Monday, August 30, 2010


A couple of residents asked me today if I had got up for zazen, and I said no, I had woken up at five, but I did not get out of bed. This is interim week, and I am happy to take the week off from sitting zazen twice a day. I am also trying to make it a light work week without feeling guilty about it. One reason for this is that I had a friend stop by the ino's office last week and invite me over to the East Bay for a Saturday evening. I looked through my diary and had something happening either all day Saturday or on Sunday until October 23rd, so it is going to be a very busy time.
Today I managed to get eight talks from Tassajara onto the website, which does not completely clear the backlog I have had since the Genzo-e, but gets me pretty close. Hopefully Greg will be happy about this, as he has been encouraging me in this matter.

I also wanted to thank all the people who have been commenting on posts recently; it is heartening to know that people are reading this. I do get some nice positive feedback in person too. In fact the other day, after writing about my robes, when I went to the zendo for afternoon zazen, after I sat down I noticed that Roger, the doan for the session, seemed to be looking over from the next seat as I arranged my robes. When I was just about settled, he rubbed my koromo sleeve and we both had big smiles on our faces, without anything needing to be said - another intimate moment.

Sunday, August 29, 2010


Posture adjustments are a focal point of my practice at the moment. I discussed with Jordan a while ago the possibility of doing them, and he was all in favour. I had my first opportunity to try them out as part of the Beginners' Sitting a couple of weekends ago. Since it was a small group sitting together through the day, I brought up the subject ahead of time, and then went round several times during the periods of zazen making small corrections. The participants seemed pretty happy with the results when we spoke at the end of the sitting, so I was encouraged to try again. It came up again this week, when I was invited to join the guest students' tea on Thursday. I had seen that one of the guest students, though young and fit, seemed to sitting more like a C than an S, if that makes sense, so I spoke to the group about my understanding of upright sitting, such as it is, and spoke of the things I pay attention to. For example, I find I can get tension around the ribcage, which seems to prevent my stomach from relaxing; with a relaxed stomach, the breath and energy flow more easily in and out of the hara. Also, I know I tend to pull my right shoulder up subtly, so I try to notice that, and I make sure my chin is tucked in a little towards my neck - this is something I notice in a lot of people, that their chin juts forward, bringing the weight of their head forward so it is not fully supported by the spine.
Anyhow, during that afternoon's period of zazen, I got up and announced that I would be going round making adjustments, and that people should indicate if they didn't want that to happen. That has actually been the hardest part for me, speaking in the middle of zazen, but people seem okay with it, at least I haven't heard any complaints yet. Yesterday, during the 9:25 period, I went round again, this time working on more people.
As I was doing it, I was very aware what an intimate moment it is, coming up behind someone in meditation and laying my hands on their shoulder, and often gently trying to lift them at the thorassic curve; I did this with some people I know well, and whom I have been sitting with for years, and others I have never seen before. I try to make sure I don't rush through the process. I know when it has been done to me, which it has been by a number of people, I have almost always felt a great benefit from the mindful and loving touch, so that is the feeling I am trying to transmit through my hands.
There was a different kind of intimacy this morning as I went out riding. As happens from time to time, the area around the bridge was closed off for an athletic event, this time a triathlon. I had read about it in advance, and approached the bridge from a different direction to my usual Sunday route. I got directed back into the Presidio by one officer, and then when I came to where I thought I would be able to cross Lincoln, there were barriers right across the road. I moved one just enough to let my bike through, and left it like that, as I knew other riders would want to do the same thing. A police officer jumped out of a nearby patrol car and shouted at me to put it back, and then when I had done so, and was riding towards him, wanted me to stop and asked me a question: "Do you think you are different from everyone else?" I was a little aggravated at the whole situation, but I was also aware that he was playing the role of authority, and as he insisted, it was all being done for my own safety (although the road was empty with not a single triathlete anywhere in sight, and I knew there would not be for some time to come). Some of you may know Blanche's story about suddenly feeling the deep connection between her and a police officer who was on the 'other side' of a demonstration she participated in years ago. I didn't have such an epiphany, but I enjoyed playing out our interaction without venting any of my aggravation, and I resisted saying in response to his first question "well of course on one level, I am unique in my karmic formations, but on another level I am aware of the intimate connections between all beings within the dependent co-arising of phenomena". I saw the officer at the same junction on my way back, several hours later, and I wondered how many other cyclists he had spoken with in that time, and whether he was enjoying his day.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Ryaku Fusatsu

