‘Anyone who has practiced Zen for a while knows that it takes some time to discover that practice is about “me.” It comes from an individual place and is not some generic thing about meditating, bowing, or walking in a certain way, nor is it working with some generic thing called “ego.” This is also true of working with the precepts.
“But I thought Zen was about letting go of ‘me,” you might say. This is true, but we can’t let go of something until we know what it is we are hanging on to. Once we know what we’re hanging on to and are able to thoroughly welcome it- in fact, be it – it will let go of us instead of the other way around.’ (Opening to Oneness)
This was the book recommended to me when I stopped at the Zen Center bookstore the other day. As it happens, my student group was talking about studying the precepts, so I could not resist picking up a new book on the subject, especially one that promises to lean into Dogen a lot.
The notion I have heard that it takes a day for each hour of time zone crossed to recover from jetlag felt about right this past week. After feeling pretty out of it for a few days, I allowed myself a fair amount of rest over the weekend – rest from chores and work that is; I was happy to get a few miles in on my bike and lead a roam in the sun.
By Monday I was trying to get going on all fronts again, and felt pretty scattered until my lunchtime Within class on Wednesday. After time away, I wanted to get lots of things moving again, and it took half an hour of focusing on trying to relax to get me to a more grounded place. So I have accomplished quite a bit, and also remembered that I don’t need to clear my to-do list all at once. It also helped to visit the Zen Center bookstore, pick up a new book (which I will be excerpting soon) and to choose to spend much of an evening reading it.
The rest – as I described the final week of my trip last time, which again was not so much a physical rest but a mental one – seems to have done my body some good. A few of the strains and tight spots I had been feeling this year have eased, and as I start to ride again after a month away, I am trying to focus on not causing those to come back again.
This weekend I have been invited to three birthday parties, and will make it to at least some of two of them. I guess this combination happened last year as well, but I only remember two of them… I remember my oldest friends’ birthdays very clearly, but newer ones never seem to stick. Now all we need is the sun to come out; as the picture below demonstrates, we have had a string of grey and dull mornings.
After taking care of my mother (insofar as she accepted care) and walking the familiar paths around Hereford, I set off on the journey through Manchester to Hebden Bridge that I am now quite used to.
It was, though, my first visit to Hebden without Rebecca being in attendance, though she still generously let me stay at her house. Other members of the sangha stepped up to take care of all the details for the talk on Friday evening and the sitting on Saturday.
We had more than a dozen people at each event, which was great; many were people I knew from previous years. After we were done, there was the traditional visit to the Hare and Hounds for a pie and a pint.
The next morning I added a new leg to my teaching journey, as I went up to York for an afternoon with the new group there, which Jake has been organising.
We had a sit, a talk and discussion, and a promise from me to meet with them regularly over Zoom, as well as visiting in person again when I am next over.
There was a little time for me to see the beautiful historic city as well, before getting the train back to London.
This final week of my time away is my holiday time. I am writing this in Amsterdam, where I arrived on Tuesday. On the train over from London I realised I was passing through four countries in a matter of hours, as I had done on a previous trip, only this time there were fewer modes of transport and changes; nor did I have to teach after arriving, just find my hotel, seven minutes walk from the station (or, I was pleased to note, a fifteen minute drive).
I have only been in Amsterdam once before, in my Interrail days between school and college. I prided myself – as I still do – on my sense of direction, but I got terribly lost in the various concentric rings of canals. So I took care in my evening wanderings.
On Wednesday, I had a timed ticket for the Vermeer exhibition in the morning. I found my way to the Rijksmuseum without difficulty, the only issue being finding a cafe that was open on the way.
It was an incredible experience; this was what I had planned this trip around, having bought the tickets back in December (I had bought two in case one of my friends wanted to come as well; in the end, a woman from Melbourne waiting by the queue to get in was more than grateful to take it off me).
I ended up going around it twice, and bought the catalogue, though it will add to the weight of my bag as I come through Brussels and Paris (I left my robes back in London).
Other than that, I have been following my nose around the city, wandering in the touristy quarters and also finding some beautiful and quieter spots.
