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. 



Suzuki Roshi

‘Before translating original text, I want to make sure the understanding of– our traditional way of understanding of teaching or our understanding of practice. As being goes on and on from formed to forming, our teaching develops on and on. It– it is new expression of old teaching in one way, and– but on the other hand it is returning to the old teaching. Actually it is the same thing. To– from Buddha to us and to– from us to Buddha, it is same thing. It is same understanding, but when we bow to him it means teaching comes from Buddha. But the teaching comes from Buddha to us means actually your experience– new experience of Buddha– return to Buddha. So it is same thing, but the understanding is different. When we say something about our teaching, there is no other way to say teaching comes from Buddha, or our teaching should go back to Buddha. That is our effort of developing Buddhism. We should not be just confined in the realm of Buddha’s teaching. Always new expression is necessary, but new experience is actually going back to Buddha.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi archives)

It’s always interesting to see how Suzuki Roshi introduces Dogen to his students who probably didn’t know what was about to hit them.

Shohaku Okumura

‘I see the process of ordinary education as being like piling up blocks to make a building of knowledge. When that building is completed it becomes our prison. It’s difficult to get out. If one is a lawyer, a doctor, or any professional – in my case a Buddhist priest – we accumulate knowledge necessary to our field. A lawyer thinks in legal terms that are not understandable to common people. A doctor speaks in medical jargon; a Buddhist scholar writes using too many Buddhist technical terms. Becoming experts, we close our minds, and we think this is the perfection of our knowledge. We have difficulty opening an entrance or window to get fresh air. This happens not only for elite professionals but for everyone who acquires knowledge. Then when we hear strange things like “mountains are walking,” we just say “nonsense” because it is outside of our mental prison. This is only natural. Dogen says it happens according to baseness and crudeness. These are harsh words, but I think he is right.
When we hear the words “flowing water,” we naturally accept the idea without thought or questioning. This is also a problem for us. Dogen is saying that we need to be free from such ready-made, habitual views created by our karma.’ (The Mountains and Waters Sutra)

I think this is a really clear way through to Dogen’s way of thinking, his constant challenge to us to check our understanding of reality and not abide in established thinking. Of course I think of Suzuki Roshi, but also of the recent passage of Brad Warner’s that I posted: how can we explain Dogen to people without falling into the trap of expertise?

So How Is It Now?

‘If wisdom is the insight that nothing has a fixed nature and that all things are in process, that would suggest cultivating just enough detachment from things, ideas, and people to accept that they would all change and finally pass away. Wisdom meant letting go to some extent, releasing one’s grip on what would inevitably pass away on its own. Meditating on “emptiness” was meant to cultivate a certain degree of nonattachment by showing practitioners how it is that things continually appear, change, and disappear.’ (Dale S. Wright – The Six Perfections)

We looked at this passage in my student group on Tuesday night. We all sheltered in place and met on Zoom. We sat for twenty minutes, and then each offered a check-in, as we always do. I encouraged everyone to think of the most positive thing for them coming out of the current pandemic restrictions. Many of the group had spent all day on video meetings, and were already sensing their fatigue with that process; something that was expressed as a positive was the feeling that, despite the physical walls we were all surrounded by, there was a real sense of connection with others. We are all in this together, and doing our best to support each other through difficult times and hard decisions.

I think most of us, even the hardiest practitioners, did not imagine that among the things disappearing is our sense of what our ‘normal’, ‘everyday’ lives looks like. But through this practice we are encouraged to be curious, to be resilient, to be flexible, and to find equanimity – whatever arises. As I often say in my meditation instruction, this is what upright sitting signifies. Not leaning into or away from, but doing our best to be there with what shows up, moment by moment. Using Suzuki Roshi’s phrase, ‘limiting our activity’; not in the literal, physical sense that most of us are now forced to do, but in the sense of not trying to solve every problem right now, but to focus on each step as we take it.

