Dogen

It seems that the mountain spring wind 
Has begun to blow - 
On the peaks and in the valleys, 
Myriad flowers are shining.

Trusting WordPress to have done its sums right, this marks the 2000th post of this blog. It seems appropriate to have Dogen mark the occasion with one of the waka poems from the book compiled by Shohaku Okumura a few years ago, which I was lucky enough to be able to buy when he visited Tassajara to speak about the poems when the book was released.

As I have said before, compiling this blog is good practice for me, encouraging me to read widely. It feels great to share meaningful pieces every day, and little snippets about my life sometimes, and I hope it is beneficial for you as well. Thanks for being a part of this creation over the past five and a half years. I think I will keep going…

Myriad flowers are shining across San Francisco at the moment, none prettier than the California poppy in profusion. Even though Twin Peaks has been re-opened to cars, and is not the haven it has been for the past year, it was quiet enough to take this picture the other day when I went up on my bike.

Suzuki Roshi

‘So even [if] you practice hard, your zazen sometime will be good, sometime will not be so good. It is– actually it is not always in the same– we cannot practice our way in the same way always. The purpose of zazen is not to think about it. To catch ourselves in its full function is zazen. If so, there is no need to think about it. If you think about it, you cannot– you will lose it. When you don’t think and [are] involved in the practice fully, you have zazen.

Even it is so, we have to prepare everything one by one carefully. That is our everyday life. When you wash your face you should wash your face carefully. When you walk you should walk carefully. One by one you take care of your activity. But when you are taking care of your activity, you are involved in something which is– which cannot be grasped. You are not anymore you.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi Archives)

Another talk from an early sesshin at Tassajara, with Suzuki Roshi encouraging his students to go deeper than they probably ever had before.

Zenkei Blanche Hartman

‘In every photo I have of Suzuki Roshi – and I have a lot of them – he’s laughing or smiling. My teachers and my practice have never taught me not to enjoy life. The deeply seasoned teachers I’ve had the opportunity to meet have all been supportive to people who are suffering, but they have also been very playful and lighthearted.’ (The Hidden Lamp)

This is a delicate balancing act to pull off, but I trust that Suzuki Roshi – as well as Katagiri Roshi and Sojun Mel Weitsman, who Blanche also namechecks – was able to do this thanks to his long and deep practice.

Suzuki Roshi (r) with Kobun Chino at Tassajara, from David Chadwick’s site

Suzuki Roshi

‘I am quite sure that we can pay for the Tassajara land, but that is not what concerns me so much. I feel a big responsibility in managing the temple and organizing our practice in that monastery. To establish right practice in America is the most important point. Although we are paying a lot of money for the land, we do not gain anything. We are not so much interested in the ownership of the land, but in practicing our way as we want to practice it. To do so, in this situation a lot of money must be paid. It can’t be helped.

The land itself belongs to heaven and earth. No one can possess it. Everything is in flowing change; nothing exists but momentarily in its present form and color. There is nothing to be possessed in this world of constant change. One thing flows into another and cannot be grasped. Before the rain stops we hear the bird; even under the heavy snow we see snowdrops and some growth coming up. In the East I saw rhubarb already. In Japan, late in the spring, we eat cucumber. In this way, everything is changing, and sometimes it is nice to feel the change of things. But if we realize what we are doing in this evanescent life, we become rather ashamed of ourselves. In this changing life, we cannot repeat the same thing again. If we miss this moment, we become older.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi archives)

I had never read this talk before, from early in 1967, after Suzuki Roshi had visited the East Coast.

I had to go back quite a way in my WordPress photo library to find a picture of Tassajara…

Suzuki Roshi

‘Even though we say “just sit,” to understand what does it mean is rather difficult, maybe. So that is why Dogen Zenji left us so many teachings to explain what is just to sit. But it does not mean his teaching is so difficult. When you sit, you know, without thinking or without expecting anything, and when you accept yourself as a buddha or as a tools of buddha or ornament of buddha, or if you understand everything is the unfolding of the absolute teaching or truth, or if you understand everything is a part of the great being–one whole being, when you reach this understanding, whatever we say, whatever we think, or whatever we see, that is the actual teaching of Buddha. And whatever we do, that is actual practice of the Buddha himself.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi Archives)

Another gem from an early sesshin at Tassajara.

Sojun

I was sad to hear of Sojun Mel Weitsman’s passing, though not entirely surprised considering his advanced age. Djinn spoke lovingly of his presence in her dharma talk on Saturday, and I echo her sentiments; even though I didn’t spend much time around him, his presence was always warm and benign, and we were always fully aware of his role at San Francisco Zen Center, and Berkeley Zen Center going back more than fifty years. And, as he always seemed happy to recount to later generations, he had had a varied and interesting life before he got involved in the practice with Suzuki Roshi – if you get a chance to find one of his way-seeking mind talks in the archives, they are worth listening to.

I also think of the time I spent as shuso at Tassajara in 2012. Sojun came, as he often did, to spend some of the practice period as a visiting teacher, allowing Myogen Steve Stücky to go up to the city for meetings. I also was able to read the old shuso logs; his shuso practice period at Tassajara coincided with the arrival of Tatsugami Roshi from Japan, which, as he observed wryly through the pages, marked the transition from Tassajara being a kind of spirited adventure, with a macrobiotic, communal vibe, to being a more traditional zen training monastery.

