Back to the Land

Many parts of the trip up to Wilbur felt incredibly familiar, from the roads and freeways taken, to the stop at Trader Joe’s in Fairfield, to turning off the 20 to take the bumpy dirt road up the river valley. It was nice to see that a few changes had been made (positive ones in my book) and that the place was in great shape. I was welcomed back by the people I knew who were still there, and warmly welcomed by the new managers, all of which felt very nourishing.

And as I walked back to the buildings, having parked the rental car, I could feel my body relaxing as it did when I arrived at Tassajara a couple of months ago. Only this time, I did not subsequently tweak my back and have trouble moving. In fact, with a combination of walking, sitting, being in the baths, and ignoring the projects I thought I might take care of while I was there, I came away feeling in better shape than I have for a while. 

Although I was used to running the trails when I went before the pandemic, just focusing on walking this time allowed me to take in the landscape much more slowly, to appreciate the trees and the fauna – the rabbits and deer, quail and turkey families, and that really fed my enjoyment of the slow pace of life there. Having my camera with me, and taking an abundance of photographs also enlivened me.

It was cooler than expected when I arrived, and on Saturday it didn’t warm up much. I took that as a good sign to take a hike in the early afternoon, and found myself half way up to the ridge hearing thunder off to the north, with ominous clouds that came our way, and then dropped rain for about half an hour while I sheltered under an oak – more concerned for my camera than for myself. Sunday was clear, and the sun started warming everything early, so it was pretty toasty by the time I headed home in the afternoon. I had managed to turn a little pink from sitting out at the end of the afternoon on Saturday, so I thought it best not to linger in the sun this time.

It seemed quieter than usual, but the people who came for meditation had a lot of good questions, so I enjoyed the interactions, as well as other conversations I had over the weekend. I can’t wait to go back!

A Friday evening walk upstream along the valley.
Saturday afternoon with looming clouds.
Looking down onto the valley.
The rain heading our way.
Soft light after the rain.
Bright sun first thing on Sunday morning.

A Weekend of Roams

After the previous weekend’s later-than-usual rain, we had some long-overdue high temperatures this past weekend, and I was extremely glad that I had lined up three consecutive roams, which meant I was outside a lot.

The Friday roam was a last-minute addition; I had had a dentist appointment scheduled for six months, which was reconfirmed and then almost immediately rescheduled. With nothing much I needed to do, I thought it would be nice to enjoy some time in the rose garden in Golden Gate Park, which I had recently seen was full of blooms.

Earlier though, I had followed up on a plan to catch the first sun at Stow Lake – having ridden around it a little while ago but only been able to take pictures on my phone, this time I returned with my new camera, and the difference in quality was reassuring. It was already warm as I rode around almost entirely empty spaces in the park, saw another coyote, captured many roses in the soft light, and made my way home catching the low sun bursting through the trees.

There was a breeze for the roam that made it pretty pleasant, and although we didn’t see a heron as wished, we did get to enjoy some of the lakes and many of the roses. On Saturday, having ridden through the fingers of fog creeping in from the ocean on the way to Sweeney Ridge first thing, I took a group around the much-loved Glen Canyon – Billy Goat Hill loop on another lovely afternoon. On Sunday, the annual Zen-a-thon roam had a mostly foggy time of it, as happened last year, with some detours on Corona Heights because of coyote pupping; the sun came out as we descended from the top of Buena Vista.

All of that just about tired me out, and then I have a busy week ahead – some extra teaching sessions, a wedding on Thursday, and then a weekend at Wilbur (not that being there can be called busy, but the organising will be), as well as another weekend retreat next weekend.

My Mondays have filled out as well, with the lunch-time sitting followed now by a trip to South San Francisco, where I sit at my student’s biotech company on alternate weeks, and make it home just in time for the Dogen Study group. Plenty of teaching, like plenty of sun, keeps me happy.

My favourite shot of the whole morning. The phone would not have been able to cope with the contrasts.
Roamers sitting at Metson Lake, where I also did my Earth Day Within class.
Sunrise over Lake Merced on Saturday morning – I call it Monet from a moving bike.
What the fog – which was still creeping inland – looked like from Sweeney Ridge.
Roamers at Billy Goat Hill.
A foggy climb up Guadeloupe Canyon Road on Sunday morning.
We couldn’t see Twin Peaks or the Sutro Tower on the Sunday roam, but Mount Olympus was just visible.

