Sitting in the rain

It say something about the climate in California that it took a little over five months for Zachary and I to need to put a wet weather plan into effect. For sure, on a couple of autumnal Mondays, it had been cloudy or damp enough to have us worried, and once it even started raining right after we had packed away the cushions, but last Monday was the first time the forecast had rain all day. And rain all day it did, which did not make for my having much fun riding to the jail in the afternoon and to meet students in the evening.  I did not ride downtown for the sit – I had taken a friend to the airport very early on Friday morning, kept the car over the weekend, and picked her up on Monday morning, which reminded me afresh that I find freeway driving in heavy rain much more stressful than riding my bike in the same conditions.
In any case, the timing of it all worked out perfectly for me to be downtown, a little damp around the edges, in one of the many POPOSes. I had not actually visited the space before, at 2nd Street and Mission, but it lived up to its billing as a spacious, and most importantly covered, atrium, where people were mostly eating their lunch – either in pairs, conversing, or solo, looking at their phones. A mandolin player busked away by the entrance, which made for a more focused sit than did the general murmur of conversation when he stopped.
Zachary and I both enjoyed the sit, even if no-one else who had hoped to be there actually made it. Today’s forecast looks better, though Zachary is away, and without him I cannot bring cushions for everybody, so we will be sitting on the big concrete blocks by the seawall next to our usual grassy spot, if you are able to come along.


IMG_3781 copyWe still got to sit under a tree.


Christmas with Coyotes

It would be an exaggeration to say that I was woken up on Christmas morning by coyotes howling on the hillsides around Wilbur at first light; I had already been awake for a couple of hours and had my breakfast. Still, the noise was not one I had ever heard before, nor one I associated with Christmas, and I took one of the free bikes and rode up toward the parking lot to see if I could see any of them, but in vain.
I have happy memories of childhood Christmases with my family, but since I am several thousand miles away from them these days, and have not been back in England for Christmas since 2005, I don’t really go for festivities so much any more. And much as I love the traditional carols (I invoked In The Bleak Midwinter during one of my little talks, since the bright, slightly chilly days of the weekend in the part of California we were in are a far cry from the colder, darker days of my upbringing), I am always happy to avoid the constant piping of festive music in the run-up to the 25th. Spending the season at Tassajara was always a great way to do that, and I was also reminiscing about a trip I took to Zanzibar in December twenty years ago, where the only carols I heard were at the airport in Doha, which seemed entirely incongruous.
Wilbur was a good place for that too; signs of the holidays were few and far between. There was plenty of good cheer, though that is almost always the case up there.
I was happy to have the chance, once again, to get out of the city, and start my quiet last week of the year with some sitting, some soaking, and some running.

The main building at Wilbur at first light on the 25th.

I didn’t take too many other pictures, but here are a couple of the creek – and a tributary – further up the valley.

The Monastic Life

I don’t remember how exactly I came across this passage, but it was probably a couple of weeks ago while I was sifting through my computer archives for pictures that I could print out and send as Christmas cards. In any case, it comes from a letter that I wrote to a loved one in the spring of 2008, as I prepared to leave Tassajara after my second two-year stretch, before I moved to City Center to become the tenzo (I seem to recall, if you wonder why I would be writing on my laptop when Tassajara famously has no internet access, that I would put the words, and perhaps a few photos, on a thumb-drive, and send them out in the mail whenever Keith came in).
I was surprised to read these words, not for the content, which feels very familiar, and still true, but for the fact that I felt that way at the time – in the way I tell the story now, as I do on the Roaming Zen page here, I thought the feeling came more to light during my next spell of monastic training in 2012:

‘I do love life here, as you know, and have been thinking about how many amazing things have happened in the last month, it’s just that very few of them happened in the zendo. I just have to keep remembering that life here is not just about sitting, though I want to make the most of this opportunity to do so much, but also about the beautiful expeditions and the crazy weather, and the bathhouse and the stars and hot water bottles and playing with rocks and studying with a cup of coffee and all those other things.’

The ridge with snow.jpg
This is one of the pictures I sent family and friends for Christmas – the wonderful experience of driving out of Tassajara at the end of a three-month practice period and having deep, almost untouched snow up on the ridge. It was not like that when we went in last week

D laying concrete.jpg
I came across this picture from roughly that time period while looking for something else recently; it isn’t exactly playing with rocks, but it was part of putting together the largest wall I worked on at Tassajara, below the old bathhouse bathrooms, which had been washed away several times. With some help from a concrete crew – notably Antoine in the background, who was back at Tassajara this last practice period after some years away – I put in a mortared wall below where the hot spring water pipes ran, and then dry stone walling for the rest – the space on the left of the picture. It is almost entirely intact, though I didn’t top off robustly enough in a couple of places.