Even though yesterday was cooler than Monday or Tuesday, and even though the fog was rolling in during the evening, it was very warm in the Buddha Hall for the Full Moon Ceremony last night. In fact I would venture that I was hotter yesterday than I was at Tassajara a month ago, and that is saying something. We were pretty full, as is often the case when we schedule the ceremony on a Wednesday evening (we know the full moon was actually on Tuesday, but sometimes we fudge it for the sake of the schedule), and the assembly was in fine, strong voice, being led by Linda Galijan as the kokyo, with Anna Malo the doan. I have been alternating between having new people as kokyo and doan and having experienced teams, and this was definitely the latter - I remember Linda as kokyo at Tassajara more than six years ago, when we were on the doanryo together, and I was hitting the bells, and yesterday was as faultless as always.
I have mentioned in the past about how I am bowing and kneeling right in front of the White Tara statue, and the effect this has on me during the ceremony, so I thought I would include a photograph of it. The sun was not shining this morning - the fog is back - and this is not the view I have during the ceremony, but it looked better in the photograph than a head-on view

It might seem that I am often saying something about how hot I am, and this is largely due to my robes. I am not complaining about them, because they are very beautiful, they came from Japan, and they were given to me at my tokudo. Nevertheless, the jubon and kimono are both quite heavy cotton, and as for my koromo, after the tokudo ceremony, when we were standing out in the courtyard being photographed, Paul rubbed the sleeve between his fingers and said "It's basically a plastic bag", and that is how it feels as soon as it warms up. When you add the okesa on top, that is a lot of layers to be doing prostrations in.

A third thing today is my lack of voice - this started a little bit yesterday, I could feel my throat was very dry, and this morning I was croaking more than chanting, which was an interesting experience for me, especially as I am used to being almost the loudest person in the room; I felt like a bystander at service this morning. Before work meeting, a number of us were comparing notes about feeling sick, or strange, and the amount of coughing and sneezing in the zendo this morning was widely noted. The sudden changes in weather seem to be the likely culprit. I shall try not to say very much today, which will doubtless be to everyone's benefit.

Monday, August 23, 2010


I just counted that there are 87 different doan jobs per week that need filling , and right now, I am needing to change, or looking at changing, 26 of them, which involves a certain amount of juggling, a fair amount of training, and a lot of notes and emails to make sure everyone knows what they are going to be doing. My head doan Daigan just went off to Ireland this morning with Paul, and I am relying on Charlie, who has been the afternoon head doan, to fill that vacancy. Charlie was away sitting sesshin last week, so I had to go and search for missing people and volunteers myself, which was not always easy - while the traditional zen student's response to any request is 'hai!', meaning 'yes, of course', going into the residents' lounge at five o'clock and asking people if they would be willing to be jiko for afternoon zazen did not elicit anything like that level of willingness (I am going to name no names here).
Still, for some people, a new doan job is a great opportunity to learn a new skill and enable the smooth running of the morning or afternoon schedule, and for some people there is a worry that if I move them from the job they are doing it means that they are not doing it well enough, or as just happened in one case, if I even say I want to talk to them about their doan jobs, that they have done something wrong and that I am going to scold them...


