Mountains and Waters Sutras

‘Even if you have an eye to see mountains as grass, trees, earth, rocks, or walls, do not be confused or swayed by it; this is not complete realization. Even if there is a moment when you view mountains as the seven treasures’ splendor, this is not returning to the source. Even if you understand mountains as the realm where all buddhas practice, this understanding is not something to be attached to. Even if you have the highest understanding of mountains as all buddhas’ wondrous characteristics, the truth is not only this. These are conditioned views. This is not the understanding of buddha ancestors, but merely looking through a bamboo pipe at a corner of the sky.’ (Shobogenzo Sansuikyo)

I read this passage to the retreat group as we silently ate lunch at the Horse Pasture on the first full day of the retreat. It was an amazingly beautiful day, the wildflowers were abundant, and everyone seemed to be having a good time. And, when we got to the Narrows, one of the group, who knew Tassajara very well, slipped and broke a wrist crossing the creek. Luckily another member of the group was a nurse, so we got them strapped up and ready to walk back to Tassajara. Then we came across a rattlesnake at the side of the trail. Only the nurse got past it. I backed everyone else quite a few yards along the trail, and told her to alert the stone office about the injury. The Tassajara protocols worked fine, as did, eventually, throwing small stones in the direction of the snake to encourage it to find somewhere quieter to sun itself. The trained responder sorted out the patient, who was then driven off to hospital in Monterey by the shika.

And that was only the smallest portion of my time there. When I arrived, through clouds on the ridge, I felt the deep relief of being back. Then, on the first morning, chilly after the previous day’s rain, I strained something in my back as I bent over to pull on my boots. Some things, especially sitting down, getting up from sitting, zazen, sleeping on a thin shikibuton, twisting slightly to the left, were painful for a few days, and in the case of sitting and zazen, uncomfortable throughout my stay. Other things – hiking, working with rocks, moving dirt, doing the compost in the shed, cleaning the bathhouse, and very gently yoga poses, were fine.

I didn’t, as I wished, get to give a talk in the zendo, or even be morning doshi, even as the intricacies of service reappeared in my mind, and the chants came back to my voice after all these years. I did offer a presentation on the Beginner’s Mind talk which was well received, and boosted by Steve Weintraub offering a moving personal testimonial on Suzuki Roshi’s way.

I did five hikes in a little over a week, the Horse Pasture and the Wind Caves twice each, first to check (both were in much better shape than I anticipated, thanks to the indefatigable trail crew), and the Overlook and creekside hike on the easy day, which still offered moments of beauty and silence.

I ate a lot of delicious food. I lingered in the baths and the creek. I met up with fellow practitioners from fifteen and twenty years ago that I did not expect to see, and others from summers and work periods past that it was lovely to see again. I tried to encourage some of the newly arrived students, and petted the dogs as often as I could.

I drove a stage one day, and declined to do a town trip, but otherwise did what was asked.

I felt totally at home, and yet did not feel that I needed to move back there any time soon. And this is just the merest glimpse of what it was like. I took notes for the first couple of days, but there were too many details and memories to try to capture it all.

I took a lot of photographs with my new camera, and was glad I had decided to buy it.

Lupins on the way in.
Overlooking the Narrows from the cut-off trail.
The Wind Caves.
It was very green and bright.

Suzuki Roshi

‘If you want to study Buddhism, you should, you know, enter the room. You should not stay at the edge of the teaching. Even though you enter our room, you will not have any restriction, you know. You are quite free. So—but you should enter our teaching. It means not to be—not—don’t try to understand it just intellectually or by means of experience only. Experience, of course, [is] important, but the more important thing is—is confidence to believe in yourself.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi archives)

Lew Richmond

‘Suzuki-roshi loved certain ungrammatical expressions in English. He had certain phrases, one of which was, “Looks like good.” “Looks like good” is a genuine koan. It’s something you can’t quite get your head around. When I was doing dharma transmission, there were various people here who were assigned to help me, and there were things they were supposed to do-put down mats, light candles, and stuff. They didn’t do it quite the way it was supposed to be- maybe forgot the candle, or the incense wasn’t lit, or something-so maybe it didn’t look so good in acertain way, if you think that good means somehow doing it a certain way. But in reality it was very good. It was wonderful because they were so sincere and helpful. Their so-called “mistakes” weren’t mistakes at all. Just the way it went as we expressed our sincerity together. There’s a very strong temptation in Buddhist practice to fall into “looks like good.” You want your outward appearance to be amenable to people. You want to be well regarded. You want to be liked. You don’t want to make a mistake. That’s OK for a while, but there’s a certain point at which “looks like good” can’t be sustained and something else takes its place.’ (from Wind Bell)

This rang very true for me, and it probably does for anyone who has done residential or monastic practice for a sustained period of time. I mainly think back to my time as ino at City Center, where my idealistic fantasies about everyone doing everything perfectly softened up to meet the reality of everyday practice. As epitomised in this post (worth reading the comments too).

