Clouds and Water

Redbuds always make me think of Tassajara, where I first came across them: one by the stone cabins, one by the lower garden, the two ends of the main drag.
Last year, when I came to Wilbur in the spring with the friend who had first introduced me to the place, I was astounded at how many redbuds were flowering in the gorgeous expanses of Cache Creek Canyon on the northern end of Highway 16; I loved how they seemed to suck in all the sun in the surrounding area. Traveling up again last weekend, that highway was closed, as it had been at the beginning of the year, to deal with landslides. The alternative, continuing north on the 505 and the 5 is a little dull, but whereas I was beset by a severe amount of rain the last time I took the Highway 20 pass through from Williams to Bear Valley, this time the hills were soft and green, and there was a lambent light shining down on the redbuds growing by the creeks.

With the clocks having gone forward, and a week of higher temperatures behind us, Wilbur was lovely, and mild into the later evenings. Running up the schoolhouse trail after I arrived, there was a profusion of shooting stars on the banks; on the more exposed trail to the medicine wheel, where I ran on Sunday, lupins and poppies and blue dicks, as well as others that I recognised from Tassajara but did not have names for; on the wide-open ridge trail, there were clumps of Indian paintbrush, some a pale scarlet, some a deep crimson. When I had made it up to the ridge, there was almost complete silence; at first some songbirds nearby, with a few raptors drifting along with the faint warm air, and then nothing but the sound of my breathing and the crunch of my shoes, much like running the cliffs of Cornwall, except with waves of hills in the place of ocean. I was very glad to see one of the sticks I had planted in the ground as a way-marker last time, when I had been coming from the other direction –  once I was over the top of the first of the ridge slopes, it was clear where to go. I could not see all the way across to the snow-topped peaks I had seen last time, and which I had glimpsed from the highway a couple of days before; the clouds were rich and hanging perhaps where they would have been, lit in just a few places by the sun to break up the purple and grey.

It was a weekend of generosity: starting with the gift of the van, once again. A regular benefactor had also enquired how much I usually spent on fuel, and donated that amount. An older couple staying at Wilbur were celebrating a birthday, and shared left-over pizza and strawberry shortcake with everyone who was in the common room on Friday night. Someone else gave me a bunch of watercress that they had picked from the banks of a stream; I passed some of it on to others, while enjoying the iron pepper taste of it, richly evocative of English summer to me.

On Monday it rained again, but only after I had arrived back home; I also felt lucky to avoid the rain on my way to and from work on Tuesday. I hope my luck holds out as far as Sunday, when there is a Roaming Zen scheduled…

Early evening on Friday at the bath-house.

Shooting stars beside the trail.


‘As soon as there’s something considered important, it becomes a nest.’

This line might not strike so deeply, but it reminded me of an exchange at Tassajara, during one of the practice periods I was there with Reb, Tenshin Roshi. As usual, after he gave a talk, people were allowed to ask questions, and one of his ordained students started to say something – I don’t remember the content. I do remember Tenshin Roshi’s response, which I would characterise as insistent: ‘You’re nesting.’
I more or less grasped what he meant by that – that the priest was holding firm to a view when it would be wiser to hold it loosely or let it go. Since then I have heard other stories about Suzuki Roshi responding very differently to similar situations depending on whether he thought the student was being inquisitive or merely stubborn.
Maybe Tenshin Roshi repeated the phrase a few times; it had the effect of stopping the priest in their tracks. A few people raised their voices to express the opinion that Tenshin Roshi had been cruel to the priest, but I didn’t see it that way. It felt clear to me that he knew the priest well enough to use that tactic, and that he wouldn’t have been as firm with me, or one of the other junior students. I also seem to remember that the priest later acknowledged the wisdom of Tenshin Roshi’s response. Sometimes giving, sometimes taking life…

Ta Hui

‘The truth that is as it is has been continuous since antiquity without ever having varied so much as a hairsbreadth.’ (Swampland Flowers)

Which is why we don’t need to look anywhere else than ‘as it is’. What is it that stops us doing that? The thinking mind, and falling into desires; these are the things we need to pay attention to and let go of, for all our habitual attachment to them.


