Saturday, December 22, 2012

Longest Night

Perhaps the Winter Solstice wasn't the longest night in our personal 2012.  Maybe it was when a loved one died, when a child was sick, when a relationship withered, when something precious was lost or broken.  For the residents of Newtown, their longest night came a full week before the official astronomical event.

The wisdom and the comfort of the Winter Solstice is that it's nature's own reminder of the intimacy of light and dark -- like the front and back foot in walking, says Sekito's poem.  We'd find it silly to believe that only the front foot makes progress, especially since the propulsion and momentum come from the back foot.  Just so, our lives don't move at all unless light and dark are both present, waxing and waning to their own rhythm regardless of our calendared highs and lows.

Zen Master Dōgēn said not to call winter the beginning of spring.  But maybe he was wrong.  For as much as winter's long night connotes death and decay, it also invites rest and surrender to the nourishment of the dark, rich earth -- without which spring's exuberant creativity couldn't happen at all.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Eighth Day, Twelfth Month

Rohatsu Sesshin ended Saturday.  The name means “eighth day, twelfth month” – the traditional date nearly 2,500 years ago that a mid-life Indian prince woke up to all those Buddhist mainstays that we now take for granted (whether or not we understand them): suffering, ignorance, impermanence, emptiness, no-self.
The temptation, borne perhaps of our acquisitive culture, is to believe that the prince got something, and that if we practice hard enough and long enough, we’ll get it, too.  After all, he was very clear that enlightenment is the birthright of every sentient being.   But if we read the fine print of the sutras, including the Buddha’s own words, they are equally clear on one important point that we tend to overlook in our effort to get enlightened:
A Buddha is an absence, not a presence. 
This doesn’t mean the prince ceased to exist on that morning so long ago.  And it doesn’t mean that we will cease to exist when we wake up -- which is, I suspect, a major fear we have about enlightenment, however much we want it.  I won’t be me anymore!
Well, of course not.  Because what’s absent from an awakened being is greed, hate, delusion and 105 other defilements.  And since we tend to overly-define ourselves in terms of our suffering, it’s our definitions of ourselves that are at stake.  We don’t get to keep them when we wake up. 
So, we do things like sesshins for two reasons:  to practice dropping our stories (delusions) again and again, moment after moment, for days on end.  And in the space thus created to imagine what we might be like without them.  Daring, perhaps, to believe that we actually are kind, compassionate, empathetic, tranquil.  Because we’ve made some space for them to move in.  Because we like who we are when they do.  Because they are what our heart calls “I”.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

500 Lifetimes

On Saturday night, we will enter Rohatsu Sesshin, the seven-day sitting that celebrates Shakyamuni’s enlightenment.  It is said that on that penultimate night, Mara the Evil One threw at our hero (as tricksters do in most religions) all manner of temptations.  And in my favorite version of that story, the thirtysomething prince finally says to Mara, “I know who you are … you’re me.”
Exeunt delusions.
Fast forward a dozen centuries.  The old man-fox confesses to Baizhang that he guessed wrongly about how a Buddha relates to cause and effect.  Correct answer: An enlightened one is not blind to cause and effect. 
So, how long will it take us to understand that we are the cause and the effect?  That everything we put out comes back, not sent by a wrathful Judge, but simply the natural consequence of interconnectedness.  (If you doubt that concept, consider for a moment that the iron atoms in your body were made in an exploding supernova so long ago you can’t even comprehend the timeline.  You’ve had more than 500 lifetimes, by a factor inconceivable.)
The celebration of Rohatsu, then, isn’t about someone else, a long time ago in a land far, far away.  The iron atoms of enlightenment – acceptance of things just the way they are – have been available to us for … ever.  And because of that, we know in our hearts who Shakyamuni Buddha was.  He’s us. 

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Hold-Music Practice

My father died suddenly this week.  There's nothing like a heart-wrenching change in our personal universe to test our practice.  The next morning, I had made a dozen calls by 9:00 a.m.  I spent almost an hour on hold with various agencies.  Kinda hard to muster up loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and (especially) patience while those utterly annoying hold tunes are repeating for the umpteenth time, loudly.  (I'll never understand why the funeral home's hold music was heavy metal.)

But at the end of each hold, the person who took my call was, without exception, kind, compassionate, sympathetic (sans joy, of course) and patient.  And in their practice, I found my own.  They were generous - the foremost perfection (paramita) - in the way that is most helpful: they gave me courage not to soldier on, but to feel what I was feeling.  They met me there, every one of them.

The Catholic priest who happened to be the only chaplain on duty at the hospital when I arrived, fresh off the plane with my luggage still in tow, looked me in the eyes not as we normally do in conversation, but in a way that reached all the way to my heart.  I told him I was a Zen priest.  He responded just above a whisper, "Then you know how to do this."

Ours is an all-the-time practice.  Not just for when things are hard, or easy.  Not just for those times when we can find our breath.  I've forgotten how to breathe many times in the past few days, mostly because my heart can't stand to have anything going on around it right now.  I'm not capable of zazen at the moment.  But that's OK.  I don't have to do the practice, because I've discovered that the practice is doing me.  It's right here.  It doesn't leave.  It doesn't judge.  It doesn't fix.  It just holds me.  And if I've learned nothing else in 20 years of practice, I now know that I've learned to surrender fully to that embrace, and therein find the generosity to look death in the face and see it for what it is. 

Saturday, November 3, 2012


Last Wednesday evening, we fed the hungry ghosts in a ceremony called Sejiki.  We invited them in.  The Abbess made food for them.  We tried to make the Buddha Hall safe so they could come forth and eat without fear.  We put up images they could relate to.  We covered up the usual spiritual icons.  We chanted continuously for half an hour, calling them to feast.  We read their names.  All for the sake of a fairy tale, befitting Halloween.  They aren't really here, these hungry ghosts.  You can't prove their existence by anything approaching the scientific method, so they must not exist.

