Equinox

The unseasonal clouds and rain finally moved on. After spectacular skies on Sunday, which I wrote about more extensively on Patreon, there were banks of clouds for a couple of days, then a little sting of rain showers on Wednesday morning. I ended up doing most of my day in the opposite order to what I had anticipated, and by the time I went for a little ride in the afternoon, the skies were clear. Now it seems to be warming up as well, so perhaps we are moving towards our late summer, even as the sun rises later and sets earlier.

A friend of mine who has had Covid twice this year said that, after feeling depleted, she just woke up one day feeling normal. I know other people who have taken a long time to get back to full health, or are still slowly recovering after many symptoms, so I do feel lucky and glad that I am starting to find a more typical level of energy inside myself. And I am not taking it for granted, and continuing to make time for rest between activities. But after riding a little longer over the weekend than I had previously, I didn’t feel tired afterwards, and I tried some hills on Wednesday, which seems to have gone okay. 

Nevertheless, I still feel like I haven’t caught up with all the things I put to one side while I was sick, and then conserving energy, so I hope that some space over the weekend will help with that. 

Looking up from the Sutro Baths on Sunday afternoon.
Probably my favourite picture from the afternoon. The beach is never that empty.
Clouds as we sat on Monday.
Ferry skies on Tuesday.
Wednesday afternoon clear air.

Dogen

‘One time mountains are flowing, another time they are not flowing. If you do not fully understand this, you do not understand the true dharma wheel of the Tathagata. 

An ancient buddha said, “If you do not wish to incur the cause for Unceasing Hell, do not slander the true dharma wheel of the Tathagata.” Carve these words on your skin, flesh, bones, and marrow; on your body, mind, and environs; on emptiness and on form. They are already carved on trees and rocks, on fields and villages.’ (Shobogenzo Sansuikyo)

This holding of two seemingly contradictory views – flowing and not flowing – are at the heart of Buddhist understanding. As Dogen points out, everything else is comfortable with this view, so we can become intimate with it too.

Moving Slowly

This past week, pretty much every time I have had to make a decision about what to do, I have been deciding to do less. Having tested negative last Friday and Sunday, and with the main symptoms behind me, all I have had to deal with is a lingering tiredness. I have been sleeping longer than usual, and finding that exertion, even walking a couple of steep blocks up Nob Hill for a meditation on Monday morning, has much more of an effect than usual. I did some deliberately gentle bike rides over the weekend, and chose not to go as far as I had initially planned, but at least didn’t feel exhausted afterwards. And during the week, when I might have popped out for an hour of riding, I chose not to – until Friday lunchtime, when the cloudy skies finally gave way to some sunshine, and I stretched my legs for an hour. I even tried a couple of climbs at low speed, and didn’t feel bad afterwards, so there are encouraging signs.

There were plenty of commitments on my calendar, but thankfully most of them did not involve much exertion. The flat commute to the ferry and to the studio were doable, though I found heavy lifting a bit challenging. Walking down to Zen Center to give the talk was easy enough, though I suddenly felt very warm once I had my okesa on and was waiting to go in.

Overall I think the talk went well; there was a small crowd in the Buddha Hall, and I heard about thirty more online, which made the event seem a little lower stakes than talks have sometimes felt for me in the past.

Having postponed the roam to Ocean Beach last weekend after testing positive on Thursday, I see that we were getting rain moving through on Sunday, from a typhoon crossing the Pacific – after last weekend’s tail end of a hurricane, which brought clouds, wind and cooler weather than we expect at this time of year. Perhaps we will have a repeat of our damp excursion along the same route last December. I will appreciate the fresh air and gentle movement though, I am sure. 

Mixed skies from the ferry on Thursday morning.
Clear of the fog along the bay on Friday.

Unprecedented Times

To start, at least, on the strictly personal, I hunkered down over the weekend. As we moved towards the predicted heatwave, which in San Francisco was not especially extreme, I alternated between time on my deck chair and lying on my bed. I had occasional glimmers of the idea that it would be nice to ride down to the beach, but the reality was that I had quite a headache and very little energy. I napped for four lunchtimes straight, which is pretty unprecedented, as well as sleeping eight hours just about every night. 

