Lama Rod Owens

‘I’ve come to consider embodiment to be one of the primary benefits of my time in retreat – and perhaps it is the radical revolutionary practice of our time. Though I would say that I am not 100 percent at home in my body. I am further along the path of coming home to my body than I have ever been. My body and mind are beginning to partner; I try to bring both of them together into every interaction and situation. This definitely slows me down, but it also keeps me grounded and healthy. I now listen to my body as much as to my mind, because my body has its own wisdom, which is just as important as that of my mind.’ (Love and Rage)

I heartily concur with these notions – sitting sesshin allowed me to be in touch with my body and its wisdom (as well as the temporary pain of so much sitting), though I feel lucky that I have never in my life felt distant from my body, or that I only lived in my head.

Being With People

Last weekend, I attended this year’s virtual iteration of the Gen X teachers’ conference. While four hours on Zoom is a lot, it was wonderful to be back in the company of this peer group of teachers. There were about fifty people on the call, and I knew at least forty of them, either through Zen Center or from previous conferences. 

I think Buddhist teachers tend to be pretty good at attuning to current realities, and the main theme of the conversations was how we had all been dealing with teaching through the pandemic, and strange demands of the interface of video and sangha. Prompted by one powerful presentation, there was discussion on finding what I noted as ‘models of vulnerability’: how to be honest about our own struggles; does this set up an expectation for our students to be taking on emotional labour of supporting us; or does it increase authenticity and intimacy in the group.

As always, these remained open questions, to be navigated with compassion and curiosity. What I aspire to is the constancy of being able to meet people, as outlined in the post by Joe Moran the other day, and in these words by the ever-illuminating Corey Ichigen Hess:

‘Being with people, caring about people, lifting them up, listening to them, appreciating them, showing them that they are beautiful and that they are connected to life. Life is not against them. Being yourself, loving life, welcoming them into your joy.  Not forcing them to see the light.  Letting it be contagious.  Most of my work has been covert operations to spread joy and unity.  Connecting with them and with this great life energy always there, it feeds everyone, everyone is lifted.’

Reinventing The Wheel

Somewhere, probably on the Ino’s Blog back in the day, I had a little rant about a particular English 20th Century philosopher who seemed to be very pleased with himself for having discovered that the self didn’t exist as an independent entity. Apart from the irony of what looked like self-aggrandisement, I could only wonder how anyone making a living as a philosopher these days can have managed not to read a word of Buddhism. And then the other day I was reading an article on the New Yorker website, and came across this paragraph:

‘We are not, as many of the most influential twentieth-century philosophers would have it, trapped within language or mind or culture or anything else. Reality is real, and right there to experience—but it also escapes complete knowability. One must confront reality with the full realization that you’ll always be missing something in the confrontation. Objects are always revealing something, and always concealing something, simply because they are Other. The ethics implied by such a strangely strange world hold that every single object everywhere is real in its own way. This realness cannot be avoided or backed away from. There is no “outside”—just the entire universe of entities constantly interacting, and you are one of them.’

If this is a revelation to you, I sincerely urge you to head over to the Genjo Koan, where Dogen expounded all of this more succintly and poetically, and which he elsewhere summarised as ‘shoho jisso’, which, depending on your mood, you can translate as ‘all things are ultimate reality,’ or, ‘the ultimate reality of all things.’

Suzuki Roshi

‘When we practice in this hall, there is no teacher and no student. We are all sages. Even though your practice is not good enough, we cannot say your practice is not good enough. It is good anyway. You have your own past and future. You have a bright future – to be a sage. Don’t worry.’ (Genjo Koan – Three Commentaries)

I picked up this book again recently, as I have been listening to some of Suzuki Roshi’s lectures on the Genjo Koan. While there are many lovely passages like this, I found myself a little frustrated that all the dozen or so talks he gave on the piece, at different stages of his time at Zen Center and Tassajara, were blended together. Perhaps I will just have to read all the transcripts in order to see how he expanded the teaching as his students got more of a hang of what he, and Dogen, were talking about.

