Taking Refuge in Sangha

In contrast to the previous flight on my trip, when I landed back at Gatwick after the stay in Belfast clouds were piling up as a new weather system moved in. That evening, as my friends and I set out for an Indian dinner, we needed umbrellas in a sudden downpour, and rain re-appeared throughout the weekend, especially overnight, though much of the remaining time was sunny.

It was a fairly packed few days, with many miles of walking, artist open houses, a film, a concert, a joyful parade for the local football team who have been promoted to the Premier League; we also watched a fair amount of football and the Eurovision Song Contest (not an event I have much cared for over the years, though my friends do; it is largely an excuse for drinking and exercising critical faculties over some of the entrants). There was also a day spent sitting with the local group – eight of us were there, of whom I knew all but one, some from Tassajara, some from previous sits in England, and I felt warmly welcomed; I noticed that seven of us had rakusus, and that mine was the only one that had not been bestowed by Reb.

I did manage to repeat my run to Devil’s Dyke; with the memories of the route still in my body, it seemed less intimidating than before. Perhaps I was just a little fitter as well, but I had the measure of it. On the Sunday, since I was awake earlier than the others, I also went out for a run in the sun, back up the lovely Three Cornered Copse, awash with the subtle fragrance of cow parsley, a sentimental smell for me, past the windmill, and then back down to the sea and a few miles along the front from Brighton to Hove – which we also walked at midnight after the concert, as the moon came up, to end my last night away. Monday morning was also grey and drizzly, and I felt glad to leave that behind, though the California weather was not so great for the first day or so.

Now that I am back in San Francisco, I have a chance to reflect on the trip as a whole. One theme that came up for me was renewing acquaintances: all of the zen events I took part in were with groups I have met once before, mostly on my last trip, with Belfast, which I visited a few years ago, being the exception. It has felt great to reconnect with people, to hear more about where the groups are, and what they are hoping will happen in the future. Sitting and sharing the practice was rewarding each time; meeting people in England with whom I had done practice periods at Tassajara almost fifteen years ago gives a wonderful sense of the mahasangha, which as I often say to people, never dissipates, even if we are different places.

When people talk about taking refuge, it can often seem like a sense of retreat, of hiding away, but I got to see how taking refuge in sangha can feel like uplift and support – perhaps most especially with the joint talk we did in Belfast, and the effect it seemed to have on the participants.
I also got to see how communities of people can retreat and isolate: I remember when I first traveled to Spain, in the early eighties, I would look at the old people with wizened faces, invariably dressed in black, and wonder what they had seen and known of the civil war, which they had lived through fifty years previously. In Belfast, I looked at people my age and older and wondered what they had seen and known of the Troubles, a generation or more ago. It was poignant to watch The Journey while I was there, even more so to be taken around the city on my last day by a sangha member who had first-hand experience of life during those years, and vivid memories of events that took place in areas whose names I had heard on the news over many years as the epicentres of violence and death – the Falls Road, the Ardoyne, the Shankill Road. When I met people in Ireland I could not tell Protestant from Catholic, but locals knew many clues and cues, and the divide is still strong: I heard of painful fights over attempts to integrate schools just a few years ago, when the violence was supposedly in the past. This sense of segregation was reinforced by watching the deeply moving I Am Not Your Negro on the plane home, with its perhaps better-known scenes of violence around school integration, and an equal sense of the deep schisms that retrenchment has caused, with roots, like the Irish conflict, that go back several centuries as one group asserted power over another. From my position of safety and privilege, it is hard to know how to speak of healing and the wish for all people to be able to join together and feel safe. I do know that I can offer some help as a teacher, wherever I am, and whoever I am with, and this trip has reminded me of the value of that.

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Divided roads in the heart of Belfast.

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The joyful parade for Brighton and Hove Albion’s promotion reminded me of the Giants World Series celebrations.

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The sea front at a quieter moment.

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It is always a joy to see Greenland from the air, even if the ice is vanishing.

