This Drifting, Wandering Life

September seems to be slipping by quickly, and the last few mornings have felt autumnal, with chill in the air, even as it warms in the middle of the day. I am running around trying to take care of last-minute things before flying to England for a month-long visit. It will be colder there, for sure, which I am not looking forward to.

September has also been the first month this year where I paid my rent at the beginning of the month and still had any money left in my bank account. I was never much for the pursuit of money (a little rabbit-hole reading yesterday morning brought me to this post, where I subscribe more to this reply to it; all found from this post). I have been consciously choosing poverty for the last fifteen years, since I gave up regular work to go to Tassajara. At Zen Center, my housing and food needs were taken care of, I had health insurance, and could still afford to buy myself some nice clothes, and tickets to England most years. Now that I am fending for myself, I am more or less on the same financial level, but it feels a little more precarious.

It is two years now since I started my transition out of Zen Center, and I have been reflecting on the ways I have been keeping myself afloat since then. Much of it has involved creating various forms of online presence: this blog, Thumbtack, Patreon, Meetup, Airbnb, Mailchimp, Eventbrite, working with different apps, signing up for Venmo, Square, Bill.com and other services in order to get paid. At the same time, my sense of what it means to be successful – or perhaps I should say credible – as a teacher depends on remaining grounded in reality and embodying a set of values that run counter to much of what online activity represents (we could argue about the merits of interconnectivity over the ether, but I would mostly plump for face-to-face transmission).

I still feel the twin poles of formal zen practice and being out in the world tugging me with different strengths at different times, and I understand this to be my current koan: what does it mean to be a priest out in the world? I always love putting on my robes, like I did for the Genzo-e last month, but as I always say, most people I teach these days, whether in corporate settings (such as I taught at yesterday) or the county jail (where I went on Monday to find the place on lock-down), could care less about the trappings. My job, such as I would care to define it for myself, is to cultivate my imperfect compassion and use it to help people avoid suffering.

The title for this post comes from the shukke tokudo (priest ordination – literally ‘leaving home, attaining the way’) ceremony. Last Sunday I rode over to Green Gulch to attend Kogen’s ordination, happy to have a reason to put on my white kimono and meet some zen friends, including some I did not expect to see there. At one point, while the ordinand’s head is being shaved, the ino, and then the assembly, chant, ‘Only the mind of a bodhisattva can cut through this drifting, wandering life and take the path of Nirvana. This virtue cannot be defined.’ At the beginning of the ceremony, Kogen bowed to his family and other benefactors, which traditionally would have been a way of saying goodbye to them as he entered the path of monastic training; in this case, he has a wife and daughter who are an integral part of his practice life.

All of which is perhaps a roundabout way of saying that I bow once again to my benefactors, as I try to figure out what it means to leave home, and return home; what the path of Nirvana looks like in the midst of this drifting, wandering life; and whether I have enough money to pay the rent in October and November with the amount I expect to come into my bank before then…

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Kogen, in the middle, with preceptors, the jiko and jisha.

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I have a number of pictures of Kogen and Lauren looking adorable together.

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Green Gulch was at its best on Sunday, with dahlias and monarchs in profusion.

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Dogen

Dogen drew a circle in the air with his whisk, held up the whisk, and said: If I hold this up, you call it buddhas appearing in the world. If I put it down, you call it the ancestral teacher coming from the west. If I draw a circle, you call it what is protected and cared for by the buddhas and ancestral teachers. When I do not hold it up, put it down, or draw a circle, how do you assess this? Even if you can assess it, you should laugh at both the view of the unconditioned and at the livelihood in the demon’s cave. Although it is like this, students of Eihei, there is another excellent place. Great assembly, do you want to see that excellent place?
Again Dogen held up his whisk, and after a pause said: Great assembly, do you understand? If you understand, the Dharma body of all buddhas enters my nature. If you do not understand, my nature in the same way joins together with the Tathagata. Great assembly, what is the meaning of “the Dharma body of all buddhas enters my nature”, and of “my nature in the same way joins together with the Tathagata”?
After a pause Dogen said: In the early morning eat gruel, at lunchtime rice. In the early evening do zazen, and at night sleep.’ (Extensive Record, 518)

I did not understand so well the function of the whisk and how it can manifest the teaching in the way that Dogen is talking about here, until I saw Hoitsu Suzuki Roshi offering lessons in how to use the whisk ahead of the Mountain Seat Ceremony at Zen Center in 2012. When I went looking for the pictures, I also found photos of him with ceremonial cymbals, inkins, a piece of paper, and a statue of Bodhidharma, all held and met with the same sense of complete presence and concentration. I think this is what Dogen was also doing.

