Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Best wishes for Rohatsu

Best wishes to all the Northampton sangha, to all of StoneWater Zen around the UK and to all sentient beings on this Rohatsu day (Bodhi Day)!

On this day we remember the Buddha's enlightenment and strive to emulate his one-pointed effort in living as fully and as truly as we are able. May we all be fully present to our lives, today and always.

With love and a deep bow: _/|\_

Alasdair Taisen GF

Friday, 4 December 2015

December dates

Please note that the Zen group will have a closed period over Xmas / New Year: we'll not be meeting on the 23rd or 30th December. We'll start again on Weds 6 January.

Beginners' evenings

As mentioned previously, we're going to try having dedicated beginners' events once a month in 2016 (or at least to start with - we'll see how they go). Beginners will now be asked to make their first visit on the third Wednesday of the month (and I've booked an additional room on Wednesday 20 January and Wednesday 17 February to start with). So if you were thinking of coming on another date you'll be asked to rather come on those particular dates.

These introductory events will start in parallel with the regular Zen session, which will continue as usual. Beginners will meet at 7.15 or so in the Marten Room (next door to the room everyone else is using), and we'll join everyone else for the second period of meditation at 8.10 - giving us much more time than we've had in the past to give a more substantial introduction to the practice and the context of a traditional Zen group.

This might require us to tweak the monthly schedule a bit - perhaps swapping the Dharma talk to another week so that I can focus on the introductory sessions on the evenings they happen.

(Oh - this is all for 2016, so beginners are still welcome on Weds 9 December... actually most of the regulars aren't going to be able to make it that week, so perhaps a good evening to come along...)

Saturday, 21 November 2015

Making SWZ Northampton more accessible

In an effort to try to understand what I might be able to do to make the Zen group more accessible to people, I've put a very short online survey up that I'm asking people to complete. Would like to hear from anyone connected to SWZ Northampton, but especially people who've considered coming but never got around to it for whatever reason.

You can find it at goo.gl/forms/qniD77vEFN - it's only a few questions and won't take more than a minute or two... unless you very generously decide to give a more substantial response in the last, 'open' question.

Hope you can find time to respond...

Monday, 16 November 2015

Minor schedule change

As I'm away this week, we will swap the sessions of 18th and 25th November so that we'll have a dharma talk on the 25th, and tackle some more of the Heart Sutra on the 18th. Remember we've abandoned Old Pine's translation & commentary, and are working through Bernie Glassman's Infinite Circle (which meant we started from the top last month).

Beginners' sessions

Andy Scott demonstrating half lotus posture
Find zazen instructions
at StoneWater Zen
From 2016 onwards, instead of inviting anyone to join us for their first visit on any given week, we'll hold monthly introductory days, probably on the second Wednesday of each month.

These will start at the regular time: so instead of asking people to arrive early, I'll spend the first period of zazen (7.30-8.00pm) with beginners, finding out a bit about each other, and given some instructions on both zen meditation and the particularities of how we do things in our group ("form").

Dates for these sessions for the whole year will be posted on this site (and the meetup.com group) in the next few weeks... they may of course be subject to change.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Retreat dates...

Two dates to consider - these are already advertised elsewhere, but bear repeating here...

The autumn sesshin (traditional Zen retreat) in Little Crosby, Lancs., is one of the main events of the year for the StoneWater Zen community, lead by both Keizan Sensei as well as StoneWater's patron, Tenshin Roshi who comes over each year for this from Yokoji Zen Mountain Center in the US. Details on the main SWZ site at www.stonewaterzen.org/event-dates. Runs 25-31 October (soon, but still a few places available I believe...).

In November, there will be the first of hopefully a future series of day retreats in the south of England, from 10.00am to 5.00pm near Bromley in Kent. This will be lead by Tony Shinro Doubleday, who leads the SWZ London group. Folk from Northants are particularly invited, though it is a fair way, I realise. Details for this can be found at swz-northlondon.blogspot.co.uk/2015/10/day-of-zen-in-kent.html, plus click flyer below...

