Embodying The Dharma

The second and last shuso ceremony of this season was at Green Gulch on Monday. Zachary and I had consulted, and figured that we could pack up our cushions, head on over right after the lunch-time outdoor sit, and be there in good time; it all worked out as well as we had hoped.
It was a lovely spring day at Green Gulch, just as it had been the Monday before at Tassajara, and I got pretty warm in the zendo as we sat through the questions and congratulations.
I have been to a few shuso ceremonies there now, but mostly I haven’t been able to stay for dinner. Zachary took off after the ceremony, but luckily Tova offered me a later ride, meaning I could stay and chat, and then indulge in the the pizza and ice cream, which, as I hadn’t really had any lunch, went down very well.
Bryan was the shuso; he and I go back a dozen years, as he arrived at Tassajara in 2006 – along with Thiemo and Steph, who were around with their two adorable kids – right when I was settling in for my second two-year stretch. Mostly what I remember, and very fondly, are the many hours we spent running together on the trails over those two years; he had to wait for me often enough, being quite a few years younger as well as being a great natural athlete. I can only remember one time, the No Race in 2008, when he was off-form, and I was almost slowing for him so we could finish together. There were many other adventures as well, especially around the 2008 fire, as we scouted on the peaks, climbing Hawk Mountain or the Tony Trail every day.
I haven’t heard him give a dharma talk yet, so I don’t know how he fares in that respect, but I know that he was a great monk, throwing himself whole-heartedly into everything, and embodying the teaching just by doing that. And that is what it is all about, at least in my book.

Down into the clouds 3
I am very glad that I took my camera on some of the runs we did. This was a morning we ran to the top of the road, and in doing so climbed above the cloud level, which was at about 3000 feet, into clear blue skies. Running back down into the clouds was quite dream-like.

Bryan Tony Trail
This was a particularly narrow and slippery part of the Tony Trail, which we had almost certainly climbed to the top of before descending.

Bryan at the horse camp upper Willow Creek
This was a lovely section of oak meadow up Willow Creek, past the other end of the Tony trail, about five miles from Tassajara.

Bryan descends Hawk Mountain
After the 2008 fire, Bryan and I climbed up Hawk Mountain and discovered that nothing was left of the old telephone transmitter. Then we scrambled down again.

Driving the road day 1 Bryan hits the mountain
One time I had got a Suburban stuck in a ditch in the snow as I tried to drive Jordan out. I ran a couple of miles back down to Tassajara and Bryan brought up the lumber truck with the winch, but even that struggled nearer the top. We eventually gave up, and tried again the next day.

Bryan with Fu and Zenju, who were co-leading the practice period at Green Gulch.

Bryan, with Mako (who was a big part of those years at Tassajara), helping the dish crew by saving on dishes.

There were more flowers on the farm than on my last visit.

Dharma friends on the path. I suspect this will get used in many Zen Center publications…


The Moon Reflected In The Water

Driving up to Wilbur last Friday, in hazy sunshine, the spring colours brought to mind one of those Sisley or Pissarro paintings that I enjoyed discovering in my youth. The Capay valley was bright green, and then the highway was studded with redbuds the length of the canyon, the vivid pinks almost shocking.
Even though I arrived in the middle of the afternoon, I could not bring myself to go out for a run right away, but instead relaxed in the pools, where, after dinner, the full moon rose in a smudge of clouds, shimmering in the water.
I slept long and deep, as sometimes happens at Wilbur, and relished the eighty degree weather each day. The meditation sessions were well attended, and a couple of times the discussion gained some real depth, giving me the chance to meet people fully, which is always rewarding.
I did run on Saturday, in the middle of the day, which made for hot work getting up to the ridge. This time I was more worried about rattlesnakes than hunters (though we did hear gunshots the next day), and in the end saw nothing more dangerous than a squirrel. The ridge was also home to many redbuds, a carpet of lupins on the schoolhouse trail, and other flowers I recognise but could not identify.
The next time I visit will be the end of June, when the temperatures will be even higher, and the flora a little less fresh. I am sure I will find it just as restorative.

Almond blossoms on the 505.

The path from the baths to the campsite, which was full along with the rest of Wilbur.

I thought of the title for this post, having been discussing Xuedou’s poems and the similar image from the Genjo Koan with my students, so I thought I should take a picture to match – this is the setting moon on Sunday morning.

First sun on Sunday morning, illuminating the path to the yoga deck where we sit.

First sun at the big pool, which was warm enough to be in at all hours of the day.

