The Energy of the Repeated Gesture

Back in the days of the first blog I wrote, whenever I was going to be away for a while, I would preload posts, either linking back to previous posts, or sharing various themed photographs – mostly of Tassajara. As I prepared to go to England for a month, I was wondering what to plan. I have written a few things for my Patreon page, seen by my handful of benefactors, which feel a little more informally anecdotal than much of what is on this blog, and I will share a few here over the next couple of weeks. This is a post I put up on that site, but is actually from the Ino’s Blog a few years ago. Its seasonality is appropriate – today is the day that people leave for Tassajara for the Fall Practice Period, the 100th at the monastery:

This was a phrase that came to me one morning at Tassajara, when I was wrapping up my bowls at the end of breakfast. There is a particular way to flip and fold the lap cloth that I enjoy, and it occurred to me that even though it was something I did three times a day almost every day, rather than being dulled by familiarity, I still paid attention to it, and that the energy of this repeated gesture helped me to be present in a sustained way.

I always seem to find September a more meaningful time of year than January; the new year itself is something I don’t get especially excited about, but in September I still feel the pull of transition – for many years, going back to school or college, recently the end of the Tassajara guest season and the beginning of the practice periods. Even when I am not there, there is always a part of me that wants to go, and having people coming from and going to Tassajara this week exacerbates that feeling. The weather right now is contributing as well; after the tiniest glimpses of a possible Indian summer, we are having autumnal temperatures, chilly winds and fog, which lend themselves to a closing down feeling; the leaves on the maple tree in the courtyard are starting to turn red. Next week we will have our equinox ceremony, to mark with a ritual the change of season; the moon is filling, bringing us round to our next full moon ceremony next Thursday.

This practice encourages us to pay attention to the cycles of life, from the smallest – a gesture repeated three times a day – to the largest – the phases of the moon, the advent of the seasons – with any number in between  – it’s time to shave my head again. I remember during one Genzo-e, Shohaku was discussing the kanji for ‘the Way’, saying that while we think of a path as something that extends in front of us, in fact it was possible to interpret the kanji as having a circular element to it, so that the path brought you right back to where you were (of course he explained it much more eloquently and convincingly). So while we are always moving in space and time, really we are always coming back to ourselves, and while there are moments where we mark a particular transition – coming of age, a wedding, and ordination, there are also the moments where we are just doing the same old thing over and over again, getting up, eating,  going to work, bathing, going to bed. If we can be present in the same way for all of these activities, we can be carried along with the joyful energy of living.

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What I think about when I am riding

As it happens, during the weeks leading up to my second trip to England this year, some of my focus was on the same things as prior to the first trip in April. I rode straight up Tam the day after the Genzo-e finished in August, and, as in the spring, it felt okay. I wrote to a friend that the ride reminded me of the days after sesshin at Tassajara, when I would run up to the top of the road, just to get out of the valley, and to give myself a physical challenge of a different order to sitting on a cushion incessantly for however many days it had been.

And so I thought about trying to ride up Mount Diablo before I left. Since my weekends these are often filled with things that don’t involve riding a bike – albeit lovely things like going to Wilbur, and leading roams – I realised that even from a relatively decent base of fitness, it was going to be hard to get enough meaningful rides in over the remaining few weeks to be able to get up Diablo without hurting too much.
I repeated the rides I had done in the spring, the typical rides I do when I want to get some climbing in my legs. There was a bonus in that the Bolinas-Fairfax road had opened again, after eighteen months of shoring up various parts of the hillside, so I had to opportunity to approach the seven sisters from both sides.
One thing I did not have to worry about, unlike last time, was the weather. There were rare thunderstorms and unseasonal rain a couple of weeks ago, but the weekend was warm and very clear once that faint autumnal chill had worn off.

