Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Study Hall

I am taking my time working my way through 'Taking Our Places', as it is all very valuable material. Here was something I read that seemed especially appropriate this week, from the chapter on vowing:
"It also helps to do such practice in the midst of a community so that we can find encouragement and support to carry on with what we know is the right thing to do, even though sometimes our energy and commitment may flag. When that happens, the others in our community pick us up and help us along - and we do the same for them. This is why religious practice over the millennia in all traditions has been communal, and includes observances to be carried out at appointed times of the day, week, month and year".
We had one such appointed time last Saturday, where we marked the beginning of our Fall Practice Period with an opening ceremony at the end of our one-day sitting. Paul had already observed in his lecture that hardly any of us has the discipline to complete a one-day sitting by ourselves (I would include myself in this), but that together we encourage each other. Practice period opening ceremonies at City Center usually involve everyone standing in a circle and stating their intention for the practice period. I have been trying to find a way to delineate the distinction between an intention and a vow, and I haven't come up with a good answer yet, but would be happy to hear suggestions. My stated intention was to try to meet everyone from a place of love and compassion and to trust that they wanted to meet me from the same place. As I looked around the room I was very happy to realise that I knew everyone's name in the circle, which strengthened the feeling of community for me; at the sitting there had been a few people I didn't recognise, including one woman who was visiting the city from Hong Kong, has found us through our website, and had wanted to experience sitting with other people; she said she had had a wonderful day.
As an aside, I notice that this is the one-hundredth post, which is a little milestone in its own way. I would like to thank Greg for getting this blog underway, and Dana for encouraging me to take it up, everyone who reads it in the four corners of the world, and those who write in with comments, all of which are appreciated. Here's to the next hundred.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Wake-up Bell

Usually when I wake up, I keep one eye on the clock and one ear on the sounds of the wake-up bell starting downstairs; this morning I woke a little earlier than usual, so, thinking I had more time than usual, I didn't notice that nothing was happening until it was already five o'clock. I ran downstairs in my kimono, and ran the wake-up bell around the building as fast as I could manage, and had Jay start the han while I took over his job of taking attendance for the morning.
I noticed that I was quite agitated, as I can often be when things don't go as smoothly as I want them to, and as I sat in the zendo, I thought that this was not so much due to the regular fukudo not being there on time (I am grateful that this is the first time it's happened in eight months of being ino), or the fact that I had to do it myself (I could have gone looking for someone else, but that would have made it even later), as I always used to enjoy running the bell; what bothered me was that it was already warm, after another hot day yesterday, and I knew that I would be bathed in sweat and feeling clammy for another three hours until after koan class with Paul, which is pretty much how it turned out - and the fact that both my jubons are now disgusting and I will have to wash them. At least they won't take long to dry on the line in this heat.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Sun-faced Buddha, Moon-faced Buddha