Rempo Niwa

‘In Shakyamuni’s Teachings there is found the words “Turning the self, Turning the Dharma.” “Turning the self” means that one’s little self turns the Dharma, and that when one’s sense of self is strong, the Dharma is weak. On the other hand, when the Dharma turns the self, then the Dharma is strong and the little self is weak. By this strength, heaven and earth become full of one or the other. By this weakness, there is not left room for even one hair. So, when the little self turns the Dharma, the self is strong and the Dharma is weak. Heaven and earth become full of small self views such that, in that instant, the world is flooded with [greed, anger, ignorance and such] evil, and even a hair’s worth of good cannot remain. But when the Dharma turns the self, and the Dharma is strong while the self is weak, then the world of “being experienced by millions of things and phenomena” is truly a pure and wonderful world that becomes true for anyone, and manifests the Way. That is how I understand. …

Through the generations from Shakyamuni Buddha to Master Bodhidharma and onward, the Ancestors have spoken of “the Samadhi of One Practice.” Through Zazen, we balance and settle the body while facing the wall, our form of sitting. When we have taken the posture of Zazen, the Dharma turns the self. Zazen is just such Practice. In actuality, with this body, when with the whole body one sits Zazen, the world instantaneously is Dharma and the self turns, and the world becomes a Great Purity whereby no difficulties remain. Because body and mind are one, when the body is made straight and true, the heart responds accordingly and becomes the straightness of Great Purity. Thus, when one person sits one minute of Zazen, the whole world changes to Great Purity.’ (On Zen Practice)


Most people know about the parrots in San Francisco. Not everyobdy knows how they sound. When I was offering a version of Roaming Zen for Airbnb before the pandemic, taking mostly out-of-towners around some lesser-known hills and staircases in the middle of the city, we would almost invariably hear parrots flying overhead when we were going down the Vulcan Street steps; they were congregating around the row of eucalyptus trees alongside Corona Heights. Once I told people that it was parrots they were hearing, they would usually get pretty excited.

The other morning I was just starting a corporate meditation session, without being completely sure what I was going to say, when I heard parrots passing by. It offered me the chance to talk about how early Buddhism isolated each element of the process – using the five aggregates, or skandhas: there is the existence of both myself and the parrots in that moment; there is the sound; I hear the sound; I classify the sound as pleasant or unpleasant; I recognise the sound as a parrot; I picture the parrot; and then I tell the story of how I think the parrots are commuting, since I often hear them around 8:30 in the morning and 4:00 in the afternoon. From the initial sound, we can pick apart each stage of the process to notice how I end up with my story.

In meditation, with our ears and eyes open – at least the way I was trained the eyes are open, but the ears are open regardless of whether we want them to be (and if we were dogs, our noses would be more keenly open as well) – we take in what is happening around us. The day before this session, when I was at City Hall officiating a wedding, as we arrived on the gorgeous fourth floor balcony, I had the couple close their eyes to all the visual splendour for a moment, and just map the scene with their ears: a kind of hushed murmur of activity some way below us, with a gentle echoing from the huge dome above us. I would often offer the same practice on the yoga deck at Wilbur, with the creek running at the bottom of the hillside, and more or less volume of human activity around the valley.

The next step, I proposed in the session, after training ourselves to notice this journey from sound to story, is to do the same with people. I often talk about how meditation helps me to be present with people I think of as difficult, and that is largely possible when we understand the stages of the process that makes me think of them as difficult, and instead of getting stuck there, rewinding to the point where there is just a person in front of us, and we listen to that person in that moment without going through the filter of “I don’t like.” And we can do that with our own self-judgements as well, interrupting the unconscious flow from mistake to self-berating. Or we can just notice the parrots as they fly by.

