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.

What I think about when I am riding

As it happens, during the weeks leading up to my second trip to England this year, some of my focus was on the same things as prior to the first trip in April. I rode straight up Tam the day after the Genzo-e finished in August, and, as in the spring, it felt okay. I wrote to a friend that the ride reminded me of the days after sesshin at Tassajara, when I would run up to the top of the road, just to get out of the valley, and to give myself a physical challenge of a different order to sitting on a cushion incessantly for however many days it had been.

And so I thought about trying to ride up Mount Diablo before I left. Since my weekends these are often filled with things that don’t involve riding a bike – albeit lovely things like going to Wilbur, and leading roams – I realised that even from a relatively decent base of fitness, it was going to be hard to get enough meaningful rides in over the remaining few weeks to be able to get up Diablo without hurting too much.
I repeated the rides I had done in the spring, the typical rides I do when I want to get some climbing in my legs. There was a bonus in that the Bolinas-Fairfax road had opened again, after eighteen months of shoring up various parts of the hillside, so I had to opportunity to approach the seven sisters from both sides.
One thing I did not have to worry about, unlike last time, was the weather. There were rare thunderstorms and unseasonal rain a couple of weeks ago, but the weekend was warm and very clear once that faint autumnal chill had worn off.

It is one thing to contemplate riding up a mountain, and of course another thing to do it. It was only riding along the arroyo between the North Gate and the State Park boundary sign, where the climbing starts, that I felt fully on board with what was happening. And then there was an hour and more of continuous uphill to remind me of how real it was.
Overall, I felt better and stronger than than I might have expected. Knowing the climb well enough, I took care to manage my legs, and my intake of food and water, trying to stay relaxed as possible. There was an occasional twinge in my left knee that is new, and that I did not want to exacerbate. I did not expect the breeze to cool down quite so radically in the top half of the climb – I was almost tempted to put on my extra layer which I had brought for the descent, but conditions were pretty good, and the mountain felt quiet – which made for an unfettered descent down the more exhilarating South Gate Road.

And what was I thinking about? Actually, the Brahamviharas popped into my head as I passed someone around the 1000′ i also think it’s worth saying…elevation marker, where the road rears up a little. I feel a great kinship with anyone who is on a bike on the mountain, however much of it they are riding, so lots of loving-kindness, along with the nods, the little waves, and the encouraging words; compassion for those who seem to be struggling more than I am; sympathetic joy for those many riders who look strong on the uphill, and fluid on the descent; equanimity to endure all the differing gradients on the road up, and the giddiness of the long road down.

Shohaku Okumura

‘When we see emptiness, we realize there’s no hindrance, no obstacles to block our life force, it is soft and flexible, like a plant that tries to go round a big rock and continues to grow. There is always some other way to live, to grow.’ (Commentary on the Heart Sutra)

Wind Caves 8.jpg
This little pine did not survive the fire of 2008, but before then, every time I visited the Wind Caves near Tassajara, I marveled at the way it grew; I could not help but add this picture to the quote.

Making The Unwanted Wanted

Even now,
decades after,
I wash my face with cold water –
Not for discipline,
nor memory,
nor the icy, awakening slap,
but to practice
to make the unwanted wanted.
(A Cedary Fragrance, by Jane Hirshfield)

