The Monastic Life

I don’t remember how exactly I came across this passage, but it was probably a couple of weeks ago while I was sifting through my computer archives for pictures that I could print out and send as Christmas cards. In any case, it comes from a letter that I wrote to a loved one in the spring of 2008, as I prepared to leave Tassajara after my second two-year stretch, before I moved to City Center to become the tenzo (I seem to recall, if you wonder why I would be writing on my laptop when Tassajara famously has no internet access, that I would put the words, and perhaps a few photos, on a thumb-drive, and send them out in the mail whenever Keith came in).
I was surprised to read these words, not for the content, which feels very familiar, and still true, but for the fact that I felt that way at the time – in the way I tell the story now, as I do on the Roaming Zen page here, I thought the feeling came more to light during my next spell of monastic training in 2012:

‘I do love life here, as you know, and have been thinking about how many amazing things have happened in the last month, it’s just that very few of them happened in the zendo. I just have to keep remembering that life here is not just about sitting, though I want to make the most of this opportunity to do so much, but also about the beautiful expeditions and the crazy weather, and the bathhouse and the stars and hot water bottles and playing with rocks and studying with a cup of coffee and all those other things.’

The ridge with snow.jpg
This is one of the pictures I sent family and friends for Christmas – the wonderful experience of driving out of Tassajara at the end of a three-month practice period and having deep, almost untouched snow up on the ridge. It was not like that when we went in last week

D laying concrete.jpg
I came across this picture from roughly that time period while looking for something else recently; it isn’t exactly playing with rocks, but it was part of putting together the largest wall I worked on at Tassajara, below the old bathhouse bathrooms, which had been washed away several times. With some help from a concrete crew – notably Antoine in the background, who was back at Tassajara this last practice period after some years away – I put in a mortared wall below where the hot spring water pipes ran, and then dry stone walling for the rest – the space on the left of the picture. It is almost entirely intact, though I didn’t top off robustly enough in a couple of places.


Sekkei Harada

‘We know that Master Dogen did not lie down to rest for three years, yet he tells us not to stand out or go to extremes. How can he say this? He can say this because he made the great effort of not lying down to sleep. Because of his own great effort he was able to instruct us, to tell us, “You needn’t experience the same hardships that I have. I’ve realized that it’s all about now. So the most important thing is to realize that everything is already the way it should be. It isn’t good to look for something special.”
But we should be very careful. Just because Master Dogen said this doesn’t mean that we needn’t do anything. A delicious piece of cake will not simply fall in to our lap by just thinking about it. Cake is not going to fall out of the sky, no matter how long we wait for it to. We won’t fill our stomachs that way. Only after having made great effort is someone able to say, “The practice of the Three Vehicles is totally unnecessary.”  (Unfathomable Depths)

So is Sekkei Harada telling us that if we want to have cake, we don’t need to bake it from scratch, but that, since cake shops exist, it is okay to go and buy a ready-made cake when we want it?
Seriously, though, there is a strong point here that seems hard to grasp at the beginning of practice. I did not go anything like as far as Dogen, or the other stories we read of diligent students poking themselves in the leg with an awl to stay awake; yet I know that my experience of doing a number of practice periods at Tassajara would seem pretty extreme to most people. And I know that it is not essential to do this. It just does seem to take a radical shaking of our conventional world-view, however it comes about, to have us awake to the crucial point expressed above: ‘the most important thing is to realize that everything is already the way it should be.’

Ceremonies and Rituals

I have been in my robes more often this past week or so than is often the case, and with the full ceremonial white kimono and bessu arrangement each time. After the City Center shuso ceremony, I was back there on Friday for Jana’s funeral. It was a stately occasion, with a mix of Zen Center people from years gone by, sangha members from Jikoji where she spent her last years, friends, students and colleagues, invoking her big-hearted practice and compassionate action, and not neglecting her spiky side.

The following day I presided over a memorial ceremony for someone I knew through Zen Center who had died far too young, which was a deeply emotional event for everyone. I read the passage from Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind where Suzuki Roshi talked about visiting Yosemite, and used the waterfall and the river as a metaphor for life and death, which seemed the most appropriate passage from a book that person had loved.

