Friday, December 31, 2010

Year End Stats

Today is going to be a long day, and I have got most of the stuff together for tonight and tomorrow morning,  but I worry about already feeling tired enough that the late hours are going to be hard work. The tanto has promised that the rain will hold off to allow us to burn everything successfully - all the old attendance records, and various old sutras have been shredded in anticipation, and we have an ample supply of pencils and scrap paper for people to write down things they hope to be rid of in the new year.

I have never been a great one for resolutions or fresh starts, or for taking time to reflect back on the year gone by, but since there is probably a rule somewhere for bloggers that they have to encapsulate something for their readership, I thought I would take one more look at the stats. Okay, the novelty of them has worn off a fair amount, so my anonymous critic can have less reason to carp these days, but I still keep an eye on things just to see how the numbers are shaping up.
First of all, it is abundantly clear that most of my traffic comes directly from the Zen Center site
(really, I doubt anyone needs that link), with additional visitors from our Facebook page, so I can't really claim any credit for either the numbers or the geographic spread of the readership. The latter seems to have stabilised recently at fifty six countries, and I think I have to thank Eston for at least four of those....Stateside we are up to 41 states, and after my previous comment about the South, Alabama and Tennessee have both come on board.
The 'search words' table is always instructive - Jerome made an appearance on there recently, the Greek still pops up, and now it looks like we have Portuguese too. Perhaps a little less obviously, one former resident seems to be constantly being searched by person or persons unknown. Their name does appear somewhere on this blog, but I don't think this is quite what the searchers are looking for. I am touched by the 'shoegazing' though, even if I have never been in a band of that genre.

ino's blog 8
name of former resident 2
the ino's blog 2
"the drums" 1
blog -vegas skies 1
blog o ino 1
blog οινος 1
green gulch 1
ino blog 1
shoegazing blogs 1

More to the point, I think it is true that many people click through from Zen Center out of curiosity, and a large percentage of them never come back. I know I have some regular readers, and even a few loyal ones, so to all, in whatever category you would place yourself, thank you for visiting, and Happy New Year.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Fruits Of Practice

Sometimes people ask me how practice has changed me, and the answer I usually give is that I am a better driver these days. I know I am being mildly facetious by saying this, but it does feel like an area where I can see a concrete difference. Every morning after breakfast when I sit in my room with my coffee and try to read the good dharma, I am treated to the blowing of horns at the four-way at Page and Laguna, as well as occasional wheel squealing and other audible signs of impatience. Now of course I do not have to commute to work, and the fourteen years that I did (1988 - 2002 if you are keeping score), I did it almost exclusively by bike. And I have had some very frustrating experiences in cars in recent months - a half-hour diversion in Mill Valley due to flooding; another half-hour waiting to get through the toll booths on the Bay Bridge, and closer to home, fifteen minutes to cover the four blocks that separate Zen Center from the freeway. What I notice though, in both these situations, and in other interactions with traffic - no, please, you merge first - is that I am palpably more patient and equanimous than I used to be. Please note that this does not usually apply when I am on a bike, where the balance of power is radically tipped against me, and I can react pretty instantaneously and strongly to drivers who I feel have come too close, too fast, simply ignored my presence on their road or done something else to make me feel unsafe. Even so, sometimes I have been able to have an uncharged conversation with someone who has done such a thing, and when I haven't been able to partake in a free and frank exchange of views, I make a point of balancing the negativity around such incidents by acknowledging, again either in communication with the driver or simply to myself, all the times when I have received courteous and thoughtful behaviour from people behind the wheel. And these do, almost always, outnumber the bad incidents, though the latter tend to stick in the mind and the body longer.

Apart from the driving aspect, I find it hard to quantify any changes in the way I behave and interact with people. I know there are changes. I can think back and feel how much less self-protective I am in many situations; this might come as a surprise to some people I haven't known so long, but then I am still an introvert, and not always inclined to be sociable.
There was also something Kyogen Carlson wrote in his book 'Zen in the American Grain' which really resonated with my upbringing: "Many of our feelings come from karmic conditioning, like the tendency to sarcasm. It is a deeply significant Bodhisattva act not to pass on the unfortunate karma we have inherited from the limitless past...we can see that at every moment, as we choose either to train or indulge ourselves, we are choosing to transmit something".
I grew up in a deeply judgmental environment. It wasn't the done thing to blow your own trumpet - indeed it was infra dig to even point out that you owned a trumpet; conversely it was perfectly permissible to point out that someone else did not have a trumpet and was therefore greatly inadequate, leaving the inference hanging. So these days, even though cutting comments can still spring readily to mind in many circumstances, they don't have the same power for me; I don't find it hard to dismiss them rather than articulate them, and with that I can be present with people, and  allow them to be who they are, which always feels more connecting and less separating.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010