Although it wasn’t why I planned my trip for this time, once the sangha in England knew I was coming, I was asked if I could assist Ingen (who was shuso at my first Tassajara practice period, and who now has his own place in Ireland) with a shukke tokudo for Devin, who I knew from previous times in Glastonbury. It was an honour to be able to help, even if it meant bringing my robes over (being still determined to travel with just my carry-on back pack, I packed fewer other clothes; since it has been chilly so far, I have been wearing one of my two combinations of warm layers all at the same time).
Saturday was as grey as Friday, with more passing rain as I headed down to Gaia House. The major roads soon turned into narrow lanes lined with tall hedges, which I am familiar with from Cornwall, but haven’t tried to drive along for a few years. Thankfully the only people I came across were on foot, just by the driveway to Gaia House.
I had been taken there for a visit on one of my early teaching trips to Totnes, so just about knew what to expect. That the first person I saw inside was Chris, who I knew from Tassajara, was unexpected; he and Kathleen were helping keep things ticking along, having just moved there a week ago.
The silence was comforting, as were the grounds. After breakfast on Sunday, not having got up to sit, I walked around in the low sun, with a chorus of doves, nesting crows, blackbirds and who knows what else chirping away. Blossoms were out, the majestic old trees glowed in the light, and everything felt alive.
One of the things I had been asked to do was shave Devin’s head, which is never the easiest thing – the only other time I did this, at Zen Center, the combination of thick hair, albeit already buzzed, and a disposable razor, meant that I had felt I was inflicting misery on my dharma brother. Thankfully Devin sat still and didn’t seem to mind as I got to work this time.
Ingen held the space for the ceremony beautifully; apart from some recalcitrant charcoal, everything went smoothly, with many people having helped gather all the necessary elements. I had panicked a little as I couldn’t remember the exact path for the jundo I was leading Devin around before he joined the ceremony, but he was able to steer me right. My other responsibility was to help him put on his okesa, which went without mishap.
Once we had taken all the photos at the end, I took off my robes and followed another car to Devin and Nickie’s house in the next village for cake and sandwiches. And then I bade my farewells and drove over the moor, on a road I had taken once before, when I had been heading from Totnes to my dad’s house.
It was as beautiful as ever, with flowering gorse, sheep and ponies wandering freely, and the late sun illuminating the hills and valleys. The hotel I had booked was old and quaint, with a surprisingly tasty dinner – I ate more than I should have considering the earlier party food – and a four-poster bed in my room.
In the morning I set off for a hike I had planned, alongside the Dart, to Wistman’s Wood, then up to the tors, and back along the crown of the hills. It felt magical to be out in land that was familiar (even if I hadn’t spent time in this particular stretch of moorland), with no-one else in sight, taking in the infinite nuances of light, the rocks and trees, and the long views (I will post more photos on my Patreon page).
Reluctantly I got back in the car to drive back to Bristol, along the road I used to ride when I went to visit my dad, cautiously through the narrow villages, and finally back on the major roads, passing through a heavy rain storm on the M5. It’s all trains for the rest of my trip, which is way more relaxing, though I had a couple of cold waits on platforms on my way up to Hereford to spend a few days with my declining mother.
Easter weekend seemed like it was the cue for the weather to warm up. The skies were more or less free of clouds, but it was nice to be out during the day, and I was glad that, apart from my Dogen class, I had kept the weekend unscheduled, so was able to meet friends for coffee and wanders. I even wore shorts to the Monday sitting. After that, however, we had a ‘dry storm,’ with some pretty stiff winds bringing cold air – and the first wave of afternoon fog falling over the hills, as if spring immediately turned to summer.
As the days tick down to my departure for Europe, my sense of juggling everything that I needed to get done had me waking up early many days this week. The upside was that I managed to get a lot of things done, and as the days have passed, I feel more relaxed about what is still left to do.
It helped that after a lot of preparation for the first Dogen class, I haven’t felt it as necessary to do as much for the second and third. I have chosen the passages, which are largely the same as when I offered the class before, and it’s not as if I have to find new understandings of them. Listening to the recordings of each class has highlighted what I managed to get across (though who knows exactly how it has been absorbed by the participants), and how to move through the rest of the material. It’s been a lot of fun.