Shodo Harada

‘Rarely do we reside in no place. We think about what day of the week this is; upon hearign a bird sing, we think about its name; upon seeing a flower, we think about how nice it looks. Instead of residing in no place, we reside in a small self. This is necessary for functioning in the world, but it is not the actual truth. Only when abiding in no place can we experience the direct truth. When we hear the birds chirp from no place, our mind is freshly born in every moment. Because we seek comfort, we feel we have to reside somewhere. Because we are part of society, we feel we have to refer to others by judging them. But that’s not how our mind works when it is functioning at its clearest. If we don’t encounter the sunlight and moonlight and all the ten thousand things exactly as the are, we’ll become lost in our ideas about those things. Only while directly perceiving can we live and work responsibly and creatively.’ (Not One Single Thing)

I was very happy to pick up this book from the Zen Center bookstore a couple of weeks ago. It is a commentary on the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Ancestor, and this paragraph refers to the phrase ‘Abiding nowhere, let the mind shine through’, from the Diamond Sutra, which caused Hui-neng to awaken when he heard it.

This is one of those paragraphs that pretty much encapsulate everything you need to know about practice. I can sometimes look at something like this and wonder if I have anything to add. And I know that what I can add, in normal times is the ability to bring this particular teaching into a particular moment for particular people, to make it alive in the moment, in a way that reading mostly falls short of. So I will keep going.

Joe Moran

‘The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas believed that looking at other people’s faces was how we learned to be human. Every face we meet, he thought, reminds us that we share the world with people who are fundamentally like us but who are also, like us, irreducibly unique…

I find myself agreeing with the Mexican priest in Graham Greene’s novel The Power and the Glory, who believes that when you look hard enough at other people’s faces, at the corners of their eyes and the shape of their mouths, you can’t help feeling tenderly towards them. Hate, he thinks, is “just a failure of the imagination”. Or perhaps just a failure to look.

People younger than me have a phrase they use when conversing online: “I see you.” It can be used for everything from complimenting a friend on a new haircut to comforting them when they feel rejected or wronged. At heart it means “I have noticed your existence.” Now that we are locking eyes with each other again, I realise how much I have missed being “seen”. The other day I saw a friend outside the supermarket and we stopped to talk, maskless and a few feet apart, like we did in the before times. The face in front of me didn’t blur or pixellate like the ones on my laptop, nor was there any disconcerting time lag in the way it responded to mine. It just picked up where it left off a year ago, noticing my nods and smiles and mirroring them with its own – a wordless message I had almost forgotten how to read. Roughly translated it said: “I see you.”’ (from the Guardian)

There was a lot in this timely article that felt resonant to me. The second paragraph reminds me of the practice of eye-gazing, which we would do sometimes at Zen Center, especially in the Young Urban Zen group, and where I would inevitably feel able to see and meet the person I was gazing at as Buddha. And I know that our practice overall offers a greater strength and ability (and perhaps stability) for meeting people, for seeing them, because we can only really see when we get out of our own way first. Even without the practice context, when I go about my day, just nodding or saying hi to people offers the same sense of seeing and being seen, that our existence has been noticed.

Zenkei Blanche Hartman

‘The first three years I was doing zazen, I didn’t sit through a single period for forty minutes without changing my posture. I hated myself every time I did it because there were always macho guys sitting, guys and women, and I felt like a wimp over here that kept changing my posture until I got to the point after three years where I didn’t have to change my posture. It was during my first sesshin I did at Tassajara, during the middle of the night of the seventh night, that I discovered that, even though I was in pain, I didn’t have to move, and there was something else to do with it. In fact, it began to change when I was able to stay with it. It didn’t necessarily always go away, but it did begin to change, and then some of the precise location of the persistent pain seemed to be related to particular attitudes of mind that I was holding. Sometimes I would discover what attitude of mind that point of tension was expressing. It was sort of like that point of tension was going to stay there until I got the information about the attitude of mind that was causing it. Then it could also relax, and, in the opening of it, the attitude of mind that I had been holding revealed itself. Actually I don’t know exactly how it worked. I just know that there were a number of situations in which particular points of very intense physical discomfort were connected to particular attitudes of mind.