It always feels like an incredible privilege to have spent so much time around such epochal figures in the establishment of zen in the west, and perhaps the first of these photos gives a flavour of what that sometimes looked like in day-to-day life at Zen Center.

I remember this occasion being around the 50th Anniversary celebrations for Zen Center. Five of the surviving abbots and abbesses were interviewed (I thought that Djinn had done it, but she doesn’t think so), and I rather flippantly refered to this image as an attempt on the world record for number of abbots on a single couch. Myogen Steve, Zenkei Blanche Hartman and Sojun have now all died; Eijun Linda Cutts and Kiku Christina Lehnherr are happily still teaching
A very typical picture of Sojun in the Tassajara shop, beautifully crafting a kotsu – from my shuso practice period

At the end of an earlier practice period at Tassajara – shuso ceremony day, in 2006.
Possibly the last time Sojun spent significant time at Tassajara, when Lucy was shuso – this was the shuso dinner place setting.

A happy picture from a sad occasion – after Myogen Steve’s funeral at Green Gulch.

Suzuki Roshi

‘I already started, you know, to explain the direct experience… experience of Zen, in our… in the… a way of understanding of the original teaching. But the purpose of my lecture today is not to talk about our fundamental teachings. But just to explain how to sit.

Now, we have crossed our legs and to… we understood how to keep our spines straight. Now we have to pull our necks… neck, like this – so that your spine could be straight.. In this case, and your tongue should be on your upper jaw and your… your upper… your teeth support with each other.

And your hands form cosmic mudra. It should not be like this or like that. Here you have one line with your, you know– what do you call it? Joint? [Answered]. You have joint here, and two joints makes straight line. Then there you have perfect mudra. And your both thumbs support with each other. Not don’t press like this, or don’t be loose, like this. It should be just support with each other, as if you have a sheet of paper in-between. 

And if you, you know … there’s some sparkle between first electricity and [laughs] … mine has electricity between here. You know, it is not like this. If it is like this, there will be no sparkle [Answered]. Spark, excuse me. No spark. If it is like this, you will not have no spark, either [laughs]. It should be like this.

Student (Richard Baker): but they actually touch?

SR: Yeah, touch??. Actually touch, with each other. It should be supported with each other.

This is very true in your everyday life, you know, you should be observant (?) in what you do, you know? But you should not be too much attached to it. This is, you know, the secret of the way of life. You should not be indifferent like this. And you should not be too much attached to your everyday activity, or whatever you see or you do. Just, you know, to have interdependence with each other. This is perfect relationship, and you have this relationship between your thumbs. And this is very true to what you hear, or to what you see, in sitting.’ (from the Shunryu Suzuki Archives)

Some wonderful zazen instruction from the early days of practice at Tassajara. I will be offering an instruction of my own for Within Meditation this evening at 6pm PST, and I will certainly be quoting some of Suzuki Roshi’s words on zazen.

The Thinking Mind

When I lived at Tassajara, and we got up ridiculously early in the morning to sit the first periods of zazen, I would sometimes reflect that the contents of my mind in those early hours did not really seem that dissimilar to the contents of my mind when I had been asleep previously. There was something almost comforting about that continuity of mental activity, that awake thoughts were not very much more rational or dependable than dreams.

These days I don’t sit first thing, but when I do sit, in the middle of the day, or in the afternoon, I often find my mind turning sleepy, and something like the same process happens in reverse. Even if I am guiding a meditation, and trying to hold a string of instructions in mind to sprinkle throughout the session, I find myself drifting through fragmented thoughts, or disconnected fleeting images that seem somehow meaningful and attractive – though, as with any state that verges on sleep, it is impossible to retrace the steps that led to an image, or sometimes even to fully grasp what it was.

Uchiyama Roshi frequently called the content of our mind ‘the scenery of our life’ – just things glimpsed momentarily; real, sure, but not necessarily something to depend on or give all our energy to.

This failed photo – taken while I was riding my bike, and got my phone bag in front of the lens, could represent those fleeting dream-like images of the half-asleep mind.

(This post first appeared on my Patreon page)

Sister Elizabeth Wagner

‘When we’re alone, all the fears and worries and anxieties come up, because we can’t distract ourselves. The great way to be with ourselves, to embrace who we are, warts, bumps, lumps and all, is to breathe.’ (from the New York Times)

I was interested to read this recent article about hermits and what they have to offer us all in this age of isolation. Whatever tradition the speaker adhere to, the life lessons are the same.

A college friend of mine, on hearing that I was moving to Tassajara, expressed that he was not at all surprised, having long detected in me an ascetic streak; certainly I had no difficulties with the retreat aspect of monastic living. My life these days is somewhat different, but as I remember discussing with the Hebden group earlier this year, the lessons from those years have helped with this year. See also Kanzan.

Suzuki Roshi

‘Student: I am so grateful to you and Tassajara and Zen Center that I’d like to study Zen. What should I do first? Suzuki Roshi: You should do something in right time in the right way. Try to keep up with our practice.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi archives)

There is really nothing to add. This is the same as Joshu’s bowl.