It turns out that our Indian summer kicked off again on Friday, just in time for me to be busy inside for two days. Even with some experience of them now, big one-day sittings take a lot of organising, and this time I had a few complicating factors: a Coming of Age group leaders meeting in the morning; a request to change our morning service to resemble a more traditional Tassajara-type service, which involved a certain amount of cutting and pasting and reformatting; a couple of residents who came to tell me after four o'clock, when I had already begun the task of printing up all the various pieces of paper, that they wouldn't be sitting, so I had to re-allocate other people to the jobs I had given them; also forgetting to follow up on one of the notes in the ino's guidelines for one-day sittings, which is to check who is the Friday nightwatch and then not schedule them for anything early in the morning - I had the person who was on nightwatch down as fukudo, which would mean them ringing the wake-up bell and hitting the han for zazen...
All in all, I was still putting things together until nine o'clock; I went straight to bed, got up and had another very long day. For the number of people involved, over seventy including the kitchen crew, things went pretty smoothly; probably the worst thing was that we finished morning service early, so we had a wait downstairs in the zendo while breakfast was served up. I did notice my face starting to relax after lunch though, when the most of the variables have been taken care of. Before tea I went round and offered posture adjustments to the zendo. So far no-one has declined the offer, though I had expected someone I usually think of as prickly and self-protective to do so this time. There were one or two unyielding shoulders, but mostly I could feel tension dissipating at my touch, and generally no-one needed more than a gentle straightening. Of course I have to do my own adjustments internally, which is an ongoing effort.
It was hot - it was 92 degrees on the roof after lunch - so unsurprisingly I was sweating from the time I started chanting in morning service until I finished cleaning up the zendo a little more than twelve hours later. I wanted to get that done so I wouldn't have to worry about doing it yesterday; I was looking forward to an unscheduled day. We did have the Tassajara-bound folks gathering for breakfast and their departure; I helped get the food out first thing in the morning, and said hello and goodbye to them as they disappeared off to the valley until the week before Christmas, but also I was impatient to get out on my bike and I didn't wait for the stragglers to arrive from Green Gulch.
Yesterday was the warmest day I can remember riding in for a long time; the sun was just starting to hit the roofs in the Marina as I crested Pacific Heights, there was an iridescent twist of fog along the Golden Gate, and the moon was setting during the first half of the ride, until I rode up Lucas Valley to the big rock. The fog hadn't moved by the time I came back over the bridge, at about the time that the Tassajara students would be descending from the ridge to the monastery, which put paid to the idea I had had to sit on the beach for a while to make up for having only spent an hour and a half out of doors over the two previous days, but once I got back, I spent time on the roof here instead.

Friday, September 24, 2010

More Moon

Once again, coming upstairs after dinner last night, there was the moon rising , visible through the windows at the end of the corridor. As you can see, the weather is getting better...

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Harvest Moon

The chiden notes for the Equinox Ceremony warn that it can be windy at this time of year, and it certainly was yesterday afternoon as Gretchen valiantly tried to keep things upright while she was setting up the altar in the courtyard. Luckily the heavy Buddha statue that we use, and some of my rock collection from Tassajara did the job. We had a good turnout, including members of the board who were meeting in the dining room during the afternoon, but then surprisingly, not so many seasonal words as usual. We did have what I suspect is a first - a contribution read off an iPhone. As Ingen explained to me later, he didn't have the poem memorised, and all his books are in storage, so he went online with his phone, saved it in notes and read it from there.
This morning we had a strong Full Moon Ceremony as the sun rose, and I had another lovely silent conversation with Tara. It can often be the way that the kokyo is not as relaxed during the ceremony as they had been during rehearsal, and this happened with Anna today, as she acknowledged, but then as she said afterwards, if you come away thinking 'I did great', you have nowhere to go. That said, I was fairly happy with my performance as kokyo at the Equinox Ceremony - I have trepidation about being kokyo outside, as your voice disappears into the air rather than resonating around the room, but I felt quite strong and relaxed during the eko, allowing myself to savour the words.
And just for good measure, another rising moon photograph from last night:

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Wax and Wane

Between the wedding and the tokudo last weekend, and the one-day sitting and the beginning of the practice period this Saturday, we have a nice confluence of ceremonies, just so there is no feeling of longueur - tonight we celebrate the Autumn (Fall if you must) Equinox, and tomorrow morning there will be the Full Moon Bodhisattva Precept Ceremony. So if you are not reading this in China or Chile, Ireland or Italy, there is still time to come along, and if you come for the Equinox Ceremony, you can bring what we always call 'seasonally appropriate words', which usually means poems, although some people are happy to improvise. And since the weather in San Francisco is doing many interesting things right now, photos of the moon from yesterday after dinner.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Good Disciples of Buddha

Susan made a lovely observation in her speech after the wedding, that it was entirely due to Djinn and Richard's love for each other that everybody was gathered there. Yesterday the community gathered at Green Gulch for a tokudo, so you could say that it was due to the sincere practice of the three ordinands that we were all there. It was a very sweet ceremony; something about the way the Robe Chant resonated around the zendo, and the harmonious chanting of the three Ms - Mary, Maria and Michaela - brought out the beauty of the occasion. Afterwards it felt like a huge family gathering in Cloud Hall and then in the dining room. I was glad not to have to do anything other than attend and take pictures; here are a selection, including a rare coming together of the three inos, which I was very keen to have documented - Greg took this picture for us.