What I Think About When I Am Running

The weather has shifted in the Bay Area: we had several decent bouts of rain, and now the skies are clear and the temperature is in the seventies. The wind has dropped, leaving a rare sense of peace and stillness in this generally windy city.
My life has been quite full recently, with some lovely things happening, and others that were less welcome. In the midst of it all I have noticed myself not feeling motivated to write about goings-on in the way that I sometimes do on here…
My vicarious marathon training has come to an end. After the twelve-mile run at Wilbur, the following weekends saw fourteen and sixteen miles covered (last weekend I let my friend do the eighteen-mile run unaccompanied). The fourteen mile run took in the trail to and onto the Bay Bridge, which I had never done before, but which I had assumed I would discover by bike sometime. The path is wider and less vertiginous for me than being on the Golden Gate Bridge, and there was a rare treat in store as well: whales were breaching right underneath us, to the delight of everyone on the path.
For the sixteen mile run, we traversed many parts of San Fransisco, from the Panhandle, to the Presidio, Mountain Lake, Lobos Creek, the Land’s End trail, the Cliff House and Ocean Beach, returning via Golden Gate Park, all under spectacular clouds and luckily no rain. It was like covering several roams at once, and the route felt very familiar to me. My friend, who had never run that far before, was having a fair amount of pain, and with it, motivation problems. It has been a few years since I ran that kind of distance (perhaps ten years ago, attempting a twenty-mile run around the mountains at Tassajara, which was pretty brutal), but I was doing okay plodding along. I was wondering if the long-term body memories of being able to cope with that kind of distance (and the three marathons I ran many years ago) helped, or if it was perhaps due to the more recent experience of sitting through sesshins where I would rather have been doing anything else than continuing to sit on a cushion, but nonetheless I persevered in following the schedule. Either way, I have in my body a sense of equanimity about sticking things out, which helps when life is throwing less pleasant things at me.
Last weekend, with a roam scheduled, I took the streetcar up to West Portal to run the course I had planned, up to Golden Gate Heights, the Moraga Street Stairs, and Grand View Park. I even made a detour to check out the steep dune that is Hawk Hill, before deciding again that it was not suitable to include on a roam. As I headed south and reached an uphill block of 10th Ave, I remembered how tired people had been at that part of the roam, having already got over several significant climbs. For myself, since I had only covered a few miles compared to the previous weekends, once I had crested that climb, I continued home via Twin Peaks, and still did not feel so worn out at the end.
I did resolve to re-plot the route of the roam though, to minimise the climbing, so we ended up doing the planned route almost backwards. A highlight was sitting on a south-facing rock in little-used Golden Gate Heights Park, out of the bracing north-westerly wind which subsequently made Grand View a bit of a challenge.
We also had a real bonus at the end; having come down the beautifully tiled Moraga Street steps, which are increasingly crowded and photographed these days, one of our number requested that we head towards the N Judah rather than back to West Portal. I had a memory of running down a set of steps that connected with Judah a year or so ago, and was happy that we found them. What I had not realised on that run was that they were also beautifully tiled on the vertical part of the step, with an earth theme to Moraga’s marine theme. And not one single person was there with a camera. We all had a chuckle at the way such trends can emerge.

Redbuds and Rain Showers

It was a quirk of the calendar that I ended up back at Wilbur just two weekends after my last visit. Spring seemed to have hardly moved along at all up there, though the road was now muddy and slippery in several places after the rain through the week. Driving up on Friday I had managed to stay ahead of some of the showers, and much of the heavy traffic – driving towards a rainbow on Highway 80 in the East Bay, and catching the first of the redbuds at the Rumsey end of Cache Creek Canyon just as the heaviest of the downpours hit in the late afternoon.

Saturday was another day of rain and clouds, but Sunday saw a hard frost and clear skies that made it just warm enough to lie out on the deck in the middle of the day. I had reasonable numbers for the sitting including, not for the first time, someone who had sat with me on a previous visit, as well as at least one person who was sitting for the very first time.

As part of the vicarious marathon training, I accompanied my friend on a twelve-mile run on Saturday. The simplest thing seemed to be to run down to the road bridge a mile from the springs, and take a left turn up Bear Valley Road, which seems on the map to continue north indefinitely. I had run a mile or so up it once before, but this time I was in uncharted territory.
After a little rise a couple more miles along, suddenly the valley opened up in front of us, long straight, with beautiful tones of grasses, hills and low clouds. We ran two more miles of a long straight, then the road turned ninety degrees to the left and crossed the valley and the creek to the other side. Where the ninety-degree turn to the right took the road north again, we turned for home, battling weary legs and a slight headwind, happy to be back after a couple of hours work-out to eat and soak. I was a little stiff for my next sitting…

On Monday morning it was 24 degrees as the sun came up and I prepared to leave. I poured hot water on the windows of the car I was borrowing, to melt the ice, something I don’t remember doing since I was a kid in England. One upside was that the mud on the road was frozen solid. Having dropped off the car a couple of hours later, I retrieved my bicycle to get to BART, across the bay, to the Bicycle Coalition to borrow one of their trailers (a perk for members), back home, where I loaded up eight zafu and four goza mats, and rode over to the Embarcadero to set up for the lunch-time sitting.
In the end, no-one joined me this week; this was my first time alone on the cushions, but I have been doing this long enough that I was far from feeling self-conscious. The hour seemed to pass more quickly and more comfortably than often happens. California being as it is, it was warm enough in the city to sit with short sleeves.

