Equinox

The unseasonal clouds and rain finally moved on. After spectacular skies on Sunday, which I wrote about more extensively on Patreon, there were banks of clouds for a couple of days, then a little sting of rain showers on Wednesday morning. I ended up doing most of my day in the opposite order to what I had anticipated, and by the time I went for a little ride in the afternoon, the skies were clear. Now it seems to be warming up as well, so perhaps we are moving towards our late summer, even as the sun rises later and sets earlier.

A friend of mine who has had Covid twice this year said that, after feeling depleted, she just woke up one day feeling normal. I know other people who have taken a long time to get back to full health, or are still slowly recovering after many symptoms, so I do feel lucky and glad that I am starting to find a more typical level of energy inside myself. And I am not taking it for granted, and continuing to make time for rest between activities. But after riding a little longer over the weekend than I had previously, I didn’t feel tired afterwards, and I tried some hills on Wednesday, which seems to have gone okay. 

Nevertheless, I still feel like I haven’t caught up with all the things I put to one side while I was sick, and then conserving energy, so I hope that some space over the weekend will help with that. 

Looking up from the Sutro Baths on Sunday afternoon.
Probably my favourite picture from the afternoon. The beach is never that empty.
Clouds as we sat on Monday.
Ferry skies on Tuesday.
Wednesday afternoon clear air.

Moving Slowly

This past week, pretty much every time I have had to make a decision about what to do, I have been deciding to do less. Having tested negative last Friday and Sunday, and with the main symptoms behind me, all I have had to deal with is a lingering tiredness. I have been sleeping longer than usual, and finding that exertion, even walking a couple of steep blocks up Nob Hill for a meditation on Monday morning, has much more of an effect than usual. I did some deliberately gentle bike rides over the weekend, and chose not to go as far as I had initially planned, but at least didn’t feel exhausted afterwards. And during the week, when I might have popped out for an hour of riding, I chose not to – until Friday lunchtime, when the cloudy skies finally gave way to some sunshine, and I stretched my legs for an hour. I even tried a couple of climbs at low speed, and didn’t feel bad afterwards, so there are encouraging signs.

There were plenty of commitments on my calendar, but thankfully most of them did not involve much exertion. The flat commute to the ferry and to the studio were doable, though I found heavy lifting a bit challenging. Walking down to Zen Center to give the talk was easy enough, though I suddenly felt very warm once I had my okesa on and was waiting to go in.

Overall I think the talk went well; there was a small crowd in the Buddha Hall, and I heard about thirty more online, which made the event seem a little lower stakes than talks have sometimes felt for me in the past.

Having postponed the roam to Ocean Beach last weekend after testing positive on Thursday, I see that we were getting rain moving through on Sunday, from a typhoon crossing the Pacific – after last weekend’s tail end of a hurricane, which brought clouds, wind and cooler weather than we expect at this time of year. Perhaps we will have a repeat of our damp excursion along the same route last December. I will appreciate the fresh air and gentle movement though, I am sure. 

Mixed skies from the ferry on Thursday morning.
Clear of the fog along the bay on Friday.

Suzuki Roshi

‘Whatever you do, that is actually our true practice. But you are pleased with the limited pleasure of the practice, and you do not know the boundless meaning of our everyday life. And we always complain with what you have to do, or with what you have done, or what you should do. So you are always forced [into] something in your every day life. You feel as if you are living in some certain framework. If you come to Tassajara, you should observe our way. But when you are — you do not realize the true meaning of your life, a rule is just a kind of framework in which you are put.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi Archives)

I am giving the talk at Zen Center this evening – in person! – which I am very excited about, obviously. There will certainly be some Suzuki Roshi quotes in there, though perhaps not this one. If you are anywhere near, it would be lovely to have you there.

Unprecedented Times

To start, at least, on the strictly personal, I hunkered down over the weekend. As we moved towards the predicted heatwave, which in San Francisco was not especially extreme, I alternated between time on my deck chair and lying on my bed. I had occasional glimmers of the idea that it would be nice to ride down to the beach, but the reality was that I had quite a headache and very little energy. I napped for four lunchtimes straight, which is pretty unprecedented, as well as sleeping eight hours just about every night. 

In some ways, since my symptoms weren’t so bad, it was nice to have an excuse to do very little. I still haven’t cleaned beyond the absolutely necessary. I have started some of my projects, and not got to others. I have noted my ebbs and flows of energy, and heeded them. There have been hours of football to watch – even if I drifted off during some games – and books to dip into. I walked on Monday evening and felt quite light-headed; on Thursday evening, much less so.