This is not particularly in the realm of the ino's duties, but in terms of the energy of the building this morning, our first visible sunrise for several weeks was very welcome. I won't try to disguise my preference for blue skies and warmth - after all, it was one of the factors in me leaving England, and today feels like an opening up, a lightening of the mood. With doors and windows open again, the building breathes.
Here is a picture taken from the dining room into the courtyard after work meeting.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Weekend Starts Here

On Saturday mornings I feel like I am on duty for six hours straight, from morning zazen through to the end of lunch; even more so when we have nenju during Practice Period.There are three events most Saturdays that tend to bring about the 'on duty' feeling, since the early period of zazen and service are usually more like straightforward weekday mornings, but after these we go on to oryoki, followed by the 9:25 period of zazen, and then the talk.
This weekend we have around fifteen people taking part in a three-day Recovery retreat, bringing their energy to the building, and I think all of them came to oryoki this morning, making it a little busier than usual. Oryoki is a very ceremonial and ritualised activity, and I know that it can cause great anxiety to some people (this is also true for those who serve - I know people who are probably executives with any number of people reporting to them and no end of responsibilities, who seem to quake in their boots at the idea of serving hot cereal to the assembly). I always enjoy watching people who are new to eating oryoki working their way through it; some of it is instinctual, and some of it definitely isn't, but I like to see people paying attention to what is going on around them, and figuring out some of the forms and signals. In the end, everyone usually gets fed and their bowls washed one way or another.
On a good Saturday, like today, I just have time for some coffee before going back to zendo for the 9:25 sitting.
I have come to recognise a number of the regulars at this sitting, often people who only come for this period. I don't know many of their names, but I am always happy to see them, especially as I know they can thread their way through the formality without my needing to help. We often have brand new people who come at this time as well; again, not everybody necessarily knows the forms, the bows on entering, which way to go, which seats are reserved, and I keep an eye on unfamiliar people as they progress to a seat. As I think I have written before, I try not to jump up and intervene, even if someone wanders across the altar, which we do not usually do, because I don't want them to feel weighed down by having done something wrong before they have even sat down....there is a fine line I continue to investigate between making people feel comfortable and welcomed by helping them, and by allowing them to find their own way. I used a passage from Suzuki Roshi's 'Not Always So' for a discussion at last weekend's Beginners' Sitting, partly to absolve myself of the responsibility of having to give too much instruction: "Rules are only needed when we don't have much time, or when we cannot help others more closely in a kind way. To say 'this is the rule, so you should do it' is easy, but actually that is not our way. For the beginner, maybe, instruction is necessary, but for advanced students we don't give much instruction, and they try out various ways. If possible, we give instruction to people one by one. Because that is difficult, we give group instruction or a lecture like this. But don't stick to the lecture. Think about what I really mean".

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Study Hall

Yesterday at dinner, Robert asked me how study hall was going. I replied that, wonderful as it was, I did not want to just keep writing about 'Realizing Genjo Koan'. This morning, however, I read this, and I could not just let it pass by:
"Because we each have different karma, each of us sees the world differently. And yet one often thinks, 'my opinion is absolutely right, and all other views are wrong'. To open the  hand of thought, or to stop discriminating, is to stop judging things solely on the basis of one's own limited views. Because any view is the product of a particular set of conditioned circumstances and experiences, we must give up seeing our own views as absolutely true...
Sawaki Roshi also said, 'people often say "in my opinion..." Anyhow, "my opinion" is no good - so keep your mouth shut!' Keeping our mouths shut does not mean we stop thinking or even stop talking. It means we try to see true reality more and more clearly and deeply as we strive to broaden our perspectives, rather than simply using words or thoughts to justify our own limited views".
Which just goes to show that what I wrote in yesterday's post was completely right.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Eat Pray Love

