Sunday, June 27, 2010

Postcard from Home

I don't seem to be getting to write postcards to anyone on this trip, so this can be something of a substitute. I am starting the second half of my holiday, and I feel very relaxed and at home.
The first part of the trip, to Belgium for my brother's wedding, was quite full, involving a thirty-six hour day coming over from California, with the wedding, a party and a dinner the next day. The weather was quite grey and cool as well, with some rain; it is only on returning to England last Monday that the sun came out, and since then it has been the epitome of an English summer, with the sky blue and the trees green.
I have had several glimpses of the life I might have led if I hadn't taken the opportunity to go to San Francisco ten years ago; I hadn't seen my brother's new wife's family for more than ten years; her sister's children were now twenty-four and twenty-three, when I remember them as twelve and eleven. Back in England I met with a friend I have known for more than twenty years, and talked to him about his process of grief around losing his wife a year ago, at age fifty, and how he looks after their son, now about to leave school. With my mother, there was her fear of sickness, old age and death which she had not been able to express to other people much. Now I am in Cornwall, in deep quiet countryside, feeling very much at home.
I first really got those feelings walking with my friend, in fields and commons forty miles north of London, the abundant green, the large broadleaf trees, which seemed to nourish me, whether by triggering happy memories, or by some deeper cellular exchange. Now I am in the hills and valleys where my father's family has lived for around six hundred years, which has been the place I have felt most rooted since I first visited as a teenager, having grown up elsewhere. Yesterday I spent many hours fixing up my old bike, which suffered in a fire a couple of years ago, but it was completely worth it to go riding down narrow lanes this morning, between head-high hedgerows and trees that often create a vivid green tunnel to pass through. In weather such as we are having, there is nothing better.
There has been a lot of travelling and waiting for trains, which I have mostly enjoyed, by not being in a hurry, and watching everyone going about their business. And there has been the World Cup, which dominates here in a way I don't think Americans could understand, unless you combined the Olympics, the World Series and a Presidential Election into one event, particularly now we are about to play Germany. Reading the papers I scan for familiar and new cultural references, seeing how attitudes change over the years, how people are living and trying to be happy. I haven't sat any zazen as such, but I have had plenty of opportunities to be mindful and present. And now, I am going to watch the football...

Wednesday, June 16, 2010


We begin a three day sesshin here tomorrow night, going through to Sunday afternoon, and on Saturday there is a one-day sitting mainly for residents, and I have been trying, with the help of the hard-working front office staff, MacNeill and Caren, to collate all the information I need.Today and tomorrow is mostly going to be given over to the seating charts, the job charts and all the other little details. And then I won't actually be sitting, as I leave for Europe tomorrow lunchtime; after twenty two years of cohabitation, my brother and his girlfriend decided to get married, and chose this weekend to do it, and I was given permission to miss the sesshin so I could attend. So I am getting very involved in something I won't be involved in, and I am hoping that I can leave everything for Keith, who is going to be the acting ino, in a good enough state that he doesn't have to worry too much about how everything is going to happen. Of course things are going to keep changing, especially since the sitting is almost an autonomous event within the sesshin, but I can try.
I am not sure that I will be adding to the blog while I am away, since it will be a vacation from being ino, but we'll see. There will be many opportunities to practise, especially when I am around my family, and I may even do a little sitting, though I like to take occasional vacations from that as well, and my body needs one right now...

Monday, June 14, 2010

Study Hall

I am still working my way through Zen Pivots by Sokei-An, and have been surprised by the depth of what he was teaching people all those years ago. Here is a passage that struck me this morning:
'In the beginning, when I was giving lectures here in New York, when I sat in SILENCE the audience thought the Reverend has forgotten a word and is thinking about it. But it is not that. My meaning was that there are no words to speak about it with. Then some of my audience would say, "Reverend, do you need a dictionary?"
No, I don't need a dictionary. This is not written in a dictionary. The human being cannot explain THIS. I said THIS; I didn't say "this attitude" or "this silence". I said THIS. Human beings cannot explain THIS.'
I remember reading that people who heard Suzuki Roshi lecture in Japanese thought that he was much more compelling in English. It makes me wonder, if you can't express the dharma in words, using a language you are less comfortable with, and have fewer habitual patterns of expression in may yet bring you a little closer to the things you cannot explain. It gives the mind more opportunity to fall through the gaps.