I know I am grateful that the shut-down happens at a time when I have, for once, enough of a financial buffer not to worry if I can make the rent at the beginning of the month. I am grateful for a robust constitution that allows me to feel less worried about the virus than I might be, even as I know that this is a self-reassuring delusion, given how little we know.

I am also grateful that I can continue to offer the teachings. On Wednesday morning I was the teacher for the first Core Studio live session on Instagram. It is a long time since I have been that nervous giving a teaching, mainly as much of the technology is new to me. We had time ahead of the session to get me logged in and set up on Instagram Live, but I noticed, unlike a Zoom meeting or a hang-out, there was no audio or video coming from anyone else who had logged on; I just got to see the names of all the people who were joining scrolling up the screen as I spoke to an image of myself. I did get reassurance as we went live that I could be heard, so I just ploughed on, settling myself down along with everyone else, trying to find helpful things to say in the circumstances, and I think mostly it went very well.

Core’s idea is to be offering three classes a day, with the whole roster of teachers, and hopefully that benefits a lot of people. It is open to everyone, you don’t need the Core trainer, but, should you be tempted, you can get one with a discount using the code SITWITHSHUNDO, which as these things do, benefits you, me and them.

They also published today, on their blog, a post that I wrote a couple of weeks ago, whose message feels apt for the time. I hope you take a look at that too.

IMG_2897Although the weather continues wet, the clouds broke on Tuesday enough for me to get out on my bike, which is still currently permitted. I was actually surprised at how many people were out and about – running and walking in the park, and at the beach, but there were still a lot of people driving around as well.


Suzuki Roshi

‘A talk is always– the conclusion of my talk is always why we should practice zazen. This is not– my talk is not just casual talk.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi Archive)

Another of the old talks I have been listening to – from the day before the previous one (you can follow the links to hear it for yourself). As I commented last time, in some of the early sesshins, it really does sound like intimate gatherings – and all for this purpose. Hopefully, through his non-standard phrasing, you can grasp what he was aiming for.

Suzuki Roshi

‘To the– when we stand [at a] crossing point or fork [in the] road, which way to take? Here is our bodhisattva-mind, you know. Which is better? Which should we go? This “I” is not possible to explain, but anyway, we are always at the crossing or at the fork [in the] road, and we don’t know what to do. As long as we have our true nature, when we are conscientious enough, we don’t– we sometime wonder which way to take. That is bodhisattva’s way. If we don’t mind good or bad we will take, you know, either way. But for us it is rather difficult [laughs] to choose one of the two. When it is difficult, there is true nature. Because of the true nature– true nature makes us difficult to choose, you know. Here we have bodhisattva-mind. When we have difficulty in, you know, in ethical sense there is bodhisattva-mind. When you say, “I am no good,” there is bodhisattva-mind. But we cannot explain why we have this kind of mind. It is impossible to explain why.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi archive)

I was listening to this the other day. It is from the summer of 1965, and one of the very first talks of his to have been recorded. At times here, and in other talks in that time span, it sounds like an intimate group of young people enjoying themselves as they figure out what it is all about.

Jakusho Bill Kwong

‘DC: What was his teaching? What did he teach?

BK: I really can’t say, a teaching per se. You can say Dogen said this and this and this, put it in a slot. But Suzuki Roshi it was just like being a real person. Through his real experience of zazen, real zazen, that there’s a great possibility in all of us.

DC: Would you say that he taught to sit zazen?

BK: That was his teaching. That was the main thing. And how you could also be the same as him.’ (from David Chadwick’s Cuke archives)

Effortless Effort

Much as I love reading the New Yorker for learning about new things, intellectual stimulation, and keeping up-to-date with aspects of the news, I was not expecting an article on natural wine to be prompting a blog post.

In it were references to a Gurdjieff community in California (which prompted me to send it on to a friend who had spent time there), and then, at the end, this quote:

“In Zen, they say that the last and the hardest step is to give up the struggle to awaken. Only when you let go of it can you make it—although you don’t want to anymore. It’s a paradox.”