I just caught onto this thread on Trevor's blog, and found it engrossing. I think that as a fellow blogger I am supposed to weigh in with my opinion about this, maybe stick up for one of my dharma cousins, even if I am trying not to be so interested in my own opinions these days.
What I feel like saying is something I think I said at the Beginners' Sitting on Sunday: that practising has made me much less judgemental about other people, and that is something that hopefully decreases the suffering of all, not least my own. When I was at Tassajara, I remember clearly that Leslie would tell us residents not to think we were better than the guests who came in the summer, whatever their motivation might be - or whatever we thought it might be; in the first summer I was there, I did resent them somewhat, and then after I had been a monk (following the discussion on the link, I would say, yes, at the monastery I was a monk, but I am not now), I did not feel the same way. And I also noticed that the last summer I was there, 2008, there were a lot of people reading the book. I read it myself, and enjoyed it, as I had enjoyed her previous book, The Last American Man, both of which I found in the Tassajara goodwill, for her wry self-awareness. What did surprise me about the whole phenomenon, though, was to read that any number of people were retracing the author's steps, supposedly in order to have that same experience for themselves. And maybe that's where the crux of the argument is.

Friday, August 13, 2010

In the Great Ocean

Friday night dinner is usually more celebratory than other days of the week, not least because we have pudding, as we call dessert where I come from. Tonight was quite a contrast to the silent meals of the past seven days, and the chocolate cake definitely contributed.
In 2002 I was able to do the first Genzo-e at City Center, and it was the first time I had really thrived in a sesshin, so I have looked forward to them since then. It was a little different to do it as ino, but once we had got past the first day, when there were a few extra people sitting, everything settled down very quickly, at least as far as I was concerned. I find the schedule very amenable - it is insistent rather than gruelling. We go back to the zendo throughout the day, but we also have three hours of incomparably profound and subtle teaching. Shohaku's long immersion in Dogen means that instead of just wrestling with the dense language and often impenetrable logic, we are afforded a multi-dimensional view: which Chinese characters are used, what they mean aside from the way they have been translated, how the characters can be teased apart to reveal further meanings, which old zen stories they are used in, who is being referred to, and how Dogen takes all of that and uses it to express his own inimitable understanding, turning words and grammar on their head to indicate the fundamental point.
The sitting and the classes inform each other, and I had a spacious and rewarding week. I did not get to put aside worldly concerns completely - I had no shortage of emails to deal with, and my diary is filling up: five meetings next week, and then in the next month or so two tokudos (which I am just attending), a wedding, a jukai, tangaryo, a one-day sitting (all of which I have to help organise) and the Coming of Age programme at Green Gulch (which I am helping with this year).
I also have a big backlog of talks to put online, which bothers me more than perhaps it should, mainly because I know people enjoy and look forward to the posted talks, and also because people email me to ask when certain talks are going to appear, and I know I am not going to get through all of these so quickly (later: I found another folder of talks from Tassajara on my desktop after I wrote this, so the backlog is probably twenty talks at the moment).
Before all of that, I am going to lead the Beginners' Sitting on Sunday, and I am hoping that I have a little bit of my calm sesshin mind left to guide me through that so that I have something helpful to say.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Sesshin Begins Now


Monday, August 2, 2010

Study Hall

With the Tour de France done and dusted, and the visit to Tassajara over, I can get back to my usual study routine. I would say that Shohaku's book is the closest we get to a Zen Center literary phenomenon - almost everyone seems to be reading it or talking about it. I only managed to read the first fifty pages while I was at Tassajara, and am still trying to wrap my head around one of the important concepts introduced in the early chapters: "Everything is prajna paramita because everything is empty. Prajna is not personal, individual wisdom we can possess; rather each thing is itself reality and each thing is prajna, or wisdom".
Mako, the director at Tassajara, told me that she was reading the book to her partner Graham, the tenzo, as their bedtime reading; hearing that, I think it is safe to say that we are not in the Age of Decline.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

More Pictures from Tassajara

People asked me during the week how the photographing was going, and I said that I had taken around a thousand pictures, so at least a couple of them were going to be good. I did a preliminary sort and deleted five hundred that I didn't think I would want to see again, and then spent a couple of hours this afternoon whittling the selection down another fifty percent, for the ones that I will keep around. Here are six that I particularly liked. It does make me look forward even more to the Genzo-e, when for a whole week I won't be staring at screens all day