Dharma Gates Of Joy And Ease

As we approach the one-year anniversary of moving into lockdown, it seems inevitable that there will be a fair amount of reminiscing. I have recently had a couple of outings to the places we took the last couple of roams – the Botanical Garden as the magnolias started to bloom, and the wave organ at the Marina – and thought back to those occasions twelve months ago. Ideas about resuming them still seem way off in the future; when I canceled my trip to England last March, I rebooked the ticket for August but reality overtook that optimism ; these days I have a notion that it might feel safe to get on a trans-Atlantic flight by the end of the summer, though I suspect I will be disappointed again.

It is commonplace, and completely understandable, to talk of how frazzled we all are from the impact of lockdown and isolation. I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to continue earning money, and co-habiting with my partner for the past few months has taken care of my suffering from lack of human contact and brought so much joy to my day-to-day life.

As you may recall from the time, getting out on my bike has also contributed greatly to my well-being during the lockdowns. What I have most noticed about my riding in the past year is how I have shaped my routes to avoid aggravations. This partly started with not crossing the bridge to ride in Marin: apart from my increased anxiety when being on the bridge itself, unless there is no wind at all, I had been finding in recent years that the traffic in and around Mill Valley and Mount Tam to be of greater volume and often accompanied by less consideration – or sometimes greater aggression. There are incredible landscapes to be ridden out in Marin, and I have been riding them for two decades; now I am less convinced that they are worth the hassle of getting there.

In place of that, I have been building up my repertoire south of the city. Some of the landscapes are not so tremendous, but the riding is more relaxing. San Bruno Mountain is not as tall as Mount Tam, but is much easier to get to, and has two car-free sections on its slopes; Sweeney Ridge has been a revelation in the past year – also car-free towards the top, and the trail along the San Andreas reservoirs to Crystal Springs a wonderful retreat from traffic.

The last time I was out on the trail, a couple of weeks ago, though, I despaired at the number of people not wearing masks on what was a busy morning, when you couldn’t go a few yards without passing someone, the trail being too narrow to give six feet of space. So I have put that aside for the time being – unless I can go earlier, or on a week day – and instead focus on the other good riding possibilities. The mental map I have been creating is now pretty robust. I find that even doing a route once leaves an impression: oh, this is a tough climb, but nice; this stretch has too many cars; this route is more relaxing than the slightly more direct way. My body relaxes or tenses in response to this stored memory, and I am doing my best not to add more tension in my life.

It feels like doing this – choosing routes with less aggravation – is a way I am taking care of myself. I am building a good set of habits to help me keep my equanimity. This is something that is worth doing in all aspects of our lives. What would it look like for you?

One of the magnolia trees at the Botanical Garden.
Looking along to the wave organ at the Marina. Alcatraz is in the background.

Nan Shepherd

‘I began to discover the mountain in itself. Everything became good to me, its contours, its colours, its waters and rock, flowers and birds. This process has taken many years, and is not yet complete. Knowing another is endless. And I have discovered that man’s experience of them enlarges rock, flower and bird. The thing to be known grows with the knowing.’ (The Living Mountain)

When I read this passage, I cannot help but hear echoes of Dogen, with the proviso that while things grow with the knowing, the thing itself is beyond the knowing.

The Ventana Cone seen from the Tassajara Road one morning in 2015

Walking The Dog

Right now in San Francisco, we are between a heatwave and an atmospheric river – between one of those warm, sunny spells in the middle of winter that make me glad I live in California, and storms which will bring much needed rain to the area for the rest of the week. It also feels like we are between the optimism of the new administration taking its place, and the sinking realisation that the vaccination rollout is not necessarily going to mean the end of our dealings with the pandemic.

Since I moved in September, I have been glad to have a sweet and cosy apartment to hunker down in, and also especially grateful to be co-habiting with my partner, to be able to devote energy to building our lives together, and to have that intimate human connection that many have been suffering the lack of this past year. I feel very lucky in this regard. And since the turn of the year I have been glad to be able to offer a dharma talk at Zen Center, and to be able to start a new class for Within Meditation (each of the three Wednesdays so far has seen history being made, with insurrection followed by impeachment followed by inauguration). At the same time, the precarity of livelihood and health means that I don’t take any of this for granted.

In the middle of all these aspects of my life, one of my new routines is taking Collin the dog out for a walk several times a day, with my partner, or by myself. He is elderly, so we don’t usually cover more than half-a-dozen blocks. There are several variations of route around where we live, obviously, and I enjoy seeing the various houses, the distant city landmarks, the sky and the clouds, the different sidewalk plantings, which offer blossoms even in the middle of winter. And I enjoy watching Colling navigate in his way; he seems used to his new city life, and like any dog, relishes following his nose for traces of the other dogs we see and meet around the neighbourhood. I am not running so many errands on my bike these days, so the walk often serves as a valuable screen break during a day of working from home, gentle exercise, and the opportunity to pay close attention to my surroundings each time, however familiar and mundane they may appear to be.