I am not feeling in the least bit guilty about not going to the zendo this week, and I am working on not feeling guilty about taking some comp time - I heard from Connie, my counterpart at Green Gulch, yesterday that she is taking three weeks off, which is all comp time - since we have just had three days' holiday and part of me tells myself that that should be enough lazing about, and another part tells me that I am not going to get downtime like this until the next interim.
Not least of the benefits of interim is that I have been managing to catch up on my sleep: I have tried staying up later this week, so that being up past midnight on New Year's Eve will not be such an ordeal - the last time I was awake at that hour was probably when I was in England, which doesn't count as it was a different time zone. While I am still waking up at four thirty or five, this is not entirely due to my body clock; it is the time the heating comes on, and having fixed the radiator in my room so that I have some heat, I get to hear the process, which is neither silent nor smooth, but the great thing is that I have been telling myself that I don't have to get up, and it has been working enough for me to drift back off to sleep.
We have had several 'storms' coming through, as forecast, though as I think I have said before, where I come from, we would just think of that kind of weather as a bit of wind and some steady rain, and certainly the results have not been as dramatic as the pictures and stories I have been getting from Europe, or even from the East Coast. They do, though, give me an excuse to post some more rooftop photos from the last few days, variations on the previous theme, in lieu of having any dharma activities to write about.

Christmas Eve
Christmas Eve
Christmas Day - red sky in the morning...
Boxing Day
This morning

Friday, December 24, 2010


I am tempted to paraphrase the Diamond Sutra and say that Christmas is not Christmas, so we call it Christmas. I do fully appreciate the need for cultural inclusiveness,  but I have never really adapted to the American custom of calling this the 'holiday season' - even though it sometimes seems that this is the only time Americans take a holiday. Having grown up in the Judeo-Christian traditions of Europe, I am inclined to call it Christmas even though my religious attachment to it has not extended beyond a few midnight masses and carol services over the years. I am also aware that the Christians just co-opted previously existing rites for the darkest time of the year and attached their version of holiness to it.
So Merry Christmas to all my readers. I am officially off-duty for the next few days; getting my work wrapped up this morning meant getting all the Green Gulch and Tassajara Rohatsu talks onto the website, so if you don't fancy the Queen's Speech, you can listen to Reb or Linda Ruth imparting their knowledge instead.
The picture I put up on the solstice was somewhat similar to the picture I chose for my Christmas card to friends and family this year, since it seemed as close as I could get to a wintry San Francisco scene; here is that picture, and I wish you all a peaceful time over the next few days.

Study Hall - Shobogenzo

Dogen has taken a bit of a back seat this past week, and it was nice to pick it up again this morning. Two segments I enjoyed: from 'Miracles', 'Jinzu', discussing Layman Pang's famous expression, translated here as "Miracles are nothing other than fetching water and carrying firewood", Dogen comments "Fetching water means drawing and carrying water. Sometimes you do it yourself, and sometimes you have others do it. Those who practice this are all miracle buddhas. Although miracles are noticed once in a while, miracles are miracles. It is not that things perish or are eliminated when they are unnoticed. Things are just as they are even when unnoticed. Even when people do not know that fetching water is a miracle, fetching water is undeniably a miracle". On a similar note, really, at the beginning of 'Great Enlightenment', 'Daigo', Dogen reminds us "The great way of the buddhas has been transmitted with intimate attention; the work of the ancestors has been unfolded evenly and broadly".

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Coming And Going

This is a typical time of transition at City Center - a number of residents are away visiting family, though the building does not feel so quiet as we have a handful of people up from Tassajara for their interim between Practice Periods. It is always nice to see how people are doing, to catch a little of the glow that always emanates from those who have just spent three quiet months in the mountains, and as always it brings out the little voice that says - you should go down again and do some intense practice. Actually I did receive a card from friends at Tassajara a couple of weeks ago who had heard that I might be coming down to take over as ino there - Zen Center is a great place for the circulation of the unsubstantiated...
Well the last few weeks have felt intense enough up here; there was already a certain level of activity with the practice period here, and then since Thanksgiving it has been really non-stop, with Rohatsu, Buddha's Enlightenment, the Coming of Age program, Jerome's death, plus all the other ceremonies and meetings, live-streaming and getting talks online, and of course just keeping the zendo running.
The doanryo has been somewhat improvised this week - last night we were missing the doshi, jiko, doan and kokyo, but luckily we had some of the 'old faithful' non-resident doans to fill the gaps. This morning I think only the shoten and the light-up chiden were in their regular slots, everyone else was substituting for someone who was away or sick - and everyone did a fine job too. This evening, no doshi, jiko, fukudo or doorwatch. We managed with a combination of subs - one resident who was unfortunate enough to be leaving her room on the Holy Hallway just as I was thinking I needed to address our doan shortage; a Tassajara priest who was in the small kitchen and could tell I was after something before I even put on what I call my 'ino's voice', which is when I address someone by name with a particular questioning tone so they know I am about to ask them to do something; finally one of the 'old faithfuls' again, who was one of the first people through the door as I was standing there, and who offered before I could even ask.
In the end we had four priests at evening service - a guest visit from my esteemed predecessor, also up from Tassajara, plus our visiting Japanese priest - which is more than we have had at some morning services recently. Another fine job.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Again With The Confessing And Repenting

