What I think about when I am riding

One of the notions I tend to rabbit on about when I am teaching is to let go of goals – it was one of the messages that struck me when I first read Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mindand I think it is a useful way to steer people away from their usual tendencies and have them pay more attention to what is going on in the moment. As Blanche articulated, in an appropriate analogy for this story, if you are driving to a mountain, do you keep your eyes on the road, or on the mountain?
Nevertheless, when it was warm a few weeks ago, and I rode up Mount Tam for the first time in six months (I thought I wrote about this, but I can’t find it) with less effort and pain than I thought it was going to take, I formulated the goal of riding up Mount Diablo before I left for England.
I probably could have just tried to do it without setting a goal, but it would have hurt; planning my next few rides gave me a good chance of being in better shape to tackle the long ascent. So first I went up Mount Tam again – this time with a colder north wind that made the last few miles of the climb less fun, but helped push me along the road home. Then I tried coming up the mountain from the far side – a long steady climb on the Bolinas – Fairfax Road I enjoy greatly, followed by the ‘seven sisters’, which are always gruelling because of the climbing you have had to do to get to the bottom of that stretch. That was another gorgeous spring day, and I don’t remember ever seeing so many people on the mountain – on foot, on two wheels, or in cars. Luckily I had left very early and was on my way back as many of them were heading out. I also made a point of doing a couple of Monday morning ‘commutes‘ to the Headlands, trying to notch up the intensity a little on the familiar slopes.
The weekend before this one I set off for Highway 1, which is currently closed above Green Gulch and north of Slide Ranch. As in other winters when nature has got the better of engineering, the closures mean roads without cars, which to me these days means real relaxation. My main aim was to tackle the climb north of Muir Beach, another favourite. It was so quiet that all I could hear were songbirds; I saw hawks settling in the roadside trees. On one section very close to Slide Ranch, the downhill edge of road had sunk away; there was grass growing out of the cracks (which reminded me of this song), and a snail crossing the road. I figured it had a pretty good chance of making it to the other side without being squashed.
My final preparatory ride was going to be helping people pedal over to Green Gulch as part of the zen-a-thon. The weather was perfect, unlike last year, fairly warm and with no wind, and I took my fixed gear again for the stately procession, with the added detour around Muir Woods – which allowed us to ride up along the farm road from the beach end, something I realised I had never done. When it came time to leave, it was clear we could not get past the crews we could hear working on the road above the temple entrance, and most of us did not fancy battling both the harder climb from Muir Woods and the heavy traffic. One of our number suggested we take the back way out – up the Middle Green Gulch trail (which we mostly walked except the flattest parts, as none of us had appropriate bikes for off-roading), and then down a fire road to Tam Junction, which was a revelation for most of us, offered wonderful views across Mill Valley, and definitely avoided having to deal with traffic.
The downside of spending Saturday doing that was that it was the best weather of the weekend. It rained for most of Sunday, so I went out for a long and slow run in the morning; I had Monday in reserve as plan B for heading over to Walnut Creek (hoping to get to BART in the early part of rush hour) and up the mountain, but I woke up to a steady drizzle, which continued even when my weather app insisted it was merely overcast.
So I ended up letting go of the goal anyway – I could have pushed myself to go out in the rain, but I am pretty soft these days and would not have enjoyed myself. Besides, it was always going to be a fairly fruitless goal, since today is the day I leave for a month in England, and I won’t most likely get on a bike again until I am back. The trick is not to hold onto these things.

IMG_20170415_091319 copy.jpg
Assembled zen-a-thon riders before we set off for Green Gulch. 

