A Ferry Ride In The Fog

On Friday morning, I was listening to Suzuki Roshi’s Calmness talk, ahead of this morning’s third class in the series. Even though I have listened to it quite a few times already, once again, I heard it fresh (and kind of wished that I could re-write some of the accompanying article I posted for that talk).

‘When you sit you do not feel anything; you just sit. You are in the complete calmness of your mind. But in everyday life, you will find you will be encouraged by the calmness of the zazen — sitting. So actually the value of — you will find the value of Zen in everyday life, rather then when you sit.’

I used this notion for a meditation session I had during the morning. It’s something I talk about often, that meditation can be like having training wheels on a bike, learning to deal, in a safe space, with things that are usually not consequential. During the session, I could hear some music filtering up from my downstairs neighbour, a typical minor irritant, where we can pay close attention to how we respond to the situation in the moment, mentally, physically, or emotionally. And then we go out in the world and try to handle things with the same sense of equanimity and equilibrium; it takes a while to remember that we can do this, but as we continue our practice, we do start to embody that kind of response a little more regularly and consistently.

In my radio days, once you got over the initial adrenaline-fuelled thrill of doing live transmissions, they could often be quite hum-drum. I always say that the job was a good preparation for practice: it was always in the moment; you had to keep paying attention; and once it was done, it was done – there was no taking work home afterwards. When something went wrong, though, that’s when your training came into play, and your ability to focus. I used to tell people I was training, ‘Try to just make one mistake.’ I would see people (including myself), make a slip of some kind, like playing the wrong tape, and then compound it by being flustered. I would try to move on from the first mistake, and get things back to normal as soon as I could.

I have always presumed that flying a plane was rather similar, though as we would say in radio after some catastrophe in the studio, ‘well, no-one died.’ Most of the time, the pilots can maintain a relaxed awareness, and then, when things go awry, they have to call on all their training.

I got an object lesson similar this on Thursday morning. After enjoying a number of spectacular sunsets and gorgeous skyscapes on recent journeys, this time the fog was dense. The ferry was, unusually, running late. Once we were underway I could really see why. Passing under the Bay Bridge, it was barely visible. We made confident progress across the bay, even though there are once again a large number of huge container ships moored here and there. Once we approached the entrance to the Seaplane Lagoon in Alameda though, the boat slowed to crawl. There are several seawalls, with an entry gap that is not huge – and presumably a fairly narrow deep-water channel. In clear day, the approach must be relatively simple for an experienced captain, but when we couldn’t see it even from a few yards away, I appreciated how professional the skipper was being. I hope they were feeling equanimous too.

Naturally I took plenty of photographs to try to capture the mood. We are about to go under the bridge, with barely one footing to be seen.
The seawall starts to become visible.
Approaching the terminal.

Big Skies

By way of a contrast to the damp and cold weather a few weeks ago, we now have a high-pressure system anchored overhead, which has made for a succession of mild and still days, and a number of ridiculously beautiful sunsets. 

Last week I was trying to recover from all the things I did the week before, and I took the opportunity to get away from screens and out across the city to scout for the next couple of roams. I still had plenty to get done, but luckily, the long weekend allowed me a little extra space to cross more things off the to-do list. 

Our second class went as well as the first – at least for me, and according to the feedback I received. At the end I got to give what I thought of as my stump speech for jijuyu zanmai, as the talk we were listening to seemed to be a strong paraphrase of what Dogen proposed in Bendowa. When I get a chance to speak like this, I can feel the emotion coming up, the joy of practice, a strong reminder of why I am living life the way I am. It boils down to this, in my view: everything is expressing its enlightenment, so we might as well join in.

And with that, a selection of the photos I was lucky to take over the last week:

Tuesday’s sunset colours from the ferry
Just before we arrived at the Ferry building
Thursday was even better.
Friday overlooking Visitacion Valley.
Saturday at Mile Rock
Sunday sunrise from my bike – I was overdressed.
Sunday afternoon at Lake Merritt
Monday sunset with a holiday crowd at Alamo Square.
And just steps away, at the same time.

Dogen

‘Descendants of buddha ancestors, do not study the Agama teachings, the teachings of Brahmans, the methods of making sacrifices, teachings about the pursuit of pleasure, or the teachings of the [extremist] opponents of pursuing pleasure. Save your head from fire, and just study the fists, eyeballs, whisks, sitting cushions, Zen sleeping boards, ancestral minds, and ancestral sayings of the buddhas and ancestors. If it is not the activity of buddha ancestors, do not practice it; if it is not the talk of buddha ancestors, do not say it. Great assembly, do you want to clearly understand the key to this?

After a pause Dogen said: [Practice with] sitting cushions, Zen boards, and Zhaozhou’s tea, not expressing evil through the whole day. The ancient buddhas have studied the true meaning. Sanavasin received transmission and wore Buddha’s monk’s robe.’ (Extensive Record, 380)

I think just not expressing evil through the whole day would be a pretty great place to start.

Ryokan

Returning home from a day of begging;
Sage has covered my door.
Now, a bunch of leaves burns with the brushwood.
Silently, I read the poems of Han-shan,
Accompanied by the autumn wind rustling through the reeds.
I stretch out both feet and lie down.
What is there to fret over?
What is there to doubt?

