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.

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.

Suzuki Roshi

‘So, for your teacher, there is not much things to tell you, actually. As a mother tiger doesn’t has — doesn’t have so many things to teach for her children. To live with their children is how to teach [laughs]. Actually there is not much things to tell you. So with beginner’s mind, if you walk [laughs] like your teacher walks, that is the way how to study Buddhism. And for a teacher, try to be a good teacher [laughs] is how to teach Buddhism. That’s all. It is very difficult [laughs] for a teacher to be example of (for) student, and this is impossible. At least for me it is absolutely impossible [laughter]. But if I try very hard to be a good friend of you, within my ability, that is, I think — there is no other way for us to study Buddhism. So beginner’s mind is very important. Just to practice zazen as your teacher, that is the only way.

If you have some doubt on this point, you should read Shobogenzo – ninety-five volumes of Shobogenzo – over and over again [laughs]. Then you will find out how important the beginner’s mind is.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi archives)

This talk is one of the ‘lost’ talks that I helped rediscover: checking the dates on photographs of all the material; playing the tape and digitising the contents; realising that this was not a talk that had previously been catalogued or transcribed; transcribing it. This Saturday I shall be discussing it with Abbot Ed, and hopefully a large group of people as we begin the second series of our class on the archives.

Sekkei Harada

‘Master Dogen, founder of the Soto sect in Japan, said:
“It isn’t that we do zazen; zazen lets us do zazen.”
I also say this to you now, whether you are new to Zen or an old practitioner. I regularly emphasize that there can be no gap in our practice of zazen for “me” to enter. We must really be zazen itself. Consequently, if we have the idea that we should put some force or strength into the lower belly or concentrate on something, then precisely this force or effort will somewhere defile your zazen. Even the thought I’ve got to make an effort is excessive, from the standpoint of purity. Our condition right now, at this very moment, is truly transparent, clean and clear. Dirt cannot adhere to it. It cannot be tarnished.’ (Unfathomable Depths)

I am preparing these posts at the beginning of July; if all goes to plan, today I will be in Hebden Bridge offering some words about zazen as we sit for the day.

On The East Coast

The enforced slowdown caused by my damaged wrist certainly clashed with the amount of things I wanted to get done before I left on my trip. In the end, I put aside just about everything that was not essential (at least in my eyes), and thus managed to do everything that was – not least cleaning my place for the friends who would stay a few nights while I was away.

This slowness also made Manhattan an interesting first stop. I had an early start to the day, but since my whole arm was aching at night (and still is, even as I get more strength and mobility back in my hand), I was awake well before my alarm.

This first leg went very smoothly, and I arrived in a hot and humid Newark afternoon. The walk from Penn station to my hotel (chosen for its relative proximity) felt like hard work under the circumstances. I showered and went for an early dinner. Few people were sitting outside because of the temperatures, but I have decided to be incredibly cautious so that I don’t have to spend part of the trip in quarantine and have to miss a few visits. There was great people-watching from my sidewalk table. I marveled in the energy of New York, so different to San Francisco, ate well, and then decided that a walk along the riverside would be nice, not least for the breeze.

It turned out that I hit upon a glorious sunset, and having decided to walk down as far as 34th Ave, discovered it was a sunset that shone straight up the street. Crowds lingered in the crosswalks to get iconic pictures.

I was also awake extremely early the next morning, and after it got light I strolled around – the traffic was already heavy on some streets, but others were quiet. Eventually the cafes were open, and then I went back and got caught up in the Alpe d’Huez stage of the Tour de France. Which meant that I got to Penn Station to catch my train, I realised that I had left my main camera battery and charger in my hotel room – though when I called they said that nothing had been found.

So with my spare battery only, I figured I would have to be pretty judicious with how many pictures I could take over the course of the gathering – no bad thing really – until I could get back to the city and try to get a new one.

The train was packed, but I enjoyed the unfolding scenery of the Hudson Valley. I did not spot any other Gen X attendees anywhere – unlike in 2015, where a group of us had coalesced for the train to a place that I realised was not so far away, but on the other side of the river. So when I got off, seeing no friends or any assistance, I took a taxi.

The driver had never been up the drive to the Dharma Center; I was encouraged that several people waved at us as we pulled up. The scene could not have been more different to New York: a tranquil location, surrounded by people I had mostly met before, with no rush, and a sense of groundedness about everything.

We have had discussions and inquiries about how we have been practicing through the pandemic, the shifts we have noticed and where we might be heading as Buddhist teachers. The weather got a little more gentle after the day we arrived, and we have had cloudscapes, sunsets and an almost full moon. I have been woken up rolls of distant thunder and by a startlingly loud dawn chorus outside. Yesterday, eating breakfast outside, the combination of early warm sun and still cool air reminded me movingly of summer mornings in Cornwall. I feel deeply nourished.

The sunset light along 34th St
Looking back to the river.
This picture sums up New York engergy for me.
The latter part of the sunset.
A different scene at the dharma centre.
Early morning view in the other direction.
Another sunset on a warm still evening.