For both of those events, I ended up walking through the city in my robes, which is an illuminating thing to do. People seem confused about how to respond to the sight (though as I approach the Castro other reactions sometimes come to the fore), and I notice how my self-consciousness blends into awareness of how I carry myself when I am wearing them (which is partly dictated by having to manage the sleeves).

On Monday, Jamie, Tim, Nancy and I journeyed down to Tassajara together for their shuso ceremony. Jamie was kind enough to rent a vehicle for the occasion, and I had gone along to collect it with him, as he wanted me to drive over the road, and some of the way back. Having our own vehicle certainly made the day a little shorter and smoother (the fact that the ceremony was a snappy one, clocking in at less than two hours also helped). But still, we left at six and got back at eight, with more than half of that time spent in the car; I ended up driving over the road both ways, and most of the way home as well, which my body felt afterwards.

The weather was bright and clear, and since we were running early, we were able to stop on the road and breathe some fresh mountain air. Once we got down into the valley, there were many friends to talk to, and lovely things to eat.

Yuki was on the platform; we could hear her repeating the questions back to herself to make sure she had understood them, in her second language, and giving firm clear answers. When she turned to the former shuso side of the zendo, it was clear how focused and open she was; she sailed through without meeting any firm opposition. In one of her answers Yuki had noted that she was an introvert, so in my congratulations I mentioned that, while I had rarely managed to get a picture of her, I was going to be making up for it after the ceremony, as indeed I did.

There was time for a bathe, and to jump in the creek at least for a moment, before lunch and more conversations and the goodbyes which always come all too quickly, as we have to hit the road again.

The view south from the ridge is always breathtaking.

We also stopped at Lime Point, a couple of thousand feet lower. The lack of rain this winter meant that the road was in pretty good shape overall.

Looking up to Flag Rock from Tassajara – the weather has not been severe enough to strip the leaves from the trees.

It is hard to convince people who only come to Tassajara in the summer that the sun never reaches the buildings along the creek in the middle of winter- it was still significantly colder in the shade when we arrived.

The zendo set up for the ceremony, from the west side, where the senior staff and former shusos sit. The shuso’s platform is in the middle, facing the senior dharma teacher’s seat.

Yuki and her teacher, Tenshin Roshi.

Not the first picture I have where Yuki is trying to hide.

Yuki's botany lesson
I referenced this moment in my congratulations: Yuki, in her first practice period in 2008, offering a botany lesson to Linda Ruth down by Cabarga Creek. I referred to her as explaining about moss; after the ceremony, she corrected me to say it was liverwort.

I notice from the backstage pages that this is the 800th post on this blog (and if I was more of a perfectionist, I could edit it a little to make it exactly 800 words!). I know that readership is not huge, but I am still very happy to write and to share things that feel valuable for me, and I know that these things are read all over the world. Thank you for taking the time to visit.


‘Master Shoku was asked by a monk, “What is the meaning of our founder coming from the west?” The master said, “It is like getting a man out of a thousand-foot-deep well without using one single inch of rope. This answers your enquiry.” The monk said, “The monk O of the district of Konan recently became famous and the subject of people’s gossip.” Upon this Shoku summoned the young monk Jaku and said, “Drag out the corpse.”

Master Kyozan (who heard about this dialogue) asked Master Tangen, “How can you get the man in the well out?” Tangen said, “You stupid fool! Who is in the well?” Kyozan said nothing. Again, he later asked Master Isan, “How can you get the man in the well out?” Isan called out, “Kyozan!” Kyozan answered the call and Isan said, “He is out of the well already!”
Kyozan always used to tell the story described above to the people saying, “I got the principle from Tangen and learned the use from Isan.” (The Sound of the One Hand)

More on koans, following on from yesterday. My dharma friend Jamie gave me a battered copy of The Sound of the One Hand a little while ago, and it has been my commute read recently. It purports to give away all the standard ‘answers’ to koans that Japanese Rinzai monks have got in the tradition of giving to their masters.

