Mountains and Waters Sutras

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.

Oyster Point on my Saturday bike ride. It started raining an hour or so after that.
On top of Grand View, catching a glimpse of the Sutro Tower during Sunday’s roam.
Looking back at the city from San Bruno Mountain on Monday morning.
The coast line near Bodega Bay on Tuesday.
Pelicans at the mouth of the Russian River at Jenner.
The couple and the photographer making the most of the golden hour.
Looking back towards the coast from the road inland.
The moon was clear and orange, and beyond the limitations of the phone camera.
Some of the hikers looking towards the airport from San Bruno Mountain.
The light approaching Alameda on the Thursday ferry.
Just a few moments later.
The foggy side of Mount Sutro on Friday.

Stretching Into Summer

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.

I also attended an outdoor in-person gathering last Friday afternoon, taking the ferry across the bay on a warm afternoon.
Photos of the bride and groom after the ceremony on Saturday afternoon.
On Sunday morning, after dropping off the rental car, I rode around the Bay Trail by Oyster Point.
And then rode over the hills to the ocean side, which was just as warm, but under a dense fog layer.
On a warm mid-afternoon ride on Wednesday, I had an unexpected view of Glen Canyon, where we will roam on Saturday.
A halo around the sun at Fox Plaza, a little later

The Best Of Times

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.

Some of the varied places I rode to over the weekend: crossing the 92 by the reservoirs.
Venturing down a bit of dirt towards San Juan Canyon.
San Bruno Mountain looms in the distance – you might just be able to make out the Sutro tower as well.
The last few miles across the Excelsior district with clearer views of downtown.
Heading towards the Bay Trail out of the city.
At Sierra Point looking north, with many container ships moored in the bay.
I saw some of the old buildings at Oyster Point had been demolished, in addition to these new constructions.
I discovered that the path marked on the map did indeed pass underneath Highway 1 in Pacifica.
Looking across to San Bruno Mountain from the top of the hill by Skyline.
I had never checked out the view from that subdivision, north towards Mount Tam, with waves breaking at Fort Funston and Ocean Beach.
One of the hawks I saw on Sunday, keeping watch over Great Highway.
The sand had encroached across two lanes.

Nyogen Senzaki

‘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.

Zenkei Blanche Hartman

‘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)

The Great Matter

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.

Waiting for the guests to arrive for the wedding at the Botanical Garden last Sunday
In line for my vaccine appointment. The drop-in line was much longer, and many people were turned away from that one.

Back In The Dharma Seat

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 current iteration of the dharma seat

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