Monday, May 30, 2011

We Are Always A Little Late

Among the stationary things I got to do on this trip was catching up with some recent New Yorkers. One article that I particularly enjoyed was ostensibly about an attempt to measure the slowing of perception that people seem to have during near-death experiences (there is a teacher at Zen Center who came to Buddhism as a way to make sense of her near-death experience). I was struck by one quote from a neuroscientist: "We are not conscious of the actual moment of the present. We are always a little late". It reminded me that I heard Daigaku several times quote his master, Sekkei Harada Roshi, saying that we cannot think about the present moment, and also brought to mind Dogen in the Genjo Koan, one of my favourite lines: "Do not suppose that what you realise becomes your knowledge and is grasped by your consciousness - although actualised immediately, the inconceivable may not be distinctly apparent; its appearance is beyond your knowledge". I always feel comforted when Buddhist teachings have long covered the ground that western science is now trying to fathom.

A lot of this trip has been about the gap between experience and perception as well, albeit in a different way. Mostly my itinerary has been worked out by looking at the map and saying, okay, there, then there, then there (this even goes for some of the bike rides I have been on; today's was about ten miles longer than I expected it to be). I had very little idea of what these places would be like, even if I had seen pictures of some of them. So there was the experience of driving through the terrain that is on the map, and also the experience of being a little more integrated into the landscape than you can be in a car, when I went riding or hiking. Even then I was thinking of the difference between visiting a landscape, inhabiting it temporarily, and becoming familiar with it, living with it - a number of times I found myself comparing places I saw with Tassajara, as that has been my defining experience of living both in the mountains and in the midst of wilderness. This didn't stop me from having any number of wonderful moments on the trip, but they came with the knowledge of their fleeting nature, and were also usually accompanied by the desire to take a photograph to show how beautiful it actually had been - it was interesting just to watch the sun set from the warm pool last night and tonight with no access to my camera; I just let it come and go.
This has probably all been an excuse for another batch of pictures...

The snowy first day in Yosemite
Classic Yosemite Valley view from the Inspiration Point trail
King's Canyon, evening light
The start of Highway 190 into Death Valley
Sunset at the Mesquite Dunes
A bike ride before sunrise in Death Valley
Ditto, the next day
Artists' Drive, Death Valley
Wild Rose Canyon, Death Valley
View from near Wild Rose Peak, Death Valley
The road to an undeveloped hot springs in the woods near Bridgeport
The north end of the Sierras from Highway 395

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Last Stop

Friends of mine have been calling me an ascetic for years, even before I came to practice, though it was probably one of the reasons I took to it, especially Tassajara, so readily - I always liked to attribute this to the somewhat spartan English boarding school regime I went through as a teenager. Nonetheless, I have always had a sybaritic streak as well, and if Tassajara taught me anything, it is that there are few finer things in life than hanging out in hot plunges with nowhere you have to be any time soon. So, the final stop on this very full journey is a couple of days at Sierra Hot Springs. And it is snowing again.
I knew there would be some extremes involved in this trip, but I had partly planned for this time of year to have the best of spring. Or so I thought. From snow on the first night in Yosemite, through the hundred-plus degree weather in Death Valley, back to snow; it was thirty-two degrees when I came up the side of Lake Tahoe this morning, and there have been flurries all afternoon. This does not stop me enjoying watching flakes falling, from the quiet of an outdoor plunge where the only noise is the wind in the pine trees.
A few pictures of extremities:

Snowy first day in Yosemite

Looking down on Stovepipe Wells, over a hundred degrees

Looking up towards Mount Whitney from near the end of the road at 8400'

The next day at Badwater salt flats, 280' below sea level

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Guest Post

Death Valley may offer many opportunities for zazen and contemplating impermanence, but while I was looking at some other blogs in my motel room in the Eastern Sierras yesterday, I thought I should offer my ino replacements the chance to say something. I emailed them, and this is what I got back...

