By way of a contrast to the damp and cold weather a few weeks ago, we now have a high-pressure system anchored overhead, which has made for a succession of mild and still days, and a number of ridiculously beautiful sunsets.
Last week I was trying to recover from all the things I did the week before, and I took the opportunity to get away from screens and out across the city to scout for the next couple of roams. I still had plenty to get done, but luckily, the long weekend allowed me a little extra space to cross more things off the to-do list.
Our second class went as well as the first – at least for me, and according to the feedback I received. At the end I got to give what I thought of as my stump speech for jijuyu zanmai, as the talk we were listening to seemed to be a strong paraphrase of what Dogen proposed in Bendowa. When I get a chance to speak like this, I can feel the emotion coming up, the joy of practice, a strong reminder of why I am living life the way I am. It boils down to this, in my view: everything is expressing its enlightenment, so we might as well join in.
And with that, a selection of the photos I was lucky to take over the last week:
It was a busy dharma week to start the year off, one of those weeks where I just had to stay focused on the most immediate task while also remembering those that were coming down the pipeline.
I was happy with how my talk went on Wednesday (I shall post the link to it once I have managed to edit and post it on the Zen Center website – that’s one of the tasks that had been sidelined this week). It was lovely, as always, to see who showed up, including Abbots Ed and David, some names and faces from over the years, and new friends as well. I kept it relatively short, and I think the overall flow was helped by my having written a skeleton out in long hand, during which process I was able to re-jig a few points I wanted to make. I certainly felt more connected to the words on paper than I usually do when they are on screen, so perhaps I will revert to this method going forward. There were several fairly weighty questions afterwards, which I hoped I managed to navigate skilfully.
On Friday I participated in a webinar on mindful eating for Core, and had a couple of meditation sessions, one regular, one a one-off for Within, which was for a lively group. The rest of the day I spent reading up for the class. Going through old Wind Bells gave me some new nuggets, so on Saturday morning, during fifteen minutes of pre-amble, I had lots to say.
After we had listened to the talk itself, the comments that came from the participants were full of amazing insights and thoughts that captured much of why Suzuki Roshi resonates for people so much. We had more than fifty people signed up for the class, which is more than I have had in a formal class before, and more than forty were listening live (others get access to the recordings). After Abbot Ed and I signed off, I was buzzing for the rest of the morning.
And then I rode over to the Embarcadero for the first roam of the year. It had been a week of mixed weather, some rain and a couple of days with low low cloud, but Saturday was bright and felt warm in the sun. We ended up with seventeen people and an energetic dog, my largest group in quite a while, as we climbed over Telegraph Hill, crossed North Beach and Chinatown on the way to Russian Hill, and back. One of the attendees had some wonderful bits of historical knowledge, which he shared as we went round. I saw a hawk perched low on a tree above us in Washington Square, and many bees and a butterfly enjoying the flowering Ceanothus at the foot of the Coit Tower.
With all the teachings I had to take care of, plus a couple of days at the studio, I felt like I had not been especially active this past week – the days in the studio each involve about an hour on my bike, and the roam certainly gave my legs a workout, but by my standards, it wasn’t much. So I was glad to get out on Sunday morning and ride for a few hours, from Ocean Beach to Foster City and back past the airport. It was clear and still, and not as cold as last week – I was slightly overdressed in the end, but that is much better than the alternative. It feels like the time of year where I am just doing maintenance rides – keeping an easy tempo, and not trying to charge up a lot of hills.
The Robert Burns quote most apposite for my new year would not be the ‘Auld Lang Syne’ one, but rather the ‘best laid plans…’
The 30th was a bright and clear day after all the rain, and while it was tempting to squeeze in a short ride before I left, I made sure I had taken care of some odds and ends instead. Four of us were going down from City Center to Tassajara; the other three were all returning for the practice period, and included the incoming tenzo and the outgoing fukaten. I enjoyed hearing their dharma bios, and having the sense of them as settled in their practice – demonstrating what Suzuki Roshi called composure, or constancy.
Traffic was heavy along various stretches of the 101 – and this was midweek, in the middle of the day. I always feel glad that my life does not involve this kind of driving on anything like a regular basis. We were in the hills north of Salinas when Leslie got in touch to say that, while the county crew had taken one tree out, when people had tried to leave Tassajara earlier, they found the tree that had blocked their way before still there – the crew had not gone as far up the road as requested. So there was no way in, we would have to turn around and perhaps, after the crew returned in the morning, it would be possible to try again.
We drove the couple of hours back to San Francisco. I figured that as my planned stay was not very long, and the work I was supposed to do not urgent, there was not so much point trying again the next day. So I had that happy buoyancy, as I walked back to my place, of having some unexpected free time.
