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.

Dogen

‘In the study hall, do not keep things such as bows and arrows, spears and clubs, swords, or helmets and armor. Generally do not keep any military equipment. If someone stores short swords and the like, they must be expelled from the temple right away. Implements that violate prohibitions should never be brought into the study hall.’ (Eihei Shingi)

Dogen’s Pure Standards contains quite a few giggle lines like this. It’s a salutary reminder that it’s not always impossible to get a handle on Dogen. All of which is to plug an upcoming study group I will be participating in as part of Treasure the Road, along with Catherine and Zachary. Writing this before I leave for Tassajara, we are scheduled to launch on Monday May 9th, at 4:30 west coast time. Bows and arrows are unlikely to make an appearance.

Suzuki Roshi

'Student: Docho Roshi, what am I asking you?
SR: I know what you want to ask me pretty well. But as you don't ask me now, I also don't want to answer you [laughter].
Student: But I'm not sure that I know. That's why I thought maybe you would know [laughs, laughter].
SR: I know [laughs, laughter].
Student: Will I know sometime to ask you?
SR: Yes. But not now [laughter].' (from the Suzuki Roshi Archives)

Wednesday evenings with my dharma sister Kim have resumed, now that she has completed her shuso practice period at Zen Center. Since I know she likes listening to shosan ceremonies, I chose one from Tassajara in 1969. The intimacy and playfulness is plain here.

Mountains And Waters Without End

The next wedding on my docket, after the recent pair, was one initially discussed last summer; the bride-to-be, as a graduate student, knew she wanted to get everything lined up before she got too busy. The couple had family names I recognised as having roots from different Eastern European countries that are now adjacent to the war in Ukraine, but they loved – and spent all their free time on –  the mountains and the oceans of California. The initial plan to hold the ceremony deep in the woods of King’s Mountain had to change after one of the parents became too sick to hike any distance.

Plan B was a beach wedding on Saturday afternoon. I decided it was a great opportunity to treat myself to a weekend away (having not managed to do that in almost eighteen months). I found a sweet little Airbnb cabin just off Skyline at King’s Mountain, and started thinking about fitting in rides on Friday afternoon, and Saturday and Sunday mornings.

The forecast intervened though, as rain loomed for Saturday. The couple inquired if it would be possible to have the ceremony on Friday afternoon. I had a teaching session in the morning, was due to pick up the rental car at noon, so I said sure, I could make it by three. In the end the teaching session was postponed, so I had plenty of time to get everything ready and motor down – and the Airbnb host was happy for me to arrive earlier than I was supposed to.

It was such a clear and sunny afternoon, it seemed hard to believe that rain was on the horizon. Conditions on the beach could not have been better, and we had a very sweet ceremony featuring some very expansive vows, with just immediate family present.

After I had driven back up into the hills, I wasted no time in getting out on my bike to make the most of the good weather, even though I was starting to feel tired – I had slept badly, perhaps from a combination of the full moon and the anticipation of everything I had to get done. Luckily traffic was sparse on Skyline – I could usually hear cars coming from a long way off, and judge how fast they were travelling. There were a few people who seemed to be letting off steam after work, but nothing that especially worried me.

The cabin was just north of the intersection where the King’s Mountain Road crosses Skyline to become the Tunitas Creek road, so I was on fairly familiar territory from rides I took years ago. I rode down (or rather up and down – Skyline is always hard work – the flats seem like uphills, and the uphills, which don’t seem to be much, have me reaching for the lowest gear; it’s only when you start heading down that you realise what a slope there is), and turned west on the 84. Stretches of road and details were still clear in my mind, and I remember how fast I used to take the descent, when I was younger and a little more reckless, but I also remember how cold it would be going down into the hollows early in the morning. As I turned back up the peaceful narrow and winding Old La Honda Road, lush with wild flowers, the afternoon sun was still extremely pleasant. Back up in the redwoods, it was naturally a little cooler, and the road home was just a little further than expected.

