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What Is Love?

By Bapu Vaitla


‘Love is to see the self in all the world.’


Twenty-two years ago, on an early autumn day at Green Gulch Farm, Norman Fischer gave a talk about pain. “All suffering,” he said, “is a reflection of mind.” It was a sunny morning, the air filled with the hum of dragonflies and the smell of fresh bread, and Norman’s words were easy to believe. Surely pain could not originate from a world this lovely; surely our own heads were to blame. Read more


Love Letter from Tassajara

Bapu Vaitla, one of the forty-seven participants in the 104th Tassajara Practice Period this winter, arrived with a big question: What is love? The community responded with their answers to that question, which are collected here. Some were also made into a hand-written, hand-bound notebook which illustrates this post.

Bapu wrote an essay on this theme, interspersed with the reflections he had received. Read more


Giver, Receiver and Gift: Offerings from Green Gulch Farm

During these days of imposed restriction, it is easy and natural to lament the loss of the easy freedoms that, just a few months ago, we took as given: the ability to meet with friends, to go to a restaurant or bookstore, to pick up an item or two at the grocery store without having to wait in line to enter. And, perhaps most importantly, to walk down a street without a mask and not instinctively shy away from our neighbors. But in the midst of these very real losses, it is good to recall that there are others who face an even more challenging loss: the loss of food due to unemployment, illness, or poverty.

While there are many heroic organizations in the Bay Area committed to making sure that everyone is fed, we are all called, as individuals or as a community, to do our part.

Sara Tashker, the farm manager at Green Gulch Farm, reports on the efforts undertaken there:

Seven students arrived from Tassajara recently and many of them will be working on the farm this season, bringing our crew up to full size. We also have an active social justice group whose members are focusing on augmenting the farm’s labor to harvest and distribute extra produce.

I have been sowing and planting with an eye toward having a regular supply of extra food to donate to those who need it. For many years now we have been working with the SF-Marin Food Bank. The great thing about the Food Bank is that they do pick-ups, so all we have to do is call and they will send a truck. It is a wonderful partnership and we are looking forward to working with them again this season, knowing there is so much need everywhere.

We have long standing relationships with HaMotzi, a food distribution program at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco and with The Cultural Conservancy’s Native Foodways program, a Native-led nonprofit which distributes fresh, organic food to Native community members in the Bay Area. Every week, we send cooked food to Poor Magazine for distribution.

What a gift it is to be able to produce good food and get it to those who need it.

This is how dana paramita (the perfection of giving) moves through our lives.

The Gift—a leaf of chard, an apple, a potato—is called into being by innumerable causes and conditions

The Givers—the farmers, cooks, truck drivers, volunteers—nurture the gift and deliver it to

The Receivers—those who come with empty hands to bless the gift with their acceptance.

San Francisco Zen Center has opened the gates of teaching and practice to all who come to us. But most of those who receive food from the Green Gulch fields may never have heard of SFZC, may never sit in meditation, may have no interest in or ability to hear a talk, or attend a class. For many of these people, the Dharma is food.


Shadows and Pandemic Practice

By Brenda Proudfoot

The day we learned we would no longer practice zazen together in the zendo but instead would each practice in our individual rooms using Zoom, the tears came. My heart broke a little that day. Practicing zazen in the beautiful zendo here was central to my decision to come to San Francisco Zen Center.

I love the morning noble silence residents keep as they enter the zendo and find their seats. I love walking to the Buddha Hall for service and the forms for entering and leaving the tatami. I had just begun to learn the role of kokyo and other doan ryo roles. Suddenly, it all changed and I grieved that change deeply. I suddenly understood in a new way how very precious these aspects of ceremonial life are to me.

Several weeks into the new ways of living here, I began performing service in my room. Zoom zazen and service in my room is not what I would wish for. It is not the same. It has, however, begun to take on its own beauty, a beauty different from the beauty of service in the Buddha Hall with the community. It is not a replacement but it is a way of sustaining my practice through the pandemic practice period, a practice period with no definite end.

During our first month of pandemic practice, Mary Stares, the City Center Tanto, suggested a photographic scavenger hunt for the Work Practice Apprentice group and gave us a list of things to photograph when we went out on walks. I got stuck on one kind of photograph – shadows – and never went on to the others. Photographing shadows has been a portal to a whole new world of seeing.

One might wake up, see the sun shining, and think, “oh, what a pretty day.” Recently when I wake up and see the sun shining, I think, “oh, a good day for shadows.”

It can be a little tricky to photograph shadows. One has to figure out how to get out of the way so that one’s own shadow is not in the way of shadow image one is trying to photograph. My own shadow could become part of the larger photograph but I have been more interested in shadows of other things. I have requested my shadow to stay out of it.

Shadows change constantly. One moment it is there, the next it may not be, or it may have moved, or changed in intensity and form, as the source of light changes. In my search for shadows to photograph, I see differently. I notice things I never might have seen while walking the same street or living in the same building.

