Yvonne Rand

‘Harry Roberts was a teacher who worked with many of us involved in planting the garden and fields at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center. Harry had lived at Green Gulch for a while and then lived with me and my family for the last several years of his life. As he was dying he asked me, “What are you gonna do with the ‘carcass’ after I die?” I told him, “First of all, I’ll close all the orifices, and then I’ll wash your body with tea made from yerba sante that I have collected from Mt. Tamalpais. Then we’ll put some medicine pieces from your own wisdom tradition into your hands. We’ll sit with your body for three days, and then we’ll take your body to be cremated, or we can bury you somewhere.” And he said, “That’s too much trouble. Just put the carcass out the back door and let the dogs take care of it!”

Harry was quite equanimous about his body. He was in the late stages of dying for two months. I’ve never experienced anyone else take that long a time in the late stages of dying. Harry was so thorough in his lifetime; he did everything slowly and carefully. And that’s exactly how he died!’ (from Inquiring Mind)

I read this week that Yvonne Rand had died; I never really met her, though she was present at a few big Zen Center occasions I was at, but she was very close to Suzuki Roshi, and very involved in the early years, so this is another connection to those times lost.

Yvonne Rand at the Zen Center 50th Annicersary celebrations in 2012

Suzuki Roshi

‘So through group practice you find out how to know your own way. For example, Buddhist ceremonies are too complicated to do perfectly and so in our observance of them we can see our own way and not just the way of the ceremony. And in learning to accommodate ourselves to the practice of others and to our teachers, we will find out how to communicate with others and with all worlds and their various Buddhas. This is not just verbal communication. It is more direct than that. It is person to person and beyond any specific way. This is known as the Bodhisattva’s way.’ (from a WindBell article, via Cuke.com)


Suzuki Roshi

‘Buddha’s practice goes first. Our practice goes.
We say, “our practice,” but it is actually Buddha’s practice. We should know this point. This is the key point of our practice.
I don’t know how many people want to practice zazen, but as long as their practice [is] involving personal practice, it is not true practice. If we practice selfish personal practice, it means that we are accumulating our karma more and more instead of releasing our previous karma.
Because of many bad choice–things you accumulated in previous life–you are right here and practicing under [Sotan Ryosen] Tatsugami Roshi. In spite of his difficult situation, Tatsugami Roshi is here.
Again, when Buddha’s practice goes first, real practice will be ours.
The more you know what is practice, the greater your practice will become.
We must be very, very grateful to join this practice–day by day, moment after moment.
Sorry to disturb your practice.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi archives)

Rindo Fujimoto

‘I will now speak of the proper functioning of the mind during zazen. Beginners often ask me about their problems; however, it is very difficult for me to be of any help to them. Neither a short nor a complicated answer to peoples’ questions is really helpful. It is all right to ask me questions, but it is not enough. One must experiment for oneself and then one will understand. After reading a book on the subject of swimming one must get in the water and find out about it first hand. A book cannot give one the experience.

There are various ways of “quieting” the mind. The first way is “putting the mind In the left hand,” which means projecting the mind into the inzo, or hand position. The inzo symbolizes the Buddha. When our mind is in the inzo, the body and breathing will be right.

In Rinzai training, the kosoku koan is used to quiet (to clear) the mind. This is a good way to cultivate the Zen way of seeing; however, I think it is better to develop the Zen condition by shikantaza. This means devoting oneself solely to sitting; by quieting the mind and putting it in the. left hand. The “Zen eye” finds its source in the Zen condition, and the Buddha’s enlightenment is not the Zen eye, but the Zen condition. In Soto Zen we just sit; this is the most natural way. The main aim of zazen is to “let go of mind and body”; however, Buddhists sometimes pay too much attention to the mind and therefore they cannot get rid of it. The kosoku koan may be useful; however, shikantaza is better because one has a tendency to cling to the koan and to one’s mind. Although we should “put the mind in the left hand,” we must not pay attention to the mind. When we pay too much attention to the left hand, we are preventing satori. When we consciously put the mind in the hand, it is wrong. There are various kinds of good meditation. Satori is beyond all of these, and it is necessary to pass through the many regions of the mind before enlightenment.’ (The Way of Zazen)

Apparently, this booklet was one of the few zen texts available in English to Suzuki Roshi’s early students – I found it an interesting read on how Dogen’s zazen is currently understood.

Suzuki Roshi

‘Student L [Katherine Thanas]: Docho Roshi: When does my life express the Dharma and when does it not?

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

Student L [Katherine Thanas]: But sometimes better than others?

SR: 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)

And how about you? How do you think your life expresses the Dharma?

This Moment

We have tipped into the second half of the year now, and locally, we had a shift in the weather to go with it: from fog and wind last week, to warm clear skies – and wind – this. Sometimes the wind feels exhausting, especially on a bike, but the sense of movement it signifies is a salutory reminder of all the forces in flow right now.