And yet ... have you ever felt that hole, somewhere in your chest, that seems bottomless and unfillable?  Ever had your heart cry out for solace, understanding, companionship, answers?  Ever wondered why your worth is measured not by how nourished you are, but by how much is on your plate?

Can we truly say we're not hungry?  Can we truly say that we recognize and acknowledge with deep gratitude the nourishment that surrounds us all the time?  Ironically (as many sutras point out), the root cause of spiritual hunger is stinginess -- clinging to I and mine, protecting what's ours, and clearly delineating it from what's theirs.  Fortunately, the sutras also offer a remedy: the antidote to greed is generosity, which usually connotes giving.  But there is also a generosity in receiving, in accepting the nourishment in every moment, in remembering to say Thank You, in eating what's offered. 

In his Pure Standards for the Zen Community, Dōgen wrote:
If you do not have a limited heart, you will have boundless fortune.
In 2012, we might say:
Let's stop trying to put everything on our tray, and instead sit down and eat.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Violence of Perfection

Yesterday morning in her dharma talk, City Center Abiding Abbess Christina Lehnherr noted that being busy and trying to fix things is a type of violence.  Ironically, in an earlier talk she had said that busyness is a form of laziness.   Either way, the point is the same – the greed of relentless improvement severs us from the fundamental generosity of accepting what is.  Impatience flares with our inability to achieve an endless set of perfections, particularly when other people don’t seem to be working on themselves as hard as we are.  

As if we could criticize someone into enlightenment.  
Buddhism reminds us that any type of reality is dependently co-arisen (a fancy term for messy).   There’s just too much going on for us to control it into perfection.  It’s not that we aren’t good enough, it’s that it just isn’t possible.  But we have to do something!  We can’t just sit here!
Well, yes we can.  For sixteen hours yesterday, 95 people sat in the City Center zendo in silence.   Apparently, they preferred that to any weekend home improvement project or entertainment.  They preferred to listen, witness, explore and accept whatever came up – including, perhaps, the inability or unwillingness to accept.  There in unhurried silence was the possibility to help each other negotiate our bumps and potholes rather than throwing more rocks in the road.  There was a curiosity and a willingness to ask, “Are they really doing it wrong, or are they just not doing it the way I would?”  -- a key question when our well-intended corrections cause not perfection and happiness, but anger and resentment. 
Most importantly, those 95 people decided that they could no longer go it alone.  They chose sangha over rugged individualism.   They chose to look in the mirror of other people to find their own true self.  They decided to trade in the need to be right for the opportunity to be kind and helpful.  They rejected Sartre’s “hell is other people” in favor of Rumi’s field of possibilities:
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


Last week: Three guest students arrived to experience a few days of Buddhist temple life. 

This week: All three of them decided to stay for the ten-week practice period.

What is it that suddenly shifts within us, taking us beyond a simple change of plans to a whole new itinerary?  What is it that finally has the courage to leap, after years (maybe decades) of skirting the edges?  Where does the faith come from that the chasm is now worth exploring?  Is it because we suspect there’s a garden there, a refuge, some friends?

Temple life connotes renunciation, strict schedules, unfathomable procedures, endless forms.  Yet, three people (plus the other 50 or so that were already here) just entered this life willingly!  Whatever for?

Because we're tired of our habits.  Because we have some vague sense that our routine might be making us miserable.  So we put ourselves in a schedule and a practice that’s about as far from routine as one might imagine. This brings the habits to the fore, kicking and screaming.  “I want…,” they demand.  “I’m used to…,” they yell.   But there we sit, facing a wall in quiet semidarkness while the habits rage, while the voiceover of fantasy and daydream yammers on.  Stephen Batchelor wrote:

Evasion of the unadorned immediacy of our life is as deep-seated as it is relentless.

So we sit, not fighting the habits, yet not submitting to their demands.   And at some point, the soundtrack softens, grows quiet, listens.   At some point, we discover the ease and joy of just cooperating with the way things are, rather than insisting that they conform to us.  At some point, we discover that sitting is leaping. 

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Teachers of Masters

In a span of ten days, we are celebrating several major ancestors in the Zen lineage:  Bodhidharma, who brought Buddhism from India to China; Dōgēn Zenji who took it from China to Japan; Keizan Jōkin who established major temples and monasteries, including several for women; and Shunryū Suzuki, who brought the teachings west and founded San Francisco Zen Center.  We know about them, masters all – they’re famous, and we chant their names at least once a week.

But what of those who taught them? I often wonder about the teachers throughout history who saw something in that one student, who had the key that best fit that one heart, who knew somehow that this one would, in fact, change the world.  What did Rùjing see in Dōgēn, or So-on in Suzuki?  Ekan was biased, maybe – she was Keizan’s mother, and an abbess famous in her own time for her devotion to compassion. (Bodhidharma seems to have arrived from India fully taught.)

How did these teachers inspire, what did they say to get their students to make a leap that reverberates forward a thousand years? Dōgēn tells us that “Buddhas and ancestors of old were as we.  We in the future shall be Buddhas and ancestors.”  But we don’t believe it.  We don’t believe we can affect centuries hence.  Maybe those we now call ancestors didn’t believe it, either.  But someone did.  Someone encouraged them to find their heart and speak from it.  Someone believed in them and persisted with them, not giving up, not turning away.  It’s not those teachers we remember at length.  (Rùjing’s Wikipedia citation is four sentences.)  Yet we chant their names, too. 

The next time you chant the names of the ancestors, say your own name at the end of the list.  You’ll be there one day, anyway.  Might as well try on the role of teacher and student now.  They aren’t different, you know.  As Rumi finally discovered about Shams of Tabriz:
His essence speaks through me.
I have been looking for myself!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

A Quiet Day

Yesterday, 80 residents and guests spent the day in the zendo, sitting quietly with whatever arose inside and out.  These sittings help us loosen our grip on what we believe to be true, on what we guard as “I” and “mine,” on all the ways we’ve been wronged – in short, on our suffering.  As Ani Tenzin Palmo says,
We are not bound to the wheel.  It is we who grasp it tightly with both hands.
Surrender is a hard choice, a gut-wrenching abandonment of story and control.  Yet the payoff is huge … and counterintuitive.  We suddenly discover that surrendering to the moment, letting go of fix and blame, results in options.  The acceptance of things as it is (to borrow a Suzuki-roshi-ism) opens up a treasure store of possibilities.