I have not heard that as an exact expression, but it does encapsulate something that has become clearer to me over the years. Norman’s post from yesterday points to this, and  Zenju beautifully summarised a similar notion in one of her books: “It’s not about continuing struggle in order to create a struggle-free life.”

I have material gathered for a talk I would like to give – not the one I will be giving soon – about this, the interplay of effort and non-effort. Yes, as we discussed in my classes on the Bodhisattva Vows, we vow to end desires, but we do need the desire to do that in the first place.

So how to approach this paradox? Or indeed any paradox?

In my years of teaching, I have developed a repertoire of lines that I will trot out when the occasion suits, and I have been known to say that in zen, we eat paradoxes for breakfast. There are a few posts that I came across (searching to see if I had used the above line on here), that illustrate the approach – from Suzuki Roshi, Shohaku Okumura, and Sekkei Harada. Things that we think are different are, on a different level, not.

As so often, Shohaku throws light on this in a most helpful way. This passage from Living By Vow made it very clear to me:

‘The title of this poem, “Sandokai,” is composed of three characters. The first, san (cen in Chinese) means “difference,” “diversity,” “variety.” In this poem it is used as a synonym for ji, which indicates the concrete, phenomenal aspect of our life. The second chararacter, do (tong in Chinese), means “sameness,” “equality,” “commonality.” Here it is used as a synonym of ri, the absolute or ultimate reality of emptiness beyond discrimination. Kai (qi in Chinese) means “promise,” “agreement,” or “tally.” In ancient times when merchants made a contract, they wrote it on a tally (a wooden board), which they then broke into halves. When they actually exchanged goods, they put the two halves of the tally together to confirm th agreement. San-do-kai refers to both aspects of our lives: the concrete, comprised of many specific situations, ideas,  evaluations, and things; and the absolute, based on universality, emptiness, and nondiscrimination. These are like the halves of a tally. These aspects work together as one seamless reality. Hence, “Sandokai” can be translated as the “Merging of Difference and Unity.”‘

At Zen Center we translate Sandokai these days as ‘Harmony of Difference and Equality,’ and as I often say, the different translations can help triangulate a picture for us. The way I see this now, the tally only serves its function when both halves meet. The two parts may seem different to our ordinary eyes, when in reality they are part and parcel. Perhaps, if we let go of the struggle to try to understand how this works, then we will get to experience it in our practice, and in our lives.

The Holy Hallway

Today is the day when Zen Center commemorates the death of Suzuki Roshi, forty-eight years ago now. The story of his dying, and the timing of it (on the first day of the Rohatsu sesshin)  is told often enough. I picture him lying in the room that is now the kaisando, the room that all temples have where the founder is remembered.

But for the time that he lived at City Center, in the last two years of his life, he mainly lived in the suite of rooms in the adjacent hallway. They were created, I believe, for the director of the building when it served as a home for Jewish women. The first room, central on the wing, is now the dokusan room, where the abbot or abbess meets students, which also functions as the spiritual base of the abbot, where he or she signs the official papers during the Mountain Seat ceremony. Doors lead through to a sitting room, then a bathroom and kitchen, a bedroom, and finally a closet.

The closet is the outlier as it is not part of the original design of the building. Julia Morgan had designed the wing with a skylight above the west end to illuminate that end of the wing, and a glass section of the ceiling between the second and third floors (the other wing had windows in the west wall for the same purpose. By modern standards, though, the bedroom door was too far from a fire escape, and so the end of the hallway was blocked off; the elegant cupboard, matching the one at the end of the ground floor, was hidden away, and that end of the wing grew dark.

These days it is used as a waiting area for students who are having dokusan or meeting other teachers whose rooms are on the wing (hence its nickname).

