‘It’s an idea of the mind to believe that the ego can escape itself and project itself into the fundamental universe.’
I was chatting with my dharma sister Kim about her recent visit to sit sesshin at Tassajara, and in the course of the conversation, pulled out the notebook I had when I was shuso there, nine years ago now. It is full of quotes that resonated for me, observations, notes for the dharma talks I gave, and sketches of the encouraging words I was asked to provide for the evenings of sesshin. This is from the first category, and there may be a few more snippets appearing here soon.
I am writing this on the first evening after the clocks went back. I was, as always, glad that it was light early, and was out on my bike before the sun came up – it was the chilliest morning of the season so far, but clear blue skies and warming sun. Which of course went down too soon for my liking.
Weddings seem to come along like buses for me at the moment – after two in three days in August, I had two on consecutive days, Friday and Saturday. Both were by the water: the first was on Baker Beach, just as the highest tide of the month was bringing big waves crashing down over most of the beach; we had a dry spot to conduct the ceremony, which was lovely. The next afternoon I was the other side of the bridge at Crissy Field, by the cypresses (I am very fond of both locations), where the wind felt a little fresh; everything went very smoothly.
Before that, I was able to help my dharma sister Kim with a priest ordination that brought her into the Soto Shu, the Japanese establishment of our lineage. I went round on Monday evening to shave her head, leaving behind the shura for the ordaining priest to remove as part of the ceremony, and the next morning, I went to the Buddha Hall for the ordination itself. It is the first time I have been inside Zen Center in twenty months – and I didn’t get any further in.
It has been nice to be out and about in my robes again, and remembering that part of my practice, even as I offer teachings in many less formal circumstances.
In other news, after the release of the Suzuki Roshi archive, I am very proud to be co-leading a class at Zen Center with Abbot Ed, on four Saturday mornings in January. We will be listening to the newly rediscovered talks to the Los Altos group, and having a chance to discuss them. I hope you will be interested to join.
When I lived at Zen Center, I would eat lunch out in the courtyard every day it felt feasible to do so. Over the course of the year, you could observe the shadow cast by the roof advance and retreat, roughly from the middle of the courtyard at the height of summer, to almost the top of the dining room windows in the winter. At this time of year, around the autumn equinox, it felt like the shadow moved faster.
Talking to people in different locations, as I do on some of my meditations, I hear – and encourage – an awareness of the light starting to draw in; the body notices, and responds to this natural cycle, even if we are not consciously paying attention.
In San Francisco, we have nevertheless been edging, a little uncertainly, towards the second half of our summer, which can often be the finest time of year. In the past week we have had another smattering of early rain, some interludes of fog, and also some warm sunny days. During this time I have been in and around mountains and water more than I might usually manage.
I got a little wet riding on Saturday morning; I went out that day partly as the forecast had rain arriving early on Sunday. I was also not wanting to be too tired for the roam on Sunday afternoon, where we climbed into the fog on Golden Gate Heights, the now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t Sutro Tower offering lessons in impermanence (I don’t think the Heights qualify as mountains, but they are a substantial climb, with wonderful views when you get them).
On Monday, it was clear and sunny, and I started the day riding my bike to the top of San Bruno Mountain. I was actually on a quest to check out some trails in Brisbane, but the day was so nice I could not resist a little detour. Our lunchtime sitting was definitely better in the shade.
The following day I rented a car and drove up the coast, from Point Reyes to Sea Ranch – the first few miles were familiar from many bike rides, and then I was on roads I have only driven once, a few years ago now, on a short holiday from Zen Center. It was warm and bright, and Sea Ranch itself, the setting for an end-of-afternoon wedding I was officiating, looked amazing. I got to linger by the ocean a few times on the way up, and then hang out with a family of deer and a hummingbird before the couple showed up.
