Sitting Practice

On my commutes, I am still enjoying spending at least a part of the time reading zen books; this gives me plenty of material to fill this blog with, but also is an important part of my current personal practice.

Sometimes a phrase I read will just land in a way that stops everything. It happened the other day reading Kobun Chino’s book; he quoted Dogen, in a phrase I know well, but in a different translation to the one I am used to, that we are ‘conveyed by all myriad dharmas.’ Very apt to read on a train, conveyed by and through objects, space and time. I was looking out of the window at traffic on the freeway overpass, and the grubby land beneath, and suddenly felt totally settled and excited at the same time. I remembered a phrase that had come to me a couple of years ago, which I based a talk on, and pictured us all as vessels of enlightenment, conveyed by all myriad dharmas. This is so, I thought, unshakeably so.

Reading the Lotus Sutra recently, I was struck by how moving it was in the context of being on a train – there was not an incongruity as you might expect, between the sometimes hallucinatory language and the mundane surroundings I was reading it in; instead it almost felt like an invitation to imagine the worlds described in the sutra existing just out of sight of this urban world, just waiting to be summoned.

Since I do not get up and sit every morning in the zendo, as I did for so many years, I am happy to explore other ways that practice can manifest. Contemplative reading is one of them; so are running and riding, taking photographs, meditation with different apps, and leading my Roaming Zen hikes. Starting today, my dharma brother Zachary Smith and I are launching another venture, something we have been plotting for a while: meditation out in the city, for people to drop in during their lunch break.

Part of the inspiration for this was from a group from Young Urban Zen who tried it for a while; part also came from reading this, which features a former young monk from Tassajara who subsequently switched traditions.

A Meetup has been created, but you don’t have to join the Meetup to be able to come along. The aim is to do this every Monday lunch-time, down on the Embarcadero, on the grass by Cupid’s Span, which is between Howard and Folsom. We will bring the cushions; you bring your busy mind and give it a little rest over lunch-time. We will be there from 12:30 – 1:30; you can drop in any time.

IMG_2121
We did a somewhat spontaneous pilot at Wisdom 2.0 earlier in the year.

Meditation meet-up
We will be somewhere on the grass here if you are in town and can make it along.

Michael Stone

‘The world is vast and the body and breath are spacious when we are at ease with others and ourselves. This ease comes through committed practice, in which we learn how to open to the life of the body, the situations of others, and the moods that move through us with equanimity and creativity. Don’t get stuck. Don’t go ahead. Just stop and look at the type on this page, the quality of light in the room where you are, the sounds in the distance. This is where you enter. Each sound is a pearl, a treasure, a wave that brings you back to your body. There is nothing subtle to find. Look at the walls and the crack in the ceiling. Look at all the cracks and the fine woodwork and the realness of the real that pervades all we are doing. All this is a gift. Set forth this miraculous gift.’ (Awake in the World)

At Zen Center, a phrase that used to circulate regularly was ‘death is certain; time of death is uncertain.’ I particularly hear Blanche, while she was still alive, saying it, but I know it did not originate with her. Reading of the death of Michael Stone was hard to take in, beyond the suddenness, and the sense of the untimeliness of it. I couldn’t say that I knew him so well; we met at a conference in 2013, at Zen Center once or twice after that, and he came to stay the night on his way out of Tassajara last summer. In our exchanges I found him to be a warm person who was full of life, honest and clear (his dharma name – Shoken, ‘Sees Clearly’ – was most apt), and a wonderful mentor with whom it was easy to talk through issues and problems. Since the mahasangha is intimately woven, I was alerted to the news by Djinn in Ireland, and was later reminded that my room-mate was helping him to edit his next book. Not having much of profundity to say, I will quote again the last line above (you can see other quotes I have used on this blog here): Set forth this miraculous gift. This is what he did while he was alive.

Deer Park Michael.jpg
Michael at Deer Park monastery in 2013

What I think about when I am riding

There is a well-known zen story I was reminded of this weekend. Here is one version – other versions have the same narrative but a different number of horses…

