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.

A Day In The Life

September started off on the right foot in San Francisco, with a warm and sunny holiday weekend. I had a great time leading the roam on Saturday, with the fog mostly holding off, and then had two bike rides, on Sunday and Monday morning, to continue the outdoor theme, which felt very beneficial.

The general good feeling about the short week was my inspiration for the teaching sessions I held today: what part of us knows that a holiday Monday feels like Sunday, and the Tuesday feels like Monday? What assumptions are we making, and are they mental or physical? Although it might have felt like a Tuesday, I was definitely doing Wednesday things, in an enjoyable combination, as follows.

I woke up, as I often do, well before it got light, but I felt rested enough to get up and have some coffee and read the morning stories as is my habit now. That way, I had plenty of time to get ready for the first teaching session of the day, a short one with a group I very much appreciate. I had my laundry in the machine before I sat down (out of consideration for the other people in the building, I wouldn’t attempt to do laundry any earlier than 8:00), and since the sun was out, I attempted to dry everything out on the deck, which has proved sadly impossible on the foggier days we have been having (I resent having to use a dryer, and to use so much energy when it can be done by the sun).

Once that was done I rode down to Rainbow to restock the kitchen, and came back – slightly uphill all the way – with a fairly heavy pack (the nearest Trader Joe’s is about the same distance, but uphill on the way out, and downhill with the full load, so I am alternating).

Then it was time to have elevenses – coffee and toast – and do some work on the Suzuki Roshi archive. This is going to be publicly launched soon, and I am trying to make sure that all the elements are organised as best they can be.

I ate lunch before my Within class, as I usually do for lunchtime engagements: I would rather be sitting on a full stomach than an empty one (even though traditionally you don’t eat right before sitting, so I try to be able to digest for half an hour or so). The half-hour sit was a somewhat typical progression from having many thoughts to feeling quite sleepy.

It was a beautiful afternoon for a short ride, and I took myself up to Golden Gate Heights, to refamiliarise myself with some of the roads I will be using for the next roam. I discovered that one of my favourite stretches of off-road roaming, the steep dune of Hawk Hill, was all cordoned off, so I shall have to plan a slightly different route.

After showering and shaving my head, and some tea and toast, I walked the few blocks down to the Castro farmers’ market. This was the one I used to go to before moving a year ago. It was nice to be remembered by some of the vendors when I started going back, and I have met people I know through Zen Center the last few weeks down there. My dinner was a bagel and avocado, and various pieces of fruit, all bought from the market.

And then I had time to watch England’s tough World Cup qualifier against Poland before dharma sister Kim came over to sit and listen to a couple of short pieces of Suzuki Roshi’s instructions from an early sesshin. This is something we have started doing since I moved closer to where she lives: zazen, listening to Suzuki Roshi, and then discussing what he said, followed by a glass of wine and a good old natter. A lovely end to a very agreeable day.

The start of the trail to Lobos Creek, from the roam on Saturday
Morning mist on Skyline, Sunday morning.
I love getting out at first light, especially when the sunrise is as spectacular as the one on Labor Day.

A Chiden Drawer

Moving is a pretty exhausting business. The movers came on Friday, and were skilful enough to pull in right after the street cleaner had driven through. The whole process took about the same amount of time as a year ago, although at least this time we were not in the middle of a heatwave. I still have some cleaning to do at the old place – most of which seemed prudent to leave until it was empty – and some finishing up to do here.

Apart from the quiet, and the small deck at the back, one of the main features of the new place is two lovely built-in cupboards. Since I have a couple of other storage spots, I have been working out how to make best use of them. The kitchen one obviously has plates and glasses in the upper half, as well as all my old photo albums along the top shelf (and negatives and discs full of photos in one of the deep drawers), and the open shelf is becoming what I call the whimsical altar, full of mementoes, rocks, sticks, and other things that I often have had on display in the past. In the main room, the built-in struck me right away as the best backdrop for the regular Zoom teachings (though I have not done one yet, and the internet is way slower than the smooth fibre optic connection we were just enjoying). The open shelf will be a more formal altar, and I realised it would be lovely to have a drawer for all the incense (not actually allowed per the lease, but I still have supplies of it for weddings and such), extra candles, matches, and the many altar style cloths I have accumulated. It takes me right back to the days of chidening, taking care of the altars, which was one of my very first temple jobs at Zen Center.

It feels very quiet and dull without my beloved, and it is, I realised, the first time I have lived on my own since I left London at the turn of the millennium. I remember how to do it, of course, and that it is really not my favourite thing. Luckily I made some mildly social plans over the weekend, taking photographs for the Bicycle Coalition at a bike donation event for kids on Saturday morning; the kids were adorable of course, and their enthusiasm showed even with masks on. My ride on Sunday was punctuated by stretches chatting to other riders who were heading in the same direction as me, and ended at the Great Highway, where there was a rally to keep it in its pandemic car-free state permanently, the mayor having suddenly decided to open it during the week, and where it was nice to see some familiar faces from the bike world.

