Thursday, May 31, 2012

Back In The Present

I would like to say that it feels great to be back, but the realities of trans-Atlantic holidays being what they are - helped along by a combination of waking up earlier than necessary in London yesterday and a three-hour delay at Heathrow which meant I was awake for twenty-four hours, and then only sleeping for five hours before my body decided it was the middle of the morning rather than the middle of the night - I feel something less than sparkling. It was of course lovely to be greeted by everyone at breakfast, and to start telling stories. I just hope I last the day.
Overall it was a splendid trip. I had some logistical vexations, with my bank card, the rented car and phone, and with Boris bikes on occasion, but I got to see the people I had hoped to see, spent much time 'chillaxing', to use the ugly mot du jour over in England, and best of all, the weather was mostly gorgeous.
Personally, I was very happy with the retreat - which seems long ago already. I was very graciously hosted by Francis and Bernadette, and pleasantly surprised with the turn-out: there were twelve people the first day, and sixteen the second, and mostly people with a lot of practice experience, so our discussions on the Tenzo Kyokun were pretty rich. There was a nice amount of sitting as well, and it was of course completely gratifying to be doshi for a short service before lunch where everyone's pronunciation in the Heart Sutra was the same.
This is a picture of the group at the end of the second day - and if you are counting heads, a couple of people had already left by then.

We did a few posed shots as well, but I like this one better

There was some minor controversy over the fact that I allowed for a break in the schedule to watch the Olympic flame go by; I had been told when I arrived that this was the biggest thing to happen in Totnes for some time, and there certainly was a festive atmosphere in the town after lunch on Sunday. Seeing as the torch was due to go right by the building, and most people were excited to see it, I decreed that we could have a long period of kinhin, and if people wanted to leave they could. The minority view, I think, was that a retreat should be stricter than that... It has to be said that the whole country was getting quite feverish about this, the Queen's Diamond Jubilee and the games themselves - quite similar to my last visit during the early, optimistic days of the World Cup, but perhaps more cheerful this time.
Naturally there are about a thousand photos I have to sift through in the coming days, but here are a few examples, just so you know - if you are not reading over in Europe - that I was not exaggerating about the weather.

The sun was not out in Totnes, but it is a charming town, and the cows were very friendly when we went to visit them

May greens in England - this is the road to my dad's house in Cornwall

One of several nice places to sit and read in my dad's garden

Walking in Hereford with my mother on Sunday morning, and the very particular colour of the earth there

I had twenty-four very happy hours in Paris on Monday, which involved sunshine, bikes and food

Covent Garden in London on Tuesday - the bunting is out in full force now

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Back To The Archives 15

Rounding off this dredging operation, an entry about generosity and the paramitas, the theme of the current pratice period. On the Saturday before I left, Nadia set me up nicely for this part of my announcements: she caught my attention and told the assembly that she had found a wallet in the hallway. I continued, while you are all checking that you have yours....
A double helping of photos today, since I had uploaded a whole bunch for this extended exercise. The first is a continuation from yesterday, a little open stretch of the Marble Cone trail that runs along Willow Creek, about a mile or so east of Starlight Meadow. The second, a different view in several ways, is from Hawk Mountain, loking east over to Junipero Serra peak, the hghest point in the picture, and indeed in the whole area. If you can make out the Indian Stations road cutting across the hillside in front of that peak, the first photo was taken some way below that, between that hill and the one in front of it. As you can tell, I liked to get about when I was there.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Back To The Archives 14

Reminiscences from Tassajara today from the archive, accompanied by another photo that makes me feel peaceful just to look at it. The stand of trees in the foreground is called Starlight meadow, and can be found right where the lower Horse Pasture trail meets Willow Creek. To take this picture, I had crossed Willow Creek, presumably on the way to the Horsebridge and Arroyo Seco, and was looking all the way back up the Horse Pasture trail.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Back To The Archives 13