From Tanya: "Filling holes in the doanryo, training new people, searching for the misplaced shoten plaque and the han clock (found together, BTW!)...It's been busier than I've imagined, AND I've enjoyed how this opportunity (to step up) has pulled me back in, deepened my commitment to attend daily work meetings and noon service. Creatively I've been challenged to invent unique announcements for noon service doanryo sign-ups (Come on, people, it's an opportunity!) And to not take anyone's hesitation to sign-up [or any other response someone may give to something I'm doing] too personally.

"I think we're all enjoying ourselves. The four of us have met the expected minimal dramas with a sense of team work, i.e. the battery dying on the speaker's mic during lecture on Saturday led to a tag team effort to find and deliver and then install the new battery.... It really does take a team!" 

From Joan: Ha - yes! Shundo, now that you're a giants devote` (how DO I get that accent up there going the right way?) a quote I read Tanya from this morning's paper:
The Giants' shortstop: "You want to win championships, but you want to have team chemistry. I liked winning the World Series; at the same time, I like the fun we have. We have great team chemistry, a great group of guys. It's a good feeling when you see familiar faces you play with."

From Renee: I think that says it all. :) (The quote).

So there you have it.
Since there are so many beautiful things to see in this part of the world, a couple of photos from my last stop in Lone Pine. I rode my bike up the road in the second picture, and crashed it on the way down - on a straight section of road as well...

Mount Whitney from Lone Pine

Mount Whitney Portal Road - all uphill

Sunday, May 22, 2011

This Is A Good Place For A Sanctuary...

...the sanctuary has been built.

Knapp's Cabin, King's Canyon
It's good to be in the mountains again. This was yesterday - today I am on the other side of the Sierras.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Handing Over

It's been a while since I left town - this long in fact - so I am pretty excited about taking a couple of weeks off to go on holiday, and continuing the theme of familiarising myself with all things American, I am setting out to see parts of California I have not managed to see in eleven years: Yosemite - snow and all, with the unseasonable weather - King's Canyon, and hopefully, Death Valley and the eastern Sierras. And yes, I am bringing my bike with me.
I like to say it is taking four people to replace me, but as one of them points out, that is four people who already have full-time jobs at Zen Center and are adding this to their responsibilities; I am grateful for their willingness, and of course there are many loose ends to tidy up before I go: sorting out doan jobs, writing instructions for the new sound system, printing out tenken sheets, ordering candles, having some oryoki sets ready, hopefully getting some talks online.
I can't guarantee that I will be posting anything else this month, so expect the blog to be back in June.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

One-Two, One-Two

In my years as a sound engineer, I mostly worked from age-old, well-equipped studios. I put together and tested a few mixing desk set-ups, but rarely did I ever get to test-drive brand new gear. Well, today in the Buddha Hall we inaugurated the new sound system, and for a first go, it went pretty well. Funnily enough it took three sound engineers - myself and the installers, Charlie and Nathan - a few minutes to realise that the speaker on our side of the Buddha Hall was not properly connected; once that was rectified, we just had some little edges of low-frequency feedback that we trimmed off as we went.
For me, the new equipment is great, much more versatile and professional than the old set-up, which has been in place at least fifteen years, and was designed to get the output of one microphone amplified over speakers and recorded onto a cassette. Now we have digital recording as well as the live-stream feed, and also the potential for video feeds on top of that. Being in front of a nice mixing desk felt familiar enough; what was strange was that I am now located in the opposite corner of the Buddha Hall from where I have been. Whereas before I was in the perfect seat to scan the audience, which helped not just to keep track of who was new and who was familiar, but also, in my early days as ino, to get more comfortable with all the faces that would be looking at me as I made my announcements, today I only had the back of a few people's heads, so when I got up and made my entrance from the other end of the Buddha Hall, it was the first time I had really seen who was there. And having been concentrating more than usual on the sound,  I was a little less prepared for the announcements.
This was not the only big event of the day - it was one of those twelve-hour days with only a few occasions to sit down for ten minutes or so between things to do - we had oryoki, and the usual zazen, then setting up for the afternoon jukai, lunch with the ordinands, Geoff and Tanya, all the usual printing palaver, a rehearsal and finally the ceremony itself...
It was an intimate gathering, and a nice mix between formal and informal, smoothly executed. Lots of bowing, and a token cutting of hair. Here are a couple of pictures of the day, from a first glimpse through.

