Hakuin

‘The ocean of true reality is boundless and profoundly deep. The Buddha Way is immeasurably vast. Some priests do nothing but seek fame and success until their dying day, never showing the slightest interest in the path of Zen or the Buddha’s Dharma. Others become enthralled in literary pursuits or become addicted to sake or women, oblivious of the hell fires flaming up under their very noses. Some, relying on insignificant bits of knowledge they pick up, shamelessly try to deny the law of cause and effect, though woefully lacking any grasp of its working. Some find ways to attract large numbers of people to their temples, believing to the end of their days that this is proof of a successful teaching career.’ (Beating The Cloth Drum)

I haven’t picked up this book in a while, but it happens that I was writing a Patreon post, and wanted to see if I had written anything about the traditional way of tangaryo when I was writing the Ino’s Blog. It was not too surprising that I had, and, as I often find, a little meander down memory lane from ten or more years ago made me smile. My practice is less traditional these days than it was when I was a temple officer at San Francisco Zen Center, and while I am sure that Hakuin would not stint in his criticism of what I am doing now, I would at least not claim to be seeking fame or success.

Sojun

I was sad to hear of Sojun Mel Weitsman’s passing, though not entirely surprised considering his advanced age. Djinn spoke lovingly of his presence in her dharma talk on Saturday, and I echo her sentiments; even though I didn’t spend much time around him, his presence was always warm and benign, and we were always fully aware of his role at San Francisco Zen Center, and Berkeley Zen Center going back more than fifty years. And, as he always seemed happy to recount to later generations, he had had a varied and interesting life before he got involved in the practice with Suzuki Roshi – if you get a chance to find one of his way-seeking mind talks in the archives, they are worth listening to.

I also think of the time I spent as shuso at Tassajara in 2012. Sojun came, as he often did, to spend some of the practice period as a visiting teacher, allowing Myogen Steve Stücky to go up to the city for meetings. I also was able to read the old shuso logs; his shuso practice period at Tassajara coincided with the arrival of Tatsugami Roshi from Japan, which, as he observed wryly through the pages, marked the transition from Tassajara being a kind of spirited adventure, with a macrobiotic, communal vibe, to being a more traditional zen training monastery.

It always feels like an incredible privilege to have spent so much time around such epochal figures in the establishment of zen in the west, and perhaps the first of these photos gives a flavour of what that sometimes looked like in day-to-day life at Zen Center.

I remember this occasion being around the 50th Anniversary celebrations for Zen Center. Five of the surviving abbots and abbesses were interviewed (I thought that Djinn had done it, but she doesn’t think so), and I rather flippantly refered to this image as an attempt on the world record for number of abbots on a single couch. Myogen Steve, Zenkei Blanche Hartman and Sojun have now all died; Eijun Linda Cutts and Kiku Christina Lehnherr are happily still teaching
A very typical picture of Sojun in the Tassajara shop, beautifully crafting a kotsu – from my shuso practice period

At the end of an earlier practice period at Tassajara – shuso ceremony day, in 2006.
Possibly the last time Sojun spent significant time at Tassajara, when Lucy was shuso – this was the shuso dinner place setting.

A happy picture from a sad occasion – after Myogen Steve’s funeral at Green Gulch.

Coming Attractions

Happily, I am starting 2021 with three new (or newish) dharma offerings, and I hope that you will be able to tune in to one or more of them:

On Saturday 2nd, I will be giving the dharma talk at Zen Center at 10:00 am PST. It will be available via the online zendo. This will be my first talk for Zen Center in a shade over a year, and I am still thinking of exactly what I want to say.

The following evening at 7:00 pm PST, I will be offering a guided meditation for Core on the Chalk app; I love the intimacy of doing an audio-only talk, and this one wiill probably be focusing on ‘new beginnings.’

On Wednesday evening, at 6:00 pm PST, I will be making my debut for Within Meditation, with an online, somewhat guided, sit.

Just to make the post a little more pretty, here are a couple of pictures from the bike rides I took over the holidays.