If it does rain today, I might still have a chance to get out first thing. Otherwise I will explore some of the amazing hiking trails all around me, and hope to get in a decent ride first thing on Sunday (when it will be cold) before heading back to the city for the roam.

A great location, and great afternoon, for a wedding
The photographer gets his shot
Old La Honda folds back on itself
It’s a gentle and quiet climb
… with views
This was downhill on Skyline, but it’s hard to tell sometimes.

Doubling up

Towards the end of last year, I had the opportunity to officiate weddings on consecutive days, which felt pretty awesome, especially as they were both along the water’s edge. On Tuesday I got to top that, even, with two weddings on the same day, thanks to the auspicious date (2/2/22 if you weren’t paying attention). The first couple had reached out a few months ago, and had a space booked at City Hall, where I have performed a couple of ceremonies; the other couple contacted me less than two weeks ago, and they wanted the ceremony to begin at 2:00, just to complete the numbers, down at the Palace of Fine Arts (where I have also had a couple of weddings, including my first ever more than ten years ago).

The forecast had been a bit iffy with a chance of showers – the heatwave has long since blown away, though last week was sunny – but in the end, the weather was bright and breezy. The breeze, mind you, was pretty stiff from the north, so it felt chilly. The two grooms showed up at City Hall in matching tuxes and shiny shoes, looking very dapper, and we had a lovely time up on the fourth floor. The bride of the afternoon couple kept her fuzzy coat on until the last minute and shivered through the outdoor ceremony, though her groom produced a hot water bottle for her as soon as we were done, which bodes well for the relationship, I think. I was glad for all my layers of robes for once. It really was heartwarming to be able to be present for, and participate in, such happy times.

A little less consequentially, I also doubled up on roams last week, with an extra offering on Friday to add to the previously scheduled one on Sunday. They were both in Golden Gate Park, and on a warm Wednesday morning last week I rode over there to remind myself of some of the lesser-travelled paths. It took a bit of untangling to remember what was going to go with which roam, though they took in different segments of the park. The first was from Stow Lake west, taking in the quieter Elk Glen and Metson lakes, the polo field and the anglers’ casting ponds, before returning via Spreckels Lake and the buffalo enclosure. The second was the chance to catch the magnolias in the botanical garden, which had bloomed early after all the warm dry weather we have been having, and then meandering by Stow Lake, the redwood grove, the new oak woodlands trail and the AIDS memorial grove.

As it happened, the smaller group on Friday skewed a little older, so we didn’t get as far west as I had intended, skipping the Chain of Lakes, and the Prayerbook Cross at the end. So I added the latter to the itinerary on Sunday, and managed to get everyone round that loop in good time, though I would have preferred a longer contemplative stop in the memorial grove. It was a little on the chilly side as well, with a foggy morning half-cleared by the northerly wind. In places the ground was thick with magnolia petals. You have to move fast to catch the moment.

I love the oak groves in the north-east corner of the park.
A magnolia in the park, though not in the Botanical Garden.
Not the first time I have seen a heron by Elk Glen lake.
Oaks in softer light on Sunday.
Bright morning outside City Hall on Tuesday, waiting for the grooms.
Another San Francisco marvel, albeit exposed to the wind, the Palace of Fine Arts.

Kodo Sawaki

‘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.

Two Weddings And An Ordination

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.

Shosan shaving Kim’s shura, assisted by Tim. The ceremony was also going out on Zoom, hence the earpiece.
A typically glorious sunset at this time of year, on Thursday.
The wedding party on Baker Beach heading off at the photographer’s request.
A beautiful early morning ride on Saturday – first to Ocean Beach.
Then to Twin Peaks.
The happy couple of Saturday, under the trees at Crissy Field
The skies on Saturday afternoon were still amazing.
Early morning sun and dew south of the city on Sunday.

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.