Frankly…

I had been planning to write something anodyne about the rain on Sunday and getting wetter on my bike than I had expected. Monday morning was pencilled in for cleaning the crud off my bike, but before I started, I got into an exchange with someone I know. For the sake of anonymity, I will just say that this is a person of colour relatively new to practice, but interested in going deeper. They expressed enjoying a recent ceremony, and then went on to say, 

“However, I am just sitting with this question of whether I can “practice” wholeheartedly knowing that the teachers here can’t meet me in my race… which is really the root of so much of my suffering and conditioning.”

My response, which I have amended slightly for clarity: “You should be able to include all parts of yourself in your practice. If you aren’t able to, it cannot be a fulfilling practice. If your teachers can’t mirror all parts of you back to you, I think you need new teachers, even as you can love these ones in their imperfections.”

Later in the exchange, the student said, “My comments are my perspective. I know I’m operating from a place of confusion. [One teacher] says I can’t do anything from a place of confusion. So I’m supposed to just sit and find my calm.”

“Frankly that’s bollocks,” was my initial reaction. 

As I tried to articulate why, I went on, “[Another student] was undoubtedly operating from a place of confusion and what [they] said was needed and essential. How is a POC or person used to being oppressed or targeted supposed to find any sense of calm if their perspectives are diminished or even dismissed out of hand? People’s confusion is the ground of our practice. None of us get to sit in equanimity and make serene “objective” statements about how things really are. As a quote that really resonated for me says, “neutrality is very often the favourite language of power.” You can operate from a place of confusion and understand that it is confusion and still come up with better understandings than someone who refuses to see that.”

I was reading about the ancestors this morning, and how our ceremonies cultivate gratitude to everyone who passed down the practice through many different cultures so that we can avail ourselves of it today. And, as I get to be more senior, I understand how essential it is to ensure that the teaching is not cut off, that it continues to reach down the generations. I have been listening to Suzuki Roshi emphasising this point in the first few months at Tassajara.

Fifty-five years on, there are so many more options for people wanting to study Buddhism, or even Zen, and as dharma centres we cannot be complacent in assuming that the way we have always done things will be sufficient, especially when the communities have been so homogenous and inward-looking. As a male from the dominant culture, I can’t claim to have the answers for what everybody needs, and in the past I have suggested other teachers to students of colour, teachers who might be better placed to help the student deal with such aspects of their practice. Still, I don’t think it’s okay to suggest that people, especially people from non-dominant communities, need to just stay quiet and not get to express who they are and what they need, even if they are coming from a place of confusion, and even if ultimately this practice is not for them. As a teacher, I know need to allow everyone that space, meet them where they are the best I can, and use what I hear to examine my own blind spots and shortcomings.

Maintenance

The long Memorial Day weekend was quite the mixed bag in terms of weather. I had a notion to try to get out on my bike every morning from Friday onwards, but Friday was so grey I did not feel inspired to go, and spent the day reading and studying instead. On Saturday it was still grey, with a typically damp fog along the west side of city and at Ocean Beach. We had one of those half-and-half afternoons which felt promising enough that I went downtown with my camera, and walked home, catching the angle of the sun on things, as I used to do on my Saturday afternoon camera walks when I lived at Zen Center.

I was quite surprised that Sunday dawned totally clear, and I enjoyed my ride up San Bruno mountain, before I dragged more than a dozen roamers up the south side of Mount Sutro and Twin Peaks on a pleasant afternoon. Monday was also clear, and I had a sunnier time down along Great Highway before climbing over and round to the bay side.

After my pre-Tassajara stretch goal of getting up Mount Diablo, I looked at my calendar for the summer, and realised that between some consecutive weekends away, and the planned trip to the East Coast and the UK, I wouldn’t have a solid block of time to get my fitness back to that level again – it being one of the sadly inevitable facts of aging that it takes quite a while to regain form once you take a couple of weeks off. I made a little pivot more to maintenance rides, and have, dispritingly grey days notwithstanding, kind of gone back to the riding I was doing at the beginning of the pandemic: one serious ride a week, one that just felt like a good stretch of the legs (going up Twin Peaks, for example) and one which was more of an outing, where I felt fine dawdling and taking photographs. 

