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.


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.

Suzuki Roshi

‘A monastery is not some particular place. Whether you can make Tassajara a monastery or not is up to you. It may be even worse than city life even though you are in Tassajara. But when you have the wisdom of the Prajnaparamita Sutra, even though you are in San Francisco, that is the perfect monastery. This point should be fully understood.’ (from the Shunryu Suzuki Archives)

As with the other recent post, wise words from Suzuki Roshi during the first sesshin at Tassajara. I remember, and I may have recounted here before, a former monk saying that he felt okay leaving Tassajara when he could find Tassajara walking the streets of Manhattan. I did not understand it then, but I see it better now.

Suzuki Roshi

‘If someone asks me: What is Prajna Paramita? I will answer: practice of zazen. If someone asks again: What is the practice of zazen? I will answer: To open Buddha’s eating bowl and to take bath in evening.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi archives)

I had pulled this quote out from a talk, and then posted it to Instagram having forgotten where I had got it from. I attributed it to Dogen – so I wasn’t far off really. The phrasing certainly sounds like Dogen, and Suzuki Roshi, as I often say, was channeling Dogen for his new students in America. In fact these lines came from the first Tassajara sesshin, in the summer of 1967; from the shosan ceremony, to be precise, where Suzuki Roshi answered the questions of those sincerely trying to understand their practice and zen practice. And the answer: eating and bathing, at the appropriate times. Naturally.

Surrounded By Boxes

September has a feeling of change about it, and this year is no exception. The lingering memories of being at Tassajara and transitioning from guest season to practice period get fainter each year; what I feel this time is a preparation for hunkering down for more months of shelter-in-place.

On a personal level, it is a time of change: after almost five years, I am leaving this cosy shared house and moving in with my sweetheart. The distance between my current place and the new one is about a mile, but the logistics are still there to be tackled.

At the outset, having found a place and signed a lease, the things to take care of seemed a bit daunting, and I woke up a few times crammed with thoughts and plans. Once I started taking the necessary steps, booking movers (because I really don’t want to move everything myself, as I did when I moved in here from Zen Center, in the rain, while I was sick), buying and picking up boxes, organising my stuff.

Now, a couple of days out, my books are all packed, and about half of my other stuff is. After moving this weekend, I will be getting on a plane to meet up with my sweetheart as she wraps up her affairs, and we will be driving back from the mid-west to San Francisco later in the month. All of which means I won’t have much time to post new things this month, and there will be some repeats scheduled – after all, with almost 1800 posts published, I like to read some of the wisdom again myself.

It seemed fitting, if sad, that the Hebden Bridge discussions wound down this week. These started back in April, as everyone was adjusting to lock-down, and it was encouraging to discuss how practice helps us meet such challenging times. I have really appreciated, as was expressed this week, the generosity of the sangha in offering this space for people across the UK and beyond, many dharma friends who do not ordinarily get to meet in person very often (as Wendy pointed out, we were coming up for the anniversary of my last in-person visit). I have also appreciated the opportunity to give regular talks, in a way that I haven’t before, and to entwine the conversation with Catherine Gammon (who, along with Wendy, I have known for about fifteen years from our time at Tassajara together) as we alternated taking the dharma seat.

Perhaps, after a hibernation, it will be possible to fly to the UK again next year. In any case, I trust the sangha will still be there, and still offering support.

I will miss the south-facing deck in my current flat…

Suzuki Roshi

‘Zen student is not, you know, so expressive, you know. Mostly they keep silent. They do not walk so fast. They don’t act so actively, you know. You know, they have some– something, you know– something different, anyway. Especially when you sit for so long time, you yourself feel you changed a lot. You feel, you know, it is difficult even to smile [laughs]– even to say something, you know. That will be the feeling you have. And if you continue your practice, you will be more and more so. And even though you will not change into a strong buddha [laughs, laughter], a great change will happen to you, you know, and you will be someone which you didn’t like at all. “I don’t want to be like this.” [Laughs.] But although this kind of experience is not the experience you wanted to have, but this is the experience anyway you will have through [laughs, laughter] zazen.

But there is– there is no need for you to worry, you know, because this is the way, you know, upwards, and soon you will find out the way downwards, and you will find yourself in the city again as a normal person. So there is nothing to worry, but in zendo it is necessary for us to have this kind of experience through practice.

And I think one or two years we must devote ourselves this kind of practice. If you go to Tassajara, you know, even more so. And Tassajara itself will have a kind of feeling of practice center more and more. When you see this kind of practice, you may say– or people may say, “Zen practice is not for us” [laughs].” You know, you may not like it. But by the time you have a Caucasian, you know, old Zen master, you will have found out exactly what is Zen.

So I want you to be patient enough to continue this kind of practice. And it is important for you to take care of this kind of feeling and gradually extend this kind of umperturbability [imperturbability] of mind to our everyday life. When you start to work on this point, to establish, you know, to extend our practice to everyday life, you will understand– you will understand the teaching– our teaching. Or you will understand what is meant.’ (From the Suzuki Roshi Archives)

I was recently conversing about how I feel about sesshin these days (I haven’t sat one in about three years, though I certainly would have sat this year’s Genzo-e had it happened non-virtually), and I think what Suzuki Roshi says here to his mostly new monastic students is germane to what I was thinking. Having been immersed in that kind of practice for many years, something happened, and it feels more possible to access the kinds of feelings that took all those days and weeks in retreat to uncover initially. Not that I live in bliss day in, day out, but I feel like I understand the underlying mechanisms a little better.