An Ancient Said

Two-thirds of a lifetime has swiftly gone.
On the spiritual foundation not a single speck has been polished.
While indulging, life randomly passes day after day.
If you are called but do not turn around, what can be done?

This poem is found towards the end of the Tenzokyokun, and Dogen does not attribute it beyond the three words I used for the title. It has always been a striking poem for me, speaking of the urgency of the great matter.
Earlier in the week it occurred to me that today was the anniversary of my first arrival in San Francisco, eighteen years ago now, on my way from New York, heading towards Sydney; here just a week, not imagining I would return, let alone spend a portion of my life here. That portion has now amounted to a third of my life (the other two-thirds can be evenly divided into my childhood-and-school years, and my college-and-London years). As I dwelt on that, I had the further thought that it would be plausible to estimate that I am currently two-thirds of the way through my life. Swiftly gone indeed.


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.


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.

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.


‘A monk asked, “What is the state of ‘no-thought’?”
Joshu replied, “Speak quickly! Speak quickly!”‘ (The Recorded Sayings of Zen Master Joshu)

The monk could have seen that one coming, but doubtless was not quick enough to dodge the blow. Nothing he could say after that would be any use.

Something Special

This post first appeared on my Patreon page:

Way-seeking mind talks are a common occurrence at Zen Center these days. I understand that originally only the shuso, or head monk got to give one: it was their first opportunity to sit on the dharma seat, and talking about your own life and how you came to practice makes for a gentle way to begin your zen public speaking career. I have heard many students give way-seeking mind talks over the years at City Center and at Tassajara, and it always offers a chance for connection to see people examining their lives in an open and honest way. My rule of thumb is that I will only ever remember two or three details of a person’s story, but the feeling stays with you.

Many years ago, a young guy came to stay at City Center for a practice period, perhaps two. He was a gentle person, the sort you would instinctively assume to have a good heart. What I remember him saying is that when he was growing up, he had a belief that he would become someone special, like a rock star or someone well-known; now he was an adult, he was still adjusting to the idea that he was not someone special.

I remember listening to him and seeing the disappointment alive in his expression. We all grow up thinking we are special, or that we want to be; perhaps our parents and care-givers made a point of telling us we were, imbuing us with a confidence in the notion, perhaps they completely neglected to do so and we are determined to prove them wrong.

In the typical zen way of looking at the world, we are all completely special, and yet none of us is special. We are all special because each of us is a remarkable unique aggregation of life force, karmic conditions and immanent buddha nature; none of us is special because we all have these characteristics in our lives. If we want special things to happen in our lives, such as becoming ‘successful’ or famous, most likely we are destined to disappointment. Our training would have us question what success looks like anyway. Material gains? Spiritual stability? Freedom from suffering? Which would you sooner feel ‘successful’ at? Just being alive is pretty special to me.