The preceptors
Michaela with her father

Cloud Hall crowds
Three inos - Kathy (ZMC), Shundo (CC), Connie (GGF)

Sunday, September 19, 2010


Usually this early on a Sunday morning I am reading the papers waiting for it to get light enough to go and ride my bike, but since the papers had not arrived, I turned to this instead. I love these stats that Google gives me.

Page view by operating system from the last month:

Windows    984 (66%)
Macintosh   394 (26%)
iPhone           58 (3%)
Other Unix    26 (1%)
iPad              20 (1%)
Linux             2 (<1%)
iPod              2 (<1%)

Page views from the past week:

United States  266
Japan               18
Singapore        10
China                8
Germany           8
Russia               6
Canada             5
Denmark          3
Ireland             3
Argentina         2

Once again I am amazed at the global reach of this blog, and it would be fun to discover whether it is the people in Singapore who are reading on iPhones and the people in Argentina on iPods...

Saturday, September 18, 2010

I Do

I would say Djinn and Richard's wedding went off smoothly, and pretty much as planned, and the general consensus was that it was a wonderful event, filled with a great outpouring of love.
The afternoon was quite busy - my main issues were first that Paul was away all day, so I couldn't fine tune the script or check a few details about placement of objects on the wedding table, and also that I couldn't for the life of me find a matching pair of candle holders for the bride and groom, who carry tapers to the altar, light them from the altar candle, then jointly light a candle on the wedding table. So we did it with non-matching holders, and of course it was fine. We also went with the script as was, though when Paul sat down he just started extemporising, with an Irish brogue for good measure, and this set the tone for the ceremony, warm and informal, 'charming', as Djinn's father put it in his speech afterwards.
I got lucky with my speech - I was sitting in the lounge having my mid-morning coffee and toast, reading the cartoons in the paper (a favourite activity combination), and I read my horoscope for the day:
"LIBRA (September 22-October 22): A friend of yours stands on the brink of a huge life decision. You know what it's like to freeze on the spot. Give him/her that final push over the threshold".
So I had a great introduction handed to me by the universe - even though of course Djinn and Richard needed no pushing from anyone...  I also mentioned that Richard and I had gone out for a Zen Center version of a bachelor party the night before - where a total of three drinks were consumed, two of them by me, and that having gone to bed, I had not been able to sleep right away, but while I was lying there, a thought came to me - I had been musing on couples at Tassajara, which is a place where people go to study the self. Now, as Dogen says, in a phrase most people at Zen Center know, to study the self is to forget the self. It occurred to me that when you forget the self, there is more room for love to enter. And, as everyone agrees, and many people expressed eloquently both during the ceremony and afterwards, Djinn and Richard both manifest a wonderful selfless love.
I wore a third hat during the proceedings, as well as being ino and best man, that of photographer, and here are three of my favourite pictures: Djinn, Paul and Richard in the courtyard after the ceremony; Djinn getting a hug from Myo, and the happy couple cutting the pavlova, which was a centrepiece of an abundant spread of food (Jeffrey and Dana, among many others, surpassed themselves creating this - in fact almost everyone at City Center helped to create the event, and to clear it up afterwards, which is a wonderful part of living in community).

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Energy of the Repeated Gesture