It is one thing to contemplate riding up a mountain, and of course another thing to do it. It was only riding along the arroyo between the North Gate and the State Park boundary sign, where the climbing starts, that I felt fully on board with what was happening. And then there was an hour and more of continuous uphill to remind me of how real it was.
Overall, I felt better and stronger than than I might have expected. Knowing the climb well enough, I took care to manage my legs, and my intake of food and water, trying to stay relaxed as possible. There was an occasional twinge in my left knee that is new, and that I did not want to exacerbate. I did not expect the breeze to cool down quite so radically in the top half of the climb – I was almost tempted to put on my extra layer which I had brought for the descent, but conditions were pretty good, and the mountain felt quiet – which made for an unfettered descent down the more exhilarating South Gate Road.

And what was I thinking about? Actually, the Brahamviharas popped into my head as I passed someone around the 1000′ i also think it’s worth saying…elevation marker, where the road rears up a little. I feel a great kinship with anyone who is on a bike on the mountain, however much of it they are riding, so lots of loving-kindness, along with the nods, the little waves, and the encouraging words; compassion for those who seem to be struggling more than I am; sympathetic joy for those many riders who look strong on the uphill, and fluid on the descent; equanimity to endure all the differing gradients on the road up, and the giddiness of the long road down.

Shohaku Okumura

‘When we see emptiness, we realize there’s no hindrance, no obstacles to block our life force, it is soft and flexible, like a plant that tries to go round a big rock and continues to grow. There is always some other way to live, to grow.’ (Commentary on the Heart Sutra)

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This little pine did not survive the fire of 2008, but before then, every time I visited the Wind Caves near Tassajara, I marveled at the way it grew; I could not help but add this picture to the quote.

Making The Unwanted Wanted

Even now,
decades after,
I wash my face with cold water –
Not for discipline,
nor memory,
nor the icy, awakening slap,
but to practice
choosing
to make the unwanted wanted.
(A Cedary Fragrance, by Jane Hirshfield)

I thought of this poem at Wilbur. I have always loved it, with its evocation of Tassajara, where there is only cold water in the cabins. I too practised with washing my face with cold water every morning, even on the coldest winter days – and I still do, mainly for the awakening nature of it.
On the Saturday morning, with the temperatures already reaching the nineties, I went to sit on the yoga deck with a few other people who all came very early. As we settled, I was looking at the picture of the serene Buddha, with his hands in a particular mudra. In meditation instruction I often talk about the particular energetic significance of each hand position within the tradition that yoga and meditation arose from. And also how our physical posture as we sit is also of energetic significance; I usually spend a fair amount of time on details in the body which I have found it helpful to pay attention to as we settle into sitting (if you want to hear me actually talking about it, you can find a recording here.)
There were a fair number of flies that morning, as well as the sound of water, of people passing, birds, and the occasional vehicle. I spoke about practising equanimity, of sitting upright as a way of meeting each moment, without leaning forwards or backwards, or to the left or to the right, regardless of what comes up. Acknowledging that what is arising now IS what is arising now, whether we want it or not. And trusting that it will not always be like this, that this present moment is in flux. I was thinking of the wonderful quote by Katagiri Roshi, which I appear not to have posted on here yet: ‘The universal path is complete tranquility and at the same time constantly flowing’.
So, I went on, we can get to notice how we respond when a fly buzzes close to our ear, how our skin reacts when a fly lands on it. Do we need to wave our hands to try to get it to go away? It will head off somewhere else very soon anyway; can we stay with the irritation and discomfort for the moments that they last?
At Tassajara I discovered that my limit in this regard was having an ant crawl into my ear – that was something I felt I had to try to shake off, but otherwise, I did my best not to be disturbed by the flies. When we can practise with these little things, then we have a chance to build up our equanimity muscles so as to be able to meet more challenging moments in our lives. We may even discover that we have a far greater capacity for meeting these challenges – and I invoked the residents of Houston dealing with the catastrophic flooding that is their lives at the moment – than we might imagine in our thoughts and fears. And so on, all the way to the end, as tomorrow’s poem will illuminate.

