Incrementally

I was only gone for a couple of weeks, but I noticed changes when I got back. The big buckeye in my yard had burst into flower, and most of the flowers were already shedding on the deck. The morning sun arrives in different places in my kitchen, and in the middle of the day, the sun seems higher in the sky than when I last noticed it. The sun feels warm, but there has been a constant and cool wind that have kept the temperatures much lower than I was expecting. The moon is filling, and I am planning to walk up the hill to see the moonrise and eclipse on Sunday evening. 

As sometimes happens, it took me a couple of days to fully unpack my bags and put things away. I felt a lack of motivation as I got back to city speed, and on several consecutive days I slept until it was already light – though of course that is earlier than it was a fortnight ago. After a mostly quiet weekend, sitting on the Embarcadero was a pleasure, and later in the afternoon, the debut of the Dogen study group was very energising. Many of the participants were familiar faces, and the conversation and questions were lively. I am looking forward to this continuing to unfold.

After the weeks away from my bike, I have been taking it gently, but have had some lovely outings already. Apart from taking a trip on Saturday to see the mayor signing the legislation to make JFK permanently car-free, I went out early on Wednesday morning to stretch my legs. I had an idea to go to Fort Point, and then took a little detour to check out the new Battery Bluffs open space in the Presidio, discovering that it included a beautifully smooth bike trail. I will be adding this to my repertoire of low-stress routes, as well as taking a roam through there in the coming weeks.

Rev David Myles films the mayor in Golden Gate Park – this is the San Francisco I love, twenty-two years after arriving..
My first time seeing the buckeye in flower
The new bike trail in the Presidio
The Upper Great Highway was naturally car-free over the weekend.

bell hooks

‘A form of wisdom that I strive for is the ability to know what is needed at a given moment in time. When do I need to reside in that location of stillness and contemplation, and when do I need to get up off my ass and do whatever is needed to be done in terms of physical work, or engagement with others, or confrontation with others? I’m not interested in ranking one type of action over the other.’ (from Tricycle Magazine).

The very essence of skilful means. When we read this passage in my student group, the last line caused much reflection,

Issho Fujita

‘The whole of zazen is far vaster and deeper than perception. For example, “the flowing movement of fluid in the cerebrospinal cord system” that I mentioned in an earlier article, in itself is not directly an object of perception. It is only something indirectly perceived by passing through the minute movements of each part of the body. This cerebrospinal cord fluid completely unperceived by the human consciousness continues to flow as long as a person is living and makes possible the biological function we call perception. In the condition we call “zazen,” there is a tendency to shift the center of balance towards paying attention only to what we are able to perceive. However, in the same way as the flowing movement of cerebrospinal fluid, the world [that supports perception and certainly exists even though by means of perception it can never be caught objectively] spreads infinitely, outside (behind?) perception. Not to think about this would be as foolish the Japanese proverb of “trying to see the ceiling through a hollow reed.”’ (Polishing A Tile)

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.

Suzuki Roshi

‘If you want to study Buddhism, you should, you know, enter the room. You should not stay at the edge of the teaching. Even though you enter our room, you will not have any restriction, you know. You are quite free. So—but you should enter our teaching. It means not to be—not—don’t try to understand it just intellectually or by means of experience only. Experience, of course, [is] important, but the more important thing is—is confidence to believe in yourself.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi archives)

Lew Richmond

‘Suzuki-roshi loved certain ungrammatical expressions in English. He had certain phrases, one of which was, “Looks like good.” “Looks like good” is a genuine koan. It’s something you can’t quite get your head around. When I was doing dharma transmission, there were various people here who were assigned to help me, and there were things they were supposed to do-put down mats, light candles, and stuff. They didn’t do it quite the way it was supposed to be- maybe forgot the candle, or the incense wasn’t lit, or something-so maybe it didn’t look so good in acertain way, if you think that good means somehow doing it a certain way. But in reality it was very good. It was wonderful because they were so sincere and helpful. Their so-called “mistakes” weren’t mistakes at all. Just the way it went as we expressed our sincerity together. There’s a very strong temptation in Buddhist practice to fall into “looks like good.” You want your outward appearance to be amenable to people. You want to be well regarded. You want to be liked. You don’t want to make a mistake. That’s OK for a while, but there’s a certain point at which “looks like good” can’t be sustained and something else takes its place.’ (from Wind Bell)

