Mountains and Waters Sutras

When I lived at Zen Center, I would eat lunch out in the courtyard every day it felt feasible to do so. Over the course of the year, you could observe the shadow cast by the roof advance and retreat, roughly from the middle of the courtyard at the height of summer, to almost the top of the dining room windows in the winter. At this time of year, around the autumn equinox, it felt like the shadow moved faster.

Talking to people in different locations, as I do on some of my meditations, I hear – and encourage – an awareness of the light starting to draw in; the body notices, and responds to this natural cycle, even if we are not consciously paying attention.

In San Francisco, we have nevertheless been edging, a little uncertainly, towards the second half of our summer, which can often be the finest time of year. In the past week we have had another smattering of early rain, some interludes of fog, and also some warm sunny days. During this time I have been in and around mountains and water more than I might usually manage. 

I got a little wet riding on Saturday morning; I went out that day partly as the forecast had rain arriving early on Sunday. I was also not wanting to be too tired for the roam on Sunday afternoon, where we climbed into the fog on Golden Gate Heights, the now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t Sutro Tower offering lessons in impermanence (I don’t think the Heights qualify as mountains, but they are a substantial climb, with wonderful views when you get them).

On Monday, it was clear and sunny, and I started the day riding my bike to the top of San Bruno Mountain. I was actually on a quest to check out some trails in Brisbane, but the day was so nice I could not resist a little detour. Our lunchtime sitting was definitely better in the shade.

The following day I rented a car and drove up the coast, from Point Reyes to Sea Ranch – the first few miles were familiar from many bike rides, and then I was on roads I have only driven once, a few years ago now, on a short holiday from Zen Center. It was warm and bright, and Sea Ranch itself, the setting for an end-of-afternoon wedding I was officiating, looked amazing. I got to linger by the ocean a few times on the way up, and then hang out with a family of deer and a hummingbird before the couple showed up.

After the ceremony itself, I left just as the sun was setting into the ocean, and opted for the direct route inland to the 101, which was a narrow, crazily winding, and almost entirely deserted  road, the light fading all the while. As I crested one ridge, I could see the last rich colours of twilight behind me. At the next, a gorgeous orange moon – one day past full – in front. I was extremely tired from all the driving, but also energised by the beauty.

On Wednesday afternoon, having dropped off the rental car and lead a couple of teaching sessions, I returned on my bike to Brisbane, where my student’s company was having an off-site day. The location was high on the hillside already. I wasn’t sure how much the group would be up for in terms of hiking, but the majority were keen to try taking the fire road that run almost straight up to the ridge line of San Bruno Mountain. I had seen that from afar, and had plans for less challenging hikes as well. It was quite a workout, and hot with it, with new-to-me views over the airport (since we were a couple of miles closer than where the road takes you to the summit). The way down required complete attention, also steep and straight down on loose rocks and dirt. It seemed that everyone managed to clear their heads from the day of strategising.

I was quite exhausted by all of that, and some unpleasant near-misses with cars while riding this week, but on Friday afternoon I had some time to ride to the foot of Mount Sutro and hike up some of the trails ahead of next weekend’s roam. I haven’t been around there in at least a year, and much work has been done – and a couple of my favourite little trails are currently closed off.  The east side was nice and sunny, but the west-facing slopes were catching the fog. I am looking forward to circumambulating the mountain.

Oyster Point on my Saturday bike ride. It started raining an hour or so after that.
On top of Grand View, catching a glimpse of the Sutro Tower during Sunday’s roam.
Looking back at the city from San Bruno Mountain on Monday morning.
The coast line near Bodega Bay on Tuesday.
Pelicans at the mouth of the Russian River at Jenner.
The couple and the photographer making the most of the golden hour.
Looking back towards the coast from the road inland.
The moon was clear and orange, and beyond the limitations of the phone camera.
Some of the hikers looking towards the airport from San Bruno Mountain.
The light approaching Alameda on the Thursday ferry.
Just a few moments later.
The foggy side of Mount Sutro on Friday.

Boxes

My sister and her husband have been doing sterling work – she being the only sibling still in England – to take care of matters involving my parents. While she ensures that my mother, whose mobility and eyesight are declining in tandem, has what she needs, she also recently rented a van to move boxes of my stuff from the attic of my father’s house before it is sold, to her place a couple of hours away. And being very diligent, she listed all the things she brought, and photographed a lot of it too.