The Full Moon Ceremony occupies an interesting space somewhere between a regular ceremony and a special one - it comes round more often than the solstice, obviously, more regularly than a jukai, say, and at a rough tally I must be getting close to having participated in a hundred of them, but it always occupies a privileged place in the calendar. We didn't have the same sized crowds for this evening as we did yesterday, but it was a very sweet event nonetheless. I especially enjoyed seeing the moon shining down into the courtyard before we started; the rains have moved on - there was a long-lasting rainbow over the city as I went out to Rainbow this afternoon - and the skies have cleared.
We were trying an experiment with the live streaming, so I was a little pre-occupied with trying to get the best out of our limited sound system before we started, as well as trying to iron the candle wax out of my okesa that had landed there during the Solstice Ceremony as I was going round lighting candles.
I am just hearing from a friend in Europe who got up especially early to tune in to the stream, and enjoyed being able to do so...the world-wide web of dharma, and sangha.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Solstice Part Two

By the time I got to the zendo this afternoon, there were already a number of pairs of shoes on the rack - it must have been the power of Facebook . We had a large crowd for the ceremony, more than I can remember seeing, and many new people, quite a few of whom came to sit first. The weather was mostly co-operative, with just a moment or two of feeling a tickling of drizzle on my head. There was also some wind swirling around the courtyard, which made the candle lighting a little more laborious than usual, and on the north side, people had trouble keeping their candles lit. But then, their neighbour would lean over and relight it for them, which was lovely in itself. It was a beautiful spectacle all in all, and I even enjoyed being kokyo, which is much harder out of doors, as your voice gets carried away in the air rather than resonating around a room. There was a flurry of help to clear everything away afterwards, in case the rain did decide to pay a visit...I feel one step closer to the holidays. Now off to rehearse the Full Moon Ceremony for tomorrow night.


There is still not as much rain as advertised, and it is just possible we will get away with doing the Solstice Ceremony outside this afternoon. It is an auspicious day, with the full moon - which we will celebrate tomorrow evening in the usual way - and the lunar eclipse. I haven't heard of anyone here staying up to watch it, but with the cloud cover it was always going to be a doubtful proposition.
This morning was beautiful - I should have kept hold of my camera after taking these, as Lucy decided that instead of having our koan class, we should all go out to breakfast, so anyone passing by Zen Center at seven thirty this morning would have been treated to the sight of five of us, in full robes and rakusus, walking down to Hayes Street to go and eat. Being San Francisco, nobody really batted an eye.

Monday, December 20, 2010

In The Zendo

I tried asking about this koan story around the dinner table, but no-one knew exactly who said what. A little internet research brought me to Wuzu Fayan, and 'Zen's Chinese Heritage', Andy Ferguson's deeply valuable book: "Wuzu made inquiries to a Tripitaka master about the nature of knowledge. To his question he received the reply, 'If a person drinks water, he personally knows hot and cold'".

Riding my bike in the rain is not my idea of unalloyed fun, and if I just followed the weather forecast, I would not go out nearly as much as I do. Today the forecast was showing a 90% chance of rain right through the day. For a cyclist this is not so helpful anyway, as it doesn't say how much rain there is a 90% chance of - I would happily take a 90% chance of a light drizzle over a 30% chance of a heavy downpour. Anyway, going up on the roof after breakfast gave me the distinct impression that there was no immediate threat of rain, so I ventured forth.
I was hoping to ride out to the Bovine, but I had forgotten that yesterday, on the way back from Green Gulch, we had been diverted from the Tennessee Valley Road all the way round to the next Highway 101 access, as there was flooding right by the Richardson Bay Bridge. This morning, as I started up the cycle path from Sausalito and saw that it was still flooded, I consulted with a rider coming the other way, and he told me that he had turned back at the bridge as it didn't look rideable. I opted to take a turn around the Headlands instead, and while it was not as satisfying, I was out for a couple of hours, and the only wetness came from residual streams running over the road surface in places.

