Embodying The Dharma

The second and last shuso ceremony of this season was at Green Gulch on Monday. Zachary and I had consulted, and figured that we could pack up our cushions, head on over right after the lunch-time outdoor sit, and be there in good time; it all worked out as well as we had hoped.
It was a lovely spring day at Green Gulch, just as it had been the Monday before at Tassajara, and I got pretty warm in the zendo as we sat through the questions and congratulations.
I have been to a few shuso ceremonies there now, but mostly I haven’t been able to stay for dinner. Zachary took off after the ceremony, but luckily Tova offered me a later ride, meaning I could stay and chat, and then indulge in the the pizza and ice cream, which, as I hadn’t really had any lunch, went down very well.
Bryan was the shuso; he and I go back a dozen years, as he arrived at Tassajara in 2006 – along with Thiemo and Steph, who were around with their two adorable kids – right when I was settling in for my second two-year stretch. Mostly what I remember, and very fondly, are the many hours we spent running together on the trails over those two years; he had to wait for me often enough, being quite a few years younger as well as being a great natural athlete. I can only remember one time, the No Race in 2008, when he was off-form, and I was almost slowing for him so we could finish together. There were many other adventures as well, especially around the 2008 fire, as we scouted on the peaks, climbing Hawk Mountain or the Tony Trail every day.
I haven’t heard him give a dharma talk yet, so I don’t know how he fares in that respect, but I know that he was a great monk, throwing himself whole-heartedly into everything, and embodying the teaching just by doing that. And that is what it is all about, at least in my book.

Down into the clouds 3
I am very glad that I took my camera on some of the runs we did. This was a morning we ran to the top of the road, and in doing so climbed above the cloud level, which was at about 3000 feet, into clear blue skies. Running back down into the clouds was quite dream-like.

Bryan Tony Trail
This was a particularly narrow and slippery part of the Tony Trail, which we had almost certainly climbed to the top of before descending.

Bryan at the horse camp upper Willow Creek
This was a lovely section of oak meadow up Willow Creek, past the other end of the Tony trail, about five miles from Tassajara.

Bryan descends Hawk Mountain
After the 2008 fire, Bryan and I climbed up Hawk Mountain and discovered that nothing was left of the old telephone transmitter. Then we scrambled down again.

Driving the road day 1 Bryan hits the mountain
One time I had got a Suburban stuck in a ditch in the snow as I tried to drive Jordan out. I ran a couple of miles back down to Tassajara and Bryan brought up the lumber truck with the winch, but even that struggled nearer the top. We eventually gave up, and tried again the next day.

Bryan with Fu and Zenju, who were co-leading the practice period at Green Gulch.

Bryan, with Mako (who was a big part of those years at Tassajara), helping the dish crew by saving on dishes.

There were more flowers on the farm than on my last visit.

Dharma friends on the path. I suspect this will get used in many Zen Center publications…


Redbuds with Friends

My weekend at Wilbur, with a drive of more then two hours in each direction (thankfully the traffic was pretty light overall) was followed by a long Monday driving to Tassajara and back. Zachary and I left the city at 5:30 in the Jeep I had borrowed, swinging by Pacific Grove to pick up Djinn, who had just been in Tassajara for the last sesshin and was staying with a friend. Traffic was also not a problem, so we arrived at Jamesburg about forty minutes before the scheduled time for the stages in; having consulted with Leslie, who said it would help with her planning, we continued over the road.
It could not have been a more beautiful spring morning at Tassajara. I was glad to have the time to wander round for a while before the pre-ceremony tea, taking pictures and catching up with friends who had been down at the practice period.
Heather made short work of the ceremony, and was widely congratulated by the former shusos for her real openness and tenderness. In my congratulations, I reminisced about staying with her in Brooklyn three summers ago, when she was at a bit of a crossroads in her practice life; I don’t think either of us foresaw at all how things would turn out for her, but it is wonderful to see how it has.
There was time for a bathe – I jumped right into the creek straight away, and then hung out chatting in the outdoor plunge with Zachary, Simon and David until lunch, with great food and many more conversations before we got away.
Driving out was a little more challenging. We got stuck at the hardest part of the road, when I hesitated about the line to take over a shelf of rock, and the wheels spun into the dirt. It took a few minutes of digging, planning, and holding my breath before I could drive the Jeep almost sideways to the edge of the mountain and then keep enough momentum to get me over the tough spot.
All in all I was at the wheel for a little more than eight hours, which seemed fine at the time with the great company, but left me absolutely exhausted the next day. As I always say, though, it was totally worth it.

A redbud down at the end of the main path.

Another one by the stone cabins.

The creek at the bathhouse looked pretty healthy, and was very fresh.

Former shusos arriving for the ceremony.

Heather, with the fan, between Paul and Tanya, who was the jisha, and is also Heather’s wife.

