Kodo Sawaki

‘Illusion and awakening do not have different natures. We must grasp the origin of that which so completely blinds our self that we see dualism where none exists. We must become conscious within our most profound depths that our body, as it is, is one with our mind and that it is identical with the essence of the universe.’ (Commentary on the Song of Awakening)

I was starting to get embarrassed that I have not finished a book of any kind since the pandemic started, so I resolved to put my laptop away yesterday afternoon and pick up this book again. While I find some of Sawaki Roshi’s idiosyncracies a little grating, there are many gems as he illuminates the wonderful Shodoka.

Walking The Dog

Right now in San Francisco, we are between a heatwave and an atmospheric river – between one of those warm, sunny spells in the middle of winter that make me glad I live in California, and storms which will bring much needed rain to the area for the rest of the week. It also feels like we are between the optimism of the new administration taking its place, and the sinking realisation that the vaccination rollout is not necessarily going to mean the end of our dealings with the pandemic.

Since I moved in September, I have been glad to have a sweet and cosy apartment to hunker down in, and also especially grateful to be co-habiting with my partner, to be able to devote energy to building our lives together, and to have that intimate human connection that many have been suffering the lack of this past year. I feel very lucky in this regard. And since the turn of the year I have been glad to be able to offer a dharma talk at Zen Center, and to be able to start a new class for Within Meditation (each of the three Wednesdays so far has seen history being made, with insurrection followed by impeachment followed by inauguration). At the same time, the precarity of livelihood and health means that I don’t take any of this for granted.

In the middle of all these aspects of my life, one of my new routines is taking Collin the dog out for a walk several times a day, with my partner, or by myself. He is elderly, so we don’t usually cover more than half-a-dozen blocks. There are several variations of route around where we live, obviously, and I enjoy seeing the various houses, the distant city landmarks, the sky and the clouds, the different sidewalk plantings, which offer blossoms even in the middle of winter. And I enjoy watching Colling navigate in his way; he seems used to his new city life, and like any dog, relishes following his nose for traces of the other dogs we see and meet around the neighbourhood. I am not running so many errands on my bike these days, so the walk often serves as a valuable screen break during a day of working from home, gentle exercise, and the opportunity to pay close attention to my surroundings each time, however familiar and mundane they may appear to be.

Collin is always interested in what goes on in the side alleys beside nearby houses

Muriel Daw

‘I once heard a roshi give an ‘as-if’ explanation of Rinzai Zen methods. He said that when one becomes completely discontented with being in the suffering world of Samsara and doing things that seem worthless – what we might call ‘the divine discontent’ – it feels as though the whole structure of relativity surrounds one; and there arises a longing to break completely out of the whole thing and see reality for ourselves. The structure surrounds and traps us as though we were living in a prison. It is like being in a greenhouse made of frosted glass, and in meditation we attack it. Some people start breathing and rubbing at the frosting until they can see through a large patch, but it is dim and smeared. Others start scratching away with a fingernail until they get a bright peep-hole; but although sharply clear, it is very tiny. We must try to shatter the whole thing and find that “Nothing exists except pure radiant mind.”‘ (from the Middle Way)

A comment from Jerry, a long-time Zen Center acquaintance, about having sat a sesshin in London in 1972 sent me on a search for more details. One of the fruits of the search was finding a publication from the Buddhist Society – the source spring for most of Buddhist activity in the UK – and reading a fascinating account of Muriel Daw undertaking traditional monastic training with Soen Nakagawa. Look out for other excerpts coming along.

Rosen Takashina

‘What is called Zazen means to live at peace in the true basis of the universe, which is stillness.  Movement is a secondary attribution:  stillness is the real condition.  Out of stillness comes all activity.’

I will be saying a few words about zazen, and then sitting still, at 6pm this evening, in my regular class for Within Meditation.

Guling Shenzan

‘Master Guling Shenzan returned to his home temple after years of practice. When he returned, his master said, “I have had no word from you for a long time. What have you been doing out there all his time?”
“I haven’t been practicing at all,” Master Guling replied, “I’ve only been walking here and there.”‘ (Quoted in Unfathomable Depths)

Without wishing to give away the plot, it may be that Master Guling is hiding his light under a bushel, though it takes his master a little while to figure that out.

Lama Rod Owens

‘When I speak of trust and confidence, I am talking about taking refuge in my basic experience of myself. I trust that I have the ability to experience and feel. I trust that I have the ability to empathize. I trust my ability to change. I trust my ability to embody agency. I trust that I can discern the positive and constructive things the world can offer me as feedback that can help me grow through my suffering. I also trust that I can discern through the bullshit what the world is trying to tell me about myself that has nothing to do with my benefit. This trust in myself doesn’t mean that I’m okay all the time, but it does mean that when I am not okay, I can let myself be not okay and I can take care of that not-okayness. This trust is built upon a real acceptance of myself that is supported by intense gratitude. I have to let myself be sick in order to have the space to start working towards being well.’ (Love and Rage)

I read this passage with my student group last Tuesday evening, and thought it notable and worth quoting here. As I type it up, I think of how it reflects upon those who took part in the insurrection last Wednesday, and one of the phrases I saw circulating on social media came to mind – that some men would rather storm the Capitol than go to therapy. Perhaps it just boils down to discernment and empathy.

Sojun

I was sad to hear of Sojun Mel Weitsman’s passing, though not entirely surprised considering his advanced age. Djinn spoke lovingly of his presence in her dharma talk on Saturday, and I echo her sentiments; even though I didn’t spend much time around him, his presence was always warm and benign, and we were always fully aware of his role at San Francisco Zen Center, and Berkeley Zen Center going back more than fifty years. And, as he always seemed happy to recount to later generations, he had had a varied and interesting life before he got involved in the practice with Suzuki Roshi – if you get a chance to find one of his way-seeking mind talks in the archives, they are worth listening to.