After Suzuki Roshi died, his widow, Okusan, continued to live in the suite, and when she returned to Japan, Blanche and Lou moved in there. When I first lived at City Center, I was in rooms on the floor directly above that (where the hallway had equally been shortened, and a little suite of two rooms and a hallway created) known as the tea suite, as it had been used for that over the years. So we had the skylight above, and the glass below. At night we could often hear Lou typing in the closet beneath, quite late into the night.

After Lou died, Blanche continued to live in the suite, but as she grew frail, the rooms were adapated for her decreased mobility. Eventually it was decided that she should keep just the sitting room (as her bedroom), and the bathroom. I was director at the time, and the consensus was that I should move into the other two rooms so as to be in earshot of Blanche if she needed help in the middle of the night – which eventually she did after she broke her hip, and I was on hand when she set off her alarm in the night.

I didn’t really make use of the kitchen, and the closet was still full of Blanche and Lou’s things, but the bedroom was a wonderful space to live in, and was probably as close as I ever felt to being in Suzuki Roshi’s presence…

Kaisando morning of the 4th.jpgThe kaisando with the offerings from the monthly memorial on the 4th.

Flow rehearsal dokusan room Hoitsu jiden 2.jpgLooking for pictures of the dokusan room, I came up with this from rehearsals for the 2014 Mountain Seat ceremony: Fu and Ed are standing by the table where the documents will be signed. Hoitsu, Suzuki Roshi’s son, is sitting in the corner. I have a whole sequence of pictures of him interacting with the Bodhidharma statue on the table, and others of him doing calligraphy at that table.

Suite - kitchen table.jpgThis was the kitchen of the suite – I did enjoy sitting at the table and reading.

Suite - bookcase.jpgSuite - bedroom, bookcase and kitchen.jpgLooking from room to room in the suite.

Suite - bedroom.jpgThe bedroom – the door where my robes are hanging is the door to the closet.

Of The World

My post yesterday prompted a correspondent to ask, ‘What is going on (actually)? Do you have some verbal answer?’ I suggested in reply that they go and look out of the window.

I received in return a description of things seen and things felt: ‘a very “mundane” verbal description of an experience – and yet, ok as it is.’

After this exchange, as I was out on my bike, I remembered that many years ago, when I was still a student, discussing with a good friend the value of traveling the world – not just to see amazing places, but also to promote personal growth – I quoted a line from a Talking Heads song, ‘I look out the window, and I call that education.’

I also thought, while riding, of the stamp that used to appear on books in the Zen Center library, courtesy of Celeste, the librarian who has since died, with the exhortation, ‘Have an Ordinary Day’; and of how Ed Brown, invoking Suzuki Roshi, talked of the ordinary being special and the special being ordinary.

The word ‘mundane’ has a connotation of boring, or perhaps even sense of drudgery attached to it. A sample online definition tell us:

Mundane, from the Latin word mundus, “world,” originally referred to things on earth. Such things were supposed to be uninteresting when compared to the delights of Heaven; hence the word’s present meaning.

And yet: this is what we have; this is where we are. Okay as it is. When we feel that we have to be looking for the supramundane and ignoring or belittling the mundane, we miss the opportunity to practise – or as Dogen would say we miss the moment of practice-realisation. When he says in the Genjo Koan, ‘here is the place; here the way unfolds’, it is easy to look past the fact that he really means right here, right now. Whatever that looks like.

On my ride yesterday, the world looked pretty beautiful. Once I was over the hill from Mill Valley, and descending towards Muir Woods, I was sharing the road with turkey, quail, and, unprecedented for me, two coyotes by the roadside in different places. I rode north along Highway 1 with the blue Pacific as a backdrop. It was wonderfully life-affirming, even the section that had recently burned, with its scorched ground, crisped brown leaves, and traces of pink fire retardant on the asphalt and barriers. And so was riding on 17th St later in the day, with three young people, two on scooters, one on a bike, all ringing their bells as they enjoyed their afternoon excursion. And so was chatting with the cashier at the supermarket, and being flustered by a careless driver soon afterwards.

Every moment counts.