This was a phrase that came to me one morning at Tassajara, when I was wrapping up my bowls at the end of breakfast. There is a particular way to flip and fold the lap cloth that I enjoy, and it occurred to me that even though it was something I did three times a day almost every day, rather than being dulled by familiarity, I still paid attention to it, and that the energy of this repeated gesture helped me to be present in a sustained way.
I always seem to find September a more meaningful time of year than January; the new year itself is something I don't get especially excited about, but in September I still feel the pull of transition - for many years, going back to school or college, recently the end of the Tassajara guest season and the beginning of the practice periods. Even when I am not there, there is always a part of me that wants to go, and having people coming from and going to Tassajara this week exacerbates that feeling. The weather right now is contributing as well; after the tiniest glimpses of a possible Indian summer, we are having autumnal temperatures, chilly winds and fog, which lend themselves to a closing down feeling; the leaves on the maple tree in the courtyard are starting to turn red. Next week we will have our equinox ceremony, to mark with a ritual the change of season; the moon is filling, bringing us round to our next full moon ceremony next Thursday.
This practice encourages us to pay attention to the cycles of life, from the smallest - a gesture repeated three times a day - to the largest - the phases of the moon, the advent of the seasons - with any number in between  - it's time to shave my head again. I remember during one Genzo-e, Shohaku was discussing the kanji for 'the Way', saying that while we think of a path as something that extends in front of us, in fact it was possible to interpret the kanji as having a circular element to it, so that the path brought you right back to where you were (of course he explained it much more eloquently and convincingly). So while we are always moving in space and time, really we are always coming back to ourselves, and while there are moments where we mark a particular transition - coming of age, a wedding, and ordination, there are also the moments where we are just doing the same old thing over and over again, getting up, eating,  going to work, bathing, going to bed. If we can be present in the same way for all of these activities, we can be carried along with the joyful energy of living.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


Of course the thing about being ino, apart from sitting plenty of zazen, and generating large amounts of paper, is the chance to be involved in many rituals. This is a particularly rich time for that; apart from the entering ceremony we did on Monday, and the one we did yesterday for one of the students who couldn't make it on Monday, and the recent tokudo, and the upcoming tokudo at Green Gulch, not to mention the jukai that will happen here in two and a half weeks, we have a wedding coming up in a couple of days, featuring our dear friends Djinn and Richard, who currently live at Tassajara. If you have been following this blog for some time, you will know that Greg was always excited about weddings. I am excited about this one - not that I am going to officiate, Abbot Paul is doing the honours, but I was asked to be the best man, which means I not only get to set up the ceremony, but I get to give a speech afterwards, and I suspect I will take some photographs too at some stage. I certainly haven't written anything down, but some  ideas have been percolating for the last week or so, which is when I remembered that I would have to say something. Since I am getting quite used to standing up in front of a hundred-odd people to make announcements after lecture, I am not especially worried, and because Djinn and Richard are such a fabulous couple, I don't think it will be difficult to find the right words for the occasion.
This past weekend also saw the first session of the Coming of Age Program, which is also in the realm of ritual; I had to make some opening remarks to the parents and the boys, as we stood getting cold on the pool deck at Green Gulch, and I observed how there are rituals for most of the transitions we make in life, birth, graduation, marriage and death, but the one for children coming of age has been mostly lost in our society. This first session was mainly a chance for Jim, my fellow mentor and I, and the boys to all meet each other, and over the next nine months we can build on this introduction to create a safe container for the boys to explore who they are, to find themselves, and to start discovering the roles they will play in the world as they grow up. It was immediately clear how each of them is their own person, with their particular energy and attitude, and I soon felt how exhausting it can be to keep a dozen twelve-year-olds focused for a couple of hours, but hopefully we will all get used to this. Unlike those of us who live at Zen Center, the idea of ritual is pretty new to most of them right now.

Study Hall

I am finding 'Taking our Places' to be a very rich and rewarding read. Here is a paragraph that articulates feelings I have had over recent years: "In my own work with Zen students over the years, I have felt the awesome power of love. Although it may seem extravagant to say so, the truth is that I love the people with whom I practice Zen. I get to know many of them over time and to see their lives unfold, with all the inevitable triumph and tragedy. Sharing all this with them, admiring their courage and sincerity in facing what they face and their determination to keep on devotedly with the practice, how can I not love them? If there is any benefit in our practicing together, all of it comes from this loving relationship, which has a healing power no one can measure or truly understand".