I thought of this poem at Wilbur. I have always loved it, with its evocation of Tassajara, where there is only cold water in the cabins. I too practised with washing my face with cold water every morning, even on the coldest winter days – and I still do, mainly for the awakening nature of it.
On the Saturday morning, with the temperatures already reaching the nineties, I went to sit on the yoga deck with a few other people who all came very early. As we settled, I was looking at the picture of the serene Buddha, with his hands in a particular mudra. In meditation instruction I often talk about the particular energetic significance of each hand position within the tradition that yoga and meditation arose from. And also how our physical posture as we sit is also of energetic significance; I usually spend a fair amount of time on details in the body which I have found it helpful to pay attention to as we settle into sitting (if you want to hear me actually talking about it, you can find a recording here.)
There were a fair number of flies that morning, as well as the sound of water, of people passing, birds, and the occasional vehicle. I spoke about practising equanimity, of sitting upright as a way of meeting each moment, without leaning forwards or backwards, or to the left or to the right, regardless of what comes up. Acknowledging that what is arising now IS what is arising now, whether we want it or not. And trusting that it will not always be like this, that this present moment is in flux. I was thinking of the wonderful quote by Katagiri Roshi, which I appear not to have posted on here yet: ‘The universal path is complete tranquility and at the same time constantly flowing’.
So, I went on, we can get to notice how we respond when a fly buzzes close to our ear, how our skin reacts when a fly lands on it. Do we need to wave our hands to try to get it to go away? It will head off somewhere else very soon anyway; can we stay with the irritation and discomfort for the moments that they last?
At Tassajara I discovered that my limit in this regard was having an ant crawl into my ear – that was something I felt I had to try to shake off, but otherwise, I did my best not to be disturbed by the flies. When we can practise with these little things, then we have a chance to build up our equanimity muscles so as to be able to meet more challenging moments in our lives. We may even discover that we have a far greater capacity for meeting these challenges – and I invoked the residents of Houston dealing with the catastrophic flooding that is their lives at the moment – than we might imagine in our thoughts and fears. And so on, all the way to the end, as tomorrow’s poem will illuminate.

The sunrise on Saturday morning at Wilbur.

The Life Force Of This Moment

It was 112 degrees when I arrived at Wilbur on Friday afternoon; I think that is the same as the highest temperature I experienced at Tassajara, in my first summer, fifteen years ago. It was also hazy with smoke from a fire in Oroville. These are the kinds of temperatures that I could not imagine, growing up in England. I find a kind of bodily relaxation in the intensity of the heat – provided I am not, as I often was at Tassajara, trying to move large rocks in the afternoon sun, or wearing four layers of robes in the sweltering evening zendo.

The evening before, I had come across the Bay Bridge, at around 8pm, in the car I was borrowing for the occasion. The traffic was flowing freely – in itself a cause of joy – and the view of San Francisco from the upper deck of the bridge, which always seems to produce in me a feeling of gladness that I live where I do, was heightened by the post-sunset colours of the sky – smoky orange, lilacs and mauves. On the Friday morning, rising typically early, I had crossed the Golden Gate Bridge on my bike to take a quick loop of the Headlands before leaving town. The day was already warm, and the red, just risen sun was reflected along the pearlescent blue still water of the bay. It was life-affirmingly beautiful.

I have been thinking a lot about face-to-face transmission, as Tenshin Roshi recently talked about at City Center; last week I was reading a chapter in Kobun Chino’s book that touched on the same topics; taking in the words on my commute, I reflected (not for the first time), that people do not have the chance to experience this when they are, as so many seem to be when out in public, staring down at their phones. In each moment there is the opportunity to come face-to-face with the life force of the present, whether that is face-to-face with a person, or with anything that is alive – which is why the teachers of old always insisted that grasses, trees and walls are always expressing the truth of reality, if we are open enough to pay attention to it.

I thought of talking again at Wilbur about how its location offers many chances to experience this – phones are of no use; people are moving at human pace; there is abundant silence and delightful nature all around; everyone is taking time to be physically immersed in and relaxed by the hot springs water. I wanted to add that as beautiful and energising as both of my bridge crossings had been, there is no way to hold onto the experiences. We can allow them to fuel us as we move forward, but if we get stuck thinking about them, then we miss the opportunity to experience the life force of the actual moment we are living. In the end I talked about something else that was more alive at the time. Tune in tomorrow to find out…

The hazy sunset on my first evening at Wilbur last Friday, seen from the little tub at the Fountain of Life.