A couple of weeks off the bikes certainly helped renew my enthusiasm for some regular routes, and there is something about the freshness of a summer morning before the sun is up, with perhaps the exhilaration of seeing a coyote close byin Golden Gate Park, having a pair of herons flying overhead, or hearing the parrots in the palm trees on Dolores St as added bonuses.

Perhaps the main drawback of the rides that I did this past weekend is that, while I could feel the tiredness in my legs, even with the roam, I did not wear myself out in the way that I have done for decades – one of the reasons endurance sports appealed to me back in high school, to burn off the stagnant energy that saps my mood. 

I had an early morning leg-stretcher on Wednesday that took in Stow Lake.
A damp Saturday morning along the Great Highway.
Clarity on Sunday morning from the top of San Bruno Mountain.
Surfers are also early birds – Monday morning
Looking across the former Buri-Buri ranch to the south side of San Bruno mountain on Monday.

National Karma

The Sandy Hook shootings took place a couple of weeks before my shuso ceremony at Tassajara, and I expected that someone might ask me a question about it. I had my usual strident points of view lined up (“The US is an old testament nation, not a Christian nation,” and so on). In the end, the question that came caught me off-guard: what would I say to a parent who had lost a child in the shooting? My reply was something along the lines of “I can’t even begin to imagine how much you must be suffering right now,” and it marked a heart-opening shift from some of the more easily batted questions up until then.

Wednesday is a day of different teaching sessions for me. In my Within class, I decided to broach the subject of the latest massacre, coming as it did, so close on the heels of the last – even as I am generally reluctant to speak of tragic events in the news. There seem to be two salient points to remember. One is that America has always been like this, from the earliest days of the fragile settlements in New England, and through the decades of slavery and its aftermath, which is still fully present: vindictive, ready to kill in order to defend, but also in order to expand; ready to kill from a sense of separation, isolation, domination and othering.

Additionally, the rugged individualism that seeps through the culture down the centuries plays out as lethally toxic masculinity these days, with angry young white men (who are the shooters, almost without exception) who find no other way to express their alienation than through gun violence.

And this is not separate from all the other assaults on life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, which is supposed to be the raison d’être of the US, led by venal politicians who are seduced by money to obstruct policies that the majority of people (even in this case the majority of gun owners) would like to see in place. 

As I and others in the class who had grown up in other cultures observed, this national karma is hard to understand from the outside, in the same way that the lack of healthcare and attacks on abortion rights are hard to understand from a European perspective.

Each country has its own blindspots, and the UK is certainly struggling with its own karma right now, but those blindspots in the US tend to the punitive and deadly. Anger and frustration are what we are left with. 

“In a typical year, more pre-schoolers are shot dead in America (about 75) than police officers are.”

May Days

We do finally seem to have lumbered on to the left shoulder of summer, and none too soon, though the all-prevading nature of wind means it has not been as warm in the city as it might be – I had more of a taste of summer heat when I took the train down the peninsula on Saturday afternoon for a back garden birthday party.

After my sign-off tempting fate last Tuesday, I was a little worried to wake up with a slightly sore throat the next day. I had not slept especially well for the previous two nights, and had talked perhaps more than usual, not least at my student group. I welcomed three to my place for that, and a fourth was joining on Zoom from Singapore, which was amazing, as he sounded as clear as he ever does from Oakland.

A friend, who had had a bad case of COVID over the last couple of weeks, was planning to go and get a PCR test locally that day, so I went along. Thankfully I didn’t feel any worse as the day wore on, and the test came back negative, so I was able to volunteer as planned at Bike To Wherever Day with the Bicycle Coalition, and enjoy a few hours engaging with riders and fellow volunteers. As I wrote on Patreon recently, with Zen Center still closed for public events, I have more of a community with people on bikes these days – not least a couple of new riding regulars on the ferry.

It feels like it has taken a full two weeks to catch up from the two weeks away at Tassajara, and I made sure I kept a chunk of the weekend free, not least because it was the last day of the Premier League season, which I tried to watch as much as possible without spoilers. 

