Somehow, almost imperceptibly, we have arrived at mid-summer, with the temperature having crept up a few degrees over the past week. The humidity did as well, but right now we are in the middle of a San Francisco-style heatwave (perhaps the third such week this year), and we can enjoy early morning and late evening sun in our north-facing bedroom, with all the windows wide open.
It was, naturally, much warmer when I drove down the Peninsula to officiate a wedding in Los Altos on Saturday. I was wearing my robes, and was glad the ceremony was in the late afternoon, and the open air location was shaded. This was the biggest wedding I have done in at least a year and a half, and the first time I have stayed for dinner since that time. I left before the dancing, and drove back with the sun setting behind the fog bank west of the 280.
Officially California has re-opened, though I will still be wearing masks indoors for the foreseeable future. I did feel emboldened enough to schedule a roam, for this Saturday. There seems to be some pent-up demand in the Meetup group, which has grown significantly in size since lockdown started, and now I have a waitlist, with several of the people on it having also snagged places on the next roam. I was also asked if I would lead a roam for Zen Center as part of the delayed Zen-a-thon, and last I heard, that had reached a number that I would consider full capacity.
And then things start to happen with the re-opening as well: one evening this week, almost at monk’s bedtime, I had a text from a friend I have more or less fallen out of touch with over the course of the pandemic, suggesting we should meet up soon; close on the heels of that, a text from Nancy the tanto inviting me to give the talk at Zen Center next Wednesday. My dance card is definitely filling up.
I feel a little self-conscious that when I write about my current life, the weather figures prominently in the story; then I think of Linda Ruth, and how she started almost every talk she gave during practice periods at Tassajara (I did three which she led) with some comments about the weather, as a way of grounding whatever followed in the reality that we were dealing with – and at Tassajara, the weather was always very prominent, and we spent a fair amount of time outside.
So anyway, after the last post, the fog came back with avengeance (if you read my stuff on Patreon you will have already seen the pictures); I read that it has been the coldest April and May round these parts for decades (unfortunately it has been a long way from being the wettest, so now we have drought to face again). This all feels part of the way the weather has been tilted off axis through the course of my life.
What blew away the fog and brought some clear, if not especially warm, weather, were some mighty winds, loud enough to rattle the chimneys on our roof. These at least allowed me to pull out the old analogy of the oak and the willow when I was teaching meditation last week, encouraging flexibility from our strong roots on the cushion (though I am aware that very few, if any, of the people I am leading in the sittings are going to be on a cushion).
After which, rather embarrassingly, I felt like I had run out of things to say about meditation. I had a recording due, and couldn’t think of what I wanted to talk about. The live sessions are easier, because there is always somewhere to start, depending on the mood of the participants – including myself – but I have the notion that an enduring recording should have more heft. In the end I talked about basic awareness practices.
Of course, the nature of wind is that things change, and I am sure I will come up with some resonant phrases again soon.
One way I have noticed change in myself recently is, now that I am fully vaccinated, and with the sudden shift in CDC guidelines, I am considerably less agitated to see people walking around without masks; out on my bike, I have stopped riding with a bandana around my neck, ready to pull up, and instead have a mask in a pocket, ready to pull out if needed. It has taken a few weeks of adjustment, but now it feels almost normal.
Another, more banal change is that the regular football season has finished in England. There are still a couple of European club finals and the European nations tournament to come in the next few weeks, but I know I will suddenly have quite a few more hours in the week – especially weekends – without matches to get absorbed in. I may even manage to finish a book. I picked up a new book by Shodo Harada on the Platform Sutra from the Zen Center bookstore on Friday, and I am excited to dig into it.
And to wrap up, here are some photos from the last couple of weeks:
‘The old kitchen had been condemned by the health department when the Becks owned the Springs. It was torn down in the first weeks by an overzealous Zen student caretaker acting on his own who knew it was condemned and thought it looked too dilapidated. The small staff dining shed which already had a four-burner stove was quickly converted into a temporary kitchen. When the hotel burned in 1949, the sandstone blocks were bulldozed into the cellar. Many of these were dug up in the creation of a garden and used as foundation stones for the new kitche, The walls were made from stones gathered in the creek bed. Roof timbers were cut from Coulter pine from Chew’s Ridge and from Tassajara canyon sycamore. No nails were used in the joints which were made by traditional Danish and Japanese methods. None of the masons had ever built a stone building before. It was finished in 1970. “People didn’t want to use the square stones – wanted to use the rounded, ‘pretty’ ones. It took a lot longer of course. Some people would hunt the whole day to find the right stone.” – Paul Discoe.’ (A Brief History Of Tassajara)
Perhaps as part of my missing my usual visits to Tassajara again this year, I picked this lovely book off the shelf. I had heard a little about the construction of the kitchen, but not about the prior demolition. When I was doing rock work around Tassajara, I always felt a little envious of those who were there in the early days, to have the pick of all the rocks in the creek. Though of course, after a heavy winter of rain, when the creek slowed and the level dropped in the spring, there was often a new harvest that had been washed down from upcreek.