Collin is always interested in what goes on in the side alleys beside nearby houses

Sojun

I was sad to hear of Sojun Mel Weitsman’s passing, though not entirely surprised considering his advanced age. Djinn spoke lovingly of his presence in her dharma talk on Saturday, and I echo her sentiments; even though I didn’t spend much time around him, his presence was always warm and benign, and we were always fully aware of his role at San Francisco Zen Center, and Berkeley Zen Center going back more than fifty years. And, as he always seemed happy to recount to later generations, he had had a varied and interesting life before he got involved in the practice with Suzuki Roshi – if you get a chance to find one of his way-seeking mind talks in the archives, they are worth listening to.

I also think of the time I spent as shuso at Tassajara in 2012. Sojun came, as he often did, to spend some of the practice period as a visiting teacher, allowing Myogen Steve Stücky to go up to the city for meetings. I also was able to read the old shuso logs; his shuso practice period at Tassajara coincided with the arrival of Tatsugami Roshi from Japan, which, as he observed wryly through the pages, marked the transition from Tassajara being a kind of spirited adventure, with a macrobiotic, communal vibe, to being a more traditional zen training monastery.

It always feels like an incredible privilege to have spent so much time around such epochal figures in the establishment of zen in the west, and perhaps the first of these photos gives a flavour of what that sometimes looked like in day-to-day life at Zen Center.

I remember this occasion being around the 50th Anniversary celebrations for Zen Center. Five of the surviving abbots and abbesses were interviewed (I thought that Djinn had done it, but she doesn’t think so), and I rather flippantly refered to this image as an attempt on the world record for number of abbots on a single couch. Myogen Steve, Zenkei Blanche Hartman and Sojun have now all died; Eijun Linda Cutts and Kiku Christina Lehnherr are happily still teaching
A very typical picture of Sojun in the Tassajara shop, beautifully crafting a kotsu – from my shuso practice period

At the end of an earlier practice period at Tassajara – shuso ceremony day, in 2006.
Possibly the last time Sojun spent significant time at Tassajara, when Lucy was shuso – this was the shuso dinner place setting.

A happy picture from a sad occasion – after Myogen Steve’s funeral at Green Gulch.

Coming Attractions

Happily, I am starting 2021 with three new (or newish) dharma offerings, and I hope that you will be able to tune in to one or more of them:

On Saturday 2nd, I will be giving the dharma talk at Zen Center at 10:00 am PST. It will be available via the online zendo. This will be my first talk for Zen Center in a shade over a year, and I am still thinking of exactly what I want to say.

The following evening at 7:00 pm PST, I will be offering a guided meditation for Core on the Chalk app; I love the intimacy of doing an audio-only talk, and this one wiill probably be focusing on ‘new beginnings.’

On Wednesday evening, at 6:00 pm PST, I will be making my debut for Within Meditation, with an online, somewhat guided, sit.

Just to make the post a little more pretty, here are a couple of pictures from the bike rides I took over the holidays.

Looking down San Bruno mountain towards Lake Merced and the ocean
A pelican takes off near Oyster Point

Midwinter

When I type the word midwinter, I think of scenes of old England, cold, dark and snowy, as per the hymn, which is not really how it is in San Francisco. Weeks of mostly sunny weather, gradually getting colder, finally gave way to the season’s first serious rain over the weekend. I took this as an excuse not to get out on my bike as I usually would, and instead found myself keen to try a run, which, aside from a few outings in Kansas during September, I have not tried since March. Luckily things did not hurt too much, and with the forecast promising more rain, I will have a chance to try a few more of that soon.

I find myself not counting the days down to Christmas so much this year, even though I am looking forward to it – and have decorations, in our new place, for the first time in my years out of Zen Center. Instead, I am thinking about the number of days until the solstice, and the subsequent promise of slowly increasing daylight. There is also the countdown to the Inauguration – even if the outgoing incumbent is intent on throwing tantrums every day, it does seem like roadblocks to the orderly transition of power are melting away, one by one.

And then there are the two faces of the pandemic – soaring numbers, even here in the Bay Area, which has fared as well as anywhere in the US until now, and the imminent distribution of the vaccine. It does feel like a time for holding tight, staying safe and isolated and indoors as much as possible, with the hope of things being different next year. I hope that you feel this possibility of renewal too.

Two views of leaves in the city, pre- and post-rain

The Dharma Seat

Since the end of the summer, I have not been doing so many formal activities, though I have been continuing to record for Core, and to lead meditations on the Chalk app for them. This week I am leading three public meditations on Zoom as part of the Dreamforce gathering – on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 8:00 – 8:30 am PST. You can sign up for them here.

The Monday lunchtime zazen sessions with Zachary continue, 12:30 – 1:30 pm PST; I am not able to sit outside at my new place, but one of our regulars still does. You are welcome to join any time, for as long as you are able to – there is no expectation of sitting for the whole hour, though I find it a helpful practice.

On Saturday afternoon, after a morning ride to Sweeney Ridge, I put my robes on for the possibly only the third time this year (after the Zoom wedding and my student’s wedding), for Sozan’s shuso ceremony – another Zoom first. Considering the numbers of participants, and the intricacies of the ceremony itself, it all played out amazingly well and smoothly; Sozan himself was steadfast in his answers, and handled everything with grace. It was sweet to see so many familiar faces asking questions – including a few from other time zones who would not have been able to attend in person – and I am only sorry I was not there in person to take photos (okay, I was also sorry not to enjoy the traditional dinner afterwards, though my partner cooked a wonderful meal for me while I was sitting on my cushion).

