Embodying The Dharma

The second and last shuso ceremony of this season was at Green Gulch on Monday. Zachary and I had consulted, and figured that we could pack up our cushions, head on over right after the lunch-time outdoor sit, and be there in good time; it all worked out as well as we had hoped.
It was a lovely spring day at Green Gulch, just as it had been the Monday before at Tassajara, and I got pretty warm in the zendo as we sat through the questions and congratulations.
I have been to a few shuso ceremonies there now, but mostly I haven’t been able to stay for dinner. Zachary took off after the ceremony, but luckily Tova offered me a later ride, meaning I could stay and chat, and then indulge in the the pizza and ice cream, which, as I hadn’t really had any lunch, went down very well.
Bryan was the shuso; he and I go back a dozen years, as he arrived at Tassajara in 2006 – along with Thiemo and Steph, who were around with their two adorable kids – right when I was settling in for my second two-year stretch. Mostly what I remember, and very fondly, are the many hours we spent running together on the trails over those two years; he had to wait for me often enough, being quite a few years younger as well as being a great natural athlete. I can only remember one time, the No Race in 2008, when he was off-form, and I was almost slowing for him so we could finish together. There were many other adventures as well, especially around the 2008 fire, as we scouted on the peaks, climbing Hawk Mountain or the Tony Trail every day.
I haven’t heard him give a dharma talk yet, so I don’t know how he fares in that respect, but I know that he was a great monk, throwing himself whole-heartedly into everything, and embodying the teaching just by doing that. And that is what it is all about, at least in my book.

Down into the clouds 3
I am very glad that I took my camera on some of the runs we did. This was a morning we ran to the top of the road, and in doing so climbed above the cloud level, which was at about 3000 feet, into clear blue skies. Running back down into the clouds was quite dream-like.

Bryan Tony Trail
This was a particularly narrow and slippery part of the Tony Trail, which we had almost certainly climbed to the top of before descending.

Bryan at the horse camp upper Willow Creek
This was a lovely section of oak meadow up Willow Creek, past the other end of the Tony trail, about five miles from Tassajara.

Bryan descends Hawk Mountain
After the 2008 fire, Bryan and I climbed up Hawk Mountain and discovered that nothing was left of the old telephone transmitter. Then we scrambled down again.

Driving the road day 1 Bryan hits the mountain
One time I had got a Suburban stuck in a ditch in the snow as I tried to drive Jordan out. I ran a couple of miles back down to Tassajara and Bryan brought up the lumber truck with the winch, but even that struggled nearer the top. We eventually gave up, and tried again the next day.

Bryan with Fu and Zenju, who were co-leading the practice period at Green Gulch.

Bryan, with Mako (who was a big part of those years at Tassajara), helping the dish crew by saving on dishes.

There were more flowers on the farm than on my last visit.

Dharma friends on the path. I suspect this will get used in many Zen Center publications…


Redbuds with Friends

My weekend at Wilbur, with a drive of more then two hours in each direction (thankfully the traffic was pretty light overall) was followed by a long Monday driving to Tassajara and back. Zachary and I left the city at 5:30 in the Jeep I had borrowed, swinging by Pacific Grove to pick up Djinn, who had just been in Tassajara for the last sesshin and was staying with a friend. Traffic was also not a problem, so we arrived at Jamesburg about forty minutes before the scheduled time for the stages in; having consulted with Leslie, who said it would help with her planning, we continued over the road.
It could not have been a more beautiful spring morning at Tassajara. I was glad to have the time to wander round for a while before the pre-ceremony tea, taking pictures and catching up with friends who had been down at the practice period.
Heather made short work of the ceremony, and was widely congratulated by the former shusos for her real openness and tenderness. In my congratulations, I reminisced about staying with her in Brooklyn three summers ago, when she was at a bit of a crossroads in her practice life; I don’t think either of us foresaw at all how things would turn out for her, but it is wonderful to see how it has.
There was time for a bathe – I jumped right into the creek straight away, and then hung out chatting in the outdoor plunge with Zachary, Simon and David until lunch, with great food and many more conversations before we got away.
Driving out was a little more challenging. We got stuck at the hardest part of the road, when I hesitated about the line to take over a shelf of rock, and the wheels spun into the dirt. It took a few minutes of digging, planning, and holding my breath before I could drive the Jeep almost sideways to the edge of the mountain and then keep enough momentum to get me over the tough spot.
All in all I was at the wheel for a little more than eight hours, which seemed fine at the time with the great company, but left me absolutely exhausted the next day. As I always say, though, it was totally worth it.

