Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Extra Hours

I always have the feeling during interim that there are more hours in the day, as I am not obliged to spend three of them following the schedule morning and afternoon. I have also been having longer days - yesterday I woke up at four and remembered that I hadn't put the instructions for the interim doan at the seat, so I went and did that, and found it impossible to get back to sleep afterwards, though since I ended up watching English football highlights, I didn't feel like I was really suffering.
After I managed to wrap up a number of loose ends at work yesterday, we had a large and lively Young Urban Zen meeting, and several of us took the usual after-party conversation down to a neighbouring cafe, with the result that I didn't get to bed until midnight. I still woke up this morning early enough to take down my art show and pack my bags for Tassajara before breakfast.
I am, for the first time, trying to get down to Carmel on various trains and buses, which I feel a little unsure about, but rides did not materialise in the end. I look forward to being there in time for dinner, and assuming I am able to get out again, I will be back in the online world in time for the Saturday program.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Work, Rest and Play

I have been noticing a paradox during my working hours, which I was tempted to call the horns of a dilemma, but that would be overstating it: some days it seems like I never get away from sitting at my desk looking at the computer, fielding e-mails and occasionally phone calls; I look at the list of projects that I keep on hand, and it feels like I never get anything done. Conversely, when I block off time, as I did on Friday, to empty out the cupboard in the ino's office which holds the City Center talks archive on cassette (so many illustrious names from the past, and how will we ever get to listen to them again?), to realign the shelves so I can store the gear we use for our audio-visual enterprises these days in the lockable cabinet that previously contained the old sound system, while it felt like a most useful accomplishment, also left me feeling like I had been neglecting my 'real' work.
I also need to remind myself constantly that part of my 'work' is just attending the activities I am supposed to be at: the morning and afternoon schedule, the dharma talks. But then, even though I offered to do the sound for the entertaining poetry reading on Friday night, I didn't consider that work, since I hadn't promised to do it beforehand, and hadn't expected to until I decided it would be the best way to spend the evening, which it probably was.
There was a less pleasant consequence to the event, though. Having removed the microphone and receiver from the Buddha Hall so that both Matthew Dickman and Matthew Zapruder could read with clip-on mics - and mostly the new sound system was excellent - and having replaced them after the event, at ten o'clock on Saturday morning, coming up from zazen, I felt I should just check that the mic was working in the Buddha Hall again, and the fact that it didn't made me sweat. Even more so when the people who were in the dining room said they could hear it. If I had had five quiet minutes to think it through I would have figured out the source of the problem, but I didn't - I needed to go and pee, which is not a simple operation when you are in an okesa (and nor is poking around in the sound system cabinet), and everyone was waiting for the talk to begin. The speaker, Eugene Bush from Santa Cruz, had already requested that we not record the talk - which is a shame as it was wonderful - so I just had to ask him if he was willing to speak unamplified, which, graciously he was. As a long-time school teacher, he had no problem being heard throughout the room, and while he was talking I worked out exactly why there was no sound reaching the speakers of the Buddha Hall (I had inadvertantly pulled out a cable along with the receiver).
We are now heading into interim week, which I would perhaps have benefited from more if it had followed directly after the intensive, but which is welcome nonetheless. I am hoping to make it to Tassajara for a few days, although I am unsure how I am actually going to be getting there, and I am expected to return with some photographs.
We marked the beginning of this relaxed week last night with a party at one of the apartments up the street, to celebrate Tanya going back to school. It was a classic Zen Center party, where everyone knows each other, and people were either talking or dancing. Of the two activities I decided I would rather be dancing - along with Renee who was leading the fray, and Blanche who was gamely joining in when the music was more to her taste. Nadia and I were sharing DJ duties, which turned out to be a lot of fun.
I may have been optimistic about the weather the other day; I rode this morning through more drenching fog than clear skies, though it was nice enough here by the time I got back that I could spend a happy hour in the hammock on the roof reading a book, something that doesn't happen nearly enough.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Study Hall