In some ways, since my symptoms weren’t so bad, it was nice to have an excuse to do very little. I still haven’t cleaned beyond the absolutely necessary. I have started some of my projects, and not got to others. I have noted my ebbs and flows of energy, and heeded them. There have been hours of football to watch – even if I drifted off during some games – and books to dip into. I walked on Monday evening and felt quite light-headed; on Thursday evening, much less so.

I tested every day; a couple of the tests that the government had sent me turned out to be defective, but I was positive (or unsure) from Friday until Thursday, even as I started feeling better. Having gone out to buy some more tests, the first of those turned out negative yesterday, and I will check again over the weekend before starting to return to doing things in person – I had to postpone the roam scheduled for Sunday, but I am still intending to give the talk at City Center on Wednedsay.

I had a little concern that – along with not getting myself back into good riding shape as I wished – I was not getting my bank accounts back in good shape after a month of not earning while I was traveling, and having had a number of unanticipate bike expenses as well. The wedding and other in-person events, apart from the pleasure of doing them, were things I was counting on to get money flowing in again. That said, I have started getting paid for other work I have done since I have been back, and, as I remembered very vividly as I went through some old posts on Patreon, my bank accounts are much healthier than they were in my first few years out of Zen Center, when I would sometimes have to sweat to make the next month’s rent, and was more than once saved by unexpected donations. I am also thankful that Charlie offered the week off when he heard I was still testing positive, and that I was eligible for sick pay for the two days I was missing, unlike all the other work I do.

And then, of course, I woke up on Thursday to news of the Queen being placed under medical supervision. Chatting with friends, it seemed clear that it was serious, and I was saddened, if not at all surprised, when her death was announced a few hours later. I found myself glued to the unfolding coverage from back home, and trying to wrap my head around the idea of there being a new monarch.

I would never have described myself as much of a royalist, but as is commonly expressed, that did not preclude a huge amount of respect for the Queen herself. I have not known anyone else on the throne, even as the royal family aged and died. Coming as it did just two days after the appointment – by royal approval – of a new, and somewhat disparaged Prime Minister, leading a much-criticised government through what was already a time of crisis, the sense of transitioning into a new era is very strong. I couldn’t say that I can express the range of my feelings – over time I am sure they will settle and become clearer. In the meantime, here are three articles that I enjoyed reading, from the Guardian, the New York Times, and the New Yorker, if you haven’t yet suffered a surfeit of coverage. 

When I awoke on Friday morning to discover that all the weekend’s football had been cancelled, I did wonder how on earth I was going to spend the time. I guess I shall have to start getting my talk into shape.

Joko Beck

‘More and more when I hear stories about the ancient monasteries, I wonder. They had a thousand monks sometimes, and you hear about the star who “did it” – but they don’t tell you much about the other nine hundred and ninety-nine. I’m sure a lot of them didn’t know what on earth they were doing…

Now, my students pass Mu too, but a lot of them have never even heard the word! And they still pass it. You don’t need to know the word- if practice is sincere and intense, at some point there is just a comprehension of what life is. “Oh,it’s that!” If the mind is empty and quiet – sure, there it is.’ (Meetings With Remarkable Women)

I remember having a similar wonder when I lived at Tassajara, about some of the other members of the great assembly. Of course, I could equally avow that I didn’t know what on earth I was doing. But I think something akin to what she describes in the second paragraph rubbed off on me too.

Finally

After a few full and somewhat exhausting days, I woke up on Wednesday morning with a sore throat. Times being as they are, I took an at-home test, from the stockpile I have accumulated. It came back negative. I went out for a somewhat gentle bike ride and didn’t feel too bad. I dug out the thermometer that got daily use in 2020 and ascertained that my body temperature was normal. Since I was also scheduled to officiate a big wedding at the weekend, I also went and took a PCR test at the same place I had gone last time I felt a bit off. It also came back negative. 

During the morning I talked with someone going to Tassajara for the first time, about how you can’t really plan for what the experience is going to be like (I loaned a couple of hot water bottles; even though it will probably be pushing a hundred degrees at the beginning of the practice period, they will come in handy come November). Nor could one plan for what to do afterwards, as so much might change over the course of the three months. 

I used that theme in my midday class, and then, on my way back from the farmers’ market, sirens abounded, and I crossed a thick band of smoke blowing east from a building fire just a few blocks from where I live – something else that nobody would have planned for or expected.

