Sitting Practice

On my commutes, I am still enjoying spending at least a part of the time reading zen books; this gives me plenty of material to fill this blog with, but also is an important part of my current personal practice.

Sometimes a phrase I read will just land in a way that stops everything. It happened the other day reading Kobun Chino’s book; he quoted Dogen, in a phrase I know well, but in a different translation to the one I am used to, that we are ‘conveyed by all myriad dharmas.’ Very apt to read on a train, conveyed by and through objects, space and time. I was looking out of the window at traffic on the freeway overpass, and the grubby land beneath, and suddenly felt totally settled and excited at the same time. I remembered a phrase that had come to me a couple of years ago, which I based a talk on, and pictured us all as vessels of enlightenment, conveyed by all myriad dharmas. This is so, I thought, unshakeably so.

Reading the Lotus Sutra recently, I was struck by how moving it was in the context of being on a train – there was not an incongruity as you might expect, between the sometimes hallucinatory language and the mundane surroundings I was reading it in; instead it almost felt like an invitation to imagine the worlds described in the sutra existing just out of sight of this urban world, just waiting to be summoned.

Since I do not get up and sit every morning in the zendo, as I did for so many years, I am happy to explore other ways that practice can manifest. Contemplative reading is one of them; so are running and riding, taking photographs, meditation with different apps, and leading my Roaming Zen hikes. Starting today, my dharma brother Zachary Smith and I are launching another venture, something we have been plotting for a while: meditation out in the city, for people to drop in during their lunch break.

Part of the inspiration for this was from a group from Young Urban Zen who tried it for a while; part also came from reading this, which features a former young monk from Tassajara who subsequently switched traditions.

A Meetup has been created, but you don’t have to join the Meetup to be able to come along. The aim is to do this every Monday lunch-time, down on the Embarcadero, on the grass by Cupid’s Span, which is between Howard and Folsom. We will bring the cushions; you bring your busy mind and give it a little rest over lunch-time. We will be there from 12:30 – 1:30; you can drop in any time.

IMG_2121
We did a somewhat spontaneous pilot at Wisdom 2.0 earlier in the year.

Meditation meet-up
We will be somewhere on the grass here if you are in town and can make it along.

Michael Stone

‘The world is vast and the body and breath are spacious when we are at ease with others and ourselves. This ease comes through committed practice, in which we learn how to open to the life of the body, the situations of others, and the moods that move through us with equanimity and creativity. Don’t get stuck. Don’t go ahead. Just stop and look at the type on this page, the quality of light in the room where you are, the sounds in the distance. This is where you enter. Each sound is a pearl, a treasure, a wave that brings you back to your body. There is nothing subtle to find. Look at the walls and the crack in the ceiling. Look at all the cracks and the fine woodwork and the realness of the real that pervades all we are doing. All this is a gift. Set forth this miraculous gift.’ (Awake in the World)

At Zen Center, a phrase that used to circulate regularly was ‘death is certain; time of death is uncertain.’ I particularly hear Blanche, while she was still alive, saying it, but I know it did not originate with her. Reading of the death of Michael Stone was hard to take in, beyond the suddenness, and the sense of the untimeliness of it. I couldn’t say that I knew him so well; we met at a conference in 2013, at Zen Center once or twice after that, and he came to stay the night on his way out of Tassajara last summer. In our exchanges I found him to be a warm person who was full of life, honest and clear (his dharma name – Shoken, ‘Sees Clearly’ – was most apt), and a wonderful mentor with whom it was easy to talk through issues and problems. Since the mahasangha is intimately woven, I was alerted to the news by Djinn in Ireland, and was later reminded that my room-mate was helping him to edit his next book. Not having much of profundity to say, I will quote again the last line above (you can see other quotes I have used on this blog here): Set forth this miraculous gift. This is what he did while he was alive.

Deer Park Michael.jpg
Michael at Deer Park monastery in 2013

Doing nothing is not over-rated

It would be a bit of a stretch to call my current life stressful, but last week was fairly full by my standards (teaching twice on Monday, three days spent editing video – a skill I am acquiring slowly – and teaching a class on Thursday night, as well as finishing off two hundred photo cards), so I was more than ready for a long weekend at Wilbur, and I fully engaged in the process of relaxing on Friday afternoon, in 100 degree sun by the pool, where the above thought came to me. It is always a privilege and a luxury to get to be there, one that it is hard not to enjoy fully.
Leading five meditation sessions over the weekend – extending into Monday morning – I did not prepare anything to say, but allowed the spaciousness of being at Wilbur to provide the inspiration. There is always something to spark an idea – the breeze blowing through the pine trees; heading out for a run in the cool stillness of Sunday morning and seeing a bobcat a few yards ahead of me on the trail to the medicine wheel; surrendering to the intense heat, of the kind that I never knew growing up in England; moving at human pace – something I always like to highlight at Tassajara as well.
The theme for Monday morning was ‘stillness is not stuckness’: exploring how being grounded in meditation means allowing the constant flow of reality to shift around us without wanting things to be a particular fixed way, with the values we have assigned to it. It made sense at the time, in any case, with the breeze blowing over the yoga deck.
I have been leading these sessions for a year now, a full cycle of seasons, and am glad to be a part of that community and that wonderful landscape, thanks to the generosity of people who make it possible for me to be there.

