Yosa Buson

This is happiness
crossing the stream in summer
carrying my straw sandals.

I thought of this picture for this repost, a scene from Tassajara summer a few years ago.

Kuden Paul Boyle

‘Before I started a practice period at Green Gulch Farm, I asked Sojun Roshi if he had any advice about how practice in a residential practice period. He said, “Follow the schedule completely.” This turned out to be great advice. When I was at Tassajara I tried to follow the schedule wholeheartedly, noticing whenever my mind asserted a notion of “my time.” Eventually, it became easier and easier to give up that notion of “my time.” It turns out that what we take as “our time” is really only an idea that we superimpose on any moment. Monastic practice is an excellent way to bring clarity to this process of dividing up the moments in a day. When we follow the schedule completely, we don’t need to bother ourselves with these conceptions. For me, there is a sense of relief at letting go of these conceptions.

Giving ourselves over to practice means, letting go of the “me” centered agenda. So, when the han begins to sound, it reminds us to let go of our conceptions of “I, me, and mine.” To let go of finishing my cup of tea or coffee, or that moment of my quiet time on the back porch.’ (from the Chapel Hill Zen Center website)

I did a practice period at Tassajara with Paul years ago; it is great to see my peers taking the dharma seat, and, in his cases, leading their own centres now. This is a teaching I totally relate to; coming to terms with the lack of ‘my time’ in the Tassajara practice schedule was a major learning for me.

Willow Creek

Wednesday was the kind of day where, looking ahead to it, my schedule seemed very full. I had an hour-long presentation on mindfulness to a corporate group, through Within, at 9:00am; I had my weekly Within sit at noon, another short meditation at four, with a nice group from company I have been sitting with for a couple of months, and my Zen Center talk at 7:30.

As is often the case though, once I got into it, there was still a lot of time and space in the day, and no cause to be stressed about what needed to be done. Seeing how early I normally get up, I had a pretty leisurely morning, even accounting for setting up a second screen to be able to manage my presentation better; time for coffee and elevenses before the noon sit; a chance to watch a replay of France-Portugal at the Euros in the afternoon, as well as sitting out in the sun at the back door, running over my talk a couple of times to make sure it held together; and dinner and a bath before giving the talk – as usual, I had several good ideas in the bath, which helped illuminate the points I was hoping to make.

I was thinking a lot about Willow Creek, burning again this week. Kim had alerted me to the fire at the end of last week, and I was able to track the hotspots on Monterey County’s topographical map – and thinking about the contrast with 2008, where Bryan and I would run up the Tony Trail to scout to see for ourselves what the latest was. The fire seems now to be burning slowly – as it did for a few weeks in 2008, until suddenly it was not slow at all.

Overall I felt fairly happy with how the talk went; it was lovely to see familiar faces from my years of practice at Zen Center in attendance, and to field questions from Tim and Miguel after I had given the talk. I will listen to it again when I have a chance, and post a link to it once I have edited it for the Zen Center website. 

Next Wednesday, I have three meditation sessions before 9:00 am, but I feel confident things will be okay.

Detail from the topographic map, Friday afternoon. Willow Creek runs (unusually for the area) west to east, and is in the middle of the redder patch. I had my fingeres crossed that the fire would not come over the ridge line towards Tassajara, and that seems to be the case so far.
Three photos, spanning four days, in 2008, the week before the fire came through Tassajara. These are all looking west along the Willow Creek valley, from the Tony Trail, a little way down from the ridge. In the last picture you can see an area that burnt out. I imagine it looks very similar right now.

Nan Shepherd

‘Well, I have discovered my mountain – its weathers, its airs and lights, its singing burns, its haunted dells, its pinnacles and tarns, its birds and flowers, its snows, its long blue distances. Year by year I have grown in familiarity with them all. But if the whole truth of them is to be told as I have found it, I too am involved. I have been the instrument of my own discovering; and to govern the stops of the instrument needs learning too. Thus the senses must be trained and disciplined, the eye to look, the ear to listen, the body must be trained to move with the right harmonies. I can teach my body many skills by which to learn the nature of the mountain. One of the most compelling is quiescence.

No one knows the mountain completely who has not slept on it. As one slips over into sleep, the mind grows limpid; the body melts; perception alone remains. Once neither thinks, nor desires, nor remembers, but dwells in pure intimacy with the tangible world.’ (The Living Mountain)

The writing of this book is so limpid, and I have been reading it aloud to my partner over the last year. I regret not knowing especially well the Scottish mountains that she writes about, but this evokes Tassajara for me, and zazen.

Looking down the Tony Trail – a view currently under threat of fire.