‘Guard and maintain your towel in this way. Fold it in two and hang it over your left elbow. Dry the face with one half of it and the hands with the other half. Don’t wipe the nose means not to wipe inside the nose or wipe off the snivel. You should not wipe the armpits, back, stomach, navel, thighs, or legs with the hand towel.’(Shobogenzo Semmen)

This might seem a little more practical  and prosaic than yesterday’s words – and indeed it is worth remembering that Dogen was probably having to instruct young monks who might never have learned the kind of etiquette that Dogen himself would have been brought up with – but then there is also the visual poetry of imagining lines of monks following the forms carefully as an expression of practice. Who is to say that one of these is more profound than the other?

The First Paramita

In recent weeks I have been stockpiling posts – there are currently forty-five lined up through to the end of May. This is mostly so that I can spend a month in England and not worry about updating the blog (maybe I will try to write on the road this time, as I did not manage to in the autumn). I leave some unscheduled days to add in some thoughts, assuming that at least some of you like to hear something from me, and today was left open to write something about the upcoming Roaming Zen.
This will be happening on Saturday, and the tides are lining up perfectly for us to try out the Batteries to Bluffs trail. I am even optimistic about the weather: after the constant stop-start rain, which even turned into hail, over the weekend, the weather has settled; on Tuesday night I watched the end of a tranquil grand sunset from the train, and Wednesday was perhaps the warmest morning of the year.

Following up on suggestions that people have made, now that I have the spring season dates set, I submitted Roaming Zen as a Meetup, and also as an Airbnb experience (though the approval process for that takes longer, so it is not live yet). Last year I put the series on Eventbrite, but it did not bring many people my way, nor, did it seem, did creating events on Facebook, since I don’t have an existing network on there, so those things won’t be happening this year.

This week, since I was being quite productive, I also signed up for Patreon; this did not come naturally to me, as I don’t feel that I am especially creative, but one of my major benefactors prompted me to do it so that they could offer regular support. It feels like a step up from the ‘buy me a coffee‘ button you can see on the sidebar (I moved it up as a couple of people said they couldn’t see it); that was something I saw on another blog and thought it was a charming and subtle way to ask for support. Looking at my page on that site, I am surprised how many donations I have received through that button. In due time I hope to have a Patreon button there as well, but I was not finding it easily on their website – I was also trying to add an email sign-up form for Roaming Zen and getting equally frustrated in that realm.

Since money has been tight in the past few months, donations have actually made a huge difference in my ability to pay my rent and bills, and I have been reflecting a lot on people’s generosity.
Traditionally in the Buddhist way of thinking, there are four types of generosity, or dana, which represents the first of the six perfections, or paramitas: ahara-dana (donation of food), ausadha-dana (donation of medicine), jnana-dana (donation of knowledge) and abhaya-dana (giving of protection or freedom from fear, asylum to someone under threat)  – this list comes from Wikipedia, which I have been grateful to on several occasions for its summaries on key topics.
In the old days monks would not be handling money, so food and medicine were valuable gifts; in exchange, the monks could offer the teachings, and hopefully imbue lay-people with freedom from fear. This system has not translated so well to the west, but the sense of exchange still persists; my YUZ colleague Simon often used the saying, “what is freely given can be freely received,” which to me means that there is no set value or expectation assigned on either side. I hope that what I offer on these pages is useful, and I don’t expect to be rewarded for it, but it is always nice when it happens.
I am on the receiving end of other forms of generosity as well: a person I have only met twice has offered me use of their van to travel up to Wilbur when I need, which makes it possible for me to go without renting a car or needing to find a ride with someone. I have been touched by the continued kindness that is being readily offered.