In the evening I went to Kim’s talk, in the Buddha Hall, fully masked as everyone except Kim was, enjoying the ruckus of crows beforehand, her delivery of a challenging topic (how practice helps us deal with time), and the new moon setting over the street as I walked home.

The next morning, I still felt a bit off, more of a headache than a sore throat, still no temperature, another negative test. I went to work in the East Bay and didn’t do anything too strenuous. On the way back home I picked up my city bike from another expensive episode: I had left it locked downtown for a few hours on Sunday while I had been out, and when I returned, someone had stolen the handlebars and stem, so I had to pick the remains of it up – luckily including the new fork and front wheel I had just paid for – and take it home on the streetcar. 

On Friday morning, after another pretty heavy sleep, feeling that perhaps I was just suffering from an old-fashioned cold, I took a third at-home test, and it came back positive. There was a flurry of messages and emails: friends, people I had been in contact with during the week, the wedding party, people I was supposed to sit with on Monday. The bride was understandably cautious, with pregnant friends due to attend the ceremony, so I had to leave them with my script and a last-minute search for a replacement, which they seem to have found. I canceled my rental car, and settled back to rest.

I certainly had a bunch of other nice plans for the weekend, mostly involving clocking up more miles on the bike after many weeks of lessened activity, but that will be on hold for a few days at least. There is plenty of lemonade to be made though – I had been craving time to plan a few more roams, and I spent several hours poring over old maps and history articles (I am getting urges to explore some more of the city’s watersheds, which are generally hidden in plain sight in the lowest lying parts). I have other non-strenuous projects that I have put aside from being so generally busy, and I don’t feel bad about putting off cleaning my place, which I had intended to do on Wednesday before I decided to conserve energy. So far the worst hardship has been running out of my favoured coffee beans, and having to break into my back-up stash of mediocre Trader Joe’s coffee.

For quite some time I have felt like a lone holdout as almost everyone I knew caught a dose of COVID this year, but apart from generally being cautious, I think that has purely been fortuitous. I may have had a mild dose in March 2020, at the same time that my then-partner began experiencing a life-changing bout of long COVID. While I am naturally concerned that there is still much about the disease we don’t know, and that I may suffer more long-term damage, thus far, it is just sickness, and I will practise with being sick.

A Few Degrees

There’s a very fine line – in temperature terms at least – between the relatively fine weather we had in San Francisco when I returned from England, and the last ten days or so. It’s the difference between having windows wide open day and night, and just leaving them cracked when the sun is not out, with the concomitant urge to bundle up in warm things. There is the fog looming in the west, of course, spilling over the hills and along the bay, and the wind that sometimes whips up quite alarmingly.

Last Friday I officiated a very small wedding at Baker Beach. We found an excellent spot, and the view of the bridge changed moment by moment with the vagaries of the fog layer. This Friday I scheduled an extra roam, along the bay shore from the ball park to Warm Water Cove and back through the Dogpatch and Mission Bay, which was just about warm but certainly bright. This afternoon’s will be on the foggy side of town, so I imagine it will feel different, and we won’t benefit from grand views at Grand View Park.

I have been keeping busy these past three weeks, not wanting so much to be alone after such a social time away, but then as a dyed-in-the-wool introvert I also get social exhaustion, and crave a quite few hours catching up on the latest New Yorkers. 

It has been an expensive time in the bicycle world as well: several hundred dollars to replace the wheel and fork from my crash, and then my road bike needed its bottom bracket replaced as well, so I was without that for a few days, and have generally not been catching up on my fitness as quickly as I would like.

Today is the last of the Suzuki Roshi classes, which I have enjoyed greatly. A little pause, and then I will focus on fleshing out the dharma talk I am due to give on the 14th, and then I will turn my attention to the Tenzo Kyokun.

The skies on Thursday morning. I find the variety fascinating enough to have offered several series on my Patreon page.
The view of the old shipbuilding area at Crane Cove.

Twenty-Five Hundred Strong

WordPress helpfully keeps a tally of how many posts you have published, and today marks 2500, which is a lot – and an even greater number of words. Not bad for a blog that has as its subject a teaching “outside the scriptures/No dependency on words and letters.”