Suzuki Roshi

‘When we practice in this hall, there is no teacher and no student. We are all sages. Even though your practice is not good enough, we cannot say your practice is not good enough. It is good anyway. You have your own past and future. You have a bright future – to be a sage. Don’t worry.’ (Genjo Koan – Three Commentaries)

I picked up this book again recently, as I have been listening to some of Suzuki Roshi’s lectures on the Genjo Koan. While there are many lovely passages like this, I found myself a little frustrated that all the dozen or so talks he gave on the piece, at different stages of his time at Zen Center and Tassajara, were blended together. Perhaps I will just have to read all the transcripts in order to see how he expanded the teaching as his students got more of a hang of what he, and Dogen, were talking about.

Zenkei Blanche Hartman

‘The first three years I was doing zazen, I didn’t sit through a single period for forty minutes without changing my posture. I hated myself every time I did it because there were always macho guys sitting, guys and women, and I felt like a wimp over here that kept changing my posture until I got to the point after three years where I didn’t have to change my posture. It was during my first sesshin I did at Tassajara, during the middle of the night of the seventh night, that I discovered that, even though I was in pain, I didn’t have to move, and there was something else to do with it. In fact, it began to change when I was able to stay with it. It didn’t necessarily always go away, but it did begin to change, and then some of the precise location of the persistent pain seemed to be related to particular attitudes of mind that I was holding. Sometimes I would discover what attitude of mind that point of tension was expressing. It was sort of like that point of tension was going to stay there until I got the information about the attitude of mind that was causing it. Then it could also relax, and, in the opening of it, the attitude of mind that I had been holding revealed itself. Actually I don’t know exactly how it worked. I just know that there were a number of situations in which particular points of very intense physical discomfort were connected to particular attitudes of mind.

One attitude in particular that I was carrying when I came to Tassajara was spiritual pride. I had quit my good job and I had come down the mountains to be a monk and save the world. I thought I was doing something special. As long as I was holding the attitude that I was doing something special, I had this particular pain. When I saw that I had that attitude, the pain become more and more intense. It was in a particular point in my back. It was kind of pressing me down to the floor, and, at a certain point, I was having a conversation with it. I had a notion that it had to do with pride, and then I suggested something trivial and it just got really immense and I heard this voice that said, “You had better pay attention to me or I’m going to break your back.” I thought I was really losing it, and then I realized that I had this spiritual pride because I thought I was doing something wonderful for the world by quitting my job and coming to the mountains and sitting zazen and being a Bodhisattva, or whatever I thought I was doing. When I realized that that was the thought I was holding, this particular point of pain just sort of dissolved. “I got it.”…

The phrase “Waiting it out” came up. In many periods of zazen during sesshin, I get into the mind set of waiting for the period to end. It brings up the question, “At what point, or points, does pain, and what comes up with it, pass its usefulness factor?” So, it is an ongoing question I’ve had throughout practice.

I think that “waiting it out” has an element of aversion and aggression in it, as if you’re not ready to give it your kind attention. You just want to grit your teeth and wait for the bell to ring, not giving as much kindness to your body as you are capable of.’ (from the Chapel Hill Zen Center archives)

Blanche gave this talk during a sesshin at Tassajara when she was abbess, and I can certainly relate to some parts of it. In my first sesshin at Zen Center, right about 21 years ago now, Adrian, who was on my left, sat solid as a rock throughout the five days, while David on my right did wiggle about on occasion. I felt drawn to sit as well as Adrian, because I imagined that’s what the longer-term practitioners did, but I also understood that there was permission to move. Because I wanted to be seen as a good student, I didn’t move as much as I could have, but then, because I was used to endurance sports (cross-country, long-distance cycling, running marathons), I knew about pushing my body. I experienced a lot of pain.

When I went to Tassajara, and the amount of sitting increased substantially, I had a fair amount of pain for the first couple of years, and I made every effort not to move, as I was still concerned with being perceived as a serious student. When I returned for my second stint of two years, I did find that place of understanding the emotional component of some of the stuckness, and experienced that stuckness releasing on many different occasions. And the pain that remained seemed more bearable. Nevertheless, there were many hours of ‘waiting it out,’ which can be its own kind of practice too.

The Nature Of Wind

I feel a little self-conscious that when I write about my current life, the weather figures prominently in the story; then I think of Linda Ruth, and how she started almost every talk she gave during practice periods at Tassajara (I did three which she led) with some comments about the weather, as a way of grounding whatever followed in the reality that we were dealing with – and at Tassajara, the weather was always very prominent, and we spent a fair amount of time outside.

So anyway, after the last post, the fog came back with avengeance (if you read my stuff on Patreon you will have already seen the pictures); I read that it has been the coldest April and May round these parts for decades (unfortunately it has been a long way from being the wettest, so now we have drought to face again). This all feels part of the way the weather has been tilted off axis through the course of my life.