Falling into Preferences

Regarded from one side, an entire range;
From another, a single peak.
Far, near, high, low, all its parts
Different from the others
If the true face of Mount Lu
Cannot be known,
It is because the one looking at it
Is standing in its midst                                          – Su Shih

In a recent roam we passed by the foot of the Sutro Tower, which looks impossibly large when you are so close to it. Not long after, meeting someone for lunch on a sunny day downtown, I wandered for a while with my camera around the constant construction that is going down there; I watched workers hauling barrows and carts at the entrance of the Salesforce tower, which rose high into the blue sky – a reminder that no matter how glossy the building looks when it is finished, it still depends on huge amounts of basic physical labour to reach that state.
At other times, these built landmarks can be seen from all across the city and beyond. When the fog descends on the city, sometimes the Sutro Tower, or even just its three tips, is all that can be seen from the clear slopes of Mount Tam which rise clear of the fog. From the east bay, coming home on BART as the sun sets, it silhouettes the skyline atop the range of hills that frame the city. I have a particular fondness for it; in its somewhat unique shape, it seems to represent the city – not as clearly as the Golden Gate Bridge does, but in other representations I have seen.
The Salesforce Tower, by contrast, and perhaps just because it is new, seems like a terrible mistake. There are many places I have been since it reached its topping-out height where it alone juts up above the skyline. Even in the Zen Center dining room, it is the only thing that peaks above the neighbouring roofs. In the Presidio, from the Legion of Honour, where you can feel at a remove from the busier side of the city, it seems to loom as an unwelcome reminder. Coming home by bike from Mill Valley recently, it was the only thing that rose into view from one scenic spot.
Perhaps age and custom will wither this dislike, though I suspect it is going to end up alongside the unlikable hulk of the Bank of America building rather than the elegant TransAmerica pyramid. Perhaps it is just a visible sign of the priorities of this city these days, which were not the ones that made me feel it would be a lovely place to live, almost two decades ago. Perhaps older residents still feel the same about the Sutro Tower, an alien robotic shape imposed over the natural contours of the city, but I have not anyone who says so.

Sutro tower angles 5 copy
The Sutro Tower from an adjacent path through the woods.

DSCF4418 copy
The Salesforce building from 2nd St.

80 sunset Mt Sutro 2
This is a view I think of often – returning to town on the freeway at sunset.

DSCF4835 copy
This was returning from Marcia’s shuso ceremony on Monday. Look for the tallest building.

Back in the Mountains

A day at Tassajara for the shuso ceremony is a long day; we left before light on Sunday, as the robins established the morning soundtrack around Zen Center, and returned after dark, delayed by traffic moving slowly on the 101 between Gilroy and San Jose as the sun set languidly over the hills. As in December, we were in Lucy’s car; this time it was Lucy (from China), Anna (from Germany), and myself – at one stage we reflected on how our grandparents and parents had variously experienced the turmoils of the last century.

The hours in the car left their imprint on my body, especially since I drove a Suburban in and out over the road, which had whole new sections of erosion and many new channels carved out by the copious winter rain, making it an even more challenging drive than usual.

It is always worth it though. It was a glorious day – the light was clear in the mountains, and the sun warm. The hillsides were a brighter green than recent years, and the flowers were adding colours in every direction. At the monastery the monks seemed relieved to have survived through some intense challenges: the creek surging, the heat being cut off (the geothermal pumps don’t work in flood conditions), the road being blocked; they were at the end of the winter of training, and about to embark on a summer of receiving guests. I was happy to see several people I have known over the years who I had really not expected to see this time around.

A good crowd of former shusos made it down to see Tim take the seat. About half way through the ceremony, I realised what I needed to say: that English shusos are like buses – you wait ages for one to come along, and then two appear at once (it was great that Siobhan came down for her first appearance as a former shuso). I also mentioned in my congratulations  – referring to exchanges from the ceremony – that we had heard the true dharma from Cabarga Creek (which was running healthily beside the zendo), from Calliope and the canyon wren (both of whom had made timely interjections into the proceedings),  but we had also heard it from Tim. Even though he claimed not to be a teacher, his teaching was very clear to everyone in the room.