Friday, June 11, 2010


City Center is more than a community in some ways; it can often feel like an extended family. Currently the age span of our residents runs from Lou, who just celebrated turning 95 last week, to P., who is still shy of his third birthday. I don't think we have any teenagers living here now, but we undoubtedly have representatives from every other decade of life.
There is a well-know zen story that goes: a rich merchant asked the master Sengai for an auspicious saying that would preserve the prosperity and happiness of his family. The master wrote a beautiful calligraphy that said 'Grandfather dies, father dies, son dies'. The merchant was not very happy with this, thinking it depressing rather than auspicious, but the master pointed that that it was a blessing to have the generations die in their natural order, rather than a parent having mourning a dead child.
We have had two moving talks which touched on death this week, first from Tova on Wednesday night, which combined the methods of bodhisattva practice with her work as a hospice social worker, and then the next morning a Way-Seeking Mind talk from one of our residents, still in her early twenties, which revolved around the recent death of her beloved father and how this brought her to practice.
As Blanche is quite fond of saying, death is certain, time of death is uncertain. In many ways we practice in order to come to terms with our own death, and the way to do that, according to the ancient teachers, is to understand fully what life is, to live as fully as we can in awareness of the transitory nature of our lives.
On the han, which calls us to zazen every day, we can read this verse:
Great is the matter of birth and death,
Life is fleeting, gone, gone,
Awake, awake each one,
Don't waste this life.

Thursday, June 10, 2010


I would have written something about Bike to Work Day the other week, but as my trip to the office involves only a corridor and a flight of stairs, it didn't seem so appropriate. Residents as City Center have it pretty easy in some ways - someone comes round with a bell to wake us up for zazen every morning, and we only have to stumble down to the basement to get to the zendo; even for those living in the appartment blocks, it is just a few paces down the hill - and of course usually someone has already made a pot of coffee we can partake of on the way if we want...
There have only been a couple of occasions when I have got in a car to go to meditate, and it felt very strange to me. Almost my entire practice life has been spent living at Zen Center, right above the shop as it were. I did spend a summer in Northampton Massachusetts, and I sat at Zen on Main regularly, but luckily that was within walking distance from where I lived.
All this makes me greatly appreciate those people who come from all parts of the city, across from the East Bay or up the Peninsula on a regular basis, to attend zazen and other activities, morning and afternoon. This speaks a lot to people's devotion to practice, and also to the place Zen Center has in many people's lives. I don't think I have expressed here my gratitude to the non-resident doanryo, who make a commitment to come and take on various roles in the zendo every week. When one of our stalwarts like Robert falls sick, as he has this week, then I notice how much I have to do to fill the gaps he leaves. I am constantly grateful to the effort everyone puts in to make zazen happen, and to keep Zen Center functioning for everybody's benefit.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Kinhin is not a coffee break

