These days, I seem to wear shorts for at least six months out of the year. Right now we are coming to the time where this isn’t always the best choice. Our heatwave the other week was followed by a few days of cold weather, enough to have me turning the heat in my new place on for the first time. Last weekend was pretty pleasant, apart from enduring the high-volume, low-flying Blue Angels. We were scoured by a north wind for a couple of days – sitting on the Embarcadero on Monday felt like a bit of a buffeting – and then colder temperatures again, though the coming weekend is due to be warm, which should make for an enjoyable roam.
I have been teaching in many different arenas, and planning for weddings, classes and other events coming up; it hasn’t felt as overwhelming as it did a couple of weeks ago, when my schedule seemed very full, and I have enjoyed having a little space to think and study. Last week’s class on Hykakujo and the fox had plenty of interactions, which is always the best part of a class, and since we are moving onto Dogen’s commentary this week, I feel on firmer ground.
‘I pretend to accept my own death. Most senior practitioners do; many of them may even believe they accept it. Buddhists have their own peculiar points of pride, outside the usual stream of things we pride ourselves on, like humility and asceticism. Plenty of us are proud of our equanimity in the face of extinction, at least until we see the headlights bearing down.
So how deep does this acceptance really go? It’s not just Buddhists who kid themselves about being prepared for death. It’s people. It’s all of us who don’t want to admit that we are organisms fighting for life, that we can sagely repeat, “Annica, annica, all compounded things are subject to dissolution,” without really confronting what it means.’ (from Lion’s Roar)
Over the years, I have had flashes of confronting this, but it still makes me squirm. I do remember Reb talking about people’s fear of death at Tassajara, and observing (while using his hands) that going from a tightly-clenched fist to a very-slightly-less-tightly-clenched fist could still be called opening up to the idea of acceptance.
There is an incredible stillness that has arrived, as it often does at this time of year. The temperature rises and the wind drops – the wind that is otherwise virtually omnipresent in the city. Having endured what seemed like more fog than usual through September, the basking heat is very welcome.
Naturally I tried to spend a lot of time outside – on my deck during a break on Friday, on a roam on Saturday afternoon, and on my bike on Sunday morning. Last week was very full with many things, both scheduled events, and sadnesses and joys, so the warm outdoors was a balm.
I intentionally let work go over the weekend, and now I worry that I have nothing to say for the second class on Hyakujo and the Fox on Thursday. At least this week I will have more space to study, and perhaps some notions will appear.
‘What we tend to leave out of most of our discussions about human functioning is to what degree we are primates. We have brains in order to get along with each other, to be with other people, to connect with other people. That’s really what we are fundamentally all about. And so, much of trauma is about a rupture of the safety of the people who are supposed to protect you and the people who are supposed to come to your help.
So basically, the way that we are wired is that we are wired to not be able to do everything by ourselves, but to be able to look for help and for other people to take over when we can no longer do the job ourselves. And that’s perfectly normal. But if, at that point, the people you can count on most are not there for you, let you down, have been killed, or whatever, then it’s entirely up to you. It’s a much harder thing to deal with terrible situations…
We are synchronous human beings. The source of pleasure in our lives is to be in sync with each other.’ (from the New York Times)
I hope this week of posts about the mind was as interesting for you as it was for me to think about. You may have noticed that three of the six posts came from Ezra Klein’s podcast in the New York Times, which I have been finding consistently illuminating.
When I lived at Zen Center, I would eat lunch out in the courtyard every day it felt feasible to do so. Over the course of the year, you could observe the shadow cast by the roof advance and retreat, roughly from the middle of the courtyard at the height of summer, to almost the top of the dining room windows in the winter. At this time of year, around the autumn equinox, it felt like the shadow moved faster.
Talking to people in different locations, as I do on some of my meditations, I hear – and encourage – an awareness of the light starting to draw in; the body notices, and responds to this natural cycle, even if we are not consciously paying attention.
In San Francisco, we have nevertheless been edging, a little uncertainly, towards the second half of our summer, which can often be the finest time of year. In the past week we have had another smattering of early rain, some interludes of fog, and also some warm sunny days. During this time I have been in and around mountains and water more than I might usually manage.
I got a little wet riding on Saturday morning; I went out that day partly as the forecast had rain arriving early on Sunday. I was also not wanting to be too tired for the roam on Sunday afternoon, where we climbed into the fog on Golden Gate Heights, the now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t Sutro Tower offering lessons in impermanence (I don’t think the Heights qualify as mountains, but they are a substantial climb, with wonderful views when you get them).