What blew away the fog and brought some clear, if not especially warm, weather, were some mighty winds, loud enough to rattle the chimneys on our roof. These at least allowed me to pull out the old analogy of the oak and the willow when I was teaching meditation last week, encouraging flexibility from our strong roots on the cushion (though I am aware that very few, if any, of the people I am leading in the sittings are going to be on a cushion).

After which, rather embarrassingly, I felt like I had run out of things to say about meditation. I had a recording due, and couldn’t think of what I wanted to talk about. The live sessions are easier, because there is always somewhere to start, depending on the mood of the participants – including myself – but I have the notion that an enduring recording should have more heft. In the end I talked about basic awareness practices.

Of course, the nature of wind is that things change, and I am sure I will come up with some resonant phrases again soon.

One way I have noticed change in myself recently is, now that I am fully vaccinated, and with the sudden shift in CDC guidelines, I am considerably less agitated to see people walking around without masks; out on my bike, I have stopped riding with a bandana around my neck, ready to pull up, and instead have a mask in a pocket, ready to pull out if needed. It has taken a few weeks of adjustment, but now it feels almost normal.

Another, more banal change is that the regular football season has finished in England. There are still a couple of European club finals and the European nations tournament to come in the next few weeks, but I know I will suddenly have quite a few more hours in the week – especially weekends – without matches to get absorbed in. I may even manage to finish a book. I picked up a new book by Shodo Harada on the Platform Sutra from the Zen Center bookstore on Friday, and I am excited to dig into it.

And to wrap up, here are some photos from the last couple of weeks:

A somewhat typical view of the fog as it wraps around Twin Peaks and heads dowtown
Also somewhat typical, deep in the fog on top of San Bruno Mountain
High winds, and entropy, reduce two lanes of the Great Highway to an extension of the dunes
On Saturday morning, I did some exploring in Pacifica in the sun.
Two views of Oyster Point from consecutive weekends
This past weekend was a little more spectacular
I was out early enough on Sunday that for the first time I tried taking the road that runs into the belly of SFO – it has a bike lane the whole way, and was bascially deserted
Just south of the airport, on the Bay Trail, the tranquility belied by the loudness of the plane taking off
In other realms, it was a joy to be volunteering for the Bicycle Coalition again, as things get back to normal. Here we are engaging with a family of cyclists on Market St on Friday morning, with Bike to Work Day rebranded as Bike To Wherever Day

Marilyn McDonald

‘The old kitchen had been condemned by the health department when the Becks owned the Springs. It was torn down in the first weeks by an overzealous Zen student caretaker acting on his own who knew it was condemned and thought it looked too dilapidated. The small staff dining shed which already had a four-burner stove was quickly converted into a temporary kitchen. When the hotel burned in 1949, the sandstone blocks were bulldozed into the cellar. Many of these were dug up in the creation of a garden and used as foundation stones for the new kitche, The walls were made from stones gathered in the creek bed. Roof timbers were cut from Coulter pine from Chew’s Ridge and from Tassajara canyon sycamore. No nails were used in the joints which were made by traditional Danish and Japanese methods. None of the masons had ever built a stone building before. It was finished in 1970. “People didn’t want to use the square stones – wanted to use the rounded, ‘pretty’ ones. It took a lot longer of course. Some people would hunt the whole day to find the right stone.” – Paul Discoe.’ (A Brief History Of Tassajara)

Perhaps as part of my missing my usual visits to Tassajara again this year, I picked this lovely book off the shelf. I had heard a little about the construction of the kitchen, but not about the prior demolition. When I was doing rock work around Tassajara, I always felt a little envious of those who were there in the early days, to have the pick of all the rocks in the creek. Though of course, after a heavy winter of rain, when the creek slowed and the level dropped in the spring, there was often a new harvest that had been washed down from upcreek.

I have plenty of photos of the Tassajara kitchen, which is little changed since 1970, though the light was always difficult to manage.
It was always cold in the kitchen in the winter, even without snow on the hills, and we used to joke about going into the walk-in fridge to warm up.

Suzuki Roshi

‘People may think Zen is a wonderful teaching, you know. “If you study Zen, you will acquire complete freedom (laughs). Whatever you do, if you are in the Zen Buddhist robe, it is alright (laughs). If you wear a black robe like this, whatever you do will be alright. We have that much freedom in our teaching.” This kind of understanding looks like observing the teaching that form is emptiness, but what I mean by “form is emptiness” is quite different. Back and forth we practice, we train our mind and our emotions and our body. And after those processes, you will acquire the perfect freedom. And perfect freedom should be only — will be acquired only under some limitation.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi archives)

I’ve been reading more of the talks from the first sesshin at Tassajara in the summer of 1967, to see what Suzuki Roshi wanted to transmit to those students who were inspired to jump into monastic training. There is a lot of subtle stuff about the different permutations of form and emptiness, and also some insights into the Genjo Koan. Look out for more posts soon.

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.