‘Last week, after a meeting, I took the F streetcar from Civic Center to the Ferry Building in San Francisco. It’s a notoriously slow, crowded, and halting route, especially in the middle of the day. This pace, added to my window seat, gave me a chance to look at the many faces of the people on Market Street, with the same alienation as the slow scroll of Hockney’s Yorkshire Landscapes. Once I accepted the face that each face I looked at (and I tried to look at each of them) was associated with an entire life – of birth, of childhood, of dreams and disappointments, of a universe of anxieties, hopes, grudges, and regrets totally distinct from mine – this slow scene became almost impossibly absorbing. As Hockney said: “There’s a lot to look at.” Even though I’ve lived in a city most of my adult life, In that moment I was floored by the density of life experience folded into a single city street.’(How To Do Nothing)
Apart from our current recognition that this must have been written pre-pandemic, perhaps many of us will identify with this moment of identifying, or meeting, on a level deeper than the quotidien. This is, as I like to say these days, where our practice becomes real.
As someone who still usually wakes up at monk-o-clock, I appreciate how early it gets light at this time of year. At the same time, we have entered a spell of warm weather, so I don’t have to bundle up as soon as I get out of bed; I can feel how my body relaxes with this, and with walking in the sun. And as the sun rises and sets further to the north, we can enjoy early and late sun slanting in through the window of our north-facing bedroom.
After a couple of weeks with minimal riding due to myself and my partner getting our vaccines, I was ready to put in some hours on the bike this past weekend, and was rewarded with perfect conditions: endless blue skies, and, on Saturday at least, not a breath of wind. Both days I left the house before 7:00am, which meant I could enjoy the roads with fewer people out. On Saturday I took the Crystal Springs trail for the first time in months, being a little more relaxed than last time about the number of people not wearing masks. On Sunday I was out along the Bay Trail, doing my own version of Bay to Breakers, crossing from adjacent to the airport, over the crest at Skyline, towards Pacifica before turning north to Ocean Beach. On the roads and trails over the weekend I saw more wildlowers, columbines and white lupins particularly, as well as quail and hawks, even a lone Stellar’s jay in Golden Gate Park, which almost made me nostalgic for their hegemony over Tassajara.
It is the anniversary of my arrival in San Francisco; I always like to note it, last year especially so, as it marked twenty years of living here. For all that the pandemic lingers and threatens never to disappear entirely, I feel content about my life, and happy that I get to be sharing the teachings so often.
This week only, I am making a couple of extra appearances on Within: in addition to my ‘Just Sitting’ class this evening at 6:00, I am subbing the Saturday morning class, at 8:30, which will be more traditional mindfulness than my regular class; then on Sunday I am offering an hour-long presentation and discussion, as part of the series How Mindfulness Can Change Your Life. Organising what I am going to say for that is also offering many opportunities for reflection.
A typhoon came across the Pacific in our direction last week. We had some grey and drab days, and on Sunday, a smattering of rain – though not as much as forecast, and not enough to ease the impending drought. I remember how last year it rained into May, adding an extra sense of weight to the early weeks of lockdown. Then the sun came out and we had some bright warm days. It was the time of the pink supermoon, which rose above the clouds in the evening, and shone bright in the early morning sky.
On a free morning I rode up to Sweeney Ridge, and enjoyed seeing the many currently blooming wildflowers along the narrow road: paintbrush, ceanothus, irises, penstemon and lupins. It was also bunny season, and I must have seen twenty scurrying for cover as I approached their little corner of the world. I realised how much I have missed getting my doses of wildflowers at Wilbur and Tassajara these past two springs.