"At present I cannot avoid talking in these terms simply because I fear the collapse of Buddhism and the extinction of the sun of wisdom. That is why I am forced to draw distinctions, to convey this information to all people. Our true teaching does not make an issue of whether one is a monk or a layperson, a male or a female; it does not choose between the aristocrat and the commoner or the old and the young. It's not a question of great or small faculties, of being smart or slow. As long as they have a great heart, ultimately none fail to succeed.
So believe deeply in this Dharma and urgently seek liberation. Set out as best you can; don't talk about the distance of the journey. The Combined Treatise on the Flower Adorment says, 'To whom is this scripture entrusted? This scripture is entrusted to ordinary people with great hearts'" - Torei Enji's The Undying Lamp of Zen.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Summer's Lease

Since study hall is having to compete with the Vuelta a Espana this week, a few photos instead - we are possibly into the second half of our summer here, after the fog months. Yesterday was balmy, and there were clear skies overnight, and more sun today:

Yesterday evening
The moon this morning before zazen
I snuck upstairs to take this before service
After breakfast

Monday, August 22, 2011

Sangha As The Perfect Life

I had a brief but illuminating chat with Myoki the other day. Apart from working hard in her new role as Myogen's assistant, which meant she had a lot to do for the AZTA, she told me she had just been asked to take over as the third floor women's bathroom co-ordinator. She was not happy that residents had already come up to her to let her know exactly which jobs they were not willing to do...
I thought it was just the guys. I am used to cleaning up after one or two of my fellow bathroom users who seem to me not to pay attention to this kind of thing, and we all notice when the toilets or the floor do not get cleaned regularly. This is the kind of place where my compassion meets my you-must-try-harder streak, though I try to restrict my comments to occasional encouragement of our bathroom co-ordinator to lean on the less industrious among us.
This kind of matter probably strikes a chord with anyone who shares a household, and though it might seem like a trifling matter in the overall operation of Zen Center, really I feel that you can't make those kind of distinctions. We are practising paying attention to every detail and making our best effort on each moment, as Blanche is fond of quoting Suzuki Roshi as saying. I was tempted during sesshin to put up a sign in one of the toilet stalls along the lines of 'leaving the toilet roll holder empty because you cannot be bothered to change the roll or pick it up off the floor fails to be bodhisattva activity'.
I am also reminded of the phrase used by Shundo Aoyama, which I have quoted before: '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'. The devil, as they say, is in the details.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Filling In

Since other people were taking care of the details required for the running of the AZTA conference, I have been feeling myself relaxing this week, and I noticed that in part by how I responded to being asked to do any extra things I wasn't expecting to do. Mainly I got to catch up on the backlogs of talks - I put seventeen up at the end of the week, which was a day and a half's work - and taking care of what the French call le train-train quotidien, one of my favourite phrases.
I ended up being doshi three evenings in a row, as well as for the 9:25 sitting on Saturday. I was also kokyo on Saturday morning, which I was glad to do. The visiting teachers certainly lent volume to our morning services. As kokyo you are something of a conductor for the energy of the chanting, and it felt great to be leading such a strong group, helped along by Ken setting nice fast tempos on the mokugyo. The names of the Buddhas and male ancestors ended up much slower than I can usually tolerate, but what I felt this time was not a lack of energy, but rather a careful and respectful reading of the names. Of course I could just be imagining that and perhaps I was just swayed by the sight of six brown robes in the front row across from me, all of different hues.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Study Hall

"In the present time there is also a type who tends to conceive easy views of the koans of the ancients. All alike they look at them and say, 'An iron bar has no flavor - ah, ha, ha!' They're like blind men asking about the color of milk: when told it's like a conch, they interpret in terms of sound; told it's like snow, they interpret in terms of cold. Now, an 'iron bar' does not mean there is no flavor; it means there's nothing you can get your teeth into - this is what's called an iron bar. Just arouse an intense attitude of great fortitude, where there is nothing to get your teeth into and chew vertically, chew horizontally, chew and chew unceasingly, and suddenly you'll chew through. Once you've chewed through, you will find the inexhaustible flavor of Dharma in there. This is called an iron bar - later people didn't understand and misinterpreted it to mean flavorless" - Torei Enji's The Undying Lamp of Zen.