One attitude in particular that I was carrying when I came to Tassajara was spiritual pride. I had quit my good job and I had come down the mountains to be a monk and save the world. I thought I was doing something special. As long as I was holding the attitude that I was doing something special, I had this particular pain. When I saw that I had that attitude, the pain become more and more intense. It was in a particular point in my back. It was kind of pressing me down to the floor, and, at a certain point, I was having a conversation with it. I had a notion that it had to do with pride, and then I suggested something trivial and it just got really immense and I heard this voice that said, “You had better pay attention to me or I’m going to break your back.” I thought I was really losing it, and then I realized that I had this spiritual pride because I thought I was doing something wonderful for the world by quitting my job and coming to the mountains and sitting zazen and being a Bodhisattva, or whatever I thought I was doing. When I realized that that was the thought I was holding, this particular point of pain just sort of dissolved. “I got it.”…

The phrase “Waiting it out” came up. In many periods of zazen during sesshin, I get into the mind set of waiting for the period to end. It brings up the question, “At what point, or points, does pain, and what comes up with it, pass its usefulness factor?” So, it is an ongoing question I’ve had throughout practice.

I think that “waiting it out” has an element of aversion and aggression in it, as if you’re not ready to give it your kind attention. You just want to grit your teeth and wait for the bell to ring, not giving as much kindness to your body as you are capable of.’ (from the Chapel Hill Zen Center archives)

Blanche gave this talk during a sesshin at Tassajara when she was abbess, and I can certainly relate to some parts of it. In my first sesshin at Zen Center, right about 21 years ago now, Adrian, who was on my left, sat solid as a rock throughout the five days, while David on my right did wiggle about on occasion. I felt drawn to sit as well as Adrian, because I imagined that’s what the longer-term practitioners did, but I also understood that there was permission to move. Because I wanted to be seen as a good student, I didn’t move as much as I could have, but then, because I was used to endurance sports (cross-country, long-distance cycling, running marathons), I knew about pushing my body. I experienced a lot of pain.

When I went to Tassajara, and the amount of sitting increased substantially, I had a fair amount of pain for the first couple of years, and I made every effort not to move, as I was still concerned with being perceived as a serious student. When I returned for my second stint of two years, I did find that place of understanding the emotional component of some of the stuckness, and experienced that stuckness releasing on many different occasions. And the pain that remained seemed more bearable. Nevertheless, there were many hours of ‘waiting it out,’ which can be its own kind of practice too.

Dogen

‘The purpose of awakening to the old stories of the Patriarchs of Zen is to modify gradually what you have understood and thought up to now, under the guidance of a Zen Master. Evenif the Buddha you have known up to now is endowed with the distinguishing marks, radiate light, and has, like Sakyamuni and Amita Buddha, the virtue of preaching sermons and bringing benefits to the people, you must believe it if the Zen Master tells you that the Buddha is a toad or an earthworm. You will have to give up the beliefs you have held up to now. But if you seek the Buddha’s marks, his radiance, and the various virtues associated with him on the earthworm, you still have not modified your arbitrary views of the Buddha. Just recognize as the Buddha what you see now before your eyes. If you follow the words of the Zen Master and turn from deluded views and attachments, you will naturally accord with the Buddha Way.’ (Shobogenzo Zuimonki)

I don’t recall any teacher I have worked with telling me that the Buddha was a toad or an earthworm, but as usual, Dogen makes a very concrete analogy do his work for him. The key line is the penultimate sentence.

Suzuki Roshi

‘The first paragraph is the framework of whole Buddhism.  First paragraph:

All—when all things are in Buddhist way or Buddhist phenomena, we are enlightenment and ignorance, something to study, life and death, buddha, and people.  When all things are without self, we have no ignorance, no enlightenment, no doubt, no buddha, no people, and no life and no death.  The Buddhist way is beyond being and non-being.  Therefore we have life and death, ignorance and enlightenment, people and buddha.  However, flowers fall with our attachment, and weeds grow with our detachment.