A redbud down at the end of the main path.

Another one by the stone cabins.

The creek at the bathhouse looked pretty healthy, and was very fresh.

Former shusos arriving for the ceremony.

Heather, with the fan, between Paul and Tanya, who was the jisha, and is also Heather’s wife.

The Moon Reflected In The Water

Driving up to Wilbur last Friday, in hazy sunshine, the spring colours brought to mind one of those Sisley or Pissarro paintings that I enjoyed discovering in my youth. The Capay valley was bright green, and then the highway was studded with redbuds the length of the canyon, the vivid pinks almost shocking.
Even though I arrived in the middle of the afternoon, I could not bring myself to go out for a run right away, but instead relaxed in the pools, where, after dinner, the full moon rose in a smudge of clouds, shimmering in the water.
I slept long and deep, as sometimes happens at Wilbur, and relished the eighty degree weather each day. The meditation sessions were well attended, and a couple of times the discussion gained some real depth, giving me the chance to meet people fully, which is always rewarding.
I did run on Saturday, in the middle of the day, which made for hot work getting up to the ridge. This time I was more worried about rattlesnakes than hunters (though we did hear gunshots the next day), and in the end saw nothing more dangerous than a squirrel. The ridge was also home to many redbuds, a carpet of lupins on the schoolhouse trail, and other flowers I recognise but could not identify.
The next time I visit will be the end of June, when the temperatures will be even higher, and the flora a little less fresh. I am sure I will find it just as restorative.

Almond blossoms on the 505.

The path from the baths to the campsite, which was full along with the rest of Wilbur.

I thought of the title for this post, having been discussing Xuedou’s poems and the similar image from the Genjo Koan with my students, so I thought I should take a picture to match – this is the setting moon on Sunday morning.

First sun on Sunday morning, illuminating the path to the yoga deck where we sit.

First sun at the big pool, which was warm enough to be in at all hours of the day.

Redbuds and Rain Showers

It was a quirk of the calendar that I ended up back at Wilbur just two weekends after my last visit. Spring seemed to have hardly moved along at all up there, though the road was now muddy and slippery in several places after the rain through the week. Driving up on Friday I had managed to stay ahead of some of the showers, and much of the heavy traffic – driving towards a rainbow on Highway 80 in the East Bay, and catching the first of the redbuds at the Rumsey end of Cache Creek Canyon just as the heaviest of the downpours hit in the late afternoon.

Saturday was another day of rain and clouds, but Sunday saw a hard frost and clear skies that made it just warm enough to lie out on the deck in the middle of the day. I had reasonable numbers for the sitting including, not for the first time, someone who had sat with me on a previous visit, as well as at least one person who was sitting for the very first time.

As part of the vicarious marathon training, I accompanied my friend on a twelve-mile run on Saturday. The simplest thing seemed to be to run down to the road bridge a mile from the springs, and take a left turn up Bear Valley Road, which seems on the map to continue north indefinitely. I had run a mile or so up it once before, but this time I was in uncharted territory.
After a little rise a couple more miles along, suddenly the valley opened up in front of us, long straight, with beautiful tones of grasses, hills and low clouds. We ran two more miles of a long straight, then the road turned ninety degrees to the left and crossed the valley and the creek to the other side. Where the ninety-degree turn to the right took the road north again, we turned for home, battling weary legs and a slight headwind, happy to be back after a couple of hours work-out to eat and soak. I was a little stiff for my next sitting…

