Big Skies

By way of a contrast to the damp and cold weather a few weeks ago, we now have a high-pressure system anchored overhead, which has made for a succession of mild and still days, and a number of ridiculously beautiful sunsets. 

Last week I was trying to recover from all the things I did the week before, and I took the opportunity to get away from screens and out across the city to scout for the next couple of roams. I still had plenty to get done, but luckily, the long weekend allowed me a little extra space to cross more things off the to-do list. 

Our second class went as well as the first – at least for me, and according to the feedback I received. At the end I got to give what I thought of as my stump speech for jijuyu zanmai, as the talk we were listening to seemed to be a strong paraphrase of what Dogen proposed in Bendowa. When I get a chance to speak like this, I can feel the emotion coming up, the joy of practice, a strong reminder of why I am living life the way I am. It boils down to this, in my view: everything is expressing its enlightenment, so we might as well join in.

And with that, a selection of the photos I was lucky to take over the last week:

Tuesday’s sunset colours from the ferry
Just before we arrived at the Ferry building
Thursday was even better.
Friday overlooking Visitacion Valley.
Saturday at Mile Rock
Sunday sunrise from my bike – I was overdressed.
Sunday afternoon at Lake Merritt
Monday sunset with a holiday crowd at Alamo Square.
And just steps away, at the same time.


‘Descendants of buddha ancestors, do not study the Agama teachings, the teachings of Brahmans, the methods of making sacrifices, teachings about the pursuit of pleasure, or the teachings of the [extremist] opponents of pursuing pleasure. Save your head from fire, and just study the fists, eyeballs, whisks, sitting cushions, Zen sleeping boards, ancestral minds, and ancestral sayings of the buddhas and ancestors. If it is not the activity of buddha ancestors, do not practice it; if it is not the talk of buddha ancestors, do not say it. Great assembly, do you want to clearly understand the key to this?

After a pause Dogen said: [Practice with] sitting cushions, Zen boards, and Zhaozhou’s tea, not expressing evil through the whole day. The ancient buddhas have studied the true meaning. Sanavasin received transmission and wore Buddha’s monk’s robe.’ (Extensive Record, 380)

I think just not expressing evil through the whole day would be a pretty great place to start.


Setting up a lamp and holding a brush, I wish to speak my heart.
From a distance I yearn for India, and traces of the founding ancestor.
Our Buddha's transmission of the robe commenced in this cold valley,
Solitary, not only in winter at Mount Song's Shaolin temple.


‘Remain solitary without dependency and drop off all of reality. Mixed together within the ten thousand forms, be clear and apparent. Eminent and vigorous on each bit of ground, be like the moon stamped on the water, flowing but not flowing. Like the wind in the sky, move but do not move. Having become thoroughly like this, when you proceed, in mean alleys do not ride on a golden horse; when turning back, wear tattered robes.’ (Extensive Record 316)

Reading this, from Dogen’s later years (1249), I was surprised how much it read like a retread of Hongzhi (passim), though perhaps the latter would be less inclined to the humility and circumspection of the last sentence.


Yesterday was short; today is longer. 
Though without edge or corners,
[the solstice] is good to examine.
I encourage you to look closely.
Stop asking for the sun in the sky.


‘If you are resolute in your intention and are most sincere, you will vow to be more pure-hearted than the ancients and surpass even the elders in attentiveness. The appropriate manner of putting the mind of the Way to work on this is to decide that even if the old masters got three coins and made a broth of coarse greens, now with the same three coins you will make a high-quality cream soup. This is difficult to do. Why is that? The difference between the ancients and people of today is as remote as that between heaven and earth. How could we ever stand even with them? However, when we attentively undertake this job, we can definitely surpass the old masters. This principle is a certainty that you still do not yet clearly understand, only because your thinking scatters like wild birds, and your emotions scamper around like monkeys in the forest.’ (Tenzo Kyokun)

This is not one of the most famous passage from this well-known writing by Dogen for the head of the monastery kitchen, but I have always enjoyed the flow of this particular section. The last line usually gets a laugh when I teach or discuss this, and the contrast between the broth of course greens and a high-quality cream soup runs through the whole text – though of course he is not just talking about soup. As to how we can possibly surpass the ancients: while acknowledging that Dogen is now an ancient master rather than a person of today, as when he was writing for the benefit of the nascent Japanese practice community, I like to draw attention to the repetition in the passage of ‘attentiveness’ and ‘attentively’.