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Haibun by Ken Jones

I was away last week at a transpersonal psychology conference near Scarborough, and we spent some time on the Saturday night entertaining each other with music and song and story and even a magic trick or two. I wanted to contribute but hadn't thought to prepare anything, so quietly googled away until I found one of Ken Jones' haibun from a journal he edited (which is still going strong), Contemporary Haibun Online.

Haibun is a literary form developed in Japan that combines haiku and prose, and Ken was a widely recognised authority - I know many of us (including me!) picked up a copy of his collection Bog Cotton that he brought to sesshin a couple of years ago. He'd refer to his haibun in talks and occasionally even give an example... though as I found out last Saturday, they do lose something when spoken aloud as the layout is important and switch from prose to poetry and back isn't always immediately obvious.

Still, it went down well (except for the guy who had met Ken but didn't know he'd died... oops...) and thought I'd post it here, too, as this is one that Zennies will have particular resonances with.

Ken Jones

I turn up the flame
from the snaking wick
coiled in my flammable heart

Although he is my lifelong friend I’m in two minds about him. Sometimes I don’t recognise him at all, with his ugly old face. Or I don’t like the way he can behave.

Perched on the wing mirror
robin preens himself
and shits

Then I play at being top dog and growl at him. But when he’s being helpful and kind, now there’s a man after my own heart. And isn’t it strange how other people seem to like him more than I do? The best of times is when he lets his shoulders drop and we’re drawn in together and lost, in a landscape, another person, a poem or whatever. Beyond all that neediness and choosiness, like this oak which shelters us from the autumn rains.

Branching without a thought
this way and that
for two hundred years

The trouble is that every morning there’s the two of us, grimacing in the shaving mirror. Tomorrow I’ll offer a smile.

my smoky flame
muttering to itself

Source: http://contemporaryhaibunonline.com/pages84/zz_Jones_Who.html

Monday, 24 August 2015

Back from hols! And new routines...

OK so I'm back from family hols now, and getting my head back into my normal routine!

As I'm back, it's a good time to come for your first visit if you've not been before. Byul & Nancy came for their first visits last week; think my head was slightly still on vacation so the talk at the end was a bit scatty & unfocused. [Hope haven't scared you off entirely...!]

I wanted also to reiterate that we've agreed on a bit more structure in how the monthly sessions are organised so that we can fit all we want to do. We recently started having a monthly service on the first Weds of the month, I've started to give a monthly talk too, and we also want to fit in some sessions looking at traditional texts - should be some interesting stuff to have a look at, yet not let some of the more difficult material completely bamboozle people new to this sort of thing.

So new structure is that after the usual two periods of zazen, we'll do the following every Wednesday in the month:

Week Session
First Wednesday "Formal night" - Service (wear robes if you have 'em), with short reading afterwards (or possibly Q&A, or pointers on form & ritual... or anything else that people want to do). Oh - and this isn't a great week for first visits if at all possible!
Second Weds... Contemporary reading - currently we're looking at Shunryu Suzuki Roshi's Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind
Third Talk by Alasdair - my "dharma internship" :-)
Fourth "Sutra study" - Don't want to make this too formal or scary! We'll start with Red Pine's translation & commentary on the Heart Sutra*
Fifth Contemporary reading again - not many months have five Wednesdays... but Sept 2015 does!
* A PDF file of the translation itself is available at appamada.pbworks.com/f/Heart%20Sutra-Red%20Pine.pdf.

Nothing's set in stone here - we'll do this for a couple of months and see how it goes.

If anyone has texts they're keen to be covered, bring it up one evening as suggestions are always welcome.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Summer sitting

Just a quick note to say that we've made arrangements to ensure that sittings continue as per usual throughout the summer, even as people take time away etc.

I'd like to ask that people who haven't attended before try not to come for their first visit during the first two weeks of August, as I'll be away with family at that time (though the group will continue to meet). I'll be back for the sitting on August 19th and will be able to do introductions again from then onwards.

Enjoy any summer breaks you might be taking!

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

What to do when there's no group near you?