Looking down San Bruno mountain towards Lake Merced and the ocean
A pelican takes off near Oyster Point

The Dharma Seat

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.

Collin is always interested when I meditate, and gave my robes a careful sniff when I sat down in them on Saturday.

Plans

At the beginning of the year, it looked like I would have a conflict this week. One of my students had pencilled in August 8th for his wedding, since it is an auspicious date, and had asked me to officiate. The plan was shaping up to be a long weekend for many people up in Mendocino.

And I knew that Shohaku would be offering a Genzo-e at Zen Center, starting on the 7th. Even though I would have already attended the weekend in London with him in March, I definitely wanted to participate, as I am such a fan of him and the format.

So I was trying to calculate how much of the wedding weekend I could be present for, and how much of the retreat I would have to miss.

Both of the events took place, but of course not as originally planned (and the London weekend was cancelled…). In the end I decided that I did not want to clear my schedule to attend an online version of the Genzo-e from home, though I hope to be able to listen to the classes at some stage. And the wedding transformed into a socially-distanced event for families and a handful of close friends at a property outside of Santa Cruz that my student moved out to a couple of weeks ago, since his work did not need him to be present in the city.

It was the first time I had put on my robes since the last wedding, though I had not needed to leave the house for that one. Perhaps more notable, it was the first time I had been in a car since a trip I took in February – almost six months. I left the car rental place very carefully.

That cautious driving extended to my initial few miles on the 280 as I left the city. It reminded me of leaving Tassajara at the end of a practice period, when running was the fastest I had moved for three months, and suddenly, after a slow hour driving over the road, we accelerated down past Jamesburg as soon as the road was paved. There was an adjustment period for the unnatural to become acceptable.

I was also, this time, paying a lot of attention to my surroundings, as the 280 threads through most of the routes I have been riding this year, both close to the city, where I used not to be able to recognise the streets the freeway cuts through, and down the peninsula, where the names on the exits now had familiar gradients and qualities, and I could spot each sub-division along the way.

There was plenty of weekend traffic, but the southern end of Skyline, past Jikoji, was free and clear (and I remembered the very gruelling ride I took back from there at the end of a YUZ weekend). I stopped for a breather at the spot where I officiated a wedding last year, with the glorious views of woods and valleys, and made it to my destination right on time.

The event was being handled by friends and the owners of the property, who were all very gracious and working hard to make everything happen. I set up my altar, and once I had my robes on, was just there to help the bride and groom stay grounded before we got underway – a few moments with the redwoods helped with that.

It was a very personal ceremony, especially their vows to each other, for the small live audience and the hundred-plus following on a livestream. Watching so much love being expressed, not just between the couple, but from everyone present, is a complete tonic. Afterwards we ate in a large circle on separate tables, with beautiful kora music as an accompaniment.

I made my excuses so that I could drive home before it got too dark, and was rewarded with a spectacular drive, again with sun-filled tree-lined hillsides stretching off into the distance, and post-sunset clouds and mist as I came back alongside the reservoirs I have ridden beside so many times this year. Even when things don’t go as planned, they can still be perfectly beautiful.

IMG_6697Finishing touches before the ceremony.

IMG_6701After the ceremony, the couple greet friends who have been following online.

IMG_6743Eating at a safe distance.

IMG_6756.jpegSpectacular evening colours on the 280, with the fog bank looming.

The Heart Of Spring

The other day, I realised that I couldn’t remember the last time I got in a car – certainly not since we started sheltering-in-place. I often say, when I am at Tassajara or Wilbur, that slowing down to human speed is deeply restful. And my body seems to have settled into that pace.

That said, I went out on my bike on four consecutive days over the long weekend – two hours on Friday afternoon and Monday morning, three hours on Saturday and four on Sunday. The weather was just too good not to. I still haven’t crossed the bridge for a couple months, but I have been happy heading out on local roads, hills and waterside, long highways and car-free stretches, extending my mental map of good roads to choose down the peninsula.

This is often the most beautiful time of year in San Francisco, and we are getting the benefit of it right now; clear skies, warm air, and often very little wind. I have been glad to get out very early on my morning rides, not just enjoying the light traffic, which allows me to take busy roads I avoid at other hours, and the general quiet, but also not to be constantly hot and worrying about dehydration.