A more light-hearted post for today as we enter the final stretch of vacation auto-posting. All being well, this should appear on Memorial Day, and I should be in Paris...
This picture has very relaxing connotations for me, as it is down the creek right before the second Narrows, where I used to regularly hike on my days off in the summer to get some quiet sunning and swimming in.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Back To The Archives 12

I was interested to read this post again, more than a year after it was written.
More on the creek theme for the photograph, albeit much more colourful than the last. I called this picture May Greens, as the new leaves were so sumptuous, though I can imagine the creek was not so warm to be hiking in, as I undoubtedly was to get this picture some way down below the Narrows.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Back To The Archives 11

Just in case any of you are missing Study Hall, here is an entry from 2010.
Another trail running photo, and if you are sharp-eyed, you will notice Brian ahead of me in the undergrowth. This may have even been the same run, since this is the upper part of Willow Creek, near the Horse Camp, where the trail sticks close to the water, and we are about to come to the far end of the Tony Trail for the long climb back home.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Back To The Archives 10

Rewinding the clock twelve months or so, here is another aspect of the ino's life.
Pictorially, we are still in the Tassajara Trails folder, but on slightly firmer ground than yesterday - as you can see from the picture, I do mean slightly firmer. When I was just back at Tassajara, I kept hearing what a great state the Tony Trail was in, all the way up and most of the way down the other side. It was transformed greatly by the fire, and I didn't get to see how the regrowth was this year, but the trail itself was always fairly narrow and precarious. Brian and I ran it fairly regularly, and this was one of the sections that required more mindfulness, and just plain trust that you would not lose your footing on the leaves and loose silt.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Back To The Archives 9

Getting people to stay in the zendo for kinhin is a constant struggle for the ino and the tanto; we have been discussing it again recently, and I brought it up at the residents' meeting before I left. Here are my related thoughts from a couple of years ago.
Today's photo combines the themes of the previous few - wildlife and the creek at Tassajara. I was always happy to find a newt, either in or out of the water. This one was particularly happy to be doing whatever it is that newts do. It's not exactly a YouTube kitten video, but still very cute.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Back To The Archives 8

Today's read is from about eighteen months ago, but I find I still refer to some of the ideas I brought up there. The photo is of the Tassajara creek, way downstream from the Narrows, almost at the point where it flows into Willow Creek. There are some spectacular spots along the way. On this occasion I think I was hiking back from Arroyo Seco and the Horsebridge, and the creek was the nicest, if not the quickest, way to get back.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Back To The Archives 7

Heading back just about a year, to something written during my last vacation, for today's archival offering.
More Tassajara wildlife, though of the less threatening variety. This is a checkerspot butterfly, one of the many kinds to be seen in the mountains, and not the most common; this one was out on the Tony Trail.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Back To The Archives 6

The vacation auto-posting continues with a little navel-gazing from the archive.
I am continuing with the Tassajara photos theme, though this one is a little different. I came across a number of rattlesnakes in my time there, mostly on the trails, but a couple of times I was called on to remove some from close to the bathhouse - with a long-handled tong-like device. I had a closer encounter than this one in my first summer, but on this occasion I happened to be running out on the Horse Pasture with my camera. I had jumped over a snake more than once on that part of the trail, which zig-zags down from the Flag Rock ridge to the Horse Pasture itself; this snake was next to the trail and I heard it rattle after I had gone by, so I stopped at a safe distance to record its disgruntledness at having been disturbed; I have some video footage too as it made its way across the trail to the other side to disappear into the undergrowth.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Back To The Archives 5

Another post from my first months as ino, wherein I am looking back even further.
From the Tassajara Road photo archive, we get a little closer to Tassajara. This is just up the road from the spring and the reservoirs, and obviously autumnal. It may not be New England, but Tassajara can be pretty spectacular when the leaves start to turn.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Back To The Archives 4

Today's archival post seems a little cute now that I have actually been through the whole process, but it still gives me a chuckle to read it again
This photo was taken in almost the same place as yesterday's, but at the end of a summer's day.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Back To The Archives 3

Today's slightly-less-than-random pick from the archives is one that has been looked at a number of times, but will probably stil be helpful to some - the glossary.

