‘“One could tell the story of human civilization as a story of how we learned to trust one another,” (Benjamin) Ho writes. “We learned first to share the spoils of a group hunt instead of hunting and eating (or not eating) alone.” He cites the British evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar, who noticed that natural community size for primates seemed directly related to brain size—the greater the relative size of the neocortex, the larger the tribe. For large-brained Homo sapiens, the predicted maximal group size, also called Dunbar’s number, was a hundred and fifty. (The number, Dunbar says, recurs in the estimated average sizes of the Bronze Age communities that built stone circles, of Anglo-Saxon villages listed in the Domesday Book, and of contemporary Facebook communities.) The concept has its critics, but the basic idea—that there are probably capacity constraints on the number of personal connections we can make with our fellow-humans—seems hard to dispute…

E. O. Wilson, the eminent biologist, once remarked that “the real problem of humanity is the following: we have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology.” Digital technology has shredded the putative infallibility of once vaunted institutions: the holiest figures, the grandest politicians, the greatest newspapermen. “Whatever the headlines say, this isn’t the age of distrust—far from it,” (Rachel) Botsman writes. The ambit of trust has merely shifted. “Trust and influence now lie more with individuals than they do with institutions…”

In the end, though, trust isn’t a property that can be measured in the abstract, like some sort of social ether. It characterizes a relationship.’ (from the New Yorker)

As I got on the ferry on Tuedsay, the skies were spectacular. It was warm and humid, and I had started to wonder if it was going to be the one day that it rains in the summer – there always seems to be one. The clouds reminded me rather of the storms that rolled through last summer, whose lightning strikes wreaked fiery havoc in the forests. And then I thought, ‘Every day is a good day.’ I was reminded, in Baizhang’s memorable phrase, that we trust we can find something wonderful in any circumstance, even as other things might be terrible. 

When I read this article later the same day, I enjoyed the reminder of the Dunbar number, as that seemed to fit well with how I feel about sangha, especially as it coalesced around Zen Center. Then I thought, ‘I trust that everyone I meet has the potential to be Buddha, even if their current behaviour is not manifesting that.’

Annie Murphy Paul

‘The thing about the outdoors and the way that the human species evolved in the outdoors, all the information that we encounter, the sensory information that we encounter in nature, is processed really easily and effortlessly and efficiently by the brain. Our sensory faculties are kind of tuned to the kind of information and stimuli that we encounter in nature. And so this is, again, this is the scientific reason behind what everybody knows, which is that you feel more relaxed and more at ease when you take a walk outside and when you spend time in nature.

But what that has to do with attention is that that kind of diffuse attention that we’re able to spend in nature, where we’re not focusing very intently on anything but we’re just kind of allowing the gentle movements and the sort of soft contours of the things that we see outside just entertain our attention but in this very diffuse way, and the phrase psychologists use that I like is called soft fascination. It’s not a hard edged concentration. It’s a kind of soft fascination that you might experience when you’re looking at leaves rustling in the wind or watching waves on the ocean.

That state restores our attention. It kind of refills the tank in a sense. And so then we can return to our desk and we can return to that hard edged kind of concentration that we have to do to complete our studies or do our work. So I would say in your example that if you need to concentrate but you’re feeling frazzled, even a brief look out the window can have this kind of restorative effect. But ideally, a longer walk in nature would be good.’ (from the New York Times)

To which I can only add, the next roam is on Saturday!


For many years, I have thought of September as more of a month of transition than January. From new school and college years, to starting the monastic winter at Tassajara, this turning of seasons has been more resonant. This year I am getting a head start. As the weather continues to fluctuate between San Francisco summer and other people’s idea of summer, changes are afoot.

At the end of the week I should be picking up the keys to my new place. I find myself thinking about it a lot, imagining how it will be to live there; all I have in terms of visuals is a shaky video I took walking around the space when I viewed it a couple of weeks ago. Some boxes have been packed, ready to transport over once we have access. I want to meaure everything to see what will fit where, though we have already off-loaded a few pieces of furniture and a box of old clothes. 

In the meantime we have been saying goodbye to our current neighbourhood, frequenting bars and restaurants that have mostly felt off-limits during the pandemic. There are a number of really lovely places to eat and drink within walking distance, and we have had a great time doing it. Once I move, I will have the Divisadero corridor and the Lower Haight, both of which I know a little, to explore. I will be glad to be in a quieter building (at least, fingers crossed for quieter neighbours than we have here), and to be closer to some green spaces.

Another shift to report is, with roams under way (and another one scheduled for Saturday), Zachary and I agreed it was time to try sitting in person again, so if you are local and able to get to the Embarcadero in the middle of the day, please come and join us for some open-air lunch-time meditation by the water. It may even be sunnny.

It was foggy down by Ocean Beach on Saturday when we went over for a social call.
And it was gorgeously sunny at Crane Cove on Sunday.
And at Alamo Square, we were just about at the fog line.