Sirens whined up and down the street yesterday on their way to and from unknown tragedies and calamities.  What option did we have, other than to curse them for disturbing our quiet day?  Well, how about just noticing the sound and where it landed in our body and mind.  How about sending forth the fervent wish, “May they arrive in time.”

Friday, September 14, 2012

Nourishment Departing, Arriving

This morning we said goodbye to our tenzo (head cook).  Her time to nourish us is over, for now, and she returns to her family to care for her infant granddaughter.   She met us in each moment, giving her full attention to whomever was standing before her.  And you got the feeling that she was not ignoring the pot on the stove, or the kitchen crew, or the countdown till dinner, but that her elastic field of inclusion had just expanded to envelop you.

Next week, fifteen students will arrive to participate in our fall practice period.  They have somehow managed to arrange their lives to spend 78 days returning to center, nourishing what they suspect is their true self that has perhaps been frosted by busyness and shoulds.

The opposite of nourishing is multitasking.  The working lunch does not satisfy.  When we split our attention, we attend to nothing, and competence and thorough completion lose out in favor of a To-Do list that never ends.  In the Gēnjō Kōān, Zen master Dōgen wrote what his tenzo – and ours – already knew: “Meeting one thing is mastering it; doing one practice is practicing completely.”

Friday, September 7, 2012

A Joyful Noise

Much of my first week as Ino has been delightfully consumed with training students on the drums, bells and vocals that attune us (literally) to the rhythm of our sitting and service.  There are religions of melody and religions of harmony, and from my perspective, Buddhism falls in the latter category.  Indeed, the Sanskrit word sama, translated in English as “right” (as in the Eight-Fold Path of right speech, right action, etc.) actually means “in tune.” 

To harmonize, to align, to resonate.  These are the qualities of the bells, drums and voices that come forth in our service.  Even after more than 20 years in this practice, I still break out in a smile when the assembly begins a chant somewhat tentatively, on a range of oft-discordant notes, and then suddenly without effort finds a common pitch and well-tuned harmonies – even among people who are dissonant for the rest of the day.

There is hope in those moments, an unspoken pull toward resonance that trumps the separate self.  How interesting that we so deeply fear losing our self, yet we come to harmony so quickly in chant, willing to give up our own pitch-position for the reward of being in tune.  No need for everyone to be on the same note -- harmony has a better chance of finding more matching frequencies from which we say, “Ah, yes, that’s my note!  I can belong.  I can be at home with the song in my heart.”

Monday, September 3, 2012

A New Seat

Until today, my seat in the zendo was on “officers row” -- the tan southwest of the altar that’s anchored on one end by our former Abbess, and filled in with the meditation cushions of the Zen Center officers.  Sitting in the Secretary’s seat, I faced the wall, and myself, and an old Zen conundrum about whether facing the wall is facing in or facing out.

But today I have a new seat, the Ino’s seat, which faces not the wall, but the vast expanse of the zendo, and the backs of all those people who still get to luxuriate in wall-facing.   I’m now the Ino of Beginner’s Mind Temple, and I’m feeling very much a beginner as I try to remember the ten thousand pieces of this job, the ten thousand pieces of my life that brought me to this seat.  Excitement and terror arise at this intimacy of not knowing, at this incompetence that grips my breath like a too-tight jacket.  Yet, there is also the wonder of the unknown, the shy anticipation of what might be, and the delight of the unexpected way in which, somehow, it all works. 

After decades of sitting in zendos, I belatedly realized that the purpose of meditation is not to make any progress nor to get anything done.  The purpose of meditation is to come home.  (Zen master Dōgen called zazen “the full investigation of the homeward course.”)

And I wonder:  Can we find our way home, regardless of which way we are facing?

Saturday, September 1, 2012

What Is Left Behind

It seems a long time ago now that Dana, then the Secretary, asked me if I would take on the blog as part of my responsibilities as ino. She is gone now, back to the market-place; there is a new Abbess, a new tanto, and everyone else on the senior staff that I started with has rotated to a different job in this period of time. That is the way of things at Zen Center.

This morning I put on my robes and went down to the zendo for the first time this week. Even though the schedule was optional for residents this morning, we had a good turn-out for the Full Moon Ceremony in the Buddha Hall after zazen. I had asked Martha several times before to be kokyo, and it had never worked out, so I was glad that she made her debut this time, for the blue moon; her voice sang out across the room strongly and vividly.
I sat one last time in the ino's seat for the 9:25 period - I was going to say, enjoying sitting with all the Saturday regulars, but actually there were a number of new faces today; perhaps some of these are going to be the new regulars. 
Rosalie had told me she was going to get up at the end of lecture to say something about it being my last day, and she did - apparently it went out on the Livestream as well if you want to hear what she said. I have noticed before that she always has a good knack of finding the right things to say about people, pinpointing particular qualities that stand out and bringing them to light. My karma is such that I found it more embarrassing to be standing there on the receiving end of these glowing words than just to be there making anouncements, but I felt warmly held and appreciated by everyone in the room; there was also applause, which is most unusual in those surroundings.
As happens most Saturdays, a nice group from YUZ got to hang out in the courtyard afterwards, partly organising what we are going to do on Monday, and, since I was getting into a vacation frame of mind and had the intention of not planning anything for today, I lingered with everybody after lunch much longer than is my wont, and had a sweet time with people.

