Monday, March 29, 2010

Post Sesshin

I emailed one of our senior people here before sesshin and admitted I didn't know how it was to be ino during sesshin, and she replied, 'Ah, beginner's mind'. In the end I felt like I got to sit about half a sesshin; over the last three days I spent a lot of time in my office going over the details of the shuso ceremony that took place on the last day.
This was a mixed blessing; on one hand, I was having a lot of physical difficulties, and my body was not sorry to be off the cushion for some of the day, but on the other I felt like I lost some of my connection to the energy that was generated in the zendo in the course of the week. This was perhaps more vivid for me this time, since I sit facing into the room, and I felt much more aware and appreciative of the effort that everyone there was making; quite a few of the sitters were not so experienced at sesshin, which made the wholeheartedness of the sitting all the more impressive for me.
Liping's shuso ceremony was a tremendous way to cap the week - over the years I have come to see how the format of the dharma inquiry allows each shuso to be completely her- or himself, and Liping's kindness, gentleness and love shone through. She was also very funny on a number of occasions, and then deeply moving too, perhaps especially after she led the room in singing Moon River at Jerome's request.
Here she is after the ceremony, with from left to right: Benji Renee, Anja Keith, Abbot Paul, her teacher Teah, Senior Dharma Teacher Blanche, and Jisha Lucy.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Equinox part 2

It was a beautiful morning for the ceremony, the chanting was strong and warm, and everyone seemed to be in a positive mood.
Here are a couple of pictures from the ceremony, when people were giving us their words of

Thursday, March 18, 2010


While sesshin is looming, we have a little ceremony to do before then, the Spring Equinox ceremony on Saturday morning. Now, I still don't know how many people are reading this, let alone reading this and coming to City Center regularly (which reminds me, thanks Shindo, Crowtales and Cafe Zen for your comments; I still haven't worked out how to acknowledge them within the comment space), but if you are coming on Saturday morning, this is one of those times where you can contribute to the ceremony, in this case seasonally appropriate words.
My strongest memory connected to this ceremony was at Tassajara, six or seven years ago, when Butch Baluyut called out 'baseball' in a sing-song voice that made everyone chuckle; he died of liver cancer before that season was over...
This year, we have the weather looking good, and the flowers in the courtyard are blossoming nicely. I don't think I need to worry too much about the ceremony. And a large part of that is down to the wonderful Head Chiden, Keith Baker. Keith's job is to set up the altars and ceremonial objects for any special ceremony we do, and he is such a pro he doesn't often need the instructions that abound in the ino's office on how to do each ceremony. I have already been grateful a number of times that I have come up from zazen and found everything beautifully laid out for a ceremony without my having to do anything at all, so thanks Keith.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Getting an A in zen

One of the aspects of this job I know I am going to find most difficult is giving feedback to people. Part of my responsibility is to uphold the forms and practices of City Center, and that means finding a way to encourage people to do the right thing, without getting too hung up on right and wrong.
The first time I was ever a doan at Tassajara, many summers ago, Myo (the tanto at the time) came in for evening service, and the first thing he did when he approached the altar was to move the 'greeting sticks' of incense that I had placed in the incensor. My heart sank, and I thought, wow, I haven't even hit a bell yet and I've already fucked up. I continued to feel deeply ashamed until I had had a chance to ask Myo about it, and he said simply, well if the incense is too close to the rim, it tarnishes the metal.
It is natural for most people to want to get things right, and to feel bad if they don't, and for many people their inner critic is going to be harder on them than anyone else will be.
In the mornings after service here at City Center, the doanryo gather and check in about how things went. This is something that I am used to doing at Tassajara, and one of my predecessors had introduced it here; it is a good way to refine things and point out problems within a strong container, as it highlights the aspect of continual training that we are doing - things are not always perfect, but we strive to do our best. There have been a few conversations that have gone like this: 'Could you hit the bell a little louder?'- 'But last week you told me to hit it softer' - 'Well let's aim for something in between those two, and then we might get to the middle way'.
It can be helpful to notice if your striving for perfection can be an obstacle to getting it right. Daigan, my inestimable Head Doan, who keeps many things running smoothly around the building, told me that he once went in to see Paul and said ' I want to be getting an A in zen', to which Paul replied 'well let's start with an F'. I can imagine how I would have reacted to being told that, but perhaps sometimes getting an F is just the way to let go of some ideas and start again.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Advice from former inos