I tested every day; a couple of the tests that the government had sent me turned out to be defective, but I was positive (or unsure) from Friday until Thursday, even as I started feeling better. Having gone out to buy some more tests, the first of those turned out negative yesterday, and I will check again over the weekend before starting to return to doing things in person – I had to postpone the roam scheduled for Sunday, but I am still intending to give the talk at City Center on Wednedsay.

I had a little concern that – along with not getting myself back into good riding shape as I wished – I was not getting my bank accounts back in good shape after a month of not earning while I was traveling, and having had a number of unanticipate bike expenses as well. The wedding and other in-person events, apart from the pleasure of doing them, were things I was counting on to get money flowing in again. That said, I have started getting paid for other work I have done since I have been back, and, as I remembered very vividly as I went through some old posts on Patreon, my bank accounts are much healthier than they were in my first few years out of Zen Center, when I would sometimes have to sweat to make the next month’s rent, and was more than once saved by unexpected donations. I am also thankful that Charlie offered the week off when he heard I was still testing positive, and that I was eligible for sick pay for the two days I was missing, unlike all the other work I do.

And then, of course, I woke up on Thursday to news of the Queen being placed under medical supervision. Chatting with friends, it seemed clear that it was serious, and I was saddened, if not at all surprised, when her death was announced a few hours later. I found myself glued to the unfolding coverage from back home, and trying to wrap my head around the idea of there being a new monarch.

I would never have described myself as much of a royalist, but as is commonly expressed, that did not preclude a huge amount of respect for the Queen herself. I have not known anyone else on the throne, even as the royal family aged and died. Coming as it did just two days after the appointment – by royal approval – of a new, and somewhat disparaged Prime Minister, leading a much-criticised government through what was already a time of crisis, the sense of transitioning into a new era is very strong. I couldn’t say that I can express the range of my feelings – over time I am sure they will settle and become clearer. In the meantime, here are three articles that I enjoyed reading, from the Guardian, the New York Times, and the New Yorker, if you haven’t yet suffered a surfeit of coverage. 

When I awoke on Friday morning to discover that all the weekend’s football had been cancelled, I did wonder how on earth I was going to spend the time. I guess I shall have to start getting my talk into shape.

Joko Beck

‘More and more when I hear stories about the ancient monasteries, I wonder. They had a thousand monks sometimes, and you hear about the star who “did it” – but they don’t tell you much about the other nine hundred and ninety-nine. I’m sure a lot of them didn’t know what on earth they were doing…

Now, my students pass Mu too, but a lot of them have never even heard the word! And they still pass it. You don’t need to know the word- if practice is sincere and intense, at some point there is just a comprehension of what life is. “Oh,it’s that!” If the mind is empty and quiet – sure, there it is.’ (Meetings With Remarkable Women)

I remember having a similar wonder when I lived at Tassajara, about some of the other members of the great assembly. Of course, I could equally avow that I didn’t know what on earth I was doing. But I think something akin to what she describes in the second paragraph rubbed off on me too.

Carlo Rovelli

‘Perhaps there is no need to make anything up about what lies behind quantum theory. Perhaps it really does reveal to us the deep structure of reality, where a property is no more than something that affects something else. Perhaps this is precisely what “properties” are: the effects of interactions. A good scientific theory, then, should not be about how things “are”, or what they “do”: it should be about how they affect one another.

The idea seems radical. It pushes us to rethink reality in terms of relations instead of objects, entities or substances. The possibility that this could be what quantum physics is telling us about nature was first suggested a quarter of a century ago. For a while it remained largely unnoticed, then several major philosophers picked it up and began to discuss it. Nowadays interest in the idea, called the Relational Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, is steadily growing. It is a possible solution to the puzzle of quantum theory: what quantum phenomena are is evidence that all properties are relational.

There is a strikingly similar definition of existence at the root of the western philosophical tradition. Plato’s The Sophist contains the following phrase: “Anything which possesses any sort of power to affect another, or to be affected by another, if only for a single moment, however trifling the cause and however slight the effect, has real existence; and I hold that the definition of being is simply action. [δύναμιςδύναμις]” And in the eastern tradition, the Buddhist philosopher Nāgārjuna’s central notion of “emptiness” (śūnyatā) tells us that nothing has independent existence: anything that exists, exists thanks to, as a function of, or according to the perspective of, something else.

