Uchiyama Roshi

‘The idea of transforming delusion to attain enlightenment is easy to understand in terms of our ordinary way of thinking, yet it is not in accord with the buddha-dharma. In Buddhism, the dichotomy of delusion and enlightenment is transcended from the very beginning. We have to practice and actualize right now, right here in the buddha-dharma (reality of life) that transcends both delusion and enlightenment. This is Great Enlightenment (daigo).
Therefore, from the first, we are neither deluded not enlightened. Reality itself exists before we divide and name delusion and enlightenment. We are practicing this reality right here and right now. This is called attaining or actualizing enlightenment (kaigo). We practice with enlightenment as our base. Practice and enlightenment are simply one (shusho ichinyo).’ (The Wholehearted Way)

I remember writing down that last Japanese phrase when I was taking notes on my first reading of this book, more than a dozen years ago. I was not sure what it meant, and probably did not feel confident about the difference in the other terms either. Nowadays I do know that this is the key point of the way Dogen talks about practice and handed it down to us.

Taking Refuge in Sangha

In contrast to the previous flight on my trip, when I landed back at Gatwick after the stay in Belfast clouds were piling up as a new weather system moved in. That evening, as my friends and I set out for an Indian dinner, we needed umbrellas in a sudden downpour, and rain re-appeared throughout the weekend, especially overnight, though much of the remaining time was sunny.

It was a fairly packed few days, with many miles of walking, artist open houses, a film, a concert, a joyful parade for the local football team who have been promoted to the Premier League; we also watched a fair amount of football and the Eurovision Song Contest (not an event I have much cared for over the years, though my friends do; it is largely an excuse for drinking and exercising critical faculties over some of the entrants). There was also a day spent sitting with the local group – eight of us were there, of whom I knew all but one, some from Tassajara, some from previous sits in England, and I felt warmly welcomed; I noticed that seven of us had rakusus, and that mine was the only one that had not been bestowed by Reb.

I did manage to repeat my run to Devil’s Dyke; with the memories of the route still in my body, it seemed less intimidating than before. Perhaps I was just a little fitter as well, but I had the measure of it. On the Sunday, since I was awake earlier than the others, I also went out for a run in the sun, back up the lovely Three Cornered Copse, awash with the subtle fragrance of cow parsley, a sentimental smell for me, past the windmill, and then back down to the sea and a few miles along the front from Brighton to Hove – which we also walked at midnight after the concert, as the moon came up, to end my last night away. Monday morning was also grey and drizzly, and I felt glad to leave that behind, though the California weather was not so great for the first day or so.

Now that I am back in San Francisco, I have a chance to reflect on the trip as a whole. One theme that came up for me was renewing acquaintances: all of the zen events I took part in were with groups I have met once before, mostly on my last trip, with Belfast, which I visited a few years ago, being the exception. It has felt great to reconnect with people, to hear more about where the groups are, and what they are hoping will happen in the future. Sitting and sharing the practice was rewarding each time; meeting people in England with whom I had done practice periods at Tassajara almost fifteen years ago gives a wonderful sense of the mahasangha, which as I often say to people, never dissipates, even if we are different places.

When people talk about taking refuge, it can often seem like a sense of retreat, of hiding away, but I got to see how taking refuge in sangha can feel like uplift and support – perhaps most especially with the joint talk we did in Belfast, and the effect it seemed to have on the participants.
I also got to see how communities of people can retreat and isolate: I remember when I first traveled to Spain, in the early eighties, I would look at the old people with wizened faces, invariably dressed in black, and wonder what they had seen and known of the civil war, which they had lived through fifty years previously. In Belfast, I looked at people my age and older and wondered what they had seen and known of the Troubles, a generation or more ago. It was poignant to watch The Journey while I was there, even more so to be taken around the city on my last day by a sangha member who had first-hand experience of life during those years, and vivid memories of events that took place in areas whose names I had heard on the news over many years as the epicentres of violence and death – the Falls Road, the Ardoyne, the Shankill Road. When I met people in Ireland I could not tell Protestant from Catholic, but locals knew many clues and cues, and the divide is still strong: I heard of painful fights over attempts to integrate schools just a few years ago, when the violence was supposedly in the past. This sense of segregation was reinforced by watching the deeply moving I Am Not Your Negro on the plane home, with its perhaps better-known scenes of violence around school integration, and an equal sense of the deep schisms that retrenchment has caused, with roots, like the Irish conflict, that go back several centuries as one group asserted power over another. From my position of safety and privilege, it is hard to know how to speak of healing and the wish for all people to be able to join together and feel safe. I do know that I can offer some help as a teacher, wherever I am, and whoever I am with, and this trip has reminded me of the value of that.

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Divided roads in the heart of Belfast.

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The joyful parade for Brighton and Hove Albion’s promotion reminded me of the Giants World Series celebrations.

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The sea front at a quieter moment.

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It is always a joy to see Greenland from the air, even if the ice is vanishing.