I felt very poignant in response to this. Not the least part of it is not having been able to travel to England since I was there exactly two years ago, and thus missing being able to help with developments since. But more prominent was being reminded of the life I was leading twenty-plus years ago, in London. It’s not that I have ever really regretted moving to California, and right now I have no particular desire to return to live in the UK. When I packed those boxes up at the turn of the millennium, I am not sure I had much idea what their fate was going to be. I had offloaded many things, including all my furniture and other artefacts, and at least once since then I have winnowed out the remains, on my step-mother’s request; all the things that remains were what seemed important to keep ten years or so ago.

When I moved recently, I was able to trim some of my possessions here, which felt good, so perhaps it is just a matter of being reminded of the psychic weight of having things in storage. I can envision – assuming I have the time and leisure to do so – going through all these boxes one more time and maybe moving along books and CDs and kitchen wares. I hear that nineties fashion is in again, though I don’t know how ready I am to wear the same clothes as I was wearing back then. There are also boxes and albums of photogaphs, going back to the very first pictures I took at the age of eight with a camera my uncle gave me for my birthday. Perhaps some of it will get shipped back over here.

I am often aware, especially when I visit my old friends in England, that their lives have had a different continuity to mine – new relationships, new places to live, new jobs for sure, but within the same general part of the world. My life, as with that of any expatriate, is that of before and after, and not necessarily being able to hold both equally.

From the very first reel of film I shot, our first St Bernard, Sophie, at the front gate of the house I grew up in.
One of many pictures I had on the wall of my place in London, reflecting the francophilia of the earlier part of my life.

Reaching For Resolution

‘As a professor, I detect a similar hope in the students who take my feminism classes, especially the women (as most of them are). Many of them come to feminism looking for camaraderie, understanding, community. They want to articulate the shared truth of their experience, and to read great feminist texts that will reveal the world to which they should politically aspire. They want, in other words, something akin to what so many women of the second wave experienced in consciousness-raising groups. As the British feminist Juliet Mitchell put it in 1971, “Women come into the movement from the unspecified frustration of their own private lives,” and then “find that what they thought was an individual dilemma is a social predicament and hence a political problem.”

But my women students quickly discover, as an earlier generation did, that there is no monolithic “women’s experience”: that their experiences are inflected by distinctions in class, race, and nationality, by whether they are trans or cis, gay or straight, and also by the less classifiable distinctions of political instinct—their feelings about authority, hierarchy, technology, community, freedom, risk, love. My students soon find, in turn, that the vast body of feminist theory is riddled with disagreement. It is possible to show them that working through these “wars” can be intellectually productive, even thrilling. But I sense that some small disappointment remains. Nelson suggests that looking to the past for the glimmer of liberatory possibilities “inevitably produces the dashed hope that someone, somewhere, could have or should have enacted or ensured our liberation.”’ (Amia Srinivasan, from the New Yorker)

I was reading this piece the morning after my student group, where we have been discussing the angel Kyodo williams article that I have been quoting from. One of the participants, who enjoyed the content, voiced a wish to know what to do, once we have acknowledged the issues.

As part of my response, I paraphrased the quote from Pema Chodron that we have also looked at in the group (if you don’t want to click: ‘as human beings, not only do we seek resolution, but we also feel that we deserve resolution. However, not only do we not deserve resolution, we suffer from resolution. We don’t deserve resolution; we deserve something better than that. We deserve our birthright, which is the middle way, an open state of mind that can relax with paradox and ambiguity’), as well as my recollection of the powerful interview with angel Kyodo williams from the aftermath of the 2016 election (particularly where she talked about the need for people to ‘do some soul-searching to identify what their contribution might be. As you recall, I encouraged people not to jump to a conclusion too soon. I think we have a tendency to do that—to do something, anything—rather than abide in the painful feelings of grief, disillusionment, anger, and despair.’)

So what can we do? I think it has a lot to do with continual inquiry, and trusting that, in the moment, we can act from the ground of our good intentions. Which of course always has the caveat of us all being fallible and prone to making mistakes. I have written before about how, despite learning in my college years how so much is dependent on heirarchies of power, I have nonetheless blundered, blinkered by my internal narrative of smallness and invisibility (from within my family system), and not seeing how objectively powerful I became once I was ordained and became a teacher.