On Monday I had time and space to catch up with writing and preparing for a couple of teaching events this week, as well as going to sit as usual, where it really did feel warm, before diving into the continual nourishment of the Dogen study group. Maybe by Friday I will feel that I have caught up.

I saw this remarkable cloud as I was heading to the birthday party on Saturday.

In Person

While I have been doing outdoor events since last summer, as vaccinations started to ease the dread before the variants came along, I have been doing very few indoor gatherings at all. And somehow, despite all the cases popping up – and I have several friends who have had recent unpleasant infections – this past week has brought a sequence of in-person gatherings.

We roamed on Saturday, which I count as the 27th roam since restartiing. It was not as warm as advertised, but we got to Marshall’s Beach without the fog that had been threatening, but with a fairly insistent wind. On Sunday, Bay-to-Breakers unleashed its usual mayhem. I had gone out on my bike early, so had the park almost to myself, but ended up battling damp fog and strong winds for most of the three hours I was out. And then I went along to a gallery on Gough for a relatively new offering for Within, that other teachers have been covering so far, and which may become a more regular fixture in my weekends.

On Monday, after the sit on Embarcadero, I took BART (since the Caltrain schedule had completely changed since I last checked it) to my student’s company, which since I last led a session in their offices, has moved from Mission Bay to South San Francisco and almost doubled the number of employees. There were some familiar faces from the old days, some people I had only seen onscreen, and one person who was on their first day.

It was again a little too cold and windy to be sitting outside (though we had done okay in the sun on the Embarcadero), so we sat in a generic meeting room. But the joy, for me, of feeling the group’s energy settling as we got into the session, was amazing, and a real reminder of what we have all missed.

Unexpectedly, I got home in time to join the Dogen study group at the beginning. The exchanges were fun and lively, but I did have in the back of my mind a renewed feeling of the hollowness of meeting on Zoom.

Tonight, my student group will be meeting in-person for the first time since March 2020. I look forward to making tea and offering biscuits, and I am sure the shared sense of pleasure will be there.

And If I end up coming down with COVID, it would not be much of a surprise…

Above Baker Beach on the roam on Saturday.
I went up to Kite Hill to watch the lunar eclipse on Sunday, which was just about visible, in the wind and clouds that evening.

Incrementally

I was only gone for a couple of weeks, but I noticed changes when I got back. The big buckeye in my yard had burst into flower, and most of the flowers were already shedding on the deck. The morning sun arrives in different places in my kitchen, and in the middle of the day, the sun seems higher in the sky than when I last noticed it. The sun feels warm, but there has been a constant and cool wind that have kept the temperatures much lower than I was expecting. The moon is filling, and I am planning to walk up the hill to see the moonrise and eclipse on Sunday evening. 

As sometimes happens, it took me a couple of days to fully unpack my bags and put things away. I felt a lack of motivation as I got back to city speed, and on several consecutive days I slept until it was already light – though of course that is earlier than it was a fortnight ago. After a mostly quiet weekend, sitting on the Embarcadero was a pleasure, and later in the afternoon, the debut of the Dogen study group was very energising. Many of the participants were familiar faces, and the conversation and questions were lively. I am looking forward to this continuing to unfold.

After the weeks away from my bike, I have been taking it gently, but have had some lovely outings already. Apart from taking a trip on Saturday to see the mayor signing the legislation to make JFK permanently car-free, I went out early on Wednesday morning to stretch my legs. I had an idea to go to Fort Point, and then took a little detour to check out the new Battery Bluffs open space in the Presidio, discovering that it included a beautifully smooth bike trail. I will be adding this to my repertoire of low-stress routes, as well as taking a roam through there in the coming weeks.

Rev David Myles films the mayor in Golden Gate Park – this is the San Francisco I love, twenty-two years after arriving..
My first time seeing the buckeye in flower
The new bike trail in the Presidio
The Upper Great Highway was naturally car-free over the weekend.

Dogen

‘A person’s body and mind change according to situations and time. A billion worlds can be sat through within a single sitting. Even so, at that very moment the body and mind cannot be measured by self or other. It is the power of buddha dharma. The scale of the body and mind is not five or six feet, because the five or six feet is not unchangeable.