DSCF0146.jpg
The evening sun setting on the long valley upstream from the baths.

DSCF0160.jpg
The ‘fountain of life’.

DSCF0174.jpg
Morning sun in the indoor plunges.

Keido Fukushima

‘A monastery is a greenhouse for growing non-ego… We don’t let the monks sleep much, and we limit them to simple food. They always want to sleep more, but this is just another illusion. And because they’re always eating simple food, they’re always craving rich food. And this too, is just another illusion. But such illusions are simple. There are other kinds of illusion that are more complicated. So we focus on these two very simple illusions to ward off more complicated illusions. This is part of the wisdom of our long Zen tradition.’ (Zen Bridge)

I read these words during my recent time at Tassajara, where this book was a new arrival in the library, and they resonated deeply. Tassajara in the summer is not as strict as Tassajara in the winter, but I remembered how in my first winter I had been tired and hungry all the time – and cold as well, to add another simple illusion. Undoubtedly training monasteries in Japan push their young charges harder than their equivalents in the US, but the principles are the same. And while it may seem hard-hearted, and it is tough to live through at times, the wisdom of the tradition holds true. I often reflect back on how not getting to live the way I wanted while was at the monastery was in fact incredibly liberating; I realised in my first winter that I had to practise with being tired, hungry and cold all the time. No-one was forcing me to be there, so it was up to me to resist or to meet the circumstances. And getting to meet circumstances in these simple and contained ways helps us to meet all kinds of circumstances in the rest of our lives.

The Sutra of Innumerable Meanings

‘A bodhisattva, if he wants to learn and master the doctrine of Innumerable Meanings, should observes that all laws were originally, will be, and are in themselves void in nature and form; they are neither great nor small, neither appearing nor disappearing, neither fixed nor immovable, and neither advancing nor retreating; and they are nondualistic, just emptiness. All living beings, however, discriminate falsely: “It is this” or “It is that” and “It is advantageous” or “It is disadvantageous”; they entertain evil thoughts, make various evil karmas, and thus transmigrate within the six realms of existence; and they suffer all manner of miseries, and cannot escape from there during infinite kotis of kalpas. Bodhisattva-mahasattvas, observing rightly like this, should raise the mind of compassion, display the great mercy desiring to relieve others of suffering, and once again penetrate deeply into all laws. According to the nature of a law, such a law emerges. According to the nature of a law, such a law settles. According to the nature of a law, such a law changes. According to the nature of a law, such a law vanishes. According to the nature of a law, such an evil law emerges. According to the nature of a law, such a good law emerges. Settling, changing, and vanishing are also like this. Bodhisattvas, having thus completely observed and known these four aspects from beginning to end, should next observe that none of these laws settles down even for a moment, but all emerge and vanish anew every moment; and observe that they emerge, settle, change and vanish instantly. After such observation, we see all manner of natural desires of living beings. As natural desires are innumerable, preaching is immeasurable, and as preaching is immeasurable, meanings are innumerable. The Innumerable Meanings originate from one law. This one law is, namely, nonform. Such nonform is formless and not-form. Being not form and formless, it is called the real aspect of things. The mercy which bodhisattva-mahasattvas display after stabilising themselves in such a real aspect is real and not vain. They excellently relieve living beings from sufferings. Having given relief from sufferings, they preach the Law again and let all living beings obtain pleasure.’

I had an urge to make The Lotus Sutra my next commute read, and since it is always worth observing such urges, I got stuck into it. In the edition which Linda Ruth recommended we get, when we studied it at Tassajara back in 2004, The Sutra of Innumerable Meanings forms the preface to the main sutra itself.  Reading it for the first time in all these years, I found it very heart-warming and encouraging. Stay tuned for a couple more extracts, as well as some from The Lotus Sutra.

Shodo Harada

‘Original Nature can be realized if you can just let go of everything. To conceptualize around this is meaningless. While still in our world you must hold onto nothing – not a single thing – but let go of your attachment to every possession, every pain, every plan, every material thing, all of your self-centered opinions, separating yourself from all decoration. When you can truly become that state of mind, this is in itself an astonishing experience, full of great wonder. There is a great joy in this, and it will fill you with gratitude when you realize it for the first time.
This is something that cannot be explained in words. It is like the air around us. Who remembers to be thankful for the air we breathe? We all take it for granted. No one notices the air or thinks to say thank-you to it, but whether we notice it or not, it is always there. Those who do notice know the joy of always being supported by it; they know gratitude and joy with each breath. When one approaches the experience of enlightenment only intellectually, trying to grasp some idea of it with the mind, every day will be filled with dissatisfaction and suffering, because one cannot experience this joy merely by thinking about it.’ (The Path to Bodhidharma)

When reading the first paragraph, you might feel daunted by the prescription: who wants to give up all those things? Although I have not met Harada Roshi, by all accounts he does manifest full and concentrated aliveness, which means I trust what he is talking about, just as I trust those teachers I have met who have gone through the same process. My own intimations of the ‘great wonder’ mean that I will continue on this path, as what seems like a sacrifice is actually a relinquishing of an unnecessary burden.