Which is where the continual nature of this kind of inquiry becomes the important practice (with a nod to being able to hold opposing viewpoints, as discussed yesterday). And I was pondering that, while it may be tempting in some circumstances to argue contrarian viewpoints (about vaccination, say, or Ivermectin), we should also be clear about whose agenda benefits when we do so. I will leave the last words to angel Kyodo williams, from the same article:

‘The dharma—understanding, peering into the nature of reality—is not specific to Buddhism. The dharma is truth. And the only choice we really have is whether to try to be in relationship with the truth or to live in ignorance. There are no other choices. You have to actively engage. How did I come to be? How do I think of myself? How did I get what I have? (I don’t mean your degrees.) Where did I come from? What land are we on? If it sounds like a lot of work, it is. All of us, in some way, have profited from our wrong knowing.’

Suzuki Roshi

‘Soto way is to use everything in right purpose and to put everything [in] its own– its own place. What should be put on high place should be put on high place, and what should be put on floor should be on floor. In America, you know, you put scriptures [laughs] on the floor where you walk. We don’t, you know. But I don’t know how to do it– how to treat those scriptures in your way of life. So until I find out [laughs] some way, I don’t say, “Don’t put scriptures on the floor.” But this is not supposed to be put on– supposed to be treated as a rubbish, you know– as rubbish. This is not rubbish. Scripture should be put on table, or altar, or in your hand. Those small things is very important.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi Archives)

I don’t feel bad about having another Suzuki Roshi post relatively soon after the last one – perhaps one day this blog will be all Suzuki Roshi and Dogen…

In any case, I have been working very hard to polish up parts of the archive prior to a more public unveiling of the work we have been doing on the audio side of things. On Friday, since we had an unusual thunderstorm and some rain early in the morning, I didn’t bother to go out on my bike after my early teaching, but just got my teeth into archive work, and by the end of the day my eyes were square.

Also, in this case, from the first recorded sesshin at Sokoji, in 1965, Suzuki Roshi is quoting Dogen (who was also quoting someone else, if I recall correctly – I’m not sure I have the brainpower to go and look for the lines in the Tenzokyokun), and giving his students a reminder of how to practise. It’s the kind of thing that you don’t think about until you do start formal practice, and then you realise that the so-called ‘small things’ are very important.

A Day In The Life

September started off on the right foot in San Francisco, with a warm and sunny holiday weekend. I had a great time leading the roam on Saturday, with the fog mostly holding off, and then had two bike rides, on Sunday and Monday morning, to continue the outdoor theme, which felt very beneficial.

The general good feeling about the short week was my inspiration for the teaching sessions I held today: what part of us knows that a holiday Monday feels like Sunday, and the Tuesday feels like Monday? What assumptions are we making, and are they mental or physical? Although it might have felt like a Tuesday, I was definitely doing Wednesday things, in an enjoyable combination, as follows.

I woke up, as I often do, well before it got light, but I felt rested enough to get up and have some coffee and read the morning stories as is my habit now. That way, I had plenty of time to get ready for the first teaching session of the day, a short one with a group I very much appreciate. I had my laundry in the machine before I sat down (out of consideration for the other people in the building, I wouldn’t attempt to do laundry any earlier than 8:00), and since the sun was out, I attempted to dry everything out on the deck, which has proved sadly impossible on the foggier days we have been having (I resent having to use a dryer, and to use so much energy when it can be done by the sun).

Once that was done I rode down to Rainbow to restock the kitchen, and came back – slightly uphill all the way – with a fairly heavy pack (the nearest Trader Joe’s is about the same distance, but uphill on the way out, and downhill with the full load, so I am alternating).

Then it was time to have elevenses – coffee and toast – and do some work on the Suzuki Roshi archive. This is going to be publicly launched soon, and I am trying to make sure that all the elements are organised as best they can be.

I ate lunch before my Within class, as I usually do for lunchtime engagements: I would rather be sitting on a full stomach than an empty one (even though traditionally you don’t eat right before sitting, so I try to be able to digest for half an hour or so). The half-hour sit was a somewhat typical progression from having many thoughts to feeling quite sleepy.