The photo is one from the Tassajara Road folder. This is the amazing view from the nameless ridge from which the descent into Tassajara starts. This picture was taken after a town trip during practice period; I came back in as the sun was going down, and the sky was richly coloured by a fire that had been burning in Morgan Hill, some eighty miles to the north.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Back To The Archives 2

When I did this before sesshin, it was easy enough to dip into the archives and pull up a post that seemed interesting. This time around I was a little more systematic, and read through a lot of old posts that I had rather forgotten about. That is not the case with this one, but I hadn't looked at it for a while, and I got to enjoy it all over again.
Of photos, however, there is no shortage, and they are all going to be Tassajara-related. Indeed this one ties in with the post - the bare patch of hillside to the lower left, and the fold of land to the right of that are the same as pictured in the fourth pair of photographs. This viewpoint - pre-fire of course - comes from the top of Hawk Mountain, from where you get dizzying views in all directions. I always liked how much of the Horse Pasture trail you could make out from there.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Back To The Archives

I thought I would repeat the exercise from sesshin, as nobody came and complained about it last time. So, a trip into the archives and a photograph each day. And if, as happened when I was in Tassajara a couple of weeks ago, the auto-scheduling fails to kick in, at least this time I will probably notice before I get back to San Francisco after Memorial Day, and get to rectify the situation.
Today, the very first Study Hall post, which, according to the page stats, has only been viewed three times before.
For the pictures, I have been plundering the Tassajara parts of my archive folders. This picture is called 'postcard view', as it is one of my attempts to duplicate Dan Howe's famous picture from the seventies, which is sold in the Stone Office as a postcard. It took me more than a year just to figure out where he had taken it from, and a little longer to actually get there myself - I won't say where it is exactly, but somehwere in the vicinity of Flag Rock, and I certainly wouldn't recommend the off-trail section of the hike to anyone. Having said that, my first foray to the spot did not produce a picture that satisfied me, so, during my next stint at Tassajara, armed with a digital camera this time, I undertook the same expedition, and came back with this shot. Still not as rich as the original.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Out Of Office

One seasonal feature I forgot to mention in the last post is that the zendo has been positively festooned with members of Young Urban Zen recently; several each morning, and a good handful in the afternoons. I counted at least a dozen in attendance during Steve Weintraub's excellent dharma talk this morning, and managed to rope most of them into doing nenju.
Now it's not often we get to re-do a ceremony. I guess doing the Full Moon Ceremony on the roof is somewhat equivalent - and I am toying with the idea of having the next one, on the 5th of June, up there as well. But it came up this week that perhaps we should try doing nenju in the Buddha Hall instead of the dining room. So I sat down and rewrote parts of the script for the ceremony, incorporating some things that happen at Tassajara as well, and Rosalie and Wendy, as the practice period leaders, with a few tweaks and suggestions, gave it the thumbs up.
Of course as they say, the proof of the ceremony is in the doing, so there was slightly heightened anticipation as the time drew near.  I had roped in Konin, my new head doan, as the new combined umpan player/doan, and took the kokyo spot myself as I usually do for the first nenju of the practice period. I definitely noticed how different it was to do the dedication right in front of the lovely Buddha statue in the Buddha Hall, and the acoustics seemed more favourable, though I still didn't get the pitch right. During the jundo people seemed more reverential, maybe due to the space, and after the hosan and the 'joyful' big bells, we had a nice semi-formal exit. The consensus was a general thumbs up; the ceremony felt more at home there than in the dining room.
And with that, and the newcomers' table, I started my vacation. More or less. I still have a few loose ends to wrap up, though not as many as I thought I would have yesterday afternoon, when both printers, one thumb-drive and one network connection all seemed to conspire against me by failing to co-operate. I will also do the morning schedule on Monday when we will have leaving ceremonies for Shindo and Yuto, both of whom we will be sad to see going, but then I am off, leaving for England on Tuesday afternoon.
So I am feeling a little excited, but mostly nice and relaxed. This is being helped by the fact that Lucy left me in charge of feeding Paul's cat over the weekend, while she is also away, so Azure and I are currently keeping each other company, and I am discovering that a lap cat and a lap-top are not so compatible. Yesterday I had study hall en plein air with her, in the back yard, which was a first.

