Friday, July 30, 2010

Tassajara and Lessons in Impermanence

Going back to Tassajara was a wonderful experience this time. There were so many moments when I just relished the practice life that can be lived there: a hot low-lit zendo as we bow during the Full Moon Ceremony, and coming out afterwards to see dazzling moonlight on the hillsides; the slightly damp fresh morning air going to the zendo before the sun is up; the growing warmth as sun hits the valley, and the waves of heat in soporific afternoons; the unhurried pace and gentle smiles of the residents and guests, acknowledging that we all share this beautiful place for these moments; the refreshing dips in the creek, and the barely tamed trails.
I was asked to be doshi for evening service one day, which was a great pleasure, my debut as doshi at Tassajara, getting to stand in front of that ineffable Buddha surrounded by the strong chanting of the sangha. And there was also a morning when I got up, put on my kimono, and decided that since I had slept so lightly - possibly due to the full moon - that I would rather go back to bed. I don't really have that option here in the city as ino, and I had to allow myself to do it and try not to feel guilty, which I managed to do successfully enough to not feel bad when I didn't go to sit that evening either.
This was the first time that I have been out on the trails since the weeks immediately after the fire. Since my reason for being there this week was to take photographs, I had my camera out at almost all times, especially as Jim and I hiked around. I ended up with some similar views, partly by design, to those I took two years ago, and they made for interesting comparisons. The Horse Pasture trail particularly was a revelation to me - I had run it any number of times, and yet now it was completely transformed in places: where the tree cover had burnt away, what had been sparse undergrowth had been allowed to flourish, so the trail now cut through thick vegetation, and was quite unrecognisable on occasion. In other places rocks had fallen and altered the path as well. The one thing that hardly seemed to have changed is the poison oak, and I came back with several patches on my arms and legs, as itchy as it ever was.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Chocolate Pudding is Wonderful

This was the title I suggested to Blanche for her wonderful talk this morning. I have heard most of Blanche's stories a number of times over the years, but when they are delivered in a skillful and timely matter as they were this morning, it doesn't matter. There was a great story from Tassajara, which included the line about chocolate pudding, and which I hadn't heard before, about sympathetic joy, one of the four Brahmaviharas.
I got to experience some of that (the joy, not the pudding), this afternoon. As is often the case, during the first period after work, it looked like a lot of people were a little tired and slumped, so I suggested to Blanche that she might like to offer some posture adjustments, which she did during the following period. Since I sit facing out, I didn't get an adjustment, but I remember clearly from other times that feeling of Blanche's hands on my shoulders, warm and very loving, and so I was getting to feel that vicariously as Blanche laid her hands on people around the zendo, and I could see how their bodies reacted, softened and straightened, and the energy in the room changed subtly. The afternoon wore on, and the schedule carried on pushing us gently towards stillness...

Friday, July 23, 2010

Upcoming events

There are several things coming up that are currently occupying my time. First of all, a one-day sitting tomorrow. Since it is a recent addition to the Zen Center calendar, it is moderate-sized rather than big and crowded, but it still requires a certain amount of logistical work in terms of finalising the names of participants, and giving them all jobs and seats. A lot of paper gets generated in all this, so I tend to leave the printing until it is late enough in the day that people are unlikely to change their plans, though of course things always happen...
On Sunday I go down to Tassajara for a few days, and I can definitely say that I am looking forward to this. I have been asked to take photographs of various places and events, so I might post some of the better ones here afterwards, as this has been quite bereft of photographs of late. I know they are having their Full Moon Ceremony there on Sunday night, which will be wonderful, although doing all those prostrations in full robes on a hot evening is also going to generate quite a lot of sweat.
When I get back, it will be time to start focusing on the Genzo-e sesshin, which I am also looking forward to tremendously. I have done several of them over the years, and they have been among my favourite sesshin experiences, with a unique combination of plentiful sitting and in-depth study. I was thus also very excited to see, when I got back from England, that there was a new book by Shohaku Okamura about the Genjo Koan, which I will take down to Tassajara, and hope to have time to read to help get me in the mood.
Incidentally, I was sitting with the Abbot at lunch, on the rock in the courtyard, which happens from time to time, and the conversation somehow turned to kensho - I'm embarrassed to say I don't remember how, but it wasn't one of those heavy 'zen' conversations (later  - I remember that it was via Kapleau Roshi and 'The Three Pillars of Zen'). I mentioned the book on Hakuin, and also referred to the questions that I wrote about it my last entry. 'But of course you don't read my blog' I said to Paul, whereupon he admitted that he didn't even know that I was writing one. Self-promotion has never been my strong point, but it may be now that I have at least one new reader, and I am sure I will hear about it if I say anything that runs contrary to the true teaching...