At Green Gulch over the weekend we did the first of two overnights with the Coming of Age boys' group. The weather was not too kind to us, and we adjusted our activities accordingly. We had set ourselves up very snugly in the Wheelwright Center, and  several of the boys were handy at setting a fire in the stove. The plan was for us to sleep in the zendo, but one or two boys asked why we didn't just sleep where we were, as we were so comfortable. There was a good reason to sleep in the zendo, and it was borne out by events - the boys, who normally manage to be as fully boisterous as a group of twelve year-olds can be, became very quiet once we were inside. Without Jim and I really needing to say very much, the atmosphere of the room, the Buddha field built up over forty years of sitting, did its work. The night was distinctly peaceful, at least until the wake-up bell started at five twenty, which was quite a shock for them...

This afternoon, towards the end of zazen, someone came to the entrance of the zendo and paused. I indicated with a gesture that it was fine for him to come in, but he shook his head gently, and stood at the threshold. Little by little he shifted his stance until he was just inside the room; I noticed that I had a slight physical reaction to this unusual nearby presence, but I sensed that his attitude was one of respectful curiosity, so I did nothing else until the bell rang a few minutes later, and after I had got up from my seat, I invited him to stay for the service, which he did. Afterwards I made a point of staying by the gaitan, and I asked him if he had any questions; he sounded quite relieved to have the opportunity to ask, as he was interested in finding out more. As I left, I remembered stories of people who said that when they first came to sit, they would stay in the gaitan, sometimes for the first few weeks or even months, as crossing the threshold to the zendo seemed too intimidating. But then you just have to taste it for yourself.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Rain Stops Play

Yesterday I felt happy and liberated as I rode over to Stinson Beach and along Highway One, at the very edge of America, as I like to think of it, and through Muir Woods, with warm sun and blue skies. Today was a day when I was glad that I work in the building so I don't have to venture out into the rain, which started this morning and is due to go on until Christmas.
It seemed that not many other people felt like venturing out either. This afternoon there were eleven of us sitting, which is as sparse as I can remember, and five of us were doing doan jobs. Sitting in the zendo at Tassajara, you hear the rain beating on the corrugated metal roof. Here, you hear the interplay between car tyre and road as the measure of wetness. We had the windows shut, and the lights down low, and the heating was on; it was quite snug.
Actually it was 'one of those days'. I had calls during the late afternoon from the scheduled doshi and kokyo, both of whom were detained at work and wouldn't make it. When I went to check on the zendo at five twenty, there was no doorwatch and no fukudo, and I know the Friday doan is sometimes late...Luckily the afternoon head doan was there to be at the door, and the fukudo arrived in the nick of time for her debut on the han. When I came in as doshi, the doan was also there. During zazen I realised that I should play to our strengths - I had the fukudo become the kokyo for service, and I was going to have the jiko double up as fukudo, but the head doan, who doesn't like to be kokyo but was gamely stepping up to do it, gladly moved over to be fukudo, and even with such small numbers, we had a rousing service.

Thursday, December 16, 2010


This morning Jerome leaves for the crematorium; people were sitting with him throughout the day yesterday, and after work meeting this morning we will have a ceremony for him leaving, which will be very similar to the ceremony for settling him into room 1 a couple of days ago. After that, hopefully, I will take a couple of hours off, which I have been waiting to do since Monday, and ride my bike, as it is a beautiful winter morning here, after a week of very grey weather.
The altar in room 1, with Jerome's okesa, bowls, whisk and other objects from his altar

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A Dangerous Business

Several of you were kind enough to express concern about the head wound shown after Rohatsu. As you can see below, time heals all wounds, and occasionally inflicts new ones. The latest was a shaving mishap at the weekend, which qualifies as an occupational hazard around these parts.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Complete Quiescence

Death has not made many intimate inroads into my life so far. I was with one of my grandmothers just before and just after her passing, and my much-loved step-mother's death was a pivotal element in turning me towards Buddhism, in that I started having vivid dreams about death, and was relieved to find something that gave me a complete context to deal with this.
As I have been noting these past few days, death brings ceremony; death brings administration - dealing with hospitals and wills, which many people here have been fully involved with  - and death brings reflection. This afternoon I was sitting in a car outside the hospital, waiting for Jerome's body to be signed over, looking at a metal fence and some pine trees through a raindropped windscreen, on a dreary wet winter afternoon. For all the world it was a scene from a moody film. I was trying to be present, patient and mindful, and thinking about death.
We had some wonderful help from people at the Zen Hospice across the street, who provided a vehicle to transport Jerome back to City Center, and helped prepare him for what I would still call the wake, though nobody here has used that word. After dinner, a group of us chanted the Enmei Jukku around his bed when the work was done, and then a little later there was another ceremony, attended by just the right number of people for the space, with the Ten Names of Buddha, the Dai Hi Shin Dharani, and dedications and readings taken from the 'Gyoji Kihan', led by Abbot Steve. Now people are sitting with him, as I shall soon.

