Katagiri Roshi

‘Constantly try to realize the depth of human life. Accept the fact that whatever you do, wherever you live, under all circumstances, you have a chance to realize the truth. With sincerity, try to realize the ultimate nature of your actions: bowing, studying, talking, or whatever it is that you do. When you bow in gassho, just do gassho through and through. If you really do this, you can touch the ultimate truth. Then through gassho you learn something. By the thoroughgoing practice of gassho you return to the truth, and simultaneously gassho rebounds in the form of your human life. Maybe you don’t understand this now, but that gassho helps people and deepens and enhances your life.’ (Each Moment is the Universe)

This expresses the essence of temple practice for me: you get a chance to live in circumstances where there is the space and the understanding to try this out. As Katagiri mentions elsewhere, sometimes you start by needing to know why; why do we have to bow, what is the purpose, the significance of this action, of this form, of this guideline? But, by gently allowing you to continue doing it when it is the moment to do it, temple life allows the question to melt away and be replaced by attentive action. And this attentive action does help people, and that help also reflects back to you – this is what Dogen called jijuyu zanmai. The opportunity is not limited to temple actions – how can you make this happen in your life actions today?

Avatamsaka Sutra

‘When great enlightening beings practice dedication in this way, they do not become attached to actions, to consequences, to the body, to objects, to lands, to places, to sentient beings, to the nonexistence of sentient beings, to all things, or to the nonexistence of all things. When great enlightening beings make dedication in this way, they distribute these roots of goodness throughout the world, that all sentient beings may fully develop buddha-knowledge, attain pure minds with clear, comprehensive wisdom, their inner minds silent and serene, unmoved by external objects, as they extend and develop the family of Buddhas of past present and future.’

I am very glad that I live in a house where I can come home and find a copy of the Avatamsaka Sutra on the dining table*. I confess I have not done more than dip a toe into it occasionally; I would  make it my commute read, but it is a heavy tome (the above quote is from page 634 of approximately 1500 pages). At Zen Center over the years, a number of dedicated people have led reading and chanting sessions – Jerome, Greg and Kodo come to mind right away. It is one of the more esoteric teachings in the way it presents a multi-dimensional interconnected universe, but a paragraph like this one stand easily next to Hongzhi, Ta Hui or Dogen.

 

*It subsequently turned out that it was not the roommate whose book it was that had taken it out, but the other one, who on this occasion had been more interested in the bulk of the book than the content, and had used it to prop up a mirror to get better lighting at the south-facing back of the house. Self-illumination takes many forms, I suppose.