Typically, of course, when I went out on my bike again, yesterday, climbing San Bruno Mountain, I arrived at the fog line, with a chilly wind blowing the fog across the road, for all that it had been sunny when I set out. I wanted to get some riding in before the weekend as today I will be heading over to SF General for my second vaccine, and thought it best to have a restful weekend, as I did after my first shot, especially having heard stories from a number of friends of the after-effects of their vaccinations.
As I have written on Patreon, I am teaching more meditation at the moment than I have probably at any time before, mostly to corporate groups across different time zones. The work makes me happy, and I hope that some people find a spark of inspiration to continue practising, but we can never really know the impact of what we do. I will keep plugging away at it, and I do look forward to sitting in the same room as people one of these days. Hope seems close at hand, but not so close or clear that we can rely on it yet.
To say last week was quite a week would be the kind of English understatement that I am quite comfortable making.
Chronologically speaking, it went like this:
On Sunday afternoon I officiated my first wedding of the year, a small and lovely affair at the San Francisco Botanical Garden. It was a bright afternoon with a chilly breeze. In addition to the fifteen or so people in attendance, family members of the bride were watching on a video link from Colombia. As always, it was an honour to be able to facilitate this milestone moment in people’s lives.
Early on Monday morning I had the first of four extra corporate meditations for the week. I came out of that to a message from my sister to call her. I knew what was coming: my father had died, four and a half years after first developing Motor Neurone Disease (aka Lou Gehrig’s disease/ALS). He had a bout of pneumonia a couple of weeks ago; after some days in the hospital he came home, and had a peaceful last few days. We sent messages over the weekend which he was able to hear and enjoy. There will be no funeral, but it would be hard to contemplate trying to travel to England if there were.
On Saturday morning, I lined up outside SF General to get the first shot of the Pfizer vaccine. It took a couple of hours from arriving to leaving, and while I was waiting, a TV crew asked why I was getting it (‘to feel safe’ I found myself saying) and whether it was worth waiting in line (‘absolutely!’) Even though it was a sunny weekend, I stayed off my bike, and have felt very tired for the past few days.
This week is relatively quiet, and then next week I have more extra meditations. At some stage, all of this will sink in; I do not expect the emotions to arrive in a tidy or linear way, but I trust there will be space for that to happen.
It seems that the mountain spring wind
Has begun to blow -
On the peaks and in the valleys,
Myriad flowers are shining.
Trusting WordPress to have done its sums right, this marks the 2000th post of this blog. It seems appropriate to have Dogen mark the occasion with one of the waka poems from the book compiled by Shohaku Okumura a few years ago, which I was lucky enough to be able to buy when he visited Tassajara to speak about the poems when the book was released.
As I have said before, compiling this blog is good practice for me, encouraging me to read widely. It feels great to share meaningful pieces every day, and little snippets about my life sometimes, and I hope it is beneficial for you as well. Thanks for being a part of this creation over the past five and a half years. I think I will keep going…
‘It wasn’t until I officiated my first Jukai ceremony—lay initiation for students—that living a life of vows came into full view. It wasn’t about me, name or no name. Through tears, I saw my black students move with so much courage, hand in hand, heart to heart, enacting and embodying liberation through vows. Not liberation from something, but liberation into being the body of nature, being the earth, that they are.
It was difficult to stop crying during the ceremony as I said these words: “Abiding according to the ten grave precepts, even after realizing buddhahood, will you continuously observe them?” To which the initiates replied: “Yes, I will.” Hearing their devotion to awakening, I was deeply moved to stand at the gate and usher in those who want to live free, filled with love, and be protected from harm in doing so. The gateway need not be Zen or Buddhist; it can be any gateway of freedom that emerges in one’s life. Whatever you are devoted to is what you are living as your vow. Devotion means “of vow.”’ (from Lion’s Roar)
Having attended that ceremony, I can attest that it was a moving occasion.
‘In every photo I have of Suzuki Roshi – and I have a lot of them – he’s laughing or smiling. My teachers and my practice have never taught me not to enjoy life. The deeply seasoned teachers I’ve had the opportunity to meet have all been supportive to people who are suffering, but they have also been very playful and lighthearted.’ (The Hidden Lamp)
This is a delicate balancing act to pull off, but I trust that Suzuki Roshi – as well as Katagiri Roshi and Sojun Mel Weitsman, who Blanche also namechecks – was able to do this thanks to his long and deep practice.