On Monday, it was clear and sunny, and I started the day riding my bike to the top of San Bruno Mountain. I was actually on a quest to check out some trails in Brisbane, but the day was so nice I could not resist a little detour. Our lunchtime sitting was definitely better in the shade.
The following day I rented a car and drove up the coast, from Point Reyes to Sea Ranch – the first few miles were familiar from many bike rides, and then I was on roads I have only driven once, a few years ago now, on a short holiday from Zen Center. It was warm and bright, and Sea Ranch itself, the setting for an end-of-afternoon wedding I was officiating, looked amazing. I got to linger by the ocean a few times on the way up, and then hang out with a family of deer and a hummingbird before the couple showed up.
After the ceremony itself, I left just as the sun was setting into the ocean, and opted for the direct route inland to the 101, which was a narrow, crazily winding, and almost entirely deserted road, the light fading all the while. As I crested one ridge, I could see the last rich colours of twilight behind me. At the next, a gorgeous orange moon – one day past full – in front. I was extremely tired from all the driving, but also energised by the beauty.
On Wednesday afternoon, having dropped off the rental car and lead a couple of teaching sessions, I returned on my bike to Brisbane, where my student’s company was having an off-site day. The location was high on the hillside already. I wasn’t sure how much the group would be up for in terms of hiking, but the majority were keen to try taking the fire road that run almost straight up to the ridge line of San Bruno Mountain. I had seen that from afar, and had plans for less challenging hikes as well. It was quite a workout, and hot with it, with new-to-me views over the airport (since we were a couple of miles closer than where the road takes you to the summit). The way down required complete attention, also steep and straight down on loose rocks and dirt. It seemed that everyone managed to clear their heads from the day of strategising.
I was quite exhausted by all of that, and some unpleasant near-misses with cars while riding this week, but on Friday afternoon I had some time to ride to the foot of Mount Sutro and hike up some of the trails ahead of next weekend’s roam. I haven’t been around there in at least a year, and much work has been done – and a couple of my favourite little trails are currently closed off. The east side was nice and sunny, but the west-facing slopes were catching the fog. I am looking forward to circumambulating the mountain.
My sister and her husband have been doing sterling work – she being the only sibling still in England – to take care of matters involving my parents. While she ensures that my mother, whose mobility and eyesight are declining in tandem, has what she needs, she also recently rented a van to move boxes of my stuff from the attic of my father’s house before it is sold, to her place a couple of hours away. And being very diligent, she listed all the things she brought, and photographed a lot of it too.
I felt very poignant in response to this. Not the least part of it is not having been able to travel to England since I was there exactly two years ago, and thus missing being able to help with developments since. But more prominent was being reminded of the life I was leading twenty-plus years ago, in London. It’s not that I have ever really regretted moving to California, and right now I have no particular desire to return to live in the UK. When I packed those boxes up at the turn of the millennium, I am not sure I had much idea what their fate was going to be. I had offloaded many things, including all my furniture and other artefacts, and at least once since then I have winnowed out the remains, on my step-mother’s request; all the things that remains were what seemed important to keep ten years or so ago.
When I moved recently, I was able to trim some of my possessions here, which felt good, so perhaps it is just a matter of being reminded of the psychic weight of having things in storage. I can envision – assuming I have the time and leisure to do so – going through all these boxes one more time and maybe moving along books and CDs and kitchen wares. I hear that nineties fashion is in again, though I don’t know how ready I am to wear the same clothes as I was wearing back then. There are also boxes and albums of photogaphs, going back to the very first pictures I took at the age of eight with a camera my uncle gave me for my birthday. Perhaps some of it will get shipped back over here.
I am often aware, especially when I visit my old friends in England, that their lives have had a different continuity to mine – new relationships, new places to live, new jobs for sure, but within the same general part of the world. My life, as with that of any expatriate, is that of before and after, and not necessarily being able to hold both equally.
‘As a professor, I detect a similar hope in the students who take my feminism classes, especially the women (as most of them are). Many of them come to feminism looking for camaraderie, understanding, community. They want to articulate the shared truth of their experience, and to read great feminist texts that will reveal the world to which they should politically aspire. They want, in other words, something akin to what so many women of the second wave experienced in consciousness-raising groups. As the British feminist Juliet Mitchell put it in 1971, “Women come into the movement from the unspecified frustration of their own private lives,” and then “find that what they thought was an individual dilemma is a social predicament and hence a political problem.”