After the ceremony itself, I left just as the sun was setting into the ocean, and opted for the direct route inland to the 101, which was a narrow, crazily winding, and almost entirely deserted road, the light fading all the while. As I crested one ridge, I could see the last rich colours of twilight behind me. At the next, a gorgeous orange moon – one day past full – in front. I was extremely tired from all the driving, but also energised by the beauty.
On Wednesday afternoon, having dropped off the rental car and lead a couple of teaching sessions, I returned on my bike to Brisbane, where my student’s company was having an off-site day. The location was high on the hillside already. I wasn’t sure how much the group would be up for in terms of hiking, but the majority were keen to try taking the fire road that run almost straight up to the ridge line of San Bruno Mountain. I had seen that from afar, and had plans for less challenging hikes as well. It was quite a workout, and hot with it, with new-to-me views over the airport (since we were a couple of miles closer than where the road takes you to the summit). The way down required complete attention, also steep and straight down on loose rocks and dirt. It seemed that everyone managed to clear their heads from the day of strategising.
I was quite exhausted by all of that, and some unpleasant near-misses with cars while riding this week, but on Friday afternoon I had some time to ride to the foot of Mount Sutro and hike up some of the trails ahead of next weekend’s roam. I haven’t been around there in at least a year, and much work has been done – and a couple of my favourite little trails are currently closed off. The east side was nice and sunny, but the west-facing slopes were catching the fog. I am looking forward to circumambulating the mountain.
Somehow, almost imperceptibly, we have arrived at mid-summer, with the temperature having crept up a few degrees over the past week. The humidity did as well, but right now we are in the middle of a San Francisco-style heatwave (perhaps the third such week this year), and we can enjoy early morning and late evening sun in our north-facing bedroom, with all the windows wide open.
It was, naturally, much warmer when I drove down the Peninsula to officiate a wedding in Los Altos on Saturday. I was wearing my robes, and was glad the ceremony was in the late afternoon, and the open air location was shaded. This was the biggest wedding I have done in at least a year and a half, and the first time I have stayed for dinner since that time. I left before the dancing, and drove back with the sun setting behind the fog bank west of the 280.
Officially California has re-opened, though I will still be wearing masks indoors for the foreseeable future. I did feel emboldened enough to schedule a roam, for this Saturday. There seems to be some pent-up demand in the Meetup group, which has grown significantly in size since lockdown started, and now I have a waitlist, with several of the people on it having also snagged places on the next roam. I was also asked if I would lead a roam for Zen Center as part of the delayed Zen-a-thon, and last I heard, that had reached a number that I would consider full capacity.
And then things start to happen with the re-opening as well: one evening this week, almost at monk’s bedtime, I had a text from a friend I have more or less fallen out of touch with over the course of the pandemic, suggesting we should meet up soon; close on the heels of that, a text from Nancy the tanto inviting me to give the talk at Zen Center next Wednesday. My dance card is definitely filling up.
As someone who still usually wakes up at monk-o-clock, I appreciate how early it gets light at this time of year. At the same time, we have entered a spell of warm weather, so I don’t have to bundle up as soon as I get out of bed; I can feel how my body relaxes with this, and with walking in the sun. And as the sun rises and sets further to the north, we can enjoy early and late sun slanting in through the window of our north-facing bedroom.
After a couple of weeks with minimal riding due to myself and my partner getting our vaccines, I was ready to put in some hours on the bike this past weekend, and was rewarded with perfect conditions: endless blue skies, and, on Saturday at least, not a breath of wind. Both days I left the house before 7:00am, which meant I could enjoy the roads with fewer people out. On Saturday I took the Crystal Springs trail for the first time in months, being a little more relaxed than last time about the number of people not wearing masks. On Sunday I was out along the Bay Trail, doing my own version of Bay to Breakers, crossing from adjacent to the airport, over the crest at Skyline, towards Pacifica before turning north to Ocean Beach. On the roads and trails over the weekend I saw more wildlowers, columbines and white lupins particularly, as well as quail and hawks, even a lone Stellar’s jay in Golden Gate Park, which almost made me nostalgic for their hegemony over Tassajara.
