Wednesday, July 18, 2012


It was kindly suggested to me that I suspend the blog while the retreat is on, as part of moving towards silence, and I have no problem saying yes to that suggestion. Normal service will be resumed after August 4th. Until then, please read some Dogen.

Study Hall

It's nice to have an hour of study built into the retreat schedule, especially as it does not clash with Tour de France watching time. Appositely, I have just bought Dogen's Genjo Koan, Three Commentaries from the bookstore, so aside from chanting Uji, I am getting another fix of Dogenthink.
Here are a few of the simpler paragraphs from Nishiari Bokusan's deep commentary. He is Suzuki Roshi's dharma grand-father in a manner of speaking, in that he taught Kishizawa Ian, with whom Suzuki Roshi studied extensively - Kishizawa is not in the transmission lineage that we chant, but we have his picture in the kaisando.
"Practice is not limited to one form. Sometimes we need to go onto high peaks; sometimes we need to go into the deep ocean. It's no use to say, 'Originally, there is no one thing,' or 'not obtainable,' jumping before your feet are settled. On the other hand it is foolish to be stuck under the ladder for a lifetime by being bound by cause and effect and not knowing how to get through it.
So in practice we need to go to that place, look back at this place, go to the absolute, look back at the relative and continue taking years and years to examine by asking, 'What? What?'
Now each of these pursuits in your practice will become integral to the self. There is no way to practice without the self. This is the guide post for practice in our school. this is the point...
Practice always requires two separate dharmas, which are subject and object. But as long as there are dualistic views of subject and object, that is not Buddha dharma. When the subject and object disappear and have no affairs to attend to, the self is the self and myriad dharmas are myriad dharmas, and nothing gets in the way. We need this today. Being free from subject and object, when we meet people, even hundreds and thousands of people, we have no hindrance and have freedom within the self. Whether we  meet people who are disturbing or attractive, it doesn't matter. When this is not practiced, it is difficult to enter the paths of various beings and save them."

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Time Being

Today's offering from the second half of Uji:
''The time-being of all beings throughout the world in water and on land is just the actualization of your complete effort right now. All beings of all kinds in the visible and invisible realms are the time-being actualized by your complete effort, flowing due to your complete effort. Closely examine this flowing; without your complete effort right now, nothing would be actualized, nothing would flow. Do not think flowing is like wind and rain moving from east to west. The entire world is not unchangeable, is not immovable. It flows."

Monday, July 16, 2012

Time Being

We are underway with the retreat, easing our way into an unfamiliar schedule. People have been asking me lots of questions about what is happening, and I don't always have the answer. Great time for everyone to practise with don't-know mind.
For noon service, we are chanting half of Uji per day (throwing in the Loving Kindness Meditation a couple of times during the week as well). This is an ambitious thing to do, given its length and legendary impenetrability, but today I found that parts of it leapt out in an unexpectedly clear way. Following on from the extract the other day, I might lift a few more sentences out, as and when. Here is a little something for you to chew on today:
"Do not think that time merely flies away. Do not see flying away as the only function of time. If time merely flies away, you would be separated from time. The reason you do not clearly understand the time-being is that you think of time only as passing. In essence, all things in the entire world are linked with one another as moments. Because all moments are the time-being, they are your time-being."

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Up A Mountain, On The Ground

Just like when I used to take myself up the road to the ridge the day after a sesshin at Tassajara, after yesterday's sitting I took myself up Mt Tam this morning; there was a similar reward as well (see the last picture here), in getting above the greyness that had been unremittingly firm in the city and had rolled damply over the road at Throckmorton Ridge, into an entirely different climate with endless blue skies above. It was still early, so the roads were quiet, and at the top of the mountain, I had three mountain hares, a lizard and a skyful of swallows for company, as well as a handful of other riders.
It is familiar terrain for me, which helps, and I had confidence in my legs, having been building up my form since I got back from England - especially having been up Mount Diablo ten days ago, which is like Tam, but more so.
There are several distinct sections of the climb up from Mill Valley, each with its particular joys and challenges; the key to a successful climb is meeting each of them appropriately, without losing a sense of how far you still have to go. There is no way up a mountain on a bike except under your own power - no-one else can get you up there. Even at the summit you are not done - the road continues, drops down and back up a couple of times, causing tricky changes in rhythm, and the final ramp up to the last car park is the steepest and hardest section of the entire climb - as it is on Diablo, only more so there.
At the top, apart from basking for a while in the warmth, there is nothing to do but go back down, which might be easier on the legs, but requires its own effort of continued concentration as you manoeuvre the bike around tight downhill corners, balancing speed and safety, and the heat turns back into cool moist air. At the bottom again, riding along the bikeway to Sausalito, everything seems flat and simple, and it is hard to believe you have just been up and down a mountain.