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The sunrise on Saturday morning at Wilbur.

The Life Force Of This Moment

It was 112 degrees when I arrived at Wilbur on Friday afternoon; I think that is the same as the highest temperature I experienced at Tassajara, in my first summer, fifteen years ago. It was also hazy with smoke from a fire in Oroville. These are the kinds of temperatures that I could not imagine, growing up in England. I find a kind of bodily relaxation in the intensity of the heat – provided I am not, as I often was at Tassajara, trying to move large rocks in the afternoon sun, or wearing four layers of robes in the sweltering evening zendo.

The evening before, I had come across the Bay Bridge, at around 8pm, in the car I was borrowing for the occasion. The traffic was flowing freely – in itself a cause of joy – and the view of San Francisco from the upper deck of the bridge, which always seems to produce in me a feeling of gladness that I live where I do, was heightened by the post-sunset colours of the sky – smoky orange, lilacs and mauves. On the Friday morning, rising typically early, I had crossed the Golden Gate Bridge on my bike to take a quick loop of the Headlands before leaving town. The day was already warm, and the red, just risen sun was reflected along the pearlescent blue still water of the bay. It was life-affirmingly beautiful.

I have been thinking a lot about face-to-face transmission, as Tenshin Roshi recently talked about at City Center; last week I was reading a chapter in Kobun Chino’s book that touched on the same topics; taking in the words on my commute, I reflected (not for the first time), that people do not have the chance to experience this when they are, as so many seem to be when out in public, staring down at their phones. In each moment there is the opportunity to come face-to-face with the life force of the present, whether that is face-to-face with a person, or with anything that is alive – which is why the teachers of old always insisted that grasses, trees and walls are always expressing the truth of reality, if we are open enough to pay attention to it.

I thought of talking again at Wilbur about how its location offers many chances to experience this – phones are of no use; people are moving at human pace; there is abundant silence and delightful nature all around; everyone is taking time to be physically immersed in and relaxed by the hot springs water. I wanted to add that as beautiful and energising as both of my bridge crossings had been, there is no way to hold onto the experiences. We can allow them to fuel us as we move forward, but if we get stuck thinking about them, then we miss the opportunity to experience the life force of the actual moment we are living. In the end I talked about something else that was more alive at the time. Tune in tomorrow to find out…

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The hazy sunset on my first evening at Wilbur last Friday, seen from the little tub at the Fountain of Life. 

Lew Richmond

‘When we express our gratitude, we are recognizing that once again, to our surprise, the world still wants us and cares for us. The world invites us to be part of something larger than ourselves, to be a part of the whole.
When we say “thank you,” we are thanking the world that, in spite of everything, love continues. We are pleased and gratified, and the smile on our face and the energy in our voice confirms it.’ (Work as a Spiritual Practice)

This passage reminded me of how our practice of bowing to each other as we meet on the paths at Tassajara is often said to be expressing, silently, as we are most often in silence, ‘thank you – I’m sorry – I love you.’ Can you imagine saying that, even internally, to everyone you pass by today?