Shodo Harada

‘When the Buddha spoke from the top of Vulture Peak, he held out a single flower in front of everyone. This was not just any flower – it was the Buddha’s experience, the manifesting of the Buddha’s very essence. Even if it is true that humans are simply another type of animal, as some people so dismissively put it, we are not here to simply live out our lives eating and sleeping. If we simply live and die as the animals do, then our existence as human beings has no significance. To be truly human we must live in a humane and dignified way. We are not alive merely to accumulate things and fulfill our desires. Our life, our mind – how brightly can they shine and illuminate all the we encounter? Zen is the direct realization of the divine light as it exists right here within our bodies. To have the exquisite teachings of the sutras come forth from our very own bodies, expressed in our every word and every action – that is the point. Unless we experience this our Zen is not genuine. With our wonderful human mind and spirit we are not mere animals; we are called to live our lives in the best way possible…
If we view our zazen as something separate and independent from our actual, everyday lives, then it has no meaning whatsoever. In this real world, in our actual living bodies, we must discover to what degree we can refine and develop our creative and inventive potential, and to what extent we can shine forth with a great and brilliant light throughout our lives.’ (The Path to Bodhidharma)

Typing this out on  a showery Monday morning when everything seems quite mundane, I feel energised in the way that being reminded of the value of the teaching often makes me feel. Most of the quotes on this blog are telling us this, in one way or another, whether written a few years ago or many centuries ago; all the great teachers are pointing us to the same wondrous thing, to give our energy to the great matter. I find it inspiring, and I hope that you do too.

The Shipping Forecast

The skies cleared as I flew over the Welsh coast and Anglesey on Sunday morning, which set the tone for my time in Belfast. I was collected from the sleepy airport by some sangha members who were also attending the jukai at Benburb; we arrived in time for lunch, where the sesshin participants were partaking of the last silence. I was very happy to see a couple of St Bernards at the priory, the dogs we had when I was growing up, and of course even happier to see a number of friends, many of whom I had not expected to be there: Djinn and Richard, Garret and Esther, Ann, Myles, Nuala (who kindly hosted me for my visit and, along with Myles and three other sangha members, was receiving the precepts from Paul), Andre, Heather, Bai and Annette.

Last week I had a few very quiet days with my mother in Hereford; the weather was mostly sunny, but there was a persistent east wind that felt cold. I got outside every day, running my familiar loop along the Wye, past blossoming fields of apple trees and flowering riverside meadows, as well as exploring trails alongside smaller brooks at the edge of the city that were new to me. On Friday I returned to London, for a rewarding return visit to the Wimbledon group, with a full room of people getting their head around the Genjo Koan. After being taken to lunch with some of the group, I went to Alan’s house to record a podcast with him, which was a lot of fun, and which I will link to when it is up.

This week I have been sitting every morning with the Black Mountain sangha, and joining the relaxed tea and chat afterwards. On Tuesday, when Djinn usually gives a talk, she suggested that she, Ann and I do a round table discussion in the zendo, which was well attended and nice to participate in – we all riffed off each other easily, and had some great questions to ponder. I added the Lagan to the list of rivers I have run by – my limited geographical sense of the city was aided by starting to walk around, and I felt confident enough to do a loop of Ormeau Park and then head to Langan Meadows on the towpath cycle route, and back via Belvoir Park, all of which felt a long way from the city.

On Wednesday, the last full day, we went up to Malin Head. Ann and I had independently had the idea of wanting to see it (I had watched a television programme while staying with my mother which featured it, and of course know it from its role in the shipping forecast), and Djinn was willing to drive the hundred miles each way with us. We stopped in Derry for lunch and a walk around the walls, then drove across the increasingly rugged terrain to Ireland’s most northerly point, which was uncharacteristically warm and sunny, with very little wind.

The last leg of this lengthy journey is going to be in Brighton (Hove actually), to stay with old BBC friends, and to sit with the Brighton group on Saturday, where I expect to meet some old sangha friends, and hopefully run up to Devil’s Dyke again, before the long flight home.


The cathedral at Hereford from the banks of the Wye.


Fields of rape seed outside Hereford 


The sesshin group at Benburb on Sunday afternoon, featuring some brand new rakusus.


A patch of bluebells in Ormeau Park.


One of the many beautiful views at Malin Head.

Uchiyama Roshi

‘Japanese people have a preconception that Buddhism is something special for a special kind of person. I repeat that the starting point of Buddhism is searching after the truth of the life of one’s self. Since it is the truth of the life of each self, it is only natural not to distinguish old from young, men from women, or noble birth from humble birth. Buddhism lies behind our practice of zazen. Behind Buddhism, there should be one’s own life. It is essential to see Buddhism from the ground of our own lives and to examine our zazen on the basis of Buddhism. In doing so, it is apparent that the idea that we can attain some special satori like a superhuman power is off the mark.’ (The Wholehearted Way)

I think it is normal for us to start to practise with the hope of gaining these superhuman powers, or resolving all our human problems and perfecting ourselves somehow. Hopefully, as we continue, these ideas drop away, and we allow ourselves to become ourselves.