Ceremonies and Rituals

I have been in my robes more often this past week or so than is often the case, and with the full ceremonial white kimono and bessu arrangement each time. After the City Center shuso ceremony, I was back there on Friday for Jana’s funeral. It was a stately occasion, with a mix of Zen Center people from years gone by, sangha members from Jikoji where she spent her last years, friends, students and colleagues, invoking her big-hearted practice and compassionate action, and not neglecting her spiky side.

The following day I presided over a memorial ceremony for someone I knew through Zen Center who had died far too young, which was a deeply emotional event for everyone. I read the passage from Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind where Suzuki Roshi talked about visiting Yosemite, and used the waterfall and the river as a metaphor for life and death, which seemed the most appropriate passage from a book that person had loved.

For both of those events, I ended up walking through the city in my robes, which is an illuminating thing to do. People seem confused about how to respond to the sight (though as I approach the Castro other reactions sometimes come to the fore), and I notice how my self-consciousness blends into awareness of how I carry myself when I am wearing them (which is partly dictated by having to manage the sleeves).

On Monday, Jamie, Tim, Nancy and I journeyed down to Tassajara together for their shuso ceremony. Jamie was kind enough to rent a vehicle for the occasion, and I had gone along to collect it with him, as he wanted me to drive over the road, and some of the way back. Having our own vehicle certainly made the day a little shorter and smoother (the fact that the ceremony was a snappy one, clocking in at less than two hours also helped). But still, we left at six and got back at eight, with more than half of that time spent in the car; I ended up driving over the road both ways, and most of the way home as well, which my body felt afterwards.

The weather was bright and clear, and since we were running early, we were able to stop on the road and breathe some fresh mountain air. Once we got down into the valley, there were many friends to talk to, and lovely things to eat.

Yuki was on the platform; we could hear her repeating the questions back to herself to make sure she had understood them, in her second language, and giving firm clear answers. When she turned to the former shuso side of the zendo, it was clear how focused and open she was; she sailed through without meeting any firm opposition. In one of her answers Yuki had noted that she was an introvert, so in my congratulations I mentioned that, while I had rarely managed to get a picture of her, I was going to be making up for it after the ceremony, as indeed I did.

There was time for a bathe, and to jump in the creek at least for a moment, before lunch and more conversations and the goodbyes which always come all too quickly, as we have to hit the road again.

The view south from the ridge is always breathtaking.

We also stopped at Lime Point, a couple of thousand feet lower. The lack of rain this winter meant that the road was in pretty good shape overall.

Looking up to Flag Rock from Tassajara – the weather has not been severe enough to strip the leaves from the trees.

It is hard to convince people who only come to Tassajara in the summer that the sun never reaches the buildings along the creek in the middle of winter- it was still significantly colder in the shade when we arrived.

The zendo set up for the ceremony, from the west side, where the senior staff and former shusos sit. The shuso’s platform is in the middle, facing the senior dharma teacher’s seat.

Yuki and her teacher, Tenshin Roshi.

Not the first picture I have where Yuki is trying to hide.

Yuki's botany lesson
I referenced this moment in my congratulations: Yuki, in her first practice period in 2008, offering a botany lesson to Linda Ruth down by Cabarga Creek. I referred to her as explaining about moss; after the ceremony, she corrected me to say it was liverwort.

I notice from the backstage pages that this is the 800th post on this blog (and if I was more of a perfectionist, I could edit it a little to make it exactly 800 words!). I know that readership is not huge, but I am still very happy to write and to share things that feel valuable for me, and I know that these things are read all over the world. Thank you for taking the time to visit.

The Rhythms Of The City

Seeing an advertisement the other day for a company that makes beautiful and expensive things reminded me of an afternoon I spent downtown, perhaps a year ago. I was meeting someone and going out to dinner, but went early to allow myself time to take photographs of the Financial District in low winter sunshine; the area was fairly quiet, since it was the weekend, but this company’s store was open, so I had a look around and chatted with a person working there. All the objects were tasteful and well-made, and would make wonderful gifts; I could not afford any of them, and besides, I didn’t feel that they would necessarily enhance my life if I owned them.

It is a couple of years now since I left residential practice at Zen Center; my life continues to feel fluid as I piece together teaching assignments and other work in a way that feels satisfying and also allows me to live in one of the most expensive cities in the world.
I have never wanted to completely trade my time for money earned; this article from a few months ago, and this one more recently allow me to feel some affirmation about the choices I am making, but even so, my monastic training and temperament have long steered me in that direction.

I have lived in San Francisco for more than ten years, and I still find joy in living here: the weather has been very stable for the past couple of weeks – clear skies with warm sunshine in the middle of the day, high pressure and an east wind, the last full moon bringing king tides. This allows me to ride my bike without worrying about getting soaked, and to plan hikes; to watch monarchs and hummingbirds flitting around blooming flowers as we approach the shortest day of the year – so different to my experience of winters growing up in England, and, I have to acknowledge, much better for my well-being. It also, of course, enables wildfires that are devastating large parts of southern California, at a time of year when things should be too damp to burn, and means that reservoir and snow packs will be depleted again.