The roads have been getting steadily busier in the last couple of weeks, after the relative tranquility of March and April, and now there is just the hope that the increase in bike- and pedestrian-friendly streets will remain in force.

I have continued connecting with the Hebden Bridge sangha, the consistency of which allows for a wonderful ongoing conversation, and a strong sense of sharing honestly and openly. And, on Friday (before I got on my bike) I officiated a Zoom wedding. This was a real treat: the couple were international, and had friends and families all over the world – New Zealand, Singapore, Estonia, Miami, Sheffield. I had the chance to put my robes on (I don’t remember the last time I did that, either, seeing as the April ceremonies I would have attended did not take place). I didn’t get to sign the marriage licence this time, so they will have to have another ceremony with City Hall, but it was certainly a celebratory occasion. And we do all need that in our lives as well.

DA563FC3-479B-48A9-8C52-761D81D3642E_1_201_aAfter the main part of the ceremony, I stayed online to hear the congratulations from all over the globe.

E159A5DB-5477-49BD-9386-D1EF1C080324_1_201_aPart of a city ride on Friday afternoon, the new bike path in Mission Bay.

295F86D9-FCE3-477F-AB0E-ED126EB65CCF_1_201_aOn Saturday I went over to Pacifica, and up to Sweeney Ridge. That is Mount Diablo across the bay.

3C3A1252-5C6F-4582-926D-35F95CAB242D_1_201_aDiablo was also visible from the high ground on Sunday morning, around Hillsdale.

E28AE115-4C90-4764-BD97-6E70A3E9AECE_1_201_aAnd from the top of San Bruno Mountain on Monday morning.

 

Coming Home

So today marks the twenty-year anniversary of my arrival in San Francisco. I packed up my mostly happy life in London (see here), and flew in with two bags, and a bicycle in a box. I was in love, and happy to be starting a new phase of life – which also included living at the Zen Center.

I have never been much of a one for imagining the future, but I think I had the idea that I would give residential practice a try for six months, and then we would move on if I didn’t take to it. Having already heard about Tassajara on my one previous visit to San Francisco, I knew I wanted to see it for myself (and indeed, I did get there for a day later that summer). Perhaps we would do the practice for a couple of years. I guess that’s what you could call beginner’s mind, eh?

Certainly, I would never have guessed that I would spend fifteen years living at either City Center or Tassajara (with a couple of short breaks around the five-year mark). We had moved to Tassajara in 2002, and a couple of years after that, I really started to have the clear sense that I wanted to ordain as a priest. I remember reading a remark that Richard Baker had supposedly made early on in Suzuki Roshi’s time to a Zen Center colleague (I expect I read that in Crooked Cucumber): ‘if we had any sense, we would just do this for the rest of our lives.’

And at a certain point, it did seem clear that there was nothing else I would rather do with my life. Speaking with Zachary yesterday, he was asking about the process of how I had changed through practice; I answered that it had been rather as Blanche used to describe monastic practice, like a rock tumbler where everyone is very slowly having the rough edges smoothed out. If I look back, it seems clear that I have changed; I think it is mostly for the better, and I think it can be largely attributed to practice. And I trust that people can change for the better, cultivating the kindness and compassion that we all know how to access, and I hope I can help people see how that is possible.

Neither would I have guessed that right now I would be doing my teaching on video conferencing apps (as a sound engineer at the BBC in the nineties, I had been used to satellite phones and ISDN for audio, but back then, internet audio was still in its infancy, as I discovered in my first job over here). It is an imperfect intimacy, but it is all we have right now.

At some point, maybe from around 2012, I started feeling that it might be time to go home to England, where there would be opportunities to teach. I had been feeling a little homesick, missing the landscapes and the history (if not some aspects of the culture). But leaving Zen Center and moving back (with more than two bags and a bicycle now) seemed like a big leap, so I settled for just leaving Zen Center, and that clearly felt like the right choice.