Monday, September 13, 2010


I have done a number of leaving ceremonies since becoming ino, but this morning was the first entering ceremony - though of course on my first morning as ino we had the shuso entering ceremony, but that's a little different. The entering ceremony was for the eleven people who sat tangaryo on Friday or Saturday, and who now become full residents, some of them for the first time, some after returning from Tassajara or living elsewhere.
The tradition of tangaryo begins with monks waiting outside the temple gate to be admitted. There is the famous story of Bodhidharma keeping Huike outside in the snow until Huike eventually cut off his own arm to prove his determination to be allowed to enter and study with Bodhidharma. I tend to look on that story more on a metaphorical level these days, but if anyone wants to tell me that it really happened like that, I am happy to stand corrected. In the Japanese system, the monks were allowed through the gate, but kept in a separate room for a number of days, where they had to sit, while they could be observed, unknown to them, to see if they were sitting steadfastly enough (I also imagine this as a sensible kind of quarantine, to see if the new monks had any fever or sickness that might cause problems for the temple). Here at Zen Center, our supplicants sit in the zendo; at City Center for one day, and at Tassajara for five days, from the beginning of the day until the evening, with just short breaks after each meal.
I have sat tangaryo on a number of occasions now - first in the city almost ten years ago. I remember being very sleepy after lunch, and on one occasion being woken up by a noise, which turned out to be my elbow hitting the mealboard as I toppled sideways. Luckily, Lucio, who was in the next seat, was quick enough to catch me before I completely fell off my seat. There was also a garage band, who did seem to be playing all afternoon in a garage a few doors away, and who unfortunately had more enthusiasm than skill...At Tassajara there are always many stories about tangaryo that people enjoy telling the new students; I will never forget that it was over 100 degrees for the first three days, which did make it so hot that there were fewer flies than usual. I had strategised that I would wear my jubons for a couple of days each, but it turned out that I took them off after each meal, rinsed out the sweat in the sink and let them dry in the baking hot cabins ready for the next day. I was also very nervous about hurting my knees, and I squirmed around a lot; at the end of the third day I noticed that my left foot was asleep, and it was still asleep when I woke up the next morning; the ino offered that I could lie down, but I did not want to desert the people who were sitting around me, so I stood at my seat for the last two days, which was scarcely easier than sitting in the end.
After that, in comparison, the two other times I sat for one day when I returned to Tassajara, and the day I sat here a couple of years ago passed easily.
I checked in on these sitters a couple of times during the day, ate meals with them, served them tea, and sat during the last hours of the evening with them, and I was impressed with the steadiness of everybody's sitting. Nobody had to cut off their arm to prove their dedication.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Study Hall

I have read Grace Schireson's 'Zen Women' in the last couple of weeks, and found some helpful perspectives on how we can practise in the west as well as on gender and sexuality. There was one passage that stuck with me, but I wasn't sure how to address it until I started reading Norman Fischer's 'Taking Our Places' as part of the preparation for this year's Coming of Age program, which starts this weekend.
Here is the passage from 'Zen Women': "In Sung dynasty China (960-1279) the number of Buddhist nuns included in the census in the year 1021 was 61,239. The number of Buddhist monks was recorded as 397,615, creating a male to female ratio of 6.5:1. Yet very few nuns are remembered and, of those who are, there are even fewer teaching records. Surely out of sixty-one thousand nuns a few must have offered some deep teachings!"
This is from the introduction to 'Taking our Places': "Our particular lineage of zen, founded by Shunryu Suzuki, puts little emphasis on enlightenment. It's not that we are unconcerned about enlightenment, or that we are opposed to it. Enlightenment is certainly important...But just as important, or more important, as a sign of readiness to teach Zen is a person's simple human maturity. Maybe someone is not very enlightened, or not enlightened at all. But if he or she is mature, it is good enough, for as Suzuki Roshi taught us, it is the ongoing practice, carried out with balance, faith, perseverance, kindness, and willingness to reach out to others, that is the most important thing. To practice like this takes a quiet and stable maturity".
 I know I have had, and I suspect it is a common thing, fantasies about becoming completely enlightened and then living like one of the charismatic zen masters that we can read about in any of the koan collections or old zen stories. I think of this as the zen equivalent of wanting to be a rock star when I was a teenager, and I am also perfectly at ease with the knowledge that this is not very likely to happen. The ease comes from a strong faith that the sincere continuation of practice that Norman outlines is in itself beneficial. In all probability I am not going to be the next Dogen, but I will be one of the great assembly. I have often thought about all the monks, probably 397, 610 out of the 397,615, who didn't make it into the koan stories. Does that mean their life was of no account - of course not. So while it is true and sad that we do not have such an extensive record of the women teachers who came before us, it is also true that we have no record of almost everyone from the great assemblies. And yet, of course, we owe the continuance of the teaching to them as much as to the charismatic zen masters.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Head Shaving