Mountains and Rivers and Planes and Trains 

It’s not often I get to set foot in four countries before lunchtime, but that is how my day was on Friday, taking two cars, two planes and two trains from France to England via Switzerland and Germany. 

From Cornwall I had taken the train up to Bristol, had a cup of coffee with my sister and her husband who happened to be in the area, then flown to Geneva, where my friend was visiting for a few meetings, staying in her chalet on the slopes of Mont Blanc. Arriving in pouring rain, we only had the fireplace for warmth as the heating and hot water were out. I spent Wednesday exploring Geneva on foot, as my friend took care of her business, and was glad of the hammam at the Bains Paquis at the end of a cold day – I also jumped briefly into the lake after the sauna there. The overnight rain turned into snow, and Thursday we hiked through the snow-laden mountain woods to the nearest town, where most things were closed, though we managed to get a hearty lunch at an open restaurant. 

On Friday morning, getting up before first light, everything was covered in fresh snow. Luckily the LandRover used to get us down the dirt road, and the rental car, both started first time. In the valley autoroute into Geneva, it was raining heavily, as it had been on the other journeys to and fro. My first plane took me to Dusseldorf, and was running a little late. I was sweating a little about missing my connection (as I had briefly sweated when we had left the autoroute and had run into a long line of traffic on the way through the city). We disembarked onto a shuttle bus, I ran up the stairs, marched from one end of the terminal to the other, through passport control, down the stairs, onto another bus… and back onto the same plane I had just been on. As I said to the cabin crew head, if I had known that as I got off, I would have been a bit more relaxed going from A to B to A.

Then I ended up in Newcastle, took the metro into town, grabbed some lunch at the station and got on the train to Leeds, taking care to avoid the boisterous stag party that was already enjoying their weekend. The last stress had been about a strike on part of the rail network, but happily I arrived in Leeds just as the expected train to Hebden rolled in. It even had functional wi-fi on board.

It felt great to be back in Hebden Bridge again, and I managed to navigate from the station to Rebecca and Dave’s house, where I was welcomed as warmly as last time. After a shower, a rest and some food, I was ready for the first part of the weekend, a couple of hours studying the Genjo Koan. Saturday we had an all-day sitting, which felt very well contained, though I didn’t find my talk especially convincing, and on Sunday a very intimate half-day, followed by joining the regular Sunday evening sit, where I faced the wall with the rest of the group. There were also chances to have discussions with my hosts, and with Wendy who I had met at Tassajara almost fifteen years ago, about the current state of English zen and what the next steps might be for the various groups.

There was also time for me to repeat my run of last time, up the stingingly hard climb to Heptonstall, along the top, through the fields and the bluebell-covered woods to the little bridge across Calder water, and back down along the other side of the valley, cutting over to the canal to get back into town. Again, it was satisfying to have my body remember the terrain from one previous encounter, and it was a wonderful run. Next stop is my mother’s house, and hopefully a chance to run along the Wye valley.


The sky over Lake Geneva.


Geneva from the Bains Paquis pier after a little dip.


A clear mountain stream in the Alps.


Beginning the half-day journey taking in four countries.


The bottom of the Buttress at the beginning of my run in Hebden Bridge.

Dogen

‘What is called the mind of the Way is not to abandon or scatter about the great Way of the buddha ancestors, but deeply to protect and esteem their great Way. Therefore having abandoned fame and gain and departed your homeland, consider gold as excrement and honor as spittle, and without obscuring the truth or obeying falsehoods, maintain the regulations of right and wrong and entrust everything to the guidelines for conduct. After all, not to sell cheaply or debase the worth of the ordinary tea and rice of the buddha ancestors’ house is exactly the mind of the Way.
Furthermore, reflecting that inhalation does not wait for exhalation also is the mind of the Way and is diligence. Contemplating the ancients enables the eye of the ancestors’ essence to observe intently and enables the ear of both past and present to listen vigilantly, so that we accept our bodies as hollowed out caverns of the whole empty sky, and just sit, piercing through all the skulls under heaven, opening wide our fists and staying with our own nostrils. This is carrying the clear, transparent sky to dye the white clouds and conveying the waters of autumn to wash the bright moon, and is the fulfillment of the practice of contemplating the ancients. If such an assembly has seven or eight monks it can be a great monastery. This is like being able to see all the buddhas in the ten directions when you see the single Buddha Shakyamuni. If the assembly is not like this, even with a million monks it is not a genuine monastery, and is not an assembly of the buddha way.’ (Eihei Shingi)

For some reason I had an urge to reread the Bendoho section of Dogen’s Pure Standards, and it plunged me back into the world of monastic life – there are distinct echoes of how he set out the expected conduct for his young monks at Eiheiji eight hundred years ago in the way we did things at Tassajara, even if some of the practices – like sleeping in the zendo, are not observed. I continued through to the section on standards for the temple administrators. Obviously, I have read and re-read the section for the tenzo many times, as it reworks the message of the Tenzokyokun, and I also remember referring to the sections for the director, from which this quote is taken, when I started that job. There are of course ways that I miss temple life, but after all, the ordinary tea and rice of the buddha ancestors’ house is not the exclusive property of the monastery.