‘One of my teachers taught me to practice generosity by taking an object in my left hand and giving it to my right hand. This seemed a bit silly to me, but when I tried it, I detected subtle feelings of gratitude or stinginess, various tiny clenchings of holding back or grasping, and sometimes the ease of delight and joy. The inner details of actual giving are more complicated than you think. Starting the practice of generosity by being generous to yourself is the best way. But it is not just introductory. In fact, as most people come to see, being generous with yourself is advanced practice. It requires – and promotes – an honest self-respect and unselfish self-regard that many of us find quite tricky. We tend to ping between the extremes of self-attachment and self-denigration. Practicing self-generosity requires that you care about yourself in the same way you care about others – not more, not less. This is not easy to do.’ (The World Could Be Otherwise)
The first key to this passage is the ability to detect those subtle feelings. I often say the same about lovingkindness practice: the hardest one to offer is often to yourself, because we frequently feel we don’t deserve to receive it – in which case I suggest imagining a dear person saying it to you, since you are more likely to accept it from another than from yourself.
‘I never really thought that if I practice Zen I would somehow be perfect. You know, in Japan, everybody knows that all of the teachers are regular people, or broken people, rather than some sort of enlightened beings sitting on a cloud.’ (from Lion’s Roar)
I found this article, and this notion, to be a helppful reminder of the kinds of traps that we can fall into with spiritual practice, whichever tradition we find ourselves in.
When I type the word midwinter, I think of scenes of old England, cold, dark and snowy, as per the hymn, which is not really how it is in San Francisco. Weeks of mostly sunny weather, gradually getting colder, finally gave way to the season’s first serious rain over the weekend. I took this as an excuse not to get out on my bike as I usually would, and instead found myself keen to try a run, which, aside from a few outings in Kansas during September, I have not tried since March. Luckily things did not hurt too much, and with the forecast promising more rain, I will have a chance to try a few more of that soon.
I find myself not counting the days down to Christmas so much this year, even though I am looking forward to it – and have decorations, in our new place, for the first time in my years out of Zen Center. Instead, I am thinking about the number of days until the solstice, and the subsequent promise of slowly increasing daylight. There is also the countdown to the Inauguration – even if the outgoing incumbent is intent on throwing tantrums every day, it does seem like roadblocks to the orderly transition of power are melting away, one by one.
And then there are the two faces of the pandemic – soaring numbers, even here in the Bay Area, which has fared as well as anywhere in the US until now, and the imminent distribution of the vaccine. It does feel like a time for holding tight, staying safe and isolated and indoors as much as possible, with the hope of things being different next year. I hope that you feel this possibility of renewal too.
‘The measure of our humanity is our ability to care for people unlike us, who are not in our clique, gang, church, on our team, side, who are not our color or our kin and who are not near to us in spatial distance as well as in affinity.’ (from The Guardian)
I posted this on Instagram the other day, and it became my most popular post (and the tanto said she would use it in her talk this week). I was honoured to meet Rebecca Solnit a few times over the years at Zen Center, and while she represents for me a particular face of what we might now call ‘the old San Francisco’, she also consistently writes in a way that represents the best of humanity.
”When you dip a water by this cup, you know, and when you say, “this is water,” you know, this is not water anymore. When you empty it to the river, it is really water. It is flowing endlessly. It doesn’t stay anywhere. If it stay someplace, it may not be true water anymore. But actually it is– it cannot stay anywhere that is water. We think it can stay here, but this is just because I think, you know, “here is water in the cup.” But it doesn’t actually staying here; it is going, you know, away. So when water is really water, it is nothing, you know; no self-nature. There is no water. You cannot catch it. So, in this sense, we can say “nothingness.” Water is nothingness. Nothingness– because it is nothing, it is water, true water. When it is true water, it is nothingness. So everything is nothingness, and everything is everything, just everything. Anything can be everything, and everything can be nothing. This is a kind of technique [laughs, laughter] to talk about– nothingness. When you know, when you become familiar with this kind of technique, you may say, “I understand what is nothingness.” [Laughs, laughter.] Then you don’t understand. So when you don’t know anything, you really have Buddhism. So better not to be concerned about nothingness too much. [Laughs, laughter.] Do you have some– did you understand what I am saying? No? [Laughter.] That was good. If you say “understand,” you understood– maybe you have understood something else. That is your own understanding. Don’t ask question about nothingness, you know. You will be– you must surrender, anyway, if you ask question about nothingness. Maybe I have to surrender too [laughs]’ (from the Suzuki Roshi archives)
When I come across passages like this, I am incredibly grateful that they were recorded, and I can only imagine what it must have been like to be in the assembly that day.