As it turned out, after getting some unwelcome news, I found it hard to get motivated at all the next day. I went out on my bike mid-morning, but while the light was radiant, my spirit was not. It didn’t seem a hardship to go to bed early, and get up to repeat my early morning New Year’s Day ride, where I take roads that are usually too busy to feel safe on. I made it over to the bay for the sunrise – there were a number of people on the Embarcadero with the same idea – then across to the ocean.
Apart from some spontaneous exchanges with people – in that way that people are more relaxed and open over the holidays – what lifted my mood was tackling my large backlog of unedited photos from the past year. I had about 2500 to work through, and had planned to spend some time at Tassajara doing that. My eyes went square in the process, but I was happy to get it done over the course of three days, and I also discovered a way to process some of the phone camera photos in a way that made them a little less bland.
I rode on Sunday as well, as temperatures dropped towards freezing – a rarity in the Bay Area. There was frost on the cemetery lawns in Colma, and on the roofs of San Bruno. I had intended to take the reservoir trail, but it had been closed due to flooding, so I had to reprise the alternative route I got used to after the fires of 2020.
With the photos done – though I will go through the finished folder to select my favourites from the year – I can turn my attention to my dharma talk on Wednesday, which I had also planned to think about while I was at Tassajara, and make sure I am up to speed for the first class on Saturday.
I am not prone to catastrophising, but I was convinced, with the way the new variant has exploded on the scene in recent weeks, that I would end up testing positive when I took a test on Monday morning. Apart from the roam, there are only three people I have spent any amount of time with in the last couple of weeks, and when we gathered for the roam I masked up, but I didn’t want to take anything for granted. Happily, nothing showed up on the test, so the way is clear for me to visit Tassajara today for the first time since June 2019 (it’s also the first time I have set my email to a ‘vacation response’ since then – and the first time since October 2020 that I have spent a night away from my own bed).
The Tassajara road itself might not be so clear, of course. With all the rain we have had, I can imagine what the state of it might be, and the temperatures have been low enough that there will most likely be snow on the upper reaches. The Tassajara director sent out word on Wednesday that there was a tree blocking the road near China Camp, though apparently the county will send a crew in today to clear it, so fingers will remain crossed for a while.
I don’t think I will be actually driving the vehicle, though it might end up that I do; I have driven the road enough times in all kinds of conditions that I am not too stressed about that. I am pretty sure I will be driving when I leave there on Monday, when I also have to get the vehicle over to Green Gulch; I will have to come back from there to the city on my bike, so I am anxiously scanning the ever-shifting forecasts: I have got wet enough times in recent weeks that it would be nice not to have to do that trip in the rain as well.
The forecast for the roam last Saturday changed each time I looked at it; in the end it started raining after we set out along the beach, and didn’t really let up. The wind blew in from the ocean, the surf roared, and it wasn’t an afternoon to sit and linger in the beautiful locations at the Sutro Baths and Sutro Heights, but I certainly benefited from a dose of fresh air, and I think the group did as well.
On Monday, with the rain forecast to move on at the end of the morning, I was just leaving the house to sit, with blue skies out of my east-facing windows, when a shower rolled in from the west. I put my bike back and went down on the streetcar, to find mostly clear skies on the Embracadero, though it was pretty chilly, and we had a short sprinkling of drizzle for a few seconds in the middle. We sat through it, and the sun came out again, creating a brief sliver of rainbow over the bay.
The rain has set in again, and it looks like it will stick around over the Christmas weekend. The roam on Sunday afternoon is still on, regardless of the weather (the forecast for the day shifts every time I look at it), but it seems that oppportunities to ride without getting wet are going to be limited. I got pretty lucky with my commute on Tuesday, which was slightly damp only on the last leg, but I am not sure I will be so fortunate today.
Running, however, is something I don’t mind doing in the rain so much – like walking – so it seemed like it would be helpful to get some running in while I have some days off. The problem there is that I haven’t run at all since the first couple of weeks of the lockdown in the spring of 2020. The combination of the slight sickness I had at the time – which in retrospect seems more likely to have been an extremely mild case of covid – and the general anxiety at the time about runners breathing over everybody, was enough to put an end to running.
On Wednesday afternoon I gave it a try. Knowing my limitations, I thought a trot to the end of the panhandle with an extra loop around Alamo Square if everything was still functioning, would be enough. I made it, and had the physical effects that I was expecting, with muscles a little grumbling and sore at being asked to move differently, and feeling a little stiff in the legs afterwards. But otherwise, it was a good start.