Standard Observances

As I work through the ino's computer to find the ceremonies previously done on these occasions, I also take a look at the 'Gyoji Kihan', where of course everything is completely spelled out.
I don't see anything about ringing the temple bell 108 times, but I see that according to the regulations,  I should have made this announcement on Sunday evening:

I announce to the great assembly: wind and fire have pressed in
together on Reverend / Monk / Trainee,
and he/she has been unable to avoid them. You are all
invited to send off the deceased tomorrow after breakfast / after
midday meal. All except the common quarters monitor and sangha
hall monitor must be sure to attend.

I also was drawn to the statements that should be written on banners as part of the funeral procession:

Banners for Funeral of a Deceased Monk [454]

Four White Banners [346]

All things are Impermanent
This is the Law of Arising and Passing Away
When Arising and Passing Away are Extinguished
Extinction is Ease

shogyō mujō 諸行無常
ze shōmetsu hō 是生滅法
shōmetsu metsu i 生滅滅已
jakumetsu i raku 寂滅為楽

Study Hall - Shobogenzo

Sometimes reading Dogen brings on a furrowing of the brow, as I try to tease apart the sentences and the concepts. Sometimes there is relaxation, and the words flow in and out of the mind, and refresh the body. 'The Awesome Presence of Active Buddhas', 'Gyobutsu Iigi' was like the former yesterday, and I gave up on it; today, the latter. Here, with nothing added, as I don't have anything intelligent to say about them, is a selection of the words that I enjoyed:
"Do not take up the buddha measure to measure and analyze the great way. The buddha measure is one step, just like an open blossom. Do not hold out the mind measure to grope for and deliberate about the awesome presence. The mind measure is a single face, like the world...
When human calculation is small, knowledge is small. When a life span is fleeting, thinking is fleeting. How then is it possible to make calculations about the awesome presence of active buddhas?"

Monday, December 13, 2010

Unknown Territory

A few weeks ago, I wrote something about the ino's calendar, and how many ceremonies I still had to do for the first time -  I think from that list there is only New Year to go. I hadn't included funerals in that thinking, but that is going to be the next one now. I have also written about how we use ceremony and ritual to mark transitions, and this is a great example of how that happens.
This morning Michael, who was the doshi as both Paul and Jordan were taking vacation, and Dana the acting director, thought we should do a ceremony marking Jerome's transition. I was able to find a version that was done when Philip Kapleau died, and we did that for morning service. My next job was to prepare an altar for the room where the body is going to be, using objects from Jerome's altar - his okesa, oryoki and incensor, as well as book and sutras that he had, a small bell and mokugyo.
When the body arrives we will perform a small ceremony - Blanche suggested a version of the Bodhisattva precept ceremony. There will be a funeral ceremony, and a ceremony at the cremation, and probably a memorial as well, though the timing of all these things is not yet finalised.
Here is the dedication we used this morning, after we had chanted the Heart Sutra, and an extended chanting of the Enmei Jukku Kannon Gyo:

In Buddha’s diamond realm
The sun of wisdom shines without ceasing.
The sweet sound of Dharma soothes every troubled spirit
Like a draft of cooling water.
With full awareness we have chanted the Enmei Jukku Kannon Gyo.
May Buddha with infinite compassion
Illuminate this endless field

­ For our great, abiding friend and Dharma Brother Chikudo Genki Jerome Petersen
Who is passing from this world to the next.
He is taking a great leap.
The light of this world has faded for him.
He has entered solitude with his karmic forces.
He has gone into a vast Silence.
He is borne away by the Great Ocean of birth and death;

And for those who have passed beyond this life
Into the tender radiance of the heart of the Buddha.
 May they, together with all beings, realize the end of suffering,
 And the complete unfolding of Buddha’s Way 

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Great Matter

As I have heard Blanche say quite a few times, quoting Katagiri Roshi I believe, "Death is certain - time of death is uncertain". For all that we have been anticipating deaths elsewhere in the sangha, this evening Jerome, one of our oldest and most venerable residents, collapsed and died. I had seen him a couple of hours before, settled into his usual chair in the small kitchen, surrounded, as always, by a pile of newspapers and his food and drink. On Sundays he loved to read the travel sections and the book sections, squinting to see the words. I talked to him about the weather, as I often do, not knowing if he actually heard me or was just giving a stock response according to the tone of what was addressed to him.
After he had been taken off to the hospital, and pronounced dead, I was roused from my room to organise the ringing of the densho 108 times. A stream of residents, probably half the building, came downstairs, offered incense and did one prostration for every strike of the bell. I stood by with the large mala, counting off the hits. From upstairs, phone calls could be heard, arrangements being made, everyone helping out during what is usually a quiet time for the building. We will have the body back tomorrow, to sit with him before the funeral.
I am not the best person to speak about his life, but I think he had been practising for fully forty years within Zen Center, and he still led a group reading the Avatamsaka Sutra every Tuesday morning. This too, is our deep community.
This is the only picture I have of Jerome, taken two years ago, after a jukai I believe, sitting in the courtyard just outside the Buddha Hall.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Irregular Ceremonies