It is a good moment to look back and reflect. First of all thanks to everyone who reads these posts, for without your attention, there would be no reason for me to do this. While initially conceived as a way to establish an online presence as I transitioned out of Zen Center, it soon felt like a way that I could help people in their practice, no matter how small the scale. I know that reading the dharma every day helps my practice, and I hope it does yours as well.

In some ways I still feel that I am transitioning out of Zen Center, though currently I am as involved as I have been since 2015, with the current Suzuki Roshi class I am co-leading with Abbot Ed, and an upcoming talk in September and class on the Tenzo Kyokun to come in October. Moreover I have also started to sit afternoon zazen again, now that the zendo has reopened and now that I live again at a convenient distance. This brings back home to me the communal aspect of sitting – not just sitting for ourselves but as a constituent part of the sangha, as I recently also got to experience in Belfast and Hebden Bridge, creating the space for everyone to enjoy their sitting and to feel encouraged in doing so.

A few times over the years I have questioned whether I want to continue to do this; I find myself spending less time reading dharma books these days (partly as a result of not commuting by BART since the pandemic), and I don’t always have the time to sit and transcribe sections (though the new phone ability to scan text has already made an impact in this regard!). Over the past year or two there have been plenty of reposts from years gone by, not least because I am often quite surprised by what I find when I go through the archive. Nevertheless, it feels right to carry on posting, both here and on Instagram, despite how depressing the algorithms have become.

And, despite the words attibuted to Bodhidharma that I quoted above, thinking about the Tenzo Kyokun also reminds me of the passage I have both quoted and commented on over the years: “What I previously saw of words and phrases is one, two, three, four, five. Today what I see of phrases is also six, seven, eight, nine, ten. My junior fellow-practitioners, completely see this in that, completely see that in this. Making such an effort you can totally grasp one-flavor Zen through words and phrases.”

May we all continue to grasp one-flavor Zen through words and phrases.

New Vistas

One of the great joys of travel, apart from getting to relax and take in new or familiar places, is the perspective on your life it offers when you return. Coming back to San Francisco last week felt comforting, and I was also happy to slowly settle back into my regular routines with some fresh energy – jetlag notwithstanding. I had not scheduled much for myself in the first few days of being back, apart from launching the Suzuki Roshi class, so I could ease myself in and try to catch up with the many miscellaneous strands of things I do.

Happily the weather has been extremely pleasant since I got back; with plenty of sunshine and warm temperatures, the sky bright and vivid, and the sunrises and sunsets that I saw rich and colourful. 

I have had other recent experiences of getting fresh perspectives in recent weeks, which I have been wanting to try to put words to. There have been a spate of park openings in the city this year, all on the north side of town. A few weeks ago, we had a roam that took in Francisco Park, poised on the edge of Russian Hill above Ghirardelli Square. I have walked around all the edges of the park when it was just the abandoned space of the old reservoir that fed fresh water to the city in its earliest incarnations. Standing in the middle of it, surrounded by people relaxing and enjoying themselves, I had an uncanny sense of spaciousness, and a feeling that I was trying to bring this new view, these surroundings, into my body to make them feel as familiar as other vistas are. 

Francisco Park also has lovely flowers.

Similarly, with the Tunnel Tops in the Presidio, which opened to great fanfare while I was away (and to a lesser extent the adjacent Battery Bluffs), I rode my bike down there the morning after I returned to orient myself to the newly available space, and found another relaxed crowd – I chatted with a hiking group who had come up from the South Bay to explore – and unbelievable views across to the Golden Gate Bridge, the islands, large swathes of the bay, as well as seeing the city off in the distance. It is not so different from the view you can get at water level on Crissy Field, and yet it felt totally new. 

On Sunday afternoon we will visit these new spaces in the Presidio as part of the next roam. I expect there will be a crowd showing up, but please come along if you feel moved, and we will take in the new perspectives together, and hopefully feel revitalised in our lives as a result.

Two views from the Tunnel Tops

Last Legs

The trip continued with a sense of familiar places and scenes that nevertheless feel fresh because I haven’t been to them for several years. I left my mother’s on the Friday, and took the train to Manchester, passing through the beautiful Shropshire hills. In an unexpected twist, the sun came out as we arrived in Manchester. I had plenty of time to walk between the two stations, and stopped for a nice cafe lunch, though my favourite coffee place at Victoria station was not quite up to its previous standards. 