Wisdom Water
Serene Name

Geoff, Abbot Steve, Tanya

Friday, May 13, 2011

That Leaving Feeling

Friday has become leaving ceremony day of late: last Friday we said goodbye to Charlie and Renata, this morning to Seguin and Meryl. With the exception of Meryl, who will be going to Tassajara, they are all returning to the market-place, but hopefully, as Blanche encouraged them this morning, taking their practice with them for the benefit of everyone they meet. I hope this time that the tsui-ching is back in its resting place for a while. Actually, at my desk this morning I wondered if everyone had got up and left, as I didn't get a single email before noon, which is most unusual - not that I am complaining, mind.
I notice I haven't had a picture up here for a while, so here is Seguin, though you can't really tell, taking off her okesa in the kaisando - a picture which I think compensates for its technical deficiencies with atmosphere:

Take Me Out To The Ballgame

The great Blogger outage prevented me from posting this yesterday, and as I write, the previous entry is still missing, perhaps taking refuge in a cloud computer somewhere. It brings home the impermanent nature of online things, and how little control we have over them.
Yesterday was a good day for several reasons. To begin with I managed to make it to my first ever baseball game, thanks to a concerted effort by Tim, Joan, Daigan and Wendy to make it happen. We also met Roger down there, he being a season ticket holder, for extra Zen Center flavour. I followed happenings on the field well enough, and even managed to add to my meagre knowledge of the rules.The Giants won, just, so everyone was happy.
I had been concerned that with a 12:45 kick-off (no, that's not what you call it, is it?), it was possible that I might not get back in time for evening zazen, which caused a little anxiety, as we started the day without a doshi, doan or doorwatch. On Wednesday there had been a gap in the doanryo as well, which is problematic during practice period with most people attending the tea, but luckily, the doanryo members who were there all had additional strings to their bows: the doan became the fukudo; the jiko became the doan - having been trained for that on Monday -  and the even more recently trained kokyo doubled up as jiko. Yesterday we managed with volunteers, and since it was a game with not so much hitting going on, we were all done at the park by 3:30, enough time for a leisurely bike ride home and no rush to get into robes.
Those of you with exceptionally tenacious memories might also recall that May 12th is the anniversary of my arrival in this country - which made the ballgame doubly apt - and I was gratified to hear a very strong (/ˈnaɪ.ðər/) being chanted from across the zendo to match mine last night.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Counting To Nine

I bought myself another copy of 'Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind',  and I was looking for the explanation of why we do nine prostrations at the beginning of morning service instead of three, which I have heard here many times over the years: Suzuki Roshi thought American students were more stubborn than Japanese and needed more help in letting go of the ego.
In the book we read, "After zazen we bow to the floor nine times. By bowing, we are giving up ourselves. To give up ourselves means to give up our dualistic ideas. So there is no difference between zazen practice and bowing. Usually to bow means to pay our respects to something which is more worthy of respect than ourselves. But when you bow to Buddha you should have no idea of Buddha, you just become one with Buddha, you are already Buddha yourself". These last two sentences are ones I should probably memorise, as I often find myself answering a question around this from new students or visiting high school kids - if there is no god in Buddhism, why are you bowing, who are you bowing to?

Recently a couple of doans have expressed doubts in our service review as to whether they had got the number of bells right for the nine prostrations. Linda Ruth offered us a practice at Tassajara of reciting the full refuges as we did the nine prostrations, so I decided to pick up the practice for myself. Apart from being a good thing to bring to mind every morning, it also lets me know if the doan has successfully managed  to count to nine.

I take refuge in Buddha.
I take refuge in Dharma.
I take refuge in Sangha.

I take refuge in Buddha, as the perfect teacher.
I take refuge in Dharma, as the perfect teaching.
I take refuge in Sangha, as the perfect life.