There is a ceremony in one of the folders on the computer for the ino transition, which we have sometimes used; mostly it is a jundo and an invitation for the new ino to take the seat. The timing being what it is, I don't think we are going to do it this time. I will however make a transition right here after I have posted this: I will transfer the administrative control for the blog away from my log-in, and leave it in Valorie's hands.

I would like to say that I have deeply valued being offered this space to express and share the dharma and my practice with everybody, and I have been constantly encouraged and touched by all the positive feedback I have received over the last two and a half years, be it from my closest dharma friends here in the building or those of you with whom I am only acquainted through the blog. It has been a particular and wonderful sangha to have been a part of.

At times, and not just now at the end of my tenure, I have looked around and thought that the most tangible result of my time as ino will be that I got the bowing mat in the Buddha Hall replaced. It took more than a year to actually make it happen, but then I think it had been in need of doing for at least ten years. There are a few other material things that I can look around and think, I was at least partially the cause of this coming into being. For the non-tangible effects...

The truth is that I have been trying to compose this post for a couple of weeks - which would explain why it reads a little disjointed - and I know that it is impossible to be able to find fitting words to say at this moment. However, having read in Living by Vow an extract from Shobogenzo Gyoji, I think it is only appropriate to close with some words from Dogen:
"The essential point is that, in the entire earth and throughout heaven in the ten directions, all beings receive the merit of our continuous practice. Although neither others nor ourselves know it, that is the way it is."

Friday, August 31, 2012

Study Hall

As a final study hall post from me, something from Shohaku Okamura's newly-published Living by Vow, which I was naturally excited to pick up at the bookstore a couple of weeks ago:
"Usually, taking a vow is like making a promise: if we don't keep it, we feel bad, or fear that we might be punished. But vow in Buddism is not like that. It's not something we do with our intellect or shallow emotion. We vow toward the Buddha, toward something absolute and infinite. As a bodhisattva, we can never say, 'I have achieved all vows'. We cannot be proud of our achievements, because in comparison to the infinite, anything we achieve is insignificant. Each of us has different capabilities of course. If we cannot do very much, we practice just a little. There is no reason for us to feel small or to say we're sorry. We just try to be right there with this body and mind and move forward one step or half a step. This is our practice in a concrete sense.
Katagiri Roshi used the expression 'living in vow' because it sounds natural in English. I like 'living by vow', perhaps because D.T. Suzuki has this expression in his book Living by Zen. In the Japanese translation of this book, he says something like, 'All living beings are living in Zen, but only human beings can live by Zen'. Saying that all living beings - dogs, cats, plants, flowers - are living in Zen doesn't mean they abide in meditation or samadhi, but rather that they are living the reality of life as it is, or tathata in Sanskrit. Everything lives in the reality of life, in Zen; but only human beings have to make a conscious effort to do so. We devote ourselves to the study and practice of Zen, and consciously live by Zen. As Suzuki says, only human beings do this, but that doesn't mean we are superior to other beings. Because of our doubts and delusions we cannot simply live in reality. We have to consciously return to reality and make an effort to live on that basis."

Thursday, August 30, 2012


San Franciscans know that Labor Day often heralds the beginning of the second half of the summer, and we have been doing nicely with the weather this week - to the extent that I took a very short lunch break yesterday so I could finish a little early and go and sit on the beach, which I haven't done for many months.
Typically for interim week, it has been very quiet on the work front - our staff meeting lasted just an hour, and I didn't have more than a couple of emails all afternoon. All of this has left me plenty of time to be cleaning up the ino's office. When I started in the position, I made a point of going through all the closets and filing cabinets to see what was there, and to have things organised in a way that made sense to me. There was stuff I intended to take further care of - for instance, pruning the contents of the filing cabinets, so that we just had one copy of sesshin schedules from ten years ago rather than eight - but then this tended to sit on my long to-do list, pushed to the background by more pressing needs on my time and energy. Now I can finally turn to them and leave things the way I would have liked them to have been all along - I could tolerate the messiness for myself, but would not wish to bequeath it to Valorie. Kind of like decorating a house before you sell it; the new owners may still come in and do it over, but at least you have the satisfaction of having made the effort, even if you don't get to enjoy the fruits of it for yourself.
One final round of sky pictures, to note the improved weather compared to the last sequence.

Yesterday morning, with a little marine layer still visible

Yesterday evening

This morning, a little earlier than yesterday and with more fog

Yesterday evening

This morning

Yesterday evening

This morning

Yesterday evening - a good reminder that we have a Full Moon Ceremony coming up

Tuesday, August 28, 2012


There is a sweet kind of irony in the fact of my last week as ino being interim; usually I welcome these weeks as a chance to recharge my batteries in the midst of the ongoing schedule. This time I have some free time ahead, and one or two people have suggested I should be wanting to cherish being in the ino seat for these last few days. Nevertheless I am enjoying some additional sleep, and will be devoting the extra time to making sure I have a lot of loose ends sorted out for Valorie not to have to deal with.
I do also find it helpful to step away from zazen occasionally, just to notice what happens if I don't sit for a couple of weeks; it is subtle, but I do feel a difference in how I respond to things, how my brain feels; it is nice to come back to the cushion with renewed purpose, as I did after my time in England a few months ago.
Also, when the weather is co-operating, as it was this morning, I have a chance to take pictures in the morning sun before breakfast, which is revitalising in and of itself:

Looking towards the Itasonten altar

One of the dining room statues

In the dining room

In the dining room

Okay, this was posed, but I have been meaning to do a shot like this for a while

A corner of the courtyard

Monday, August 27, 2012

Study Hall

A last offering from Dogen's Genjo Koan, Three Commentaries - Uchiyama Roshi's look at the final paragraph of the fascicle, which starts:
"Zen master Baoche of Mount Mayu was fanning himself. A monk approached and said, 'Master, the nature of wind is permanent and there is no place it does not reach. Why, then do you fan yourself?' 'Although you understand that the nature of wind is permanent;' Baoche replied, 'you do not understand the meaning of its reaching everywhere.' 'What is the meaning of its reaching everywhere?' asked the monk again. The master just kept fanning himself. The monk bowed deeply."
"This is a very simple story that we can understand without much explanation. Although the wind-nature is ever present in heaven and earth, if we don't use a fan, the wind is not actualized. If we don't use a fan, we don't have wind.
I would like to use another example. We human beings can be physically alive precisely because we breathe a breath each moment, right now, right here. If we think that because we breathed a lot in the past, we don't need to breathe right now, we will die. In the same way, if we think that because we practised a lot and attained enlightenment in the past, we don't need to practise anymore, such enlightenment is already dead.
Living enlightenment is the same as breathing each moment; we arouse bodhi-mind, moment by moment, billions of times, and practice right now and right here. This is called shusho-ichinyo (practice and verification are one) or shojo-no-shu (practice/enlightenment. This is the way life is."