Before I was ordained, Greg asked me who I wanted to shave my head. Any of the Tassajara crowd, I replied. In the end I was happy that my older dharma brother Graham did the honours for me, and it was a beautiful occasion, in the dokusan room, as Koji and Jared took care of Steven and Trevor alongside me. We were given a verse to contemplate during the process, which underlined the ceremonial aspect:
Shaving off the hair,
Dedicated to all beings,
Dropping off all worldly desires,
Completely entering Nirvana.
It was the second line that most caught my attention - dedicated to all beings. That seemed like a tall order, and it still does, but that is the task we undertake when we devote ourselves to practice, whether as a priest or not.
It was a joke among my friends in England when I announced that I was going to study zen that I already had the haircut for it - I had been buzzing my hair very short for a number of years (having just looked at some childhood pictures, where I have seventies-style pudding bowl cuts, it really was from one extreme to the other). Shaving it altogether is a different feeling though. Afterwards I put the verse on my altar, and though I don't look at it when I shave my head in the bath, it does come to mind pretty much every time - I shave my head every four days, close to the traditional schedule of monks doing it on four-and-nine days, and each time it feels like a renewal of intention.
I was honoured to be present at Alison's head-shaving, with Colin as the hair-dresser, or hair-undresser as I thought of it. I  hope Alison won't mind me sharing these pictures from the different stages of the event - she had much more hair to be rid of than I did...

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Back in robes

While it has been very refreshing to have a restful week - even if I did wake up around five or five thirty almost every day - it is always nice to put my robes on again after a hiatus.
Today we are back in the schedule, with a full zendo this morning, and an overflowing Buddha Hall, including a spider that I watched making its way from the mokugyo (reminding me of the famous story from Tassajara), all around the foot of the altar, which it proceeded to climb. I last saw it scampering along the picture rail near the ceiling...

There were several ends to interim this time - I went and sat on Friday afternoon as a prelude to the Suzuki Roshi Memorial before dinner; we had the second part of the Memorial on Saturday, and I went to 9:25 zazen, and the dharma talk, ending up with the newcomers' table at lunch, which was as entertaining as ever.
Also on Saturday, there was a tokudo for Alison  Kreider, whom I practised with at Tassajara a few years ago. Kosho did the ceremony at Sokoji, as he had Jared's, but there was a strong turn out from Zen Center, as well as the contingent from Austin - I think I counted about twenty priests. I was the official photographer, and this is the 'official' picture:

Friday, September 3, 2010


Most people have opinions about Google these days, some of them not altogether flattering, but it has to be admitted that they are very clever (although I am revising my opinion in view of how difficult it has been to cut and paste the following - I can't seem to make it go in a straight line). I recently noticed a tab on the Blogger page that says 'Stats', and it turns out that you are all being tracked in many ways. I am happy to see that I have an "all-time history" of 2,908 page views, though it turns out that "all-time" only means since June of this year, which stretches the definition somewhat. I can also see which browser has been most used to read this - Firefox comes out on top, which surprised me - and which page most people arrived here from - this was less surprisingly the Zen Center website City Center page.
My favourite statistic is the global spread of the audience, for which these are the front runners from the past month:

United States
United Kingdom

and similarly from the past week:

United States       
United Kingdom
I am delighted to have readers, albeit perhaps accidental ones, from so many places - Brazil, Taiwan, Poland, Iceland, Chile. I would be happy to hear from this far-flung audience, and I am sorry if my English humour sometimes does not come across so well...