Early morning rabbit in front of the red house at Wilbur.

DSCF7347.jpgHard frost on the Bear Valley Road on Monday morning.

New Moon and Shooting Stars

When I give zazen instruction, as I did last weekend at Wilbur, I always tell people to notice which leg they put in front (if they are sitting Burmese), or which foot feels easier to have on the thigh (if they are sitting half-lotus), and to switch out to see how it feels on the other side. In the Fukanzazengi, Dogen neglects to suggest this, but contemporary teachers tend to recommend it.

It is always interesting to see the preferences our bodies lean towards, and the asymmetries they can reveal. It doesn’t feel unrelated to me that many years ago I noticed I had a similar bias when I was running, in that I prefered running clockwise circuits (it was not the only reason I didn’t like track running, but it might not have helped). I first became aware of this on a fan-shaped route I used to take from my home in South London to Vauxhall, along the banks of the Thames to Bermondsey and then down to the south – this was in the late eighties and early nineties when the bankside path was not fully fleshed out in the way it is now, and there were some very dark and unused sections in those days, as well as places where you had to come up to the road level instead of being able to stay under the bridges. At first I thought it had to do with following the river downstream, which seemed to help my own flow, but then I noticed the preference come up in other places as well.

At Wilbur, one of my standard runs is up to the medicine wheel, and I did that on Saturday afternoon. Though I have run the route quite a few times now, I have always gone clockwise: up the fire road, and down the Smelter Trail, so this time I was determined to do it the other way. I knew there were a couple of places I would have to pay attention so as not to head the wrong way, but the trail was pretty clear at this time of year. I could also see the notch in the hill I was heading for, which made it easier. Being a trail, some parts of it were steeper than the road, and also, since it was ending up at the same elevation, some parts of it were flatter, so it was a different kind of workout to the more steady climb I am used to. The narrowness of the trail also gave me the illusion of greater speed, a phenomenon I am very aware of both for running and riding – being in a wide open space makes you feel discouraged at your seeming lack of progress. I felt pretty good at the top, and knew I could coast down and enjoy the return. Once thing I did not change though – I always pick up a rock on the way up, to leave at some part of the wheel, and I always circumambulate the wheel, as any sacred spot, clockwise (there is a whole other post I could write about that, and how there are different ideas of how to bow at the altars at Zen Center).

Friday night and morning had been close to freezing, the new moon allowing the stars to appear abundantly, but as the sun rose (and it was high enough above the hillside to shine on the yoga deck for the sitting, which did not happen in January), the temperatures rose to seventy degrees. Later on Saturday, and all the way through to Sunday evening, there was a strong north-westerly wind, much stronger than I am used to here. It even brought a few showers of hailstones on Sunday afternoon, which provided an unexpected soundtrack to the sitting.

After sitting I did my longer run, up to the ridge; since I am accompanying a friend on some of her marathon training runs, I feel I need to keep my own mileage up. Now that I have successfully completed the ridge route three or four times, it does not feel so daunting, but I knew I would also be running into the wind along the spine of the ridge; luckily the hail seemed to have sent the hunters home – we had heard sporadic gunfire as well while we were sitting, and I was poised to blow my whistle loudly if I heard any shots while I was out. This is one route I alternate without much preference – coming from the schoolhouse end, anti-clockwise, as I did on my last visit, the climb to the ridge is harder, but the various undulations on the ridge might be a little better spaced out; coming past the medicine wheel is easier, and after a flat section at the ridge the next slope is steep and fairly relentless. In either case, the views are outstanding; the sun was low, illuminating some slopes, clouds moving by.

There even some early blossoms – redbud on the sheltered side of the hill, and along the ridge, one little shooting star. A wonderful harbinger of spring, which may be further along on my next visit. I awoke early on Monday morning, and as I sat in the outdoor plunge, a celestial shooting star lit up the sky for a moment. Hard to say which is more beautiful.

The moon on Friday evening.


Early morning sun on Saturday

Moon and Stars

The Bay Area weather could not be better at the moment, with high pressure and warm breezes taking the temperature up to the seventies; the clear, still skies seem very relaxing to me, and it is hard to believe it is the beginning of February, though I think I have the same response every year around this time.