Sunday, August 26, 2012


When Alan and Danny first proposed the Revelation Zen evening as part of the Soundwave Festival, there was a concern that we didn't simply replicate the Bold Italic evening, although from our side of things, that was always going to be our reference point. It was another occasion to open the doors of City Center to people who don't usually come - and I heard several people saying that they lived in the neighbourhood but had never made it through the front door - and to open up our activities in a less formal and forbidding way and in completely different contexts. I was only peripherally involved in terms of organising; this meant I wasn't particularly stressed about Saturday rolling around, but I was busy all afternoon helping carry, fetch and find - tables, extension cords, the usual little things. It was almost a surprise when at 5:30 a steady line of people started flowing through the front door. Even more surprising was how quiet everyone was - at least until the music started.
We had a full Buddha Hall by the time we had got through the introductions, and David led some zazen, which segued into Marielle's performance. She started with the big bell, worked the recordings of the bell in, and then moved onto violin, with harmonies building from the deep bass resonance of the bell. I had tipped Keith off, and he was sitting right next to the bell to get the feel of it, his hands cupped around a blown-up latex glove, which I guess was standing in for a balloon as a vibration detector (just visible in the photo below).
Gretchen led as many people as we could fit into the courtyard in walking meditation, accompanying which Sean ran a whole bank of tapes, creating a wash of sound; we wrapped up with a chanting of the Enmei Jukku Kannon Gyo, during which I could mostly hear Blanche, who was luckily keeping count for me as I played the mokugyo, and as we got to the end of the chant, En came in with some increasingly processed crash cymbal leading into some pretty intense layering of fequencies and harmonies.
I deeply enjoyed all the music, and appreciated how our focus on meditative activities added an extra dimension and attention. I was also musing on the role trance music has played in spiritual activities for many centuries: it occurred to me that while there can often be noise within silence, as our minds start to chatter to fill the disquieting void, within sound, especially unstructured sound which give the brain nothing to cut up and count, there can be a real silence and spaciousness.
After which, there is always the cleaning up. Luckily, since it was past our bedtime, there was a great crew of volunteers, with special mention to Jorge, the Soundwave engineer who was on top of everything all day, and the half-dozen or so YUZ members who descended on anything that needed to be put away, mob-handed and full of energy.

Tova led a couple of tours of the building

Lien offered zazen instruction

Marielle played her violin along with the big bell

Sean acquires a peace bell halo

Sean and kinhin taken from my room

En, with special effect caused by having my hand in front of the lens before taking the picture

Friday, August 24, 2012

Coming And Going

It is always interesting to watch our expectations get confounded. This was my last weekday morning sitting in the ino seat in the zendo, so I wanted it to be a nice calm and spacious time. Instead, my alarm clock didn't go off, so I was a little groggy and rushed, the emergency light right above my head in the zendo started to flash in an unusual way, there was a smoke detector beeping periodically in the hallway somewhere, and I was handed a note that the shoten wasn't feeling well, so I had to think about a replacement.
It was also my last time bringing out the tsui-ching. Naturally I was thinking back to my first time with it, when we entered Liping as the shuso (I wasn't writing the blog then, but I reflected on it a year later). Today as well I reminded myself not to be in a rush, as we said goodbye to Konin (not for the first time, as I find this, looking for the other posts I am linking to, which also has a fuller description of the ceremony). She being quite adept, we had not discussed the form for the ceremony ahead of time, and I noticed I was a little disappointed when I came back round to the tsui-ching after the jundo to find she had turned to face Blanche. Normally, making the announcement face to face is the strongest part of the ceremony for me. My voice, which can range between fierce (my impression anyway) and soft (how I remember it with Roxie, for instance), seemed plain straight-forward this time. Vicki asked the questions, which Konin handled deftly, and Blanche gave the stirring goodbyes for us.
Senior staff were scheduled to have lunch together today, to mark the dissolution of this particular incarnation with its built-in European majority - we were saying goodbye to Konin, Rose the tenzo, who is going back to Switzerland for a year to be a grandmother, and myself. Luckily, we avoided any embarrassing speechifying, and just got to enjoy the good food and the good company.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Thirteen Conversations About One Thing

In some ways we have come full circle. These days people are asking me when my last day as ino will be - September 1st; what I will be doing during September - as little as possible, with an outing to Tassajara work period with a group from Young Urban Zen the only definite thing on my agenda;  whether I am looking forward to going to Tassajara - of course, any time I go down is something to look forward to; how long I am going for - just the three months as best as I can predict now; and what am I going to be doing when I come back - as usual, there is an idea for me, but how that will translate into reality in a few months' time is anybody's guess.
'Nowhere-else mind' notwithstanding, I have found myself recently with images of Tassajara floating into my mind, sense impressions from other times: the smell and feel of the dusty path down through the cabins before the sun comes up; the intense freshness of the morning air as we walk up to the zendo with stars overhead; the blue jays chattering as they stir and decide it is time to look for some breakfast at first light; the sound of the han or the drum dying away in the open air, with none of the easy confinement of the instruments in this building.
Naturally I was looking for some photos to illustrate this, and I found that few of my pictures are actually of the quiet corners or ordinary moments, of which there are many.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Study Hall