This is a piece I wrote recently that's now been posted on the StoneWater website under "Resources". Please do make suggestions for improvement, as it would be easy enough to do a "v.2".
I've been asked this question quite a few times in different contexts, and I've seen and corresponded with some people who are desperate to establish a formal Zen practice but feel entirely alone. Just in the past two weeks I've exchanged emails with a young ex-Marine in the American Midwest and a British guy in East Anglia. Their contexts are worlds apart but the problem is the same. I've cobbled this together from a few responses I've made to people and tidied it up a bit - hopefully it might start to answer some folks' concerns.
There are very few of us lucky enough to have a Zen group within easy reach. Even for people in London who seem to have loads of choice, once you factor in travel times, the restrictions of a regular working day and so on, it's very often impossible – or at least difficult and inconvenient for those you live with – to get to a sitting group.

So: you've googled your heart out, asked around online, checked around on Zen Map UK… and all to no avail. What can you do?
Luckily there are fortunately a few options, and one or some of these should be enough for you to establish and maintain a strong practice. Ultimately, it comes down to you: effort and dedication are required. Fortunately, as you start get into Zen, it's all new and exciting and easy to get enthusiastic over. As you carry on, though, things get more 'ordinary' (as they definitely should!) and a different type of effort is required to keep turning up on the cushion and to every moment of your day-to-day life. This is where the support of a community and a teacher are the most important.

Sit at home on your own

This one is a no-brainer. This isn't just advice for just people who are far away from others, this is something that all practitioners should be doing. A daily zazen practice is the heart of Zen life, it is the root and the foundation. Even for those who live right next door to a Zen centre, it's not enough to pitch up once a week: practice needs to be daily if at all possible. Nearly everyone can find 10 minutes a day free – and if you can find 10 minutes, maybe 20 or 30 minutes can be built into your routine, too. The key is consistency. Find a place in your house that you can dedicate to practice, away from housemates, kids, electronic screens, noise and so on. I've got a small table in an office where I keep my zafu, zabuton, stool and rakusu, and it's developed into a permanent altar but takes up almost no room. You don't need all that kit, though – a folded up blanket or two will serve, and there are plenty of instructions on how to sit all over the internet. Find a time that works for you – the most common advice is to sit first thing in the morning, and good for you if that works. Night-owls like me can't cope with this! I much prefer to sit late at the evening in the silence of the night. Whatever… whenever… just… sit.

Still, sitting alone can be tough. Worse, it's easy to get the wrong idea, to develop bad (or just odd) habits or get stuck in strange conceptions of what Zen practice is. Without a community of others or a teacher to check in with, you may never know when things are going wrong. So, we're back to the start – what to do if you can't find a group to sit with?

Find a close match

Perhaps you're really keen to study Zen, but the only group you can find near you is a Tibetan Buddhist group or perhaps a secular mindfulness meditation group. It's entirely OK to be a 'cuckoo in the nest' at these things – I've never heard of anyone who was turned away from a practice group because ultimately they were interested in a different tradition but were still keen to seek out company on the Way. You may even find that the tradition you sit with is a better match for you than you'd expected. If you can't be with the one you love, as they say, then love the one you're with.

On the other hand you might find it frustrating if you end up disagreeing with some of the tenets held by that group, and of course they don't necessarily want or need to hear even a friendly critique at every meeting.

Find an online community

Many people who are far from fellow practitioners turn to the internet for answers, and find something more – vibrant communities of practitioners providing support for one another. There's a range of these communities – from more casual groups like the almost 10,000-member Soto Zen Buddhism Facebook group that I help run, to quite mature communities like the Zen Forum International discussion group, all the way to Treeleaf Zendo, an entirely online Zen sangha run on fairly traditional lines (except for the bit where everyone lives miles away from each other) by Jundo Cohen Sensei, dharma successor to Gudo Nishijima Roshi.