This girl typified the yound riders enjoying new bikes and trying out their skills.
A diverse crowd out to support a car-free Great Highway.
The books are not really sorted, and the altar not set up, but hopefully soon it will look ship-shape.

Blue Skies

Like a switch being flipped, the fog burned off on Thursday, and the skies cleared. Friday was warm and windless. Since it was the only morning this week I had free to ride, I was happy to get up San Bruno Mountain. On the way up, I discovered, as I used to on my pilgrimages to Mount Diablo, that I crossed a temperature layer. It was much warmer closer to the summit, just as, the last time I was there, the fog got denser and the wind stronger. I am not sure exactly what altitude it was, but it was abundantly evident on the way down again as well, as I felt the air get several degrees cooler.

I am busy trying to arrange my next housing situation at the moment, and it has taken a lot of energy this week. I have now seen two places that I like, so I hope that I can land in one of them. Every time I am asked for pay stubs, I wonder, which job? I have three places that pay me regularly, and four or five that I invoice, as well as jobs that I get paid for directly. While I feel pretty flush at the moment, I don’t know how that holds up to the gimlet eye of the San Francisco housing market. And, this time around, I am not ready to leave the city. Not when I have just got the roams going in person again, even if just about everything else is remote. Speaking of which, if you read this early enough on Saturday, you can join me as I offer zazen instruction via the SFZC online zendo at 8:10 local time.

Taking the ferry on a gloomy Thursday morning, when I was starting to feel that I had had enough of the fog.
Brighter on Thursday afternoon on the way back.
Clear skies from the top of San Bruno Mountain on Friday morning.

Soft Attention

Someone who has been attending perhaps my favourite ongoing corporate meditation group forwarded me an article the other day that sent me on a little adventure reading about ‘soft fascination.’ When I discussed the notion with a couple of people who came on last Saturday’s roam, their response was pretty much, well, we know that.

The basic idea is that we can feel good in the kind of environment that doesn’t require constant vigilance and evaluation, but is familiar and enjoyable; where the mind can take in what surrounds it in a way that recharges rather than depletes. In other words, nature fits the bill. As does meditation. So unsurprisingly, experienced participants in Roaming Zen don’t feel they need a particular terminology, but know they enjoy the experience.

And, I also know that for the dubious, and the sceptical, and those who set store by data and science, anything they can put a name to helps them along the way. I also think it is what Suzuki Roshi was pointing to in the post from Saturday. To stretch it a little, though it made perfect sense to me while I was riding my bike on Sunday morning, it is just as Dogen reminds us: ‘although actualised immediately, the inconceivable may not be distinctly apparent.’

One of the places we got to practise some soft attention on the roam – Marshall’s Beach.
We also sat at the National Cemetery overlook.
The Bay Trail provides regular opportunities for soft attention – wherever I can ride without cars, I feel more able to relax and enjoy the scenery.

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 Nature Of Wind

I feel a little self-conscious that when I write about my current life, the weather figures prominently in the story; then I think of Linda Ruth, and how she started almost every talk she gave during practice periods at Tassajara (I did three which she led) with some comments about the weather, as a way of grounding whatever followed in the reality that we were dealing with – and at Tassajara, the weather was always very prominent, and we spent a fair amount of time outside.

So anyway, after the last post, the fog came back with avengeance (if you read my stuff on Patreon you will have already seen the pictures); I read that it has been the coldest April and May round these parts for decades (unfortunately it has been a long way from being the wettest, so now we have drought to face again). This all feels part of the way the weather has been tilted off axis through the course of my life.

What blew away the fog and brought some clear, if not especially warm, weather, were some mighty winds, loud enough to rattle the chimneys on our roof. These at least allowed me to pull out the old analogy of the oak and the willow when I was teaching meditation last week, encouraging flexibility from our strong roots on the cushion (though I am aware that very few, if any, of the people I am leading in the sittings are going to be on a cushion).

After which, rather embarrassingly, I felt like I had run out of things to say about meditation. I had a recording due, and couldn’t think of what I wanted to talk about. The live sessions are easier, because there is always somewhere to start, depending on the mood of the participants – including myself – but I have the notion that an enduring recording should have more heft. In the end I talked about basic awareness practices.

Of course, the nature of wind is that things change, and I am sure I will come up with some resonant phrases again soon.

One way I have noticed change in myself recently is, now that I am fully vaccinated, and with the sudden shift in CDC guidelines, I am considerably less agitated to see people walking around without masks; out on my bike, I have stopped riding with a bandana around my neck, ready to pull up, and instead have a mask in a pocket, ready to pull out if needed. It has taken a few weeks of adjustment, but now it feels almost normal.