"According to the Zen tradition, when Shakyamuni Buddha attained enlightenment, he said, 'I, the great earth, and sentient beings simultaneously attained the Way; mountains, rivers, grass, and trees have all become Buddha.' In the Lotus Sutra, there is an expression, 'Ten directions are all within Buddha's land.' The Kanmuryojo-kyo (Sutra of Seeing Infinite Life, one of the three major sutras of Pure Land Buddhism) says, 'The light of the Tathagatha of Infinite Life (Amitabha) embraces all living beings without rejecting any.' We have already been enlightened by Shakyamuni Buddha, and are from the beginning in the hands of Amitabha Buddha, who saves all living beings without exception. This is not a matter of understanding it or not. Whether we know it or not, whether we say I don't believe in Amitabha or not, it is true. It is not a problem. The light of Amitabha embraces all living beings whether we believe it or not.
The reality of life or the 'Life of Buddha' is thus. And yet, all of us think and measure and say, 'I don't believe it.' Don't say such cheeky things! The force which makes us think that our minds are great and makes us say such cheeky things itself wells up from the power of Amitabha or the 'Life of Buddha'. We must deeply understand that whether we think so or not, believe it or not, understand it or not, venerate it or not, accept it or reject it, in whatever conditions, we are living out the formless reality of life prior to its division into dichotomies" - Kosho Uchiyama, Dogen's Genjo Koan, Three Commentaries.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012


I have said before that this blog is intentionally parochial, but I might go out on a limb here. It is a safe thing for me to do really, given the context and my 'location within the matrix of domination', as a good dharma friend just expressed it.
There have been a number of trainings in diversity and multi-cultural awareness in the years I have been at Zen Center. One exercise I remember particularly well had all the participants lined up on one side of the room. Each time a category was announced, members of the dominant, privileged group stepped forward, members of the less privileged group stepped back. I ended up a long way forward: white, male, middle class, heterosexual, English as a first language. The only backward step I needed to take was as a first-generation immigrant, though, with the cushioning of the above categories, this barely qualifies me as oppressed.
Growing up in blithely privileged circumstances, I nonetheless found myself increasingly uncomfortable at school and college with the sense of entitlement many of my peers seem to have been imbued with; I resisted being identified with the class I was born into, and tried to find my own way, starting to learn about different forms of power and oppression -  which is part of the reason I found moving to America appealing, as I was able to side-step the constricting categories of the old country.
That said, I always felt lucky to have lived and worked in London where I did; the World Service is pretty much the most culturally diverse work-place you could find. For ten years, I worked, ate, drank and partied with colleagues who came from forty or more countries - the only place I have ever been that topped that was the United Nations canteen in New York. The area I lived in was also racially mixed, lower-middle class in those days, now rather gentrified by all accounts. When I moved to San Francisco, I was quite shocked at what I perceived to be the cultural and racial divides that surrounded me - not to mention dismayed at the conversations about capital punishment, gun laws and abortion rights. I felt I had stepped back a couple of generations.
Zen Center, along with other sanghas in America, has been historically very white; there has been, and continues to be, an effort to be more welcoming, more inclusive, more diverse. We are not there yet. I take a glimmer of hope from the fact that the members of Young Urban Zen come a little closer to representing the general demographics of the city, but there is still a lot of work for everybody to do.
So why I am writing about this? A couple of my sangha friends, who work more deeply on these issues, forwarded me this piece, written after the anniversary events. I had responses to different points the author brings up, which I recognised were largely driven by defensiveness. I sat with that for a while, and then articulated them to those friends. One of them then sent me a link to this, which, along with Mushim's talk last week, has helped triangulate the conversation in a way that turned my defensiveness more towards gratitude that people are able to bring forward their stories. I was glad to be reminded that I need to listen. It is a question of mindfulness, remembering not to fall into complacency, and, here just as in other areas of life and practice, to be able to hold deeply the simultaneous understanding of difference and sameness within the whole working of reality.

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Eye Of Practice

It seems that these days most of the things I hear and study are pointing in the same direction: 'awakening moment by moment to the reality of life prior to the separation between dichotomies', as Uchiyama Roshi expresses it, or 'mind and dharma are one reality', or 'nowhere-else mind' as I think Baker Roshi put it in his talk. Part of me starts to think, "I wish I had heard this when I started to practise", but probably I did hear it; the teaching has not changed in that time, but my way of relating to it and absorbing it certainly has. I think of some of the things I used to discuss with Paul when I first started meeting him twelve years ago, and some of the things we discuss now, and it is clear that we focus on different things as we continue to practise. As Dogen puts it in the Genjo Koan, "you see and understand only what your eye of practice can reach", and part of the teacher's job is to meet you at that level. I have been thinking about the phrase 'luminous mirror wisdom' that we use quite often, in terms of the wisdom to be just a mirror.I was reading a blog post the other day where the author was grappling with rationality, mind, and reality:
"And if all the thoughts and stories in your head - as Zen seems to suggest - are equally meaningless, then so are thoughts about Zen and the thoughts of Zen.  Of course, that is a conclusion that most Zen masters would willingly accept, but it leaves them in a dangerous place, where anything can be said because everything is equally senseless. And that seems to bring Zen perilously close to nihilism, an association that [D.T.] Suzuki is eager to fend off. It's true, he says, that Zen declares that everything is empty, but what emerges when that is realized is joy in the present moment.  But isn't joy in the present moment empty too, bringing us back to nihilism?"
These are deep things to be grappling with; the way I feel this in my life now is that awareness of emptiness does not lead to nihilism, but rather a rootedness in unrootedness. There are no 'stable individual identities' as the author understands and accepts, and being able to accord with this reality does bring a certain ease and joy, which is 'empty' only in the sense it does not have a stable inherent existence, and which is often countered by the stuff our brains starts coming up with to assert otherwise. So which do we trust? The longer I practise, the less I try to listen to constructs of the mind. 'Thoughts about Zen' are basically meaningless; nonetheless they do exist as part of the reality we are experiencing. The trick is being comfortable with both of these things at the same time.
Just in case you have glazed over, some sky pictures from last week, as the sun and fog meet and balance each other:







Friday, August 17, 2012

Study Hall

I have been working steadily through Uchiyama Roshi's commentary in Dogen's Genjo Koan, Three Commentaries this week. Here are his ideas on perhaps the text's most well-known phrase:
"To study the Buddha Way is to study the self.
The self Dogen talks about here is not ego in terms of egoism. This is the self as jinissai-jiko (all-interpenetrating self) that is the reality of life prior to separation into dichotomies such as self/other or subject/object.
Previously Dogen Zenji said, 'Conveying oneself toward all things to carry out practice-enlightenment is delusion'. Although the self is originally living the all-interpenetrating self, my brain produces all kinds of non-interpenetrating thoughts. Thoughts well up such as: 'I want money!' 'I want sex,' 'I want a higher position!' and so on. When we are pulled by such thoughts secreted from our brain, that is certainly delusion. And yet, even though such thoughts are delusions, the fact that delusive thoughts come up is nothing other than a function of the reality of life connecting with heaven and earth. 'To study the Budda Way is to study the self' means that we should study the self, which includes all heaven and earth.
Concretely speaking, we should accept everything as the contents of our 'self'. We should meet everything as a part of ourselves. 'To study the self' means to awaken to such a self. For instance, many people visit my house or write me letters. Many of these people talk or write about their troubles and anguish and ask for my advice. I never feel troubled by such requests. As soon as I am asked about such troubles, they become my own. I meet people and problems in such a way. As long as I have such an attitude, these problems are my own. And they enrich my life. If I reject other people's problems saying, 'That's not my business', my life becomes poorer and poorer. Therefore, to meet everything, without exception, as part of my life is most essential to the Buddha Way. This is what Dogen Zenji meant by saying, 'To study the Budda Way is to study the self'".

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Which Way To Turn?

When people start to practise, they inevitably put a certain amount of energy on getting the forms right; more or less, depending on their character. It is easy to get obsessed about forms, or neurotic about them, or casual or even repulsed by them. Eventually people usually settle down into a more or less mindful relationship with them.
I think I have remarked before that I was very big on getting forms right, both when I started, and when I lived at Tassajara; I think it had less to do with wanting to be praised, or not wanting to be corrected or to stand out, as I have heard others mention, but more to demonstrate that I could absorb the information and remember it. I am sure I have also written here that I had expected to spend time as ino reinforcing the correct way, which has not turned out to be the case. I have simply not wanted to play 'bad cop' all the time, calling people out and wagging fingers at them, and since there are always going to be people who haven't mastered every intricacy, I have been much more laissez-faire than I would have thought possible.
This doesn't mean that I have lost interest in them. Yesterday, when Baker Roshi was doshi for morning service, I was paying attention to what he did, and was interested to note how he turned away from the altar.
Now, if you are not a form geek, feel free to skim rapidly over the next few paragraphs. If you like minutiae, here goes: there are two ways a priest can turn away from the altar after offering incense - clockwise and anti-clockwise. I saw both done before I was ordained, and found the anti-clockwise one more elegant; part of the reasoning behind that way is that you are keeping your right shoulder to the Buddha as you turn, which is something we read about in the sutras  - I don't know the exact rationale, but it was definitely a mark of respect, and to digress slightly, it may be tied in with the reason that okesas are worn over the left shoulder only: baring the right shoulder means that you are ready to help, literally you are able to lend a hand, since your right hand is not encumbered (though as an oppressed left-handed person I would beg to differ on that one).
In any case, at City Center the priests turn clockwise, and Greg asked me to do the same after he had seen me doing the other way at evening service a few times. Clockwise is the Eiheiji style, and as Blanche often remarks in such discussions, Suzuki Roshi was an Eiheiji monk. Counter-clockwise is the Sojiji style (I will not digress as to the relative importance of the two head temples of Soto Zen in Japan, but I am sure you can look it up if you are interested), and Reb introduced this form, along with one or two other Sojiji forms, some time ago for reasons I have not heard; this means that his priests at Green Gulch have adopted the form as well. I was able to let go of my preference in this case, and follow the family style.
Thus it was interesting to see Baker Roshi do a 'Sojiji turn' in the middle of service, and I wondered if I hadn't paid enough attention to his earlier turns, but then after that he did 'Eiheiji turns'. At the service review, I remarked on this with Konin, and she pointed out some of the other forms he had done, very subtle ones which in one case I hadn't even noticed, that were consistent with the Japanese forms she had been trained in.
Funnily enough, Konin and I had recently been having a little debate about another priest form: I picked up from Paul the habit of pulling up not just my okesa, but also my koromo before I sit down on a cushion; since I recently wore a hole in the kimono I received at my tokudo, I was talking with her about getting a replacement from Japan. She did not think much of this form, saying she had been trained differently. And then I saw that Baker Roshi also pulled up his koromo so that he sat on his kimono only. Since we all happened to be in the lobby after dinner on Tuesday, I asked Baker Roshi if he had picked up this form from Suzuki Roshi. Oh yes, he replied, everybody in Japan does that - Konin begged to differ.
All of which goes to show that forms are no more fixed than anything else in this impermanent world, and as I wrote the other day, the feeling behind them is as important as anything else. That said, it is cheaper to buy a new kimono than a new koromo, so I am sticking to that form.