(This post first appeared on my Patreon page)

Koun Ejo

I’m just a festering mass,
a beast amongst humans.

For years I minced barefoot,
adopting some “Continental” style.

monk’s straw sandals on my feet,

I touch my nose.

Issho Fujita

‘In many cases, zazen instruction consists of a series of “how to’s” – how to cross legs, how to place the hands, how to drop the line of sight, how to keep the back straight, how to pull in one’s chin, how to settle one’s tongue, how to breathe, how to control one’s mind, and so on. With these “how to’s,” practitioners make a lot of effort to control all the body parts, the breath, and the state of mind by faithfully following those instructions one by one. That kind of effort is usually understood as “regulating body, breath and mind.” In this approach to zazen the shallow layer of the mind, the “conscious I” (the ego-consciousness, which is the product of thought), is trying to unilaterally give orders and force the rest of the mind and body to devotedly obey. It is as if it is telling them, “Because our instructor said so, you should do what I tell you without complaints or questions! That is zazen!” 

This approach might work to some extent in the beginning, but eventually there will be many problems – “I can’t sit still because of so much pain in my legs!,” “I can’t do anything about idle thoughts. My mind is out of control,” “I am not good at zazen…” It is no wonder because “I,” which is only a product of thought, is trying to control everything else without getting any agreement, consent, or cooperation from the layer of the mind and body which is much deeper, wider, and wiser than “I.” It is quite natural that the practitioner will experience many kinds of resistance, rebellion, disagreement, and complaint one after another in the form of sleepiness, chaotic thoughts, uncomfortable sensations and so on. If one tries to win this battle by willpower, one is bound to fail. The practitioner will just end up hurting the body and mind by doing too many unnatural things. 

Zen master Dogen calls this type of action go-i (forcible action). It means to do something intentionally, by force, aiming at certain goal. He sets un-i against go-i. Un-i is spontaneous action that emerges naturally in response to the situation beyond judgment and discretion. There is a common misunderstanding that zazen is done as accumulation of go-i. But Dogen says that zazen should be done by “letting go of both your body and mind, forgetting them both, and throwing yourself into the house of Buddha, with all being done by Buddha” (Shobogenzo Shoji). This means that zazen should be practiced as un-i. I show a photo of an infant’s sitting when giving zazen instruction because I hope it will prevent practitioners from practicing zazen as go-i. There is a sentence in the Bible (Matthew 18-3): ”Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Borrowing this famous phrase, I would like to say, “Unless you turn and sit like children, you will never enter the gate of zazen.”’ (Polishing A Tile)

Other perspectives on zazen after the last couple of days.

Shohaku Okumura

‘When we are sitting, we do not follow our thoughts, nor do we stop them.  We just let them come and go freely.  We cannot call it thinking because the thoughts are not grasped.  If we simply peruse our thoughts, it is just thinking; it is not zazen.  We cannot call zazen not-thinking either, because thoughts are coming and going like clouds floating in the sky. When we are sitting, our brain does not stop functioning, just as our stomach is always digesting.  Sometimes our minds are busy; sometimes our minds are calm.  Just sitting, without being concerned with the conditions of our mind, is the most important point in zazen.  When we sit in this way, we are one with Reality, which is beyond thinking.  To say it another way, Reality manifests itself through our body and mind.’ (notes on Fukanzazengi)

When I was trying to find where I had mentioned “think of not thinking” before, for yesterday’s post, I came across this one, which also helps.

Suzuki Roshi

Student: Roshi, you said not to stop thinking, but to be free from thinking, and I wonder if you could explain what it means to be free from thinking?

Suzuki Roshi: What I meant was don’t be bound by your thinking. When you reach a conclusion by thinking, you will have some definite idea. Actually, that is why you think: to have a definite answer. But that is not possible.

Student: So what should you do?

Suzuki Roshi: You can think, and thinking will help you, of course. But you should know, at the same time, that that answer will not be definite. So you think, but you are free from thinking. That is what I meant: to have what we call a double edged blade. So double-edge think: don’t think and think. It works two ways. This is the double nature, the double construction of Buddhist philosophy: thinking construction and non thinking construction. (from the Suzuki Roshi archives)

I think this exchange illuminates Dogen’s “think of not thinking” from the Fukanzazengi – which he borrowed from Yakusan.