It is warm enough in San Francisco at the moment that I am having trouble sleeping – trying to balance staying cool with being exposed to the mosquitos who make themselves heard and felt overnight. The day after the solstice roam, I was awake around 4 am; that didn’t bother me too much as I wanted to get out and ride early. I set off around 6:15, and the sun was already shining and starting to heat up the city; it was beautifully quiet, perfect conditions for a ride.
The roam had been wonderful – well-attended, and apart from managing to make it to Land’s End in time to sit and watch the sun melt into the tranquil ocean, we had seen a large pod of whales breaching and blowing as they passed under the bridge, a memorable spectacle at any time. The only downside for me was that I had inadvertently left the house with my glasses in my pocket, and having put them in my bag, they had dropped out, and I guessed it was when I put another layer on after the sunset.
Starting out on my bike, still feeling a little tired from the walking and getting to bed a little late by my current standards, I decided that since the ride was just a general leg-stretching effort,  I might as well head down to the place where we had sat just in case they were still there, so I rode through the park to 23rd, then took Geary west, marveling that not a single car passed me in the twenty-five blocks to Seal Rock Road. When I got to the spot we had been, they were indeed sitting in the dust. I shared my good fortune with a couple of passers-by, who were enjoying the early morning sun streaming through the trees, and was thinking of heading back to the bridge for my intended loop of Paradise Drive. Putting my glasses in the back pocket of my cycling jersey with a feeling of satisfaction, I had a horrible realisation – my wallet was no longer where I had stuffed it on the way out of the house.
As I had rolled along JFK in the park, closed to traffic as always on a Sunday, I had been cleaning my glasses with my base layer, and had heard a slight noise, as if I had run over a flattened paper cup, and didn’t think to look round or check, but now I assumed it was my wallet dropping out of my pocket. The only time I can remember this happening before was in my first couple of years in San Francisco: I had ridden up Mount Tam, and in those days there was a pay phone at the summit (we are talking almost two decades ago now…) I had made a call and then descended towards Fairfax on the Bolinas – Fairfax Road, a lovely quiet stretch with some great descents and climbs. In Fairfax I thought I should stop for a coffee to help get me home; reaching for my wallet, I discovered it was not there, and with a heavy heart and equally heavy legs I set off back up the mountain, where I found it, most of the way up the climb from Alpine Dam to the Ridgecrest, sitting squarely on the double yellow lines in the middle of the road.
With a little more urgency in my pedaling than I had managed thus far, I rode back to the park to scan the road between 23rd and the deYoung, which is where I remembered hearing the sound. Nothing. Some park workers were already cleaning up yesterday’s rubbish, so I asked them for help, and they directed me to the park ranger station on the edge of the park. I stopped in there, and the adjacent police station, where I was also directed to the Richmond police station.
Having ridden around and made three reports, I didn’t want to continue with my original route – mainly thinking I should get back and cancel the two cards that were in the wallet – but I also felt compelled to ride back to Geary and Land’s End just in case it had actually fallen out later.
My mood was not desperate or even that despondent; mostly a little fatalistic in that I was expecting to have lost all the cash that was in the wallet (including all the dana from the roam, I had about $150 in there, much more than I generally carry, but because of the late arrival home and early start I had not thought to take most of it out), and that I would to deal with the calls to the card companies – and then I also thought about the DMV…
In any case, there was nothing to be seen anywhere I had been, so I rode down past the Cliff House and came back through the park – once again scanning the surface in that stretch of road, still to no avail. It was warming up, but still early, so I took the fast spin down Oak to catch the string of lights from Stanyan to Webster, and then, since I had a little energy left, I took my once-regular climb of Liberty Hill from 20th, over the top on Sanchez, then along 22nd to the top of Collingwood.
Once back at home, checking online that nothing had been done with the cards at least, I called my credit union and my English bank, told the story to my room-mate, and reflected on how I could use the experience as part of my teaching on equanimity this week – if I was not entirely equanimous, I would say that I had tipped more towards joy in finding the cheap glasses than towards despair at losing a sum of money I could have done with to make this month a little more comfortable than recent ones have been.

And then, as I was in the process of typing this story out, I got an email from a woman saying she had found the wallet, intact, and could I call her. It turned out she was local but had been in a hurry to get her son to a baseball game in the East Bay, and apologised for not being in touch sooner (among the other items in the wallet were some of my business cards, of course). So it was, at the end of the hot afternoon, I was back on my bike riding up to a large Victorian just north of the Panhandle, where I was given back my wallet, in exchange for which I offered my last jar of Zen Center honey which I have had for a while as a potential gift, just waiting for the right occasion.

DSCF9343.jpg
As a kind of coda, last night I rode out to the Seacliff end of the Land’s End trail to take a photo of the beautiful views there, and saw plenty of whale blowing – here with Mount Tam as the backdrop.

What I think about when I am running

‘If we go somewhere on foot, we know the way perfectly, whereas if we go by motor car or airplane we are hardly there at all, it becomes merely a dream.’  (Chogyam Trungpa – Meditation in Action)

This was a fine quote to find, and I shall doubtless use it at the head of a Roaming Zen email soon.

