Taking Refuge in Sangha

In contrast to the previous flight on my trip, when I landed back at Gatwick after the stay in Belfast clouds were piling up as a new weather system moved in. That evening, as my friends and I set out for an Indian dinner, we needed umbrellas in a sudden downpour, and rain re-appeared throughout the weekend, especially overnight, though much of the remaining time was sunny.

It was a fairly packed few days, with many miles of walking, artist open houses, a film, a concert, a joyful parade for the local football team who have been promoted to the Premier League; we also watched a fair amount of football and the Eurovision Song Contest (not an event I have much cared for over the years, though my friends do; it is largely an excuse for drinking and exercising critical faculties over some of the entrants). There was also a day spent sitting with the local group – eight of us were there, of whom I knew all but one, some from Tassajara, some from previous sits in England, and I felt warmly welcomed; I noticed that seven of us had rakusus, and that mine was the only one that had not been bestowed by Reb.

I did manage to repeat my run to Devil’s Dyke; with the memories of the route still in my body, it seemed less intimidating than before. Perhaps I was just a little fitter as well, but I had the measure of it. On the Sunday, since I was awake earlier than the others, I also went out for a run in the sun, back up the lovely Three Cornered Copse, awash with the subtle fragrance of cow parsley, a sentimental smell for me, past the windmill, and then back down to the sea and a few miles along the front from Brighton to Hove – which we also walked at midnight after the concert, as the moon came up, to end my last night away. Monday morning was also grey and drizzly, and I felt glad to leave that behind, though the California weather was not so great for the first day or so.

Now that I am back in San Francisco, I have a chance to reflect on the trip as a whole. One theme that came up for me was renewing acquaintances: all of the zen events I took part in were with groups I have met once before, mostly on my last trip, with Belfast, which I visited a few years ago, being the exception. It has felt great to reconnect with people, to hear more about where the groups are, and what they are hoping will happen in the future. Sitting and sharing the practice was rewarding each time; meeting people in England with whom I had done practice periods at Tassajara almost fifteen years ago gives a wonderful sense of the mahasangha, which as I often say to people, never dissipates, even if we are different places.

When people talk about taking refuge, it can often seem like a sense of retreat, of hiding away, but I got to see how taking refuge in sangha can feel like uplift and support – perhaps most especially with the joint talk we did in Belfast, and the effect it seemed to have on the participants.
I also got to see how communities of people can retreat and isolate: I remember when I first traveled to Spain, in the early eighties, I would look at the old people with wizened faces, invariably dressed in black, and wonder what they had seen and known of the civil war, which they had lived through fifty years previously. In Belfast, I looked at people my age and older and wondered what they had seen and known of the Troubles, a generation or more ago. It was poignant to watch The Journey while I was there, even more so to be taken around the city on my last day by a sangha member who had first-hand experience of life during those years, and vivid memories of events that took place in areas whose names I had heard on the news over many years as the epicentres of violence and death – the Falls Road, the Ardoyne, the Shankill Road. When I met people in Ireland I could not tell Protestant from Catholic, but locals knew many clues and cues, and the divide is still strong: I heard of painful fights over attempts to integrate schools just a few years ago, when the violence was supposedly in the past. This sense of segregation was reinforced by watching the deeply moving I Am Not Your Negro on the plane home, with its perhaps better-known scenes of violence around school integration, and an equal sense of the deep schisms that retrenchment has caused, with roots, like the Irish conflict, that go back several centuries as one group asserted power over another. From my position of safety and privilege, it is hard to know how to speak of healing and the wish for all people to be able to join together and feel safe. I do know that I can offer some help as a teacher, wherever I am, and whoever I am with, and this trip has reminded me of the value of that.

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Divided roads in the heart of Belfast.

The joyful parade for Brighton and Hove Albion’s promotion reminded me of the Giants World Series celebrations.

The sea front at a quieter moment.

It is always a joy to see Greenland from the air, even if the ice is vanishing.

The Shipping Forecast

The skies cleared as I flew over the Welsh coast and Anglesey on Sunday morning, which set the tone for my time in Belfast. I was collected from the sleepy airport by some sangha members who were also attending the jukai at Benburb; we arrived in time for lunch, where the sesshin participants were partaking of the last silence. I was very happy to see a couple of St Bernards at the priory, the dogs we had when I was growing up, and of course even happier to see a number of friends, many of whom I had not expected to be there: Djinn and Richard, Garret and Esther, Ann, Myles, Nuala (who kindly hosted me for my visit and, along with Myles and three other sangha members, was receiving the precepts from Paul), Andre, Heather, Bai and Annette.