New Roles

Unlike the morning, afternoon zazen yesterday was rather sparsely attended; I counted twelve of us at service, half of whom were on the doanryo...the kokyo had called ahead to say they weren't going to be able to be there, so I was expecting to do that, but then there was no doshi either. I whispered to Dennis inviting him to be kokyo as we got up from sitting. I was thinking that it would his debut, and if so, it was at least a low-pressure occasion, but he acquitted himself admirably. We also had Roger and Robert on the doanryo, which brought to mind this Thursday a few months ago.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Familiar Faces

This week Zen Center is hosting a number of distinguished guests: on Monday, we had several members of the SZBA board staying, and yesterday we had members of the AZTA arriving. If the acronyms are a little mysterious, the former is the Soto Zen Buddhist Association, which means that they are all in Dogen's lineage, while the latter is the American Zen Teachers Association, which casts its net a little wider. Either way, they are all lovely people, I have met a few of them before - especially when we had the SZBA conference here a couple of years ago - and it is wonderful to have so many senior teachers in the building.
The zendo was nicely full this morning, though luckily we did not start to overflow, as I had been concerned might happen, and the Buddha Hall likewise. I should add for readers who are new practitioners that teachers coming from other centers can be just as mystified about the particular forms we have here at Zen Center as you might be, so there has been some gentle guidance about where to stand, how to exit and so forth.
This morning was also the 28th day memorial for David, and Abbot Steve was the doshi. The chanting was very strong with so many extra voices, and again, the fact that we were chanting the Dai Hi Shin Dharani in the morning brought the occasion home to me, feelings which the beautiful eko augmented.
I was just looking through some old City Center pictures for shots of the SZBA, and came across this one of David working in the kitchen - he was on the crew when I was tenzo, so we spent many hours working side my side.

I have also been meaning to write about how much I have enjoyed having Teah back in the zendo on a regular basis - she sat the sesshin the other week -  and how moved I was to see her being doshi again as she has been recently. I think this may be due to the fact that she was tanto when I first arrived at City Center, so perhaps it triggers memories of those early days, as does seeing Blanche in the zendo, which she is more and more again. It makes it seem like things are the way they should be - though of course they always are.
This is probably my favourite picture of Teah, taken after Liping's shuso ceremony last year.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Study Hall

After putting aside the Shobogenzo, I decided to pick up The Undying Lamp of Zen, which Robert kindly gave me some months ago, and I am enjoying the robust and salty Rinzai language of Torei. I could have done with having this section to hand last night in the Young Urban Zen 'after-party', where the group I fondly think of as the Berkeley Intellectuals hung around to throw around and chew on some concepts and ideas until after my bedtime:
"Right now, what is this? What is it that sees? What is it that hears? What is it that moves? What is it that sits? At all times, in all places, focus your mind and see how it is. Without conceiving of being or non-being, without thinking of affirmation or negation, without discriminating, without rationalizing, just observe in this way. When the time comes it will appear of itself, without need of your intellectual discrimination. As soon as you conceive discrimination, you obscure original essential nature - then even if you labored forever, you couldn't get it.
If thoughts are flying around, consider this story: 'Does a dog have buddha-nature? No.' Bring it to mind directly, and don't interpret it logically. Don't interpret it as flavorless, don't interpret it as nothing. If you conceive any logical understanding, you'll never complete the work. But don't develop an illogical mind either. Logic and no logic are after all random ideas. Just bring it up and look at it. It has nothing to do with interpretation; it is the real way of practice of the Buddhas. Continue moment to moment, whether speaking or silent, active or quiet, walking, sitting, and lying down - do not forget it! Or if you do occasionally forget, don't lose power".