Recently I had again been feeling the need to go downtown and take more pictures: each time I ride down to our lunchtime meditation, I have been watching the latest swathe of construction south of Market take shape – the biggest of them all, the Salesforce building, now looks finished from the outside, though I suspect there is a long way to go before it is open. If I think back to ten years ago, I could not count the number of empty plots of land that have been developed around the city – there were more than a dozen within a few blocks of Zen Center – and the sense of progress, crowding and enrichment (for some) is quite tangible, and almost claustrophobic, these days. And still there are also quieter, simpler, and more stable experiences of the city to be found.

On my thrice-weekly commute across the bay, I get to say hello to the other cyclist who regularly makes for the last car of the train; and if the regular driver is working (I hadn’t quite figured this out when I wrote the previous article, but I realised soon afterwards), I enjoy the warmth of her voice, which reminds me of Viola Davis, as she calls the stations. There are couple of other drivers whose announcing style I recognise, especially the one who likes to leave a dramatic pause: ‘The destination of this train is – – – – Richmond.’ When we emerge from the Trans-Bay tunnel, I always lift my head from my book to see what the skies are doing on the east side of the bay.
Running to Twin Peaks, I enjoy the ravens throwing themselves into the wind, and the comprehensive views across the city, before the rapid descent down steep staircases that take me back to the low-lying street where I live.
Shopping for food (pretty much the only stores I go into regularly), I enjoy seeing the same workers I have seen over the years – especially at Rainbow – and running into people I know, which reminds me that this is a small city.
Of course I don’t always feel spacious enough to enjoy what is going on around me, but when it happens, it always feels like life is rich.


Walking around south of Market last week, catching the light as it falls between the tall buildings.

A view of the Oakland docks on a recent morning, taken from the BART train.

Ravens always seem to rule the roost on Twin Peaks and Mount Sutro.

Now Hear The Shuso

The first of the season’s shuso ceremonies took place at City Center last Saturday afternoon. Allison was up on the seat, answering questions, being honestly herself, and being asked by the former shusos, in their congratulatory statements, to take in how much she was loved by everybody. As always, it was nice to put on my robes and take my seat in the assembly to watch this unfold, to chant the Heart Sutra slowly with everybody, and to have a good natter over dinner later. Those who has just ended their week of sesshin were happy to be talking, sharing stories and observations. We all got to appreciate the unveiling of a new teacher, someone who has worked and practised hard to transform her suffering into compassion and loving-kindness.

Allison wanted to have a picture on the front steps, as has been done occasionally before, but it was dark by the time we finished, so I had to try to herd everyone into place in the Buddha Hall…

Allison and Abbot Ed

Allison gets to be the centre of attention at the dinner afterwards as well.

Too good not to photograph – I suspect this will show up on the Zen Center website soon enough.

Under the Stars

I don’t remember how long it has been since I sat and looked at the Milky Way. At Wilbur and Tassajara, in the middle of the summer, generally speaking I do not stay up late enough for it to get really dark. Sometimes if I woke up in the middle of the night, or before it got light, I would go outside to be dazzled, but only briefly.

On Friday I arrived at Wilbur towards the end of daylight. The sun had been cutting into a few open spots on the Cache Canyon, setting the yellow trees ablaze. Once it had dropped behind the hills, you could feel the temperature dropping rapidly towards freezing. A far cry from the 112 degrees the last time I was there; in the morning, a hard frost was visible on the plants and the roofs.
The little tub by the fountain is a great place to sit at any time, with the valley stretching away in front of you. To watch the light drain from the sky on Friday after arriving, and have myriad stars come alive, including a few shooting stars – that beautiful space debris – was deeply peaceful, in a way that I last felt during my days in Sagres. I was glad to feel connected to that sense of spacious ease again, as it had felt in short supply in the city since my return. There was no hurry to be anywhere else, and so I gazed upwards for a couple of hours.

As often happens, I slept deeply, with manifold dreams, as if my mind was unraveling many stories I have been holding. During the meditation sessions I talked of boundlessness and the ‘body exposed to the golden wind’. I hiked in the morning sun under blue skies, and ran up to the ridge again as Sunday clouded over ahead of a rainy night, deeply quiet apart from a few small birds. On the way down I gathered a few chestnuts, and as my legs tired on the valley trail, I looked forward to one last soak.

Steam rising from the water as the morning temperatures hovered at freezing.

The creek in the early sun

Rain had turned some of the grasses green.

Autumnal colours on the valley sides.

Heading out on Bear Valley Road on a damp Monday morning.