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.

Big Numbers

It was a busy dharma week to start the year off, one of those weeks where I just had to stay focused on the most immediate task while also remembering those that were coming down the pipeline. 

I was happy with how my talk went on Wednesday (I shall post the link to it once I have managed to edit and post it on the Zen Center website – that’s one of the tasks that had been sidelined this week). It was lovely, as always, to see who showed up, including Abbots Ed and David, some names and faces from over the years, and new friends as well. I kept it relatively short, and I think the overall flow was helped by my having written a skeleton out in long hand, during which process I was able to re-jig a few points I wanted to make. I certainly felt more connected to the words on paper than I usually do when they are on screen, so perhaps I will revert to this method going forward. There were several fairly weighty questions afterwards, which I hoped I managed to navigate skilfully.

On Friday I participated in a webinar on mindful eating for Core, and had a couple of meditation sessions, one regular, one a one-off for Within, which was for a lively group. The rest of the day I spent reading up for the class. Going through old Wind Bells gave me some new nuggets, so on Saturday morning, during fifteen minutes of pre-amble, I had lots to say. 

After we had listened to the talk itself, the comments that came from the participants were full of amazing insights and thoughts that captured much of why Suzuki Roshi resonates for people so much. We had more than fifty people signed up for the class, which is more than I have had in a formal class before, and more than forty were listening live (others get access to the recordings). After Abbot Ed and I signed off, I was buzzing for the rest of the morning. 

And then I rode over to the Embarcadero for the first roam of the year. It had been a week of mixed weather, some rain and a couple of days with low low cloud, but Saturday was bright and felt warm in the sun. We ended up with seventeen people and an energetic dog, my largest group in quite a while, as we climbed over Telegraph Hill, crossed North Beach and Chinatown on the way to Russian Hill, and back. One of the attendees had some wonderful bits of historical knowledge, which he shared as we went round. I saw a hawk perched low on a tree above us in Washington Square, and many bees and a butterfly enjoying the flowering Ceanothus at the foot of the Coit Tower.

With all the teachings I had to take care of, plus a couple of days at the studio, I felt like I had not been especially active this past week – the days in the studio each involve about an hour on my bike, and the roam certainly gave my legs a workout, but by my standards, it wasn’t much. So I was glad to get out on Sunday morning and ride for a few hours, from Ocean Beach to Foster City and back past the airport. It was clear and still, and not as cold as last week – I was slightly overdressed in the end, but that is much better than the alternative. It feels like the time of year where I am just doing maintenance rides – keeping an easy tempo, and not trying to charge up a lot of hills.

I don’t know if I have seen the bridge disappear like this.
Certainly there was no way to see across to the East Bay
By way of contrast, sitting at the top of Telegraph Hill during the roam.
Late afternoon sun as weclimbed back up the Filbert St steps.
Never get tired of this early morning glow.
Still and clear in Foster City.
San Francisco is to the right of the visible hills.

Suzuki Roshi

‘Our vital freedom will be like running water originating from a mountain and passing through valleys and fields, reaching the sea. There is no freedom for the water to return to the mountain. But at the same time there is vital freedom. This kind of life is called religious life. To attain it is to practice zazen without the idea of gaining.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi archives)

To close out the week, another one-day sitting talk from 1965 (whose tape is now lost). If you are able to join the class that Abbot Ed and I are starting this morning on the Suzuki Roshi archive, it will be great to see you on screen.

Suzuki Roshi

Student: You said that for an enlightened person it’s very true, and for a non-enlightened person it’s just talk.

Suzuki Roshi: What’s missing? Practice is missing. Only when you practice zazen hard is it true. At the same time, even though you practice hard, your practice will not always be complete. There may be a big gap between the truth and your understanding or actual experience. Your intellectual understanding may be high, but your practice may be low. To have an intellectual understanding is easy, but practicing with emotions is difficult because we easily stick to something emotionally. So we say, ‘It is easy to understand nothingness’, and ‘It is easy to destroy an intellectual understanding’. But to deal with emotional difficulty is as hard as splitting a lotus in two. Long strings will follow and you cannot get rid of them. The strings remain. With intellectual difficulty, it is as easy as breaking a stone in two. Nothing is left’. (from the Suzuki Roshi archives)

You may notice, if you click on the link, that this is the edited version that appeared in Branching Streams Flow In The Dark.

Suzuki Roshi

‘Almost all of you have not practiced Zen so long, but I think you have made great progress. This result is more than we expected. As I always say, for the beginner the most important point is posture. While you are working hard on your posture you will study many things besides your physical training. Physical training always follows mental training, even though you do not try to train your mentality. To put your mind in the right way is one interpretation of Zen. Or to resume your right mind is called Zen. Samapati means to resort to the right state of mind. Another interpretation is to put our mind in the right place. Physical training will result from the right orientation of your mind. If you are determined to overcome your pain your mind will follow your pain. But if your determination is not strong enough your mind will be in agitation. Zen is not struggling. When you practice Zen your mind should be calm – even though you fight with your pain your mind should always be calm. It means your mind follows your pain like water, as water always follows the lower place. If your determination is strong enough, your mind becomes calm: following your physical condition and finding out many things. As long as you are struggling with your physical condition your mind will not find anything; your mind is shut; your mind is occupied so it will not be anything. When your mind is calm enough, even in your pain, you will find out many things. When your mind is in this state it is called a “well-oriented” mind. To put your mind in the right way is Zen.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi archives)

This talk is from November 1965 – just two days after the Beginner’s Mind talk – and given during a one-day sitting, though sadly the audio is now lost.