'Zen Seeds' by the Japanese nun Shundo Aoyama is a book I enjoy returning to from time to time, and not just because she is my homophonic namesake. The light style of her short pieces belies a strong and intense practice sensibility; I used a piece she wrote as the basis of a discussion with the Saturday sangha a couple of weeks ago, and everyone was amazed at how she cut very quickly to an essential point.
One idea of hers I particularly appreciate is this: 'When the abbot or any of the teachers is away from a temple for a week or so, the novices think nothing of it. But if there were no toilet paper, they would quickly feel its absence'. Since she herself is an abbess, her humility is striking.
Luckily I have never been responsible for the supply of toilet paper at Zen Center, but when I was tenzo, I felt that running out of coffee would be equally traumatic for many of the sangha, and in the early days of my term, I had to run to Safeway once or twice for a couple of pounds to tide us over until the next delivery and thus avert calamity.
I have long ceased to be surprised at people's caffeine intake during our early morning schedule - a while ago I listened to a recent resident declaring how she would get up at four every day, so that she could use the extra hour before the wake-up bell to drink two cups of coffee without having to rush, as without those two cups of coffee she would fall asleep during zazen. I refrained from speculating whether an extra hour's sleep every day might have the same effect. That said, I am still somewhat surprised to see people drinking coffee after four in the afternoon, but since they generally show up in the zendo the next morning, I don't worry about it too much.
Once I sat in on Paul Haller giving zazen instruction, and someone asked him if it was a good idea to drink coffee to combat drowsiness during sitting, and Paul went on to list all the ways that caffeine affects the body before concluding that actually it wasn't really the best thing to do to promote a relaxed awareness of body and mind.
Over the years I have heard many inos and other people declaring that kinhin is not a coffee break - which to me means that since we are participating in the schedule, we should be letting go of our own preferences and needs, and just do the next activity. And I have often heard that as students of Buddhism we should be constantly conscious of our own habits and how they cause us to behave in less than fully mindful ways.
When I first went to Tassajara, I was only drinking tea, and I made a point of only drinking it after lunch so as to keep my zazen 'pure' and uncaffeinated. I would even give that up during sesshins; since I replaced tea with a cocoa and honey drink, I don't think I was really gaining anything by it, but I liked to prove to myself that I could be free of caffeine addiction if I chose. When I went back to live there, I drank coffee during study, and also after lunch, and through sesshins as well. Now I drink three cups a day, and I notice when I don't get time to drink my usual dose in the course of a busy Saturday morning; I also notice that I am in no hurry to try and cut down right now. Maybe we need to run out one day soon to give me a little reminder of my addiction, though of course in this city, you are never far from a good coffee.

Friday, June 4, 2010


There is a folder on the ino's computer labeled 'irregular ceremonies', and I have made two additions to it in the past week. Last Friday we had a Lay Entrustment ceremony for Bernd, who is heading back to Germany next week to renew his visa; this morning we had a combination of ceremonies that is unlikely to be repeated in many years: an Abbot Seating ceremony for Steve Stucky as the new Zen Center Central Abbot, followed by our monthly Suzuki Roshi memorial ceremony.
Most ceremonies come around at least once a year, so that people are more or less familiar with them. If you stay around Zen Center long enough, you will develop a sense of how a student entering ceremony goes, or a shuso ceremony, and have some idea what you have to do. The Lay Entrustment is a mixture of a jukai and a shuso ceremony. Michael Wenger adapted this one from ceremonies performed at Green Gulch, with the precept-taking part performed privately in the afternoon, and the dharma enquiry part held publicly in the evening. He and I talked it over a few times before Friday, and I had a pretty clear sense of what was going to happen, though we didn't delve into minutiae. After dinner on Friday he came to find me and said he wanted to make a change, and my heart dropped as I thought I would need to rewrite the ceremony and reprint the programs, but in fact all he wanted was for he and Bernd to be in chairs rather than sitting on platforms, which was easily done. Still, during the ceremony there were one or two unscripted things that happened, which, since I both wrote the program and explained the ceremony to the audience before it began, I felt somewhat responsible for, but it all contributed to a tender and moving evening, and since most people were in uncharted ceremonial waters, a little fluidity and improvisation was okay.
For this morning's Seating ceremony, again, we were adapting from similar ceremonies when a newly installed Abbot first arrives at Tassajara, as well as following the lead of Green Gulch, where Steve had vacated his seat as the Green Gulch Abbot. The problem was that I was waiting for input from Paul and Jordan, and they have both been traveling and then were tied up in all-day meetings, so the form was only finalised after dinner last night. Again, the ceremony was similar to a student entering ceremony, although in view of the status of the person entering, it was Jordan as tanto who led Steve around the zendo in the jundo, rather than the ino (remember you can check the glossary); my role was limited to hitting the tsui-ching and making a statement. This one went according to plan, which was nice, and most important, even after going upstairs to make our offerings to Suzuki Roshi, we were on time for soji and breakfast.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Study Hall