It is the anniversary of my arrival in San Francisco; I always like to note it, last year especially so, as it marked twenty years of living here. For all that the pandemic lingers and threatens never to disappear entirely, I feel content about my life, and happy that I get to be sharing the teachings so often.
This week only, I am making a couple of extra appearances on Within: in addition to my ‘Just Sitting’ class this evening at 6:00, I am subbing the Saturday morning class, at 8:30, which will be more traditional mindfulness than my regular class; then on Sunday I am offering an hour-long presentation and discussion, as part of the series How Mindfulness Can Change Your Life. Organising what I am going to say for that is also offering many opportunities for reflection.
‘I am now sowing some inconspicuous Dharma seeds, and I will likewise end my life in this country inconspicuously. But I am convinced that fifty years from now, the seeds I have sown will sprout, and true Buddhadharma will shine in America. I have made many sacrifices, but I am following my teacher Soyen Shaku’s will, and this is my main purpose for my coming to America.
I am now fifty-two years old. My hair has turned white; perhaps you would not recognize me. Essentially what I am doing is tsuyubarai: cultivating the soil so that the Buddhadharma may successfully be transplanted to America.’ (Eloquent Silence)
As context, this is from a letter written by Senzaki to a friend in 1928. Fifty years later, there were zen temples established across the west. I have been thinking of Senzaki a lot recently, of how Soyen Shaku abruptly left him in San Francisco and told him not to say a word about Buddhism for fifteen years. Perhaps eventually I will have something to say as well.
‘I understand the precepts not as rules to follow, but more as, “Be very careful in this area of human life because there’s a lot of suffering there, so pay attention to what you’re doing.” Like a sign on a frozen pond that says, “Danger, thin ice,” rather than, “Shame on you!” Our vow is to help people end suffering, not to add to their suffering.’ (The Hidden Lamp)
To say last week was quite a week would be the kind of English understatement that I am quite comfortable making.
Chronologically speaking, it went like this:
On Sunday afternoon I officiated my first wedding of the year, a small and lovely affair at the San Francisco Botanical Garden. It was a bright afternoon with a chilly breeze. In addition to the fifteen or so people in attendance, family members of the bride were watching on a video link from Colombia. As always, it was an honour to be able to facilitate this milestone moment in people’s lives.
Early on Monday morning I had the first of four extra corporate meditations for the week. I came out of that to a message from my sister to call her. I knew what was coming: my father had died, four and a half years after first developing Motor Neurone Disease (aka Lou Gehrig’s disease/ALS). He had a bout of pneumonia a couple of weeks ago; after some days in the hospital he came home, and had a peaceful last few days. We sent messages over the weekend which he was able to hear and enjoy. There will be no funeral, but it would be hard to contemplate trying to travel to England if there were.
On Saturday morning, I lined up outside SF General to get the first shot of the Pfizer vaccine. It took a couple of hours from arriving to leaving, and while I was waiting, a TV crew asked why I was getting it (‘to feel safe’ I found myself saying) and whether it was worth waiting in line (‘absolutely!’) Even though it was a sunny weekend, I stayed off my bike, and have felt very tired for the past few days.
This week is relatively quiet, and then next week I have more extra meditations. At some stage, all of this will sink in; I do not expect the emotions to arrive in a tidy or linear way, but I trust there will be space for that to happen.
Today I will be joining the Hebden Bridge sangha for a sit, well-being ceremony, dharma talk and discussion – the same as we were doing for a few months last year. I imagine it will be a time of reflecting back over the past year, and sharing how we all feel now. For want of a theme, on the basis of teaching from what is most alive for you (which was standard advice at Zen Center) I thought of the line from Kodo Sawaki that I posted a few days ago.
You can join if the time works for you – zazen is at 12:30 PST (or whatever it is called in summertime, since the clocks have gone forward here, but not there – and typing that out reminded me that I would have logged on an hour early if I hadn’t thought about it), and the talk will be around 1:10. Zoom link is here.
‘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.