Most of the next month’s posts haev been pre-loaded. I am not planning to take my laptop to Europe – since I am taking my robes, I suspect my bag will be full enough without it, so there may not be many words from my travels. Hopefully some nice pictures.
Last weekend was packed, mostly with pretty fun stuff. On Saturday morning I had the first of the three Dogen classes, with a full screen of folks following in – at least I hope they were following. I felt like I talked a lot, but when I listened back to the recording later, I was glad that I had covered most of what I intended to, and also went off on what I hope were helpful tangents. I feel good about the next one, and hopefully we will be in a place to dive whole-heartedly into the more expansive material in the third class.
It was a lovely day, almost warm (it has been notably colder than it should be since about January when we had the warm spell that encouraged the blossoms to come out), and I would have gone for a little ride, but I was still pretty tired from riding Tam – and waking up early in anticipation of the class. So I sat on my deck watching football until it was time to put on my robes and go down to Zen Center.
Dan has been a great shuso, and when I saw that he looked a little nervous at the beginning of the ceremony (as everyone is) I almost wanted to lean over and whisper to him that he would do fine, which he did. As always, after the ceremony there was a chance to catch up with people, especially those who were visiting for the sesshin and who I wasn’t necessarily expecting to see.
On Sunday, with my legs still tired, I had a medium-sized ride over to Pacifica, then over Skyline and across to the Bay, which felt just right. On the way back I went to a gathering of folks who are campaigning for a better Valencia Street for everyone – a reminder that this is my other community – and after a brief rest, set off for the afternoon roam.
We had a nice group, as always, and even though this was a little more urban than most, around Ocean View, Ingleside and Merced Heights, the places we got to stop were charming, with great views. The wind was still cold though. At the end of all that, I definitely subsided in a heap with my usual post-roam pizza and beer. I still felt the effects of all that on Monday, as I tried to catch up with little things, then went out to sit, onto South San Francisco to teach, battling the wind all the way back to BART, and back for the Dogen study group.
Friday a week ago I packed my bag as full as I could and rode down to the ferry – going north instead of my usual route to work. My friend, who I was due to house-sit for, was running late, so in the end we all drove down to SFO, and I brought the car back, and then continued up to Wilbur via the Calistoga route for a change.
As opposed to my last visit, Wilbur was quite spring-like this time around. The mornings were still below freezing, but during the day it felt lovely to be out in the sun. On Saturday there were a few clouds, but the light was soft, and the greens vibrant. I had the opportunity to take a hike to the terraced springs where I have only been once with my camera before; there was small wildflowers dotted around the hills, and a herd of cows with calves churning up the valley. Having been charged by cows before, I was fairly wary of them.
In the afternoon I was on the deck, mostly waiting for the sun to come out from behind the moving clouds; on Sunday the skies were clear enough for me to turn a little pink. Driving back on my more usual route, the redbuds were stunning.
Each time a rain storm comes through most of us in the Bay Area, hoping that it is the last one of the winter. We had two heavy storms on consecutive Tuesdays. This time it does seem like the rain has moved on and there is none in the forecast for the first time in months.
I haven’t looked after my friend’s cats since the end of 2019, and it was nice to have a change of scene. I took the opportunity to get some rides in, although unfortunately I did not get out as far as I wanted to on Wednesday: it rained all morning and most of the afternoon I got out for an hour and still got a wet at the end of the ride. I spent the day revising for my Dogen class which starts today, so at least I could feel a little bit better prepared in the midst of everything that was going on.
On Friday, having been looking at Tam from the bottom all week, I decided to try and ride up it. It has been a whole year since I was really in the kind of shape I like to be, and since I am about to head to Europe, I won’t be building any kind of form now, but I was happy to be able to manage it. I have only been up that way once since the start of the pandemic, and in the days I used to ride around there regularly, I didn’t carry a phone, so I have very few pictures of the roads and the views, though I made up for it this time.
My legs were tired by the end, but I still had to get back to the ferry and from the ferry back home, and then out to the shops to get some food, at the end of which, I was very tired. Luckily my notes on my class will probably get me through this first one.