At Wilbur last weekend, I set off for a run almost as soon as I had unpacked. Since I wasn’t able to stay until Monday morning this time, Friday afternoon seemed to offer the most suitable stretch of time, so I took off for the ridge in order to be back before it got dark. I felt better going along the top, with all the little climbs, than I can remember on my previous efforts, but I was quite stiff afterwards.

There was a fair amount of sun over the weekend so the middle of the day was pleasant, but it was definitely cold around the edges. Fewer people came to the meditation sessions, perhaps because it still felt chilly to be outside for the morning one, and the afternoon one was right at the end of the daytime warmth. Still, I had lovely conversations with people, including one woman whose family had a cabin at Tanbark, down Miller Canyon from China Camp on the road to Tassajara (as I said to her, very few people at Tassajara had any idea there were cabins there, and I only discovered them when I went exploring by mountain bike and was getting bored of just riding up and down the road).

On Sunday morning I was awake at five, and went out to float in the outdoor pool, happy to wake up slowly and gently, under the endless stars. As the sun came up, the waters steamed photogenically.

On Wednesday morning, back in the city, I got up early to see the lunar eclipse, the first one I have watched since being at Tassajara, I guess in 2008, when Linda Ruth led us all out of the zendo to the moon lawn to watch the spectacle. This one had the added selling points of being a supermoon and a blue moon – though in reality it was rust coloured – and watching it was worth the tiredness later in the day.




The Rhythms Of The City

Seeing an advertisement the other day for a company that makes beautiful and expensive things reminded me of an afternoon I spent downtown, perhaps a year ago. I was meeting someone and going out to dinner, but went early to allow myself time to take photographs of the Financial District in low winter sunshine; the area was fairly quiet, since it was the weekend, but this company’s store was open, so I had a look around and chatted with a person working there. All the objects were tasteful and well-made, and would make wonderful gifts; I could not afford any of them, and besides, I didn’t feel that they would necessarily enhance my life if I owned them.

It is a couple of years now since I left residential practice at Zen Center; my life continues to feel fluid as I piece together teaching assignments and other work in a way that feels satisfying and also allows me to live in one of the most expensive cities in the world.
I have never wanted to completely trade my time for money earned; this article from a few months ago, and this one more recently allow me to feel some affirmation about the choices I am making, but even so, my monastic training and temperament have long steered me in that direction.

I have lived in San Francisco for more than ten years, and I still find joy in living here: the weather has been very stable for the past couple of weeks – clear skies with warm sunshine in the middle of the day, high pressure and an east wind, the last full moon bringing king tides. This allows me to ride my bike without worrying about getting soaked, and to plan hikes; to watch monarchs and hummingbirds flitting around blooming flowers as we approach the shortest day of the year – so different to my experience of winters growing up in England, and, I have to acknowledge, much better for my well-being. It also, of course, enables wildfires that are devastating large parts of southern California, at a time of year when things should be too damp to burn, and means that reservoir and snow packs will be depleted again.

Recently I had again been feeling the need to go downtown and take more pictures: each time I ride down to our lunchtime meditation, I have been watching the latest swathe of construction south of Market take shape – the biggest of them all, the Salesforce building, now looks finished from the outside, though I suspect there is a long way to go before it is open. If I think back to ten years ago, I could not count the number of empty plots of land that have been developed around the city – there were more than a dozen within a few blocks of Zen Center – and the sense of progress, crowding and enrichment (for some) is quite tangible, and almost claustrophobic, these days. And still there are also quieter, simpler, and more stable experiences of the city to be found.

On my thrice-weekly commute across the bay, I get to say hello to the other cyclist who regularly makes for the last car of the train; and if the regular driver is working (I hadn’t quite figured this out when I wrote the previous article, but I realised soon afterwards), I enjoy the warmth of her voice, which reminds me of Viola Davis, as she calls the stations. There are couple of other drivers whose announcing style I recognise, especially the one who likes to leave a dramatic pause: ‘The destination of this train is – – – – Richmond.’ When we emerge from the Trans-Bay tunnel, I always lift my head from my book to see what the skies are doing on the east side of the bay.
Running to Twin Peaks, I enjoy the ravens throwing themselves into the wind, and the comprehensive views across the city, before the rapid descent down steep staircases that take me back to the low-lying street where I live.
Shopping for food (pretty much the only stores I go into regularly), I enjoy seeing the same workers I have seen over the years – especially at Rainbow – and running into people I know, which reminds me that this is a small city.
Of course I don’t always feel spacious enough to enjoy what is going on around me, but when it happens, it always feels like life is rich.


Walking around south of Market last week, catching the light as it falls between the tall buildings.

A view of the Oakland docks on a recent morning, taken from the BART train.

Ravens always seem to rule the roost on Twin Peaks and Mount Sutro.