I noticed how quickly and happily I veered towards the grass when I reached the green space, and how much better my legs felt for it. My shoes are minimal and probably due to be replaced. They quickly got sodden, but that made me happy too. I noticed that a small part of me was telling me I could stop any time, but really I had no need to. I noticed how I saw the neighbourhood a little differently to how I do when I am passing through on my bike, with more time to notice details and buildings. And I noticed, once again, how dogs pay so much more attention to the world they are passing through – by sight and by smell – than the people walking them.
Looking for a post that referenced my sickness at the beginning of the lockdown, I took a browse through the archive; I always find interesting, and mostly unremembered, material in there (some of which will get reposted over the coming weeks), and generally enjoy re-reading the personal posts as well. I thought to do a word search for ‘lungs’, and most of the posts, unsurprisingly, referenced running – with one exception for wildfire. This is the world we live in. With my upcoming dharma talk at Zen Center, which I will use as an opportunity to look back on the talk I gave right at the start of 2021, there is a poignancy about how I wrote about the pandemic in its earliest stages – because of course we could have had no idea.
It was only a few weeks ago that I was trundling around in shorts most of the time, and actually looking in my wardrobe and musing why I had so many cold-weather clothes when I so rarely needed them. In the past week, our second atmospheric river of the season has come along, and the temperatures dropped at the same time. I dug out my hat and gloves along with my winter layers for a ride on Saturday morning, before the roam in the afternoon, which was sunny but with a chilly breeze. On Sunday it rained right on cue, and that continued almost non-stop through to Tuesday morning. My only planned outing on Sunday was volunteering with the Bicycle Coalition at the annual party in the afternoon, and I opted to take the streetcar over to the park, and then walk home at the end of the event, as I find walking in the rain preferable to riding. I met many people I knew at the party, and enjoyed getting to mingle, even masked, with bike people again.
On Monday I walked, also getting pretty soaked, down to the Hall of Justice – my fourth visit in the last couple of months- to support someone I met while I was leading meditation sessions in the county jail. On the previous occasions, there had been substitute judges that the lawyer thought would not be well-disposed to the case, and then also a new assistant DA who had not had time to master the brief. This time around, even with the assistant DA’s reservations, the judge was inclined to offer a treatment program rather than even more jail time. I found myself deeply moved at how a person’s life can sometimes have the opportunity for transformation.
Happily the rain eased up in time for my commute on Tuesday – though it was cold enough that I was glad of hat and gloves on my bike and on the ferry. I also got lucky on Thursday, as another band of rain blew through, and it warmed up a little as well. Next week’s forecast has more rain in it though.
As we roll towards the end of the year, I am not taking much of a break from my usual commitments, and indeed am filling in for three extra classes in the next week on Within (see also my Calendar page). We are starting to plan for the class on Suzuki Roshi’s talks in the new year, and I have also been invited to give the dharma talk at Zen Center on Wednesday 5th, which I will probably use as a prelude to the class.
These were my passports to attending my first in-house shuso ceremony in two years. I just happily browsed through my archive, and found I didn’t write about the 2019 ones at all – though here is a link to my post on last year’s Zoom special.
Roger’s ceremony was a small gathering by conventional standards, with a limited number of people invited and it went by quicker than most, but it was none the less complete for that. I felt honoured to be there at all, and enjoyed sitting, masked, among the former shusos, dharma siblings and colleagues for so many years, even if I didn’t recognise many on the east side of the assembly, who have been attending the practice period or the sesshin. Roger fielded all the questions with aplomb, and I found myself nodding along a few times when I thought he had captured the essence of the issue perfectly. There were many references to his generosity and sense of joy; I invoked the photograph I posted here (whenever I re-read the Ino’s Blog now, I am always amazed at how busy I was, and I know that hasn’t changed for the current ino.).
There was a bit of a wait for dinner, which allowed me to catch up with Nancy and Myles, a great treat. Dinner itself was wonderful, and I was in good company. A couple of other former shusos and I, one still resident, one a visiting teacher to many sanghas, shared our thoughts about the Suzuki Roshi archive and Zen Center, which was a conversation I was glad to be able to have in person with dharma peers again.
After several weeks of bountiful warmth, the weather turned on Friday, and now resembles a more seasonally appropriate chill (which in the Bay Area means that it has dropped below 50 degrees). I had most of my winter layers on for my Sunday ride, and where I wanted to take pictures of the views from the ridges, there was only fog.
Thanksgiving could be a mixed bag at Zen Center. The food was always exceptional – the traditional nut roast with mushroom gravy was one of my favourite dishes, and there was always a variety of pies. At Tassajara, the huge meal was one of the most special occasions in all the monastic winter months, with (usually) the rare treat of no evening zazen. I remember, one of the five Thanksgivings I was there, being totally immersed in some random gadget catalogue for hours, just because I didn’t have to be anywhere else.