The trails at Tassajara are familiar terrain for me, even as I have seen them shift and change over the last fifteen years or so, especially in the wake of the 2008 fire. It is always nice to share them with people, as I did on the retreat with Ann, to tell a few stories, read some appropriate Dogen, identify flowers and birds as far as I can. When people ask me how long it takes to get around them, I have no real answer. I have run them many more times than I have hiked them, and the times I have hiked, the pace of the group has been so varied. But I know almost every turn, every slope.
When I got to run them in my second week at Tassajara, I could feel the extent that the trails were embedded in me: my body knows the various hardships of climbing up the Horse Pasture cut-off past the waterfall to what I call the bobcat meadow, after I saw one bounding up through the long grass on my first solo outing there in 2002, and then up the switchbacks to Flag Rock ridge. Going up to the Wind Caves you are climbing for the first two miles, until you are below Lime Point, and then you have to drop down into two gullies and come up the other sides before you get to your destination. There are the spots that reside most deeply in me, the ones of greatest effort, and the ones I don’t keep such clear recollections of, as I coast to the next challenge.
I have a mental map of the places where poison oak is more likely to be a problem, and the places where I have to pay even more attention to my footing (although every moment on the trail is a practice of constant attention), as well as a vivid map of where I have encountered rattlesnakes (I was almost disappointed not to see any this time, though I heard of several sightings close to the bathhouse over the course of days, and saw several other snakes alongside the creek – there was one that seemed to have its home right by the steps I was working on, which I saw every day; this was alright as long as I caught sight of it before it slithered right by me in the water, something which is always most disconcerting on an instinctive level).
Each time I ran the trail in one direction, and took photographs on the way back, sometimes trotting, sometimes stopped in wonder, sometimes just walking along. By normal standards, that is not a lot of distance to run, but there was enough elevation to make it count; unless you are living there, it is hard to have that much climbing in your legs. I toyed with the idea of trying to run up to the bath-tub (three miles up the road), but was tired enough to let that go.
I chatted about running with some of the current residents who have that practice, and reminisced about how, when I was living there and taking vacations in San Francisco, running in the city seemed ridiculously easy. I half-hoped I would have that feeling when I went out yesterday to cover the course of today’s Roaming Zen. I always aim to do this scouting run before taking people out on the route, even if it is a part of the city I know well; it just gets it into my body in a way that means I don’t have to think about it during the roam itself.
The weather has been fine all week, so it was pretty warm, though the breeze took the edge off the heat. Getting off the bus at Alta Plaza I made my way down to the Palace of Fine Arts, across to Crissy Field, up to the bridge, then along the cliffs. The Battery to Bluffs trail was still closed off at the same point as it had been several months ago, but I decided to risk it, and there was little peril in doing so – going down the sand ladder subsequently to Baker Beach seemed more treacherous. And on to Land’s End, feeling a little uneasy (I have a theory that I prefer to run and ride in a clockwise direction, which I certainly prefered to do in London when I would run up to the Thames, always along the South Bank, long before it was fully developed as a pedestrian thoroughfare, from Vauxhall to Bermondsey rather than the other way around) and eventually pretty tired.
Having arrived at the N Judah turnaround for the streetcar which would take me home, I had a very long wait. Again, I toyed with the idea of running all the way home, but since I was not in a hurry to be anywhere, I thought better of it. I hope the service is better tonight.

DSCF8268.jpg
At the Wind Caves the trail runs along the ledge of rock.

DSCF8883.jpg
The first meadow up from the road on the Horse Pasture, sinuous but almost flat.

Katagiri Roshi

‘We can see the original principle of existence in the life of a tree, a pebble, snow, the seasons, and other forms in nature. This principle is what-is-just-is-of-itself, before it runs through our consciousness. This original principle as a manifestation of buddha is not separate from the form of trees, form of pebbles, form of the seasons or the form of everyday routine. It is always manifested and completed. “Completed” means there is no excuse, because it is completed in every single form of existence. It’s there, speaking. Trees are always speaking about the original principle or Buddha. This is called Dharma or teaching. Everything becomes a teaching for us. We realize the Buddha in every single existence. We realize all sentient beings are buddha.’ (Returning to Silence)

DSCF4981 (1).jpg
A fine old tree on Ealing Common in London demonstrating the point perfectly.