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Shohaku Okumura

‘When we see emptiness, we realize there’s no hindrance, no obstacles to block our life force, it is soft and flexible, like a plant that tries to go round a big rock and continues to grow. There is always some other way to live, to grow.’ (Commentary on the Heart Sutra)

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This little pine did not survive the fire of 2008, but before then, every time I visited the Wind Caves near Tassajara, I marveled at the way it grew; I could not help but add this picture to the quote.

Making The Unwanted Wanted

Even now,
decades after,
I wash my face with cold water –
Not for discipline,
nor memory,
nor the icy, awakening slap,
but to practice
choosing
to make the unwanted wanted.
(A Cedary Fragrance, by Jane Hirshfield)

I thought of this poem at Wilbur. I have always loved it, with its evocation of Tassajara, where there is only cold water in the cabins. I too practised with washing my face with cold water every morning, even on the coldest winter days – and I still do, mainly for the awakening nature of it.
On the Saturday morning, with the temperatures already reaching the nineties, I went to sit on the yoga deck with a few other people who all came very early. As we settled, I was looking at the picture of the serene Buddha, with his hands in a particular mudra. In meditation instruction I often talk about the particular energetic significance of each hand position within the tradition that yoga and meditation arose from. And also how our physical posture as we sit is also of energetic significance; I usually spend a fair amount of time on details in the body which I have found it helpful to pay attention to as we settle into sitting (if you want to hear me actually talking about it, you can find a recording here.)
There were a fair number of flies that morning, as well as the sound of water, of people passing, birds, and the occasional vehicle. I spoke about practising equanimity, of sitting upright as a way of meeting each moment, without leaning forwards or backwards, or to the left or to the right, regardless of what comes up. Acknowledging that what is arising now IS what is arising now, whether we want it or not. And trusting that it will not always be like this, that this present moment is in flux. I was thinking of the wonderful quote by Katagiri Roshi, which I appear not to have posted on here yet: ‘The universal path is complete tranquility and at the same time constantly flowing’.
So, I went on, we can get to notice how we respond when a fly buzzes close to our ear, how our skin reacts when a fly lands on it. Do we need to wave our hands to try to get it to go away? It will head off somewhere else very soon anyway; can we stay with the irritation and discomfort for the moments that they last?
At Tassajara I discovered that my limit in this regard was having an ant crawl into my ear – that was something I felt I had to try to shake off, but otherwise, I did my best not to be disturbed by the flies. When we can practise with these little things, then we have a chance to build up our equanimity muscles so as to be able to meet more challenging moments in our lives. We may even discover that we have a far greater capacity for meeting these challenges – and I invoked the residents of Houston dealing with the catastrophic flooding that is their lives at the moment – than we might imagine in our thoughts and fears. And so on, all the way to the end, as tomorrow’s poem will illuminate.

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The sunrise on Saturday morning at Wilbur.

The Life Force Of This Moment

It was 112 degrees when I arrived at Wilbur on Friday afternoon; I think that is the same as the highest temperature I experienced at Tassajara, in my first summer, fifteen years ago. It was also hazy with smoke from a fire in Oroville. These are the kinds of temperatures that I could not imagine, growing up in England. I find a kind of bodily relaxation in the intensity of the heat – provided I am not, as I often was at Tassajara, trying to move large rocks in the afternoon sun, or wearing four layers of robes in the sweltering evening zendo.

The evening before, I had come across the Bay Bridge, at around 8pm, in the car I was borrowing for the occasion. The traffic was flowing freely – in itself a cause of joy – and the view of San Francisco from the upper deck of the bridge, which always seems to produce in me a feeling of gladness that I live where I do, was heightened by the post-sunset colours of the sky – smoky orange, lilacs and mauves. On the Friday morning, rising typically early, I had crossed the Golden Gate Bridge on my bike to take a quick loop of the Headlands before leaving town. The day was already warm, and the red, just risen sun was reflected along the pearlescent blue still water of the bay. It was life-affirmingly beautiful.