Many online Zen forums and communities seem to attract a large number of non-practitioners, the merely curious, intellectual pseudo-Zennies [who've read everything by DT Suzuki and Alan Watts but never tried to do any zazen and who have a strong opinion on everything], outright trolls (people trying to cause angry reactions) or even Buddhist fundamentalists (this is I'm afraid a real thing) who have a very fixed idea of what Zen is and have no tolerance for anyone who disagrees with them. I suspect you need quite a thick skin in most online communities – perhaps Treeleaf is different, though: I've had passing dealings with Jundo Sensei and he seems like a guy who wouldn't tolerate too much nonsense.

Move closer to a group

This might sound drastic, and it's something usually only available to people in very particular life circumstance. Actually know quite a few people who've done this, though, relocating to the UK from other European countries to be able to study with a particular teacher, or emigrating to the US from the UK to live as a monk. This is serious commitment! I've done something similar but not quite so drastic: when I was moving to London anyway some years ago, I made sure to look for accommodation near to a Zen centre in Highbury.

If you're considering this, I'd strongly recommend visiting the group you're interested in first. Attend a sesshin, or take a short break in the city or town where they're located. Get to meet some of the group members if you can. And of course, speak with the teacher and get their advice. Finally, do make sure you aren't causing irreparable damage to relationships with friends and family by moving away from them to join a group they know nothing about. They may well worry that you're joining a cult or somesuch. The black robes and Sino-Japanese chanting won't reassure dear old Mum much either!

Do loads of retreats

For many people, the answer lies in a less total commitment – continue living your life (where 'true Zen' is found in any case) but maintain a connection with a sangha who hold regular retreats that you can take time off work to travel to. The StoneWater Sangha, for instance (and others too) run a busy schedule of retreats and sesshin throughout the year. We have two 'main' sesshin a year at Crosby Hall – traditional Zen retreats. Many people attend these very regularly as their only contact with the sangha. Alongside that, there are smaller sesshin throughout the year at the StoneWater Zendo in the Lake District, and reasonably frequent “Retreats to the City” which involve staying at the StoneWater Centre in Liverpool (though the accommodation is pretty basic).

Again the advice to do sesshin isn't limited to those who sit far from others – for serious practitioners who can manage it, this should really be a regular feature of your practice year. The experience of sesshin is rich and intense, and I can't emphasise how much it provides a support for daily practice: coming back from sesshin is for me an absolute shot in the arm every time.

Just visitin'

For some people, while weekly or even fortnightly visits to a group are too big an ask, finding a group you can drop in on once a month or so – even if you do have to make a fairly substantial trek to get there – can form the basis of a long and vital relationship with a community. It would be hard to do this with my own group in Northampton: the meetings are on weekday evenings and usually don't end until 9.40 or even later so if you then had to drive an hour to get home the next day at work might be very tough. However, groups with weekend meetings like the monthly Saturday practice days (10.00-1.00) at StoneWater North London might be much more attainable.

Do I need a teacher?

This question crops up in online discussion time and time again, and things can get somewhat heated over it. There are plenty of people who maintain that you don't need a teacher; that all that hierarchical nonsense is against the spirit of Zen; that there's enough info online and in books to get everything you need; and anyway Zen is like everything man so whatever I am is like already totally zen, man. You might be able to detect from my tone that I'm not a proponent of this approach…

The relationship with a Zen teacher is not just 'one thing', there's a lot of variety out there. They can be frequent and regular (unlikely if you live miles away), or perhaps more intermittent and based on bursts of close contact at sesshin once a year. It can be fairly relaxed or perhaps formalised in a private shoken ceremony. You may only occasionally have questions about your practice or you might commence a koan curriculum that requires regular testing. Perhaps a teacher will only meet people in face-to-face contexts, or perhaps you might find someone who will maintain an email correspondence with you.

Regardless, establishing such a relationship means you don't have to do it all alone any more, that you can reflect your concerns and your practice in the mirror of a person who you know has been judged competent in the role by a lineage that stretches back to the time of the Buddha (though don't take that too literally…). The teacher has walked this path already; they've probably already helped people through very similar issues that are arising for you. The teacher is a dependable guide on a tricky journey.