In the past year, I suppose, I have started to feel much more settled here (despite some aspects of the culture). I am in love, and looking foward to starting a new phase in my life, hopefully when the pandemic eases its grip somewhat. My vow is to continue on this path, and to embody upright teaching. Who knows where this will all take me?

Twenty years ago, I arrived in the middle of one of the heatwaves that San Francisco can sometimes experience. Everyone warned me not to get used to the high temperatures, but I enjoy them when they come round, and this is time of year it typically happens . This week has been a little different, and much less typical to my mind: on Monday, during the Zoom version of the outdoor lunchtime meditation, I had to set up inside, as there was rain in the forecast, and indeed we had several bands of it passing through during the afternoon. One of the participants was sitting in her car, and I noticed on the screen, as the wind suddenly whistled through the open window in front of me, that her hair was blowing around at the same moment. I thought it might be the 21st Century version of Hui-neng’s story.

ZC group 2001.jpegI had the idea to go back and look at my earliest San Francisco photo album. This is probably from the spring of 2001. If you look closely, you can see the current abbot in the front row. I also see at least three people who now run other centres. I can name all but a couple of people in the picture still, and I think five of the people shown have died.

Twin Peaks 2001.jpegIMG_4310.jpgIf you read this blog regularly, you might remember that being up on Twin Peaks has been the symbol of my feeling at home here. The oldest picture I have of the view from there reminds me so clearly what the last two decades have done to this city. 

 

 

Taking It Easier

Over the years, as I have exercised, either on my bike or running, I have found it hard to take it easy on the route that I have chosen. Obviously, if I am going a shorter distance, I will be pushing harder; if I am going longer, I will measure my effort in accord with how long I need to keep going. If I don’t know the route, then I have to keep more back in reserve, just to be able to last the distance and navigate whatever hurdles there may be.

I was musing on this on Sunday afternoon, as I undertook a planned long ride: on the way out of the city, I wanted to tackle the Guadeloupe Canyon Road running up San Bruno Mountain (it features in the famous Bullitt car chase – any of the segments that are obviously not urban). If I were just going up the mountain and back, as I sometimes do, I would be working harder up the climb; this time since I was going further, I put my bike in the lowest gear and took it easier.

The next climb on the route was up from the Camino Real in San Bruno to Skyline. The road I chose is one I have only ridden once before, but quite recently, so I was well aware that the hardest sections were near the top, and paced myself accordingly.

I was aiming for the Sweeney Ridge trail; once out on the trail, which was paved from the end of Sneath Lane (as far as I had ventured before), to the summit, I had no idea what to expect, beyond seeing the ridge line some way above me. It turned out to be a great climb, tough in the middle, but very doable. There was a great sense of accomplishment – not to mention outstanding views – once I reached the top. To add to the adventure, I had decided to try the dirt trail to get down from the top to Pacifica, which I wasn’t well equipped for, but managed, more on foot than not. And then I had one big climb left to get home, but this was one that I knew well enough, and knew I could manage, even with tired legs.

With the shelter-in-place world continuing without a clear sense of the exit (however much some people are trying to “liberate” their states), I feel like I will have to adapt a similar approach to this unknown duration. And some parts of it are going to be hard. I get texts from friends expressing how depressed they are, especially from lack of physical contact – having devoted much time in my most recent talks to highlighting the nourishing aspects of in-person interaction, I can entirely sympathise.

Finishing up articles from a New Yorker of a couple of weeks ago, the descriptions from the novel phase of the lockdown already seem passé. We know how this feels now. And we will keep on knowing new dimensions of it as it continues, even if we don’t know exactly what those are now. Sometimes the future looks grim, and sometimes the present might not be as scary as you may think. We can learn fresh ways to discover how interconnected everything is, and also learn more about what it is that some people are experiencing.

In this fluid world, I do trust that our practice helps us: having few desires, being more attuned to interiority and living in the moment. Hopefully using skillful means and compassion to navigate the complexities and unpleasantness.

