Karen Sunna

‘ I would encourage you to listen in zazen. Please listen and you will hear many things. You can hear the sound of the stream, the birds, footsteps, the dog bark, the fly in your ear, the dishes being washed in the kitchen. Many things. Just listen. Don’t compare, don’t contrast, don’t judge, don’t learn. Just listen in emptiness.’ (Sitting under the Bodhi Tree)

This book is a little booklet with talks given during a sesshin at Tassajara in 1997 attended by various zen teachers. The list of things being heard is a very typical soundscape from the zendo there.

Keido Fukushima

‘A monastery is a greenhouse for growing non-ego… We don’t let the monks sleep much, and we limit them to simple food. They always want to sleep more, but this is just another illusion. And because they’re always eating simple food, they’re always craving rich food. And this too, is just another illusion. But such illusions are simple. There are other kinds of illusion that are more complicated. So we focus on these two very simple illusions to ward off more complicated illusions. This is part of the wisdom of our long Zen tradition.’ (Zen Bridge)

I read these words during my recent time at Tassajara, where this book was a new arrival in the library, and they resonated deeply. Tassajara in the summer is not as strict as Tassajara in the winter, but I remembered how in my first winter I had been tired and hungry all the time – and cold as well, to add another simple illusion. Undoubtedly training monasteries in Japan push their young charges harder than their equivalents in the US, but the principles are the same. And while it may seem hard-hearted, and it is tough to live through at times, the wisdom of the tradition holds true. I often reflect back on how not getting to live the way I wanted while was at the monastery was in fact incredibly liberating; I realised in my first winter that I had to practise with being tired, hungry and cold all the time. No-one was forcing me to be there, so it was up to me to resist or to meet the circumstances. And getting to meet circumstances in these simple and contained ways helps us to meet all kinds of circumstances in the rest of our lives.


‘Yangshan asked Kueishan, “If a million objects come to you, what do you do?” Kueishan answered, “A green article is not yellow. A long thing is not short. Each object manages its own fate. Why should I interfere with them?”‘ (The Iron Flute)

One of the pleasure of browsing in the Tassajara library is to scan the cards to see who has taken the books out over the years. Mostly I find familiar names going back twenty years. The Iron Flute is a less-well-known collection of koans, translated by Nyogen Senzaki, which I like mostly for his dry comments, and the lovely illustrations in the square editions of which Tassajara has two copies. I was a little surprised, though, to see that no-one had taken out the copy I pulled from the shelf since I had in 2007…

The Sutra of Innumerable Meanings

‘A bodhisattva, if he wants to learn and master the doctrine of Innumerable Meanings, should observes that all laws were originally, will be, and are in themselves void in nature and form; they are neither great nor small, neither appearing nor disappearing, neither fixed nor immovable, and neither advancing nor retreating; and they are nondualistic, just emptiness. All living beings, however, discriminate falsely: “It is this” or “It is that” and “It is advantageous” or “It is disadvantageous”; they entertain evil thoughts, make various evil karmas, and thus transmigrate within the six realms of existence; and they suffer all manner of miseries, and cannot escape from there during infinite kotis of kalpas. Bodhisattva-mahasattvas, observing rightly like this, should raise the mind of compassion, display the great mercy desiring to relieve others of suffering, and once again penetrate deeply into all laws. According to the nature of a law, such a law emerges. According to the nature of a law, such a law settles. According to the nature of a law, such a law changes. According to the nature of a law, such a law vanishes. According to the nature of a law, such an evil law emerges. According to the nature of a law, such a good law emerges. Settling, changing, and vanishing are also like this. Bodhisattvas, having thus completely observed and known these four aspects from beginning to end, should next observe that none of these laws settles down even for a moment, but all emerge and vanish anew every moment; and observe that they emerge, settle, change and vanish instantly. After such observation, we see all manner of natural desires of living beings. As natural desires are innumerable, preaching is immeasurable, and as preaching is immeasurable, meanings are innumerable. The Innumerable Meanings originate from one law. This one law is, namely, nonform. Such nonform is formless and not-form. Being not form and formless, it is called the real aspect of things. The mercy which bodhisattva-mahasattvas display after stabilising themselves in such a real aspect is real and not vain. They excellently relieve living beings from sufferings. Having given relief from sufferings, they preach the Law again and let all living beings obtain pleasure.’

I had an urge to make The Lotus Sutra my next commute read, and since it is always worth observing such urges, I got stuck into it. In the edition which Linda Ruth recommended we get, when we studied it at Tassajara back in 2004, The Sutra of Innumerable Meanings forms the preface to the main sutra itself.  Reading it for the first time in all these years, I found it very heart-warming and encouraging. Stay tuned for a couple more extracts, as well as some from The Lotus Sutra.

