Living In Vow

On Monday I will be giving the first of four dharma talks in San Rafael. I had in mind to speak about the four Bodhisattva Vows. I don’t imagine I will be able to exactly cover one vow per talk, though that was part of my initial thinking; I am guessing (not having put pen to paper yet, but having been turning ideas over in my head for a couple of months), that the first talk will mostly be about the vows, why we take them, and how to deal with the impossibility of them.

One of the first things that came to mind was Katagiri Roshi’s poem, A Peaceful Life, which I posted a couple of years ago – and again find no reason not to bring it back to the front page.

Being told that is impossible
One believes, in despair, “Is that so?”
Being told it is possible,
One believes, in excitement, “That’s right.”
But, whichever is chosen,
It does not fit one’s heart neatly.
Being asked, What is unfitting?”
I don’t know what it is.
But my heart knows somehow.
I feel an irresistible desire to know.
What a mystery “human” is.
As to this mystery:
Knowing how to live,
Knowing how to walk with people,
Demonstrating and teaching,
This is the Buddha.
From my human eyes,
I feel it’s really impossible to become a Buddha.
But this “I,” regarding what the Buddha does,
Vows to practice,
To aspire,
To be resolute,
And tells myself, “Yes I will.”
Just practice right here now,
And achieve continuity,
Endlessly, forever.
This is living in vow.
Herein is one’s peaceful life found.

Assuming that most of my readers are not in striking distance of San Rafael, I will try to put a recording up soon after the event.


Suzuki Roshi

‘People often think it would be best to study Zen in Japan, but this is rather difficult. “Why don’t you stay at Zen Center?” I ask them. If you go to Japan mostly you will encourage them to build more new buildings. They may be very happy to see you, but it is a waste of time and money, and you will be discouraged because you cannot find a good Zen master. Even if you find a teacher, it will be difficult to understand him and study with him.’ (Not Always So)

I had occasionally had the idea during my early years of practice, that it might be better to ‘go to the source’ and try to practise in Japan. Living at Tassajara, I realised that all the conditions I needed were right there.
Somewhere I seem to remember reading that Suzuki Roshi thought there were maybe a dozen good teachers in Japan in his day; his somewhat cheeky statement here notwithstanding, he still sent a few of his students off to train at Eiheiji for a couple of years, as he had done in his youth.
This passage is commenting on a line from the Fukanzazengi. I looked back to see if I had posted that previously, and came up with this quote from Blanche, along with my response, which will serve very well in this case.

Embodying The Dharma

The second and last shuso ceremony of this season was at Green Gulch on Monday. Zachary and I had consulted, and figured that we could pack up our cushions, head on over right after the lunch-time outdoor sit, and be there in good time; it all worked out as well as we had hoped.
It was a lovely spring day at Green Gulch, just as it had been the Monday before at Tassajara, and I got pretty warm in the zendo as we sat through the questions and congratulations.
I have been to a few shuso ceremonies there now, but mostly I haven’t been able to stay for dinner. Zachary took off after the ceremony, but luckily Tova offered me a later ride, meaning I could stay and chat, and then indulge in the the pizza and ice cream, which, as I hadn’t really had any lunch, went down very well.
Bryan was the shuso; he and I go back a dozen years, as he arrived at Tassajara in 2006 – along with Thiemo and Steph, who were around with their two adorable kids – right when I was settling in for my second two-year stretch. Mostly what I remember, and very fondly, are the many hours we spent running together on the trails over those two years; he had to wait for me often enough, being quite a few years younger as well as being a great natural athlete. I can only remember one time, the No Race in 2008, when he was off-form, and I was almost slowing for him so we could finish together. There were many other adventures as well, especially around the 2008 fire, as we scouted on the peaks, climbing Hawk Mountain or the Tony Trail every day.
I haven’t heard him give a dharma talk yet, so I don’t know how he fares in that respect, but I know that he was a great monk, throwing himself whole-heartedly into everything, and embodying the teaching just by doing that. And that is what it is all about, at least in my book.

Down into the clouds 3
I am very glad that I took my camera on some of the runs we did. This was a morning we ran to the top of the road, and in doing so climbed above the cloud level, which was at about 3000 feet, into clear blue skies. Running back down into the clouds was quite dream-like.

Bryan Tony Trail
This was a particularly narrow and slippery part of the Tony Trail, which we had almost certainly climbed to the top of before descending.

Bryan at the horse camp upper Willow Creek
This was a lovely section of oak meadow up Willow Creek, past the other end of the Tony trail, about five miles from Tassajara.

Bryan descends Hawk Mountain
After the 2008 fire, Bryan and I climbed up Hawk Mountain and discovered that nothing was left of the old telephone transmitter. Then we scrambled down again.

Driving the road day 1 Bryan hits the mountain
One time I had got a Suburban stuck in a ditch in the snow as I tried to drive Jordan out. I ran a couple of miles back down to Tassajara and Bryan brought up the lumber truck with the winch, but even that struggled nearer the top. We eventually gave up, and tried again the next day.

Bryan with Fu and Zenju, who were co-leading the practice period at Green Gulch.