Now I have completely taken refuge in Buddha.
Now I have completely taken refuge in Dharma.
Now I have completely taken refuge in Sangha. 

I have had a succession of ideas over the years about what taking refuge means. Currently I see it, as I have heard other people express it, as more of an active process than is usually associated with the word 'refuge' - it is not sheltering, and it is more than just allowing these things to be part of your life. It is more like the phrases Dogen uses in the Fukanzazengi and the Genjo Koan: 'taking the backward step' and 'to carry yourself forward and experience myriad things is delusion; that myriad things come forth and experience themselves is awakening':  taking refuge means that Buddha, dharma and sangha can come forth and experience themselves.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Study Hall - Shobogenzo

"Study the world of sitting at the very moment of sitting. Is it vertical or horizontal? At the very moment of sitting, what is sitting? Is it an acrobat's graceful somersault or the rapid dancing of a fish? Is it thinking or not thinking? Is it doing or not doing? Is it sitting within sitting? Is it sitting within body-mind? Is it sitting letting go of sitting within sitting, or letting go of sitting within body-mind? Investigate this in every possible way. Sit in the body's meditation posture. Sit in the mind's meditation posture. Sit in the meditation posture of letting go of body-mind...
Shakyamuni Buddha said to the assembly, 'When you sit in the meditation posture, you realize samadhi in body and mind, and give rise to an awesome virtue that people respect. Like the sun illuminating and refreshing the world, this sitting removes obscurities from the mind and lightens the body so that exhaustion is set aside. Enlightenment becomes as natural as a dragon curled up at rest. A demon is frightened by even a picture of someone sitting in the meditation posture; how much more so by a living person who realizes the way sitting motionless and at ease'" ('King of Samadhis', 'Sammai Ozammai').

Monday, May 9, 2011


Since I didn't have much free time over the weekend, I am feeling pretty sluggish today. Yesterday was a day of high emotions, with a lot of love being expressed, especially by the parents of the young people completing the Coming of Age program, and that giddy end of term feeling that inevitably leads to a sense of loss and emptiness.
The zendo was nice and full for first morning of the practice period, as it should be, and the sun was pouring in beautifully during the second period.. I was thinking I would spend the morning pottering around and tidying up the paperwork and other things from the sitting, but Jordan added a little more urgency into proceedings by suggesting a new chant for noon service half way through the morning. I was happy to oblige, especially as I hadn't finalised all the sheets for what I thought we were doing, and also because it is a chant I am not familiar with, so it is something else to discover:

Torei Enji’s Bodhisattva Vow

When I, a student of Dharma,
Look at the real form of the universe,
All is the never-failing manifestation
Of the mysterious truth of the Tathagata.
In any event, in any moment, and in any place,
None can be other than the marvelous revelation
Of its glorious light.
This realization made our patriarchs and virtuous Zen masters
Extend tender care, with the heart of worshipping,
Even to such beings as beasts and birds.
This realization teaches us that our daily food and drink,
Clothes and protections of life, are the warm flesh and blood,
The merciful incarnation of Buddha.
Who can be ungrateful or not respectful
Even to senseless things, not to speak of man?
Even though he may be a fool,
Be warm and compassionate toward him.
If by an chance he should turn against us,
And become a sworn enemy, and abuse and persecute us, we should
Bow down with humble words, in reverent belief
That he is the merciful avatar of Buddha
Who uses devices to emancipate us from sinful karma
That has been produced and accumulated upon ourselves
By our own egoistic delusion and attachment
Through the countless cycles of Kalpa.
Then on each moment's flash of our thought
There will grow a lotus flower,
And on each lotus flower will be revealed a Buddha.
These Buddhas will glorify Sukhavati,
The Pure Land, every moment and everywhere.
May we extend This mind over the whole Universe
So that we and all beings together
May attain maturity in Buddha's wisdom.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Beginning, Continuing and Ending

