Ryokan

With no-mind the flower invites the butterfly,
With no-mind the butterfly reaches the flower.
The flower doesn’t know,
Neither does the butterfly.
Not knowing, no knowing –
Fulfilling the law of the universe.

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A monarch and a dahlia amply demonstrating the poem at Green Gulch recently.

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The Weather Changes, The Clocks Change

It was ninety degrees the day I left San Francisco at the end of September, and ninety degrees the day I after I returned a couple of  weeks ago. My body had already navigated from the pleasant weather of Portugal to the storm-force winds of my last weekend in England, and then across eight time zones, but I could not have asked for better conditions to come back to.

As part of cranking myself back to fitness, the day after I got back I took myself off for a gentle ride down to Ocean Beach, just to remind my legs about pedalling, and to enjoy sweltering; on the Friday morning I took a spin around the Headlands, and found the bridge sitting on a bed of iridescent fog in the low-angled sun. Photographers were having a field day, and I enjoyed the contrasts between the warm slopes and the fresh valley bottoms, where the mist lingered before the sun rose high enough to burn it off.

And since typical weather systems in San Francisco tend to last five days, it was not a surprise when temperatures dropped at the end of that week, something else for my body to adapt to. On the Saturday I ran up to Mount Sutro, and found the usual divide between sun on the lee side of the hills, and dense fog in the woods on the ocean side. On the Sunday morning I intended to ride around the city, but the fog was so damp and pervasive I couldn’t bring myself to do it – remembering that it was exactly a week since I had put off running due to the challenging wind – and instead spent the morning finishing the editing of the thousand or so pictures from Europe. I made up for it last Monday morning, though navigating the rush hour is never completely stress-free, and I had a terse interaction with a driver about speeding through Golden Gate Park, when I would rather have been watching a coyote disappearing into the bushes with a raccoon in its mouth.

The forecast for this past weekend was not promising enough to schedule a roam, much to my disappointment; in the end, there was not so much rain about. I took a run over the southern folds of the city to Diamond Heights and back through the bare slopes of Glen Canyon on Saturday, and headed south on my bike to San Bruno Mountain on Sunday morning, under clear skies both times, the low sun warm, the autumnal breezes fresh.

When I went to join Zachary for the lunch-time sitting last Monday, I found the shadows under the olive tree had got much longer, and for the first time, rather wished I had been sitting in the sun, as the wind was a little fresh (not enough to actually move to a different cushion though). The shadows will be an hour further along when we are sitting today, and hopefully the sun will feel pleasant. If you are local, you are welcome to come and join us, and every dry Monday over the winter.

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The Friends We Lose

On the way to Jikoji last Sunday, with Tova and Rosalie, I heard that Jana had died.

Jana 2

It is natural that within any extended community, there will be loss. Just thinking this, names come to mind of residents who have died since I first went to Zen Center: Hal Papps, Idilio Ceniceros, Jerome Petersen, Lou Hartman, David Coady, Darlene Cohen, Steve Stücky, Blanche Hartman, Sioen Roux, Lee Lipp – and I am sure, many others who I am less familiar with.

Jana’s was probably the first voice I heard at Zen Center, when I called during my first visit to San Francisco in 1999; I remember being slightly surprised that the person on the other end of the line had a lowland Scottish accent. When I met her, the following year, she took great pleasure in ribbing me for being English; in the end our common trans-Atlantic roots gave us shared reference points and things to treasure (I was remembering this blog post, and then find that death is present in it as well), even if we had lead very different lives.

I knew some of the extraordinary stories Jana had lived, and I am sure there were countless more; her life had been colourful and challenging. She could be very spiky because of it, but was also dedicated to transforming her suffering, and I took the fact that she had discarded her old names and chosen the name she was using as a mark of that transformation.

Growing up, there was a truism about class in England that you could tell a true aristocrat by the kindness with they treated people who were ‘beneath’ them in the social structure; Jana was an aristocrat of the heart as she took no-one to be beneath her, and her practice was to keep extending love, care and compassion to those who often remain invisible and marginalised. I was in awe of her ability to do this, to be so tender and so tough, and it made her a perfect dharma heir of Blanche, who was also so noble in outlook. I aspire to be able to practise from the heart as diligently as Jana did.