Hopefully not jumping the shark with cute kitten photographs; I was studying as well, honest
Finally, just to note that it is my twelve-year arrival anniversary today, a date which seems to have become more significant since I first really thought of it two years ago. Twelve years is the amount of time I spent living in London before I came here, so half my adult life has now been spent here, a quarter of my whole life. At the risk of signing off with a cliche, it does go to show that you never can tell.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

In The Zendo

This week, with the warm weather we have been having, I have been musing that it would be nice to do a photo-montage of zendo styles a la Bill Cunningham of the New York Times. Black robes are, naturally, still very much to the fore, if not as de rigueur as they are at Tassajara, but we have been seeing a profusion of lighter colours, pastel shades, thinner fabric and shorter trousers.
Since we don't get to take pictures of the zendo with people in it, here is a shot from after breakfast yesterday.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Venerables - Afternoon Edition

In the previous post I did not include the detail that Hoitsu and Shungo Suzuki were in the building last night and this morning - on their way to Colorado for their third Mountain Seat of the year already (this may be another record). As Daigan commented this morning, it was quite a sight to have them and Reb sitting in the student lounge, where the doors were wide open to let in the morning sun, and since they were about to leave, I ran to get my camera.

Blanche, Christina and Reb

Shungo, Reb and Hoitsu

All of the above plus Yuto, who is acting as jisha and interpreter


I used to somewhat facetiously rank the importance of Zen Center events by how many abbots were in attendance (for the sake of simplicity, abbots here is an umbrella term which includes abbesses and senior dharma teachers). For instance, Greg and Linda's wedding, which I think was seven years ago, at about this time of year, was a four-abbot event - and that was obviously impressive enough for me to have retained in my mind in the intervening period. Since then, Lou's funeral and Christina's Mountain Seat ceremony have been the nec plus ultra events, according to this ranking system.
Of course we have more abbots now than we used to, and it is sometimes possible these days in the city to have a three-abbot table at breakfast or dinner, which can make for wonderful conversation. Yesterday I was asked to help set up a recording in Abbot Steve's apartment for a conversation that will form part of our fiftieth anniversary celebrations, and having done that, it occurred to several people that I should come back with my camera at the end of the meeting to record the occasion visually, which we did by possibly breaking the world record for the number of abbots on a single sofa:

From left to right: Steve, Blanche, Mel, Linda Ruth, Christina

The abbots were concerned that they didn't look sufficiently dour and tried to rectify this
It happened that yesterday was Blanche's birthday, and it was much celebrated: we sang to her at the morning work circle, and at a special dinner in her honour. She got flowers, cake, mochi, and a day spent in meetings... I think that she also had her first session with Lydia, and is proudly announcing that she has her own personal trainer now.

Blanche with birthday flowers

And since I notice a little worry in myself that people might find this a touch flippant, I think it is my way of expressing how wonderful it is to be able to live intimately with such elders of American Buddhism, who are grand and ceremonial when they need to be, and completely down to earth the rest of the time.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Study Hall