Your teacher can also be a challenge for you – the relationship is not always comfortable: a Zen teacher may not always feel like a friend! Part of their role is to help you question where you stand, to point out our assumptions and easy generalisations and make you face up to them. I've had a few teachers, and they've all been quite tough with me at times. Boy, did I need it. Still do.
The trouble is, while Zen groups can seem few and far between, teachers are even more difficult to find. However, I'd really urge you to try to establish some relationship with a teacher as well as some form of practice community.

When all else fails: Start your own group

The last suggestion is a biggie: start your own meditation group. The form of this can vary greatly, from pretty casual groups of like-minded folk meeting in someone's living room to a formal off-shoot of an existing lineage. It all depends on how much time and effort you can put in and how you stand in relation to an existing group or teacher.

You need to be clear about your status and relationship to a larger community, if any – it's your responsibility to make sure that you're not mistaken as an authorised Zen teacher (unless you are one!). Also, while you'll probably be the main force behind your group for some time, the more you can make the running of the group a collaborative exercise, the better both in terms of the effort you have to put in and the sense of commitment the other members of the group will feel.

My experience of starting a group has been very positive. Even when my dharma brothers and sisters seem far away and I haven't seen my teacher in months and months, the responsibility to the group I've established forces me each week to turn up, to sit down, to offer incense and keep the zafu warm. And that in turn supports my home practice, and all of this supports my life.

It's not all roses: it can be hard at times and you may go through periods of wondering whether it's worth it, and of course not all groups survive very long. Perhaps there's just not the demand for a group near you that would meet as often or as long as you'd like, or in the way that you'd like. Perhaps you'll have to make some compromises. Perhaps you'll fail. It's all OK. Perhaps it'll end up costing you loads of money. (This is not an uncommon complaint, by the way…) Perhaps your husband or landlord will have objections. Perhaps you'll feel like a total fraud and that you have no place 'leading' a group (this is so common as to be nearly universal).

But perhaps it's worth a try.

In the end it's up to you

I'll finish where I started. Effort. It's all good and well hearing about “effortless effort” and being “goalless” or living “without thought of gain” ( mushotoku) – and of course ultimately all these are important. But the journey starts where you stand, and to get over the initial inertia requires just plain old effort.

If you have any questions, I'd be happy to respond to them by email at alasdair@gordon-finlayson.net.

Good luck.

Monday, 22 June 2015


A question was asked last week about the Four Vows. Stuart Hollyoak has just had a "sangha post" put up on the main StoneWater Zen website that speaks to this, so thought I'd share it...

Saturday, 30 May 2015

"Intro to Zen" event on 17 June

On Wednesday 17 June, we'll be holding a public event at the Quaker Meeting House where we usually meet. "An Introduction to Zen Buddhism" will run from 7.30 to 9.30 and will involve a talk by Alasdair, instruction in Zen meditation with a single period of sitting, and will end with a Q&A session over tea & biccies.

You can download a flyer for the event at bit.ly/1AEHgeX - please share with anyone who you might think will be interested. The more the merrier!

If you've been thinking about coming for the first time, this might be just opportunity you need to dip your toes in and see what this whole 'Zen' thing is about anyway. Hope to see you there!

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Back from sesshin

I joked that it took only one bedtime with a reluctant 8-year-old to re-establish pre-sesshin stress levels once I'd come back... but in truth it's not been like that. But it's been interesting.

As Keizan Sensei puts it, when we go on sesshin, we voluntarily submit ourselves to a set of externally-imposed restrictions on our time and behaviour. So I get up a lot earlier than I'm used to, and I go to be a lot earlier too. I eat more regularly (though just as fast!), spend much more time silent, and of course there's all the sitting...!

One thing that I've grown to appreciate is being offline - not having an internet connection. I get jittery at first, like someone who's just decided to quite smoking. There's something I'm supposed to be doing... oh, that's right... my email. Relax. Pretty quickly, though, not having to check my email or Facebook or whatever becomes a huge relief. When I got back to Northampton, I didn't turn the computer on for two days (something of a personal record).