This is, you know, the most basic understanding of—of Buddhism or Sōtō Zen, which include all the teaching of Buddhism.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi archives)

I was struck by Suzuki Roshi dealing with the Genjo Koan here, from a 1966 talk, not because he was talking about it – he did that quite a few times in those early years, when he wasn’t paraphrasing in more broadly – but the translation he used. I am curious if it is a version he did himself. In any case, as I have said many times, seeing a fresh translation of a well-known passage is a great way to see it anew and to think about it in a different way.

For reference, here is the Zen Center version which I know and love:

‘As all things are buddha-dharma, there is delusion and realization, practice, birth and death, and there are buddhas and sentient beings. As the myriad things are without an abiding self, there is no delusion, no realization, no buddha, no sentient being, no birth and death. The buddha way is, basically, leaping clear of the many and the one; thus there are birth and death, delusion and realization, sentient beings and buddhas. Yet, in attachment blossoms fall, and in aversion weeds spread.’

The Nature Of Wind

I feel a little self-conscious that when I write about my current life, the weather figures prominently in the story; then I think of Linda Ruth, and how she started almost every talk she gave during practice periods at Tassajara (I did three which she led) with some comments about the weather, as a way of grounding whatever followed in the reality that we were dealing with – and at Tassajara, the weather was always very prominent, and we spent a fair amount of time outside.

So anyway, after the last post, the fog came back with avengeance (if you read my stuff on Patreon you will have already seen the pictures); I read that it has been the coldest April and May round these parts for decades (unfortunately it has been a long way from being the wettest, so now we have drought to face again). This all feels part of the way the weather has been tilted off axis through the course of my life.

What blew away the fog and brought some clear, if not especially warm, weather, were some mighty winds, loud enough to rattle the chimneys on our roof. These at least allowed me to pull out the old analogy of the oak and the willow when I was teaching meditation last week, encouraging flexibility from our strong roots on the cushion (though I am aware that very few, if any, of the people I am leading in the sittings are going to be on a cushion).

After which, rather embarrassingly, I felt like I had run out of things to say about meditation. I had a recording due, and couldn’t think of what I wanted to talk about. The live sessions are easier, because there is always somewhere to start, depending on the mood of the participants – including myself – but I have the notion that an enduring recording should have more heft. In the end I talked about basic awareness practices.

Of course, the nature of wind is that things change, and I am sure I will come up with some resonant phrases again soon.

One way I have noticed change in myself recently is, now that I am fully vaccinated, and with the sudden shift in CDC guidelines, I am considerably less agitated to see people walking around without masks; out on my bike, I have stopped riding with a bandana around my neck, ready to pull up, and instead have a mask in a pocket, ready to pull out if needed. It has taken a few weeks of adjustment, but now it feels almost normal.

Another, more banal change is that the regular football season has finished in England. There are still a couple of European club finals and the European nations tournament to come in the next few weeks, but I know I will suddenly have quite a few more hours in the week – especially weekends – without matches to get absorbed in. I may even manage to finish a book. I picked up a new book by Shodo Harada on the Platform Sutra from the Zen Center bookstore on Friday, and I am excited to dig into it.

And to wrap up, here are some photos from the last couple of weeks:

A somewhat typical view of the fog as it wraps around Twin Peaks and heads dowtown
Also somewhat typical, deep in the fog on top of San Bruno Mountain
High winds, and entropy, reduce two lanes of the Great Highway to an extension of the dunes
On Saturday morning, I did some exploring in Pacifica in the sun.
Two views of Oyster Point from consecutive weekends
This past weekend was a little more spectacular
I was out early enough on Sunday that for the first time I tried taking the road that runs into the belly of SFO – it has a bike lane the whole way, and was bascially deserted
Just south of the airport, on the Bay Trail, the tranquility belied by the loudness of the plane taking off
In other realms, it was a joy to be volunteering for the Bicycle Coalition again, as things get back to normal. Here we are engaging with a family of cyclists on Market St on Friday morning, with Bike to Work Day rebranded as Bike To Wherever Day