Suzuki Roshi

‘We have no existentialism, but in our Buddhist philosophy we this kind of interpretation of our mental functioning. We Buddhists suffered a lot (laughs) about our mind, so Buddhism is study of our mind (laughs). Our mind is very troublesome existence, (laughs) we don’t know what to do with it. So at last we find out that it is impossible to study our mind (laughs). Something impossible to study is our mind, but you cannot deny the existence of mind.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi archives)

I realised that I had stacked up a number of little quotes about the mind, the brain, and consciousness, and for a moment was going to add them all into one giant post, but instead, they will form this week’s content. I think each has a slightly different angle, and it should build to an intriguing composite.

Suzuki Roshi

‘Soto way is to use everything in right purpose and to put everything [in] its own– its own place. What should be put on high place should be put on high place, and what should be put on floor should be on floor. In America, you know, you put scriptures [laughs] on the floor where you walk. We don’t, you know. But I don’t know how to do it– how to treat those scriptures in your way of life. So until I find out [laughs] some way, I don’t say, “Don’t put scriptures on the floor.” But this is not supposed to be put on– supposed to be treated as a rubbish, you know– as rubbish. This is not rubbish. Scripture should be put on table, or altar, or in your hand. Those small things is very important.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi Archives)

I don’t feel bad about having another Suzuki Roshi post relatively soon after the last one – perhaps one day this blog will be all Suzuki Roshi and Dogen…

In any case, I have been working very hard to polish up parts of the archive prior to a more public unveiling of the work we have been doing on the audio side of things. On Friday, since we had an unusual thunderstorm and some rain early in the morning, I didn’t bother to go out on my bike after my early teaching, but just got my teeth into archive work, and by the end of the day my eyes were square.

Also, in this case, from the first recorded sesshin at Sokoji, in 1965, Suzuki Roshi is quoting Dogen (who was also quoting someone else, if I recall correctly – I’m not sure I have the brainpower to go and look for the lines in the Tenzokyokun), and giving his students a reminder of how to practise. It’s the kind of thing that you don’t think about until you do start formal practice, and then you realise that the so-called ‘small things’ are very important.

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.

Suzuki Roshi

‘Your everyday life is also the expression of the inmost nature, but our everyday life is too dualistic, so in everyday life it is almost impossible to study what is inmost nature. Only in zendo it is possible to study what is inmost nature. That is why we — we have zendo. And if you understand — if you get accustomed to this kind of life, you can apply this way in your everyday life. So that you may not be bothered by duality of the world. It is maybe proving difficult [laughs].’ (from the Suzuki Roshi Archives)

This is from a very short piece of audio that I transcribed recently; it was part of the first week-long sesshin to be recorded at Zen Center, and the expression here is quite typical of what Suzuki Roshi was trying to convey to his students at the time. I am very much enjoying this close study.

Suzuki Roshi

‘Someone may ask us how this kind of practice will benefit our everyday life. The answer may be no benefit, as Bodhidharma said, “no merit.” But we mean by merit: merit and no merit. Beneficial and not beneficial. Mahayana Buddhists emphasize the saving of others and the saving of ourselves. To save others is to save ourselves. It does not mean to save others after we save ourselves, or to save others before we save ourselves. Our way is “to save others is to save ourselves.” To hear a sound is for the sound to arise. It is one activity. We practice this kind of practice because for us there is no other way to appease our inmost desire. Until we attain this way of life, our inmost desire will not be appeased.

So Dogen Zenji always emphasized “beginner’s mind.” We should always remain in beginner’s mind. It means our experience should always be refreshed and renewed. It means always have the joy of discovering something. The same joy as children discovering something new. This kind of experience is not possible to attain just by training through which you expect some result.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi archives)

This is from a one-day sitting talk from 1965; in talks before this, there are several mentions of ‘inmost desire’, and in a talk less than a month later, he talked about ‘beginner’s mind’ again…

Suzuki Roshi

‘Student: When does my life express the Dharma and when does it not?

Suzuki Roshi: When it does not? There is no time when it doesn’t. It always expresses the Dharma.

Student: But sometimes better than others?

Suzuki Roshi: Don’t think in that way. Always expressing. You are always expressing the buddha-nature. That is you who thinks you are expressing “better” or “not so good.”’ (from the Suzuki Roshi archives)

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.

Suzuki Roshi

‘When we sit we call it inmost — let inmost nature in its self, or activity — This is — we call self-use of inmost nature — Let it work. You don’t do anything, but let our true nature work by itself. This is Zen practice. Of course, even though you do not do anything, you have pain on your legs, or some difficulty to keep your mind calm. And sometimes you may think.. “Oh, my zazen practice is not so good.” What are you thinking for? Stop thinking. O.K. This is Zen, you know.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi archives)

I posted a segment of this talk not so long ago, but I have been revisiting it, and was also struck by this section. Speaking with a group of probably mostly beginners, haltingly, in his second language, he is outlining jijuyu zanmai. How is it that we can sit and let the self-use of inmost nature do its work? The trick is not to expect that we have any notion of it while it is happening.

Phil Olson

‘We sat down and I asked about the Zazen posture. “You have not yet learned how we put strength in our stomach,” he said. Again he got up from his cushion and came around to show me how to sit correctly in Zazen. First he adjusted my own posture and then he sat down in front of me and demonstrated the Zazen posture and the way of breathing himself. Watching Suzuki Roshi paying such careful attention to his breathing, I no longer saw Zen practice as something strange or separate from my own life.’ (from the Jikoji archives)

When I read this, I was reminded of the opening chapter of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, where Suzuki Roshi says, ‘To gain strength in your posture, press your diaphragm down towards your hara, or lower abdomen. This will help you maintain your physical and mental balance.’ This is not an instruction that I heard when I was at Zen Center, and I wonder if it is one of those things that got lost in the translation of the practice from Japan to the west. When I am offering zazen instruction, I often tell people to treat the hara, the area between the belly button and the pubic bone, as their centre of gravity and centre of energy while they are sitting, and that if they practise martial arts, they will be used to the notion of moving from that strong core.

Suzuki Roshi

‘To attain oneness in duality is our spirit because we are not so good we, you know, try to improve ourselves. That is our true nature. And we are aware of it — we have some intention to improve ourselves. This intention is limited to human being. Flowers come up — a flower may come out in spring without fail, but they do not make any effort; they automatically come out — that’s all. We try to open our flower in spring. We try to do the right thing at the right time. We find it very difficult. In this sense we are very stupid. Even though we try to do it, we cannot make it, but this is our human nature. We always try to do something. We have always some difficulty to do something.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi archives)

This was from one of the early talks in Los Altos that became Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (though this particular talk did not feature), and I have been paying particular attention to some of these. I hope to be able to say why soon.