It was a beautiful afternoon for a short ride, and I took myself up to Golden Gate Heights, to refamiliarise myself with some of the roads I will be using for the next roam. I discovered that one of my favourite stretches of off-road roaming, the steep dune of Hawk Hill, was all cordoned off, so I shall have to plan a slightly different route.

After showering and shaving my head, and some tea and toast, I walked the few blocks down to the Castro farmers’ market. This was the one I used to go to before moving a year ago. It was nice to be remembered by some of the vendors when I started going back, and I have met people I know through Zen Center the last few weeks down there. My dinner was a bagel and avocado, and various pieces of fruit, all bought from the market.

And then I had time to watch England’s tough World Cup qualifier against Poland before dharma sister Kim came over to sit and listen to a couple of short pieces of Suzuki Roshi’s instructions from an early sesshin. This is something we have started doing since I moved closer to where she lives: zazen, listening to Suzuki Roshi, and then discussing what he said, followed by a glass of wine and a good old natter. A lovely end to a very agreeable day.

The start of the trail to Lobos Creek, from the roam on Saturday
Morning mist on Skyline, Sunday morning.
I love getting out at first light, especially when the sunrise is as spectacular as the one on Labor Day.

Suzuki Roshi

‘Your everyday life is also the expression of the inmost nature, but our everyday life is too dualistic, so in everyday life it is almost impossible to study what is inmost nature. Only in zendo it is possible to study what is inmost nature. That is why we — we have zendo. And if you understand — if you get accustomed to this kind of life, you can apply this way in your everyday life. So that you may not be bothered by duality of the world. It is maybe proving difficult [laughs].’ (from the Suzuki Roshi Archives)

This is from a very short piece of audio that I transcribed recently; it was part of the first week-long sesshin to be recorded at Zen Center, and the expression here is quite typical of what Suzuki Roshi was trying to convey to his students at the time. I am very much enjoying this close study.

Vows

Back when I first started writing the Ino’s Blog, I was quite fascinated to see how detailed the stats could be: not just how many people visited the site, and what they looked at, but the search terms that brought them there. Some of those terms seemed rather random to me, although in fact I think they were due to some anime or game character called Ino, rather than someone wanting to know the intricacies of the temple way of life.

Many years on, I still find it helpful to keep an eye on how this blog is doing, though knowing the number of visitors on any particular day doesn’t convince me to do anything different here, nor does knowing that the most popular time for visits, according to WordPress, is generally Monday at 4:00am (local time, that is).

Nonetheless, I have been very curious that for the past few months, there has been a consistent number of downloads (I suspect that actually means listens) of some of the audio that I have posted, namely the series of classes on the Bodhisattva Vows I gave at Zen Center a couple of years ago. Occasionally one of the other talks is listed in the stats, but for some reason, these four classes are always head and shoulders above the others. I don’t have any special feeling about the class myself – I don’t think it was among my best work by any means – and I am somehwat intrigued as to its popularity. If anyone can shed light on this, I would be very happy to hear about it.

And since we are on the subject, I will put in another plug for the class Zachary and I will be offering for Zen Center in about a month on Hyakujo and the fox. And, while I am blowing my own trumpet so shamelessly, a reminder that there is a roam on Saturday, and that if you are reading this post on the day it is published, you can attend my Within class at noon, local time.

Shodo Harada

‘Rarely do we reside in no place. We think about what day of the week this; upon hearing a bird sing, we think about its name; upon seeing a flower we think about how nice it looks. Instead of residing in no place, we reside in a small self. This is necessary for functioning in the workd, but it is not the actual truth. Only when abiding in no place can we experience the direct truth. When we hear the birds chirp from no place, our mind is freshly born in every moment. Because we seek comfort, we feel we have to reside somewhere. Because we are part of society, we feel we have to refer to others by judging them. But that’s not how our mind works when it is functioning at its clearest.’ (Not One Single Thing)

This is a deep and subtle point. We might think that our appreciation of a bird or a flower is exactly what mindfulness looks like, but, as I usually frame it, if we are just trying to put it in a box, whether that box is labeled ‘pleasant’ or ‘unpleasant’, we do not allow it, or ourselves, the freedom of full expression in the moment.