At City Center, the big spread was sometimes on Thursdays, sometimes on Wednesday – some people wanted to have a totally free day on Thursday, others wanted the meal at the traditional time, and there were many guests from the wider sangha who had nowhere else they would rather be. The City Center weekend was, though, somewhat overshadowed by the beginning of Rohatsu sesshin on the Saturday evening, so when I was tenzo and ino, there wasn’t really much of a break, with the biggest retreat of the year needing to be organised.
Happily this year, I had very few engagements – and I declined to look at work emails – so I felt like I had two consecutive weekends. The dinner I was invited to was just a couple of blocks away, filled with lovely people I know through Zen Center, former and current residents, though we talked about many other things as well.
The weather has got a little stuck – high pressure is keeping the rain at bay. There have been many glorious sunrises, clear days, and heavenly sunsets, with the moon receding each night in the sky. I actually got a little worried to see that no change was forecast. On the one hand, I love the sunny weather and, selfishly, as I am trying to make it down to Tassajara over the New Year, I would love the road not to be too treacherous. But we need the rain so much, and the fire prospects for next year are already about as depressing as the newest variant.
Still, I was getting in the miles and the hours outside while the sun was shining, with rides on Thursday, Friday, and Sunday, a couple of walks, and a roam. This last was another really lovely outing, following the Tennessee Hollow watershed in the Presidio from the ridge to the beach, and encountering frogs, hawks, pelicans, and a coyote along the way – and then I saw another in the park while I was riding home. I think that is my first double same-day sighting in the city, and followed from catching a glimpse of one when I was on Sweeney Ridge on my Friday ride. Most auspicious.
This week I am slowly picking up all the threads of work again, and hope that I can turn up two negative tests which will allow me to attend the City Center shuso ceremony on Saturday in person.
After my last teaching session on Wednesday, I went out to pick up my weekly bread order, from the bakery I used to buy from at the Mission market. The afternoon was still warm, and I felt a sense of deep ease. I have a class on Saturday morning, but the long weekend had started, with a lot of free time and very few obligations. The work emails and messages dwindled away.
A friend of mine in England, whose mother died recently, has been cleaning out the home she grew up in, and determining what to do with everything – her possessions and her mother’s. I have of course been dealing with a version of that at one remove – and when I next travel to England I will have to devote a fair amount of time to sifting, organising, and perhaps shipping. My friend happened to mention a couple of plates she was going to move on, and I half-jokingly said that I would have loved to have them.
The other evening I found on my doorstep a package from England, with familiar handwriting, which indeed contained the little plates mentioned, so they now have pride of place in my kitchen built-in. I also received, that same day, a stimulus cheque from the State of California – something I remember reading about in the summer, but had completely forgotten was going to be distributed.
So I feel wealthy. Having already received one holiday bonus, I had treated myself to a couple of things; the rest has gone in the bank, though I expect to put most of it to good use soon. By the standards of the last couple of decades, and especially the first few years out of Zen Center, I feel like I have no money worries. And that is something I can feel thankful for.
While I rarely have any problems getting to sleep in the evening (and at monks’ hours, as well), I do sometimes wake up in the small hours, and usually have to read myself back to sleep. This past week or more, my sleep has been longer and largely uninterrupted, so I feel rested and healthy.
I am more grateful that conditions in the Bay Area allow for some socialising, as I wrote about the other day, and that I can see friends again. I have also been invited for dinner this evening, and I know I will have a good time with the assembled company.
I am always grateful for sunny days, and I shall also be grateful when the rains return, as I hope they do soon.
So even though this year has been difficult in some important ways, there seems to be much room for gratitude along with the sadnesses. I hope you can easily think of things you can be grateful for.
This week I have a sense of things easing up for Thanksgiving – at least I can say that for myself, since I am not burdened by expectations of providing food and entertainment for others. As always, I enjoy the extra free time offered by the holidays to get out more on my bike, and the weather looks like it will be co-operating with this wish. There will also be a roam on Sunday afternoon which I am looking forward to very much.
As my schedule has felt a little lighter, I have started trying to brush up on my in-person social skills again – which is definitely easier to do when it is warm enough to sit with friends in the park, or as happened on Sunday evening, on the beach. I had already ridden along Great Highway in the morning, right before the sun came up, and the moon was descending towards the horizon in the ocean. The whole day was clear, and the sunset gorgeous. It is so easy to feel thankful to be able to spend time in such a way, in a place I can ride my bike to easily – and I know we could use a lot more rain soon!
After the sun went down, we could start to see stars and planets: for the first time in a while, I took out my star chart app – the brightest one was Venus, then we spotted Jupiter close by; a few moments later, Saturn was visible, in a straight line between the other two, and all three lining up to point down to where the sun had just set. It must mean something…