What I Think About When I Am Running

The weather has shifted in the Bay Area: we had several decent bouts of rain, and now the skies are clear and the temperature is in the seventies. The wind has dropped, leaving a rare sense of peace and stillness in this generally windy city.
My life has been quite full recently, with some lovely things happening, and others that were less welcome. In the midst of it all I have noticed myself not feeling motivated to write about goings-on in the way that I sometimes do on here…
My vicarious marathon training has come to an end. After the twelve-mile run at Wilbur, the following weekends saw fourteen and sixteen miles covered (last weekend I let my friend do the eighteen-mile run unaccompanied). The fourteen mile run took in the trail to and onto the Bay Bridge, which I had never done before, but which I had assumed I would discover by bike sometime. The path is wider and less vertiginous for me than being on the Golden Gate Bridge, and there was a rare treat in store as well: whales were breaching right underneath us, to the delight of everyone on the path.
For the sixteen mile run, we traversed many parts of San Fransisco, from the Panhandle, to the Presidio, Mountain Lake, Lobos Creek, the Land’s End trail, the Cliff House and Ocean Beach, returning via Golden Gate Park, all under spectacular clouds and luckily no rain. It was like covering several roams at once, and the route felt very familiar to me. My friend, who had never run that far before, was having a fair amount of pain, and with it, motivation problems. It has been a few years since I ran that kind of distance (perhaps ten years ago, attempting a twenty-mile run around the mountains at Tassajara, which was pretty brutal), but I was doing okay plodding along. I was wondering if the long-term body memories of being able to cope with that kind of distance (and the three marathons I ran many years ago) helped, or if it was perhaps due to the more recent experience of sitting through sesshins where I would rather have been doing anything else than continuing to sit on a cushion, but nonetheless I persevered in following the schedule. Either way, I have in my body a sense of equanimity about sticking things out, which helps when life is throwing less pleasant things at me.
Last weekend, with a roam scheduled, I took the streetcar up to West Portal to run the course I had planned, up to Golden Gate Heights, the Moraga Street Stairs, and Grand View Park. I even made a detour to check out the steep dune that is Hawk Hill, before deciding again that it was not suitable to include on a roam. As I headed south and reached an uphill block of 10th Ave, I remembered how tired people had been at that part of the roam, having already got over several significant climbs. For myself, since I had only covered a few miles compared to the previous weekends, once I had crested that climb, I continued home via Twin Peaks, and still did not feel so worn out at the end.
I did resolve to re-plot the route of the roam though, to minimise the climbing, so we ended up doing the planned route almost backwards. A highlight was sitting on a south-facing rock in little-used Golden Gate Heights Park, out of the bracing north-westerly wind which subsequently made Grand View a bit of a challenge.
We also had a real bonus at the end; having come down the beautifully tiled Moraga Street steps, which are increasingly crowded and photographed these days, one of our number requested that we head towards the N Judah rather than back to West Portal. I had a memory of running down a set of steps that connected with Judah a year or so ago, and was happy that we found them. What I had not realised on that run was that they were also beautifully tiled on the vertical part of the step, with an earth theme to Moraga’s marine theme. And not one single person was there with a camera. We all had a chuckle at the way such trends can emerge.

Reb Anderson

‘To sit without delving into existence or nonexistence is called wholeheartedly sitting.’ (The Third Turning of the Wheel)

Perhaps this quote might seem a little scary – how can we not be delving into existence – or nonexistence. It brings to mind the phrase from Dogen, ‘no longer concerned with conceptual distinctions.’ I remember how long that line was debated when we studied it at Tassajara in 2004; now I see it very simply. There are conceptual distinctions, just as there is existence and nonexistence. It is the delving into, or being concerned with – or getting bogged down in your ideas about, to put it more bluntly – these things that causes the problems.