Ahead of leaving for England, a week today, I have put aside Katagiri Roshi in order to read up a little on the Tenzo Kyokun. Currently I am ploughing through From the Zen Kitchen to Enlightenment - Refining Your Life, Uchiyama Roshi's commentary on the Dogen text. It's been a while since I read any Uchiyama, and I am enjoying his robust and down-to-earth expositions: "Sawaki Roshi used to use the expression, 'Live the Self that fills the whole Universe'. When we see the words universe, or world, or all sentient beings, we are apt to think that this means we should meditate on our awareness expanding in some large space in the way a balloon expands when filled with air. But that is not what the roshi meant. Life must take the form of living activity, and the Tenzo Kyokun teaches us that the Self inclusive of the whole world is nothing other than the very things, people or situations that we presently encounter and know, and helps us to discover our lives through these things, and in turn, pour all our life ardor back into them...
Zenis often thought to be a state of mind in which you become one with your surroundings. There is an expression which says that mind and environmet are one. Enlightenment is understood as falling entranced into some rapturous state of mind in which external phenomena become one with one's Self. However, if such a state of mind were the spirit of Zen, then one would have to still one's body in order to achieve it, and never move. In order to do that, a person would have to have a considerable amount of spare time with no worries about where the next meal was coming from. What this would mean, in effect, is that Zen would have no connection with people who have to devote most of their time and energies just to making a living".

Felt like we needed a sky picture - from a few days ago as we transitioned into the current hot weather

Monday, May 7, 2012

Comings And Goings

It was not just another Monday morning in the zendo today. Since it was the first morning of the practice period, we had a bigger crowd than we have had recently, and that subtle sense of people finding their places and beginning to settle. Also, as the sun began to shine through the windows on the east side, we had a departing student ceremony for Steven.
Steven and I were ordained together, along with Trevor, just over three years ago; his devotion to practice was always clear, but he has been having a tough and painful time of late. Christina spoke very movingly after the jundo, and it is hard to encapsulate what she said, mainly because you could hear how heartfelt it was, but it was to do with how sometimes you have to let go, when your dream, something you have put great effort into over many years, is not manifesting in the way you thought or wanted it to, and that by letting go, there is the possibility that it will appear in a different form. It was a reminder that none of his efforts have been in vain, and that the effect of them still resonates.

Friday, May 4, 2012

The Wholehearted Way

A couple of weeks ago the Thursday morning Young Urban Zen study group polished off Meditation in Action, and we ambitiously decided to tackle some Dogen next; the translation of Bendowa, The Wholehearted Way, by Shohaku Okamura and Dan Leighton was the choice. Amazingly enough, Bendowa has made but one appearance on this blog so far, but I noticed how happy I was to pick it up again. Having gone through the introduction in the last two sessions, this week we began with the text itself. Hearing the first few paragraphs read aloud - several times to allow for their density to unravel a little - I felt both energised and completely relaxed, reconnected with how Dogen's articulation allows my faith in practice to come alive and be grounded in my body. So, what better way to take a leap into the weekend?
"All buddha-tathagathas have been simply transmitting wondrous dharma and actualizing anuttara samyak sambodhi for which there is an unsurpassable, unfabricated, wondrous method. This wondrous dharma, which has been transmitted only from buddha to buddha without deviation, has as its criterion jijuyu zanmai.
For disporting oneself freely in this samadhi, practicing zazen in an upright posture is the true gate. Although this dharma is abundantly inherent in each person, it is not manifested without practice, it is not attained without realization. When you let go, the dharma fills your hands; it is not within the boundary of one or many. When you try to speak, it fills your mouth; it is not limited to vertical or horizontal. Buddhas continuously dwell in and maintain this dharma, yet no trace of conceptualization remains. Living beings constantly function in and use this dharma, yet it does not appear in their perception.
The wholehearted practice of the Way that I am talking about allows all things to exist in enlightenment and enables us to live out oneness in the path of emancipation. When we break through the barrier and drop off all limitations, we are no longer concerned with conceptual distinctions."

