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.
I 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.
If 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.