But my women students quickly discover, as an earlier generation did, that there is no monolithic “women’s experience”: that their experiences are inflected by distinctions in class, race, and nationality, by whether they are trans or cis, gay or straight, and also by the less classifiable distinctions of political instinct—their feelings about authority, hierarchy, technology, community, freedom, risk, love. My students soon find, in turn, that the vast body of feminist theory is riddled with disagreement. It is possible to show them that working through these “wars” can be intellectually productive, even thrilling. But I sense that some small disappointment remains. Nelson suggests that looking to the past for the glimmer of liberatory possibilities “inevitably produces the dashed hope that someone, somewhere, could have or should have enacted or ensured our liberation.”’ (Amia Srinivasan, from the New Yorker)
I was reading this piece the morning after my student group, where we have been discussing the angel Kyodo williams article that I have been quoting from. One of the participants, who enjoyed the content, voiced a wish to know what to do, once we have acknowledged the issues.
As part of my response, I paraphrased the quote from Pema Chodron that we have also looked at in the group (if you don’t want to click: ‘as human beings, not only do we seek resolution, but we also feel that we deserve resolution. However, not only do we not deserve resolution, we suffer from resolution. We don’t deserve resolution; we deserve something better than that. We deserve our birthright, which is the middle way, an open state of mind that can relax with paradox and ambiguity’), as well as my recollection of the powerful interview with angel Kyodo williams from the aftermath of the 2016 election (particularly where she talked about the need for people to ‘do some soul-searching to identify what their contribution might be. As you recall, I encouraged people not to jump to a conclusion too soon. I think we have a tendency to do that—to do something, anything—rather than abide in the painful feelings of grief, disillusionment, anger, and despair.’)
So what can we do? I think it has a lot to do with continual inquiry, and trusting that, in the moment, we can act from the ground of our good intentions. Which of course always has the caveat of us all being fallible and prone to making mistakes. I have written before about how, despite learning in my college years how so much is dependent on heirarchies of power, I have nonetheless blundered, blinkered by my internal narrative of smallness and invisibility (from within my family system), and not seeing how objectively powerful I became once I was ordained and became a teacher.
Which is where the continual nature of this kind of inquiry becomes the important practice (with a nod to being able to hold opposing viewpoints, as discussed yesterday). And I was pondering that, while it may be tempting in some circumstances to argue contrarian viewpoints (about vaccination, say, or Ivermectin), we should also be clear about whose agenda benefits when we do so. I will leave the last words to angel Kyodo williams, from the same article:
‘The dharma—understanding, peering into the nature of reality—is not specific to Buddhism. The dharma is truth. And the only choice we really have is whether to try to be in relationship with the truth or to live in ignorance. There are no other choices. You have to actively engage. How did I come to be? How do I think of myself? How did I get what I have? (I don’t mean your degrees.) Where did I come from? What land are we on? If it sounds like a lot of work, it is. All of us, in some way, have profited from our wrong knowing.’
‘My teacher Gudo Nishijima Roshi wrote a book called Understanding The Shobogenzo. Shobogenzo is a famous book by the 12th century Japanese Buddhist philosopher Dogen Zenji. In his book about Dogen’s book, my teacher says, “We generally feel that a book in which the writer contradicts him/herself is of little value. This is largely because our modern civilization has grown to be vast and powerful from the thousands of years over which human beings have developed logical and exact ways to process and control their environment. The intellect has become king. Human beings have used their powers of reasoning to develop a whole field of intellectual and moral studies to guide our progress through history. And in recent times, we have applied our reasoning powers to exact scientific study of our world, based on belief in causal laws. So in today’s world, in both philosophy and science, anyone who puts foreword contradictory propositions is soon passed over. Writings that are not logically consistent are disregarded by scholars and serious students. They are unacceptable to our finely-tuned intellects.”
Nishijima Roshi then says, “From our common intellectual viewpoint, logical contradiction can never be permitted. But Master Dogen seemed to have two viewpoints: the normal intellectual viewpoint of the philosopher, and another viewpoint; one that looked at problems based on something outside the intellectual area. Now whether philosophical thought should admit the existence of an area other than the intellectual area as a basis for debate is perhaps the crux of the problem with Buddhist philosophy and the Shobogenzo.”’ (from Hardcore Zen)
I have been thinking about this approach to Dogen ahead of the upcoming Zen Center class, but also in terms of how we think about just about everything – which will be the subject of tomorrow’s post.