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Study Hall

This passage from Each Moment is the Universe by Katagiri Roshi follows nicely from the previous extract: "Action itself is momentum. You cannot separate the two, because action puts you right in the middle of momentum. When you are right in the middle of that momentum, you can see many things coming up from the depth of existence. From moment to moment all things in the phenomenal world come up - the whole universe comes up. That is practice in action.
If you practice and penetrate this very moment, you are absorbed into the flow of that undefiled, clear, and pure activity. Then when you do something, you feel something wonderful. You cannot explain it, but this is creativity in life. It's beautiful! Everything is there, melted into your form and clear like a jewel. If you become a sportsman or artist, you can do this in a certain area of life. But in spiritual life, it must be done in every area of life. You have to create this every day, in every daily routine. That's pretty hard. But through this form of practice your life becomes mature and you can live your life smoothly in peace and harmony".

Wednesday, May 2, 2012


Naturally it is getting light earlier these days. On Saturday we didn't even turn the zendo lights on, and the warm sunlight came flooding in right at the beginning of the period. This morning it was still dark at five, but we were treated to the chirpy dawn chorus even before the han started. This was soon replaced, however, by the sound of a helicopter hovering nearby.
This is not an unusual sound in the city, but we tend to get it in the afternoon, when there is heavy rush hour traffic or a demonstration blocking the streets. I found I had a different response to the noise of the helicopter to that which I have to the waves of traffic passing down Oak Street. I used to have the same response to a garbage truck that would park half a block away during morning zazen and sit for some time with its engine idling, at a low frequency that seemed to reverberate around the whole zendo. It can be summed up in the phrase, "Why don't you go away?" Of course this put me in mind of the famous clip of Suzuki Roshi, and I sighed internally at my resistance and inability to just allow the sound to be there with me.
I am not sure what the helicopter was there for this morning; I certainly am not going to be tuning into a television station to find out. I was thinking during zazen of the weekend activity across the city, where a large section of elevated roadway leading to the Golden Gate Bridge was being demolished. It was a big story here for several days; everything seemed to go smoothly, and when I rode past the area on Sunday morning, the scale of activity was most impressive. According to the news stories, people living nearby had no problems with the noise of the demolition crews, but there were complaints about the media helicopters overhead. Thinking of this, I get to feel justified in my annoyance this morning, and to formulate ideas about why it isn't necessary for the helicopters to be there, or how there should be a time limit on them hovering in one place. But now, listening to noisy rush hour traffic passing by the building several hours later, I can easily say to myself that the helicopters have a job to do, that it is something you can't even try to control. At the time, the best I could do was savour the moment when I noticed it had finally flown away, and the silence seemed especially spacious and enjoyable.

I went to Doyle Drive a couple of weeks ago to photograph the transformation - these elevated sections are no longer there

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Miraculous Activity

We ran the gamut of emotions at Young Urban Zen last night. The group was much as it is most weeks - at least thirty strong, regulars, people who have been coming a few weeks, and brand new people. Often I notice how people get fidgety if they are just listening for the whole hour of discussion, but that definitely didn't happen this time.
After we had sat for thirty minutes together, and introduced ourselves, Shannon gave a very moving way-seeking mind talk, which I won't try to summarise, though perhaps she might on her blog. There was an openness in Shannon's story that invited empathy, which was palpable in the room. Equally moving, though in a different tone, was a field trip report by the Tassajara group - Mike took the floor first, then the other five painted complementary pictures of what it meant for them to be in the valley last week. These stories of cleaning, mental resistance, peacefulness, community, cars and ants were all received with chuckles and close attention. When Mike had told the group at Tassajara how it had been for him, over breakfast on the last morning we were there, it reminded me of what often happens in sesshin, where an initial struggle to settle and be present is followed by a deep open acceptance of whatever is happening.
At the end, amid all the announcements of future activities, Vanessa told us that this would be her last meeting, and thanked us all for making this a community for her over the last six months. It really felt apparent to me last night that we were a strong community, where we can be open with each other, allowing people to feel safe to express themselves and be held by others, and where openness fosters openness, acceptance allows acceptance, and people get to see the value of these practices we take on.