But now I'm back at work, and the emails need answering, and the meetings need attending, and the students need reassurance (or yelling at, occasionally!), the family needs attention, the dishes and the recycling aren't going to do themselves, and The Ten Thousand Things come crashing down all around me just as they ever have. So has anything changed?

Yes, and no.

Yes: I've reconnected with the sangha, with Sensei, with my brother and sister monks, and I carry that sense of connection back home with me to strengthen my practice and my sense of not being alone in this. And yes, I always find it easier to get my arse on the zafu after sesshin, and I've sat every day since returning and it's felt easier than before.

But no: the world is ever as it was... constant in its furious impermanence. So this is where I have to make my home. Sesshin doesn't rock my world, it brings me back to it, gently and repeatedly.

I'll be back!

Crosby Hall Educational Trust - for just a week, Little Crosby Zen Monastery!

Thursday, 2 April 2015

No Zen on 8 April

Just a quick note to say that there will be no zazen on 8 April during the spring sesshin at Crosby. We're back again as per usual on Weds 15 April.

While I'm posting here... we held service last night for the first time in ages, which was great. Unless otherwise stated, we'll start a scheduled of monthly services on the first Wednesday of each week. The next service will therefore be held on Weds 6 May. These will be 'formal' sittings, so robes if you have them.

Oh... and also...! Turns out I don't have a translation of the Enmei Jukku Kannon Gyo on the service sheets... found this translation today by Dogo Barry Graham (source):

Veneration to the Buddha
The Buddha is my origin
The Buddha and me - no separation
The Three Treasures and me - no separation
Bliss outside of time, pure freedom from self
First morning thought: Kanzeon
Last nighttime thought: Kanzeon
Thoughts, thoughts arise from the mind
Thoughts, thoughts are nothing but the mind

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

What a difference the day makes

Tonight we sat for the first time in our new Wednesday slot, sharing the building with the Theosophists instead of the Music Appreciation Society.

The difference was amazing - like night and day. By the end of the Four Vows, I felt that I'd done zazen properly for the first time in years. And it wasn't just me, we all commented on it afterwards.

Now I just feel a bit stupid for having delayed the move for so long... while there were originally good reasons for sitting on a Monday night, we could have probably made this change about a year ago. Oh well, no use crying over split incense ash!

So, Wednesday nights it is.

Advance notice: On Weds 1 April, we'll take the opportunity to have a formal sit (robes if you have them) and full service. I don't want to commit to saying this will be regular until our new neighbours have sat through the mokugyo at least once! But hopefully they'll be OK with it (chatted with their organiser this evening who actually looked intrigued to hear what that would all sound like...!), and we may then be able to finally institute a regular monthly 'formal' evening.

So - onwards and upwards.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Schedule change - Wednesday zazen

As of March 2015, zazen will be held on a Wednesday evening rather than on Mondays. The one major difference will be that the building will be significantly more quiet as we'll no longer be sharing the venue with a music appreciation society!

For now there will be no other changes, though we may soon institute a 'formal' sitting once a month, which would include more ritual and a formal service. I'll post more about that in due course, both to confirm details and to explain what this entails and a bit about the role of ceremony in our Zen practice.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Easter sesshin (retreat) in Crosby

This year's spring sesshin will be held from 5th to 10th April 2015 at Crosby Hall outside of Liverpool, and bookings are now being taken. The sesshin will be led by Keizan Sensei who will be giving teishi (dharma talks) and daisan (one-to-one interviews) with practitioners throughout the week.

The theme for the sesshin is taken from a phrase popular with Ken Jones who until his recent retirement would normally co-host the spring sesshin: "Our Unwinnable Lawsuit with Reality"!

Looking forward to it myself - can't wait to see Sensei and my dharma brothers & sisters as well as meet a few new folk too. Come on, come all!

There's a flyer with further details of the event which you can download here.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Apologies - car disaster

I'm afraid I won't be able to make it this evening - my car won't start, so now I'm waiting for the RAC to come and fix me... oh dear. It's now 7.20pm, so think I can safely assume I won't be able to get there.

Apologies to anyone who's turned up (Will, Lorna, anyone else...), will see you next week.