As I have been doing these past few months in the talks and teachings I have offered, I try to find a word that encapsulates whatever mood I might be tuning into, but that has proved hard to pinpoint this past week. The surge of protests has receded a little – although a Pride-themed one passed by my door over the weekend. People around the country seemed to have lost any sense of patience and resilience about the virus and the lockdown; I am thankful that San Francisco is perhaps one of the most cautious cities in the country in that regard, and in any case, I am in no hurry to start mingling freely. I have a sense, though it maybe just an optimistic wish, that the Republicans in the States have realised the game is up for the next election, and have given up any semblance of governing. They only seem interested in a scorched-earth approach as they recede into history.

Teaching opportunities have been varied recently – another zazen instruction for Zen Center, Core sessions on Instagram, corporate meditations, another talk to the Hebden group, as well as preparing my upcoming class for Zen Center on Dogen’s Bendowa. I am mindful that Dogen might seem abstract to the needs of today, but I also trust that the benefits of practice that he talks about in the text are timeless, and thus equally valuable and valid now as they were when he wrote it almost eight hundred years ago.

In my sitting, and at other times, a sense of ease has arisen – a feeling that I don’t have to set myself against the world, but can just meet the moment as I am. I am not sure what has brought that to bear, but I am glad for these moments, like sitting out on the deck, still warm in the twilight, a half moon rising, enjoying one of the many books I am dipping into at the moment. I came across a Suzuki Roshi quote the other day that I shared with the Hebden group: ‘Your everyday life is also the expression of your inmost nature.’ This is always true, and it feels especially valuable to be practising with this intention at this moment.

IMG_5958Books on my desk – all highly recommended.

Zenkei Blanche Hartman

‘During the Vietnam War, I was a political activist. I fought for peace. There was some contradiction. There wasn’t any peace in me. I hated the peope who disagreed with me. That was a kind of war within me. In 1968 I was just beginning to look at the way in which I was vigorously clinging to my opinions about things and denigrating others who had different opinions.

When there was a strike at San Francisco State University, the police came with their masks and clubs, started poking people. And without thinking, I ducked under the hands of people to get between the police and the students. I met this riot squad policeman face-to-face, with his mask on and everything. He was close enough to touch. I met this policeman’s eyes straight on, and I had this overwhelming experience of identification, of shared identity. This was the most transformative moment of my life – having this experience of shared identity with the riot squad policeman. It was a gift. Nothing had prepared me for it. I didn’t have any conceptual basis for understanding it. The total experience was real and incontrovertible.

My life as a political activist ended with that encounter, because there was no longer anything to fight against. The way I described it to my friends was, the policeman was trying to protect what he thought was right and good from all of the other people who were trying to destroy it – and I was doing the same thing. Since I had no basis for understanding the experience of shared identity with someone I had considered completely “other” (that is, the riot squad policeman), and because the experience had been so real and so powerful, I began to search for someone who would understand it. How could a riot squad policeman and I be identical? In my search I met Suzuki Roshi. The way he looked at me, I knew he understood. That’s how I came to be an ordained monastic.’ (Seeds For A Boundless Life)

I have been thinking a lot about this story in the last few weeks. Like other stories in the book, I heard Blanche tell it more than once. And, to be clear, I don’t think she is saying that there is nothing to protest – indeed, in her remaining years, she was a strong advocate for many just causes. She is making a point about how to approach difference. Tomorrow’s post also suggests a method.

Pride - Blanche on the truckBlanche on the truck for Pride.

Grahame Petchey

‘What attracted me in the first half hour of zazen that I did with Suzuki Roshi was that I didn’t need to have faith anymore – just the blank wall. All I had to do was sit. Suzuki demanded no more than that – and he was humble. It was overwhelming joy when I first met him. I had been looking for the genuine product, and there it was. I just dedicated my whole life.’ (from Cuke.com)

I always enjoyed hearing about Grahame Petchey, someone who came from England to be one of the early figureheads at Zen Center, and being the one of first people ordained by Suzuki Roshi, before he eventually went his own way in Japan. Appropriately enough, today is Suzuki Roshi’s birthday.

Suzuki Roshi

‘Zen student is not, you know, so expressive, you know. Mostly they keep silent. They do not walk so fast. They don’t act so actively, you know. You know, they have some– something, you know– something different, anyway. Especially when you sit for so long time, you yourself feel you changed a lot. You feel, you know, it is difficult even to smile [laughs]– even to say something, you know. That will be the feeling you have. And if you continue your practice, you will be more and more so. And even though you will not change into a strong buddha [laughs, laughter], a great change will happen to you, you know, and you will be someone which you didn’t like at all. “I don’t want to be like this.” [Laughs.] But although this kind of experience is not the experience you wanted to have, but this is the experience anyway you will have through [laughs, laughter] zazen.