Another, more banal change is that the regular football season has finished in England. There are still a couple of European club finals and the European nations tournament to come in the next few weeks, but I know I will suddenly have quite a few more hours in the week – especially weekends – without matches to get absorbed in. I may even manage to finish a book. I picked up a new book by Shodo Harada on the Platform Sutra from the Zen Center bookstore on Friday, and I am excited to dig into it.

And to wrap up, here are some photos from the last couple of weeks:

A somewhat typical view of the fog as it wraps around Twin Peaks and heads dowtown
Also somewhat typical, deep in the fog on top of San Bruno Mountain
High winds, and entropy, reduce two lanes of the Great Highway to an extension of the dunes
On Saturday morning, I did some exploring in Pacifica in the sun.
Two views of Oyster Point from consecutive weekends
This past weekend was a little more spectacular
I was out early enough on Sunday that for the first time I tried taking the road that runs into the belly of SFO – it has a bike lane the whole way, and was bascially deserted
Just south of the airport, on the Bay Trail, the tranquility belied by the loudness of the plane taking off
In other realms, it was a joy to be volunteering for the Bicycle Coalition again, as things get back to normal. Here we are engaging with a family of cyclists on Market St on Friday morning, with Bike to Work Day rebranded as Bike To Wherever Day

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.

A Second Blossoming

A typhoon came across the Pacific in our direction last week. We had some grey and drab days, and on Sunday, a smattering of rain – though not as much as forecast, and not enough to ease the impending drought. I remember how last year it rained into May, adding an extra sense of weight to the early weeks of lockdown. Then the sun came out and we had some bright warm days. It was the time of the pink supermoon, which rose above the clouds in the evening, and shone bright in the early morning sky.

On a free morning I rode up to Sweeney Ridge, and enjoyed seeing the many currently blooming wildflowers along the narrow road: paintbrush, ceanothus, irises, penstemon and lupins. It was also bunny season, and I must have seen twenty scurrying for cover as I approached their little corner of the world. I realised how much I have missed getting my doses of wildflowers at Wilbur and Tassajara these past two springs.

Typically, of course, when I went out on my bike again, yesterday, climbing San Bruno Mountain, I arrived at the fog line, with a chilly wind blowing the fog across the road, for all that it had been sunny when I set out. I wanted to get some riding in before the weekend as today I will be heading over to SF General for my second vaccine, and thought it best to have a restful weekend, as I did after my first shot, especially having heard stories from a number of friends of the after-effects of their vaccinations.

As I have written on Patreon, I am teaching more meditation at the moment than I have probably at any time before, mostly to corporate groups across different time zones. The work makes me happy, and I hope that some people find a spark of inspiration to continue practising, but we can never really know the impact of what we do. I will keep plugging away at it, and I do look forward to sitting in the same room as people one of these days. Hope seems close at hand, but not so close or clear that we can rely on it yet.

The skies clearing over San Andreas Lake on my way down from Sweeney Ridge
A clear view of Mount Tam from Great Highway
And from the ferry ride home on Thursday evening, with Angel Island to the right
Poppies furled up above Guadeloupe Canyon Road as I descended from San Bruno Mountain

Such A Time

This is the last week before the clocks go forward here. It’s the time of year when robins sing before light, cheerfully heralding the day, as I used to hear them do during morning meditation at Zen Center.

Recently the light has been clear, and then soft; the other evening a short squall of rain lashed the windows on all sides of our flat, and sent the blossoms to the ground around the neighbourhood. I remember how much rain we had after lockdown started last year, and I hope for a similar amount this year so that we do not suffer from drought.

Out on my bike last Sunday, I took to the bay trail, without having intended to beforehand, as I felt it would be good for my spirit to be beside the water. I passed the ceanothus bushes on a short stretch of trail that follows a creek – sandwiched between the airport parking lots and the various freeways. My first view of these bushes was on one of my earliest lockdown rides – and they symbolise that time for me in the same way that Sweeney Ridge does (along with the associated revelation that the presence of the ridge, and the protection it offered the stretch bay to the east from the fog made the decision to expand the old airstrip into the principal airport an inspired one). 

I don’t know that there is much to say about the pandemic these days. I hope to be vaccinated in due course (and hope that the rollout of the vaccine becomes more efficient than it has hitherto), and I hope that I will be able to travel to see my declining parents before the end of the year. In the meantime, I don’t plan on doing any indoor dining or going to the cinema, and as I walk around, I am glad, still, to be in a place where people widely demonstrate their compassion and kindness by wearing masks.

Ceanothus starting to flower underneath the 380 beside the airport.