Back in the Mountains

A day at Tassajara for the shuso ceremony is a long day; we left before light on Sunday, as the robins established the morning soundtrack around Zen Center, and returned after dark, delayed by traffic moving slowly on the 101 between Gilroy and San Jose as the sun set languidly over the hills. As in December, we were in Lucy’s car; this time it was Lucy (from China), Anna (from Germany), and myself – at one stage we reflected on how our grandparents and parents had variously experienced the turmoils of the last century.

The hours in the car left their imprint on my body, especially since I drove a Suburban in and out over the road, which had whole new sections of erosion and many new channels carved out by the copious winter rain, making it an even more challenging drive than usual.

It is always worth it though. It was a glorious day – the light was clear in the mountains, and the sun warm. The hillsides were a brighter green than recent years, and the flowers were adding colours in every direction. At the monastery the monks seemed relieved to have survived through some intense challenges: the creek surging, the heat being cut off (the geothermal pumps don’t work in flood conditions), the road being blocked; they were at the end of the winter of training, and about to embark on a summer of receiving guests. I was happy to see several people I have known over the years who I had really not expected to see this time around.

A good crowd of former shusos made it down to see Tim take the seat. About half way through the ceremony, I realised what I needed to say: that English shusos are like buses – you wait ages for one to come along, and then two appear at once (it was great that Siobhan came down for her first appearance as a former shuso). I also mentioned in my congratulations  – referring to exchanges from the ceremony – that we had heard the true dharma from Cabarga Creek (which was running healthily beside the zendo), from Calliope and the canyon wren (both of whom had made timely interjections into the proceedings),  but we had also heard it from Tim. Even though he claimed not to be a teacher, his teaching was very clear to everyone in the room.

As usual, there was just time to head to the bathhouse before lunch – it had been warm enough in the zendo that I jumped into the creek before going into the indoor plunge. The bottom half dozen stone steps into the creek had been washed away – the heaviest ones just a few feet – and since I never go to Tassajara without wistfully thinking of living there again, I wondered if I could at least add a day or two on to my upcoming visit for my retreats to rebuild the steps, which I have been wanting to do for a year or two anyway…

The creek is looking lovely now, but I can imagine how fierce it must have been in the winter storms.

One of the Tassajara redbuds.

Tim and Ed in the shade of the kaisando.

Monks enjoying the pre-ceremony tea in the sun. Calliope is the little one.

A New Shuso Crop

I have written about shuso ceremonies at Zen Center before, and we are in the spring season for them right now. I intend to make the journeys to Tassajara and Green Gulch in the next couple of weeks; on Saturday, having gone to the center in the morning to offer the zazen instruction, I returned in the afternoon to see one of my best Zen Center friends, Siobhan, take her place on the dharma seat, and flourish in the role.
It was a day of community, on one side for the many people who had been sitting sesshin together, and on the other, a gathering of people who have known Siobhan over the years. There were a number of people I was very happy to see, who I spent time with at Tassajara and City Center more than a dozen years ago, and it was a testimony to Siobhan’s great capacity for friendship that she was able to draw such a crowd.

As I mentioned in the congratulations, apart from being a very loyal and honest friend, she has been like my older sister through all the years I have lived in the US; the first time I visited Tassajara, back in the summer of 2000, a couple of months after arriving, was driving her old Honda Civic down from Berkeley to the monastery, where she was staying. Some vivid memories of that trip have stayed with me: although I had driven in the US before, particularly eighteen months earlier when I had driven from Miami to DC and back visiting my two best friends from the BBC who were working in those cities (and marveling at the distance involved), driving a manual car on the ‘wrong’ side of the road was still a novelty to me, and, having eased myself onto the slow-moving freeway in Berkeley, I had a moment of panic when the traffic suddenly freed up as we passed the junction to the Bay Bridge; in a moment the speed went from about twenty to sixty-five, people were crossing lanes seemingly at random, and I had selected third gear rather than fifth, leaving the engine racing as I tried to cope.
That trip was also my first time on the Tassajara Road; after a mile or so I articulated that it was not as bad as I had heard, and was told, just wait… I also remember crowding into one of the small rooms in the upper barn with a bunch of people and being a little taken aback at how rudimentary the accommodation was; when I lived there subsequently, the same simplicity became normal and charming. Certainly, twenty-four hours there on that first visit planted the seed for my wanting to return.

With both of us being English, Siobhan and I have cultural affinities that have helped cement our friendship, and I also recall the great pleasure of spending time with her in London one lovely summer’s day when we were both visiting at the same time, enjoying a city we both loved, even if neither of us ever intend to live there again, since our lives had taken similarly different turns.

As so often at Zen Center gatherings, I took a lot of pictures, to document the coming together of so many practitioners, though most of them are never going to end up online. Here is one of Siobhan after the ceremony, on the right, with her benji Terri.

The redbud in the courtyard, planted to commemorate Blanche’s abbacy, was in full bloom.



‘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.