The Trees on Lily Alley

It is always hard if someone asks you, at the end of the retreat, how it went. When you have just spent a week pretty much entirely focused inwardly, there is so much that goes on that there is usually not one simple answer. Sometimes there are amazing highs and lows, and we learn that we can sit with both, that life is nothing but highs and lows that come and go whether we want them to or not.
In the week of the Genzo-e I felt that I spent a lot of time just feeling really tired, and that very little of my zazen was spent in the present moment. There were, from time to time, flashes of concentration, and the first couple of days as I settled in brought wonderful and heart-opening clarity to situations I have been dealing with recently. Those kinds of moments are priceless and resonate onwards in valuable ways.
The great joy of the Genzo-e is getting to study Dogen. It is fifteen years since Shohaku’s first one at City Center, which I attended as a fairly new practitioner, just before I went off to Tassajara for the first time, and five years since I last did one, out at Green Gulch. He said that a book of the 2002 talks will be coming out soon, and it will be interesting to read this with my current ‘eye of practice’ – I probably still have my notes somewhere, and they would also be interesting to read. To be honest, I am excited to read back the notes I just took from the dozen classes we just had. The ideas are so dense (and there were moments when I was just so sleepy) that I was writing things down not knowing if they would make any sense later.
I do know that half-way through the Genzo-e at Green Gulch, I moved from a state of depletion to one of real aliveness and clarity, and absorbed how Shohaku was speaking about the interplay of relative and absolute (what we might call ‘that old zen chestnut’) that I still use when I teach now – although probably an old school zen teacher would say ‘don’t speak of it for thirty years.’ I felt that I came away from this one with a more three-dimensional understanding of this, and I hope that I can absorb it and use it in the future.
I can’t remember which day, but somewhere in the middle, during the morning class, I was sitting on the courtyard side of the dining room, and looking across the room and through the windows that look out onto Lily Alley, which were mostly filled with densely-leaved trees, when I suddenly felt completely awake and concentrated just watching the leaves move in the wind; ironic really, given the subject of the Dogen fascicle being discussed – the cypress tree in the yard.
Naturally this awakeness vanished before too long, but there were flashes of it at other times, not least in the times I spent on the roof after each meal. When I lived at Zen Center I would love being up on the roof and watching the city and the unfolding sky in each direction (and I took thousands of pictures of the various weathers); mostly last week was intensely foggy and not that warm, but it was just about the only fresh air I got all day. And, in something I first noticed in the many sesshins I sat at Tassajara, often the zendo is just the incubator; the interesting stuff happens when you go outside afterwards and meet the world with fresh eyes.
One way I did get to meet the world was walking to and from Zen Center – not every day, as Jamie kindly drove me as often as not, or picked me up en route sometime shortly before five in the morning. I have not often walked around the city in my robes. The funniest moment was leaving one evening, when a young couple who might have been living out on the streets were arguing just ahead of me. The man muttered something, and the woman replied ‘well right now I would like to shove this guitar up your – oh! there’s a monk walking by, we had better watch out!’
The five o’clock world of San Francisco was sweet to walk through: so little traffic, though there were delivery trucks unloading, and the first streetcars rolling up Market for the early birds, as well as cleaners working in the bars and restaurants, people heading to early gym sessions, baristas prepping for opening, homeless people sleeping in doorways or wandering around in their version of reality. No-one seemed to notice the robes then.
Even spending a week in robes is unusual for me now. I loved re-immersing myself in forms and ceremonies, even though, typically for Zen Center, there were many people visiting for the retreat who were not familiar with many of the forms, so things were not always smoothly flowing in the way that makes me happy. I got the opportunity to be doshi for a couple of the zendo services, which were also moments of great concentration and energy. I remembered how much I love chanting, and oryoki, which I have not done in a couple of years, but every movement of which is still in my body.
Best of all was the little kaisando service in the morning before breakfast, when the priests would gather and just silently prostrate to Suzuki Roshi in gratitude for his bringing the practice to us. There were too many of us at the retreat for us all to fit in, so sometimes I was out on the landing, but the feeling is the same – a moment of gratitude and devotion expressed through the body.
And do I have a better answer? The thought occurred somewhere towards the end, ‘moment after moment, arising is arising.’ But then that seemed a little sequential, so it became, ‘moment and moment, arising and arising.’ And then to lessen the separation, ‘moment, moment – arising, arising.’ I suspect Dogen would go on to say, ‘moment-arising, arising-moment.’
In any case, since any understanding is incomplete and temporary, perhaps I should just repeat what I said as my contribution to the closing ceremony, using one of Dogen’s favourite exhortations, when we were asked to articulate a short phrase about our retreat experience: investigate further!