‘Soto way is to use everything in right purpose and to put everything [in] its own– its own place. What should be put on high place should be put on high place, and what should be put on floor should be on floor. In America, you know, you put scriptures [laughs] on the floor where you walk. We don’t, you know. But I don’t know how to do it– how to treat those scriptures in your way of life. So until I find out [laughs] some way, I don’t say, “Don’t put scriptures on the floor.” But this is not supposed to be put on– supposed to be treated as a rubbish, you know– as rubbish. This is not rubbish. Scripture should be put on table, or altar, or in your hand. Those small things is very important.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi Archives)
I don’t feel bad about having another Suzuki Roshi post relatively soon after the last one – perhaps one day this blog will be all Suzuki Roshi and Dogen…
In any case, I have been working very hard to polish up parts of the archive prior to a more public unveiling of the work we have been doing on the audio side of things. On Friday, since we had an unusual thunderstorm and some rain early in the morning, I didn’t bother to go out on my bike after my early teaching, but just got my teeth into archive work, and by the end of the day my eyes were square.
Also, in this case, from the first recorded sesshin at Sokoji, in 1965, Suzuki Roshi is quoting Dogen (who was also quoting someone else, if I recall correctly – I’m not sure I have the brainpower to go and look for the lines in the Tenzokyokun), and giving his students a reminder of how to practise. It’s the kind of thing that you don’t think about until you do start formal practice, and then you realise that the so-called ‘small things’ are very important.
September started off on the right foot in San Francisco, with a warm and sunny holiday weekend. I had a great time leading the roam on Saturday, with the fog mostly holding off, and then had two bike rides, on Sunday and Monday morning, to continue the outdoor theme, which felt very beneficial.
The general good feeling about the short week was my inspiration for the teaching sessions I held today: what part of us knows that a holiday Monday feels like Sunday, and the Tuesday feels like Monday? What assumptions are we making, and are they mental or physical? Although it might have felt like a Tuesday, I was definitely doing Wednesday things, in an enjoyable combination, as follows.
I woke up, as I often do, well before it got light, but I felt rested enough to get up and have some coffee and read the morning stories as is my habit now. That way, I had plenty of time to get ready for the first teaching session of the day, a short one with a group I very much appreciate. I had my laundry in the machine before I sat down (out of consideration for the other people in the building, I wouldn’t attempt to do laundry any earlier than 8:00), and since the sun was out, I attempted to dry everything out on the deck, which has proved sadly impossible on the foggier days we have been having (I resent having to use a dryer, and to use so much energy when it can be done by the sun).
Once that was done I rode down to Rainbow to restock the kitchen, and came back – slightly uphill all the way – with a fairly heavy pack (the nearest Trader Joe’s is about the same distance, but uphill on the way out, and downhill with the full load, so I am alternating).
Then it was time to have elevenses – coffee and toast – and do some work on the Suzuki Roshi archive. This is going to be publicly launched soon, and I am trying to make sure that all the elements are organised as best they can be.
I ate lunch before my Within class, as I usually do for lunchtime engagements: I would rather be sitting on a full stomach than an empty one (even though traditionally you don’t eat right before sitting, so I try to be able to digest for half an hour or so). The half-hour sit was a somewhat typical progression from having many thoughts to feeling quite sleepy.
It was a beautiful afternoon for a short ride, and I took myself up to Golden Gate Heights, to refamiliarise myself with some of the roads I will be using for the next roam. I discovered that one of my favourite stretches of off-road roaming, the steep dune of Hawk Hill, was all cordoned off, so I shall have to plan a slightly different route.
After showering and shaving my head, and some tea and toast, I walked the few blocks down to the Castro farmers’ market. This was the one I used to go to before moving a year ago. It was nice to be remembered by some of the vendors when I started going back, and I have met people I know through Zen Center the last few weeks down there. My dinner was a bagel and avocado, and various pieces of fruit, all bought from the market.
And then I had time to watch England’s tough World Cup qualifier against Poland before dharma sister Kim came over to sit and listen to a couple of short pieces of Suzuki Roshi’s instructions from an early sesshin. This is something we have started doing since I moved closer to where she lives: zazen, listening to Suzuki Roshi, and then discussing what he said, followed by a glass of wine and a good old natter. A lovely end to a very agreeable day.