and we had a nice natter until I decided not to push too hard to keep up with him on the way up to the bridge.
The highlight of both outings was when I was rolling along the top of Twin Peaks, enjoying the new road surface (I could write at length about how much of a difference this can make to a cyclist on skinny tyres), and I saw two coyotes standing close to the road. I started to wonder how this compared to seeing a bobcat at Wilbur on Sunday, before dismissing the idea of needing to compare. Anytime you see a bobcat is auspicious; I have seen a number of coyotes in the city, but never two together like that. And even if I was in the city rather than a glorious remote valley, I still got to ride alongside the Pacific Ocean and pass both the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge in the course of less than an hour. I think my compatriot would agree – it is pretty amazing that I get to live here, and sometimes I do pinch myself to remember that it is real.