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Study Hall and the Newcomers' Table

In the midst of reading Albert Low's commentary on 'Hakuin on Kensho', I was a little perturbed to read this:
"At the Montreal Zen Center, before a member is accepted as a student, he or she must answer three questions. First, do I want to see my true nature, or am I simply 'practicing zen', wanting to find peace and comfort or whatever? Second, am I prepared to do the work that is necessary, and to go on doing it until I have penetrated to the root? Finally, do I have faith in the teacher, and will I be prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt when necessary? If the student can answer 'yes' to all three, then he or she is accepted as a student".
I have been trying to figure out for a few days how to resolve what seems like a tension between this approach and what happens here at Zen Center, and I haven't really figured it out yet. Mostly I wonder how long a student has to be at the center before they are subjected to these questions...

Recently we have been offering a newcomers' table on Saturday for the lunch at the end of our busiest public program; for the last two weeks I have been there fielding enquiries from people as we eat, some of whom are completely new, some who have been coming for a few weeks, and are just figuring out their direction and need help with the next steps. I have found it very energising to meet people in this kind of process, and I hope that I am encouraging them to continue and progress.
We often chant 'dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them', as one of our Bodhisattva vows, and I take it to mean that there are many ways to come to Buddhism, and many possibilities for practice. And not everyone is ready to enter the gate when it presents itself, sometimes the time isn't right, and a person might circle around for years before finally deciding to commit themselves. I hope at Zen Center that people feel free to come and go for as long as they need, and to disengage if it doesn't seem right for them. After all, there was a large group of people who left the assembly when the Buddha started to preach the Lotus Sutra.
I suppose the common ground here is that it is our job is to make the practice freely available. I would write more, but I have to put on my robes for afternoon zazen...

Monday, July 19, 2010

Study Hall and the Golden Gate Bridge

Study Hall has been severely impacted by the Tour de France since I got back from England, but I have managed to sit down with a book from time to time, and currently it is 'Hakuin on Kensho - the Four Ways of Knowing'. It is fun to be reading of something that is treated so differently in the Rinzai line; in the Soto School, we tend to stay relatively coy about the subject of kensho, although if you press a teacher about it, they will say that ultimately the practice is about waking up. At any rate, Hakuin is always entertainingly challenging. Here is a typical exhortation:
'After great will, faith and determination are aroused, you should then constantly ask, "who is the host of seeing and hearing?" Walking, standing, sitting, lying down, active or silent, whether in favorable or unfavorable circumstances, throw your mind into the question of what is it that sees everything here and now. What hears?'

I am not going to hazard an answer to this, but I will go so far as to assert that who I am is not who I think I am.  My sense is that seeing the life force of everything, in everything, is part of the picture.
When I go riding on a Sunday, I like to be out early enough to catch the sun rising as I cross the Golden Gate Bridge. Something about being out there on my bike as the sun comes over the Berkeley hills, illuminates the ocean and starts to hit the Marin Headlands is a sure way to feel the life force of the universe manifesting itself. Of course at this time of year, the chances of the sun coming out from behind the fog are quite slim, and you can't always see the mountains or the ocean, so this Sunday I was wondering about the life force of the bridge itself. In the end I carried on pedaling without finding an answer. I expect Hakuin would say I wasn't trying hard enough.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Ino's Work

There were a lot of different things happening last week, and I have been wondering how to group them in the blog. I usually need to be in a certain kind of headspace to be able to tease out ideas in a way that seems satisfying, and despite my best efforts during zazen, this has not always been easy this week. I just wrote out a couple of episodes where things did not quite go according to the plan I had had in my head, and then deleted them, as the details aren't really important; what was important was that I was able to put aside my expectations of how I was going to spend my time, and turn myself to do what was needed and not feel resentful about it.
I often need to remind myself that an important part of my work is just being present in the zendo, and the other afternoon we had a real occasion when being there wasn't just about sitting. It takes six people for afternoon zazen to function smoothly: the doshi, the jiko, the fukudo, the doan, the kokyo and the doorwatch (please check back to the glossary if you need these roles explained). I had already had phone messages from the doan who was not well and not going to be there, and from the kokyo who was going to be late for zazen, but there for service. When I got downstairs the doorwatch was there, but then I remembered that we had no-one assigned for fukudo for this one afternoon, which I should have remembered earlier. I was going to do the doan's job, but after lighting the candle, seeing no-one yet in the zendo who was a trained fukudo, I went out to start the han; luckily Charlie, our reliable afternoon head doan, beat me to that one. I thought we were all set until the jiko came in with no doshi - then I had to start planning...I ended up being doshi for service, and was ready to be kokyo only the regular one did make it in time, and then I had the jiko be the doan, and Charlie be the jiko as well as the fukudo. Thus did it all happen...