Lisa Feldman Barrett and Karen S. Quigley

‘Right now, as you read this text, it may seem like your eyes are simply detecting words out there in the world. But you’re not detecting—you’re constructing. In every moment, outside of your awareness, your brain constructs a model of the outside world, transforming light waves, pressure changes, and chemicals into sights, sounds, touches, smells, and tastes. Your brain continually anticipates what will happen next around you, checks its predictions against sense data streaming in from your eyes, ears, and other sensory surfaces of your body, updates the model as needed, and in doing so creates your experience of the world. This covert construction of your senses is called exteroception.

Your brain also models the events occurring inside your body. In much the same way that your brain sees sights, feels things that touch your skin, and hears sounds, it also produces your body’s inner sensations, such as a gurgling stomach, a tightness in your chest, and even the beating of your heart. Your brain also models other sensations from movements that you cannot feel, such as your liver cleaning your blood. The construction of all your inner sensations is called interoception and, like exteroception, it proceeds completely outside your awareness.

For a long time, scientists treated interoception and exteroception as completely separate domains of sensation, bounded by your skin. But recent research has revealed that the two might not be as separate as they seem, and their boundary is fuzzy.’ (from the Dana Foundation website)

As part of my work as a meditation teacher, I try to keep up with the kinds of research being done. Along with recent articles on ‘soft fascination‘ and the benefits of nature on the mind, interoception has started cropping up in my reading. Again, the research may just be telling us things that we understand or instinctively know already, just with a quantative spin; the article goes on to posit that the brain does not necessarily recognise the skin as the boundary of the self. But as I always say, if it takes data to convince someone to try meditation, I am not going to say no, even if it just repeats and confirms the Buddha’s understanding from 2500 years ago.

New Places, New Habits

Camille, who I have known through Zen Center since my earliest days there, had a lovely piece about Roaming Zen published in the Bold Italic (a publication I have known about for about a decade). There was a spike in the readership on here afterwards – welcome if you are new and sticking around. It didn’t, though, boost the attendance for Sunday’s roam, but we had a nice small group, and we got very lucky with a warm sunny afternoon. Pine Lake was a wonderfully serene spot to sit and watch the herons, the cormorants, and the many dogs being walked to and fro. I could have stayed for much longer, but felt responsible to get people back to the starting point on time.

Pine Lake in the sun.

The fog has been quite insistent recently. I have only seen a couple of sunrises from the east-facing kitchen window at my new place, and these were tinged with red – my thought was ‘oh, here we are again.’ And then on Thursday, smoke of a different kind when I arrived for the morning ferry. I was chatting with the regular fellow passenger I see almost every week, and she pointed to a plume rising from the Bay Bridge. It turned out that a roofing truck had caught fire, though we couldn’t tell that exactly from where we were; we could see a few figures standing back, and heard little booms as propane tanks exploded. That was quite a start to the day, though I was feeling great relief that I was not in a vehicle stuck behind the fire on the bridge.

The colours of Tuesday morning.
The truck fire on the Bay Bridge from the ferry on Thursday morning.

Even though the move to my new place happened on the 13th, there was still a lot to do to feel settled. My training came into play in a couple of ways: I spent Wednesday morning deep cleaning the old place so that I could hand back the keys at the walkthrough on Friday. I was motivated by wanting to get the deposit back, of course, but also by the practice of being on cabin crew at Tassajara, wanting everything to look impeccable – much more than one does when still living there. At the new place, I try to keep everything in its place, mostly out of sight, returning to the minimal look of my old Zen Center rooms. It took some time figuring out where those places would be for everything, but during the week all the decisions got made, even if I still don’t yet automatically turn to the right drawer or cupboard to find what I am looking for. 

This place has some quirks as well: cupboard doors that need a little lift to latch, a drawer that brushes against a door frame when it is opened. I bought a new shower curtain as the stand-alone tub needed two, but did not take into account the tall ceilings and the rail hung high, which left my standard-length curtains dangling a few inches above the rim of the tub. I had to go back to get a pair of long shower liners before I could enjoy the shower at all.

As lovely as my new place is, I felt sadness arising when I handed back the keys to the last flat. My mood has not been great on the whole; I attribute it in small part to the dreary weather, in a slightly greater part to the chronically slow internet I have currently, which makes many of the things I have to do more of a frustrating chore (and which alarmed me when I came back just before my Within class after the morning of cleaning, and the network was completely dormant for several minutes). Mostly, though, it is missing the warmth and companionship of Caitlin and Collin; no amount of tidiness compensates for the lovely, lived-in nest we shared.