Suzuki Roshi

‘And I think we should not try to propagate Zen in America, you know. That is not Dogen Zenji’s way. One by one is enough. If we have, you know, good understanding between your friend, that is enough. If you love someone, you know, you should try to make him understand you. That’s all.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi archives)

On December 4th, the fiftieth anniversary of Suzuki Roshi’s death, I was looking for a quote to use on Instagram, and came across this one – which has turned into my most popular post (though I can never be sure if the quote or the photo is responsible for the number of likes a post gets). I expect I shall be using it in my talk this evening as well, as part of my ongoing question about how to teach in these times. It echoes yesterday’s quote in some ways, and comes from a talk just a couple of months earlier in that same summer.

Suzuki Roshi

‘So people may [be] divided in two and fighting with each other in the same country. One may say, you know: “We should not fight. We should stop war,” you know. “You are wrong, completely wrong.” And the other may say: “You don’t know,” you know, “what is going on in this world. We should fight. If you don’t fight, we will be lost.” And he thinks he is completely right. So there is big gap between two party, and they have to fight again with each other. Same thing will be repeated. So if both of them knows they are not completely right there may be some way to help with each other. Because our understanding is very naive, and, you know, rigid, and we have too much confidence in ourselves, we cannot help with each other. So “not always right” is very important teaching, very strict teaching. Hai.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi archives)

I thought, without particular deliberation, that it might be nice to have a week of Suzuki Roshi quotes. I have accumulated many during my work on the archives, and in my talk on Wednesday, and the class on Saturday, I will certainly be focusing on his words. Having not made it to Tassajara, I substituted the post I had planned for yesterday, but the rest of the week will be a selection.

I came across this talk – or more accurately, this question-and-answer session – while studying for the class on Hyakujo and the fox, as he mentions this story earlier in the transcript. The summer of 1969 must have been an interesting time at Tassajara, with the foundations of the monastery starting to be more settled (after the more macrobiotic commune element had been superceded by a more disciplined practice), and the Vietnam war looming ever larger in people’s minds. I suspect, that if Suzuki Roshi were alive today, he would be making the same point.

Suzuki Roshi

‘Student: Docho Roshi, speak to us of the search for the true path…

SR: True path. Don’t think there is some special path which is true or false.

Student: Then of each of our own paths?

SR: Do your best on every moment. Finding your position and reacting properly to everything.

Student: That’s all that I can do.

SR: Yes.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi archives)

I have been listening to some of the shosan ceremony tapes from the first year or so at Tassajara, and it is fascinating to see what the students were pre-occupied with, and how Suzuki Roshi carefully steered them.

Katagiri Roshi

‘During zazen it is important to keep the right posture. You should especially keep the right posture for your hands. They are like a barometer, directly indicating the attention to your effort. Neither too high nor too low, the hands should be In the right place – as if you were holding jewels in your palm and close to your belly. Don’t touch your arms to your body. It is better to keep some separation. The hands should be held at the lower part of your gut. If you cannot maintain the correct posture of your hands you cannot breathe smoothly in the right way. When your back is kept straight and your chin pulled in, your hands will be In the right place. 

In order to control your mind, first it is important to keep the right posture of your body – your hands, your back, your head, your neck, your eyes, and your mouth. When this is accomplished your mind will be in the right way. What’s more, it will be done naturally in this way. When your posture is complete, everything goes well.’ (from Wind Bell magazine)

I have been doing some research for the Suzuki Roshi archive, and came across this instruction from Katagiri, on the morning of a one-day sitting, held just two days after Suzuki Roshi gave his Beginner’s Mind talk in Los Altos, in November 1965. I will perhaps share a quote from the two talks he gave during this sitting soon; the talks were tapes, to be transcribed, but those are not tapes we have found – yet.

This passage reminded me of the time I was having dokusan with Abbot Steve in the Abbot’s cabin at Tassajara – though I don’t remember if it was my shuso practice period, or the previous one I did which he led, in 2007. About half-way through he abruptly asked, “And how is your mudra?” I had certainly not been paying attention to it prior to that moment. All of a sudden I was. We smiled.

And then I realised that today is the fiftieth anniversary of Suzuki Roshi’s death. I shall (providing I can turn up a second negative at-home test during the morning) be heading into the temple to attend Roger’s shuso ceremony, and may ask him about that, if nothing more pressing comes up in the earlier exchanges. This in turn reminded me that ten years ago I was the ino dealing with all the logistics which come with the ceremonies and surrounding sesshin. I wrote about it here – re-reading the post, it feels at once very fresh and a long time ago; in my teaching sessions this week I made the same point about Thanksgiving week.

Suzuki Roshi

‘All the difficulties you have in zazen should not take place outside your mind. Your efforts should be kept within your mind. In other words you have to accept the difficulty as not being other than what you are. You should not try to make some tentative particular effort based on your small mind like, “my practice should be better.” My practice you say, but zazen is not your practice, it is Buddha’s practice. Your effort is based on big mind which cannot get out of. If your small self begins to act without the care of big mind, that is not Zen. What you do should be well taken care of by big mind. Our practice should be based on mind or original way-seeking mind which works on and on continuously.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi archives)

This would be wonderful advice for anyone sitting Rohatsu this week; it was given during a December sitting in 1965.