What I think about when I am riding

One of the notions I tend to rabbit on about when I am teaching is to let go of goals – it was one of the messages that struck me when I first read Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mindand I think it is a useful way to steer people away from their usual tendencies and have them pay more attention to what is going on in the moment. As Blanche articulated, in an appropriate analogy for this story, if you are driving to a mountain, do you keep your eyes on the road, or on the mountain?
Nevertheless, when it was warm a few weeks ago, and I rode up Mount Tam for the first time in six months (I thought I wrote about this, but I can’t find it) with less effort and pain than I thought it was going to take, I formulated the goal of riding up Mount Diablo before I left for England.
I probably could have just tried to do it without setting a goal, but it would have hurt; planning my next few rides gave me a good chance of being in better shape to tackle the long ascent. So first I went up Mount Tam again – this time with a colder north wind that made the last few miles of the climb less fun, but helped push me along the road home. Then I tried coming up the mountain from the far side – a long steady climb on the Bolinas – Fairfax Road I enjoy greatly, followed by the ‘seven sisters’, which are always gruelling because of the climbing you have had to do to get to the bottom of that stretch. That was another gorgeous spring day, and I don’t remember ever seeing so many people on the mountain – on foot, on two wheels, or in cars. Luckily I had left very early and was on my way back as many of them were heading out. I also made a point of doing a couple of Monday morning ‘commutes‘ to the Headlands, trying to notch up the intensity a little on the familiar slopes.
The weekend before this one I set off for Highway 1, which is currently closed above Green Gulch and north of Slide Ranch. As in other winters when nature has got the better of engineering, the closures mean roads without cars, which to me these days means real relaxation. My main aim was to tackle the climb north of Muir Beach, another favourite. It was so quiet that all I could hear were songbirds; I saw hawks settling in the roadside trees. On one section very close to Slide Ranch, the downhill edge of road had sunk away; there was grass growing out of the cracks (which reminded me of this song), and a snail crossing the road. I figured it had a pretty good chance of making it to the other side without being squashed.
My final preparatory ride was going to be helping people pedal over to Green Gulch as part of the zen-a-thon. The weather was perfect, unlike last year, fairly warm and with no wind, and I took my fixed gear again for the stately procession, with the added detour around Muir Woods – which allowed us to ride up along the farm road from the beach end, something I realised I had never done. When it came time to leave, it was clear we could not get past the crews we could hear working on the road above the temple entrance, and most of us did not fancy battling both the harder climb from Muir Woods and the heavy traffic. One of our number suggested we take the back way out – up the Middle Green Gulch trail (which we mostly walked except the flattest parts, as none of us had appropriate bikes for off-roading), and then down a fire road to Tam Junction, which was a revelation for most of us, offered wonderful views across Mill Valley, and definitely avoided having to deal with traffic.
The downside of spending Saturday doing that was that it was the best weather of the weekend. It rained for most of Sunday, so I went out for a long and slow run in the morning; I had Monday in reserve as plan B for heading over to Walnut Creek (hoping to get to BART in the early part of rush hour) and up the mountain, but I woke up to a steady drizzle, which continued even when my weather app insisted it was merely overcast.
So I ended up letting go of the goal anyway – I could have pushed myself to go out in the rain, but I am pretty soft these days and would not have enjoyed myself. Besides, it was always going to be a fairly fruitless goal, since today is the day I leave for a month in England, and I won’t most likely get on a bike again until I am back. The trick is not to hold onto these things.

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Assembled zen-a-thon riders before we set off for Green Gulch. 

Back in the Mountains

A day at Tassajara for the shuso ceremony is a long day; we left before light on Sunday, as the robins established the morning soundtrack around Zen Center, and returned after dark, delayed by traffic moving slowly on the 101 between Gilroy and San Jose as the sun set languidly over the hills. As in December, we were in Lucy’s car; this time it was Lucy (from China), Anna (from Germany), and myself – at one stage we reflected on how our grandparents and parents had variously experienced the turmoils of the last century.

The hours in the car left their imprint on my body, especially since I drove a Suburban in and out over the road, which had whole new sections of erosion and many new channels carved out by the copious winter rain, making it an even more challenging drive than usual.

It is always worth it though. It was a glorious day – the light was clear in the mountains, and the sun warm. The hillsides were a brighter green than recent years, and the flowers were adding colours in every direction. At the monastery the monks seemed relieved to have survived through some intense challenges: the creek surging, the heat being cut off (the geothermal pumps don’t work in flood conditions), the road being blocked; they were at the end of the winter of training, and about to embark on a summer of receiving guests. I was happy to see several people I have known over the years who I had really not expected to see this time around.

A good crowd of former shusos made it down to see Tim take the seat. About half way through the ceremony, I realised what I needed to say: that English shusos are like buses – you wait ages for one to come along, and then two appear at once (it was great that Siobhan came down for her first appearance as a former shuso). I also mentioned in my congratulations  – referring to exchanges from the ceremony – that we had heard the true dharma from Cabarga Creek (which was running healthily beside the zendo), from Calliope and the canyon wren (both of whom had made timely interjections into the proceedings),  but we had also heard it from Tim. Even though he claimed not to be a teacher, his teaching was very clear to everyone in the room.

As usual, there was just time to head to the bathhouse before lunch – it had been warm enough in the zendo that I jumped into the creek before going into the indoor plunge. The bottom half dozen stone steps into the creek had been washed away – the heaviest ones just a few feet – and since I never go to Tassajara without wistfully thinking of living there again, I wondered if I could at least add a day or two on to my upcoming visit for my retreats to rebuild the steps, which I have been wanting to do for a year or two anyway…

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The creek is looking lovely now, but I can imagine how fierce it must have been in the winter storms.

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One of the Tassajara redbuds.

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Tim and Ed in the shade of the kaisando.

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Monks enjoying the pre-ceremony tea in the sun. Calliope is the little one.