It’s been a week. On Friday and Saturday we had two warm and lovely afternoons for roaming. I was a little surprised that the group was bigger on Friday than on Saturday, but maybe the idea of looping the whole Presidio put a few people off.
On Sunday morning I was determined to get out on my bike for a short time, but it was a wet and miserable ninety minutes, and then I got wet again walking down to the Tendwell Fair. The event itself was lovely; I enjoyed teaching and spending time with folks from the community.
On Monday, I did my taxes. It had been hanging over me, and I figured that it would be less stressful to plough through it rather than still have it to do. It was not good news though; one of my jobs had gone from a W-2 job with tax withheld to a 1099 with no deductions, so I was on the hook for that. And then I got whacked with a healthcare tax credit clawback, from having underestimated my earnings a year ago. About half my savings will be heading off to the government…
I went to sit with a sinking feeling. It was dry enough to sit outside, but any pleasure I had had in the day pretty much ended when I got a flat – my second in a week – on the way back to BART from teaching in South San Francisco (I am amazed I haven’t had to do that fortnightly trip in the rain yet), and I was too late to make it home in time for the Dogen study group.
Tuesday’s commute was another soaking wet one, just like last week, and cold to boot. I thought I would be overdressed, but it didn’t feel like it at all. The rain and wind picked up through the day until we lost power in Oakland. Charlie has battery back-up power supplies, so I was able to continue doing most things. Trying to get home, the wind was raging, the rain lashing horizontal. It was enough of a challenge just doing the quarter mile or so to BART that I stuck to the sidewalks. On the way back to the city, I was wondering how the infamous wind tunnels along Market Street would be, but discovered that it was dry in San Francisco, and the winds manageable.
But trees had come down, and I found there was no power at my place. I did my student group in the last of the evening light, and then had candles and little LED lights to read by. I could cook and shower, at least, though I had no heating. Houses only a few doors away around the corner that I could see through my kitchen window still had lights; it seemed very arbitrary. Then again, I have avoided all the previous cuts that have happened around the place this winter.
I awoke very early on Wednesday and, feeling stressed that the power was still out, couldn’t get back to sleep. I didn’t use my laptop in the early hours so I would have enough battery power to be able to lead a morning meditation; I read by flickering candle light once my powerful bike light had run down. In the end, the hotspot from my phone was not reliable enough, and we had to scratch the session. I went down to Kim’s house to get everything charged up while I ran some errands, feeling completely exhausted from everything.
I managed to conduct my other Wednesday sessions from my phone, though the connection was a bit spotty. PG&E sent a message with an updated time when the power would come on – from 3:00pm originally to midnight. I figured I would manage – when we were kids we got used to power cuts, and sitting around by candlelight without the television. Since the outage also included the traffic lights on Oak St, I figured it would be one of the priority areas.
I got to notice the habitual gestures that I still made, even though I knew they would be in vain: to turn on the gas rings and expect the electronic spark to light, to turn on the lights. Looking to the stove clock to see what time it is, which I do many times a day, and which was my overnight indicator that the power had not come back on.
Mainly, apart from the stress of not being able to do my sessions, I am worried because I am going up Wilbur on Friday morning, and am house sitting out of town next week, so I had a lot of things I wanted to get done, not least my laundry; though I couldn’t bring myself to take it to the laundromat down the street. I trust that I will have enough clothes to see me through the week, even with all the combinations I will need.
Last weekend at Zen Center was, as expected, quite the occasion. I spent many hours there over the three days – from the Stepping Down ceremony for Ed and Fu on Friday afternoon, Hoitsu’s dharma talk on Saturday morning, the main part of the Mountain Seat ceremony with Mako and Jiryu at City Center on Saturday afternoon, and the remainder of the ceremony at Green Gulch on Sunday morning. I had bought myself a new umbrella for the weekend, and was glad that I did not need it as much as the forecast had made me anticipate.
The ceremonies are quite familiar to me now; since I was taking photographs, I did not have to stay in one place for long periods of time. I got to float around the building a little, and capture various moments both of high ceremony and of more behind-the-scenes action. I also found the ceremonial parts, wonderful as they are, less meaningful than the exchanges that happened during the course of the question-and-answer sessions, and the statements that the new abbots made at various points of the proceedings.