What I think about when I am running

‘If we go somewhere on foot, we know the way perfectly, whereas if we go by motor car or airplane we are hardly there at all, it becomes merely a dream.’  (Chogyam Trungpa – Meditation in Action)

This was a fine quote to find, and I shall doubtless use it at the head of a Roaming Zen email soon.

The trails at Tassajara are familiar terrain for me, even as I have seen them shift and change over the last fifteen years or so, especially in the wake of the 2008 fire. It is always nice to share them with people, as I did on the retreat with Ann, to tell a few stories, read some appropriate Dogen, identify flowers and birds as far as I can. When people ask me how long it takes to get around them, I have no real answer. I have run them many more times than I have hiked them, and the times I have hiked, the pace of the group has been so varied. But I know almost every turn, every slope.
When I got to run them in my second week at Tassajara, I could feel the extent that the trails were embedded in me: my body knows the various hardships of climbing up the Horse Pasture cut-off past the waterfall to what I call the bobcat meadow, after I saw one bounding up through the long grass on my first solo outing there in 2002, and then up the switchbacks to Flag Rock ridge. Going up to the Wind Caves you are climbing for the first two miles, until you are below Lime Point, and then you have to drop down into two gullies and come up the other sides before you get to your destination. There are the spots that reside most deeply in me, the ones of greatest effort, and the ones I don’t keep such clear recollections of, as I coast to the next challenge.
I have a mental map of the places where poison oak is more likely to be a problem, and the places where I have to pay even more attention to my footing (although every moment on the trail is a practice of constant attention), as well as a vivid map of where I have encountered rattlesnakes (I was almost disappointed not to see any this time, though I heard of several sightings close to the bathhouse over the course of days, and saw several other snakes alongside the creek – there was one that seemed to have its home right by the steps I was working on, which I saw every day; this was alright as long as I caught sight of it before it slithered right by me in the water, something which is always most disconcerting on an instinctive level).
Each time I ran the trail in one direction, and took photographs on the way back, sometimes trotting, sometimes stopped in wonder, sometimes just walking along. By normal standards, that is not a lot of distance to run, but there was enough elevation to make it count; unless you are living there, it is hard to have that much climbing in your legs. I toyed with the idea of trying to run up to the bath-tub (three miles up the road), but was tired enough to let that go.
I chatted about running with some of the current residents who have that practice, and reminisced about how, when I was living there and taking vacations in San Francisco, running in the city seemed ridiculously easy. I half-hoped I would have that feeling when I went out yesterday to cover the course of today’s Roaming Zen. I always aim to do this scouting run before taking people out on the route, even if it is a part of the city I know well; it just gets it into my body in a way that means I don’t have to think about it during the roam itself.
The weather has been fine all week, so it was pretty warm, though the breeze took the edge off the heat. Getting off the bus at Alta Plaza I made my way down to the Palace of Fine Arts, across to Crissy Field, up to the bridge, then along the cliffs. The Battery to Bluffs trail was still closed off at the same point as it had been several months ago, but I decided to risk it, and there was little peril in doing so – going down the sand ladder subsequently to Baker Beach seemed more treacherous. And on to Land’s End, feeling a little uneasy (I have a theory that I prefer to run and ride in a clockwise direction, which I certainly prefered to do in London when I would run up to the Thames, always along the South Bank, long before it was fully developed as a pedestrian thoroughfare, from Vauxhall to Bermondsey rather than the other way around) and eventually pretty tired.
Having arrived at the N Judah turnaround for the streetcar which would take me home, I had a very long wait. Again, I toyed with the idea of running all the way home, but since I was not in a hurry to be anywhere, I thought better of it. I hope the service is better tonight.

At the Wind Caves the trail runs along the ledge of rock.

The first meadow up from the road on the Horse Pasture, sinuous but almost flat.

Loving the Mountains

Being at Tassajara feels like a skin I put on, and most times it feels like the skin I am most myself in, where I can easily embody my version of practice, in the monastery and in the mountains. It was, as usual, a very physical experience: I came back to San Francisco with a fair amount of bodily fatigue, various scratches and dings, any number of deer fly bites, and dabs of poison oak; somewhat more tanned than when I left, also a few pounds heavier, at a guess, from eating so much. I would not have it any other way; this is why I love being there.

My time was divided into two parts, and they were both rich and enjoyable. The first week I was leading retreats, first with Ann where we took twenty people around the Horse Pasture, and most of them up to the Wind Caves the next day – a few of them preferred to take it easy, making us think we should add an extra day next year. The weather was a little kinder for hiking than last year; there were abundant flowers of all types, and more butterflies than I can remember seeing, positive clouds of them gathering at little water holes. The creek was running more healthily than for the last few years, and Cabarga Creek, the waterfalls and other water courses were all still active, unusually so for this time of year. The days that followed with Lirio were a little slower, with her very therapeutic style of yoga, and a bigger group, which made it a little hard to connect with everybody. I loved getting both sets of retreatants to slow down to the pace of the valley, to sit in the zendo, the retreat hall, by the creek and on the trails, and to have a chance to share the joys of Tassajara with them, as well as once again spending time with two teachers I admire so much.