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


Now I am starting to feel that I am settling back in to the schedule here. Until today it felt like the different parts of my body - my spine, my lungs, my ribs, my shoulders, my legs, my hara - were not functioning as a harmonious whole while I was sitting, and of course trying to make it happen didn't make it happen. On the positive side, I have noticed that my time away had helped me with the emotional problems I was having before I went; not that they have gone, but they don't have the same weight now.
I often find that there is a virtuous circle involved in settling or paying attention - I am more open to noticing small things that affirm the joyfulness of existence, and that noticing, and allowing that to be a part of my experience, lends itself to more openness and more settling.
At the beginning of our Senior Staff meetings, we go around the group and express our appreciation for something. Today I had no trouble thinking of something: this morning during soji I had seen someone, a person who comes regularly in the morning but does not live here, who was carrying the waste and recycling bins from a bathroom. What I noticed was the look of contentment on his face, and I thought, wow, here is a person who gets up very early in the morning to sit, and is cleaning a bathroom, which he is in no way obligated to do, and enjoying himself. How could that not be inspiring?

Friday, July 9, 2010

Dharma talks

Today was the first day since I have been back that I did not have to go to a meeting; there has been the usual Practice Committee and Senior Staff, and then yesterday I  went to Green Gulch for the Environmental Committee. Naturally I went by bike, even though it meant I would miss afternoon zazen, to the apparent consternation of some of the regulars.  So today I tried to catch up with a few things, and principally what I did was get eight dharma talks onto the website.
I thought I would be able to get through them all in the morning, but it did not turn out like that. For City Center talks, the process is relatively straightforward: I 'top and tail', as we used to say at the BBC, making sure the beginning and end are cleanly edited. Sometimes I take out any stumbles or microphone fiddling in the first minute, just so the talk begins smoothly. I don't usually do any 'de-umming', which was a staple job in news audio, removing hesitations and, well, ums. Sometimes if the speaker pauses for a long time - thirty seconds or more is not uncommon - I will shorten that a little, as it always seems much longer if you are not in the room with them. If there are questions and answers, as there were with Michael's talk this week, I usually boost the volume of the questioner so that they are audible, which can be tricky if they are speaking from the other end of the room and are not very loud to begin with. Compared to talks from Green Gulch and Tassajara, though, these are all fairly quick and simple things to deal with. For those talks, I usually take out a bit of the background noise, and will often adjust the overall volume, and perhaps do a little EQ. These are operations that take time for the computer to process, likewise the exporting to the network drive, which is why doing eight talks took me most of the day.
Once that is done, I have to write up the tags for the mp3 files - having converted the City Center talks from wavs beforehand - send them to the multimedia drive by FTP, and then write the web page and podcast details using Spider Edit, and of course check that the links on the site do actually work.
I just finished entering the last details at five o'clock, so I went upstairs to put on my robes for zazen, and came back to the office to find Greg at the computer downloading a fresh batch of talks from Tassajara, so it looks like more of the same on Monday...

Thursday, July 8, 2010

From Michael's talk last night

"In the temple, of course, we are given difficult jobs, like ino is a difficult job, because it brings up everyone's repression - 'bad father' visions...(laughter- including from me). Luckily our new ino takes it lightly - because it's not about what he wants done, it's about him communicating and showing the way that the temple is run, the expectations. 'Why do all these people have expectations about me?' Because they think you're Buddha, or that you can grow into being Buddha".

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Back On Seat

It is commonly acknowledged among Zen Center people going to and from Europe, that the return leg works much better in terms of jet-lag. Arriving back on Sunday afternoon, I was lucky enough to have an extra day of vacation time to try to get my feet on the ground. I woke up at around 2:15am on Monday, and had to wait a long time for it to be light enough to ride my bike - it was lovely to be out, and I noticed that the air smelled different, so maybe I was right about the trees. On Tuesday I woke at three, and today at four, so maybe tomorrow I will be bang on.
It has been interesting feeling my way back into the schedule. Even after a couple of weeks away, there is a sense of having slipped out of the routine, and I feel like I am looking at everything a little from the outside, and I will continue to observe how this feels, and when things get back to 'normal'. Having the World Cup and the Tour de France going on is also helping to distract me somewhat from my work.
I am definitely most grateful to Keith, the acting ino, and to Daigan and Charlie the head doans, for keeping everything going in my absence, and leaving things very nicely organised, so I don't have anything to worry about for now.And of course it is always gratifying to catch up with everyone's news, and to be told that I was missed; this is one of the joys of the community. With that, I also noticed how nice it was to see everyone again, not just the residents, but all the volunteer doans, the zendo regulars and even the casual sitters, to be part of the sangha again.