Koun Franz

‘Dogen never speaks of realization as a one-time thing. You don’t say, Well, I got it. I’m done. You ate breakfast this morning, but it doesn’t mean you’re done eating—in the same way, understanding is not something that you get and then you keep. Not true understanding, anyway. Understanding is something that’s happening all the time. It’s being uncovered all the time. It’s being cultivated all the time. So even if you understood in the previous moment, it doesn’t mean that you understand in this one. And if you understand in this moment, it’s no guarantee that you’ll understand in the next, because understanding is not some abstract thing—it’s a kind of seeing, and we can only see in the present. We can only see what is in front of us, never behind.’ (from Zendohoko)

Shishuang

'When Shishuang met Daowu, he said, "What is the transcendent wisdom that meets the eye?"
Daowu called to an attendant and he responded. Daowu said to him, "Add some clean water to the pitcher."
After a long pause, Daowu said to Shishuang, "What did you just come and ask me?" 
Shishuang started to raise his previous question when Daowu got up and left the room. Shishuang then had a great realization.' (Zen’s Chinese Heritage)

I am not surprised Daowu left the room. Shishuang comes along with some hi-faluting question and then doesn't even notice the response that is given. No action replays in these old stories.

Shohaku Okumura

‘This body and mind are like a waterfall. A river flows past a place where there is a change of height, and a waterfall is formed. Yet there is no such thing as a waterfall, only continuous flow of water. A waterfall is not a thing but rather a name for a process of happening. This body and mind is like a waterfall. We cannot distinguish where the waterfall starts and ends because it is a continuous process. Since there is no “I,” no substance called Shohaku Okumura, I cannot say “I” will disappear.’ (Living By Vow)

Big Numbers

It was a busy dharma week to start the year off, one of those weeks where I just had to stay focused on the most immediate task while also remembering those that were coming down the pipeline. 

I was happy with how my talk went on Wednesday (I shall post the link to it once I have managed to edit and post it on the Zen Center website – that’s one of the tasks that had been sidelined this week). It was lovely, as always, to see who showed up, including Abbots Ed and David, some names and faces from over the years, and new friends as well. I kept it relatively short, and I think the overall flow was helped by my having written a skeleton out in long hand, during which process I was able to re-jig a few points I wanted to make. I certainly felt more connected to the words on paper than I usually do when they are on screen, so perhaps I will revert to this method going forward. There were several fairly weighty questions afterwards, which I hoped I managed to navigate skilfully.

On Friday I participated in a webinar on mindful eating for Core, and had a couple of meditation sessions, one regular, one a one-off for Within, which was for a lively group. The rest of the day I spent reading up for the class. Going through old Wind Bells gave me some new nuggets, so on Saturday morning, during fifteen minutes of pre-amble, I had lots to say. 

After we had listened to the talk itself, the comments that came from the participants were full of amazing insights and thoughts that captured much of why Suzuki Roshi resonates for people so much. We had more than fifty people signed up for the class, which is more than I have had in a formal class before, and more than forty were listening live (others get access to the recordings). After Abbot Ed and I signed off, I was buzzing for the rest of the morning. 

And then I rode over to the Embarcadero for the first roam of the year. It had been a week of mixed weather, some rain and a couple of days with low low cloud, but Saturday was bright and felt warm in the sun. We ended up with seventeen people and an energetic dog, my largest group in quite a while, as we climbed over Telegraph Hill, crossed North Beach and Chinatown on the way to Russian Hill, and back. One of the attendees had some wonderful bits of historical knowledge, which he shared as we went round. I saw a hawk perched low on a tree above us in Washington Square, and many bees and a butterfly enjoying the flowering Ceanothus at the foot of the Coit Tower.

With all the teachings I had to take care of, plus a couple of days at the studio, I felt like I had not been especially active this past week – the days in the studio each involve about an hour on my bike, and the roam certainly gave my legs a workout, but by my standards, it wasn’t much. So I was glad to get out on Sunday morning and ride for a few hours, from Ocean Beach to Foster City and back past the airport. It was clear and still, and not as cold as last week – I was slightly overdressed in the end, but that is much better than the alternative. It feels like the time of year where I am just doing maintenance rides – keeping an easy tempo, and not trying to charge up a lot of hills.

I don’t know if I have seen the bridge disappear like this.
Certainly there was no way to see across to the East Bay
By way of contrast, sitting at the top of Telegraph Hill during the roam.
Late afternoon sun as weclimbed back up the Filbert St steps.
Never get tired of this early morning glow.
Still and clear in Foster City.
San Francisco is to the right of the visible hills.

Dogen

Setting up a lamp and holding a brush, I wish to speak my heart.
From a distance I yearn for India, and traces of the founding ancestor.
Our Buddha's transmission of the robe commenced in this cold valley,
Solitary, not only in winter at Mount Song's Shaolin temple.

Suzuki Roshi

‘Our vital freedom will be like running water originating from a mountain and passing through valleys and fields, reaching the sea. There is no freedom for the water to return to the mountain. But at the same time there is vital freedom. This kind of life is called religious life. To attain it is to practice zazen without the idea of gaining.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi archives)

To close out the week, another one-day sitting talk from 1965 (whose tape is now lost). If you are able to join the class that Abbot Ed and I are starting this morning on the Suzuki Roshi archive, it will be great to see you on screen.