As usual, there was just time to head to the bathhouse before lunch – it had been warm enough in the zendo that I jumped into the creek before going into the indoor plunge. The bottom half dozen stone steps into the creek had been washed away – the heaviest ones just a few feet – and since I never go to Tassajara without wistfully thinking of living there again, I wondered if I could at least add a day or two on to my upcoming visit for my retreats to rebuild the steps, which I have been wanting to do for a year or two anyway…

DSCF4667
The creek is looking lovely now, but I can imagine how fierce it must have been in the winter storms.

DSCF4537
One of the Tassajara redbuds.

DSCF4597
Tim and Ed in the shade of the kaisando.

DSCF4558
Monks enjoying the pre-ceremony tea in the sun. Calliope is the little one.

A New Shuso Crop

I have written about shuso ceremonies at Zen Center before, and we are in the spring season for them right now. I intend to make the journeys to Tassajara and Green Gulch in the next couple of weeks; on Saturday, having gone to the center in the morning to offer the zazen instruction, I returned in the afternoon to see one of my best Zen Center friends, Siobhan, take her place on the dharma seat, and flourish in the role.
It was a day of community, on one side for the many people who had been sitting sesshin together, and on the other, a gathering of people who have known Siobhan over the years. There were a number of people I was very happy to see, who I spent time with at Tassajara and City Center more than a dozen years ago, and it was a testimony to Siobhan’s great capacity for friendship that she was able to draw such a crowd.

As I mentioned in the congratulations, apart from being a very loyal and honest friend, she has been like my older sister through all the years I have lived in the US; the first time I visited Tassajara, back in the summer of 2000, a couple of months after arriving, was driving her old Honda Civic down from Berkeley to the monastery, where she was staying. Some vivid memories of that trip have stayed with me: although I had driven in the US before, particularly eighteen months earlier when I had driven from Miami to DC and back visiting my two best friends from the BBC who were working in those cities (and marveling at the distance involved), driving a manual car on the ‘wrong’ side of the road was still a novelty to me, and, having eased myself onto the slow-moving freeway in Berkeley, I had a moment of panic when the traffic suddenly freed up as we passed the junction to the Bay Bridge; in a moment the speed went from about twenty to sixty-five, people were crossing lanes seemingly at random, and I had selected third gear rather than fifth, leaving the engine racing as I tried to cope.
That trip was also my first time on the Tassajara Road; after a mile or so I articulated that it was not as bad as I had heard, and was told, just wait… I also remember crowding into one of the small rooms in the upper barn with a bunch of people and being a little taken aback at how rudimentary the accommodation was; when I lived there subsequently, the same simplicity became normal and charming. Certainly, twenty-four hours there on that first visit planted the seed for my wanting to return.

With both of us being English, Siobhan and I have cultural affinities that have helped cement our friendship, and I also recall the great pleasure of spending time with her in London one lovely summer’s day when we were both visiting at the same time, enjoying a city we both loved, even if neither of us ever intend to live there again, since our lives had taken similarly different turns.

DSCF4127
As so often at Zen Center gatherings, I took a lot of pictures, to document the coming together of so many practitioners, though most of them are never going to end up online. Here is one of Siobhan after the ceremony, on the right, with her benji Terri.

DSCF4116
The redbud in the courtyard, planted to commemorate Blanche’s abbacy, was in full bloom.

 

Clouds and Water

Redbuds always make me think of Tassajara, where I first came across them: one by the stone cabins, one by the lower garden, the two ends of the main drag.
Last year, when I came to Wilbur in the spring with the friend who had first introduced me to the place, I was astounded at how many redbuds were flowering in the gorgeous expanses of Cache Creek Canyon on the northern end of Highway 16; I loved how they seemed to suck in all the sun in the surrounding area. Traveling up again last weekend, that highway was closed, as it had been at the beginning of the year, to deal with landslides. The alternative, continuing north on the 505 and the 5 is a little dull, but whereas I was beset by a severe amount of rain the last time I took the Highway 20 pass through from Williams to Bear Valley, this time the hills were soft and green, and there was a lambent light shining down on the redbuds growing by the creeks.