I also think of the time I spent as shuso at Tassajara in 2012. Sojun came, as he often did, to spend some of the practice period as a visiting teacher, allowing Myogen Steve Stücky to go up to the city for meetings. I also was able to read the old shuso logs; his shuso practice period at Tassajara coincided with the arrival of Tatsugami Roshi from Japan, which, as he observed wryly through the pages, marked the transition from Tassajara being a kind of spirited adventure, with a macrobiotic, communal vibe, to being a more traditional zen training monastery.

It always feels like an incredible privilege to have spent so much time around such epochal figures in the establishment of zen in the west, and perhaps the first of these photos gives a flavour of what that sometimes looked like in day-to-day life at Zen Center.

I remember this occasion being around the 50th Anniversary celebrations for Zen Center. Five of the surviving abbots and abbesses were interviewed (I thought that Djinn had done it, but she doesn’t think so), and I rather flippantly refered to this image as an attempt on the world record for number of abbots on a single couch. Myogen Steve, Zenkei Blanche Hartman and Sojun have now all died; Eijun Linda Cutts and Kiku Christina Lehnherr are happily still teaching
A very typical picture of Sojun in the Tassajara shop, beautifully crafting a kotsu – from my shuso practice period

At the end of an earlier practice period at Tassajara – shuso ceremony day, in 2006.
Possibly the last time Sojun spent significant time at Tassajara, when Lucy was shuso – this was the shuso dinner place setting.

A happy picture from a sad occasion – after Myogen Steve’s funeral at Green Gulch.

Roxane Gay

‘In the coming weeks, we’ll undoubtedly hear the argument that now is the time for centrism and compromise and bipartisan efforts. That argument is wrong. There is no compromise with politicians who amass power, hoard it, and refuse to relinquish it when the democratic process does not work in their favor. There is no compromise with politicians who create a set of conditions that allow a coup attempt to take place, resulting in four deaths, countless injuries, and irreparable damage to the country both domestically and internationally. These people do not care about working with their colleagues on the other side of the proverbial aisle. They have an agenda, and whenever they are in power, they execute that agenda with precision and discipline. And they do so unapologetically.

It’s time for Democrats to use their power in the same way and legislate without worrying about how Republican voters or politicians will respond. Cancel student loan debt. Pass another voting rights act that enfranchises as many Americans as possible. Create a true path to citizenship for undocumented Americans. Implement a $15 minimum hourly wage. Enact “Medicare for all.” Realistically, only so much is possible with a slender majority in the Senate, but the opportunity to make the most of the next two years is there.

With the power they hold, Democrats can try to make this country a more equitable and generous place rather than one where the interests of the very wealthy and powerful are the priority.’ (from the New York Times)

On Wednesday I had almost idly tuned in to live coverage of the debate from the Senate over certifying the electoral count; I had been intending to write some scripts for Core, and was procrastinating a little. As the scene turned from debate to mob riot, I stayed glued to updates through the afternoon. All at the same time that the two senate run-offs in Georgia were won by the Democratic candidates, and the US had its deadliest day of the pandemic. Maybe the fever has broken now, a little. I heartily endorse, as I often do, everything that Professor Gay proposes. This article, on words and deeds and ‘who we are’ was also illuminating.

Suzuki Roshi

‘I already started, you know, to explain the direct experience… experience of Zen, in our… in the… a way of understanding of the original teaching. But the purpose of my lecture today is not to talk about our fundamental teachings. But just to explain how to sit.

Now, we have crossed our legs and to… we understood how to keep our spines straight. Now we have to pull our necks… neck, like this – so that your spine could be straight.. In this case, and your tongue should be on your upper jaw and your… your upper… your teeth support with each other.

And your hands form cosmic mudra. It should not be like this or like that. Here you have one line with your, you know– what do you call it? Joint? [Answered]. You have joint here, and two joints makes straight line. Then there you have perfect mudra. And your both thumbs support with each other. Not don’t press like this, or don’t be loose, like this. It should be just support with each other, as if you have a sheet of paper in-between. 

And if you, you know … there’s some sparkle between first electricity and [laughs] … mine has electricity between here. You know, it is not like this. If it is like this, there will be no sparkle [Answered]. Spark, excuse me. No spark. If it is like this, you will not have no spark, either [laughs]. It should be like this.

Student (Richard Baker): but they actually touch?

SR: Yeah, touch??. Actually touch, with each other. It should be supported with each other.

This is very true in your everyday life, you know, you should be observant (?) in what you do, you know? But you should not be too much attached to it. This is, you know, the secret of the way of life. You should not be indifferent like this. And you should not be too much attached to your everyday activity, or whatever you see or you do. Just, you know, to have interdependence with each other. This is perfect relationship, and you have this relationship between your thumbs. And this is very true to what you hear, or to what you see, in sitting.’ (from the Shunryu Suzuki Archives)

Some wonderful zazen instruction from the early days of practice at Tassajara. I will be offering an instruction of my own for Within Meditation this evening at 6pm PST, and I will certainly be quoting some of Suzuki Roshi’s words on zazen.

Enkyo O’Hara

‘There’s a fantasy about Buddhism that everything will be perfect and I’ll be “all one,” plus I’ll be successful. But it’s just a fantasy. And if it’s not caught, it gets lodged in the psyche.’ (from Lion’s Roar)

As I spent the week looking for words to use in my dharma talk today, this came up.