It's hard for me to say anything about yesterday's sitting and the beginning of the retreat. I know that Teah gave a beautiful talk, and that the group sat well together with a peaceful schedule, but I spent the day in a cloud of my own suffering. I had come to realise that I had to let go of something I had been cherishing since the end of last year, and it hurt. It was a sharp and salutary reminder that all conditioned phenomena are unreliable and unworthy of confidence, but no comfort was forthcoming. Rosalie checked in with me after lunch and kindly asked if I wanted to continue in the ino seat, but, as painful and slow as the day was in the zendo, it would have been worse not to do anything.
I was surprised, then, after this day of sitting and silence and heaviness, to wake up feeling completely grounded this morning, especially since I have been getting re-acquainted with several wee small hours of the night this past week. It was not a conscious effort on my part, but the fact of it made me feel that I had made the right decision; just like it says in all the books, letting go of desire can be the most beneficial thing, and it was so relaxing after recent striving and clinging. I am grateful that the practice allows shifts like this to manifest, whatever happens further down the road.

San Francisco from the slopes of Tam - today, only the very top of the Mount Sutro tower was visible above the fog

Likewise, the ocean was not to be seen today - one of my favourite corners of the road
P.S. Mike, this may not have been what you had in mind, but it is what came up...

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Study Hall - Shobogenzo

On my to-do list before the retreat started was to re-read Uji, since time is the subject of the retreat. I thought that this would be hindered by the Tour de France, but the internet outage on Friday morning, following the previous night's power cut, meant I had the opportunity to sit down uninterrupted after breakfast. This section seemed to sum it up for me this time around:

"Although the views of an ordinary person and the causes and conditions of those views are what the ordinary person sees, they are not necessarily the ordinary person's reality. The reality merely manifests itself for the time being as an ordinary person. Because you think your time or your time being is not reality, you believe that the sixteen-foot golden body is not you.
However your attempts to escape from being the sixteen-foot golden body are nothing but bits and pieces of the time being. Those who have not yet confirmed this should look into it deeply" - Uji, The Time Being.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Head Space

Usually I don't mind a logistical challenge, and I am well served right now with the upcoming summer retreat (which I will still tag as the intensive, as it has been known in years past). Yesterday I was busy setting up a list of participants for the one-day sitting on Saturday, along with their various requirements, alongside a similar but subtly different list of the retreat participants and their commitment levels, which I categorised as 'full', 'fullish', 'morning and evening', 'morning' and 'limited', followed by their prospects for the sesshin at the end. This I enjoyed. What got my blood temporarily boiling was trying to reformat a previous schedule - a Word document - to reflect the schedules we are going to be following. Some combination of table and column quirks on Word which, even with all the formatting marks shown, I could still not understand, made the whole thing take four times longer than it needed, and is the kind of thing that has often brought about the wish to throw the computer out of the window (if anyone has the knowledge and patience to instruct me on this at a time when I am less busy, I would be most grateful). If you look back through all the times I have written about working on one-day sittings, my mood levels on the day have depended largely on the co-operation of the technology at hand.
In the midst of this, I do find it hard to switch my attention whole-heartedly to something else - even in zazen I am often unravelling little related puzzles and remembering that we needed a doorwatch for this morning, that I should email Teah to see what she wants to do for noon service, and whether we should do the meal chants for our silent meals. Nonetheless, I also spent a couple of hours this afternoon at a meeting planning for the Soundwave concert on August 25th, which promises to be every bit as fabulous as the Bold Italic event last year.
Today I will be wrapping up the lists, and also trying to find some space to think about the ceremonies involved in the August 13th anniversary celebration, for which I might be wearing many hats - ino, photographer, sound recorder.
I was typing this before going to bed, and then the power went out in the whole block. Luckily it was not quite dark out, and a few residents were milling about downstairs wondering if there was aything we could do. Typing the end of this by the glow of my bicycle light, it seemed that going to bed was the most sensible idea.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012