On Monday morning it was 24 degrees as the sun came up and I prepared to leave. I poured hot water on the windows of the car I was borrowing, to melt the ice, something I don’t remember doing since I was a kid in England. One upside was that the mud on the road was frozen solid. Having dropped off the car a couple of hours later, I retrieved my bicycle to get to BART, across the bay, to the Bicycle Coalition to borrow one of their trailers (a perk for members), back home, where I loaded up eight zafu and four goza mats, and rode over to the Embarcadero to set up for the lunch-time sitting.
In the end, no-one joined me this week; this was my first time alone on the cushions, but I have been doing this long enough that I was far from feeling self-conscious. The hour seemed to pass more quickly and more comfortably than often happens. California being as it is, it was warm enough in the city to sit with short sleeves.

Early morning rabbit in front of the red house at Wilbur.

DSCF7347.jpgHard frost on the Bear Valley Road on Monday morning.

New Moon and Shooting Stars

When I give zazen instruction, as I did last weekend at Wilbur, I always tell people to notice which leg they put in front (if they are sitting Burmese), or which foot feels easier to have on the thigh (if they are sitting half-lotus), and to switch out to see how it feels on the other side. In the Fukanzazengi, Dogen neglects to suggest this, but contemporary teachers tend to recommend it.

It is always interesting to see the preferences our bodies lean towards, and the asymmetries they can reveal. It doesn’t feel unrelated to me that many years ago I noticed I had a similar bias when I was running, in that I prefered running clockwise circuits (it was not the only reason I didn’t like track running, but it might not have helped). I first became aware of this on a fan-shaped route I used to take from my home in South London to Vauxhall, along the banks of the Thames to Bermondsey and then down to the south – this was in the late eighties and early nineties when the bankside path was not fully fleshed out in the way it is now, and there were some very dark and unused sections in those days, as well as places where you had to come up to the road level instead of being able to stay under the bridges. At first I thought it had to do with following the river downstream, which seemed to help my own flow, but then I noticed the preference come up in other places as well.

At Wilbur, one of my standard runs is up to the medicine wheel, and I did that on Saturday afternoon. Though I have run the route quite a few times now, I have always gone clockwise: up the fire road, and down the Smelter Trail, so this time I was determined to do it the other way. I knew there were a couple of places I would have to pay attention so as not to head the wrong way, but the trail was pretty clear at this time of year. I could also see the notch in the hill I was heading for, which made it easier. Being a trail, some parts of it were steeper than the road, and also, since it was ending up at the same elevation, some parts of it were flatter, so it was a different kind of workout to the more steady climb I am used to. The narrowness of the trail also gave me the illusion of greater speed, a phenomenon I am very aware of both for running and riding – being in a wide open space makes you feel discouraged at your seeming lack of progress. I felt pretty good at the top, and knew I could coast down and enjoy the return. Once thing I did not change though – I always pick up a rock on the way up, to leave at some part of the wheel, and I always circumambulate the wheel, as any sacred spot, clockwise (there is a whole other post I could write about that, and how there are different ideas of how to bow at the altars at Zen Center).

Friday night and morning had been close to freezing, the new moon allowing the stars to appear abundantly, but as the sun rose (and it was high enough above the hillside to shine on the yoga deck for the sitting, which did not happen in January), the temperatures rose to seventy degrees. Later on Saturday, and all the way through to Sunday evening, there was a strong north-westerly wind, much stronger than I am used to here. It even brought a few showers of hailstones on Sunday afternoon, which provided an unexpected soundtrack to the sitting.

After sitting I did my longer run, up to the ridge; since I am accompanying a friend on some of her marathon training runs, I feel I need to keep my own mileage up. Now that I have successfully completed the ridge route three or four times, it does not feel so daunting, but I knew I would also be running into the wind along the spine of the ridge; luckily the hail seemed to have sent the hunters home – we had heard sporadic gunfire as well while we were sitting, and I was poised to blow my whistle loudly if I heard any shots while I was out. This is one route I alternate without much preference – coming from the schoolhouse end, anti-clockwise, as I did on my last visit, the climb to the ridge is harder, but the various undulations on the ridge might be a little better spaced out; coming past the medicine wheel is easier, and after a flat section at the ridge the next slope is steep and fairly relentless. In either case, the views are outstanding; the sun was low, illuminating some slopes, clouds moving by.

