Category Archives: Musings

A New Normal

The Covid-19 infection rate in Alameda County is still increasing, even as Berkeley officials plan to reopen retail businesses, outdoor dining, religious services, and more, while they urge continuing use of face masks, physical distancing, and limited contact with people outside one’s “social bubble.”
At Berkeley Zen Center we miss the intimacy of the zendo and other community activities. In March, responding to the pandemic, BZC acted quickly to move our practice onto a digital platform. More than three months later, we have an “online zendo,” with daily zazen, a Saturday program, lectures, classes, dharma groups, day-long sittings, practice discussions, and regular all-sangha meetings. Many members are working hard to keep all these new forms going as smoothly as they are. It would take the rest of this page to name everyone involved and delineate the responsibilities they have taken on, but we do want to give a shout-out to the tech team: Judy Fleischman, Gary Artim, Laurie Senauke, and Kelsey Chirlinn, for supporting all of us in this transition.
Meanwhile the Coordinating Team—Gerry Oliva, Mary Duryee, Sojun Roshi, and Hozan Sensei—along with the Practice   Committee and Senior Students group, have begun to discuss how to make a slow transition back to face-to-face practice. We are consulting closely with BZC’s Health and Safety team, which is tracking directives from the California Department of Public Health, translating the CDPH’s evolving policies into safety and sanitation protocols for our community.
BZC is planning a careful and gradual transition to a new normal. When we do choose to restart activities on Russell Street, attendance will be limited, social distancing will be in place, and thorough cleaning and sanitation will be integral to our practice. Meanwhile, we will certainly maintain the robust digital practice created on Zoom and other platforms. No one knows what normal will look like, but, having opened the digital door and seen what it offers, we will continue to explore that space. This may well be necessary, because we have no idea how long the pandemic will last. Chances are we’ll have to continue distancing and wearing masks for in-person encounters until a reliable vaccine emerges, and maybe beyond that.
So, we will sustain Suzuki Roshi’s Zen in ways he could not have imagined. We will do this together, with gratitude to all those, near and far, who work to keep us well and creative.

Take Shelter in Practice Discussion/Dokusan

Buddha called dharma friendship, “All of the holy life.” Sitting with a seasoned dharma friend and talking about that which is close to your heart in practice and in your life is rare and precious. And it is simply what our lives in practice thrive on.

During this shelter in place time, we are less busy with the vicissitudes and “things to do” of our lives. In that quiet unfilled space, the deeper, creative and unexamined of our lives are more intimate and accessible. This can be a good time to spend time with a practice leader/ senior dharma friend to talk about what’s important to you.

Besides the Abbots, all of the senior students listed on the Practice Leaders web page are available to meet with you by phone, video-conference or in a walk. The meeting itself sets a container for an exchange, holding the light of practice for both people and touching more deeply together what might not be apparent otherwise. It can be a way to take in what different experienced practitioners hear in a question you are exploring, to connect with someone you would like to know better or perhaps be seen and see anew. Together, we bring forth the dharma when we sit and open ourselves to each other.

Meet and contact BZC’s Abbots and Practice Leaders

Who Holds It All?

When you wake up to a new and terrifying reality
When everywhere you look you see maps and charts
Displaying what feels like an inexorable progression of sickness and death
When your crops are being devoured by locusts
And you wonder if you will be able feed your children
When you look at a smoggy sky,
garbage washing up on the shore
Tearful and heartbroken about the earth’s destruction
When you awaken in the night, short of breath
Struggling to inhale
When your throat is sore, and your head feels hot
Thinking “Is this IT?”
When you’re in a hospital bed attached to multiple devices
Terrified and not knowing where you are
When you’re waiting at home for news of a loved one
When no one will answer your calls and you can’t visit
When you work in the hospital every day
Always aware of the risk of contagion
When you enter a store and feel the terror
Of getting too close to others, touching anything
When your job puts you in danger everyday
But you can’t support yourself without a paycheck
When you’re homeless, vulnerable, scared, forgotten
When you’re in an immigrant detention center
A nursing home, a home for the mentally or physically disabled
Understaffed and people around you getting really sick

Overcome by the enormity of it all
Is it possible for us to finally awaken?
To our universal interconnectedness
A connectedness of spirit, of compassion
That holds it all
Gerry Oliva
April 11, 2020


After zazen on Wednesday mornings (at 8:10 am) we will hold an ongoing well-being service.  Due to the limitations of Zoom, congregants will be muted while we each chant along with the doshi/kokyo.  If you would like to have a name added to the ongoing well-being list, send your request by email to Co-Zendo Manager Hannah Meara:

In addition, all are welcome to request a personal service for an individual when there is need for prayers for well-being or when someone has died. Hannah is also the contact person for these requests.

All-Sangha Gatherings Every Other Week

For the time being, we are holding All-Sangha gatherings on Zoom.  The meeting will last 60–90 minutes and be facilitated by a pair of practice leaders and long time students. Meetings may take a variety of shapes, including a focus topic announced beforehand and possible break-out sessions. See calendar for dates.

Meeting with a Teacher at BZC

The stable platform of Zen practice rests on four strong legs: zazen, work practice, study, and meeting with a teacher. Down through the centuries, meeting with a teacher has offered an opportunity to deepen practice, reflect on studies, and apply Zen practice to your everyday life. It is an essential part of the teachings as you develop an understanding of yourself. Master Dogen writes:

Visiting teachers to ask about the way is practicing Zen. This state of fine simplicity is transmitted from the ancients.

In the Zen tradition, dokusan (sometimes called sanzen) is a private, formal meeting between a student and an authorized teacher. At BZC, Sojun Roshi, Hozan Sensei, and dharma-transmitted teachers regularly offer dokusan, and authorized senior students—lay people and priests—offer “practice discussion,” which is similar in form and content to dokusan. Additionally, you may meet with teachers and seniors for an informal conversation over tea, or coffee, or sitting under a tree. But what happens at this meeting? Whether formal or informal, this intimate space belongs to the student. Student and teacher—face to face. Bring yourself completely into the interview room. Sit down, establish your breath and posture. When you are ready to speak, bow and begin. You may come with a particular question about practice, or with an inquiry that is not yet clear in your mind. Sometimes you may not know what to say. In that case, sit together and pay attention to what arises in body and mind. A Zen teacher writes:

The best way to go to sanzen is simply to look into your heart, to present your practice to the teacher and trust the process. How are you practicing? What is most alive for you? What do you notice? What are your obstacles, your insights? . . . Open up to new points of view.

BZC teachers welcome the opportunity to meet with you and potentially to build relationships that support students and the sangha as a whole. Feel free to talk with any of the senior students, with Sojun Roshi, or with me. Our contact information is available on the Teachers page.

—Hozan Alan Senauke

Up a Tree

The faithful girl left home at night to search
in the forest
for the tallest tree; from the top she would see
all the world clearly and things as it is.

Thorns bloodied her arms and legs, rocks
pierced her feet,
she struggled until she found the tree.
Her limbs useless, she climbed with her eyes,
her ears, her nose, her lips, her tongue,
her teeth, her heart, her lungs, her breasts,
her loins

all the way to the top. Then she saw things
clearly as it is and heard
a voice down below, a monk in brown robes,
calling up to her,
“Why did Bodhidharma come from the West?”

The faithful girl laughed when wings sprouted
from her shoulders and lifted her into the sky,
she called to him as she flew higher,
“Because they could!”

—Benji poem by Maria Winston
at Shuso Ceremony for Carol Paul

Practice Period

In Dogen Zenji’s Eihei Koroku this is recorded: “Dogen held up his whisk, and with it drew a circle in the air. He said, ‘Practice period goes beyond this.’ ”

For thirty years Berkeley Zen Center has offered a six-week practice period. These have been led by our founding teacher, Sojun Weitsman Roshi. As vice abbot of Berkeley Zen Center, I am honored that Sojun Roshi has invited me to lead this year’s practice period.

In the Zen tradition, the word used for practice period is ango, which means “peaceful abiding.” In China and Japan this would be a three-month residential intensive, with its own root in the early Buddhist “rains retreat,” when wandering monks and nuns would gather in their home temples during monsoon season.

Our practice period, in the springtime when the circle of life turns in joyous renewal, is an opportunity to rededicate ourselves to the practice of living an enlightened life, to renew our beginner’s mind. Dogen Zenji speaks of “practice realization,” meaning that our Zen practice does not so much aim toward a goal of awakening, but rather that practice expresses the enlightenment that is always within and available to us. Practice period includes sitting, walking, chanting, cooking, serving, eating, working, resting—all of this is enlightened activity, woven into whole cloth by zazen.

BZC is not a monastery, so our members have jobs, families, and responsibilities outside the gate. Our practice is as much at home and in the world as in the zendo. This is our ongoing Dharma experiment—dedicated lay practice, sitting with everything. During practice period, we have recommended requirements, but as Sojun Roshi has written, “within these requirements each person can create his or her own schedule. This is the nature of lay practice. Some will be able to do only the minimum, while others who have the opportunity will be able to extend or stretch themselves much more.”

We may wish to do it all, but each of us must be realistic about our capacity. The important thing for each of us—during practice period and throughout the year—is to clarify and set our practice intention, and do our best to keep to that intention. You don’t have to break your bones to do practice period. But don’t be slack with yourself either. With Right Effort our practice edge comes into view. What is the Middle Way? Whatever commitment and schedule one comes up with, we are all practicing together intimately.

Not everyone in the sangha will be able to clear the time and energy to participate in practice period. That is completely understandable, and everyone, of course, is welcome to come to the zendo when they can. All of us are supporting and being supported by the practice period—peaceful abiding. These six weeks can then extend throughout the year. As Dogen says, “Practice period goes beyond this.”

Zen Training

January is a time when we can take a look at our activity of the past year and recommit ourselves to practicing together over the next year. We have the opportunity to consider what Zen practice is and to remind ourselves of the value of the training we are receiving. We may ask ourselves, what are we being trained to do? How does our training serve us?

When I was young, I learned to parachute from an airplane, but the jump and landing did not go as expected. There were some very real moments of uncertainty in which I relied on the thorough and specific training I had received. Facing danger, I was terrified, but I remembered to return to that training, and following it, I landed safely in a tree.

We may not always understand how our Zen training works, and we are instructed to sit with no gaining ideas, so how should we think about this practice as training? Suzuki Roshi tells the story of meeting a young girl who saw him sitting and said, “I can do it.” After she sat with crossed legs, she said, “And what?” Suzuki Roshi laughed because he said Zen students ask the same question after coming every day and practicing Zen, “And what?” He explains that through formal sitting practice we come to experience something physical, but it is difficult to explain in words. Ours is not a practice of experiencing by mind or teaching, but by direct physical practice for each of us. Being able to fully practice this way, we should be able to express it in some other way too. He says that this happens quite naturally when we can express the same feeling of sitting, the same state of mind in which we do not stick to anything, and this is the purpose of practice. I think this takes a long, long time!

Zazen is at the center of our practice, and to learn not to stick to anything, we return to breath and posture. No matter what arises in the mind or body, we train ourselves to come back to breath and posture, over and over again. This is letting-go practice, or not sticking to anything. Additionally, we train in a variety of practice positions, rotating through them for short and longer periods of time, so nothing becomes “my” territory to protect and defend. This gives us the opportunity to bring zazen right into our daily activities, and when likes and dislikes present themselves, we train ourselves to return to breath and posture. Over time, we begin to see that we can practice in this same way outside the gate. Coming back to breath and posture in the middle of discomfort or uncertainty or disagreement or conflict creates a gap, a STOP, a moment of stillness. We do not know how our training may inform us in that brief span of time; in fact, a possibility may present itself. Our faith in this process grows, as does our confidence.

Sangha is the jewel of our practice. We learn together, observe one another, and develop relationships with our teachers, practice leaders, and each other. In this way, we train in community, encouraging and inspiring others, slowly revealing Buddha’s way, creating harmony.

Along the way, we make many mistakes, which is quite natural. Mistakes are the stuff of life; every single one of us makes mistakes. Mistakes give us the opportunity to see just where we are. Sojun Roshi says that recognizing our mistakes is the most important thing. We do not waste time chastising ourselves for a mistake; instead, we return to the activity, coming back to our upright position. This return to activity is the enlightened moment, remembering, recollecting, coming back; this is what our life is about.

I think the word “training” sometimes gets a bad rap. It may sound harsh, strict, too disciplinary, but the mystery of our practice lies in the training we receive. Zen training leads us without really leading us to a spirit of practice, a state of mind and body harmonizing in a way that makes it possible for us to practice not sticking to anything. We learn to be serious but light at the same time. Over time, this experiential approach to our lives supports us finding our comfort in any situation in which we may find ourselves.

Row the Current You Are In

The first day of sesshin Sojun spoke of cultivating “flexibility,” “proficiency,” and “actualizing the fundamental point.” This seemed to raise a lot of questions for practice discussion. One person wondered: How does one know when one is actualizing the fundamental point? This is an important question: Why do we do this difficult thing called sesshin? One needs inspiration, needs to have one’s motivation quickened, even to know one is in the right ballpark. But then, how does one navigate this path without falling into expectations—fixed notions of how it should be?
I have long thought expedition-length river trips bear striking similarities to sesshins. In addition to the elaborate preplanning required, the whole world condenses down for a period of time to these people—this place, this journey. The motley group becomes a tribe: different from a family, more manageable than a neighborhood, with shared goals and shared operating principles. One is completely reliant on the group, and the group safety depends on the activities of each person.
Wilderness travel teaches one to appreciate silence and vastness. Extended exposure to silence seems to change one’s nervous system in a very satisfying, settled direction. For many years I tried to capture the feeling I carried from a river trip and bring it into my ordinary life. After many failures, I finally concluded that this deep, settled feeling required some kind of continuing daily nurturance, and ultimately found my way to Zen practice.
Rivers were my first teacher. Water behaves the same way the world over: it flows around obstacles and through channels in predictable ways. The first task is to learn to read what the current is doing on flatwater and whitewater. The ability to read current is affected by conditions: water on a cloudy day is more difficult to read than on a sunny one, where the differences in the colors are more dramatic. Likewise, a river full of sediment changes the colors to a monochrome, requiring a shift to reading textures of water. This is a beginning lesson in flexibility.
In a raft, the only current that matters is the current immediately under your boat: your boat will be taken where that current is going. Immediately on either side of you the current may be doing something else, which may affect the pull on your oars, but unless you put some portion of your boat in that other current, it has no effect, no matter how close, strong, or alluring it is, or how much you would like to go where it is going.
In addition to current, one needs to attend to one’s downstream oar. Most of the time one floats at an angle to the current so as to be able to respond more quickly, which means the downstream oar points at the obstacles in the current’s path. If it catches on a rock, the press of the current has the effect of driving it back through the oar-right where it can do all sorts of damage—jam a thumb or knock one out of the raft, to name two.
Navigating serious rapids usually requires scouting. All the rafts stop at the top of the rapid, and assess the best path through. Beginning with identifying the preferred place to land at the bottom on the rapid, one works backward, determining where in the river one should be at each turn and obstacle, until one arrives at the best entry point at the top of the rapid. This is Plan A. The most important thing is not to be attached to Plan A. There are rapids—usually those with the word “falls” in their names—which are by definition “Plan B rapids.” Plan C isn’t a plan at all: it is a crash-and-burn route, where success is best measured by being upright at the bottom, with everyone still inside the raft.
