Uchiyama Roshi

‘The idea of transforming delusion to attain enlightenment is easy to understand in terms of our ordinary way of thinking, yet it is not in accord with the buddha-dharma. In Buddhism, the dichotomy of delusion and enlightenment is transcended from the very beginning. We have to practice and actualize right now, right here in the buddha-dharma (reality of life) that transcends both delusion and enlightenment. This is Great Enlightenment (daigo).
Therefore, from the first, we are neither deluded not enlightened. Reality itself exists before we divide and name delusion and enlightenment. We are practicing this reality right here and right now. This is called attaining or actualizing enlightenment (kaigo). We practice with enlightenment as our base. Practice and enlightenment are simply one (shusho ichinyo).’ (The Wholehearted Way)

I remember writing down that last Japanese phrase when I was taking notes on my first reading of this book, more than a dozen years ago. I was not sure what it meant, and probably did not feel confident about the difference in the other terms either. Nowadays I do know that this is the key point of the way Dogen talks about practice and handed it down to us.

Taking Refuge in Sangha

In contrast to the previous flight on my trip, when I landed back at Gatwick after the stay in Belfast clouds were piling up as a new weather system moved in. That evening, as my friends and I set out for an Indian dinner, we needed umbrellas in a sudden downpour, and rain re-appeared throughout the weekend, especially overnight, though much of the remaining time was sunny.

It was a fairly packed few days, with many miles of walking, artist open houses, a film, a concert, a joyful parade for the local football team who have been promoted to the Premier League; we also watched a fair amount of football and the Eurovision Song Contest (not an event I have much cared for over the years, though my friends do; it is largely an excuse for drinking and exercising critical faculties over some of the entrants). There was also a day spent sitting with the local group – eight of us were there, of whom I knew all but one, some from Tassajara, some from previous sits in England, and I felt warmly welcomed; I noticed that seven of us had rakusus, and that mine was the only one that had not been bestowed by Reb.

I did manage to repeat my run to Devil’s Dyke; with the memories of the route still in my body, it seemed less intimidating than before. Perhaps I was just a little fitter as well, but I had the measure of it. On the Sunday, since I was awake earlier than the others, I also went out for a run in the sun, back up the lovely Three Cornered Copse, awash with the subtle fragrance of cow parsley, a sentimental smell for me, past the windmill, and then back down to the sea and a few miles along the front from Brighton to Hove – which we also walked at midnight after the concert, as the moon came up, to end my last night away. Monday morning was also grey and drizzly, and I felt glad to leave that behind, though the California weather was not so great for the first day or so.

Now that I am back in San Francisco, I have a chance to reflect on the trip as a whole. One theme that came up for me was renewing acquaintances: all of the zen events I took part in were with groups I have met once before, mostly on my last trip, with Belfast, which I visited a few years ago, being the exception. It has felt great to reconnect with people, to hear more about where the groups are, and what they are hoping will happen in the future. Sitting and sharing the practice was rewarding each time; meeting people in England with whom I had done practice periods at Tassajara almost fifteen years ago gives a wonderful sense of the mahasangha, which as I often say to people, never dissipates, even if we are different places.

When people talk about taking refuge, it can often seem like a sense of retreat, of hiding away, but I got to see how taking refuge in sangha can feel like uplift and support – perhaps most especially with the joint talk we did in Belfast, and the effect it seemed to have on the participants.
I also got to see how communities of people can retreat and isolate: I remember when I first traveled to Spain, in the early eighties, I would look at the old people with wizened faces, invariably dressed in black, and wonder what they had seen and known of the civil war, which they had lived through fifty years previously. In Belfast, I looked at people my age and older and wondered what they had seen and known of the Troubles, a generation or more ago. It was poignant to watch The Journey while I was there, even more so to be taken around the city on my last day by a sangha member who had first-hand experience of life during those years, and vivid memories of events that took place in areas whose names I had heard on the news over many years as the epicentres of violence and death – the Falls Road, the Ardoyne, the Shankill Road. When I met people in Ireland I could not tell Protestant from Catholic, but locals knew many clues and cues, and the divide is still strong: I heard of painful fights over attempts to integrate schools just a few years ago, when the violence was supposedly in the past. This sense of segregation was reinforced by watching the deeply moving I Am Not Your Negro on the plane home, with its perhaps better-known scenes of violence around school integration, and an equal sense of the deep schisms that retrenchment has caused, with roots, like the Irish conflict, that go back several centuries as one group asserted power over another. From my position of safety and privilege, it is hard to know how to speak of healing and the wish for all people to be able to join together and feel safe. I do know that I can offer some help as a teacher, wherever I am, and whoever I am with, and this trip has reminded me of the value of that.

