The Energy of the Repeated Gesture

Back in the days of the first blog I wrote, whenever I was going to be away for a while, I would preload posts, either linking back to previous posts, or sharing various themed photographs – mostly of Tassajara. As I prepared to go to England for a month, I was wondering what to plan. I have written a few things for my Patreon page, seen by my handful of benefactors, which feel a little more informally anecdotal than much of what is on this blog, and I will share a few here over the next couple of weeks. This is a post I put up on that site, but is actually from the Ino’s Blog a few years ago. Its seasonality is appropriate – today is the day that people leave for Tassajara for the Fall Practice Period, the 100th at the monastery:

This was a phrase that came to me one morning at Tassajara, when I was wrapping up my bowls at the end of breakfast. There is a particular way to flip and fold the lap cloth that I enjoy, and it occurred to me that even though it was something I did three times a day almost every day, rather than being dulled by familiarity, I still paid attention to it, and that the energy of this repeated gesture helped me to be present in a sustained way.

I always seem to find September a more meaningful time of year than January; the new year itself is something I don’t get especially excited about, but in September I still feel the pull of transition – for many years, going back to school or college, recently the end of the Tassajara guest season and the beginning of the practice periods. Even when I am not there, there is always a part of me that wants to go, and having people coming from and going to Tassajara this week exacerbates that feeling. The weather right now is contributing as well; after the tiniest glimpses of a possible Indian summer, we are having autumnal temperatures, chilly winds and fog, which lend themselves to a closing down feeling; the leaves on the maple tree in the courtyard are starting to turn red. Next week we will have our equinox ceremony, to mark with a ritual the change of season; the moon is filling, bringing us round to our next full moon ceremony next Thursday.

This practice encourages us to pay attention to the cycles of life, from the smallest – a gesture repeated three times a day – to the largest – the phases of the moon, the advent of the seasons – with any number in between  – it’s time to shave my head again. I remember during one Genzo-e, Shohaku was discussing the kanji for ‘the Way’, saying that while we think of a path as something that extends in front of us, in fact it was possible to interpret the kanji as having a circular element to it, so that the path brought you right back to where you were (of course he explained it much more eloquently and convincingly). So while we are always moving in space and time, really we are always coming back to ourselves, and while there are moments where we mark a particular transition – coming of age, a wedding, and ordination, there are also the moments where we are just doing the same old thing over and over again, getting up, eating,  going to work, bathing, going to bed. If we can be present in the same way for all of these activities, we can be carried along with the joyful energy of living.

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What I think about when I am riding

As it happens, during the weeks leading up to my second trip to England this year, some of my focus was on the same things as prior to the first trip in April. I rode straight up Tam the day after the Genzo-e finished in August, and, as in the spring, it felt okay. I wrote to a friend that the ride reminded me of the days after sesshin at Tassajara, when I would run up to the top of the road, just to get out of the valley, and to give myself a physical challenge of a different order to sitting on a cushion incessantly for however many days it had been.

And so I thought about trying to ride up Mount Diablo before I left. Since my weekends these are often filled with things that don’t involve riding a bike – albeit lovely things like going to Wilbur, and leading roams – I realised that even from a relatively decent base of fitness, it was going to be hard to get enough meaningful rides in over the remaining few weeks to be able to get up Diablo without hurting too much.
I repeated the rides I had done in the spring, the typical rides I do when I want to get some climbing in my legs. There was a bonus in that the Bolinas-Fairfax road had opened again, after eighteen months of shoring up various parts of the hillside, so I had to opportunity to approach the seven sisters from both sides.
One thing I did not have to worry about, unlike last time, was the weather. There were rare thunderstorms and unseasonal rain a couple of weeks ago, but the weekend was warm and very clear once that faint autumnal chill had worn off.

It is one thing to contemplate riding up a mountain, and of course another thing to do it. It was only riding along the arroyo between the North Gate and the State Park boundary sign, where the climbing starts, that I felt fully on board with what was happening. And then there was an hour and more of continuous uphill to remind me of how real it was.
Overall, I felt better and stronger than than I might have expected. Knowing the climb well enough, I took care to manage my legs, and my intake of food and water, trying to stay relaxed as possible. There was an occasional twinge in my left knee that is new, and that I did not want to exacerbate. I did not expect the breeze to cool down quite so radically in the top half of the climb – I was almost tempted to put on my extra layer which I had brought for the descent, but conditions were pretty good, and the mountain felt quiet – which made for an unfettered descent down the more exhilarating South Gate Road.

And what was I thinking about? Actually, the Brahamviharas popped into my head as I passed someone around the 1000′ i also think it’s worth saying…elevation marker, where the road rears up a little. I feel a great kinship with anyone who is on a bike on the mountain, however much of it they are riding, so lots of loving-kindness, along with the nods, the little waves, and the encouraging words; compassion for those who seem to be struggling more than I am; sympathetic joy for those many riders who look strong on the uphill, and fluid on the descent; equanimity to endure all the differing gradients on the road up, and the giddiness of the long road down.

This Drifting, Wandering Life

September seems to be slipping by quickly, and the last few mornings have felt autumnal, with chill in the air, even as it warms in the middle of the day. I am running around trying to take care of last-minute things before flying to England for a month-long visit. It will be colder there, for sure, which I am not looking forward to.