Gil Fronsdal

‘There’s a very wounded side of self in this culture. Even among privileged people there’s a lot of self-criticism; there’s a whole industry of self-help books that have to do with an inner critic, and all these people who feel so unsafe and who are demanding safety. There is a way of over-caring for people who are stuck in a certain mindset: rather than pulling the rug out from under them, we put bandages around them and prop them up. The self-esteem movement has turned out to be a disaster. Because people don’t have enough self-esteem, they feel they have to build up self-esteem, and this creates people who are more fragile and who feel they are deserving of being treated in certain ways. So in some Western Dharma teaching, the rhetoric seems to be supporting the existence of an unhealthy sense of self.’ (from The Dewdrop)

This is a subtle point, and something that comes up in conversation with fellow priests. Of course we want to be caring and supportive and for everyone to feel safe, heard, and met, and I do agree that there are times when pulling the rug out – which is the traditional Zen way of breaking the exoskeleton of the ego – might be the most appropriate response.

Suzuki Roshi

‘And when you sit, your practice should be done with the spirit like, if someone, you know, tell you to stand up, you shouldn’t stand up forever. Until someone, you know, say, stand up. This much confidence is necessary.

It means you sit right in the center of the earth, of the world, or universe, whatever it is. And you are right in the point of the eternal time. If you have some idea of space or time, that practice is not true practice. You should be always sitting in cross-point of time and space. That is true practice. And this is very important, because this practice of — this practice, which is beyond the idea of time and space, accord with the true teaching of Buddhism.

To live on this moment, on this point, moment after moment, is how to actualize our teaching. So when you sit in this way, there you have the true teaching of Buddhism. The gist of the teaching. The point of the teaching. Here you have the oneness of teaching and practice; and oneness of enlightenment and practice.

So, this much, at least this much, confidence is necessary. When you fix your mind, and practice our way, there you have renunciation. You have the true feeling of Zen. This practice — when you practice this — in this way, we say you resume your original face, or original nature.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi archives)

This is one of the talks I worked on a certain amount, from the first summer at Tassajara in 1967. The original reel was much better quality than previous copies had been, so it was possible to clean up the transcript a little. I listened to it again with my dharma sister Kim last week, and a couple of things struck me: the talk offers one of the most extensive zazen instructions that Suzuki Roshi gave, which is great to listen to in itself, and it is bookended by more philosophical musings which, it occurred to me as I listened, he may have been reading out from prepared remarks. Certainly there were a lot of technical terms, and his cadence is a little different to what it usually seems to be. Kim noted his referencing to time and space, similarly to how Katagiri Roshi expressed it later, and which she hopes to talk about from the dharma seat in a few weeks.

Frankly…

I had been planning to write something anodyne about the rain on Sunday and getting wetter on my bike than I had expected. Monday morning was pencilled in for cleaning the crud off my bike, but before I started, I got into an exchange with someone I know. For the sake of anonymity, I will just say that this is a person of colour relatively new to practice, but interested in going deeper. They expressed enjoying a recent ceremony, and then went on to say, 

“However, I am just sitting with this question of whether I can “practice” wholeheartedly knowing that the teachers here can’t meet me in my race… which is really the root of so much of my suffering and conditioning.”

My response, which I have amended slightly for clarity: “You should be able to include all parts of yourself in your practice. If you aren’t able to, it cannot be a fulfilling practice. If your teachers can’t mirror all parts of you back to you, I think you need new teachers, even as you can love these ones in their imperfections.”

Later in the exchange, the student said, “My comments are my perspective. I know I’m operating from a place of confusion. [One teacher] says I can’t do anything from a place of confusion. So I’m supposed to just sit and find my calm.”

“Frankly that’s bollocks,” was my initial reaction. 

As I tried to articulate why, I went on, “[Another student] was undoubtedly operating from a place of confusion and what [they] said was needed and essential. How is a POC or person used to being oppressed or targeted supposed to find any sense of calm if their perspectives are diminished or even dismissed out of hand? People’s confusion is the ground of our practice. None of us get to sit in equanimity and make serene “objective” statements about how things really are. As a quote that really resonated for me says, “neutrality is very often the favourite language of power.” You can operate from a place of confusion and understand that it is confusion and still come up with better understandings than someone who refuses to see that.”

I was reading about the ancestors this morning, and how our ceremonies cultivate gratitude to everyone who passed down the practice through many different cultures so that we can avail ourselves of it today. And, as I get to be more senior, I understand how essential it is to ensure that the teaching is not cut off, that it continues to reach down the generations. I have been listening to Suzuki Roshi emphasising this point in the first few months at Tassajara.