The Shipping Forecast

The skies cleared as I flew over the Welsh coast and Anglesey on Sunday morning, which set the tone for my time in Belfast. I was collected from the sleepy airport by some sangha members who were also attending the jukai at Benburb; we arrived in time for lunch, where the sesshin participants were partaking of the last silence. I was very happy to see a couple of St Bernards at the priory, the dogs we had when I was growing up, and of course even happier to see a number of friends, many of whom I had not expected to be there: Djinn and Richard, Garret and Esther, Ann, Myles, Nuala (who kindly hosted me for my visit and, along with Myles and three other sangha members, was receiving the precepts from Paul), Andre, Heather, Bai and Annette.

Last week I had a few very quiet days with my mother in Hereford; the weather was mostly sunny, but there was a persistent east wind that felt cold. I got outside every day, running my familiar loop along the Wye, past blossoming fields of apple trees and flowering riverside meadows, as well as exploring trails alongside smaller brooks at the edge of the city that were new to me. On Friday I returned to London, for a rewarding return visit to the Wimbledon group, with a full room of people getting their head around the Genjo Koan. After being taken to lunch with some of the group, I went to Alan’s house to record a podcast with him, which was a lot of fun, and which I will link to when it is up.

This week I have been sitting every morning with the Black Mountain sangha, and joining the relaxed tea and chat afterwards. On Tuesday, when Djinn usually gives a talk, she suggested that she, Ann and I do a round table discussion in the zendo, which was well attended and nice to participate in – we all riffed off each other easily, and had some great questions to ponder. I added the Lagan to the list of rivers I have run by – my limited geographical sense of the city was aided by starting to walk around, and I felt confident enough to do a loop of Ormeau Park and then head to Langan Meadows on the towpath cycle route, and back via Belvoir Park, all of which felt a long way from the city.

On Wednesday, the last full day, we went up to Malin Head. Ann and I had independently had the idea of wanting to see it (I had watched a television programme while staying with my mother which featured it, and of course know it from its role in the shipping forecast), and Djinn was willing to drive the hundred miles each way with us. We stopped in Derry for lunch and a walk around the walls, then drove across the increasingly rugged terrain to Ireland’s most northerly point, which was uncharacteristically warm and sunny, with very little wind.

The last leg of this lengthy journey is going to be in Brighton (Hove actually), to stay with old BBC friends, and to sit with the Brighton group on Saturday, where I expect to meet some old sangha friends, and hopefully run up to Devil’s Dyke again, before the long flight home.


The cathedral at Hereford from the banks of the Wye.


Fields of rape seed outside Hereford 


The sesshin group at Benburb on Sunday afternoon, featuring some brand new rakusus.


A patch of bluebells in Ormeau Park.


One of the many beautiful views at Malin Head.

Mountains and Rivers and Planes and Trains 

It’s not often I get to set foot in four countries before lunchtime, but that is how my day was on Friday, taking two cars, two planes and two trains from France to England via Switzerland and Germany. 

From Cornwall I had taken the train up to Bristol, had a cup of coffee with my sister and her husband who happened to be in the area, then flown to Geneva, where my friend was visiting for a few meetings, staying in her chalet on the slopes of Mont Blanc. Arriving in pouring rain, we only had the fireplace for warmth as the heating and hot water were out. I spent Wednesday exploring Geneva on foot, as my friend took care of her business, and was glad of the hammam at the Bains Paquis at the end of a cold day – I also jumped briefly into the lake after the sauna there. The overnight rain turned into snow, and Thursday we hiked through the snow-laden mountain woods to the nearest town, where most things were closed, though we managed to get a hearty lunch at an open restaurant. 

On Friday morning, getting up before first light, everything was covered in fresh snow. Luckily the LandRover used to get us down the dirt road, and the rental car, both started first time. In the valley autoroute into Geneva, it was raining heavily, as it had been on the other journeys to and fro. My first plane took me to Dusseldorf, and was running a little late. I was sweating a little about missing my connection (as I had briefly sweated when we had left the autoroute and had run into a long line of traffic on the way through the city). We disembarked onto a shuttle bus, I ran up the stairs, marched from one end of the terminal to the other, through passport control, down the stairs, onto another bus… and back onto the same plane I had just been on. As I said to the cabin crew head, if I had known that as I got off, I would have been a bit more relaxed going from A to B to A.