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Divided roads in the heart of Belfast.

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The joyful parade for Brighton and Hove Albion’s promotion reminded me of the Giants World Series celebrations.

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The sea front at a quieter moment.

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It is always a joy to see Greenland from the air, even if the ice is vanishing.

Shodo Harada

‘When the Buddha spoke from the top of Vulture Peak, he held out a single flower in front of everyone. This was not just any flower – it was the Buddha’s experience, the manifesting of the Buddha’s very essence. Even if it is true that humans are simply another type of animal, as some people so dismissively put it, we are not here to simply live out our lives eating and sleeping. If we simply live and die as the animals do, then our existence as human beings has no significance. To be truly human we must live in a humane and dignified way. We are not alive merely to accumulate things and fulfill our desires. Our life, our mind – how brightly can they shine and illuminate all the we encounter? Zen is the direct realization of the divine light as it exists right here within our bodies. To have the exquisite teachings of the sutras come forth from our very own bodies, expressed in our every word and every action – that is the point. Unless we experience this our Zen is not genuine. With our wonderful human mind and spirit we are not mere animals; we are called to live our lives in the best way possible…
If we view our zazen as something separate and independent from our actual, everyday lives, then it has no meaning whatsoever. In this real world, in our actual living bodies, we must discover to what degree we can refine and develop our creative and inventive potential, and to what extent we can shine forth with a great and brilliant light throughout our lives.’ (The Path to Bodhidharma)

Typing this out on  a showery Monday morning when everything seems quite mundane, I feel energised in the way that being reminded of the value of the teaching often makes me feel. Most of the quotes on this blog are telling us this, in one way or another, whether written a few years ago or many centuries ago; all the great teachers are pointing us to the same wondrous thing, to give our energy to the great matter. I find it inspiring, and I hope that you do too.

Nyogen Senzaki

‘Some of you coming to this meditation class for the first time may think we are attempting an achievement – advancing toward becoming buddhas. Christians gather at a prayer meeting and believe that their purification is more advanced than it was at their last meeting. Islamists count every bow as a stepping-stone toward Mecca. If our new friends think that we are burning incense and meditating here to accumulate meritorious deeds, the way passengers on San Francisco streetcars pay two cents for each transfer, I appreciate the compliment, but our master of this evening, the great Obaku, will deny it. He calls such an idea “wrong imagination”, and warns of deviating from the right path. Perhaps his Zen is too strong this evening. Let me add some water to it, and offer you another cup.’ (Eloquent Silence)

I have commented before on my appreciation for Nyogen Senzaki’s gentle approach to his audience – in this case studying Obaku. If you do not know his dates, the streetcar fare mentioned should clue you in to how long ago this was.

The Shipping Forecast

The skies cleared as I flew over the Welsh coast and Anglesey on Sunday morning, which set the tone for my time in Belfast. I was collected from the sleepy airport by some sangha members who were also attending the jukai at Benburb; we arrived in time for lunch, where the sesshin participants were partaking of the last silence. I was very happy to see a couple of St Bernards at the priory, the dogs we had when I was growing up, and of course even happier to see a number of friends, many of whom I had not expected to be there: Djinn and Richard, Garret and Esther, Ann, Myles, Nuala (who kindly hosted me for my visit and, along with Myles and three other sangha members, was receiving the precepts from Paul), Andre, Heather, Bai and Annette.