As I wrote in my first entry, I applied Dogen's instructions to the tenzo to my own situation, and sought advice from former inos. I had a lovely card in response from Judith Randall, who was ino at Tassajara when I was last there, and today she called my office. Any phone call from Tassajara is a rare treat; she just wanted me to know that, yes, I could quote her here, and in a few words told me how things were down there - spring, especially when the sun is shining like this, can be a very special time at the monastery, especially when you have been there through the bleakest, barest parts of the winter.
She wrote of "the joy of entering into ceremonial space once all the work was done, seeing how each ceremony took on a life of its own. And the joy of seeing students connect with that sometimes, and connect with doan jobs they never thought they could do...the opportunity to be fully present with each interaction and finding students (and others!) opening up to practice matters after what seemed like a routine logistical question at the start".
Thank you, Judith.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Spring Morning

It was light when we got up this morning - the wake-up bell being at six on Saturdays. This won't be the case for a while once the clocks go forward, but it was nice to experience today. Since I don't get out much, a lot of my photos these days are views of the sky from the roof of the building. Here is this morning's view, with a faint new moon:

Friday, March 12, 2010

Thirteen Conversations About One Thing

Living in community, I find that I often have the same conversation with a number of different people. This was something I found very difficult when I first lived here. My tendency is to prefer to say something once and then not repeat myself, and I found it hard to say the same thing over and over, and to try to sound sincere when I did so. I hope I am getting better at this, as what this asks us to do is to pay attention to the person you are speaking with rather than thinking 'I thought everyone would know this by now', or 'I don't want to have this conversation again'.
As my time in the kitchen was coming to a close, a lot of people (I was going to say everyone, but that would be an exaggeration) asked me what I was going to do next. I answered that I didn't know, even when I did, or I thought I did, as it has been my experience at Zen Center, as happened this time, that things are always capable of changing even up until the last minute, and that just because you been given the impression that you are lined up to do one thing, it doesn't follow that that thing is going to happen, and so there is no point assuming it is until you are actually sitting in that seat. As it was, I ended up as ino, which I was, and am very excited about.
Now people ask me how I am doing in my new job, or alternatively, how is being ino compared with being tenzo. The simple answer is that I have fewer deadlines. As tenzo you are responsible for making sure fifty or so people get fed three meals a day, and that all kinds of ancillary things like milk, bread, fruit, jam and tea are available. As ino I definitely have to be in the zendo twice a day, and to make sure that people are there doing the all the zendo jobs that need to be done, and I have a few meetings each week, but otherwise I can find the job quite unstructured. I found I needed to keep 'to do' lists going to remind myself what I have to focus on, and sometime soon I might write an entry detailing all the different things I do in a day, as I occasionally get to dinner time and think, well what did I do today? We had a couple of ceremonies this week, but otherwise things have been quite peaceful, though I am aware that sesshin is around the corner, and that next week will be much busier, and the next couple of weeks after that.
One thing I was very happy to figure out early on as tenzo was that although I was nominally in charge of the kitchen, it didn't necessarily mean that I had any control over what happened. Sometimes key ingredients didn't get delivered. More usually, I would give someone a recipe, talk them through the process, and then find that the finished product wasn't the same as what I had in mind; this wasn't necessarily a bad thing, it just showed that I had particular expectations and that they weren't always going to be met.
Similarly, as ino, especially when it comes to a ceremony, say, I can also set the stage, give everyone their instructions, and try to ensure that all the preparations are made, but that doesn't mean that things go the way they are supposed to or that I expected them to. This is just what happens, and there isn't a lot of good in tearing your hair out about it. We do our best and see what happens.
Beyond that, it's nice not to be smelling of onions all the time...

PS When Liping and I met and bowed to each other in the hallway this morning, she handed me a sweet (sorry, candy - even after ten years I default to English vocabulary). I wonder if she read the last post...

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


The shuso is usually the first person I see every morning. I wake up early and do a little stretching, and then when I start to hear the wake-up bell downstairs, I know it is time to put on my robes. While I do this, Liping is running up and down the stairs and along the corridors, and when I have finished and leave my room, she has finished that ceremony, and is usually walking up the main staircase as I come down. She is very punctual with her timing, so most days it is exactly five o'clock by the clock on the main stairs when we cross paths and bow. Since this has been going on for a few weeks now, we both smile as we bow - it has become a small ritual between us.
Living in a community like this, there can be many such moments in the day; often there are no words involved, but there is still a sense of support and connection that can help bring a special value to the moment; I get to start each day with the warmth of our smiles lifting me up.
At the end of the month, after sesshin is over, Liping will no longer do the wake-up bell: the fukudo for that day will run it instead, and that ritual will be over, but there will undoubtedly be other things that will take its place. One of the joys of practice for me is getting to notice and appreciate moments such as these when they arise...without getting too attached to them.