Last night we had a Lay Entrustment Ceremony for Marsha Angus. I was quite relaxed about this one, as we were following the format that we did with Bernd's ceremony six months ago, and also because, as I discovered then, when Michael is conducting such a ceremony, I don't have to worry about how it will go, because it will just unfold naturally.
It was an intimate gathering, mostly of old friends. As statements were made and questions asked, I appreciated that a lot of the people there had been practising together for thirty-five years, and that deep connection was very apparent, and very warm. This is one of the amazing things about the Zen Center community. I have been here for a little more than ten years, and I can still feel like a beginner sometimes.
There was a person whose presence was very strong in the room, even though she was not there - Darlene Cohen. She was invoked by Michael, Marsha and the assembly, as she approaches death, and at the same time is committed to giving Dharma Transmission to two of her students, and I was asked to include her in the dedication at the end of the ceremony. I have many memories of her from my early days here, when she was more local, and would give talks regularly. I will see if I can find a picture of her as well, from pre-digital days, as I only have three pictures of her from the past few years, and none really captures her - fieriness was the main quality invoked last night.
There is another sangha member close to death who has also been embodying this - although she was supposed to have been carried off by cancer by now, she was at the Saturday program today, looking formidably alive, and many people were glad to see her here again. This is our community, our connection and closeness, as we confront old age, sickness and death.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Study Hall - Shobogenzo

Composing an opening sentence for this in my head, I came up with: in terms of the weather, we are back to where we were yesterday morning. I realise that I would not get very far with assertion if Dogen were listening, so let me say instead that this morning's weather is completely manifesting itself, and in terms of appearances, it is similar to yesterday morning, and I will add that this scuppers my idea to take a couple of hours off and go out on my bike.
I had another crack at reading 'Buddha Nature', 'Bussho', this morning, and with a running start, managed to wade through the twenty-five pages in about an hour. It ranks as one of the most important fascicles, which would explain why Dogen placed it third in his ordering of the 'Shobogenzo'. Here is some quintessential Dogen: "Daoxin's words What is it? mean what is it? It is called what. That is the name. It makes what. What makes it.The name is it. The name is what. It is presented as mugwort tea or green tea. It is daily tea and rice". Which for some reason brings to mind the ancient sage who said, under testimony, "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is".
Once again, there is a full panoply of stories involving great teachers, all of which Dogen thoroughly deconstructs, and I find that there is nothing I can say about this. Here, then, is one of the more straightforward notions, which nonetheless speaks to what I imagine Dogen is getting at:
"The Buddha said, 'If you want to understand buddha nature, you should intimately observe cause and effect over time. When the time is ripe, buddha nature manifests'.
The words to understand buddha nature do not only mean to know it, but to practice it, to realize it, to expound it, and to let go of it...When the time is ripe means that the time has already arrived. How can we doubt it? A time of doubting also is a time when buddha nature is present to the self...This principle is self-evident. Generally, there is no time when the time has not yet arrived; there is no buddha nature that is not actualized".
Later he tells us: "You should reflect without fail on Nagarjuna's words If you want to see buddha nature, first let go of your pride. It's not that you cannot see buddha nature, but to see it, you first need to let go of your pride. Because you are complex, there are many types of pride. There are myriad ways to let go of pride, and when you do, you see buddha nature".

Thursday, December 9, 2010

A Change In The Weather

I will confess to having been pretty tired since the last entry. This morning I couldn't make it through a whole fascicle of Dogen after breakfast, though it was 'Buddha Nature', one of the more impenetrable ones - I was having flashbacks of trying to keep my eyes open during study hall at Tassajara...
Despite going to bed a little later than usual last night, I was still awake before four, which has been an ongoing legacy of sesshin. It seemed to be one of those days when things were out of kilter - I ended up running the wake-up bell, as I hadn't cottoned on to the fact that the fukudo had made other arrangements this morning. I had also forgotten to replace the door-watch for today, who left after sesshin, so I was waiting for replacements to arrive, and very few people were actually showing up in the zendo - only one of the other fukudos made it. I had already arranged to cover for the doan so she could have dokusan during second period, and the head doan was one of a number of people who signed out as having had a bad night's sleep...
I blame the weather; a couple of days of rain moved on this morning, as the photos show and the temperature went up at least fifteen degrees.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Corridors of Power