With the clocks having gone forward, and a week of higher temperatures behind us, Wilbur was lovely, and mild into the later evenings. Running up the schoolhouse trail after I arrived, there was a profusion of shooting stars on the banks; on the more exposed trail to the medicine wheel, where I ran on Sunday, lupins and poppies and blue dicks, as well as others that I recognised from Tassajara but did not have names for; on the wide-open ridge trail, there were clumps of Indian paintbrush, some a pale scarlet, some a deep crimson. When I had made it up to the ridge, there was almost complete silence; at first some songbirds nearby, with a few raptors drifting along with the faint warm air, and then nothing but the sound of my breathing and the crunch of my shoes, much like running the cliffs of Cornwall, except with waves of hills in the place of ocean. I was very glad to see one of the sticks I had planted in the ground as a way-marker last time, when I had been coming from the other direction –  once I was over the top of the first of the ridge slopes, it was clear where to go. I could not see all the way across to the snow-topped peaks I had seen last time, and which I had glimpsed from the highway a couple of days before; the clouds were rich and hanging perhaps where they would have been, lit in just a few places by the sun to break up the purple and grey.

It was a weekend of generosity: starting with the gift of the van, once again. A regular benefactor had also enquired how much I usually spent on fuel, and donated that amount. An older couple staying at Wilbur were celebrating a birthday, and shared left-over pizza and strawberry shortcake with everyone who was in the common room on Friday night. Someone else gave me a bunch of watercress that they had picked from the banks of a stream; I passed some of it on to others, while enjoying the iron pepper taste of it, richly evocative of English summer to me.

On Monday it rained again, but only after I had arrived back home; I also felt lucky to avoid the rain on my way to and from work on Tuesday. I hope my luck holds out as far as Sunday, when there is a Roaming Zen scheduled…

DSCF3933
Early evening on Friday at the bath-house.

DSCF3948
Shooting stars beside the trail.

Like Spring Arising In Everything

The last time I went to Wilbur, I took some Hongzhi with me – as you will notice from the future posts quoting from the book. Many of the phrases – I was going to say his phrases, but of course they are translated – were wonderfully resonant as poetry, and the title of this post was one I noted, for its seasonal topicality. As I reflected further on it though, I realised that he wasn’t really talk about spring, but about the life force, and how that can well up as part of our manifesting practice.
Nonetheless, spring is a great time to feel the life force. With the rain having blown away for a while, and with the north wind bringing a fresh edge to recent mornings, it has felt very spring-like. As we approach the equinox, it is clear that not only are the afternoons getting longer, but the day is starting earlier, where for a long while it never seemed to be light before seven.

This week I had the opportunity to ride over to Green Gulch (with a few diversions and closed roads en route as the winter weather left its mark), as a teacher friend wanted to take some of her kids there before they spent a few nights unplugged on Mount Tam, and I acted as their native guide. It was a sunny morning, though the usual deep peace of the valley was lessened by the noise of repair work on highway 1 just above the entrance, and also by the slightly more human scale of construction on the new bonsho tower.
Our first stop was the garden, as the zendo was occupied all morning. When we stepped into the rose garden, I really wished I had brought my camera, as the delicate light picked out the blossoms and the pale green buds on the tree in the middle of the space. I was reminded of this time of year at Tassajara, when, having survived the months of bareness, the sight of buds on the alder trees felt like a joyful rebirth as we sat in study hall and the morning sun shone up along the creek.
Last weekend I gave the zazen instruction at Zen Center, and at the end of one of the brief sits, a young man said, “It’s amazing how many things there are to notice in every moment when you start paying attention.” I encouraged the school kids to use their time away from screens and out in nature to have a full experience of noticing what is around them and absorbing the energy and the teaching it gives.

I knew that even without fresh pictures, I would be able to find something similar in my archives: 

dscf2649-copyggf-blossoms-copyggf-rose-garden-tree-copy
This is the tree that was bursting into bud.