San Francisco is of course famous for the singularity of its weather. There are long stretches in the summer when it can be grey all day. This week we have been starting grey and getting brighter, with the fog closing in during the evening; today the sun was out from the off. It has been warm to sit in the courtyard at lunch time, but we all know that the fog could be encroaching even to the top of the block on Page Street. Sometimes you can head west and it will start at the entrance to Golden Gate Park; other times you can be almost to the beach and suddenly there it is. Today was one of those days, though I wasn't heading to the beach, just a midweek spin on the bike to clear my head and test my legs. From Twin Peaks I could see the fog rolling over the bridge and hovering over the ocean.
I have had some strong periods of zazen this week, even though some of them have just been spent looking at emotional pain. I have also got to feel how it is when that subsides and internal energies start flowing again. The difficulties I was having stemmed from some incomplete, and what seemed to me to be unskillful, communication, and they were by and large resolved by being able to follow up and have a more open and complete conversation. I had other helpful resources as well - a dokusan with Abbot Steve, as we set the ground for practising together at Tassajara; friends to listen and sympathise; and not for the first time, Young Urban Zen: I went to the meeting feeling at a low ebb, not really wanting to show up, but having shown up, and been met by the group, and by the two people in my small discussion group, and even by the people who came for zazen instruction, I was very aware of how grounded this left me feeling, more at ease than I had been for a couple of days, though that wasn't yet the end of the story.

A 'file photo', from about a month ago, to illustrate how the fog can creep in to the city

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Gift Of Zazen

I am still struggling with finding anything worthwhile to say at the moment. I have had to spend some energy dealing with the difficulties I mentioned in the last post, and there is some settling around this today, which I am glad for.
While I was filing some of the talks I put online yesterday, I came across this in the archives, from a folder of Suzuki Roshi's talks, and it resonated nicely with some of what has come up for me in the last few days:

"I am still studying to find out what our way is. Recently I reached the conclusion that there is no Buddhism or Zen or anything. When I was preparing for the evening lecture in San Francisco yesterday, I tried to find something to talk about, but I couldn’t; then I thought of the story I was told in Obun Festival when I was young. The story is about water and the people in Hell.

Although they have water, the people in hell cannot drink it because the water burns like fire or it looks like blood, so they cannot drink it. For the celestial brings, water is a jewel, and for fish it is their home, and for the human being it is water. If you think “water is water” that is a human understanding. Although water is like fire or looks like blood for those in hell, or like a jewel for the celestial beings, or a home for fish, you may think that that is not real water, as you may think that zazen practice is real practice and the rest of the everyday activities are the application of zazen. Zazen is fundamental practice. But Dogen Zenji amazingly said, “Water is not water.” If you think water is water your understanding of water is not much different from a fish’s, a hungry ghost's or an angel’s understanding of water. There is not much difference between our understanding and their understanding.

Then, what is our zazen? Or what is water? And if zazen is not zazen, what is it that we are practicing everyday? That is the next question. Dogen Zenji says, “This is Buddha’s activity,” some activity which was given to you. Tentatively, the water is not water actually; it is something which was given to you. Our practice is not something you can understand, because it is something which is given to you. You didn’t make it; you did not invent it; the reason you can practice it is just because it was something which was given to you. This practice is possible because Buddha gave this practice to us. We do not know what it is, but because it was given to us we have to receive it, we have to accept it. That is why we practice zazen.