‘Monks in zazen do not turn their heads to look and see who is entering or leaving. When you want to go out to the washrooms, before you leave your seat, first take off the okesa and put it on the quilt. Then gassho and get down off the tan, turning clockwise to face the edge of the tan. Put your feet in your slippers as you get down. Going in or out, do not look at the backs of the people doing zazen, but just lower your head and proceed. Do not walk with long strides, but advance your body together with your feet. Look at the ground about six feet straight in front of you and take half-steps. Walking with unhurried calm is exquisite, almost like standing still. Do not slide your slippers noisily so as to rudely distract the assembly. Keep your hands together in shashu inside your sleeves. Do not droop your sleeces down alongside your legs.’ (Eihei Shingi Bendoho)

Once again, it is fun to read the details Dogen expounded for his monastic sangha. While some of the particulars pertain more to a sodo, where the monks sleep as well as sit, the overall tone is exactly what would be expected at Tassajara – though generally you would wait for a period of kinhin to leave the zendo.


‘Just let dharma be the same as food, and let food be the same as dharma. For this reason, if dharmas are the dharma nature, then food is also the dharma nature. If the dharma is suchness, food also is suchness. If the dharma is the single mind, food also is the single mind. If the dharma is bodhi, food is also bodhi.’ (Eihei Shingi, Fushukuhanpo)

I had a mind to pick up the Pure Standards again and this is the page it opened to. As with Suzuki Roshi addressing his students, I wonder if there was an agenda here. It is often said that Dogen, who was brought up around the imperial court, might have found the manners of some of his young monks somewhat lacking, so even apart from the correct notion of treating everything equally as dharma, there might have been an edge of etiquette creeping in here.


‘Naturally the wind blows and grasses sway, and seeing wind we use our sails, so how could there be anything ultimate [beyond this]? When we experience some new particular situation, naturally our affirming mind will not stagnate. This is not done by personal force, but is simply the expression of the way.
Furthermore, within Dharma joy, naturally there is vastness. At the top of a steep cliff, we can casually stroll. We truly know that the way is not false, and directly understand that realization is significant. At this time, using a monk’s staff we strike and scatter the explanations about the profound and wondrous, so that there is not the slightest trace of delusion. Holding up a bamboo staff, we strike and destroy explanations about nature and mind, so how could the old ruts remain? Raising a single stalk of grass, we make a sixteen-foot golden body, which radiates light and expounds the Dharma, so that from the beginning nothing is deficient. We use a sixteen-foot golden body to make a single stalk of grass, so the bud blossoming as a flower is not a matter of quick or slow. How can the great work of buddhas not be the play of samadhi?’ (Extensive Record, volume 8, 5)

How is it to feel that nothing is deficient (not even Manchester United’s midfield organisation)?

Gudo Nishijima

‘Master Dogen is not trying to construct a self-contained intellectual theory. He is trying to use all the tools of philosophy and logic to point to something else; something beyond them all. In the area of reason and logic alone, we cannot embrace systems of thought containing gross contradiction. But reality itself contains contradiction. We experience those contradictions for ourselves at every moment. So an intellectual description of reality must find room for those contradictions, however unacceptable that may feel to our intellectual powers.’

I don’t remember where I pulled this quote from – most likely it was Hardcore Zen. I had it in hand last Thursday for the class, as we pivoted to Dogen, and it may yet get a run out this week.