Katagiri Roshi

‘We have to practice egolessness constantly. We don’t believe this because we are used to living in the stream of time, which is always facilitating the growth of ego. You may practice zazen for ten years, twenty years, and attain enlightenment. Does that guarantee that you are free from ego? Watch out! You don’t know how strong the ego sense is. At any cost, we have to deepen our understanding of time and turn the egoistic sense of time into no-time. If we continue to practice, very naturally we reach the bottom of time. This is the pivot of nothingness, where everything is reflected without any sense of ego.’ (Each Moment is the Universe)

Even though I have read this book sometime in the last eighteen months, I was nonetheless compelled to bring it down from the shelf to be my current commute read; I think I wanted to challenge myself again to see how much I understood of Katagiri’s deep and trustworthy explanations of Dogen’s sense of time-being. The answer is still not much, but I hope that it is more than last time, and I am enjoying the challenge.

Yunyan

‘Dongshan asked Yunyan, “When I want to see it face to face, what should I do?”
Yunyan said, “Ask someone who’s done it.”
Dongshan said, “That’s what I’m doing.”
Yunyan said, “What can I say to you?”‘ (Zen’s Chinese Heritage)

I don’t remember ever seeing this dialogue before, though I have been reading about Dongshan recently, thanks to Taigen’s book Just This Is It. Taigen spells out that even though Dongshan (Tozan in Japanese) became one of the founders of the Soto school, and wrote the incomparable Song of the Jewel Mirror Samadhi, it took him a while to get there. Many stories are handed down of him questioning his teachers and not getting it. This is a classic exchange; Dongshan plays it straight, falling right into Yunyan’s trap. Probably Yunyan knew that Dongshan would figure it out for himself eventually.

A New Shuso Crop

I have written about shuso ceremonies at Zen Center before, and we are in the spring season for them right now. I intend to make the journeys to Tassajara and Green Gulch in the next couple of weeks; on Saturday, having gone to the center in the morning to offer the zazen instruction, I returned in the afternoon to see one of my best Zen Center friends, Siobhan, take her place on the dharma seat, and flourish in the role.
It was a day of community, on one side for the many people who had been sitting sesshin together, and on the other, a gathering of people who have known Siobhan over the years. There were a number of people I was very happy to see, who I spent time with at Tassajara and City Center more than a dozen years ago, and it was a testimony to Siobhan’s great capacity for friendship that she was able to draw such a crowd.

As I mentioned in the congratulations, apart from being a very loyal and honest friend, she has been like my older sister through all the years I have lived in the US; the first time I visited Tassajara, back in the summer of 2000, a couple of months after arriving, was driving her old Honda Civic down from Berkeley to the monastery, where she was staying. Some vivid memories of that trip have stayed with me: although I had driven in the US before, particularly eighteen months earlier when I had driven from Miami to DC and back visiting my two best friends from the BBC who were working in those cities (and marveling at the distance involved), driving a manual car on the ‘wrong’ side of the road was still a novelty to me, and, having eased myself onto the slow-moving freeway in Berkeley, I had a moment of panic when the traffic suddenly freed up as we passed the junction to the Bay Bridge; in a moment the speed went from about twenty to sixty-five, people were crossing lanes seemingly at random, and I had selected third gear rather than fifth, leaving the engine racing as I tried to cope.
That trip was also my first time on the Tassajara Road; after a mile or so I articulated that it was not as bad as I had heard, and was told, just wait… I also remember crowding into one of the small rooms in the upper barn with a bunch of people and being a little taken aback at how rudimentary the accommodation was; when I lived there subsequently, the same simplicity became normal and charming. Certainly, twenty-four hours there on that first visit planted the seed for my wanting to return.

With both of us being English, Siobhan and I have cultural affinities that have helped cement our friendship, and I also recall the great pleasure of spending time with her in London one lovely summer’s day when we were both visiting at the same time, enjoying a city we both loved, even if neither of us ever intend to live there again, since our lives had taken similarly different turns.

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As so often at Zen Center gatherings, I took a lot of pictures, to document the coming together of so many practitioners, though most of them are never going to end up online. Here is one of Siobhan after the ceremony, on the right, with her benji Terri.

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The redbud in the courtyard, planted to commemorate Blanche’s abbacy, was in full bloom.