Now, if you understand our way in this way, whatever you do, that is the gift for you, something which was given to you and something you should accept. Because you cannot accept everything and you cannot choose everything, you have no chance to accept something when it is given to you. Even though there are various treasures, if they are not given to you, you cannot accept them. And the way to accept it is to accept it when it is given to you. You cannot say, “I will accept it tomorrow.” You cannot say, “I can accept it yesterday.” The only way is to accept it right now, when it was given to you, then tomorrow something new will be given to you. So, day by day, we practice our way, as a gift. And we accept it when it is given to us. The Buddha gives everything according to the people and the situation. When they are in hell the gift will be fire. For celestial beings the gift will be the jewel. For fish the gift will be their home. And there may be many kinds of gifts from Buddha, according to the nature of people. When you understand this there is no problem. This is how to practice our way. This is the real gift from Buddha.

Not only water, but a mountain is also a gift. A mountain is not always a mountain. To us it is a mountain, but to a bird it is home. Fuyo Dokai Zenji says, “The east mountain flowing, and the river stays.” Water stays and mountain flows. We think a mountain is something which is always staying in some certain place, but there may be some person who sees the mountain flowing and water staying. A gift is not just something we see. It looks like a mountain, or water, or cake, or something else; it looks so. But we don’t know exactly what it is. So before we understand what it is, the only way is to accept it and to practice it. That is actually true practice, or else you cannot practice our way. Even though you have built a zendo you cannot practice.

At Tassajara for almost one year we have been trying to practice our way very seriously, and the more we make our effort to practice our way, the more we are involved in big problems. There are more than forty people and they each have their own understanding of Zen, more or less. “This is Zen!” “This is Zen!” That is the trouble. Because you practice zazen you cannot practice; you cannot have Tassajara. Even though they are there they cannot do it. Why? Because they practice zazen. So I think the best way is not to practice zazen [laughter] but just to live in Tassajara, like a bird. Then you can practice zazen. Birds or badgers know what is zazen better than students in Tassajara. This happens, actually. Because we understand water is something to drink, we think water is not something to live in; this kind of one-sided understanding of our way creates many problems. So, at Tassajara, there is Tassajara’s way; here in Los Altos there is your own way; as a gift. And the only way to practice it is to receive it, just to receive it when it is given to you. This is a very important point.

Even though I say this, to make our effort to find out what is real practice is not in vain, and I am so grateful for students in Tassajara, and the students who practice in Los Altos, in the Bay Area, and recently in Mill Valley, too. They are making a big effort. We are finding out the real meaning of our practice. After making a big effort to find out what is zazen, we are almost finding out what is true zazen and why we should practice our way in this cross-legged position—finding out the understanding of our practice which was given to us by Buddha."

Lecture by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi
December 14, 1967—Los Altos, California
Published in Wind Bell Volume XXXVI, No. 1; Spring/Summer 2002

Monday, July 9, 2012

Body And Mind Of Themselves

In a life as closely scheduled as ours, any deviation from the normal routine shakes us up in its own way. Having a holiday on Wednesday made it feel like we had three consecutive weekends, and the days of interim afterwards were a chance to breathe and unwind a little, to catch up on sleep as well. It is also always nice to come back to the routine, to align with the usual patterns, and at five o'clock this morning I was happy to cross my legs on my cushion and sit upright. I could immediately feel the unfolding of some residual tensions, and then I spent a lot of the two periods present again with the emotions from the difficult situations that had caused the tensions. I had been trying to tune them out over the weekend, but they were still lingering in my body, and while they were not resolved or dissipated by sitting, I did get to feel a little more spacious around them.
Even with the extra rest, there were noticably a number of people who did not make it to the morning schedule, and I wonder what is going on for them. Everyone has their own internal dramas and their own way of dealing with them. I am glad that zazen is one of the tools we have at our disposal.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Study Hall - Extensive Record

When in doubt, there is always Dogen:
"I can remember, Yunmen asked Caoshan, 'Why don't we know that there is a place of great intimacy?' Caoshan said, 'Just because it is greatly intimate, we do not know it is there.'
Suppose this were Eihei and someone asked me, 'Why don't we know that there is a place of great intimacy?' I would just hit his face with my whisk and ask him, 'Is this knowing or not knowing?' If he tried to answer,  I would hit him again with the whisk" - Dharma Hall Discourse 217.
What do you say?