While I was waiting in line at Rainbow the other day – one of those things we have just somehow accommodated to – I was also reminded of something I have already posted from La Peste:

‘Tarrou added: “Query: How contrive not to waste one’s time? Answer: By being fully aware of it all the while. Ways in which this can be done: By spending one’s days on an uneasy chair in the dentist’s waiting room; by remaining on one’s balcony all a Sunday afternoon; by listening to the lectures in a language one doesn’t know; by traveling the longest and least-convenient train routes, and of course by standing all the way; by lining up at the box office of theaters and then not buying a seat; and so forth.”‘

So our time continues on, and we don’t know the course, so we have to try to manage our energy for the duration, and hold a little back just in case.

In ways I am hoping to help this week – beyond apparently having steered a few people to take roams – there is a Zoom talk to the Hebden Bridge group and friends today, starting at 11:30 PST, and this Saturday, the 25th, I will be offering the zazen instruction for Zen Center’s online zendoThat starts at 8:10 PST.

IMG_3789.jpgAlmost at the top of Sweeney Ridge.

IMG_3801.jpgAlmost back down at sea level.

Brad Warner

‘Here’s my personal opinion. If you’re going to call yourself a “Zen priest” in the Soto tradition, then you had better know some “priest craft.” You’d better know how to do all the different roles in a standard chanting ceremony — like ringing the bells, offering incense, hitting the mokugyo (wooden drum shaped like a fish), chanting, and so on. You’d better know how to do a standard Zen ceremony by yourself (one person doing all of the different roles — there is a way to do this). You’d better know your tradition very well. You’d better know enough about Dogen’s philosophy to be able to explain it to someone who asks about it, or to give a lecture about it. I don’t think you have to be the greatest expert in the world about this stuff. You don’t have to know every ceremony perfectly. You don’t have to memorize all 95 chapters of Shobogenzo. But you need to know enough about this kind of stuff that you can at least do it reasonably well.

Furthermore, I’d say you also need to be able to have difficult conversations with people who come to you wanting to talk about difficult things. You need to be able to listen to their problems without judging them.’ (from Hardcore Zen)

I enjoyed reading Brad’s recent post about priest craft. The ceremonial stuff is the bread and butter of new priests’ training at Zen Center. I remember hearing that Brad’s teacher wasn’t very bothered about services, and he ended up learning most of the forms from Greg at Tassajara when he would come and stay in the summers. Personally, much as I can be a total geek about that kind of stuff (read this post if you need proof of that), I think the Dogen stuff is more important than the ceremonial stuff, and the difficult conversations are really where it is at – though having a good grip of Dogen can be very important in being able to listen to people without judging them. And if the reason for that isn’t clear, you can search through some of the many Dogen posts over the last four plus years (not to mention all the wonderful teachers who offer commentary on him) to find answers to that.

Reb Anderson

‘As we continue on the path, we will awaken to the reality that our entire life and practice is not something that we do alone. We understand that our practice is a gift to us from all beings and a gift that we give to all beings. This is the ultimate truth of our life. Perfect wisdom is the thorough understanding of this generosity – a state wherein we meet the Buddha teaching the dharma face-to-face. (Entering The Mind Of Buddha)

If you are wondering how practice is a gift from all beings, I remembered, as I typed out this paragraph, a talk from my earlies days at Zen Center. A student of Reb’s who was receiving dharma transmission said that he had asked her what she thought about the ancestors (those who have transmitted the teachings). She confessed that she hadn’t thought so much about them.

One of the ceremonies leading up to transmission is reciting the names of all the ancestors in the lineage daily, and bowing to them. I always loved reciting the list at services – we do all ninety-odd names of the male lineage daily at Tassajara (without the prostration for each one, though the doshi, representing the assembly, bows a number of times) and I made an effort to memorise the whole list as soon as I could.

And as the names become familiar, you start to wonder about their stories, what prompted them to seek the practice, to teach, and to ordain their students, and you realise what a huge task the transmission of the teachings has been over the past twenty-five hundred years. Of course we are grateful for this gift, that this wisdom has made it (intact, I trust) all the way to us, across the centuries and many cultures, and the least we can do is to ensure that it thrives and that the transmission continues.