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Further Reflections

The comments section has been the most interesting part of the blog this week. I have been chewing on Daigan's comment, and the ones that followed, and trying to come up with a response beyond what I wrote in the original post. Of course Lou was right, he usually was. I had my own experience of this living here in 2005. I would much rather have been still living at Tassajara, but I had been sent back to the city to sort out important aspects of my life, which I had no inclination to do, and which didn't really get resolved for another two or three years. I was fukaten, the number two person in the kitchen, and devoted all my energies to doing that job as well as I could without taking my own displeasure out on the crew, and to sitting every day. I had a lot of opinions about the standard of practice at City Center compared with Tassajara, and the only two things that worked for me around that were trying to stay focused on my own practice, and looking to those people around me whose practice did inspire me - Lou being one of those, naturally. At that time I was wanting to become a priest, and heard more than once a version of the line Chris mentioned, "If you want to become a priest, act like a priest".
The comments on Thursday's post were humbling; Stephen's words and stories illustrate exactly why we love the Coadys, and I was deeply moved by the anonymous comment. To respond to that I can only quote the words from the last part of the Full Moon Ceremony, which we did again this morning; I have mentioned the first part before, but the rest of the paragraph illuminates the point: "To expound the dharma with this body is foremost. The virtue returns to the ocean of reality. It is unfathomable, we just accept it with respect and gratitude".

Friday, August 12, 2011

Seeing Things

It felt somewhat ironic to come back to my room after the opening for the show of photos and immediately see that there was a quality of light outside which made it worth grabbing my camera and heading for the roof. I included in the show an album of shots of different skyscapes taken from the roof, which Robert poetically referred to as my 'book of clouds', but I hadn't been up there with my camera for a while. There were the end-of-sunset clouds facing off against the fog to the south west, and the moon rising serenely in the south east.
I was happy with how the opening went, considering my limited tolerance for both small talk and being the centre of attention. I sold one picture in the first ten minutes, so I couldn't have asked for a better start; people seemed to enjoy the content and presentation, and there was a very respectable turn-out. I included a picture with the title "You should know where this is" which got everybody talking - I should have added a subtitle "if you are a resident". Most people were stumped, though a few were able to place it.

To the south west

To the south east

"You should know where this is"

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Marking Time

There had been some discussion about what format the 21st day memorial ceremony for David was going to take. After the first iteration, last week we did a short service in the zendo as it was the fourth, and we also had the Suzuki Roshi memorial to do. In the end Paul wanted us to continue having the ceremony in the morning, so we had the first half of the regular Thursday service, and then chanted the Dai Hi Shin Dharani, followed by the special dedication.
Even though attendance in the zendo has been quite low this week, the Dai Hi Shin Dharani sounded very strong, suitably grave. Perhaps I am just used to doing it in the afternoons now, when there are even fewer people, most of whom are not so familiar with it.
Because I was in sesshin, I did not get to attend the cremation ceremony last week, and I am noticing in myself that a sense of finality is missing around David: I am aware of his absence in different ways and in various circumstances, but then this week I am also aware of the absence of all the participants in the intensive, who had formed such an integral part of the community in the preceding weeks. I suppose this is why so many cultures have a tradition of sitting with the body, so that you can get used to the idea that the person really is gone. Even doing the ceremony we did on the afternoon before sesshin, Paul purifying his room with wisdom water while a group of us circumambulated it chanting the Enmei Jukku Kannon Gyo, moving as it was, did not quite bring it home to me.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011


At last night's Young Urban Zen meeting, after a little gentle prodding, and perhaps in the interest of gaining a few more readers, Shannon acquiesced to my outing her blog, which I had happened across after she left a comment on one of these posts. As with the Zen Beginner, I find it enormously helpful to have other people's perspectives not only on what I do, since I play a bit part in some of the entries, but on what I take for granted, as they figure out their steps on the path to being Buddhists.
At more than one Way-seeking Mind talk, I have heard people from more traditional religious backgrounds describe the relative difficulty of outing themselves to their parents as gay and outing themselves to their parents as Buddhists. For me the question "Am I a buddhist?" was less contentious than "Am I a monk?" - I think the only person who ever asked me if I considered myself a Buddhist was my sister-in-law who is more inclined to ask questions than anyone in my more immediate family.
I don't think I have told the story here about how I spent my tangaryo at Tassajara composing haiku in my head about the very limited number of things that were happening and the many reactions I was having to them. I thought of this again after sesshin as one participant recited for us a haiku she had come up with. One of the better tangaryo haiku was around the observation I had had during oryoki - the servers would approach the tan, and in the curving reflection of their silver pot, I could see a line of people in robes, who sure looked like monks. And so I started thinking that maybe I was a monk - or at least going through the process of becoming one. Obviously the haiku version is shorter than that.
One important part of this equation though, was that I was living in a monastery. It followed that I was a monk. Here in the city, I don't describe myself as a monk, and I find it a little dissonant to read of the residents as monks, or to read about this temple as a monastery as I just did elsewhere. I could just be leaning on semantics, but I think it has a lot to do with what City Center is about. We are here to offer the teaching to everybody, in a formal setting; we are not so internally focused as we would be at Tassajara in the winter, although it may seem that way to the visitor. Having just emerged from the Tassajara-style schedule of the intensive to our more usual spacious and work-oriented days, I am certainly noticing the difference.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Blowing My Own Trumpet