Fifty-five years on, there are so many more options for people wanting to study Buddhism, or even Zen, and as dharma centres we cannot be complacent in assuming that the way we have always done things will be sufficient, especially when the communities have been so homogenous and inward-looking. As a male from the dominant culture, I can’t claim to have the answers for what everybody needs, and in the past I have suggested other teachers to students of colour, teachers who might be better placed to help the student deal with such aspects of their practice. Still, I don’t think it’s okay to suggest that people, especially people from non-dominant communities, need to just stay quiet and not get to express who they are and what they need, even if they are coming from a place of confusion, and even if ultimately this practice is not for them. As a teacher, I know need to allow everyone that space, meet them where they are the best I can, and use what I hear to examine my own blind spots and shortcomings.

Dogen

‘A person’s body and mind change according to situations and time. A billion worlds can be sat through within a single sitting. Even so, at that very moment the body and mind cannot be measured by self or other. It is the power of buddha dharma. The scale of the body and mind is not five or six feet, because the five or six feet is not unchangeable.

Where the body is neither bounded nor boundless, it is not limited to this world or that world, to the entire world or the immeasurable entire world. As in an old saying, “What is it here? Describe it roughly or in detail.”

The scale of mind cannot be known by thinking and discernment, either. It cannot be known by beyond thinking and beyond discernment. The scale of body and mind is like this; so is the scale of cleansing. To take up this scale of cleansing, practicing and realizing it, is what buddhas and ancestors have cared for.

Do not make your scheming self a priority. Do not make your calculating self real. By washing and cleansing, you thoroughly take up the scale of body and mind and purify them. Even the four great elements and five skandhas, and what is indestructible [in the body and mind], can be purified by cleansing.’ (Shobogenzo Semmen)

Today sees the launch of a new study group I will be participating in as part of Treasure the Road, along with Catherine and Zachary. We will start studying Dogen by opening this fascicle, all about washing the face (or not just all about washing the face, as the above passage suggests) at 4:30 west coast time.

Mountains and Waters Sutras

‘Even if you have an eye to see mountains as grass, trees, earth, rocks, or walls, do not be confused or swayed by it; this is not complete realization. Even if there is a moment when you view mountains as the seven treasures’ splendor, this is not returning to the source. Even if you understand mountains as the realm where all buddhas practice, this understanding is not something to be attached to. Even if you have the highest understanding of mountains as all buddhas’ wondrous characteristics, the truth is not only this. These are conditioned views. This is not the understanding of buddha ancestors, but merely looking through a bamboo pipe at a corner of the sky.’ (Shobogenzo Sansuikyo)

I read this passage to the retreat group as we silently ate lunch at the Horse Pasture on the first full day of the retreat. It was an amazingly beautiful day, the wildflowers were abundant, and everyone seemed to be having a good time. And, when we got to the Narrows, one of the group, who knew Tassajara very well, slipped and broke a wrist crossing the creek. Luckily another member of the group was a nurse, so we got them strapped up and ready to walk back to Tassajara. Then we came across a rattlesnake at the side of the trail. Only the nurse got past it. I backed everyone else quite a few yards along the trail, and told her to alert the stone office about the injury. The Tassajara protocols worked fine, as did, eventually, throwing small stones in the direction of the snake to encourage it to find somewhere quieter to sun itself. The trained responder sorted out the patient, who was then driven off to hospital in Monterey by the shika.

And that was only the smallest portion of my time there. When I arrived, through clouds on the ridge, I felt the deep relief of being back. Then, on the first morning, chilly after the previous day’s rain, I strained something in my back as I bent over to pull on my boots. Some things, especially sitting down, getting up from sitting, zazen, sleeping on a thin shikibuton, twisting slightly to the left, were painful for a few days, and in the case of sitting and zazen, uncomfortable throughout my stay. Other things – hiking, working with rocks, moving dirt, doing the compost in the shed, cleaning the bathhouse, and very gently yoga poses, were fine.

I didn’t, as I wished, get to give a talk in the zendo, or even be morning doshi, even as the intricacies of service reappeared in my mind, and the chants came back to my voice after all these years. I did offer a presentation on the Beginner’s Mind talk which was well received, and boosted by Steve Weintraub offering a moving personal testimonial on Suzuki Roshi’s way.

I did five hikes in a little over a week, the Horse Pasture and the Wind Caves twice each, first to check (both were in much better shape than I anticipated, thanks to the indefatigable trail crew), and the Overlook and creekside hike on the easy day, which still offered moments of beauty and silence.

I ate a lot of delicious food. I lingered in the baths and the creek. I met up with fellow practitioners from fifteen and twenty years ago that I did not expect to see, and others from summers and work periods past that it was lovely to see again. I tried to encourage some of the newly arrived students, and petted the dogs as often as I could.

I drove a stage one day, and declined to do a town trip, but otherwise did what was asked.

I felt totally at home, and yet did not feel that I needed to move back there any time soon. And this is just the merest glimpse of what it was like. I took notes for the first couple of days, but there were too many details and memories to try to capture it all.

I took a lot of photographs with my new camera, and was glad I had decided to buy it.

Lupins on the way in.
Overlooking the Narrows from the cut-off trail.
The Wind Caves.
It was very green and bright.