Advertisements

Hakuin

‘Once you have seen the ox, make ox herding your only concern.’ (On Kensho)

I remember reading, perhaps in Crooked Cucumber, that Richard Baker, after a couple of years of studying with Suzuki Roshi, said to a friend something like, ‘If we knew what we were doing, we would spend the rest of our lives doing this.’ There was a time, and I cannot pinpoint it exactly, but at least a dozen years ago now, where I had the same feeling. What else could I possibly want to do with my life but this?

Suzuki Roshi

‘When truth is actually fill your body, you think that something is missing [laughs]. Do you understand what does he mean? Something is missing– ”something is missing” means if you understand truth, you know, actual truth, truth is not– truth is– truth reveal itself in eternal present. Not only this moment, but also eternally it will continuously reveal itself through our activity. So what we do just now is not enough. We have to take another, you know, activity in next moment. So what we– just what we do is not enough.
If someone ask you what is truth, you know, you may say, “I don’t know”– you can say, “I don’t know,” or you can say, “What is it?” [Laughs.] What is it? “What is it?” means you stop and think, or you appreciate life in that moment. We are– we live in eternal present, but we even know that we do not aware of present even– present time even. We are just doing– continuously doing things one after another.
So you don’t know– you are not aware of your life even. But if someone ask you what it is, you may say, “Oh, what will it be?” [Laughs.] That is the answer, you know. “Oh– oh, I am doing something [laughs]. What am I doing [laughs]? This is the answer. What are you doing? “Oh my! I am watching the fish!” [Laughs, laughter.] That is the answer. Do you understand? “What am I doing? Oh, I’m practicing zazen.” That is true practice. That is true answer. “What is it?” is the answer, you know. “Oh, I don’t know” is also. “What are you doing? “Oh, oh my– I don’t know!” [Laughs, laughter.]
When you are actually one with truth, things happens on your life in that way. That is true life. When you discuss about the truth, what it is [laughs]– the more you discuss, the more [laughs] you will be separated from the truth. But when you know that, it’s all right– if you are answering to the question– someone’s question who do not know what is the truth. So you are trying to answer. Just you say, “Don’t be silly, I am just eating.” [Laughs.]

I copied this from an unedited transcript of a Suzuki Roshi talk, such as you can find here. I neglected to add the date or the actual page where I found the material, but since I can tell he is talking about the Genjo Koan, it was not hard to track down (and you can hear the talk here). In all the circularity of his expression, he is trying to elucidate the point that anything we think is happening necessarily does not encapsulate what is actually happening. More pertinently, there is a lot of laughter, which is also the essential point.

Suzuki Roshi

‘There is no end to our practice. Because there is no end to our practice, your practice is good. Don’t you think so? But usually you expect your practice could be effective enough to put an end to hard practice. If I say, “Practice hard for just two years,” you will lose interest in our practice. If I say, “You have to practice your whole life,” then you will be disappointed. “Oh, Zen is not good. Zen is not for me.” But if you understand what practice is, and if you are interested in practice, the reason you are interested in practice is that practice never ends. That is why I am interested in Buddhism. There is no end. Even if human beings vanish from this earth, Buddhism exists.’ (Genjo Koan – Three Commentaries)

Suzuki Roshi

‘Our practice is not just effort. You come here and study or practice zazen so that you can understand what is Buddhism. I’m making an effort to give you some understanding of Zen. That is true. That is actually what we are doing here. I shall be very much disappointed if you come to zazen thinking, “Now I know what Buddhism is.” If you think there will be no need to practice zazen, to study Zen, I shall be very disappointed. I want you to come here even though you understand what Buddhism is. I am not selling you something, but I want you to be my customer. And I want to live with your support and I shall be very glad if you have some joy in practicing here. This is actually Buddhism. It is not a matter of enlightenment or understanding.’ (Genjo Koan – Three Commentaries)

Suzuki Roshi

‘When you do something with a purpose based on some evaluation of what is useful or useless, good or bad, more or less valuable, your understanding is not perfect. If you do things that need to be done regardless of whether the results are good or bad, successful or unsuccessful, that is real practice.’ (Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness)