Thursday, 27 August 2015

Good Podcast: San Francisco Zen Centre Dharma Talks

San Francisco is the capital of Western Zen. The sangha there – the Western one; Asian residents were already practicing for over a century – is one of the oldest in the world, founded by Shunryu Suzuki in 1961. Today, most Zen teachers in this hemisphere have some connection with it, whether formal or incidental. (That's Soto teachers; Western Rinzai is less centralised, Korean Zen is bipolar – it has two power centres – and Thich Nhat Hanh's Vietnamese lineage is anchored in France.)

Today's SFZC is a freakin' 900-pound gorilla among spider monkeys, with three houses, an expansive endowment, and a giant sangha consisting largely of priests and priests-in-training. We hermits like to sneer about "enlightenment factories", but this-here really is.

On the other hand, it's nice to have a secure, established hub you know will be there tomorrow: reassuringly conservative, largely unchanging, eschewing relevance and doctrinal debate, and grinding out priests like a latter-day Ireland, who in turn produce reams of teachings for world consumption. In sum, SFZC – its history, its current role, the nature and limits of its authority – is a big topic among Zenners. Few of us exercise don't-know-mind in its regard.

But I'm not going to weigh in. Instead I'm going to direct you to their Dharma Talks podcast; for my money, one of Rome on the Bay's most valuable products. (To begin with, I don't have any money, and all of the teishos in SZFC's bottomless digital databank are free.)

The talks cover every Zen topic under the sun, in every style, as SFZC's diverse clerical corps take turns at the mic. A few of these lectures have about saved my life, when it needed saving. Others leave me more or less unchanged, but they're all useful and productive.

Anyway, dig it, brothers and sisters: there are a lot of them.

SFZC's podcast homepage includes links to such automatic delivery options as iTunes and RSS, as well an archive of the podcasts themselves – one per week right back to 2007 – for individual download.

So if you're up for 300-odd ordained-types throwing down some serious Zen, swing on by San Francisco's perpetual Teisho Slam. Whatever you need, you'll find it there.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

WW: Old brewery

(Abandoned Olympia Beer plant, built in 1906 and dark since Prohibition.)

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Patience Meditation

Ice fishing on Lake Saimaa

I've been working on patience for 50 years now.
I may never get there.

(Photo of Finnish ice fisher courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user Peritrap.)

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

WW: Downtown deer

(North Coast moment: back garden in Olympia, Washington, three blocks from the State Capitol.)

Thursday, 13 August 2015


I recently re-read a journal I kept in January 2003, during the period of my divorce. I was struck by the events and emotions it recorded, and particularly the role of meditation and Zen in helping me weather them. Although the period was one of the hardest I've traversed (and there are lots of candidates), in some ways I remember it as the best. The log, which I kept to gain insight into my mood swings (and, I confess, to have someone to talk to) ends up documenting a proven strategy for surviving adversity. So for the benefit of others in similar straits, I'd like to share a few reflections.

The first pages, written when my wife was still living with me but flaunting an affair – and getting in a lot of gratuitous cruelty on the side – are especially gruelling. (Borderline Personality Disorder. If you're married to it, run fast and run far.) I was living in the great Canadian G.A.N. ("God-Awful Nowhere"), 3000 miles from my family and friends, in a culture (Québec) that wasn't mine, with no car or income. In short, I was in an abusive relationship and there was no escape. No wonder those paragraphs are so full of angst and fear.

A litany of suffering is listed there: ghastly nightmares; medical issues; niggling terror; my wife's sneering, baiting jibes; and conversely, the odd oasis of peace and reflection. Most of the latter are associated with meditation; I had been sitting twice daily for nearly a year, and snowshoeing in the forest, during which I often meditated as well. Then, suddenly, after my wife announced the date of her departure, a marked drop in stress. Pointed insight, if only in retrospect.

The role of my growing monastic practice in enduring all of this is clear in entries such as:
Good AM meditation, followed by Zen study and tea. Sunny in my cell [a tiny room in which I barricaded myself, often for whole days]. Attitude rises. Productive day. Some sadness at night, before PM meditation. The sit was OK. Cut branches outside this afternoon. Felt very good during and after. Work helps.
Yet I took her actual leaving surprisingly hard. Surprising, I say, because I'd quite had enough of her by then; I was eager to live in a whole house, in peace, without a demon from some Buddhist parable whose personality had dwindled to just two channels: cold and screaming.

I've long since forgiven, in light of what I've learned, and no longer take the abuse personally. But I vividly recall what life was like with her. So it's interesting now to read the lines of grief and despair I wrote the day she left.

Still, the bedtime entry, last one in the log, sums it all up:
Things remained sad and shaky until I meditated at 10PM, for almost 50 minutes. Now I'm still sad, but less so.
Because the journal ends there, it doesn't detail the accruing strength and calm of the following months, due in part to the full-on monastic discipline I adopted. Nor does it record the inevitable relapses, when depression and desperation paralysed me for an hour, or a day – or in one instance, four straight days – before I took up the practice again and forged on to healing. But the seeds of that story germinate in the telegraphic chronicle of the last month of my marriage.
Things don't happen to me,
I wrote toward the end,
they just happen.
And then, in response to my wife's constant insistence that I was the source of all her unhappiness:
They don't happen to her, either.
Zen saved my butt, and not for the last time. I'm a monk today for the same reason my grandfather remained an FDR man till the day he died: not for theory or pretence or cachet, but from sheer fire-hardened memory. So if you're suffering, be assured that you're not alone. Others have been there – others still are – and there's an end to it.

In my case, the Four Noble Truths, and the practice they inspired – not just reading and reflecting, but the actual doing – were that solution. It may be for you as well. Any road, you might as well try; sitting is free.

The path is always there, regardless of trailhead. May we walk it with the Buddha's own diligence and humility.

  • Readers interested zazen [Zen meditation] will find good instructions here.
  • Zen students suffering through depression or despair will find support and companionship here.

(Detail from Winslow Homer's Gulf Stream courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art [Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection, Wolfe Fund, 1906] and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

WW: Forest fire sunset

(The fire is a few miles west of this ridge; prevailing winds brought the smoke this way, creating this bloody [and I mean that literally] sunset.)

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Enlightenment Kyôsaku

Toyokuni II - 8 Famous Views (Meisho Hakkei), Night Rain at Oyama (Maya Mountain)

Why chatter about enlightenment?
Listening to the night rain on my roof,
I sit comfortably, with both legs stretched out.


(Photo of woodblock print Night Rain at Oyama, by 二代目 歌川豊国 [Utagawa Toyokuni II], courtesy of William Pearl and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

WW: County fair triumph

(This sweet potato sprouted in a cupboard last Christmas. Instead of throwing it out, I stood it up in a flower pot. Spool forward seven months, and not only does it take the blue ribbon in its class at the county fair, but also the Growers' Choice award.)

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