Bryan, with Mako (who was a big part of those years at Tassajara), helping the dish crew by saving on dishes.

There were more flowers on the farm than on my last visit.

Dharma friends on the path. I suspect this will get used in many Zen Center publications…


‘Xuansha was informally addressing his monastics when he heard a swallow singing. He said to the assembly, “This is the profound dharma of real form. It skillfully conveys the essence of the true teaching.” He then descended down from the teaching seat.
A monastic asking for an explanation said, “I don’t understand.”
Xuansha said, “Go away. No-one will believe you.”‘ (Shinji Shobogenzo)

I have posted this before, and make no apologies for doing so again. I reflect on this story frequently, and won’t add the same comment as I did a couple of years ago. These days I associate the story with Glen Canyon, as I read it out on the first roam that we did along the canyon, and decided to repeat it at the following visit. I gave it an airing in the most recent roam as well, as we sat on the logs by Islais creek, which was running freely. A couple of girls were playing barefoot with sticks, making a suitable amount of noise for their fun, and behind us a pair of large ravens were picking at a log. When we started walking again, I heard a woodpecker up a in tree.
What else do you think conveys the essence of the true teaching?

Redbuds with Friends

My weekend at Wilbur, with a drive of more then two hours in each direction (thankfully the traffic was pretty light overall) was followed by a long Monday driving to Tassajara and back. Zachary and I left the city at 5:30 in the Jeep I had borrowed, swinging by Pacific Grove to pick up Djinn, who had just been in Tassajara for the last sesshin and was staying with a friend. Traffic was also not a problem, so we arrived at Jamesburg about forty minutes before the scheduled time for the stages in; having consulted with Leslie, who said it would help with her planning, we continued over the road.
It could not have been a more beautiful spring morning at Tassajara. I was glad to have the time to wander round for a while before the pre-ceremony tea, taking pictures and catching up with friends who had been down at the practice period.
Heather made short work of the ceremony, and was widely congratulated by the former shusos for her real openness and tenderness. In my congratulations, I reminisced about staying with her in Brooklyn three summers ago, when she was at a bit of a crossroads in her practice life; I don’t think either of us foresaw at all how things would turn out for her, but it is wonderful to see how it has.
There was time for a bathe – I jumped right into the creek straight away, and then hung out chatting in the outdoor plunge with Zachary, Simon and David until lunch, with great food and many more conversations before we got away.
Driving out was a little more challenging. We got stuck at the hardest part of the road, when I hesitated about the line to take over a shelf of rock, and the wheels spun into the dirt. It took a few minutes of digging, planning, and holding my breath before I could drive the Jeep almost sideways to the edge of the mountain and then keep enough momentum to get me over the tough spot.
All in all I was at the wheel for a little more than eight hours, which seemed fine at the time with the great company, but left me absolutely exhausted the next day. As I always say, though, it was totally worth it.

A redbud down at the end of the main path.

Another one by the stone cabins.

The creek at the bathhouse looked pretty healthy, and was very fresh.

Former shusos arriving for the ceremony.

Heather, with the fan, between Paul and Tanya, who was the jisha, and is also Heather’s wife.

The Moon Reflected In The Water

Driving up to Wilbur last Friday, in hazy sunshine, the spring colours brought to mind one of those Sisley or Pissarro paintings that I enjoyed discovering in my youth. The Capay valley was bright green, and then the highway was studded with redbuds the length of the canyon, the vivid pinks almost shocking.
Even though I arrived in the middle of the afternoon, I could not bring myself to go out for a run right away, but instead relaxed in the pools, where, after dinner, the full moon rose in a smudge of clouds, shimmering in the water.
I slept long and deep, as sometimes happens at Wilbur, and relished the eighty degree weather each day. The meditation sessions were well attended, and a couple of times the discussion gained some real depth, giving me the chance to meet people fully, which is always rewarding.
I did run on Saturday, in the middle of the day, which made for hot work getting up to the ridge. This time I was more worried about rattlesnakes than hunters (though we did hear gunshots the next day), and in the end saw nothing more dangerous than a squirrel. The ridge was also home to many redbuds, a carpet of lupins on the schoolhouse trail, and other flowers I recognise but could not identify.
The next time I visit will be the end of June, when the temperatures will be even higher, and the flora a little less fresh. I am sure I will find it just as restorative.

Almond blossoms on the 505.

The path from the baths to the campsite, which was full along with the rest of Wilbur.

I thought of the title for this post, having been discussing Xuedou’s poems and the similar image from the Genjo Koan with my students, so I thought I should take a picture to match – this is the setting moon on Sunday morning.

First sun on Sunday morning, illuminating the path to the yoga deck where we sit.

First sun at the big pool, which was warm enough to be in at all hours of the day.

Sharon Salzberg

‘I had a dream once, and in it, someone asked me, “Why do we love people?”
Still dreaming, I responded, “Because they see us.” I woke up thinking, That’s a really good answer.’ (Real Love)

We all yearn to be seen, and this is something we can learn to do with anybody. Usually our ideas about people get in the way of really seeing them; any practice we can undertake that loosens our ideas and brings us closer to actual happenings is going to be beneficial. You can imagine which practice I might recommend for this…