"The Holy Hallway" is another piece of City Center jargon, that won't mean much to many readers. It is the south wing of the second floor here, where you will find the dokusan room and the Abbot's office, Blanche's dokusan room and office, the tanto's office and the ino's office, as well as the echo han.
One of my favourite parts of the ino's job is heading up to the hallway before lecture to check to see if the lecturer and jiko or jisha are ready, so I can signal the doan, who will signal the shoten to start the second rolldown on the densho, which is our way of saying something is about to begin.
I have really come to appreciate sharing those few backstage moments with a teacher who is about to speak, who may be a little nervous, or very focused, or plain relaxed, especially when it has involved Paul and Lucy, as anything can happen, though it usually involves one of us getting teased. On Saturday, before the last talk of the sesshin, I found them making additions to a picture of Bodhidharma that hangs on the open door to the ino's office, before Paul asked me to take it downstairs and leave it by the platform; he presented it as part of his talk on the way we ascribe meaning to appearances - was it Bodhidharma or Santa Claus, or both?
Right before this morning's ceremony, after I had explained the intricacies of circumambulation to the assembly in the Buddha Hall, I came up to the ino's office to put on my bessu (ceremonial white footwear), and to check on the readiness of the procession, and was greeted by the spectacle of Paul appearing in a red Chinese ceremonial okesa, which definitely only comes out on the most auspicious occasions. My first reaction was "Where's my camera?", but luckily Roger, who was the jiko in the procession, had his phone with him, and this is one of the pictures he took. Members of the procession were encouraging Paul to have the hossu (ceremonial whisk) doubling up as a beard (just as it has doubled up for hair in the past), and calling him Bodhidharma, or Santa Claus, or both. Maybe you had to be there, but I'm glad I was.
Paul in the red ceremonial okesa - photo courtesy of Roger

A Big Do With Drums

Someone asked me after sesshin if there was now a lull for me, and I replied 'as if...' This morning, though, I can relax a little, as the next ceremony is not until Friday evening, so until then I just have meetings and zazen, oh, and the backlog of more than twenty dharma talks to put online - apologies if you have been feeling starved of podcasts recently, there has been a lot else keeping me busy.
Rohatsu sesshin is the time for Buddhists to commemorate Shakyamuni's great effort and achievement in sitting for seven days and eventually waking up. Today is the traditional date for Buddha's Enlightenment, and this morning's ceremony is usually done as the culmination of the Rohatsu sitting. I was glad that it wasn't this year, because although both ceremonies have a number of elements in common, today's involved more preparation than the one we did instead on the last morning of sesshin, the Annual Suzuki Roshi Memorial.
I seem to remember reading in 'Crooked Cucumber' that it was fitting that Suzuki Roshi died during Rohatsu, as he knew that all his students would be in the zendo sitting wholeheartedly. Certainly our seven days of sitting informed the statements of appreciation and gratitude that some of us got to make during the ceremony on Saturday morning. After all, without Shakyamuni, and without Suzuki Roshi, none of us would be practising here at Zen Center.
Today's ceremony had a very energetic feel, once we got into the circumambulation of the Buddha Hall, chanting the Maka Hannya Haramitta Shin Gyo to the accompaniment of two drummers. I have been one of the drummers on a number of occasions over the years, and the pattern, which has a number of variations, is deeply embedded in me. This year's drummers were both new, and not having got round to starting the training before sesshin, we only had two days of rehearsal to get it together. They did a great job, and at the moments where the drums faltered, the energy of the chanting was easily strong enough to carry us through. I even managed to enjoy myself as I was doing my laps of the Buddha Hall, which I hadn't been expecting to...
Another detail that had been causing me a little stress, as I hadn't been planning far enough ahead before sesshin, was using confetti rather than flower petals, to be strewn all over the Buddha Hall as we did our circumambulations. I certainly have received a lot of comments about this. The ino's notes mentioned that 500 heads of carnations was perfect, but 600 would be better...I could easily justify using paper instead, as usually happens at Tassajara, on environmental grounds, thinking of reducing, re-using and recycling (rather than having flowers which would have probably come hundreds if not thousands of miles from where they were grown, all the confetti was cut out of magazine pages from the student lounge, and it got swept up during soji right after the ceremony - as an addendum, our flower buyer told me that carnations would be being shipped from Colombia, which happens to be where she is from, although her durability is somewhat greater).
This morning is one of the times when it is usual for the ino to be the kokyo, so I got to do this dedication; this one always reminds me of Greg, as he had his own inimitably wholehearted way of doing this, which I did not try to emulate....