So maybe this is not such a radical idea after all. We all know that a chemical substance is defined by how it reacts, a biological species is defined according to the niche it occupies in the biosphere, and what defines us as human beings is our relationships. Think of a simple object such as a blue teacup. Its being blue is not a property of the cup alone: colours happen in our brain as a result of the structure of the receptors in the retina of our eyes and as a consequence of the interactions between daylight and the cup’s surface. Its being “a teacup” refers to its potential function as a drinking vessel: for an alien who doesn’t know about drinking tea, the very notion of a teacup is meaningless. What is more, its stability as an object depends on the timescale in which we consider it: take a longer view and it is just a fleeting aggregation of atoms. And are these atoms themselves independent elements of reality? No they are not, as quantum theory shows: they are defined by their physical interactions with the rest of the world.

So quantum physics may just be the realisation that this ubiquitous relational structure of reality continues all the way down to the elementary physical level. Reality is not a collection of things, it’s a network of processes.’ (from the Guardian)

Those of you who have been reading here for a long time will prehaps remember that I have a soft spot for quantum physics, and a firm belief that Buddha had a good sense of it. This article was lovely to read yesterday (insofar as my slightly foggy brain allowed), and it went on to propose that relationship is everything. Which I think we all know.

Finally

After a few full and somewhat exhausting days, I woke up on Wednesday morning with a sore throat. Times being as they are, I took an at-home test, from the stockpile I have accumulated. It came back negative. I went out for a somewhat gentle bike ride and didn’t feel too bad. I dug out the thermometer that got daily use in 2020 and ascertained that my body temperature was normal. Since I was also scheduled to officiate a big wedding at the weekend, I also went and took a PCR test at the same place I had gone last time I felt a bit off. It also came back negative. 

During the morning I talked with someone going to Tassajara for the first time, about how you can’t really plan for what the experience is going to be like (I loaned a couple of hot water bottles; even though it will probably be pushing a hundred degrees at the beginning of the practice period, they will come in handy come November). Nor could one plan for what to do afterwards, as so much might change over the course of the three months. 

I used that theme in my midday class, and then, on my way back from the farmers’ market, sirens abounded, and I crossed a thick band of smoke blowing east from a building fire just a few blocks from where I live – something else that nobody would have planned for or expected.

In the evening I went to Kim’s talk, in the Buddha Hall, fully masked as everyone except Kim was, enjoying the ruckus of crows beforehand, her delivery of a challenging topic (how practice helps us deal with time), and the new moon setting over the street as I walked home.

The next morning, I still felt a bit off, more of a headache than a sore throat, still no temperature, another negative test. I went to work in the East Bay and didn’t do anything too strenuous. On the way back home I picked up my city bike from another expensive episode: I had left it locked downtown for a few hours on Sunday while I had been out, and when I returned, someone had stolen the handlebars and stem, so I had to pick the remains of it up – luckily including the new fork and front wheel I had just paid for – and take it home on the streetcar. 

On Friday morning, after another pretty heavy sleep, feeling that perhaps I was just suffering from an old-fashioned cold, I took a third at-home test, and it came back positive. There was a flurry of messages and emails: friends, people I had been in contact with during the week, the wedding party, people I was supposed to sit with on Monday. The bride was understandably cautious, with pregnant friends due to attend the ceremony, so I had to leave them with my script and a last-minute search for a replacement, which they seem to have found. I canceled my rental car, and settled back to rest.

I certainly had a bunch of other nice plans for the weekend, mostly involving clocking up more miles on the bike after many weeks of lessened activity, but that will be on hold for a few days at least. There is plenty of lemonade to be made though – I had been craving time to plan a few more roams, and I spent several hours poring over old maps and history articles (I am getting urges to explore some more of the city’s watersheds, which are generally hidden in plain sight in the lowest lying parts). I have other non-strenuous projects that I have put aside from being so generally busy, and I don’t feel bad about putting off cleaning my place, which I had intended to do on Wednesday before I decided to conserve energy. So far the worst hardship has been running out of my favoured coffee beans, and having to break into my back-up stash of mediocre Trader Joe’s coffee.

For quite some time I have felt like a lone holdout as almost everyone I knew caught a dose of COVID this year, but apart from generally being cautious, I think that has purely been fortuitous. I may have had a mild dose in March 2020, at the same time that my then-partner began experiencing a life-changing bout of long COVID. While I am naturally concerned that there is still much about the disease we don’t know, and that I may suffer more long-term damage, thus far, it is just sickness, and I will practise with being sick.