This rang very true for me, and it probably does for anyone who has done residential or monastic practice for a sustained period of time. I mainly think back to my time as ino at City Center, where my idealistic fantasies about everyone doing everything perfectly softened up to meet the reality of everyday practice. As epitomised in this post (worth reading the comments too).

Dale S. Wright

‘Since no single philosophy, religion, or culture has a monopoly on wisdom and truth, it will be incumbent on all participants to join together… Pooling the world’s cultural resources and wisdom and working through them towards higher ideals, we commit ourselves to the practice of learning what we can from wherever we can – globally – and putting this learning to use on behalf of everyone. The renewed, regenerated ideals that would arise from this effort and become obvious to new generations born onto this planet will each embody in some way this profound sense of world unity.

Success in this global venture is far from inevitable, however. Our human historical record is uneven at best. Indeed, success in this effort will call on us to practice generosity, morality, tolerance, energy, mindfulness, and wisdom beyond the extent ever demonstrated in any previous culture. It will call on top rise to levels of maturity and wisdom previously imagined but never actualized in practice. But since pulling back to conserve the past or the present is clearly the path of global failure, we must accept the challenge of change and rise to this occasion by taking responsibility for the emergence of ethical ideals suitable for our unprecedented moment in history. As far as I can see, only a well-grounded, critically honed effort to renew human ideals will put us in a position to actualize the very real possibilities for global enlightenment already there, visible on our horizons.’ (The Six Perfections)

These closing paragraphs to this wonderful book are incredibly stirring, especially when read aloud, as we did recently in my student group. At the same time, as he acknowledges, and we acknowledged, and as I discussed with another student recently, human beings have a pretty poor track record in terms of wisdom, perhaps excelling only at short-termism and unintended consequences. Nevertheless, as I like to reiterate, it is only a hundred or so years since the West was really exposed to Buddhism and its way of thinking, so there is a chance that good things will happen as it starts to spread more widely. That remains one of my sole remaining points of optimism these days.

Rempo Niwa

‘In Shakyamuni’s Teachings there is found the words “Turning the self, Turning the Dharma.” “Turning the self” means that one’s little self turns the Dharma, and that when one’s sense of self is strong, the Dharma is weak. On the other hand, when the Dharma turns the self, then the Dharma is strong and the little self is weak. By this strength, heaven and earth become full of one or the other. By this weakness, there is not left room for even one hair. So, when the little self turns the Dharma, the self is strong and the Dharma is weak. Heaven and earth become full of small self views such that, in that instant, the world is flooded with [greed, anger, ignorance and such] evil, and even a hair’s worth of good cannot remain. But when the Dharma turns the self, and the Dharma is strong while the self is weak, then the world of “being experienced by millions of things and phenomena” is truly a pure and wonderful world that becomes true for anyone, and manifests the Way. That is how I understand. …

Through the generations from Shakyamuni Buddha to Master Bodhidharma and onward, the Ancestors have spoken of “the Samadhi of One Practice.” Through Zazen, we balance and settle the body while facing the wall, our form of sitting. When we have taken the posture of Zazen, the Dharma turns the self. Zazen is just such Practice. In actuality, with this body, when with the whole body one sits Zazen, the world instantaneously is Dharma and the self turns, and the world becomes a Great Purity whereby no difficulties remain. Because body and mind are one, when the body is made straight and true, the heart responds accordingly and becomes the straightness of Great Purity. Thus, when one person sits one minute of Zazen, the whole world changes to Great Purity.’ (On Zen Practice)