‘As soon as there’s something considered important, it becomes a nest.’

This line might not strike so deeply, but it reminded me of an exchange at Tassajara, during one of the practice periods I was there with Reb, Tenshin Roshi. As usual, after he gave a talk, people were allowed to ask questions, and one of his ordained students started to say something – I don’t remember the content. I do remember Tenshin Roshi’s response, which I would characterise as insistent: ‘You’re nesting.’
I more or less grasped what he meant by that – that the priest was holding firm to a view when it would be wiser to hold it loosely or let it go. Since then I have heard other stories about Suzuki Roshi responding very differently to similar situations depending on whether he thought the student was being inquisitive or merely stubborn.
Maybe Tenshin Roshi repeated the phrase a few times; it had the effect of stopping the priest in their tracks. A few people raised their voices to express the opinion that Tenshin Roshi had been cruel to the priest, but I didn’t see it that way. It felt clear to me that he knew the priest well enough to use that tactic, and that he wouldn’t have been as firm with me, or one of the other junior students. I also seem to remember that the priest later acknowledged the wisdom of Tenshin Roshi’s response. Sometimes giving, sometimes taking life…

Dogen’s Five-Part Harmony

‘To study the buddha way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of realization remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.’
This section of the Genjo Koan gets a lot of play on the zen circuit. Most often just the first phrase, or the first two phrases are quoted, which I guess can be called expedient means: they are striking and memorable expressions.
Recently the first pair came to mind during the beginners’ sitting that I lead at Zen Center earlier in the month. A woman asked a question about dealing with trauma: was spending time on recovery and healing a bad idea as it was just reinforcing a sense of self? Using Dogen to frame the answer, I said that the first step is to know what it is you are dealing with. If you have not spent time investigating, and where it is necessary, working to come to terms with, to resolve and heal the wounded parts that we all carry around in our human brokenness, you cannot truly let the self go. And then, since I had earlier mentioned the koan with Joshu and the cypress tree, I also talked about how that story points us towards being actualised by myriad things.
This kind of investigation always seems easier when we are in nature. I think of how I interacted with trees at Tassajara in my later stays there, allowing their stately living presence to energise me as I watched them respond to the seasons and grow towards the light in league with those surrounding them. Recently at Wilbur, having taken a book on Dogen with me – I found myself not agreeing with some of how Francis Cook characterised Dogen’s message – I got to thinking of the last two lines as well as I sat in the plunge with rain falling all around, gazing at the water and the big pine tree.
Through Dogen’s expressions, I have come to trust that everything is manifesting enlightened activity; it seems a shame not to join in. No trace of realisation remains means that when you are not telling any self-bound stories about being actualised, the process is free to continue from moment to moment. When we let go of the self, this body and mind, and the stories it holds onto, we meet it.
The pine tree by the pool, at a moment when it was not raining last weekend.


‘Stopping the mind and contemplating quietude is pathological; it is not Ch’an. Sitting all the time constricts the body – how does it help towards truth?’ (The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch)

I remember reading this in my first winter at Tassajara, and feeling vindicated that I was not enjoying the amount of zazen I was sitting. Of course, it was because my body was being constricted! To be fair, as an active person since childhood, sitting still never came naturally to me, and it took that whole winter to gain the flexibility needed to sit as much as we were doing (six periods and three meals in a standard day). These days I read it a little differently: it is easy to set this against Dogen insisting that zazen is the only practice, but, with typical zen slipperiness, I would say that they are not mutually exclusive. And everyone agrees that it is not about stopping the mind.

Walking the dog

As mentioned the other day, I spent a week over the new year dog-sitting for a zen colleague. Apart from the ‘change is as good as a rest’ aspect of this, it is always a pleasure to have the extended company of animals; there was no shortage of them when I grew up, even if I have rarely had the opportunity to replicate that in my recent life.

We went out to walk three times a day, and the habit I got into was going up to the 27th St open space first thing, and walking around the block before going to bed; in the middle of the day we went further afield, and I tried to vary it each day. What I noticed was that my charge was always ready to go, always keen and eager to explore wherever it is we ended up, always moving briskly forward. One person we interacted with in Dolores Park commented on how smiley she was; she always gave the impression of being delighted to be out in the world. Even if she spent the intervening time napping or sleeping, she was always ready for the next adventure.

At Tassajara, when I was living there and we had dogs, there was a running joke that the dogs were always sitting zazen (as two of them were herding dogs, they never really relaxed unless we were all safely coralled in the zendo); my recent companion certainly taught me a lesson in staying present and focused, and saying yes to everything, as a good zen student learns to do.

One afternoon we made it to Glen Canyon. Mount Davidson is in the background.