One thing I appreciate about continuing to be ino is that the big events are less stressful than they used to be. One-day sittings are still fourteen-hour days with very little downtime, but I am a little more relaxed about how they unfold. This one went from having fifteen sign-ups on Tuesday to about fifty-five yesterday, with more being added right up to the last moment, but the logistics were mostly painless. We had plenty of people who knew how to do each job, so I could choose creatively, and also let some senior people have a day where they just sat and had no responsibilities.
I even had time yesterday to help the Young Urban Zen group get closer to a launch. This is something that arose from the big Zen Center meeting in January, in particular from a brain-storming session that afternoon. The fact that it will have taken five months to actually get it off the ground says something about how busy we all are and the kind of inertia that an organisation of our size inevitably possesses. Nonetheless, a lot of people have put in a lot of hours to trying to make this happen, and it was great to have a flyer printed out last night so I could announce the group after lecture for the first time. Since we don't have any text online yet, I will just say that it is going to be a group aimed mainly at 25-35 year olds who are establishing their lives in the city and are looking for a way to find meaning and community in the midst of everything. I am, I confess, outside the age range of the target demographic, but I hope to be on hand to lend a priestly presence, as we don't currently have any priests that young living at City Center - though there are a number elsewhere at Zen Center. So, tell your friends, or come along yourselves, starting Monday June 6th. I will undoubtedly be plugging this more as it gets closer to the time.
Even though the sitting is over, I still have some things to do, not least folding my robes and wrapping them so I can take them to Green Gulch for the culmination ceremony of the Coming of Age group tomorrow morning. This will actually be the first time the boys will have seen me in my robes, so they may get a bit of a shock. The ceremony will obviously be a time for reflection on the last nine months of meetings, and on what kind of transformations may have occurred in the lives of these young people. It has been a rich experience to be part of, on many levels, and I will be sad to see the group disband. Who knows if any of them will be coming along for sittings in the years to come?

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Heat Of The Moment

Yesterday a dear friend asked me to explain what practice meant to me. I did my best to articulate something, and spoke about how it sometimes felt possible to meet someone completely in one moment, and what a beneficial experience that can be for both. She told me that I should write all this in the blog, as that would also be beneficial. I knew, and I replied, that apart from being unable to recreate the words and phrases I had used, any description would necessarily miss the energy of that moment and that exchange with this particular person, which is what gave the words their vitality and meaning.
This morning I read in 'Arousing the Aspiration for Enlightenment', 'Hotsu Bodai Shin', "The scale of this moment can only be known by the Tathagatha". I also think of the phrase "only a buddha together with a buddha", which I also brought up in the conversation, and which I currently take to mean that the vital essence of practice is present only when two people are able to meet completely, although this reading certainly does not exhaust that phrase. I think this is hard to achieve in a blog posting, but I can say that I have experienced deep and lasting nourishment through my practice, and it is my intention to have that experience be of benefit to others, however I can manifest it.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Study Hall - Shobogenzo

Back on track with Dogen this morning: "Grass, trees, tiles and pebbles, as well as the four great elements and the five skandhas, are all equally inseparable mind, equally marks of reality. The entire world of the ten directions, the buddha nature of thusness, is equally things abiding in their conditions.
How can there be grass, trees, and so on within the buddha nature of thusness? How can grass, trees and so on not be buddha nature? All things are neither created nor not created, but are reality. Reality is reality as it is...
When you turn the four great elements and the five skandhas and practice sincerely, you attain the way. When you turn grass, trees, tiles and walls, and practice sincerely, you attain the way. It is so because the four great elements and the five skandhas, as well as grass, trees, tiles and walls, practice together with you. They have the same nature, the same mind and life, the same body and capacity as you.
This being so, many of those who come from the assembly of buddha ancestors endeavor in the way of taking up grass and having the heart of trees. This is how it is with arousing the aspiration for enlightenment" ('Arousing the Aspiration for the Unsurpassable', 'Hotsu Mujo Shin').