‘On this night the Tathagata completed true awakening. With effort and dropping away body and mind, his eyes became clear. Together with him, all the various living beings in the three thousand worlds smiled. Although this is so, what is the situation of patch-robed monk students of Eihei?
After a pause Dogen said: The spring color of plum blossoms in the snow is wonderful. The black glow of a single monk’s staff is pure.’ (Extensive Record, 506)
Since the end of the summer, I have not been doing so many formal activities, though I have been continuing to record for Core, and to lead meditations on the Chalk app for them. This week I am leading three public meditations on Zoom as part of the Dreamforce gathering – on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 8:00 – 8:30 am PST. You can sign up for them here.
The Monday lunchtime zazen sessions with Zachary continue, 12:30 – 1:30 pm PST; I am not able to sit outside at my new place, but one of our regulars still does. You are welcome to join any time, for as long as you are able to – there is no expectation of sitting for the whole hour, though I find it a helpful practice.
On Saturday afternoon, after a morning ride to Sweeney Ridge, I put my robes on for the possibly only the third time this year (after the Zoom wedding and my student’s wedding), for Sozan’s shuso ceremony – another Zoom first. Considering the numbers of participants, and the intricacies of the ceremony itself, it all played out amazingly well and smoothly; Sozan himself was steadfast in his answers, and handled everything with grace. It was sweet to see so many familiar faces asking questions – including a few from other time zones who would not have been able to attend in person – and I am only sorry I was not there in person to take photos (okay, I was also sorry not to enjoy the traditional dinner afterwards, though my partner cooked a wonderful meal for me while I was sitting on my cushion).
And then, as I was writing this out, Nancy the City Center tanto called to ask if I was able to give the Saturday dharma talk for Zen Center on January 2nd, which I was delighted to say yes to. So it looks like I will be putting on my robes again soon.
When I lived at Tassajara, and we got up ridiculously early in the morning to sit the first periods of zazen, I would sometimes reflect that the contents of my mind in those early hours did not really seem that dissimilar to the contents of my mind when I had been asleep previously. There was something almost comforting about that continuity of mental activity, that awake thoughts were not very much more rational or dependable than dreams.
These days I don’t sit first thing, but when I do sit, in the middle of the day, or in the afternoon, I often find my mind turning sleepy, and something like the same process happens in reverse. Even if I am guiding a meditation, and trying to hold a string of instructions in mind to sprinkle throughout the session, I find myself drifting through fragmented thoughts, or disconnected fleeting images that seem somehow meaningful and attractive – though, as with any state that verges on sleep, it is impossible to retrace the steps that led to an image, or sometimes even to fully grasp what it was.
Uchiyama Roshi frequently called the content of our mind ‘the scenery of our life’ – just things glimpsed momentarily; real, sure, but not necessarily something to depend on or give all our energy to.
‘”Emptiness,” the connectedness of all things, deepens everything by disclosing the complex foundations upon which all things arise. Seeing these complexities more clearly, bodhisattvas recognize that the best intentions behind the rules will not always be fulfilled by inflexible application. Occasionally some other course of action is more effective in pursuing the highest good, and wisdom is the ability to see when and where that is so.’ (The Six Perfections)
To which I will add, as we discussed in my student group recently, that ensuring our ego is not ensnared with what we perceive to be the highest good is also wise.
‘While we are sitting in zazen, we definitely have a feeling of disappointment and unsatisfactoriness, a sense of uncertainty or fruitlessness. We think, “I am working so hard but I’m not experiencing the ’response’ or ’effect’ that I wish. Maybe I am doing something wrong. Maybe my effort is not enough. Or maybe I am not suited for zazen…” These kinds of doubts and questions arise one after another in our mind. At that time we feel at a complete loss, thinking, “Should I keep doing such an unresponsive thing or not? Is not this a waste of time?” But that is totally all right for zazen. Rather, it is a good sign that we are doing zazen in the right direction.’ (from the Soto Zen Journal)
Once again, Issho is drawing a comparison between shuzen that is goal-oriented and zazen that we allow to unfold naturally as our moment-by-moment experience, letting go of outcomes.