One traditional verse has been floating through my mind a lot as I ponder this topic – it is from our oryoki meal-times, as the soku makes the food offering at the altar (the idea being to offer food to our benefactors, represented by Manjushri in this case, before taking any for ourselves):

Now we set out Buddha’s bowls.
May we, with all beings,
Realize the emptiness of the three wheels:
Giver, receiver, and gift.

Suzuki Roshi

‘In Zen sometimes we say that each one of us is steep like a cliff. No one can scale us. We are completely independent. But when you hear me say so, you should understand the other side too – that we are endlessly interrelated. If you only understand one side of the truth, you can’t hear what I am saying. If you don’t understand Zen words, you don’t understand Zen, you are not yet a Zen student. Zen words are different from usual words. Like a double-edged sword, they cut both ways. You may thin I am only cutting forward, but no, actually I am also cutting backward. Watch out for my stick. Do you understand? Sometimes I scold a disciple – “No!” The other students may thing, “Oh, he has been scolded,” but it is not actually so. Because I cannot scold the one over there, I have to scold the one who is near me. But most people think “Oh, that poor guy is being scolded.” If you think like that you are not a Zen student. If someone is scolded you should listen; you should be alert enough to know who is being scolded. That is how we train.’ (Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness)

This passage was invoked quite often when I trained at Zen Center, even if I didn’t see it played out that many times by teachers (unless I was just being too dumb to notice). The lesson is a valid one; since Suzuki Roshi is discussing the Harmony of Difference and Equality in his talk, lines from later in the poem serve as a reminder: ‘Hearing the words, understand the meaning,’ or as Dogen says so often, ‘investigate further.’


‘Once when I was in Song China, practicing on a long siting platform, I observed the monks around me. At the beginning of zazen in the morning, they would hold up their kashayas, place them on their heads, and chant a verse quietly with palms together:

Great is the robe of liberation
the robe beyond form, the field of benefaction!
I wear the Tathagata’s teaching
to awaken countless beings.

This was the first time I had seen the kashaya held up in this way, and I rejoiced, tears wetting the collar of my robe. Although I had read this verse of veneration for the kashaya in the Agama Sutra, I had not known the procedure. Now, I saw it with my own eyes. In my joy I also felt sorry that there had been no master to teach this to me and no good friend to recommend it in Japan. How sad that so much time had been wasted! But I also rejoiced in my wholesome past actions [that caused me to experience this]. If I had stayed in my land, how could I have sat side by side with the monks who has received and were wearing the buddha robe? My sadness and joy brought endless tears.
Then I made a vow to myself: However unsuited I may be, I will become an authentic holder of the buddha dharma, receiving authentic transmission of the true dharma, and with compassion show the buddha ancestor’s authentically transmitted dharma roves to those in my land. I rejoice that the vow I made has not been in vain, and there have been many bodhisattvas, lay and ordained, who have received the kashaya  in Japan. Those who maintain the kashaya should always venerate it day and night. This brings forth most excellent merit. To see or hear one line of the kashaya verse is not limited to seeing or hearing it as if we were trees and rocks, but pervades the nine realms of sentient beings.’ (Shobogenzo Kesa Kudoku)

This passage is about as personal and emotional as Dogen gets in the Shobogenzo, reminiscent of his earlier words in Bendowa and Shobogenzo ZuimonkiFor sure, being in a zendo early in the morning and hearing all the monks chanting the robe chant is a wonderful experience, as any visitor to Zen Center or Tassajara would hopefully attest to.
Recently I was asked what my most prized possession was; after a moment of reflection I replied, ‘my priest robe’, by which I meant my okesa (the kashaya refered to here). I then thought to add, ‘though it wouldn’t necessarily be the thing I grab first in a fire.’ It is the object that feels most central and important in my life, but having sewn one, I know I could always sew another, and would enjoy the practice.