I have been thinking a lot about face-to-face transmission, as Tenshin Roshi recently talked about at City Center; last week I was reading a chapter in Kobun Chino’s book that touched on the same topics; taking in the words on my commute, I reflected (not for the first time), that people do not have the chance to experience this when they are, as so many seem to be when out in public, staring down at their phones. In each moment there is the opportunity to come face-to-face with the life force of the present, whether that is face-to-face with a person, or with anything that is alive – which is why the teachers of old always insisted that grasses, trees and walls are always expressing the truth of reality, if we are open enough to pay attention to it.

I thought of talking again at Wilbur about how its location offers many chances to experience this – phones are of no use; people are moving at human pace; there is abundant silence and delightful nature all around; everyone is taking time to be physically immersed in and relaxed by the hot springs water. I wanted to add that as beautiful and energising as both of my bridge crossings had been, there is no way to hold onto the experiences. We can allow them to fuel us as we move forward, but if we get stuck thinking about them, then we miss the opportunity to experience the life force of the actual moment we are living. In the end I talked about something else that was more alive at the time. Tune in tomorrow to find out…

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The hazy sunset on my first evening at Wilbur last Friday, seen from the little tub at the Fountain of Life. 

The Reality of All Things

I think it is typical that people who practise non-residentially,  and for whom attending a retreat is often the highlight of their practice year, are concerned about how to take the settled mind of retreat back out into the busier world. This week I realised that this is pretty much the first time in my years of practice that I have needed to navigate that transition myself – though I often feel the same way about coming back from a week of teaching at Tassajara, where things are so slow and focused.
A friend of mine who I was emailing with last week laughed when I said that I was still feeling a bit slow, since I had included a list of all the things I had done over the weekend after the retreat – running; riding my bike a couple of times; a regular Roaming Zen (perhaps my largest group yet on a lovely loop from Mountain Lake to Lobos Creek, Baker Beach, Inspiration Point, through the woods past the National Cemetery and Andy Goldsworthy’s Spire); and the first iteration of the Airbnb version of the roam, which I have been working to get off the ground for a few months, and which has some bookings for the weeks before I go to England.
I followed those up on Monday by joining Zachary at the Embarcadero for the lunch-time open-air sitting, which again will be happening through September (with the exception of Labor Day), and in the afternoon I was at the county jail for a meditation session.
Despite all these activities, it did feel that my logistical brain took a few days to get up to speed; going back to my day job felt like a bit of a struggle, and since I have not been sleeping as much as usual for a variety of reasons, I felt physically rather tired through most of the above – especially the lunch-time sitting, even though I had assumed the hours spent sitting during the retreat would have left me feeling at ease for this hour of zazen. And yet there was a part of me that still felt wonderfully open and relaxed about the world, even as the news continues to be fairly dreadful.
On Friday I had another double bill of teaching: a first session at a start-up accelerator where one of my students is getting his company off the ground – it was a very new building in Mission Bay, and a nice group of people, but I would rather have done the session in the garden than in the conference room with noisy air-conditioning but no fresh air; at least I got to spend the rest of the afternoon outside, with another Airbnb roam.
On Saturday I went to Zen Center to offer the zazen instruction, and stayed to hear Tenshin Roshi speak. As it happens, I have been listening to him a lot recently, as I have been editing videos of his talks, some of which should make their way online soon. I wasn’t sure about staying, but there was something about his focused presence as he talked about face-to-face transmission that kept me in the hallway. It was great to be in the building, seeing Zen Center’s most senior teacher addressing the crowd – I saw some old faces who do not come around so often, as well as the new faces of the latest guest students, and those who might eventually come to be leaders at Zen Center. At the same time, I was enjoying the pigeons nonchalantly bathing in the fountain in the courtyard, and the traffic passing by out on Page St.
After I left, I discovered that the bright, clear morning had turned into one of those wonderful eighty-degree days in San Francisco, with deep blue skies and no wind. It was easy to feel expansive and loving out in the sunshine. The good weather continued through Sunday, when I had another Airbnb roam with a couple of very enthusiastic women from Japan, with whom it was especially fun to share some of my favourite quiet corners of the city.
I have felt very happy and lucky to be able to teach on consecutive days like this, and also to get to spend so much time out in the less built-up areas of the city. As Tenshin Roshi observed, face-to-face transmission is not just from person to person, but also between people and objects; when we can be open, in the way that has coming up for me at times these past few days, we can see how each and every thing expresses the unfolding of true reality in each moment.

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This is a view like the one I had on Saturday, from the hallway into the Buddha Hall

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I didn’t find any archive pictures of pigeons in the fountain, but one time we were visited by an osprey – I think it had a nest over the road in the park.

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.

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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.