Hui-neng

‘If people question you about principles, if they ask about being, reply with nonbeing; if they ask about nonbeing, reply with being. If they ask about the ordinary, reply with the holy; if they ask about the holy, reply with the ordinary; the two paths are relative to each other, producing the principle of the middle way. As with one question and answer, do the same for other questions, and you won’t lose the principle.’ (The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch)

Hui-neng rather lets the cat out of the bag with this one…

DSCF5837 copy.jpg
Each time I passed this sign by my mother’s mobile home in Hereford, I thought that any self-respecting Buddhist blogger would take a picture to illustrate a point…

Loving the Mountains

Being at Tassajara feels like a skin I put on, and most times it feels like the skin I am most myself in, where I can easily embody my version of practice, in the monastery and in the mountains. It was, as usual, a very physical experience: I came back to San Francisco with a fair amount of bodily fatigue, various scratches and dings, any number of deer fly bites, and dabs of poison oak; somewhat more tanned than when I left, also a few pounds heavier, at a guess, from eating so much. I would not have it any other way; this is why I love being there.

My time was divided into two parts, and they were both rich and enjoyable. The first week I was leading retreats, first with Ann where we took twenty people around the Horse Pasture, and most of them up to the Wind Caves the next day – a few of them preferred to take it easy, making us think we should add an extra day next year. The weather was a little kinder for hiking than last year; there were abundant flowers of all types, and more butterflies than I can remember seeing, positive clouds of them gathering at little water holes. The creek was running more healthily than for the last few years, and Cabarga Creek, the waterfalls and other water courses were all still active, unusually so for this time of year. The days that followed with Lirio were a little slower, with her very therapeutic style of yoga, and a bigger group, which made it a little hard to connect with everybody. I loved getting both sets of retreatants to slow down to the pace of the valley, to sit in the zendo, the retreat hall, by the creek and on the trails, and to have a chance to share the joys of Tassajara with them, as well as once again spending time with two teachers I admire so much.

Once we had said goodbye to the second group, I turned my attention to taking photographs, and also spending a few hours each day in the creek at the bathhouse, where the old steps to the water had been washed away with the winter rains. I had wanted to do some work on these anyway, and now I had the excuse and the time; I found enough hefty rocks to wrestle into place, trying not to undo all the good work that a week of yoga had done on my alignment. When I am working with rocks, it is easy for me to over-exert myself as I try to finish a section or get a huge rock properly settled, but I made sure not to continue too long, and to space out the trail-running I did as part of the photography so as not to get too tired.

There was also the physical work of sitting for more than an hour each morning; longer than I have sat recently, and for eleven days straight as well; my backside suffered more than my legs, but it did get easier. The first morning I was there, I was asked to be doshi as Greg was away, and it was a pleasure to let my body remember how to do the jundo and service, and to find again the dignified posture that wearing priest robes requests of a person. I was able to do a couple more morning services before I left, and it always feels special to be standing in the middle with a kotsu.
Beyond that I managed to spend a lot of time reading, mostly preparing for my classes, and I met with a few students, some of whom I had talked with before, other who were new to me, but who wanted to ask about some aspect of my practice as they clarified their own path.

It was also interesting to watch how quickly the magical effects could dissipate; it started with sitting in slow traffic all the way up from San Jose to the East Bay – Friday afternoon rush hour. At the BART station where I was dropped off, I ran up the stairs to jump on the train at the platform, closely following someone else, and even though I saw the driver looking down the platform at us, he started shutting the doors as I entered. Pushing them apart with my elbow caused a malfunction. The carriage was full of Warriors fans – pre-game, they were pretty ebullient, and in the mood for light-hearted banter – and I had to hold up my hands and apologise out loud to everyone as the train was delayed several minutes until a few of us managed to wrangle the door shut by realigning the rubber seals. When I finally got home and went online, I discovered that an expected payment had not gone through to my bank, and I had been running an overdraft the whole time I had been away, which horrified me – and also left me unable to go out and buy food until my house-mate loaned me some money.

That bad mood lasted until I got myself out on my bike the next morning, enjoying the sun in Golden Gate Park, rolling down to the ocean, glad to be sharing the space with other human powered morning people. The ride was partly a reconnaissance for the Bicycle Roaming Zen the next day, which was very sweet: riding car free from the Panhandle to the Zoo; a small group of us pedalled in the sun and the wind, sat in the rose garden, at Ocean beach and beside the polo field, drinking in the sun, and the peaceful feeling of the city.

DSCF8921.jpg
I took about 1500 photographs, but these were perhaps my favourites, as the clouds gathered on my penultimate day while I was out on the Horse Pasture trail – the light was amazingly different to the usual endless summer brightness and strong shadows. The waterfall behind the Suzuki Roshi memorial is just visible in the exposed rock, and the white patch at the bottom of all the hills is the zendo roof.

DSCF8963.jpg
A little further along, on the other side of the Flag Rock Ridge, looking south east over the trail, to Indian Station Road and Junipero Serra Peak.