There was a time when I spent hours watching videotapes of runs through serious rapids. After a while, it was clear that the rowers and paddlers divided themselves into several camps. On one end of the spectrum were those who flailed their way through, oars and paddles in wild, continuous movement. At the other end were those whose movements were minimal and precise—a dip of an oar here, a back-row there, each move accomplishing just the right amount of leverage on the raft to place it in the precisely right current. I called these folks zenrowers. I endeavored to be a zenrower. Over the years, I came to feel that I approached it, at least some of the time. Once, I even had a profound experience in a very difficult rapid on the Colorado River, which has become something of a touchstone: after I was through, it did not feel as if I had rowed it; rather, rowing happened.
Then there was Blossom Bar, on the Rogue River in southern Oregon. It is the most difficult and complex of the rapids on the Rogue—a long, boulder-strewn slalom requiring several mid-rapid lateral course corrections. The entrance is guarded at the top by a small-house-sized rock, incidentally also known as a wrap rock. At certain water levels it is easy to pin a raft against this rock with the whole weight of the river’s current. The is known as “wrapping” one’s raft, and it requires hours of lines and pulleys and effort to undo, and is very inconvenient. The whole of the river current pushes one toward this rock, so the first move is to pivot in such a way as to slide to the left of it, where most of the current continues.
As we scouted, our whole tribe watched as a “zenrower” paused briefly above the rapid, and then, with an oar dip here and there, navigated effortlessly through the boulder field. I wanted to zen-row this rapid in the worst way, because in the bow of my raft was our Vice Abbot and his son. Not being confident of any other zen-ness I might manifest, I wanted to zenrow this rapid.
We slipped into the current after scouting, floating briefly at an angle to the current. Immediately, I caught my downstream oar—the very oar I needed to make the essential pivot—on a rock. The oar sailed out of the oar-right, coming completely untethered from the raft, loose in my hand. I watched helplessly as we moved toward the rock—then, up the pillow of water forming on the its upstream side, our noses a few inches from the granite. While I calculated the danger of wrapping, the raft slipped around to the right of the rock. The celebration lasted a micro-moment. I had never been down this side of the river, nor had I known anyone who had. It turned out to be what is called a “rock garden.” While I tried to reset the oar in the oar-right, we pinballed off one rock after the other. The river goddess was kind: we ended upright, all still in the raft, at the bottom, grateful for sufficient waterflow to have avoided getting stuck.
I entered this rapid with a fixed idea about how it was to go, how I wanted it to go. There was little bandwidth left to meet the actual circumstances. I had limited flexibility to respond to this rock, this current, this oar and oar-right.
What is the fundamental point? In various ways our dharma speakers this week have alluded to this: touching big mind; realizing buddha nature; bodhicitta; returning to balance; flexibility. The Vice Abbot said: “Enlightenment is not something added on. It is the thing itself. Activity. Not a performance. Not trying.”
Here we are in this ark of a zendo, traveling together. There is no way out but through. This effort we make, to surrender to the schedule, to surrender to our positions, to become one with our circumstances, is in the service of tuning up. Becoming attuned. And then we turn everything over—our effort, our service, our activity—and the next crew carries it forward just as the cook turns the offering tray over to the head server. Whatever effort the cooks have brought to the food, it belongs to the servers now. We bring forth the dharma together in this way.
Someone mentioned the koan of jumping off a 100-foot pole to describe this letting go. For me that imagery has a bit of the quality of samurai Zen to it. Perhaps a more grandmother-mind way of saying it would be: “There is nothing to hang onto . . . and this is not bad news.” It is the freedom to respond in any situation without any fixed notion, without having to have something happen. Letting what arises arise. You turn yourself over to the river: you can count on being floated.
Suzuki Roshi said: “This Sesshin was wonderfully done. . . . It is because of your bodhisattva-mind, which is to do things for others rather than yourself. . . . We (should) understand that each one of us is a tentative form of the absolute being—whatever we do is the activity of the absolute being, which is not possible to be known by us completely. This is the origin of our life. . . . So the purpose of our practice is to get accustomed to live without being attached to many things but this unknown being. When we find our meaning of life in this way, naturally we can help each other. We will love each other, keeping a harmonious way between us, and between other sentient beings. We are all friends.”
This week we heard some of Aitken Roshi’s gathas. This one was especially apt for our ark:

When I sit with my friends in zazen
I vow with all beings
To touch and receive and convey
The mind of rivers and stars.