This week I have picked up Zen Pivots by Sokei-An. I have long been interested in the earlier zen pioneers in America, particularly Sokei-An and Nyogen Senzaki, and how they tailored their message to a mid-century audience who were much less familiar with Buddhism than even the first disciples of Suzuki Roshi, Maezumi Roshi or Eido Shimano Roshi. This constraint does not cause a dilution of the teaching as far as I can see, but I notice how Christianity is often referred to, as a way to point out differences and similarities in the ways of thinking. Here is a passage that struck me this morning, again using Bodhidharma and Emperor Wu as the starting point:
'So why did Bodhidharma say, "No benefit. There is none"?
Gaining benefit by doing something is an entirely human problem. If I am gaining something from Buddhism, I am not following Buddhism. The idea of benefit is such a small idea. Must there be something to gain from everything you do? Of course, today is a day of utilitarianism, we are utilitarianists.Every moment we are thinking about what we can get. To spend a whole life and in the end gain nothing? A wonderful conclusion to accept and make the basis of human life!'

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Glossary

Always happy to respond to comments and requests, so here is a version of the 'Terms Used At Zen Center', with a few of the notable gaps filled. Please feel free to quibble over niceties or to point out any heinous omissions, and it does mean that I won't bother to define any of the terms on this list henceforth:

Anja: The Abbess’ or Abbot’s personal attendant.
Benji: The shuso’s attendant.
Buddha Hall: Room used for services, ceremonies and lectures.
Buddha tray: A formal food offering. Stop and bow when it goes past.
Chiden: The person who takes care of the altars, either lighting up or cleaning.
Densho: The large bell used to announce services and lectures.
Doan: The person who keeps time in the zendo and sounds the bells.
Dokusan: Formal interview with a past or present Abbess or Abbot.
Doshi: The officiating priest for a dharma event.
Eko: The dedication of merit after a chant during service.
Fukudo: The person who sounds the han to signal zendo events, and strikes the mokugyo to accompany chanting.
Fukuten: Second-in-command to the Tenzo in the kitchen. The person who directly supervises the kitchen crew and sees that the Tenzo’s menus and instructions are carried out.
Gaitan: The hallway leading to the zendo.
Gassho: A mudra or bow with palms together; it signifies gratitude.
Gatha: A short dharma-related verse.
Han: The wooden block near the zendo; struck to announce zazen.
Inkin: A portable bell, mounted on a handle, used in processions and other ceremonies.
Ino: The head of the meditation hall, or supervisor of the monks’ conduct
Jiko: The attendant to the doshi for a dharma event.
Jisha: The Abbess’ or Abbot’s ceremonial attendant.
Jundo: Ceremonial greeting by a leader, typically at the beginning of morning zazen. As the priest walks past, please raise your hands in gassho.
Kaisando: Founder's Hall, where monthly memorial services are held for our founder, Suzuki Roshi.
Kinhin: Walking meditation, usually between two periods of zazen.
Kokyo: The person who leads the chants for services.
Mokugyo: The red lacquered drum used as a "heartbeat" for some chants.
Mudra: Hand or body position or gesture with symbolic meaning.
Okesa: A large patched robe made like Buddha's robe, worn by priests.
Oryoki: Formal style of eating in the zendo, used during sesshin and on other occasions.
Practice Discussion: Formal or informal interview with a teacher.
Rakusu: A small patched neck robe made like Buddha's robe, worn by people who have received precepts in an ordination.
Roshi: An honorific title for a venerable teacher.
Seiza: Kneeling meditation posture with buttocks resting on heels.
Sesshin: Literally "to unify or touch the mind." An intensive all-day schedule of zazen, lecture, work, and meals, lasting from one to seven days.
Shashu: Mudra used in standing or walking meditation with the right hand wrapped around the left fist held at the level of the solar plexus.
Shika: The guest manager at a temple.
Shoten: Person who sounds the densho, announcing service or lecture.
Shuso: The head student for a practice period.
Soji: A brief period of mindful work, temple cleaning.
Sutra: A scripture attributed to Shakyamuni Buddha.
Tan: The raised platform for sitting in the zendo.
Tanto: the head of practice at a temple or monastery.
Tenzo: Head cook and person who oversees the kitchen practice.
Zabuton: A rectangular, flat cushion used for zazen.
Zafu: A round cushion used for zazen.
Zazen: Total presence of body and mind in an upright posture.
Zendo: The meditation hall.