Lingering Over Dinner

Recently I had dinner with a friend; we had shared the cooking and prep responsibilities, and had fun doing it. We had enjoyed eating and catching up with news. And as soon as I had put my fork down, I was ready to jump up to do the dishes and clean up. My friend was rather aghast – why didn’t I just want to stay at the table and prolong the conversation?
Feeling a little abashed, I did just that, and noticed that I relaxed back into sitting there, which we did for quite some time before heading to do the washing up (to use the English expression). 
This incident has stayed in my head since it happened; I know my own tendencies to keep moving on to the next thing, but I was curious about why I seemed to be in such a hurry to move on from an enjoyable moment. I wondered if it was a downside to the intense training we get at Tassajara to follow the schedule completely: when the han sounds, we go to the zendo; when the bell rings at the end of zazen, we get up for kinhin – it doesn’t matter if you were having the best sit ever, or the worst, you still have to get up when the bell rings.
To do this is a wonderful practice, as we always have to let go of our personal preferences to follow the flow of the sangha through the scheduled day; I often tell people that there is a huge value in having to surrender to that extent.
In my reflections, I thought of a passage from Suzuki Roshi about responding to his wife, when she calls him for breakfast:
‘For an instance, you know, my wife [laughs]—every morning, when breakfast is ready, he hit, you know—what do you call it?  Clappers?  Yeah, clappers—like this.  If I don’t answer for it [laughs], you know, I—he—she may continue to hit it [laughs, laughter] until I feel rather angry [laughs, laughter].  Why we have that kind of problem is quite simple.  Because I don’t answer, you know.  If I say “Hai!“—that’s all [laughs, laughter].  Because I don’t say “Hai!” she, you know, continue to—she has to continue because she doesn’t know whether I heard it or not [laughs].
Sometime she may think: “He knows but he doesn’t answer.”  Eei! [Probably imitates a mock attack by Okusan.]  [Laughs, laughter.]  That is what will happen.  When I don’t answer, you know, I am, you know, on the top of the pole [laughs].  I don’t jump off from here.  When I say “Hai!” you know, I jump off from here.  Because I stay at the top of the pole, I am—I have something to do—something important to do [laughs, laughter]—something important at the top of the pole:  “You shouldn’t call me!  You should wait!”  So before I say something I determined to shut up—not to say anything.  “This is very important!  Don’t you know that?!  [S.R. and students laughing.]  I am here [taps on stick], on the top of the pole!  Don’t you know that?”  So she start to—  [Probably gesturing.]  That is how we create problem.
So the secret is just to say “Hai!” you know, and jump up from here.  Then there is no problem.’
Jumping off the top of the pole is a classic zen image for not getting stuck – in Suzuki Roshi’s case, not getting stuck by thinking that whatever he was doing was more important than responding to his wife’s call for breakfast. 
In my case, no-one was asking me to jump up and do the dishes; I was stuck in the idea that I needed to go and do the next thing, rather than respond to the (as-yet-unspoken but still clear) desire of my friend to linger at the table.

This post first appeared on my Patreon page

Reb Anderson

‘A buddha is someone who sees the way things really are. When we see the way things really are, we see that we’re all in this together, that we are all interdependent. A great surpassing love arises from that wisdom, and that love leads buddha to wish that all beings would open to this wisdom and be free of the misery that arises from ignoring the way things are. Buddhas appear in the world because they want us to have buddha’s wisdom, so that we will love every single being completely and protect every single being without exception and without limit – just as all buddhas do.’ (The Third Turning of the Wheel)

This is another book I borrowed from my friends’ shelves recently. I have a feeling that I have not posted a single quote from Tenshin Roshi the entire time I have been writing this blog; it is at least a dozen years since I read one of his books, and I hold opinions about his personality and teaching style. This book interested me however – I was in the room when some of the lectures it is based on were given, during the first of two Tassajara practice periods I attended where Reb was the teacher, this one back in 2003.

At the time I could make very little sense of what was being discussed; the Samdinirmocana Sutra is considered fairly impenetrable. I do remember trying to explain what I had retained a year later to my best friend from London, in a failed attempt to have him see how wonderful Buddhist thinking was. These days more of it makes sense, even reading it on BART, my current main practice. I would still think twice about attempting to explain it all, though I did try paraphrasing some of it to my students last week, since the conversation had veered towards the relative and the absolute. You might have noticed that this passage is not impenetrable in the slightest; it is rather lovely, and it is the opening paragraph in the book; I was encouraged to continue. I also find it reads as a nice reflection on yesterday’s post.

Tatsugami Roshi

‘Dogen Zenji says that the practice of zazen is identical with enlightenment.  Let me give you an example. If you clean your room, you think that your room is beautiful and neat looking.  It is natural that you should think so.  According to Dogen, however, who maintains that practice is identical with enlightenment, the very act of cleaning is identical with cleanliness, purity, and beauty.
Another example is hitting the drum.  The moment that you hit the drum, a sound appears: “Boom!”  Hitting the drum and creating the sound are identical.  Let us apply this to zazen.  Imagine that in sitting meditation some sound appears:  “Boom!”, which is enlightenment itself.  But, as with the drum, or bell, sitting and the sound of enlightenment are completely one.  The same principle is exemplified by switching on the electricity:  the electricity does not think, nor is it excessively proud of its great powers.  It never thinks whether it works slowly or quickly.  As soon as you turn on the switch, the electricity works immediately.  The same holds true when you hit the bell.  The bell doesn’t think:  “Wait a minute”, or, “Oh, yes, you hit me.  OK Just a moment.  Let me have a little time, please.  Yes, right now, yes.  Let’s start.  Gong!”  The bell never thinks so.  The moment that you hit the bell, it works immediately.  This is what Dogen means when he says that practice is identical with enlightenment itself. This is the proper way of zazen.’