I realise this may be a little arcane for many of you; don't worry, we will probably be back with Dogen tomorrow.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Big Bell

Yesterday I had an appointment after dinner with Marielle, who will be coming as part of the Soundwave event next Saturday, to record the big bell in the Buddha Hall. I was quite reassured when she pulled an AKG 414 out of her bag, as this was pretty much my favourite mic back in my BBC days (sound geek aside: she and I agreed that they are not quite as good as a 4038, which may have been built in the forties but remain unsurpassed).
As I sat down at the bell, I was remembering my session last year with the film crew, but this was much more relaxed, as the visuals were not important. Since we were focusing on sound, I got to focus on sound - the richness of the various combinations of high and low frequencies that each strike (there are those here who don't like this word in relation to how you interact with the bell, but it is a useful word nonetheless) will provoke, letting my attention just follow them and relaxing with the wholeness of it. I also remembered my days on the doanryo at Tassajara, when we would be encouraged to sit at the bell and sound it as many times as we wanted, to get used to its properties.
It was a lovely way to wrap up a long day, just to be present with the sound we were making. Marielle ended up running the striker around the rim, something we don't usually do here, and a surge of bass harmonics completely filled the room, a visceral experience that perhaps will be recreated on the 25th.

I immediately thought of this picture for this entry, and was a little embarrassed to see that I had used it before

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

A Big Do With A Procession

Ahead of the weekend, a few people had asked me what a zen party was like. The answer is, of course, I don't know. But we threw a pretty good one on Saturday night.
I was feeling a little tired after the morning and running some errands in the afternoon, so I didn't rush over to Greens, but by the time I got there, about 6:30 or so, the place was already full, and if you have ever been to Greens, you would know that it takes a couple of hundred people to fill the place. I knew a lot of the people there; the old timers were out in force, with some faces that were unfamiliar to me, but there was also a large contingent from Young Urban Zen as well, some of whom were volunteering at the evening, counterbalancing those who have got us this far with those who are going to take Zen Center through the next fifty years.
It was a very social time, filled with chatting, eating, drinking and dancing, with not just a DJ but a live drum troupe as well, who got a lot of people moving.
The other thing about a zen party is that it won't go on until the small hours; I ducked out at around 9:30 when my energy was starting to flag, and I heard that there was a steady exodus after that.

Robert addresses the room

The room listens to Robert

On the dancefloor

I spent most of Sunday out and about, and when I got back did not feel like doing more than the regular tidy-up, which meant that yesterday morning, instead of sitting zazen, I went up to my office right after the jundo to finish collating all the information and start gathering the things I needed.
There was a lot to do before nine o'clock, when we were supposed to start getting in the shuttle cars to Sokoji - I managed to get the altars set up, but the sound gear was proving elusive - some of it had been at Greens, and some of it had been at Green Gulch - so that part of it was making me stressed; I wasn't going to be running the sound, but I wanted at least to know that everything was in place and ready to go.
Arriving at Sokoji there was still plenty of time; everyone gathered early, and there were not so many things to take care of. I enjoyed a quiet moment downstairs putting on my bessu; otherwise it felt like I was on my feet for about eight hours straight.
None of the ceremonies were complicated or unusual, but the whole set-up was unique. I found myself on the raised area around the altar at Sokoji with Sojun Mel the doshi; four abbots and the four Zen Center officers as the ryoban; the jisha, doan and fukudo. Luckily I could hide behind a pillar while the statements were going on, but as kokyo, I had to step forward for the ekos; Steve had written them in a way that made them very easy to articulate, and my voice felt okay - I got a compliment from Baker Roshi as we made our way out at the end of that ceremony.
I was supposed to be helping marshal the procession into place, but it was always going to be a fairly fluid affair. We filled the sidewalk for a whole block, and once we got going, people were mingling with who they wanted to for much of the time. We intrigued and bemused some of our Western Addition neighbours as we made our way down the hill with a police car and motorbike holding the cross street traffic for us. It was a lovely sunny day, and I think people were enjoying being part of such an unusual spectacle.
The idea was to process straight into the Buddha Hall for the next part of the ceremony, but some of the senior members needed a break after the procession, so we had a few minutes' pause - we were always going to be running behind schedule anyway, and there didn't seem to be any need to hurry.
Again, I was right in the thick of things in my usual ino place in the Buddha Hall. The statements here were perhaps the key moment of the whole day, with Baker Roshi apologising for the pain and suffering he had caused, and Reb responding directly to him - seeing them bow together at that moment was most moving.
The final part was the dedication of the new peace bell, which I hadn't seen until the morning when it was placed on its plinth in the courtyard. I had decided that we wouldn't try to use microphones for this part, but I think parts of the crowd were straining to hear those statements.
We ended up with some final short speeches in the dining room, with a huge spread of Greens food waiting patiently for us to finish. I had arranged to meet a friend in the afternoon, so I took a little break, but then had to clean up all the ceremonial things afterwards, before afternoon zazen and Young Urban Zen in the evening. I was pretty wiped out after all of that, and while zazen was optional for residents this morning, I felt I should get up to make sure the zendo was open, so I am still feeling pretty wiped out. But this has been, I think, my final big hurrah as ino, and I am very glad to have been so involved in it.
I quite often feel that my descriptions of these big events are rather banal, but hopefully the photos will bring it to life a little more. If not, you could always try sitting through the three hours of video footage to see what actually happened.

Nadia hard at work after breakfast

Kogan rings the densho at Sokoji

The crowd at Sokoji - brown robes and dancers

Trying to get everyone in place for a group photo at Sokoji

Marcia and Johan

Lisa Eric and Robert under the parasols

Tim the jisha, Sojun, Blanche and Baker Roshi

You can never have too many parasols. Thilda blew the conch as part of the procession

Gretchen, Steve, Fu and Ed

Crossing Fell Street

Crossing Fell Street. Linda played the drum

Maggie and Lynn from YUZ carried one of the banners

Christina and Sojun

Dennis, David Chadwick, Baker Roshi, Mike Dixon and Steve in the dining room after the speeches

Dennis with Peter Coyote

Linda Ruth with Fran - who was the third tenzo at Tassajara

Rebecca Solnit

Yvonne Rand

P tries the new peace bell

Lunch en plein air