Thursday, July 5, 2012


I can only apologise for the lack of interesting words in the past few days; it feels like we are in a bit of a lull before the three-week summer retreat begins, made more concrete by Christina deciding we should have a mini-interim in the days after the July 4th holiday as a way of looking after ourselves. This does mean some more spacious and less focused time for me, and that does not bode well for the possibilities of entertaining writing.
I can report that we performed our monthly services of gratitude to Suzuki Roshi on Tuesday evening and yesterday morning, with a small knot of attendees; in both cases, the chanting of the priests in the kaisando was driving the chanting on the stairs, so I did not need to follow what was going on outside.
Yesterday was grand weather for a holiday, and I made the most of an extra day off by going on a bike ride (I know this is basically stating the obvious). I did not get to witness much of the fireworks at the end of the day, as I went to pick up a friend from the airport about the time they were starting, but I was catching glimpses of various colourful bursts around the city skyline on the way. As I reached the high point south of the city on 280, where you can look across and see the airport and the bay, I thought I saw another big array, but when I looked again, it was a large orange moon right over the illuminated buildings. Very auspicious. We did, unfortunately get tangled in the traffic jams of people leaving the waterside afterwards, which, since it was well past my usual bedtime, did strain my patience practice considerably.
Perhaps a few more recent photographs might mitigate the paucity of words.

The sun was up by the time I got to the roof yesterday

A corner of the courtyard, around the same time

The same corner from a different angle a few days ago

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Under Tara's Gaze

Despite the recent onset of the summer fog, this morning might have almost been a nicer day to do the Full Moon Ceremony on the roof. I managed to get up there for a moment after helping Kogan change out all the candles in the Buddha Hall - so that this portion of our offering is fresh, as were the flowers, from Marcia's garden. It felt milder and quite pleasant, but I was glad to see that, if the moon was still up, it was hiding behind the fog low to the west again.
I knew we were in good hands this month, with Marta and Valorie; when we rehearsed on Saturday, I told them that every month since we have started doing the Livestream, there had been at least one mistake - I guess I have in mind that one month there will be a 'perfect' ceremony that we can keep for posterity - and that the main thing was, as we always used to say in radio, just to make one mistake and not compound it. So we had a mistake this morning as well, but luckily it was just one mistake, and we carried just as strongly afterwards. I had a nice time with Tara as usual, and got warm doing all the prostrations, as usual.

The sun was up at 6:20, but was also hiding

Monday, July 2, 2012

Study Hall

Study Hall will suffer in July, with the competing after-breakfast attraction of the Tour de France, especially with the British interest this year. Here is one I prepared earlier, though, from Beating the Cloth Drum, showing Hakuin in full flow to a student of his:
"I could never understand why you had to run off by yourself to a remote province thousands of leagues from here. Never tying up with a single good companion or teacher. Never acquiring the slightest spiritual benefit from it [a first enlightenment experience] whatsoever. Just wasting your time - your most precious asset - and for what? People tell me, 'He just shifts from one beautiful spot to another', 'He's well settled, has plenty of food and good lodgings', 'He's looking for a place where he can live out the rest of his days', 'He goes and performs devotions at temples and shrines'. If that is indeed is the full extent of your religious aspiration, you are a truly doubtful sort of monk. They also say that what you really want is to spend three, five, maybe seven years ensconced quietly in some solitary retreat where you can devote yourself freely to nurturing and maturing your attainment. If that is your intention, it is equally misguided. For someone in your present situation, now is the time to make sure the seedling is nurtured and brought fully into flower. Why would you want to cling mulishly to this 'withered sitting' style of Zen, hunkered dubiously down in some hinterland, turning your mind to ash, extinguishing thoughts and feelings, blinding your wisdom, blundering your life away? Time, you will find, passes by at great speed. And you go on ludicrously wasting your time, like a young girl sewing up piles of diapers and buying mortars and pestles and other kitchen equipment before she's even found a husband. What a terrible, shameful waste."
It makes me wonder what he said to his poor students, and it is also worth noticing that he is largely contradicting earlier writings of his, which I referred to last week.