Apart from going to the zendo, and Young Urban Zen this evening, I think I can take the rest of the day off. I am certainly looking forward to this, and it gives me a chance to work on some other stuff: in the kind of self-promotion that I like to claim I am loath to undertake, I will mention that there is an opening this Friday at 6:30, for my art show, which I have not managed to hang yet, but which is supposed to be in the City Center Art Lounge this month. Please feel invited to come if you want to hear me blather on about the pictures.
Recently I have been wondering what I will do when I no longer have this blog as an outlet, and decided to start a photo Tumblr, so if you find that you enjoy the photos here more than the dharma stuff, and I suspect there are a few of you, or if you are unable to visit the art show in person, which I imagine would be the case for most readers, you can check out some pictures here. I haven't actually put most of the pictures in the show up there yet, but they will appear in time. So far it has mostly been a case of me trawling through my archive of digital pictures from the past five years and pulling out images that speak to me, or that I am fond of for some reason, in a fairly random fashion.
This is the photo that I used for the art show postcard:

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Flotsam and Jetsam

It is invariably true that there are many more things that float around in the mind of sesshin than end up washed on the shore when it is all over, which is why I often don't feel like writing much after sesshin is finished. Among the myriad things that came my way from elsewhere: notes about drains, earplugs, serving crews, protocol, the one-day sitting, illnesses, absences. Internally, I had some spacious time on day two, but otherwise there were a lot of details to take care of for today's one-day sitting, and for a while yesterday I got kind of grumpy when I felt other people weren't doing certain things in a way that I found helpful or supportive.
I was going to articulate some of that in the shosan that we concluded with this afternoon, but Paul jumped in with a question for me almost before I had opened my mouth - he knew what had been going on, and wanted to stop me leaning on it. But by then it was feeling old anyway. And I got my own back at the end of the ceremony when he was thanking people, and expressed his appreciation for how I had been trying to make order out of everything. "Trying?" I cut in, a little archly.

As I have discovered at other times in the community, a reputation, once gained, is hard to shed. On the first morning of sesshin, I saw a package with my name on it outside the front office. Inside, an envelope had a quote from the sesshin admonitions: "Between meals, try to eat exclusively what is offered by the kitchen". On the card was written "Today the kitchen is offering chocolate", continued inside with "The Tenzo invites you to enjoy one chocolate for each day of your sesshin.  Additional chocolates are provided for the days when two chocolates are necessary in order to be...one who is wise, who seeks the good and has obtained peace". There was with this a very fine, even artisanal, selection of chocolates. I haven't figured out who this gift came from: the writing is different from other cards I have received recently - I don't think it was the tenzo either - though the references to both the admonitions and the Loving Kindness Meditation, which we have just looked at in Young Urban Zen, would seem to narrow the field down somewhat.
I can report that I managed not to succumb to that particular temptation, and that two more chocolate offerings appeared today as well, only one of which I have eaten. There was chocolate cake for the final dinner to boot, of which I have saved an extra portion for after my bike ride tomorrow. This is what remains at the end of sesshin.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Sesshin Begins Now

A typically full day of preparing everything for the five-day sesshin. The admonitions are read, I think I have done everything that needs to have been done today - except put the talks up, sorry. I shall be glad to settle into silence. If I get the chance.