Where the body is neither bounded nor boundless, it is not limited to this world or that world, to the entire world or the immeasurable entire world. As in an old saying, “What is it here? Describe it roughly or in detail.”

The scale of mind cannot be known by thinking and discernment, either. It cannot be known by beyond thinking and beyond discernment. The scale of body and mind is like this; so is the scale of cleansing. To take up this scale of cleansing, practicing and realizing it, is what buddhas and ancestors have cared for.

Do not make your scheming self a priority. Do not make your calculating self real. By washing and cleansing, you thoroughly take up the scale of body and mind and purify them. Even the four great elements and five skandhas, and what is indestructible [in the body and mind], can be purified by cleansing.’ (Shobogenzo Semmen)

Today sees the launch of a new study group I will be participating in as part of Treasure the Road, along with Catherine and Zachary. We will start studying Dogen by opening this fascicle, all about washing the face (or not just all about washing the face, as the above passage suggests) at 4:30 west coast time.

Mountains and Waters Sutras

‘Even if you have an eye to see mountains as grass, trees, earth, rocks, or walls, do not be confused or swayed by it; this is not complete realization. Even if there is a moment when you view mountains as the seven treasures’ splendor, this is not returning to the source. Even if you understand mountains as the realm where all buddhas practice, this understanding is not something to be attached to. Even if you have the highest understanding of mountains as all buddhas’ wondrous characteristics, the truth is not only this. These are conditioned views. This is not the understanding of buddha ancestors, but merely looking through a bamboo pipe at a corner of the sky.’ (Shobogenzo Sansuikyo)

I read this passage to the retreat group as we silently ate lunch at the Horse Pasture on the first full day of the retreat. It was an amazingly beautiful day, the wildflowers were abundant, and everyone seemed to be having a good time. And, when we got to the Narrows, one of the group, who knew Tassajara very well, slipped and broke a wrist crossing the creek. Luckily another member of the group was a nurse, so we got them strapped up and ready to walk back to Tassajara. Then we came across a rattlesnake at the side of the trail. Only the nurse got past it. I backed everyone else quite a few yards along the trail, and told her to alert the stone office about the injury. The Tassajara protocols worked fine, as did, eventually, throwing small stones in the direction of the snake to encourage it to find somewhere quieter to sun itself. The trained responder sorted out the patient, who was then driven off to hospital in Monterey by the shika.

And that was only the smallest portion of my time there. When I arrived, through clouds on the ridge, I felt the deep relief of being back. Then, on the first morning, chilly after the previous day’s rain, I strained something in my back as I bent over to pull on my boots. Some things, especially sitting down, getting up from sitting, zazen, sleeping on a thin shikibuton, twisting slightly to the left, were painful for a few days, and in the case of sitting and zazen, uncomfortable throughout my stay. Other things – hiking, working with rocks, moving dirt, doing the compost in the shed, cleaning the bathhouse, and very gently yoga poses, were fine.

I didn’t, as I wished, get to give a talk in the zendo, or even be morning doshi, even as the intricacies of service reappeared in my mind, and the chants came back to my voice after all these years. I did offer a presentation on the Beginner’s Mind talk which was well received, and boosted by Steve Weintraub offering a moving personal testimonial on Suzuki Roshi’s way.

I did five hikes in a little over a week, the Horse Pasture and the Wind Caves twice each, first to check (both were in much better shape than I anticipated, thanks to the indefatigable trail crew), and the Overlook and creekside hike on the easy day, which still offered moments of beauty and silence.

I ate a lot of delicious food. I lingered in the baths and the creek. I met up with fellow practitioners from fifteen and twenty years ago that I did not expect to see, and others from summers and work periods past that it was lovely to see again. I tried to encourage some of the newly arrived students, and petted the dogs as often as I could.

I drove a stage one day, and declined to do a town trip, but otherwise did what was asked.

I felt totally at home, and yet did not feel that I needed to move back there any time soon. And this is just the merest glimpse of what it was like. I took notes for the first couple of days, but there were too many details and memories to try to capture it all.

I took a lot of photographs with my new camera, and was glad I had decided to buy it.

Lupins on the way in.
Overlooking the Narrows from the cut-off trail.
The Wind Caves.
It was very green and bright.