Then I ended up in Newcastle, took the metro into town, grabbed some lunch at the station and got on the train to Leeds, taking care to avoid the boisterous stag party that was already enjoying their weekend. The last stress had been about a strike on part of the rail network, but happily I arrived in Leeds just as the expected train to Hebden rolled in. It even had functional wi-fi on board.

It felt great to be back in Hebden Bridge again, and I managed to navigate from the station to Rebecca and Dave’s house, where I was welcomed as warmly as last time. After a shower, a rest and some food, I was ready for the first part of the weekend, a couple of hours studying the Genjo Koan. Saturday we had an all-day sitting, which felt very well contained, though I didn’t find my talk especially convincing, and on Sunday a very intimate half-day, followed by joining the regular Sunday evening sit, where I faced the wall with the rest of the group. There were also chances to have discussions with my hosts, and with Wendy who I had met at Tassajara almost fifteen years ago, about the current state of English zen and what the next steps might be for the various groups.

There was also time for me to repeat my run of last time, up the stingingly hard climb to Heptonstall, along the top, through the fields and the bluebell-covered woods to the little bridge across Calder water, and back down along the other side of the valley, cutting over to the canal to get back into town. Again, it was satisfying to have my body remember the terrain from one previous encounter, and it was a wonderful run. Next stop is my mother’s house, and hopefully a chance to run along the Wye valley.


The sky over Lake Geneva.


Geneva from the Bains Paquis pier after a little dip.


A clear mountain stream in the Alps.


Beginning the half-day journey taking in four countries.


The bottom of the Buttress at the beginning of my run in Hebden Bridge.

In Another Land

When I embarked on my month-long trip, a week ago, I noticed I felt almost light-headed about my lack of schedule. This was not because I am not traveling around: I will be using eight different airports and taking five significant train journeys, but apart from showing up for these journeys and my teaching commitments, it feels that I have a lot of free time.
In my day and a half for jet-lag recovery in London, I mostly walked, around local parks and along the river. Down in Cornwall, there have been daily walks with the dog as well, and I have managed a couple of runs. I also worked in the garden, stacking logs and resetting some old steps – this physical work makes me feel even more connected with the land. The weather has been kind, and flowers have been in profusion: bluebells, campion and stitchwort in the hedgerows as well as gorse and blackthorn. Most places I have been, the loudest sound has been the manifold bird songs, punctuated by occasional squawks from pheasants.

My body always settles in this ancestral Cornish landscape, which is a succession of slopes; you are always heading down to a stream or river, or up away from it. I was glad that my runs, on routes I have often found challenging, felt manageable, and I look forward to repeating some of the other runs I tried on my last visit. In particular I was very happy to visit two hilltops close at hand, both of which have witnessed many centuries of human history: Kit Hill, which is visible from all directions, and Cadsonbury, an ancient settlement site that overlooks the gorgeous, wooded Lynher valley, and yet is hidden from almost every angle.

My current email post-script reads ‘iPad-induced brevity’; this feels like a lot to try to type, and I still haven’t added photos and links. Hopefully I will manage something next week and the week after as well.


The footpath along the Thames west of Putney Bridge, on my way to Chiswick Eyot.


A track near the summit of Kit Hill, looking west towards Caradon Hill and Bodmin Moor.


Kit Hill seen from a local lane.


A rare view of Cadsonbury, from a footpath the other side of the river. My favourite photo of it is this one from a few years ago.

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.

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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.

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The Sutro Tower from an adjacent path through the woods.

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The Salesforce building from 2nd St.

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

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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…

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

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One of the Tassajara redbuds.

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Tim and Ed in the shade of the kaisando.

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