At the risk of a bad pun, on the one hand, just looking at so-called standard answers misses the point, as the essential element of the exchange between student and master is the student’s ability, or otherwise, to embody the expression.
At a Japanese shuso ceremony, the same principle applies, as far as I understand it. There are stock questions and answers, but the shuso is expected to express themselves fully and with vitality. At Zen Center, spontaneity of question and answer is the custom, but there are still very Japanese elements in the ceremony, especially in the closing statement where the shuso professes ‘I am deeply ashamed’ at their lack of understanding and ability. In the assembly we listen to that, and sometimes a depth of emotion is exposed. I remember in my own ceremony, five years ago, even though I felt I had acquitted myself reasonably well over the course of responding to sixty or more questioners, I put more into that phrase than I imagined I would.
Jamie and I are plotting our visit to Tassajara in a couple of weeks, with some former shuso colleagues to put Yuki, the current shuso, who is Japanese, to the test. I am sure she will do wonderfully – her vitality is certainly not in question.

The Ocean Of Dharma Is Profound

Last week I found I was dreaming about wide open spaces, no doubt a trace of the hours spent under the wide open skies on the headlands of Sagres, and around Chichester Harbour. The last days of my trip felt like a welcome time of stepping aside – both from my regular life and from the other parts of the trip. In my waking hours, I found myself musing on how going back to to my home country gives me the opportunity to reflect my life in San Francisco in a particular, reductive way – how I choose to summarise to people in England my current activities, my usual feelings about living in California – and also throws me back into relationships and dynamics that I generally view as distant in time or space: recreating lived roles within my family, spending time with friends as an echo of the times we spent together twenty years ago – while sometimes stepping into my role as a teacher, which is much of my current identity.

There was also a sense of landing very slowly in San Francisco last week, picking up the different threads, remembering that, as much as I can romanticise it to people in England, my life is quite marginal, and that really I can barely afford to live here.

I remember the first time I left Tassajara, in 2004, after two years of living there and deepening my practice, how unequipped I felt to maintain that practice in the outside world, a hothouse flower exposed to cold winds. My intention at the time was to ordain as a priest, and it seemed to make the most sense to me to return to the monastery to do that training, a determination that threw other parts of my life into turmoil. Now, even as practice is more deeply embedded in my heart and my body, I still wonder how it holds up as I put aside most of the formal elements of it, and especially when I revisit the parts of my life that predate it.

I was offered another chance to reflect on all of this on Sunday afternoon, when I went down to Jikoji for a shukke tokudo. Tom, one of the ordinands, had invited me to come and take pictures (and also offered to pay me to do so, which meant I could write my November rent cheque without worry). I have visited the place a few times before – first as part of a residents’ retreat the weekend after 9/11 (many senior people decided to stay in the city to be available to help people who were struggling to cope with the events), in more recent years for a Young Urban Zen retreat, and to offer a photography and hiking workshop. It is a serene spot in the hills, and on Sunday was warm and bright, with the dry scent of California country.

There were familiar faces from various sanghas in attendance; the ceremony was intimate, and as with all formal occasions, imbued with the sense of what it means for two people to take on a life of vow. Having taken those same vows, I get to check in on how I am managing, and I feel encouraged to see others so willing.

Ryotan Cynthia Kear, the preceptor, asking Tom if she can shave the shura, the last piece of hair.

DSCF4553The lighting was quite dramatic at times.

DSCF4673Afterwards there was much hugging, and cake.

Mitsu Suzuki

Learning to be “nothing special”
day by day –
autumn deepens

Another book that I had a chance to read while I was in England was A White Tea Bowl, which was in the shelves at the venue used by the Hebden Bridge group. I met Okusan only once, at Tassajara about fifteen years ago, but I remember being impressed by her energy as she did her daily exercises, already in her mid-eighties. While I am sure there is more flavour in her haiku in Japanese, the translations are delicate, and here we have another angle on “nothing special”.

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.