The Ocean Of Dharma Is Profound

Last week I found I was dreaming about wide open spaces, no doubt a trace of the hours spent under the wide open skies on the headlands of Sagres, and around Chichester Harbour. The last days of my trip felt like a welcome time of stepping aside – both from my regular life and from the other parts of the trip. In my waking hours, I found myself musing on how going back to to my home country gives me the opportunity to reflect my life in San Francisco in a particular, reductive way – how I choose to summarise to people in England my current activities, my usual feelings about living in California – and also throws me back into relationships and dynamics that I generally view as distant in time or space: recreating lived roles within my family, spending time with friends as an echo of the times we spent together twenty years ago – while sometimes stepping into my role as a teacher, which is much of my current identity.

There was also a sense of landing very slowly in San Francisco last week, picking up the different threads, remembering that, as much as I can romanticise it to people in England, my life is quite marginal, and that really I can barely afford to live here.

I remember the first time I left Tassajara, in 2004, after two years of living there and deepening my practice, how unequipped I felt to maintain that practice in the outside world, a hothouse flower exposed to cold winds. My intention at the time was to ordain as a priest, and it seemed to make the most sense to me to return to the monastery to do that training, a determination that threw other parts of my life into turmoil. Now, even as practice is more deeply embedded in my heart and my body, I still wonder how it holds up as I put aside most of the formal elements of it, and especially when I revisit the parts of my life that predate it.

I was offered another chance to reflect on all of this on Sunday afternoon, when I went down to Jikoji for a shukke tokudo. Tom, one of the ordinands, had invited me to come and take pictures (and also offered to pay me to do so, which meant I could write my November rent cheque without worry). I have visited the place a few times before – first as part of a residents’ retreat the weekend after 9/11 (many senior people decided to stay in the city to be available to help people who were struggling to cope with the events), in more recent years for a Young Urban Zen retreat, and to offer a photography and hiking workshop. It is a serene spot in the hills, and on Sunday was warm and bright, with the dry scent of California country.

There were familiar faces from various sanghas in attendance; the ceremony was intimate, and as with all formal occasions, imbued with the sense of what it means for two people to take on a life of vow. Having taken those same vows, I get to check in on how I am managing, and I feel encouraged to see others so willing.

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Ryotan Cynthia Kear, the preceptor, asking Tom if she can shave the shura, the last piece of hair.

DSCF4553The lighting was quite dramatic at times.

DSCF4673Afterwards there was much hugging, and cake.

Mitsu Suzuki

Learning to be “nothing special”
day by day –
autumn deepens

Another book that I had a chance to read while I was in England was A White Tea Bowl, which was in the shelves at the venue used by the Hebden Bridge group. I met Okusan only once, at Tassajara about fifteen years ago, but I remember being impressed by her energy as she did her daily exercises, already in her mid-eighties. While I am sure there is more flavour in her haiku in Japanese, the translations are delicate, and here we have another angle on “nothing special”.

The Sea, The Sea

I managed to miss Storm Ophelia passing across the British Isles last week when I flew out to Portugal, but I certainly felt the effects of Storm Brian at the end of the week. I returned to London on Friday, and had my third visit with the Wimbledon group on Saturday morning. As with Hebden Bridge, the energy and enthusiasm, particularly of Alan the organiser, but of all the members of the sangha, is inspiring, and we had a great discussion of the Fukanzazengi. Afterwards I was picked up by my friend to go and spend a day down on the south coast at their beach chalet. We drove down into a fierce headwind, and took a walk along a spit comprising one part of Chichester Harbour, where we felt the full force of the wind blowing in off the channel, whipping sand along the beach.

Even though the chalet was very snug, it was getting buffeted all night by the gales, which did not make for a great sleep, and the idea of another beach run in the morning did not seem very sensible. It was still nice to be out in the elements, getting a big dose of fresh air, and some sunshine; we started the return journey with a decent waterside pub lunch, and a walk around Bosham, which is, as so many old English villages are, comfortingly pretty and nourishingly historic for me.

I had at least managed three beach runs in Sagres. The first had been rather curtailed by the rain, the second took in both of the town beaches at low tide, and the last on Friday took in the beach closer to the harbour and the cliffs beyond, just as the sky flashed pink with the sunrise.

There were few people out at that time, and up on the cliffs I only had the company of the sea birds, which were large, and the ‘land’ birds, which were all tiny. It brought to mind cliff running in Cornwall, though these paths were very rocky, and at one moment when I tried to look further ahead to determine which way I needed to point myself, I brought to life the line from the Fukanzazengi I had been chewing over (for its echoes of the Harmony of Difference and Equality): ‘If you make one misstep, you stumble past what is directly in front of you.’ And that is why I love running out in nature like that, the fact that speed is less an issue than effort and concentration.