Last week I had a few very quiet days with my mother in Hereford; the weather was mostly sunny, but there was a persistent east wind that felt cold. I got outside every day, running my familiar loop along the Wye, past blossoming fields of apple trees and flowering riverside meadows, as well as exploring trails alongside smaller brooks at the edge of the city that were new to me. On Friday I returned to London, for a rewarding return visit to the Wimbledon group, with a full room of people getting their head around the Genjo Koan. After being taken to lunch with some of the group, I went to Alan’s house to record a podcast with him, which was a lot of fun, and which I will link to when it is up.

This week I have been sitting every morning with the Black Mountain sangha, and joining the relaxed tea and chat afterwards. On Tuesday, when Djinn usually gives a talk, she suggested that she, Ann and I do a round table discussion in the zendo, which was well attended and nice to participate in – we all riffed off each other easily, and had some great questions to ponder. I added the Lagan to the list of rivers I have run by – my limited geographical sense of the city was aided by starting to walk around, and I felt confident enough to do a loop of Ormeau Park and then head to Langan Meadows on the towpath cycle route, and back via Belvoir Park, all of which felt a long way from the city.

On Wednesday, the last full day, we went up to Malin Head. Ann and I had independently had the idea of wanting to see it (I had watched a television programme while staying with my mother which featured it, and of course know it from its role in the shipping forecast), and Djinn was willing to drive the hundred miles each way with us. We stopped in Derry for lunch and a walk around the walls, then drove across the increasingly rugged terrain to Ireland’s most northerly point, which was uncharacteristically warm and sunny, with very little wind.

The last leg of this lengthy journey is going to be in Brighton (Hove actually), to stay with old BBC friends, and to sit with the Brighton group on Saturday, where I expect to meet some old sangha friends, and hopefully run up to Devil’s Dyke again, before the long flight home.

The cathedral at Hereford from the banks of the Wye.

Fields of rape seed outside Hereford 

The sesshin group at Benburb on Sunday afternoon, featuring some brand new rakusus.

A patch of bluebells in Ormeau Park.

One of the many beautiful views at Malin Head.

Mountains and Rivers and Planes and Trains 

It’s not often I get to set foot in four countries before lunchtime, but that is how my day was on Friday, taking two cars, two planes and two trains from France to England via Switzerland and Germany. 

From Cornwall I had taken the train up to Bristol, had a cup of coffee with my sister and her husband who happened to be in the area, then flown to Geneva, where my friend was visiting for a few meetings, staying in her chalet on the slopes of Mont Blanc. Arriving in pouring rain, we only had the fireplace for warmth as the heating and hot water were out. I spent Wednesday exploring Geneva on foot, as my friend took care of her business, and was glad of the hammam at the Bains Paquis at the end of a cold day – I also jumped briefly into the lake after the sauna there. The overnight rain turned into snow, and Thursday we hiked through the snow-laden mountain woods to the nearest town, where most things were closed, though we managed to get a hearty lunch at an open restaurant. 

On Friday morning, getting up before first light, everything was covered in fresh snow. Luckily the LandRover used to get us down the dirt road, and the rental car, both started first time. In the valley autoroute into Geneva, it was raining heavily, as it had been on the other journeys to and fro. My first plane took me to Dusseldorf, and was running a little late. I was sweating a little about missing my connection (as I had briefly sweated when we had left the autoroute and had run into a long line of traffic on the way through the city). We disembarked onto a shuttle bus, I ran up the stairs, marched from one end of the terminal to the other, through passport control, down the stairs, onto another bus… and back onto the same plane I had just been on. As I said to the cabin crew head, if I had known that as I got off, I would have been a bit more relaxed going from A to B to A.

Then I ended up in Newcastle, took the metro into town, grabbed some lunch at the station and got on the train to Leeds, taking care to avoid the boisterous stag party that was already enjoying their weekend. The last stress had been about a strike on part of the rail network, but happily I arrived in Leeds just as the expected train to Hebden rolled in. It even had functional wi-fi on board.

It felt great to be back in Hebden Bridge again, and I managed to navigate from the station to Rebecca and Dave’s house, where I was welcomed as warmly as last time. After a shower, a rest and some food, I was ready for the first part of the weekend, a couple of hours studying the Genjo Koan. Saturday we had an all-day sitting, which felt very well contained, though I didn’t find my talk especially convincing, and on Sunday a very intimate half-day, followed by joining the regular Sunday evening sit, where I faced the wall with the rest of the group. There were also chances to have discussions with my hosts, and with Wendy who I had met at Tassajara almost fifteen years ago, about the current state of English zen and what the next steps might be for the various groups.