It was also an amazing chance to catch up with old friends, dharma acquaintances and even new folk. I had the chance to speak with someone who had been at Zen Center since the beginning of the pandemic and got the perspectives of someone in that position.
It was, of course, wonderful to see Hoitsu one more time. I thought, as I thought last time, that perhaps we might not get so many more occasions to see him in San Francisco, so I was making the most of this one, and we will probably post more photographs on Patreon.
Between the many ceremonies, and the travelling, and the clocks going forward, it was quite an exhausting weekend – it took me most of the week to recover. I managed to take more than 1500 photographs and I shared about 100 of them with the main protagonists, and other folks at City Center. Here are just a few of those.
And even after the damp weekend, we had another atmospheric river on Tuesday, which made for a very wet and dispiriting commute. After which the weather somehow turned. It has got much warmer and the sun has been shining, so finally it is starting to feel like spring. I am glad of that, and I think everybody else here is as well.
There had been a big buildup to the winter storm; it seemed it might even possibly snow in San Francisco, for the first time in several decades (I always love looking at the old pictures of San Francisco under the snow). For a couple of days it was extremely windy, with a cold edge. One of those afternoons,as I rode west on Market St between Civic Center and Van Ness, I got blown half way across the road with all the wind tunnels created by the tall buildings. Those are the days I am grateful there are no cars on Market Street these days.
On Thursday night, I got woken up by a thunderclap, right after I had gone to sleep. I heard the rain falling all night, and I wondered in the morning how it looked out on the peaks. On Friday morning, friends texted me photos that had been shared of Mount Tam in the snow, and invited me to come.
I had to get a few things done before I left for Wilbur mid morning, so I did not go out. When I had to leave to pick up the rental car, it started raining quite heavily. By the time I drove away, there were blue skies up above.
The journey up was quite distinct: in the east bay, the roads were very wet with a lot of spray, but the skies were clear. Once I crossed into the north bay, the roads were dry, but it was raining as we went. Since I could not really remember the last time I was in a car, perhaps not this year, I was taking it very gently. Thankfully, traffic on the 80 was lighter than I can ever remember it on a Friday. The 505 was dry. To the left of the valley I could see snow along the top half of the peaks of the hillside. I was heading towards some dark clouds. By the time I got to the 5, it started raining pretty heavily again. There was an ongoing incongruity of seeing rows of almond trees in blossom in front of snow and dark clouds.
Having been to Wilbur a number of times over the years, in all conditions, I knew it was unlikely that the snow would be affecting the road up to there – unlike driving into Tassajara in similar conditions, where you can expect snow above 3000 feet, even if the valley is clear. If you go west from the Bear Valley turning which leads to Wilbur, there are signs saying that you need to carry snow chains, as the road climbs on the way towards Clearlake, but I was not going that far.
Nevertheless, once I turned west at Williams onto the 20, I found myself heading up into the pass with snow on either side. Once I turned off onto the Bear Valley Road, I stopped so that I could pull out my camera and take a picture. I certainly don’t remember the last time I had been in snow. One of the friendly staff members I know from Wilbur was driving out as I took pictures. She said there was more snow expected and she hoped she would be able to get back in in the morning. I took the dirt road very carefully as the first section was quite slippery, and I got to enjoy both the slowing down and the amazingly peaceful landscapes. It was perhaps 40° when I arrived, and it was lovely to sit in the warm plunges, while snow was falling on my head. I have been at a hot springs in the snow before, at Sierra Hot Springs in Truckee – only that time it was memorial day and I was less expecting it to snow, but it was still beautiful.
The skies cleared somewhat, and it warmed up enough that the snow had all melted by the time I left on Sunday. The place was far from full, though I had people coming to each meditation session, despite the trouble we had getting the heating going on the deck. I had thought about staying an extra night, but more snow was potentially coming, and it seemed prudent to get out while the going was good. I ended up driving through several hours of torrential rain on the way back; thankfully traffic was light again.
WIth more downpours on Tuesday as I made my way to work, I found myself feeling very weary of all the weather, and there was great relief when Wednesday dawned sunny and clear, though we are not out of the woods yet. I have been hesitating to schedule a roan this weekend, with varying forecasts.