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

In The Kaisando

One of the tenets of zen training, especially in the Japanese tradition, is that, while you are expected to keep your eyes down at all times, you are also expected to observe what is going on, and to be able to step into any role at a moment's notice.
My first doan job, as I have probably mentioned in the past, was as afternoon jiko. Indeed, because of when I arrived at City Center (and that will be eleven years ago next week), I was supposed to do the job before I had ever been to evening zazen. Luckily I had a trusty native guide to show me what to do so that I didn't make a complete fool of myself. A little while later, having got used to the basics of the job, the ino at the time showed me how to take care of giving and receiving the offering cups for the Suzuki Roshi Memorial, just in case I needed to do it that evening. It never hurts to know how to do this, was her way of thinking, though in the end I was not called upon on that occasion.
Today I thought it might be prudent to give Dennis the same instruction before we went down to zazen, and sure enough, when the time came for the ceremony, there was not a more senior doshi or another jiko to be seen, so, as we did last month, I had Gretchen take the first position in the offering; I was the doshi and Dennis the jiko. We had a relatively untested doan and kokyo combo as well; nevertheless it all went very nicely. I had another chance to be eyeball to eyeball with the statue, which I did enjoy.

"Everything Would Drop Away"

I haven't been getting so much out of Dogen this past week, which either means that he was in a bit of a fallow period at the end of 1243 and the beginning of 1244, or else that my eye of practice is a little dull. So, after reading a fascicle this morning, I turned to 'Not Always So', as I have been asked to come up with a Suzuki Roshi quote for a project.
This was the book we studied in my first practice period at Tassajara, and I haven't picked it up so often since then - in a similar vein, I don't own a copy of 'Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind' as I have given away the copies I have bought - and I didn't remember the introduction by Ed Brown. It turned out to be rather relevant to the previous topic of the kyosaku:
"The blows themselves were inconceivably sudden and striking, not in the sense that they were physically intimidating, but they could not be anticipated or timed, so no thought, feeling or sensation could stand up to them. Rather than knocking some sense into you, it was more like knocking the floor out from under you. This could be quite unsettling, but on the other hand quite grounding. For a few moments one could taste freedom from everything, a sense of spaciousness".

Monday, May 2, 2011

Public Service Announcement

I am not in the habit of doing this kind of thing, but having received an email from my old dharma friend Tenku, I wanted to help her in her Bodhisattva activity:

Since the hyperlink doesn't come across on a jpg, here it is again:
 To learn more and donate visit

Walk Softly And Carry A Big Stick

I have never been in the zendo when the kyosaku has been used, either here or at Tassajara. I came pretty close this last sesshin - Michael had announced that he was going to use it for people who requested it, but the only time it came out, I was in the dining room giving remedial oryoki instruction. I believe Paul has used it at Tassajara recently, but not in the practice periods I was there for.
Grace, in her talk on Saturday, very skillfully outlined the reasons she thought that the stick was not appropriate for American zen, and the ways she found to put students in analagous situations of squeezing the ego.
I am not one to get into arguments very often; there was pretty much only one person I ever argued with at Tassajara, and it happened twice, both times during sesshin. I was in my first practice period, and this person was the soku of the serving crew I was on. By her own accounts at other times during that practice period, she was having a tough time being there - she described it as her inner three year-old running the show for her. After one of the arguments, and I don't remember which one now - there was one where I knew I was in the right, and one where I thought she behaved inappropriately for the circumstance, and in the pressure of sesshin I wanted to stand up for myself both times, and she was not the kind of person to back away from a conflict - she left me a long letter from herself and also a letter that Grace had written her.
Apart from the unusualness of having letters come to me during sesshin, I was tremendously struck by the situation she was in, and by Grace's response, which I recall as follows. This person was on the doanryo and having difficulties accepting feedback and instruction from the ino, who was much younger, but with seniority, of course. There had been a heated exchange between them because she felt the ino - 'who hadn't studied Japanese' - did not accept her correction - and she had studied Japanese -  on the way to pronounce mokugyo properly. Grace wrote "Who gives a flying fuck how to pronounce mokugyo when an ego the size of a football field is tormenting you day and night!" I can imagine how being on the receiving end of such an admonition might sting more than a whack on the shoulders.