Coming back along the beach, mine were still the only footprints across the hard sand; I resisted the temptation to try to outpace myself and take longer strides, though it can happen that I am more measured on the way out and pushing harder on the way back. This time I was content just to be out on a warm morning in such beautiful surroundings. Ahead of all the traveling to get back to San Francisco, it was a wonderful respite, several days when I was not tracking the passing of time, and had no need to.

I am writing this from the departure lounge at Heathrow, where I am tracking the time before my flight. I was about to write ‘ I have a lot of time to kill’, but I do take pleasure in this transitional space, sometimes people watching, sometimes doing a little meditation (as I often offer as a possibility when I am doing zazen instruction), and this time, seeing if I can wrestle pictures and links into a blog post on my iPad, which can be a real practice of patience…


I also had time on Friday morning for a final walk along an almost empty Tonel beach.


Late afternoon sunshine over Chichester Harbour on Saturday.


Not as warm as Portugal, and much windier, but equally dramatic.


It might not show, but there was a fierce wind whipping off the sea.


Bosham church, posing nicely.


The End Of The World

Before I left for this trip, it occurred to me that it would be nice to be able to treat some of the time as a retreat. Time with friends and family, as pleasurable and occasionally lazy as it was, and a weekend of teaching, left me feeling very ready for a few quiet, unscheduled days.

Last year when I was over, some friends and I reminisced about a trip we had taken together to Portugal in the mid-nineties, to a town I had visited on other occasions, and decided it would be great to all do it again. For my UK visit in April I had raised the topic, but nothing had materialised, and the same looked like it was happening this time around as well. My plan B had been to spend a few days with Djinn in Belfast again, but she was needing to take care of her parents, so I decided to make the trip to the Algarve by myself.

Leaving Hebden Bridge on Monday morning, I found myself on a train filled with chatty schoolkids and more taciturn commuters, which seemed to get slower and slower as it approached Leeds, leaving me just a couple of minutes to catch the bus to the airport. On the way out of the city, it was clear that the autumnal morning mist had turned into thick fog.

Once through security, I discovered that many fights were being cancelled; information about my flight did not appear until almost the scheduled departure time, and I had spent the intervening time wondering what I would do if I couldn’t fly out. In the end, we were lucky: the incoming flight had been able to land when others had not, and we took off only about half an hour late.

Landing at Faro, and getting my rental car was very smooth; before I knew it I was on the autoroute with a big smile on my face, for the fact that I had actually made it, heading to Sagres, which, when I arrived, seemed happily familiar in many ways.

The guesthouse where I am staying has bikes to borrow, so on Tuesday morning I pedaled along to Cabo de Sao Vicente. I had strong memories of riding this route thirty years ago, with my then girlfriend who did not enjoy the slowly rising road in midsummer heat. The destination is worth it though, and I was glad to arrive just before the first of the big tourist buses. Mostly I sat outside the walls of the lighthouse, gazing at the quite placid blue Atlantic, remembering similar places I have been, such as Malin Head, and Cape Agulhas at the southern tip of Africa. While every visitor seemed to be moved by the wildness, it was still hard to imagine what the place must have represented in ancient Europe, when it was the most south-westerly point on the landmass, and nobody knew what lay beyond the horizon. After a while it was nice to return to town and eat lunch back at sea level, on the beach we used to visit, and then sit and watch the waves for a while.

The next day (yesterday if you are reading this when it is published), after a few bouts of rain in the morning, the day cleared and I walked up to the historic fortaleza, which played its part in Portugal’s maritime history. Behind the walls, there is a lot of space on the promontory, so that even though the crowds were bigger, there was again a real sense of desolation and wildness. I spent the main part of the day happily watching the ever-changing skyscape as the weather moved through from land to sea, and, once I had circumambulated the promontory, watching the waves from the beach again. Good meditation, and hopefully many good photos.


We managed to dodge storm Ophelia on the way down on Monday, but it was most grey when I arrived in Sagres.


A view of the lighthouse at the Cabo de Sao Vicente.


Looking up the coast from the lighthouse.


Looking back towards the Fortaleza de Sagres.


The big rock just off Tonel beach.


Tonel beach from the cliffs by the fortaleza.


Looking back towards the Cabo de Sao Vicente.


The path to the lighthouse at the end of the promontory.




I think you could call that a weather front.