But there is– there is no need for you to worry, you know, because this is the way, you know, upwards, and soon you will find out the way downwards, and you will find yourself in the city again as a normal person. So there is nothing to worry, but in zendo it is necessary for us to have this kind of experience through practice.

And I think one or two years we must devote ourselves this kind of practice. If you go to Tassajara, you know, even more so. And Tassajara itself will have a kind of feeling of practice center more and more. When you see this kind of practice, you may say– or people may say, “Zen practice is not for us” [laughs].” You know, you may not like it. But by the time you have a Caucasian, you know, old Zen master, you will have found out exactly what is Zen.

So I want you to be patient enough to continue this kind of practice. And it is important for you to take care of this kind of feeling and gradually extend this kind of umperturbability [imperturbability] of mind to our everyday life. When you start to work on this point, to establish, you know, to extend our practice to everyday life, you will understand– you will understand the teaching– our teaching. Or you will understand what is meant.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi archives)

It was poignant to come across this passage, as his description of a student’s progress, from fifty years ago, resonates with how I have felt practice changing me, while he did not live long enough to see it happen for his students.

Coming Home

So today marks the twenty-year anniversary of my arrival in San Francisco. I packed up my mostly happy life in London (see here), and flew in with two bags, and a bicycle in a box. I was in love, and happy to be starting a new phase of life – which also included living at the Zen Center.

I have never been much of a one for imagining the future, but I think I had the idea that I would give residential practice a try for six months, and then we would move on if I didn’t take to it. Having already heard about Tassajara on my one previous visit to San Francisco, I knew I wanted to see it for myself (and indeed, I did get there for a day later that summer). Perhaps we would do the practice for a couple of years. I guess that’s what you could call beginner’s mind, eh?

Certainly, I would never have guessed that I would spend fifteen years living at either City Center or Tassajara (with a couple of short breaks around the five-year mark). We had moved to Tassajara in 2002, and a couple of years after that, I really started to have the clear sense that I wanted to ordain as a priest. I remember reading a remark that Richard Baker had supposedly made early on in Suzuki Roshi’s time to a Zen Center colleague (I expect I read that in Crooked Cucumber): ‘if we had any sense, we would just do this for the rest of our lives.’

And at a certain point, it did seem clear that there was nothing else I would rather do with my life. Speaking with Zachary yesterday, he was asking about the process of how I had changed through practice; I answered that it had been rather as Blanche used to describe monastic practice, like a rock tumbler where everyone is very slowly having the rough edges smoothed out. If I look back, it seems clear that I have changed; I think it is mostly for the better, and I think it can be largely attributed to practice. And I trust that people can change for the better, cultivating the kindness and compassion that we all know how to access, and I hope I can help people see how that is possible.

Neither would I have guessed that right now I would be doing my teaching on video conferencing apps (as a sound engineer at the BBC in the nineties, I had been used to satellite phones and ISDN for audio, but back then, internet audio was still in its infancy, as I discovered in my first job over here). It is an imperfect intimacy, but it is all we have right now.

At some point, maybe from around 2012, I started feeling that it might be time to go home to England, where there would be opportunities to teach. I had been feeling a little homesick, missing the landscapes and the history (if not some aspects of the culture). But leaving Zen Center and moving back (with more than two bags and a bicycle now) seemed like a big leap, so I settled for just leaving Zen Center, and that clearly felt like the right choice.

In the past year, I suppose, I have started to feel much more settled here (despite some aspects of the culture). I am in love, and looking foward to starting a new phase in my life, hopefully when the pandemic eases its grip somewhat. My vow is to continue on this path, and to embody upright teaching. Who knows where this will all take me?

Twenty years ago, I arrived in the middle of one of the heatwaves that San Francisco can sometimes experience. Everyone warned me not to get used to the high temperatures, but I enjoy them when they come round, and this is time of year it typically happens . This week has been a little different, and much less typical to my mind: on Monday, during the Zoom version of the outdoor lunchtime meditation, I had to set up inside, as there was rain in the forecast, and indeed we had several bands of it passing through during the afternoon. One of the participants was sitting in her car, and I noticed on the screen, as the wind suddenly whistled through the open window in front of me, that her hair was blowing around at the same moment. I thought it might be the 21st Century version of Hui-neng’s story.

ZC group 2001.jpegI had the idea to go back and look at my earliest San Francisco photo album. This is probably from the spring of 2001. If you look closely, you can see the current abbot in the front row. I also see at least three people who now run other centres. I can name all but a couple of people in the picture still, and I think five of the people shown have died.

Twin Peaks 2001.jpegIMG_4310.jpgIf you read this blog regularly, you might remember that being up on Twin Peaks has been the symbol of my feeling at home here. The oldest picture I have of the view from there reminds me so clearly what the last two decades have done to this city.