Shaving the Head

When I lived at Tassajara, I followed the traditional strictures about only shaving – and shaving the head – on ‘four and nine days’ (the traditional personal days in the schedule), or after sesshin. Of course the real tradition was that these were the only days you could bathe; the ritual that I did as shuso with the benji, where we bathed Manjushri at the end of the morning schedule on personal days, represented the idea that the baths were open to all only after the notional head student (Manjushri) had had his turn. When I took my turn at the baths, usually after a run, the sun would be warming the deck. The steam room was an ideal place to sit and wield the razor, and it would sometimes be a social – if silent – activity.
These days I don’t have the luxury of a steam room to hand, but I do enjoy having hot baths. I find lying in the bath a great place to think as well as relax, not to mention keeping up with the New Yorker. Nowadays I tend to shave my head every other day, and it still feels like a ritual; there is something refreshing about having a new blade to cut through the roots leaving smooth skin, and something liberating about being without hair. I still bring to mind the traditional gatha for the occasion (there being gatha for just about every activity in the day to underscore the fact that each part of our life has the significance of a ritual and that we should pay equal attention to everything that we do):

Shaving off the hair,
Dedicated to all beings,
Dropping off all worldly desires,
Completely entering Nirvana.

I had the benji take this picture as I bathed Manjushri for the last time as shuso; he is represented by a cloth banner that the two of us take in procession from the zendo to the bathhouse and back, while chanting the Heart Sutra – Japanese outbound, English on the return leg.

At Year’s End

I tend to keep a lot of notebooks where I scribble down thoughts, ideas and quotes that resonate – though these days I am equally likely to do that on Apple Notes, especially on my commute, where I jot down page numbers from the book I am reading, as part of my practice to find material for this blog.

Recently I unearthed a little notebook from ten years ago, about the time I was back at Tassajara after a painful couple of years of upheaval and uncertainty, during which one of things I cleaved most closely to was my intention to ordain as a priest. I had received permission to sew my okesa, and was investigating what that meant for my life. I had a notion that it made most sense to continue monastic practice at Tassajara, which was not easy to do given what was going on in my life at the time – hence the pain and upheaval. Some of the pages are filled with notes from talking with Norman Fischer and reading articles by Mel Weitsman, as well as more traditional zen sources. I was amused to read a little aside under the title ‘priest – monk’: ‘giving up the world – helping the world. How can I embody the practice in the outside world?’

Fast forward ten years, and here I am, still trying to see how that works. Almost exactly a year after leaving the temple and settling in the marketplace, I notice how my preoccupations of those first few weeks (then, as now, a time of rain, and feeling that things were on hold for the duration of the holidays) have resurfaced: Am I going to be able to pay my rent? What does my practice look like? The rent  issue has been particularly pressing this past month or so, and I watched myself move from anxiety to acceptance, with a trust that it would somehow work out (I think it more or less will for January). I know that I will be doing more work at Zen Center next year than I did this, having made an effort to establish some independence, and there are other ideas in the pipeline. Alongside Roaming Zen, my dharma brother Zachary and I are plotting to launch Sidewalk Zen (unless we decide to change the name soon), which will be just what it says on the tin, a chance to do zazen out in the city – we have been chewing over the idea of a pop-up zendo truck, and then I saw that perhaps the truck was not necessary.

Another dharma brother has been wrestling with the idea of giving up his livelihood and spending time at Tassajara. I encouraged him to read some Dogen, with this kind of passage in mind, and I have been holding these notions close as well as I move forward:

‘When one thinks about it, everyone has their allotted share of food and clothing while they are alive. It does not come from thinking about it; nor does one fail to get it because one does not seek for it. Laypeople leave such matters to fate, while they concern themselves with loyalty and develop their filial piety. How much less then should monks be governed by worldly concerns! Sakyamuni left the remaining portion of his life to his descendants, and the many devas give food and clothing in offering. Each person naturally receives their allotted share in their life. They need not think of it, they need not search for it; the allotted portion is there. Even if you rush about in search of riches, what happens when death suddenly comes? Students should clear their minds of these non-essential things and concentrate on studying the Way.’ (Shobogenzo Zuimonki 2,6)

Thanks for reading, and if you are on the same calendar, happy new year.

On the subway - one moment of calm
I have been wondering about a picture to use for publicising Sidewalk Zen – this isn’t quite right, and it was taken in New York, but it has some of the qualities I am thinking about.

On a recent rainy morning, I was going through my picture archive for some representation of me from ten years ago. This is one of me doing what I love, playing with rocks.

Crossing the creek at Tassajara – perhaps this is a good visual for what I talk about above.

Marian Mountain

‘A wind sweeps through the trees behind the cabin. The sound is enough to awaken the whole world from its dreams of childhood. Tonight we may make our home in this zen environment, surrounded by marble peaks and looking down into lost valleys, while an immense sheet of of shining water stretches beyond the horizon. But tomorrow we may drift along with the snow that wraps the world in white. Forever to travel is our destiny, through a dream world of echoes and shadows.
This tattered life is my only robe; the wind my only refuge. It was here a moment ago, but already it has blown away.’ (The Zen Environment)

Black cone hike - Black Cone final section Big Sur river valley 2.jpg
Black cone hike - Black Cone fourth section ocean gap.jpg
I don’t know exactly where the cabin was where she wrote this, but this is probably as close as I got, hiking the Black Cone trail in the summer of last year.