A Few Degrees

There’s a very fine line – in temperature terms at least – between the relatively fine weather we had in San Francisco when I returned from England, and the last ten days or so. It’s the difference between having windows wide open day and night, and just leaving them cracked when the sun is not out, with the concomitant urge to bundle up in warm things. There is the fog looming in the west, of course, spilling over the hills and along the bay, and the wind that sometimes whips up quite alarmingly.

Last Friday I officiated a very small wedding at Baker Beach. We found an excellent spot, and the view of the bridge changed moment by moment with the vagaries of the fog layer. This Friday I scheduled an extra roam, along the bay shore from the ball park to Warm Water Cove and back through the Dogpatch and Mission Bay, which was just about warm but certainly bright. This afternoon’s will be on the foggy side of town, so I imagine it will feel different, and we won’t benefit from grand views at Grand View Park.

I have been keeping busy these past three weeks, not wanting so much to be alone after such a social time away, but then as a dyed-in-the-wool introvert I also get social exhaustion, and crave a quite few hours catching up on the latest New Yorkers. 

It has been an expensive time in the bicycle world as well: several hundred dollars to replace the wheel and fork from my crash, and then my road bike needed its bottom bracket replaced as well, so I was without that for a few days, and have generally not been catching up on my fitness as quickly as I would like.

Today is the last of the Suzuki Roshi classes, which I have enjoyed greatly. A little pause, and then I will focus on fleshing out the dharma talk I am due to give on the 14th, and then I will turn my attention to the Tenzo Kyokun.

The skies on Thursday morning. I find the variety fascinating enough to have offered several series on my Patreon page.
The view of the old shipbuilding area at Crane Cove.

Cheri Huber

‘In this practice, we are encouraged to bring everything back to ourselves – because there is nothing going on but oneself. Everything we project out onto other people we can follow backto see in ourselves, the good, the bad, and the ugly. I look outside myself, I see somebody doing something, and I put a label on it. If I am aware of projection, I will own that quality myself. Whatever that person is doing, whatever label I have given it, whatever I think it means, I bring all that back inside and admit that I know nothing about that other person, only about myself.’ (Sweet Zen)

I remember a moment at Tassajara when I saw very clearly how someone’s behaviour that I found irritating was just a reflection on parts of myself that I was uncomfortable with. A window opened, and those kinds of openings tend to last.

Twenty-Five Hundred Strong

WordPress helpfully keeps a tally of how many posts you have published, and today marks 2500, which is a lot – and an even greater number of words. Not bad for a blog that has as its subject a teaching “outside the scriptures/No dependency on words and letters.”

It is a good moment to look back and reflect. First of all thanks to everyone who reads these posts, for without your attention, there would be no reason for me to do this. While initially conceived as a way to establish an online presence as I transitioned out of Zen Center, it soon felt like a way that I could help people in their practice, no matter how small the scale. I know that reading the dharma every day helps my practice, and I hope it does yours as well.

In some ways I still feel that I am transitioning out of Zen Center, though currently I am as involved as I have been since 2015, with the current Suzuki Roshi class I am co-leading with Abbot Ed, and an upcoming talk in September and class on the Tenzo Kyokun to come in October. Moreover I have also started to sit afternoon zazen again, now that the zendo has reopened and now that I live again at a convenient distance. This brings back home to me the communal aspect of sitting – not just sitting for ourselves but as a constituent part of the sangha, as I recently also got to experience in Belfast and Hebden Bridge, creating the space for everyone to enjoy their sitting and to feel encouraged in doing so.

A few times over the years I have questioned whether I want to continue to do this; I find myself spending less time reading dharma books these days (partly as a result of not commuting by BART since the pandemic), and I don’t always have the time to sit and transcribe sections (though the new phone ability to scan text has already made an impact in this regard!). Over the past year or two there have been plenty of reposts from years gone by, not least because I am often quite surprised by what I find when I go through the archive. Nevertheless, it feels right to carry on posting, both here and on Instagram, despite how depressing the algorithms have become.

And, despite the words attibuted to Bodhidharma that I quoted above, thinking about the Tenzo Kyokun also reminds me of the passage I have both quoted and commented on over the years: “What I previously saw of words and phrases is one, two, three, four, five. Today what I see of phrases is also six, seven, eight, nine, ten. My junior fellow-practitioners, completely see this in that, completely see that in this. Making such an effort you can totally grasp one-flavor Zen through words and phrases.”

May we all continue to grasp one-flavor Zen through words and phrases.