What I think about when I am riding

There is a well-known zen story I was reminded of this weekend. Here is one version – other versions have the same narrative but a different number of horses…

It is warm enough in San Francisco at the moment that I am having trouble sleeping – trying to balance staying cool with being exposed to the mosquitos who make themselves heard and felt overnight. The day after the solstice roam, I was awake around 4 am; that didn’t bother me too much as I wanted to get out and ride early. I set off around 6:15, and the sun was already shining and starting to heat up the city; it was beautifully quiet, perfect conditions for a ride.
The roam had been wonderful – well-attended, and apart from managing to make it to Land’s End in time to sit and watch the sun melt into the tranquil ocean, we had seen a large pod of whales breaching and blowing as they passed under the bridge, a memorable spectacle at any time. The only downside for me was that I had inadvertently left the house with my glasses in my pocket, and having put them in my bag, they had dropped out, and I guessed it was when I put another layer on after the sunset.
Starting out on my bike, still feeling a little tired from the walking and getting to bed a little late by my current standards, I decided that since the ride was just a general leg-stretching effort,  I might as well head down to the place where we had sat just in case they were still there, so I rode through the park to 23rd, then took Geary west, marveling that not a single car passed me in the twenty-five blocks to Seal Rock Road. When I got to the spot we had been, they were indeed sitting in the dust. I shared my good fortune with a couple of passers-by, who were enjoying the early morning sun streaming through the trees, and was thinking of heading back to the bridge for my intended loop of Paradise Drive. Putting my glasses in the back pocket of my cycling jersey with a feeling of satisfaction, I had a horrible realisation – my wallet was no longer where I had stuffed it on the way out of the house.
As I had rolled along JFK in the park, closed to traffic as always on a Sunday, I had been cleaning my glasses with my base layer, and had heard a slight noise, as if I had run over a flattened paper cup, and didn’t think to look round or check, but now I assumed it was my wallet dropping out of my pocket. The only time I can remember this happening before was in my first couple of years in San Francisco: I had ridden up Mount Tam, and in those days there was a pay phone at the summit (we are talking almost two decades ago now…) I had made a call and then descended towards Fairfax on the Bolinas – Fairfax Road, a lovely quiet stretch with some great descents and climbs. In Fairfax I thought I should stop for a coffee to help get me home; reaching for my wallet, I discovered it was not there, and with a heavy heart and equally heavy legs I set off back up the mountain, where I found it, most of the way up the climb from Alpine Dam to the Ridgecrest, sitting squarely on the double yellow lines in the middle of the road.
With a little more urgency in my pedaling than I had managed thus far, I rode back to the park to scan the road between 23rd and the deYoung, which is where I remembered hearing the sound. Nothing. Some park workers were already cleaning up yesterday’s rubbish, so I asked them for help, and they directed me to the park ranger station on the edge of the park. I stopped in there, and the adjacent police station, where I was also directed to the Richmond police station.
Having ridden around and made three reports, I didn’t want to continue with my original route – mainly thinking I should get back and cancel the two cards that were in the wallet – but I also felt compelled to ride back to Geary and Land’s End just in case it had actually fallen out later.
My mood was not desperate or even that despondent; mostly a little fatalistic in that I was expecting to have lost all the cash that was in the wallet (including all the dana from the roam, I had about $150 in there, much more than I generally carry, but because of the late arrival home and early start I had not thought to take most of it out), and that I would to deal with the calls to the card companies – and then I also thought about the DMV…
In any case, there was nothing to be seen anywhere I had been, so I rode down past the Cliff House and came back through the park – once again scanning the surface in that stretch of road, still to no avail. It was warming up, but still early, so I took the fast spin down Oak to catch the string of lights from Stanyan to Webster, and then, since I had a little energy left, I took my once-regular climb of Liberty Hill from 20th, over the top on Sanchez, then along 22nd to the top of Collingwood.
Once back at home, checking online that nothing had been done with the cards at least, I called my credit union and my English bank, told the story to my room-mate, and reflected on how I could use the experience as part of my teaching on equanimity this week – if I was not entirely equanimous, I would say that I had tipped more towards joy in finding the cheap glasses than towards despair at losing a sum of money I could have done with to make this month a little more comfortable than recent ones have been.

And then, as I was in the process of typing this story out, I got an email from a woman saying she had found the wallet, intact, and could I call her. It turned out she was local but had been in a hurry to get her son to a baseball game in the East Bay, and apologised for not being in touch sooner (among the other items in the wallet were some of my business cards, of course). So it was, at the end of the hot afternoon, I was back on my bike riding up to a large Victorian just north of the Panhandle, where I was given back my wallet, in exchange for which I offered my last jar of Zen Center honey which I have had for a while as a potential gift, just waiting for the right occasion.

DSCF9343.jpg
As a kind of coda, last night I rode out to the Seacliff end of the Land’s End trail to take a photo of the beautiful views there, and saw plenty of whale blowing – here with Mount Tam as the backdrop.