Monday, March 8, 2010

A Life of Vow

Yesterday a whole posse from City Center went over to Green Gulch to attend the shukke tokudo. It was a very big event, and I am glad my sister ino Connie Cummings was doing the organising and not me.
I could classify it as a four-abbot event, which makes it pretty special: Senior Dharma Teacher (which denotes a former abbot) Tenshin Reb Anderson was ordaining five of his students, while Senior Dharma Teacher Eijun Linda Cutts and Abbot Myogen Steve Stucky were the other preceptors, and Abbot Rysuhin Paul Haller was in attendance as well. Apart from these luminaries, there were more Zen Center priests than I have ever seen in one place before, as well as the Green Gulch community, the City Center visitors and the ordinands' families. Abbot Steve said that many people in the Tassajara practice period had also wished to come, but he had had to say no to them all, and had just driven up by himself that morning.
I have practised with all the new priests over the years: Deirdre Carrigan lived at City Center when I first arrived ten years ago, and we were at Tassajara together in 2003, while Bryan Clark, Steph Wenderski, Thiemo Blank and Yuki Kobayama were all at Tassajara between 2006 - 2008 when I returned there. It was wonderful to see them all putting on their new robes and glowing with their newly shaved heads. These kinds of events give you a real sense of the depth of the Zen Center community, and how we all support each other to live the Bodhisattva life, or the life of vow, as Abbot Steve referred to it.
I happened to get a chance to talk with Tenshin Roshi after the ceremony, and told him of my new position. He said he had also been the ino at City Center. What did you do, I asked him. I went to every period of zazen, he said, and then added, I didn't leave the building very much...but when I did, I discovered that it was very beautiful out there.
This has been somewhat similar to my experience this past month, which made it especially nice to be at Green Gulch on such a beautiful spring day.
Here are some pictures of the day:

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Please honoured followers...

I notice that I inherited twenty two followers of this blog, not all of whom I can immediately identify from the nametags. Not being much of a blog person, I assume that following a blog means that you get alerted when there is a new post, and I can imagine that it may have been disconcerting for some people to head to the blog and find a new person writing it, and a new look. Similarly, I noticed a few people doing a double-take when I first sat in the ino's seat in the zendo.
Zen Center is a bit like Dr Who for that, if you know your British TV; you're getting used to one incarnation, and then suddenly it's all different, and someone else is making the announcements after lecture (still one of the more stressful aspects of the job for me, though each week seems less awful). Part of the idea of taking up training positions in the temple is that you come in, move the furniture around (quite literally in my case), take on the responsibilities, do them the best you can, and then give it all up and do something else before you get too attached to it.
I don't remember exactly how long it was after I became tenzo that I started really feeling, yes, I am the tenzo, that means me. After I stopped being tenzo, it took a couple of weeks to shake off that idea, and right now I don't feel, yes, I am the ino, that means me. Soon enough I expect I will feel more comfortable with that idea, and then soon enough after that, I will be doing something else...
Anyway, the umpan has just rung, and that means it's dinner time, and whoever I am, that means it's time to eat.

Thursday, March 4, 2010


There was a bit of a reshuffle at City Center around the New Year, and I was asked to become ino. I found it very easy to say yes, as it is a job I have been interested in doing since my early days at Tassajara back in 2002. Yesterday I was asked if I would take on the ino's blog as well. I was a little slower to say yes, but soon realised there was no reason to say no.
I have been sitting in the ino seat for a month now. Before taking on the responsibilities, I learned quite a lot of practical details in a very short time from my predecessor Greg, who has moved to the kitchen where I came from. I was also keen to get a sense of what it means to take on this practice position. In the kitchen we chant the Tenzo Kyokun every morning before starting work, and near the beginning Dogen writes "first of all, you must deeply study the Zen’en Shingi. After that, it is necessary to hear discussions about details of the job from former tenzos". So I went to read, not the Zen'en Shingi, but Dogen's update on that, the Eihei Shingi, or Pure Standards for the Zen Community. There is a section called Pure Standards for the Temple Administrators , and in it I read "the ino's job is called the delight of the assembly...this is called the ino's regarding with love all who arrive and compassionately nourishing monks, so that the assembly's heart becomes the ino's own heart and the mindfulness of the Way becomes the ino's own mindfulness".
So this gives me something to practise with as I sit in the ino's seat, just inside the zendo door. I am aware of everyone who walks in, how they step, how they bow, whether they are new or experienced, nervous or relaxed, and I think about making them all feel welcome.