Once we had said goodbye to the second group, I turned my attention to taking photographs, and also spending a few hours each day in the creek at the bathhouse, where the old steps to the water had been washed away with the winter rains. I had wanted to do some work on these anyway, and now I had the excuse and the time; I found enough hefty rocks to wrestle into place, trying not to undo all the good work that a week of yoga had done on my alignment. When I am working with rocks, it is easy for me to over-exert myself as I try to finish a section or get a huge rock properly settled, but I made sure not to continue too long, and to space out the trail-running I did as part of the photography so as not to get too tired.

There was also the physical work of sitting for more than an hour each morning; longer than I have sat recently, and for eleven days straight as well; my backside suffered more than my legs, but it did get easier. The first morning I was there, I was asked to be doshi as Greg was away, and it was a pleasure to let my body remember how to do the jundo and service, and to find again the dignified posture that wearing priest robes requests of a person. I was able to do a couple more morning services before I left, and it always feels special to be standing in the middle with a kotsu.
Beyond that I managed to spend a lot of time reading, mostly preparing for my classes, and I met with a few students, some of whom I had talked with before, other who were new to me, but who wanted to ask about some aspect of my practice as they clarified their own path.

It was also interesting to watch how quickly the magical effects could dissipate; it started with sitting in slow traffic all the way up from San Jose to the East Bay – Friday afternoon rush hour. At the BART station where I was dropped off, I ran up the stairs to jump on the train at the platform, closely following someone else, and even though I saw the driver looking down the platform at us, he started shutting the doors as I entered. Pushing them apart with my elbow caused a malfunction. The carriage was full of Warriors fans – pre-game, they were pretty ebullient, and in the mood for light-hearted banter – and I had to hold up my hands and apologise out loud to everyone as the train was delayed several minutes until a few of us managed to wrangle the door shut by realigning the rubber seals. When I finally got home and went online, I discovered that an expected payment had not gone through to my bank, and I had been running an overdraft the whole time I had been away, which horrified me – and also left me unable to go out and buy food until my house-mate loaned me some money.

That bad mood lasted until I got myself out on my bike the next morning, enjoying the sun in Golden Gate Park, rolling down to the ocean, glad to be sharing the space with other human powered morning people. The ride was partly a reconnaissance for the Bicycle Roaming Zen the next day, which was very sweet: riding car free from the Panhandle to the Zoo; a small group of us pedalled in the sun and the wind, sat in the rose garden, at Ocean beach and beside the polo field, drinking in the sun, and the peaceful feeling of the city.

I took about 1500 photographs, but these were perhaps my favourites, as the clouds gathered on my penultimate day while I was out on the Horse Pasture trail – the light was amazingly different to the usual endless summer brightness and strong shadows. The waterfall behind the Suzuki Roshi memorial is just visible in the exposed rock, and the white patch at the bottom of all the hills is the zendo roof.

A little further along, on the other side of the Flag Rock Ridge, looking south east over the trail, to Indian Station Road and Junipero Serra Peak.

Katagiri Roshi

‘For zazen, we arrange the circumstances in the zendo so that it is not too bright or too dark, not too cold or too hot, not dry or wet. We also arrange the external physical conditions, such as our posture and the amount of food we eat. If we eat too much we may fall asleep pretty easily, so we have to fill just sixty or seventy percent of our stomach. Also, we keep our eyes open, because if we close our eyes we might fall asleep, or we are more likely to enjoy ourselves with lots of imaginings and daydreams. Next we arrange our internal physical condition, that is our heart, our intestines, our stomach and our blood. But these things are beyond our control, so how can we take care of them? The only way is to take care of the breath. If we take care of the breath, very naturally, internal physical conditions will work pretty well. This is important. If we arrange the circumstances around our body, our mind, and all internal and external conditions, then, very naturally, the mind is also engaged in our activities. Then we are not bothered by the workings of our mind; the mind does not touch the core of our existence; it is just with us, that is all. When all circumstances are completely peaceful, just the center of ourselves blooms. This is our zazen; this is shikan taza.’ (Returning to Silence)

Teachers are often told to teach on what they are most interested in at a particular time. Having thoroughly got my teeth into the Genjo Koan while I was in England, I picked up Katagiri’s book as I began to commute again. This passage, with its echoes of Dogen’s instructions in the Fukanzazengi, seems a great piece to take to Tassajara with me, where I will be, starting today.