September has also been the first month this year where I paid my rent at the beginning of the month and still had any money left in my bank account. I was never much for the pursuit of money (a little rabbit-hole reading yesterday morning brought me to this post, where I subscribe more to this reply to it; all found from this post). I have been consciously choosing poverty for the last fifteen years, since I gave up regular work to go to Tassajara. At Zen Center, my housing and food needs were taken care of, I had health insurance, and could still afford to buy myself some nice clothes, and tickets to England most years. Now that I am fending for myself, I am more or less on the same financial level, but it feels a little more precarious.

It is two years now since I started my transition out of Zen Center, and I have been reflecting on the ways I have been keeping myself afloat since then. Much of it has involved creating various forms of online presence: this blog, Thumbtack, Patreon, Meetup, Airbnb, Mailchimp, Eventbrite, working with different apps, signing up for Venmo, Square, Bill.com and other services in order to get paid. At the same time, my sense of what it means to be successful – or perhaps I should say credible – as a teacher depends on remaining grounded in reality and embodying a set of values that run counter to much of what online activity represents (we could argue about the merits of interconnectivity over the ether, but I would mostly plump for face-to-face transmission).

I still feel the twin poles of formal zen practice and being out in the world tugging me with different strengths at different times, and I understand this to be my current koan: what does it mean to be a priest out in the world? I always love putting on my robes, like I did for the Genzo-e last month, but as I always say, most people I teach these days, whether in corporate settings (such as I taught at yesterday) or the county jail (where I went on Monday to find the place on lock-down), could care less about the trappings. My job, such as I would care to define it for myself, is to cultivate my imperfect compassion and use it to help people avoid suffering.

The title for this post comes from the shukke tokudo (priest ordination – literally ‘leaving home, attaining the way’) ceremony. Last Sunday I rode over to Green Gulch to attend Kogen’s ordination, happy to have a reason to put on my white kimono and meet some zen friends, including some I did not expect to see there. At one point, while the ordinand’s head is being shaved, the ino, and then the assembly, chant, ‘Only the mind of a bodhisattva can cut through this drifting, wandering life and take the path of Nirvana. This virtue cannot be defined.’ At the beginning of the ceremony, Kogen bowed to his family and other benefactors, which traditionally would have been a way of saying goodbye to them as he entered the path of monastic training; in this case, he has a wife and daughter who are an integral part of his practice life.

All of which is perhaps a roundabout way of saying that I bow once again to my benefactors, as I try to figure out what it means to leave home, and return home; what the path of Nirvana looks like in the midst of this drifting, wandering life; and whether I have enough money to pay the rent in October and November with the amount I expect to come into my bank before then…

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Kogen, in the middle, with preceptors, the jiko and jisha.

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I have a number of pictures of Kogen and Lauren looking adorable together.

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Green Gulch was at its best on Sunday, with dahlias and monarchs in profusion.

Dogen

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)

I did not understand so well the function of the whisk and how it can manifest the teaching in the way that Dogen is talking about here, until I saw Hoitsu Suzuki Roshi offering lessons in how to use the whisk ahead of the Mountain Seat Ceremony at Zen Center in 2012. When I went looking for the pictures, I also found photos of him with ceremonial cymbals, inkins, a piece of paper, and a statue of Bodhidharma, all held and met with the same sense of complete presence and concentration. I think this is what Dogen was also doing.

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Michael Stone

‘When we are safe in our own bodies, we have a ground from which to step out into the world.’ (Awake in the World)

I always get a lot of reading done at Wilbur, and when I was packing for my recent trip, I chose to take the one book of Michael’s that I possess. Opening it at the bookmark where I had presumably stopped reading the last time I picked it up, perhaps six months ago, it was deeply poignant to find myself in the midst of his deep exploration of suicide.

Sharon Salzberg

‘Fear is the primary mechanism sustaining the concept of the “other”, and reinforcing the subsequent loneliness and distance in our lives. Ranging from numbness to terror, fear constricts our hearts and binds us to false and misleading ways of viewing life. The fallacy of separate existence cloaks itself in the beguiling forms of our identifications: “This is who I am,” or “This is all I can ever be.” We identify with a fragment of reality rather than with the whole.’  (Lovingkindness)

I might add that often we are very choosy about the fragment we identify with, and make an effort to push away other parts of our selves that don’t fit that narrative. I have many parts of my self that aren’t especially flattering, but I try to keep them with me rather than push them ‘out’ through shame. I also try to keep with me kind things that wise people have said about me, rather than choosing not to believe them because that would not fit my self-story. And also trying to stay with the slippery realisation that all of these are just fragments of an unknowable and ever-changing whole.

Mary Farkas

‘When in recent years I was asked if we were given “instruction” in Zen, my considered answer had to be “no.” To those of us who received Sokei-An’s teaching, the word “instruction” is a misnomer. His way of transmitting the Dharma was on a completely different level. One could say he “demonstrated” SILENCE, but that would still give no indication of how he “got it across”, or awakened it or transmitted it.’ (Appendix to The Zen Eye)

Once again, reading about Sokei An brings Sekito Kisen to mind, in this case the first line of the Sandokai: ‘The mind of the great sage of India is intimately transmitted from west to east.’ This ‘intimate’ is the secret.