After arriving at Rebecca’s, I took myself off on a walk up the steep hillside, for the fresh air and views, and then got ready for the evening presentation of Suzuki Roshi’s Beginner’s Mind talk, which was well attended. Most of the same dozen people sat for the day on Saturday, and I interspersed words and quotes on zazen through the day. It was mostly damp out, a good day to sit, and, in our usual way, go up for a pie and a pint afterwards. The pub has changed hands, and was also perhaps not up to its previous best, as well as being rather quiet for a Saturday night. After the sitting was over, it suddenly felt like I was coming to the end of the trip, as that had been the last big landmark, even though there were still a few more days to go.

In the morning I had time for a walk, and had the intention to climb Stoodley Pike, which I had seen from afar many times, but never gone up to. It was still damp, but very warm, and while I enjoyed following the trails, I ended up in the cloud line – completely deserted the whole way except for sheep and one mountain biker near the ridge – and there were no views except when the clouds parted to reveal the valley below.

By the time I got back, my shoes were soaked through from the wet grass on the footpaths, but I had time to shower and eat before setting off for the next leg, the walk to the station along the canal, the train to Leeds, the bus to the airport (the first one due was concelled, so there was a lengthy wait) and the flight to Belfast (where we sat on the tarmac for a while before taking off as there were issues with the passenger manifest).

Djinn and Richard met me at George Best airport, and drove me straight round to Garret and Esther’s for the planned dinner, arriving in the last minute of extra time of the Women’s Euro finals, which I would have loved to have sat down and watched all the way through. We had a lovely evening around the table, and I felt most welcomed back to a city I had not visited until a few years ago.

Monday was quite a lazy day, with lots of catching up and chatting, and a rainy evening, but Tuesday was full. We started by doing the morning schedule at Black Mountain, where I was doan so that some of the newer people could hear how it was supposed to be done (I think I managed not to make any mistakes). Later, Garret had managed to persuade his neighbour to loan me his expensive carbon bike, plus helmet and bike shoes, so that we could ride out of town together. This was my first ride in a month, and although my wrist has been healing day by day, I was worried about that as well as my legs. 

We clocked up forty miles or so, over rolling terrain to Killyleagh with the castle, where we had a cafe stop before returning alongside Stranford Lough. It was a lovely warm day, the wind was less of a problem than feared, and the views were lovely. I was definitely grinding out the last few miles, but I know it would make my next few rides after I got back to San Francisco much easier.

Thankfully I wasn’t stiff the next day beyond my wrist feeling sore. I had a smooth experience flying from George Best to London City airport, and also crossing town on the Elizabeth Line. I spent the afternoon walking through the parks on a day that was warm, but not quite as intense as when I last did it. A final dinner with my host, offering advice about anxiety, and the next morning I was off to Heathrow.

I usually feel pretty relaxed about the flight back to San Francisco, and this was similar; as the day extended westward, I mainly watched shows onscreen, peering out of the window to see where we were, though clouds inhibited most of the spectacular views of Greenland and the frozen north. I was kindly picked up from the airport by a friend on a sunny afternoon, and pottered about for a few hours before sleeping, and waking up as early as I expected.

There was not much on my calendar for the first few days, very deliberately, except for the first class of the second Suzuki Roshi series. I had timed the end of the trip around that, and figured that since it was a morning slot, jet lag wouldn’t be a problem, though I did feel pretty groggy. I hope people enjoyed it; the talk we chose was pretty dense, and we didn’t have time to unpack it all. Apart from shopping for food and picking up my bike, the only other things I managed over the weekend were gentle spins around town on my bike, and catching up with the first weekend of the new football season.

This week I will be back to work, with a new outdoor meditation, as well as the regular sitting, a trip to my student’s company in South San Francisco, and the Dogen study group. And that’s just today…

Stoodley Pike from the other side of the valley when I walked on Friday.
The view down into the valley from near the top, on Sunday morning.
The Black Mountain Zendo in Belfast.
A view of Stranford Lough from the bike ride that day.
Sunrise in Belfast on Wednesday morning.