And then, as I was writing this out, Nancy the City Center tanto called to ask if I was able to give the Saturday dharma talk for Zen Center on January 2nd, which I was delighted to say yes to. So it looks like I will be putting on my robes again soon.

Collin is always interested when I meditate, and gave my robes a careful sniff when I sat down in them on Saturday.

Thankful

Even after twenty years, I still don’t do Thanksgiving like those who were born here (it took me a few years to warm up to gratitude in the first place).

This year, though, I do have something to be particularly thankful for: a first Thanksgiving with my partner Caitlin and her dog Collin, who braved a flight over from Kansas a couple of weeks ago. As the two of us settle in together, I am happy that the apartment looks more like a home. We are buying a few new things and moving on a few old things; now there is a cosy fullness about the place. It has also been comforting to fill the fridge, with things for Thanksgiving dishes and other staples – even as we live in a neighbourhood where there are long lines for different food banks almost every day.

I wonder how it must have seemed for Collin, who has spent all his life in the midwest: one day he gets into a noisy, bumpy container, and later that day he ends up in a new space. His first act on coming in the door was to leap on the bed, where he felt safe. It took him a few hours to trust the long hallway, and he still has a tendency to want to go up a different staircase and stop at a different floor to the one we live on. He doesn’t know he is in a different state; while he had never seen the ocean before, he lived close to a large lake, and perhaps experienced Ocean Beach in the same way as he did that – though I suspect the smells were different at the ocean. Perhaps everything else in California smells relatively familiar. He is mapping out his territory around the apartment, and has his own bed, our bed, and the couch to spend his days and nights on, sufficient food and abundant love. I think he likes it.

I know it has been a huge transition for Caitlin, leaving behind much that was dear to her in the midwest, and I am deeply grateful that she felt able to make that leap, and that we have an opportunity to create a new life together, with hopefully many adventures in many different places.  

Collin encounters the ocean for the first time.

The Health Of The People Is The Highest Law

On Tuesday night, what with the clock change and everything, I went to bed after Florida had been called for Trump. I woke up early on Wednesday morning, and even before checking the news, my body remembered the sinking feeling I woke with in 2016 – not once but twice, with the Brexit vote and then the US election.

Since it was a sunny day in San Francisco, and I had time in my schedule, I went out on my bike to gather my thoughts. I made it up to Sweeney Ridge, more settled, and glad that I had worked my legs hard to get there. As the day wore on, it did at least seem likely that Biden would be assuming the presidency – unless there are court interventions.

What caused the sinking feeling, for me and I am sure for many others, was the fact that this was not a blow-out victory – that the senate is still up for grabs (as I write). I had a notion, a wish, that there would be a massive repudiation of the shocking norm-shattering behaviour seen from the current president and the Republican party in power these past few years. It shocked me that fully half the people in the country I live in do not care for others to feel safe, healthy or supported, that they choose to continue to be represented by venal, self-serving liars. San Francisco may seem like a bastion of sanity in this country – and I would love the notion of secession to be explored if the culture war that are evident in almost every answer given in the exit polls truly represent the state of the nation – but I fear for the many people who don’t have the privilege of the safety we might feel here.

Of course, our practice asks us to keep going, to start from where we are and keep heading in the direction that reduces suffering and promotes well-being. Maybe, one day, there will be a government that cleaves to the phrase in the title, which I have written about before, and which stays clear in my mind.

On the ridge, the moon was waning, and sinking towards the fog that lay over the ocean. We trust it will rise again, and wax again.

From the top of Sweeney Ridge, a view across to San Bruno Mountain and the city.

Shaking Off The Dust

Notwithstanding what I wrote a few days ago, October really is a great month in San Francisco. The temperatures did indeed rise last week, so I had my third heatwave since moving to our new place. I had time to go and sit on the beach, and to be out on my bike early morning before it got too hot, to fmy current favourite locations – Ocean Beach, Sweeney Ridge, San Bruno Mountain, and the Crystal Springs trail.

That time was a result of not having a huge amount of work on. I got to lead an evening meditation for Core on Chalk, and it was great to have the time, and the intimacy of an audio-only format, to explore a theme – something I have missed since the Hebden Bridge sessions finished. I have noticed some second-guessing going on: do I really have anything to say, or to teach? What is my practice now? But these are more invitations to keep exploring rather than notions of despair.

I know that I miss the regular reading time I had when I was commuting in normal times; it somehow feels harder to carve that out even when I have space in my schedule. And I know that has a knock-on effect with what gets posted here, so I apologise if it has sometimes felt a little lacklustre. Seeing as we have just ticked past the fifth anniversary of this blog (with more than 1800 posts published), I thought it might be time for a refresh – only the second time I have changed themes. I hope that it is easy on the eye, and that the posts continue to be taxing to the brain for a few more years yet.

A warm still morning close to Candlestick Point on Saturday