Last week I had a few very quiet days with my mother in Hereford; the weather was mostly sunny, but there was a persistent east wind that felt cold. I got outside every day, running my familiar loop along the Wye, past blossoming fields of apple trees and flowering riverside meadows, as well as exploring trails alongside smaller brooks at the edge of the city that were new to me. On Friday I returned to London, for a rewarding return visit to the Wimbledon group, with a full room of people getting their head around the Genjo Koan. After being taken to lunch with some of the group, I went to Alan’s house to record a podcast with him, which was a lot of fun, and which I will link to when it is up.

This week I have been sitting every morning with the Black Mountain sangha, and joining the relaxed tea and chat afterwards. On Tuesday, when Djinn usually gives a talk, she suggested that she, Ann and I do a round table discussion in the zendo, which was well attended and nice to participate in – we all riffed off each other easily, and had some great questions to ponder. I added the Lagan to the list of rivers I have run by – my limited geographical sense of the city was aided by starting to walk around, and I felt confident enough to do a loop of Ormeau Park and then head to Langan Meadows on the towpath cycle route, and back via Belvoir Park, all of which felt a long way from the city.

On Wednesday, the last full day, we went up to Malin Head. Ann and I had independently had the idea of wanting to see it (I had watched a television programme while staying with my mother which featured it, and of course know it from its role in the shipping forecast), and Djinn was willing to drive the hundred miles each way with us. We stopped in Derry for lunch and a walk around the walls, then drove across the increasingly rugged terrain to Ireland’s most northerly point, which was uncharacteristically warm and sunny, with very little wind.

The last leg of this lengthy journey is going to be in Brighton (Hove actually), to stay with old BBC friends, and to sit with the Brighton group on Saturday, where I expect to meet some old sangha friends, and hopefully run up to Devil’s Dyke again, before the long flight home.


The cathedral at Hereford from the banks of the Wye.


Fields of rape seed outside Hereford 


The sesshin group at Benburb on Sunday afternoon, featuring some brand new rakusus.


A patch of bluebells in Ormeau Park.


One of the many beautiful views at Malin Head.

Dzogchen Ponlop

‘The term “ordinary mind” can be confusing if we understand “ordinary” to mean “mundane”. If that were the case, then “ordinary mind” would mean mundane consciousness, confused mind, klesha mind – a mind that is totally caught up in the this world of samsara. However, in this context, “ordinary” means “unfabricated”. When we experience this ordinary mind, we experience buddha mind. Buddha mind is not some special mind that we always seem to be searching for elsewhere. It is simple and ordinary in the sense of being totally free from elaborations, from fabrications, and from all conceptual thinking. It is the best part of the mind. Usually we think of buddha mind as something extraordinary, extra-special, but at this point we cut through all these concepts and go back to the fundamental nature of mind, which is the mind of buddha, or the heart of buddha mind. It is ordinary because it is so simple.’ (Wild Awakening)

When I started practising, you would not have been able to convince me that there was a mind that was free from conceptual thinking, but I am glad to have a different feeling about it nowadays.

Uchiyama Roshi

‘Japanese people have a preconception that Buddhism is something special for a special kind of person. I repeat that the starting point of Buddhism is searching after the truth of the life of one’s self. Since it is the truth of the life of each self, it is only natural not to distinguish old from young, men from women, or noble birth from humble birth. Buddhism lies behind our practice of zazen. Behind Buddhism, there should be one’s own life. It is essential to see Buddhism from the ground of our own lives and to examine our zazen on the basis of Buddhism. In doing so, it is apparent that the idea that we can attain some special satori like a superhuman power is off the mark.’ (The Wholehearted Way)

I think it is normal for us to start to practise with the hope of gaining these superhuman powers, or resolving all our human problems and perfecting ourselves somehow. Hopefully, as we continue, these ideas drop away, and we allow ourselves to become ourselves.