The Trees on Lily Alley

It is always hard if someone asks you, at the end of the retreat, how it went. When you have just spent a week pretty much entirely focused inwardly, there is so much that goes on that there is usually not one simple answer. Sometimes there are amazing highs and lows, and we learn that we can sit with both, that life is nothing but highs and lows that come and go whether we want them to or not.
In the week of the Genzo-e I felt that I spent a lot of time just feeling really tired, and that very little of my zazen was spent in the present moment. There were, from time to time, flashes of concentration, and the first couple of days as I settled in brought wonderful and heart-opening clarity to situations I have been dealing with recently. Those kinds of moments are priceless and resonate onwards in valuable ways.
The great joy of the Genzo-e is getting to study Dogen. It is fifteen years since Shohaku’s first one at City Center, which I attended as a fairly new practitioner, just before I went off to Tassajara for the first time, and five years since I last did one, out at Green Gulch. He said that a book of the 2002 talks will be coming out soon, and it will be interesting to read this with my current ‘eye of practice’ – I probably still have my notes somewhere, and they would also be interesting to read. To be honest, I am excited to read back the notes I just took from the dozen classes we just had. The ideas are so dense (and there were moments when I was just so sleepy) that I was writing things down not knowing if they would make any sense later.
I do know that half-way through the Genzo-e at Green Gulch, I moved from a state of depletion to one of real aliveness and clarity, and absorbed how Shohaku was speaking about the interplay of relative and absolute (what we might call ‘that old zen chestnut’) that I still use when I teach now – although probably an old school zen teacher would say ‘don’t speak of it for thirty years.’ I felt that I came away from this one with a more three-dimensional understanding of this, and I hope that I can absorb it and use it in the future.
I can’t remember which day, but somewhere in the middle, during the morning class, I was sitting on the courtyard side of the dining room, and looking across the room and through the windows that look out onto Lily Alley, which were mostly filled with densely-leaved trees, when I suddenly felt completely awake and concentrated just watching the leaves move in the wind; ironic really, given the subject of the Dogen fascicle being discussed – the cypress tree in the yard.
Naturally this awakeness vanished before too long, but there were flashes of it at other times, not least in the times I spent on the roof after each meal. When I lived at Zen Center I would love being up on the roof and watching the city and the unfolding sky in each direction (and I took thousands of pictures of the various weathers); mostly last week was intensely foggy and not that warm, but it was just about the only fresh air I got all day. And, in something I first noticed in the many sesshins I sat at Tassajara, often the zendo is just the incubator; the interesting stuff happens when you go outside afterwards and meet the world with fresh eyes.
One way I did get to meet the world was walking to and from Zen Center – not every day, as Jamie kindly drove me as often as not, or picked me up en route sometime shortly before five in the morning. I have not often walked around the city in my robes. The funniest moment was leaving one evening, when a young couple who might have been living out on the streets were arguing just ahead of me. The man muttered something, and the woman replied ‘well right now I would like to shove this guitar up your – oh! there’s a monk walking by, we had better watch out!’
The five o’clock world of San Francisco was sweet to walk through: so little traffic, though there were delivery trucks unloading, and the first streetcars rolling up Market for the early birds, as well as cleaners working in the bars and restaurants, people heading to early gym sessions, baristas prepping for opening, homeless people sleeping in doorways or wandering around in their version of reality. No-one seemed to notice the robes then.
Even spending a week in robes is unusual for me now. I loved re-immersing myself in forms and ceremonies, even though, typically for Zen Center, there were many people visiting for the retreat who were not familiar with many of the forms, so things were not always smoothly flowing in the way that makes me happy. I got the opportunity to be doshi for a couple of the zendo services, which were also moments of great concentration and energy. I remembered how much I love chanting, and oryoki, which I have not done in a couple of years, but every movement of which is still in my body.
Best of all was the little kaisando service in the morning before breakfast, when the priests would gather and just silently prostrate to Suzuki Roshi in gratitude for his bringing the practice to us. There were too many of us at the retreat for us all to fit in, so sometimes I was out on the landing, but the feeling is the same – a moment of gratitude and devotion expressed through the body.
And do I have a better answer? The thought occurred somewhere towards the end, ‘moment after moment, arising is arising.’ But then that seemed a little sequential, so it became, ‘moment and moment, arising and arising.’ And then to lessen the separation, ‘moment, moment – arising, arising.’ I suspect Dogen would go on to say, ‘moment-arising, arising-moment.’
In any case, since any understanding is incomplete and temporary, perhaps I should just repeat what I said as my contribution to the closing ceremony, using one of Dogen’s favourite exhortations, when we were asked to articulate a short phrase about our retreat experience: investigate further!