Katagiri Roshi

‘We use the terms universal effort and individual effort, but actually there is no gap between them. You take care of universal effort by your individual effort. It’s a little difficult to do this because we are always critical toward our own effort. We attach to getting a certain result from our effort. Then we judge it in terms of ideas and emotions connected with our heredity, education, consciousness, and memories coming from the past, so it’s very complicated. Universal effort is very simple. That’s why we try to understand out lives in terms of the universal perspective. How?

When you wash your face, accept washing as universal effort first, and then make your individual effort. Deal with everything – your face, the waater, your posture of standing in front of the basin – as universal activity. Through the actions of washing your face, you can go beyond your usual understanding and experience the pure nature of washing your face. This is the realm of total dynamic action. Right in the middle of taking good care of your individual effort as universal effort, the whole world comes into one screen. That one screen is the big picture of your life. When you see that living screen, you can learn who you really are.’ (The Light That Shines Through Infinity)

Some serendipitous moments around this post: first of all, I think it acts as an excellent commentary on Dogen’s post from yesterday. This was not something I planned out when I sat down to type some posts at the beginning of the week. With my impending move, I have started packing up books, and set aside ones that I knew I could use for blog posts. This particular volume of Katagiri’s talks is one I knew I hadn’t referenced for a while, though I had previously noted various passages as suitable for the blog.

When I opened to this particular page, I found a bookmark – an old-fashioned sales slip from the kimono shop in Japantown, dated January 2020, from when my partner first visited San Francisco; an afternoon in Japantown was a part of our first weekend together. I wanted her advice on a nice kimono I could wear as a bathrobe, to replace one that had worn out after ten years of regular use. A month or two ago I tried to visit the store again, but it was closed. Last week, my partner and I went to Japantown again on an outing, and saw a sign on the store window directing us to a different store in the mall – one I recognised as soon as I entered as the place my dharma sister Djinn went to for the best matcha. I bought a noren hanging that I could use as a backdrop for Zoom calls (the reason I wanted to visit recently) and two little calligraphies, one saying love, and one saying health, our two main focuses in these past eighteen months.

Summer Times

The fog switch has been flipping on and off again – after the previous weekend, we went back to a week of greyness before the clear skies rolled in again for the weekend. Having chosen Saturday for my weekly long ride, I was glad to get through Daly City and Colma without getting soaked by condensation; there was another benefit in having no headwind on the way back, which usually makes the last hour or so more energy-sapping.

For the roam on Sunday, we had warm sun and a bit of a fresh breeze; we headed for shade a few times when it was available, and when I got home afterwards, I definitely felt like I had had my dose of sunshine for the day.

It suddenly seems like I have more time available to me in the coming weeks, for three reasons: after the Euros, the football is over for the summer, and so is the Tour de France – with disappointments for the English on the final day of each. I hadn’t intended to watch the Tour at all, but since it was being shown in its entirety on the channel I subscribe to for the football, I got caught up in the stories and emotions (and of course the landscapes and the chateaux). The third opening up of time is around housing: I have found my next place to live, and the relief of signing a new lease was reflected in my sleeping much more soundly this week than I have for a while.

Despite the rigours and disappointments of the weeks of looking, I trusted that something good would show up – as it has done for my previous two housing searches. On Friday, ten days ago, scouring Craigslist afresh, as I had been doing every day, I saw a new listing that looked ideal, was able to see it an hour later, and put in an application at the end of the day. The people I am dealing with, unlike plenty of others I have come across, have been very clear and prompt in all their communications, which is in itself a relief, and the place is lovely – not so far from Zen Center as well. The only stress I had was on Monday a week ago, when, having signed the lease, I was asked to send the deposit and first month’s rent over (which I am grateful to have enough money in the bank to be able to do), and Venmo flagged the transaction. I started my sit with Zachary tense, and wondering how I was going to deal with it. I managed to get half the amount sent over, but despite assurances from Venmo customer support, the other half kept getting flagged, so after my later meditation session, I rushed over to the bank to collect a banker’s cheque, and rode over to deliver it to the building manager. The next morning, everything was confirmed. Now I just have all the rest of the burocracy to deal with, plus the packing…

This was what the city looked like most of the week.
A jacaranda in the Dogpatch, from Sunday’s roam.
I assume this is a Mark di Suvero in the UCSF quad in Mission Bay. It was moving with the breeze.
Kayaking along Mission Creek towards the Third St bridge, with the newest developments in the background.