There was also time for me to repeat my run of last time, up the stingingly hard climb to Heptonstall, along the top, through the fields and the bluebell-covered woods to the little bridge across Calder water, and back down along the other side of the valley, cutting over to the canal to get back into town. Again, it was satisfying to have my body remember the terrain from one previous encounter, and it was a wonderful run. Next stop is my mother’s house, and hopefully a chance to run along the Wye valley.

The sky over Lake Geneva.

Geneva from the Bains Paquis pier after a little dip.

A clear mountain stream in the Alps.

Beginning the half-day journey taking in four countries.

The bottom of the Buttress at the beginning of my run in Hebden Bridge.

In Another Land

When I embarked on my month-long trip, a week ago, I noticed I felt almost light-headed about my lack of schedule. This was not because I am not traveling around: I will be using eight different airports and taking five significant train journeys, but apart from showing up for these journeys and my teaching commitments, it feels that I have a lot of free time.
In my day and a half for jet-lag recovery in London, I mostly walked, around local parks and along the river. Down in Cornwall, there have been daily walks with the dog as well, and I have managed a couple of runs. I also worked in the garden, stacking logs and resetting some old steps – this physical work makes me feel even more connected with the land. The weather has been kind, and flowers have been in profusion: bluebells, campion and stitchwort in the hedgerows as well as gorse and blackthorn. Most places I have been, the loudest sound has been the manifold bird songs, punctuated by occasional squawks from pheasants.

My body always settles in this ancestral Cornish landscape, which is a succession of slopes; you are always heading down to a stream or river, or up away from it. I was glad that my runs, on routes I have often found challenging, felt manageable, and I look forward to repeating some of the other runs I tried on my last visit. In particular I was very happy to visit two hilltops close at hand, both of which have witnessed many centuries of human history: Kit Hill, which is visible from all directions, and Cadsonbury, an ancient settlement site that overlooks the gorgeous, wooded Lynher valley, and yet is hidden from almost every angle.

My current email post-script reads ‘iPad-induced brevity’; this feels like a lot to try to type, and I still haven’t added photos and links. Hopefully I will manage something next week and the week after as well.

The footpath along the Thames west of Putney Bridge, on my way to Chiswick Eyot.

A track near the summit of Kit Hill, looking west towards Caradon Hill and Bodmin Moor.

Kit Hill seen from a local lane.

A rare view of Cadsonbury, from a footpath the other side of the river. My favourite photo of it is this one from a few years ago.

Clouds and Water

Redbuds always make me think of Tassajara, where I first came across them: one by the stone cabins, one by the lower garden, the two ends of the main drag.
Last year, when I came to Wilbur in the spring with the friend who had first introduced me to the place, I was astounded at how many redbuds were flowering in the gorgeous expanses of Cache Creek Canyon on the northern end of Highway 16; I loved how they seemed to suck in all the sun in the surrounding area. Traveling up again last weekend, that highway was closed, as it had been at the beginning of the year, to deal with landslides. The alternative, continuing north on the 505 and the 5 is a little dull, but whereas I was beset by a severe amount of rain the last time I took the Highway 20 pass through from Williams to Bear Valley, this time the hills were soft and green, and there was a lambent light shining down on the redbuds growing by the creeks.

With the clocks having gone forward, and a week of higher temperatures behind us, Wilbur was lovely, and mild into the later evenings. Running up the schoolhouse trail after I arrived, there was a profusion of shooting stars on the banks; on the more exposed trail to the medicine wheel, where I ran on Sunday, lupins and poppies and blue dicks, as well as others that I recognised from Tassajara but did not have names for; on the wide-open ridge trail, there were clumps of Indian paintbrush, some a pale scarlet, some a deep crimson. When I had made it up to the ridge, there was almost complete silence; at first some songbirds nearby, with a few raptors drifting along with the faint warm air, and then nothing but the sound of my breathing and the crunch of my shoes, much like running the cliffs of Cornwall, except with waves of hills in the place of ocean. I was very glad to see one of the sticks I had planted in the ground as a way-marker last time, when I had been coming from the other direction –  once I was over the top of the first of the ridge slopes, it was clear where to go. I could not see all the way across to the snow-topped peaks I had seen last time, and which I had glimpsed from the highway a couple of days before; the clouds were rich and hanging perhaps where they would have been, lit in just a few places by the sun to break up the purple and grey.

It was a weekend of generosity: starting with the gift of the van, once again. A regular benefactor had also enquired how much I usually spent on fuel, and donated that amount. An older couple staying at Wilbur were celebrating a birthday, and shared left-over pizza and strawberry shortcake with everyone who was in the common room on Friday night. Someone else gave me a bunch of watercress that they had picked from the banks of a stream; I passed some of it on to others, while enjoying the iron pepper taste of it, richly evocative of English summer to me.