On this winter morning many centuries ago,
after long and patient struggle to find the truth,
a human being looked up and saw the morning star for the first time
and was set completely free, laying down his heavy burden once and for all,
realizing unsurpassable peace, heart opened wide as the sky.
And from his mouth came forth a great lion's roar:
I was, am, and will be fully awakened simultaneously with the entire universe.
Thus mountains, rivers, the great earth, and all living beings
are residing in the eye of Shakyamuni Buddha,
and Buddha's eye has become each of our bodies here and now,
dropped off, compassionate, and joyous beyond measure.

Today with deep gratitude
we celebrate this inconceivable liberation
Homage to Shakyamuni Buddha!
Homage to Shakyamuni Buddha!
Homage to Shakyamuni Buddha!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Study Hall - Shobogenzo

As I plough further into this, I start to notice more the moments where Dogen uses an unexpected turn of phrase. By which I am not talking about the way he turns language inside out, such as "Sheltering the eyes is opening the eyes within sheltering, vital eyes within sheltering, vital sheltering within the eyes" from 'Reading a Sutra', 'Kankin' - that is what we come to expect from him - but more something like "Although it is called the self, it is not bound by 'you' and 'I'. It is a vital eyeball, a vital fist". Or, from 'Old Mirror', 'Kokyo', "From wise to foolish, people are as varied and complex as the change of weather", which still sounds fresh.
As ino, I also paid attention to the section in 'Reading a Sutra' where Dogen outlines the procedures for reciting a sutra at a donor's request: "The donor receives a portable incensor in front of the hall, holds it up and enters the hall.  The portable incense burner has been kept in a communal area of the monastery. A worker puts incense into a box beforehand, sets it in front of the hall, and hands the incense to the donor at the host's signal", because it's definitely the ino who has to make sure all these actually happen...

Monday, December 6, 2010


I feel like I haven't said very much about the experience of sesshin. As was discussed with Paul during dokusan, the ino doesn't necessarily get to stay internally focused, as there is so much else happening. As it turned out, I had a fairly relaxed and spacious first few days; after that I felt quite tired, and then towards the end it was mainly very busy, and once again I felt sad that I didn't get to stay in the zendo more as I was organising the various ceremonies.
As for the silence...I accumulated large numbers of notes from many people about many things, and also had a lot of interactions. After one meal, I remained on the first floor as I needed to check in with someone, and ended up having six conversations in five minutes. I tried to minimise it from my end by deciding not to offer feedback to people about things that happened unless it really felt necessary. From the other end, there were people who didn't know what they needed to do, people who were upset with themselves as they didn't believe they were doing well enough, people who were upset with other people over various exchanges and the ramifications of them, people who were upset with me as they didn't have the information they needed, and people who just wanted to talk. There was sickness, old age and death.
One participant who was new to Zen Center complimented me afterwards on the way I handled all the people that were coming to the zendo; I replied that the people who came weren't the problem, it was the people who didn't come that caused the problems, as I had to figure who could cover their jobs and how to keep things running smoothly.

I am going to be cheeky and tack on a note about the stats - I was happy to see that the counter now stands at fifty flags, and I had to laugh when I saw that the newest flag was from Guernsey, which I didn't think would even qualify, though at least I know how to find it on the map. We are also up to thirty seven states, having picked up both Alaska and Hawaii, and I am now starting to wonder which are the missing ones - I don't think I have seen New Hampshire, but otherwise most of the gaps seem to be from the South.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

This Week, I Have Been Mostly Eating...


I know that only a handful of people reading this are going to know this reference, and not all of them are going to find it funny, but still, it came to mind.
I reread my last entry and it sounded a little dour, but then I confess that I never approach sesshin with a feeling of impending glee. And now? Well, I had ten thousands thoughts, of course, a few of which were followed by "Well I could put that on the blog", but the nature of sesshin is such that when it actually comes to it, all that stuff has passed on. Now I feel pretty glazed over, I have to admit, though there are some things I will probably write about in a day or two. We managed to tuck four ceremonies into the last thirty six hours, three of which were new to me, and that was quite a handful.
For Roger's benefit, I will post this picture - after reading the admonitions last Saturday, we went to the zendo, and as I got downstairs I realised I had left some cushions by the doshi door before dinner, when I had got involved in conversations, so I put the stuff I was carrying down by the densho, moved the cushions, and as I retrieved the stuff, rose swiftly to hit the top of my head on the open lip of the bell, which rang quietly. I noticed I had a little blood trickling down my head as I was sitting, though it didn't hurt as much as my toe did from kicking the printer earlier (and that didn't solve the problem either), so I took a picture as I couldn't see what the damage was....

This is not how you hit the densho