Kathryn Schulz

‘Patience did not achieve its status as a virtue because our greatest moral thinkers held in high esteem the ability to sit still. What they actually had in mind was a particular relationship between the self and the other, an inward restraint that has nothing to do with behaving like a rock and everything to do with how we treat other people. Silence and endurance are the hallmarks of rugged individualism, not of patience. What patience requires is humility, empathy, and forbearance: the ability to set aside our own needs for a while, to listen, to stay calm, to keep working together toward a given end despite all the setbacks we encounter along the way.’ (from the New Yorker)

This paragraph is from the closing of a typically fascinating New Yorker article, one that looked at Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard, among other things. That book was one of the first Buddhist books I read, and I remember enjoying it greatly, while still worrying about some of the human aspects that are also highlighted in the article.

J.C. Cleary

‘From our point of view at the time, our mental state as teenagers in the 1960s, I think we were drawn to Buddhism because it gave the first articulate statement of truth we ever encountered. Buddhist thought was just so true, so lucid, so all-encompassing, so refreshing, we had to stop and find out more.’ (from the New York Times)

This quote comes from the obituary of J.C. Cleary’s brother Thomas, a familiar name to anyone who has read a Buddhist book in the last twenty years – he translated so many of the works that fill our shelves. The only criticism I ever heard of the Clearys was that there tended not to be indexes in their books, so it was not easy to navigate to particular stories; the writing itself is faultless and easy to read.

It also brings home the point that only a couple of generations ago, when Suzuki Roshi was getting Zen Center off the ground, that access to the wisdom of Buddhist teaching was incredibly limited. We can only be grateful that we now have so much more to read and digest.

Teijo Munnich

‘In order to awaken to the truth of life and reality, we first have to become free of our self-imposed restrictions, the delusions which cause us to adhere to the belief that there is something to depend upon that is lasting and that our life is in some way unique. Recognizing impermanence, we are aware of the infinite possibilities that are always present in life, rather than being stuck in our perceptions of what is possible. Being aware of interconnectedness, we naturally experience the support of everything in life. That is what we awaken to and return to in zazen. And this is called jijuyu zanmai.’ (Receiving the Marrow)

This is a repost – as busy as I am right now, one of the things that have been put to one side is spending a morning reading dharma books and lining up posts for a week or two. Still, as I have said before, with almost 2100 posts on here, there is a lot that I feel is worth revisiting.

I think I read this differently to how I did five years ago. There is a way that jijuyu zanmai feels more instinctive than it did then, at least at good moments.

Blue Skies

Like a switch being flipped, the fog burned off on Thursday, and the skies cleared. Friday was warm and windless. Since it was the only morning this week I had free to ride, I was happy to get up San Bruno Mountain. On the way up, I discovered, as I used to on my pilgrimages to Mount Diablo, that I crossed a temperature layer. It was much warmer closer to the summit, just as, the last time I was there, the fog got denser and the wind stronger. I am not sure exactly what altitude it was, but it was abundantly evident on the way down again as well, as I felt the air get several degrees cooler.

I am busy trying to arrange my next housing situation at the moment, and it has taken a lot of energy this week. I have now seen two places that I like, so I hope that I can land in one of them. Every time I am asked for pay stubs, I wonder, which job? I have three places that pay me regularly, and four or five that I invoice, as well as jobs that I get paid for directly. While I feel pretty flush at the moment, I don’t know how that holds up to the gimlet eye of the San Francisco housing market. And, this time around, I am not ready to leave the city. Not when I have just got the roams going in person again, even if just about everything else is remote. Speaking of which, if you read this early enough on Saturday, you can join me as I offer zazen instruction via the SFZC online zendo at 8:10 local time.

Taking the ferry on a gloomy Thursday morning, when I was starting to feel that I had had enough of the fog.
Brighter on Thursday afternoon on the way back.
Clear skies from the top of San Bruno Mountain on Friday morning.

Sensei Alex Kakuyo

‘A rough translation of ‘intoku’ is, “good done in secret”.  It epitomizes the Buddhist ideal that we should do good works without expectation of reward. This is empowering because a sad fact of life is that doing the right thing is no guarantee of a good outcome.  When this happens it can be easy to think, “Why did this happen to me?” or “I don’t deserve this.”

But intoku teaches us that we don’t do good deeds in the hopes of a reward.  Instead we do them because the deed itself is the reward.  The feeling that comes from helping someone in need is priceless. More importantly, it’s very easy to do. 

We can listen intently while someone talks about their day, compliment a friend on their outfit, or simply refill the coffee pot at work when it’s empty.  This practice isn’t about doing something big and flashy.  Instead, it’s about constantly being on the look out for small things we can do to make life nicer for both ourselves and the people around us.  In this way, we make the world warmer, and more welcoming for everyone.’ (from The Same Old Zen)

This is a very sweet article that I have shared with my student group; it also talks about menmitsu (careful attention to detail) and shojin (variously translated as zeal, diligence or joyful effort). I remember reading stories of monks who would get up before everyone else in the monastery (which is very early indeed) to clean the toilets. But you don’t need to go that far. A more practical example from my time at Zen Center was changing the toilet paper roll when it was finished so that the next person didn’t have to – definitely not big or flashy.