On Monday it rained again, but only after I had arrived back home; I also felt lucky to avoid the rain on my way to and from work on Tuesday. I hope my luck holds out as far as Sunday, when there is a Roaming Zen scheduled…

Early evening on Friday at the bath-house.

Shooting stars beside the trail.

The Beginning of Spring

The blossoms started coming out in San Francisco in spite of last week’s rain, or perhaps because of the milder temperatures that accompanied it; this early flowering is a perennial California joy for me.
The last of the rain blew through on Friday morning, and once it had gone, the blue skies that followed seemed to bring a certain peacefulness. I was on my way to Wilbur again, and it was set to be a different forecast to the previous visit.
Whenever I go to Tassajara, there are a few ‘gates’ that I pass on the journey, letting me know where I am and where I am going, transitioning from city speeds to the pace of the monastery: coming down Laureles Grade with a view of Carmel Valley; cresting the small rise on the Carmel Valley Road just before the Tassajara Road turning; and the final and most significant, arriving at the southern ridge on the Tassajara Road with its long view south over the wilderness as the five-mile descent to the monastery begins.
The journey to Wilbur has several similar thresholds: crossing the Carquinez Bridge, which means leaving the east bay behind and broaching the north bay; turning off the 80, which usually signifies the end of the heavy traffic, even if the vehicle which is kindly being lent to me is not capable of exploiting the 70mph speed limit on the straight shot north on the 505; turning onto the 16, for the sumptuous Capay Valley, which was luminously green this time; entering Cache Creek Canyon, life-affirmingly beautiful, with many visible traces of where the rocky hillsides had slid onto the road, the reason why it was closed last month; and finally the dirt road itself, not as epic as the one to Tassajara, but still a time to start slowing down, the process that continues when you leave your car in the lot and revert to human speed for the rest of the weekend.
A few hours after leaving the city, then, I was running along the valley road, disturbing cows, quails and ducks, seeing hawks, a heron and a kingfisher, reveling in the quiet.
The bright blue skies meant warm days and cold mornings, bright stars and planets at night, the just-past-full moon setting as daylight grew. For all the joys of being soothed by the water and by the warm air on my skin, though, I was plagued with pre-occupying thoughts during the weekend, which persisted through a few hours of sitting; it was a long run that, as it has so often in my life, dampened that energy and brought some peace.
The buds were only just starting to open on the trees, but when I went running up the hillside on Sunday, I saw baby blue eyes and shooting stars by the side of the trail. I had tried to get up to the ridge trail on my two previous visits, and this time I managed it by starting from the farther end, and was rewarded with views over Bear Valley and the plain beyond to snow-capped ridges and peaks to the north east, even as I could see down to the scattered buildings around the hot springs.

Hillside run-off on its way to the main creek, up the valley from the hot springs

What I think about when I am running

It feels a little like cheating when I use public transport to take me somewhere to start a run; somewhere in my mind it says, if you want to be self-powered, you should just be self-powered. It is the same for bike riding, though there are places – Mount Diablo for sure, and the times I have gone down the peninsula to take in King’s Mountain, Pescadero and Tunitas Creek – that I have thoroughly enjoyed the results of going somewhere that isn’t just door to door under my own steam. In the city, this has mostly been in the service of covering the ground for an upcoming roam with help from a quick Muni trip across town.
I have Fridays mostly free, but I have observed that drivers are more than usually cranky on Friday afternoons, so I tend not to do any city rides then. On my run last week, I have to admit, everyone I encountered was attentive and considerate, but I could see that there were lines building up in all directions to get across the bridge, and that what should have been quiet corners of the Presidio were turning into high-speed rat runs with drivers trying to beat the jams. I was glad to be spending some of my time in  even quieter spots.

It was one of those winter days that each year make me glad I am in California; in the middle of the day it was warm enough for t-shirt and shorts, clear, and wind-free. Starting at the Arguello Gate of the Presidio, I crossed over to Immigrant Point via the Goldsworthy spire, and then tried out the Batteries to Bluffs loop for the first time – I think I was actually going from bluffs to batteries, but in any case, it was pretty wonderful, and will feature in a Roaming Zen soon, if I can get the tides right: there were people on Marshall’s Beach when I was out there, and it would be a shame not to take in that part of it.

The return leg took in the Lyon Street steps and a string of parks, Alta Plaza, Alamo Square and Duboce Park, all of which have tremendous views of the city spread out under the hills. When I got home, tired but happy, I discovered that the landlord had indeed come to fix the main heater in the house which had been out all week, and that someone I don’t know had offered a generous donation via the button on the right (along with a very kind comment; thank you for both). I was reminded of Dogen’s words once again.

The view south from Alta Plaza park.