There even some early blossoms – redbud on the sheltered side of the hill, and along the ridge, one little shooting star. A wonderful harbinger of spring, which may be further along on my next visit. I awoke early on Monday morning, and as I sat in the outdoor plunge, a celestial shooting star lit up the sky for a moment. Hard to say which is more beautiful.

The moon on Friday evening.


Early morning sun on Saturday

Set Fair

Last week I had dokusan with Fu, which is a way for me to check in about my practice, and stay accountable with Zen Center. The last time I met with her in December my mood was a little fragile, and I felt unsure about several aspects of my life. As I thought about the things that have happened since then, and the internal shifts I have made, it was a salutary reminder that moods are no more stable than the weather.
Our little corner of California has been sunny and warm for some time now – though the temperatures dropped a notch on Sunday as I discovered to my cost when I went riding in the morning and wished I had thought of winter gloves and a hat – and my disposition has also been good. The weather is a contributing factor for that, without a doubt; the fact that I could ride around in shorts, T-shirts and espadrilles most of last week gave me a real sense of ease.
There is also the fact that I have been house-sitting for a couple of weeks, and the part of Berkeley I am in is conveniently close to where I work, and to a couple of friends, so I have been enjoying rides on streets that are basically traffic-free – quite a contrast to my rides around San Francisco on the whole.
Another factor is that there are two dogs and five cats as part of the household I am taking care of. After the longish ride over the East Bay Hills on Sunday, which I have only ridden a couple of times before (though it was also where I spent some time helping with filming a couple of years ago – and I was also very aware again of how covering the terrain on a bike leaves a much deeper impression than driving it), I spent most of the day on the couch watching football with two cats lying on me and two dogs next to me – I could not help but be relaxed.
There are other things which are going well also; I am being more sociable than usual, and that feels good. No doubt the rain will come again (California certainly needs it), but I will enjoy this fair weather while it lasts (just typing out the words brought that old-loved song to mind).

I took my camera with me to Green Gulch when I went to see Fu, hoping for blossoms. It was a certainly a fine morning:


Moon and Stars

The Bay Area weather could not be better at the moment, with high pressure and warm breezes taking the temperature up to the seventies; the clear, still skies seem very relaxing to me, and it is hard to believe it is the beginning of February, though I think I have the same response every year around this time.

At Wilbur last weekend, I set off for a run almost as soon as I had unpacked. Since I wasn’t able to stay until Monday morning this time, Friday afternoon seemed to offer the most suitable stretch of time, so I took off for the ridge in order to be back before it got dark. I felt better going along the top, with all the little climbs, than I can remember on my previous efforts, but I was quite stiff afterwards.

There was a fair amount of sun over the weekend so the middle of the day was pleasant, but it was definitely cold around the edges. Fewer people came to the meditation sessions, perhaps because it still felt chilly to be outside for the morning one, and the afternoon one was right at the end of the daytime warmth. Still, I had lovely conversations with people, including one woman whose family had a cabin at Tanbark, down Miller Canyon from China Camp on the road to Tassajara (as I said to her, very few people at Tassajara had any idea there were cabins there, and I only discovered them when I went exploring by mountain bike and was getting bored of just riding up and down the road).

On Sunday morning I was awake at five, and went out to float in the outdoor pool, happy to wake up slowly and gently, under the endless stars. As the sun came up, the waters steamed photogenically.

On Wednesday morning, back in the city, I got up early to see the lunar eclipse, the first one I have watched since being at Tassajara, I guess in 2008, when Linda Ruth led us all out of the zendo to the moon lawn to watch the spectacle. This one had the added selling points of being a supermoon and a blue moon – though in reality it was rust coloured – and watching it was worth the tiredness later in the day.