I am intrigued, like a good Buddhist student, by form and emptiness. Shadows seem to be form but they are not. They are light that has been blocked by form. When the light goes away, they cease to exist. They are empty. They move in the wind. They change depending on the surface behind them.

Experientially, photographing––and therefore noticing and thinking about shadows––opens me to change with a lighter spirit. Sheltering in place is not an easy time. It is uncertain. It can feel isolating to live in a community while keeping social distance. Eating in silence during meals in the dining room and wearing a mask all the time is hard. Seeing each other and practicing together through Zoom helps ease the isolation but continues to be strange. Emotions of grief, sadness, resistance and fear can surface unexpectedly along with moments of laughter and delight in something someone does or says.

As so many of our teachers have articulated in so many different ways, this is the practice. I can think of no better place to be during this pandemic than San Francisco Zen Center.

About the Author: Brenda Proudfoot joined the City Center residential community in December 2019 as a Work Practice Apprentice. Prior to coming to San Francisco Zen Center, she spent three years as a resident and retreat manager at Tara Mandala, a Tibetan center in Colorado. Brenda was the founder and owner of Valley Yoga, a yoga studio in central California, for sixteen years. During that time, her way-seeking mind set her on the Buddhist path. She has had a daily meditation practice for twenty years.



Coda: What I Want You To Know…

The following poem was read by Senior Teacher Ryushin Paul Haller at the end of the first-ever live-streamed Dharma talk from Tassajara. It is a compilation of the prompt ‘What I want you know … ‘ which he had given to the Tassajara monks earlier, asking them to write their answers down on pieces of paper. That prompt also inspired a letter which has been published as parts I, II, III, and IV.

What I want you to know:
Six feet apart we’re closer than ever
Endowed by four billion years of evolution
This human body breathes and wonders
This is enough, you are enough, we are enough
Wherever you are right now,
Make it a temple filled with compassion
Listen to what wants to be known
Like you, it’s worthy of love
Keep flowing, the hiking trails have
Sprouted grass and wildflowers
Turning the zendo inside out
Constant and always changing
Now is all we have
Moment by moment
Appropriate response

Watch or Listen to the Dharma Talk given by Ryushin Paul Haller and live-streamed from Tassajara on April 18, 2020.


Perspectives from Tassajara: PART IV

The monks at Tassajara have written a letter to the boundless sangha: friends, supporters, guests, former residents, fellow practitioners, all sentient beings. The letter is published in four parts. See parts I, II, III, IV and Coda.

PART IV: What I Want You To Know Is…

Tassajara will be okay. In fact, the plants and animals seem to be enjoying this unusual spring with plenty of rain and without hundreds of visitors.

We are acutely aware, as individuals and as a sangha, how lucky we are to be here. To have these mountains ringing us, this creek flowing through, a long, deserted dirt road to walk on. These are incredible privileges while so many others are sheltering elsewhere.

We’re maintaining the facilities, ready to receive a work period and guest season as soon as they’re announced. We’re clearing rockfalls and leaves and six months of cobwebs. We’re doing fire prevention projects that usually can’t happen in the summer. We’re finishing and correcting hastily-done improvements from years past. We’re watching eagles catch updrafts over Flag Rock. We’re stopping, awe-struck, at Venus setting in the inky sky over the Birdhouse after evening zazen.

We’re maintaining a vibrant practice and open-hearted sangha, sheltering together like one big family, out in the wilderness. We wish you could be here, too. We’re taking good care of Tassajara until you come back.

What I want you to know is…
The energy of the universe is running through everything — columbines are tall in the waves of it, finches and ravens flit, soar and perch in the sky of it. Everything is free in the sheltering, in the dishes left by the kitchen sink, the thread of chores and peaceful moments. The animals’ world and our own are more invited together it seems, in the viral wake-up call. Loved ones far away can rest in the stillness of an open hand, reaching for bedroom slippers thousands of miles away, that pile of papers she didn’t quite get to, wishes falling like downy feathers in stronger wind, love in a whole new past, 60 years together.

What I want you to know is…
Yesterday, mom wrote to say the universe bumps every Friday at 6, when she blesses her children. At 7 her cityside alights with the pots and pans, yelps of cathartic joys the closest sugar-asking neighbors meet. At 9, my brother calls to say he’s still standing and at 10, I feel the rounded slope of my stomach that I’m not quite resigned yet to never holding a child though how could I hold so tight to a feeling, so out of line with what’s happening before me.
What I want you to know is I ache for that child I’ve already let pass as a dream.
What I want you to know is I fear the greed deep in my belly that craves the exhilaration of catastrophe. How does this meet my never-bourne child? When I stare at the river I feel the water that is me move, great movement of inside and outside, and I am nauseous.
What I want you to know is the name of the plants your feet cover, the ways they meet the bones of our bodies to knit ourselves together.
What I want you to know is that I love you, that wide big breath of love so that there is dissolving and reforming. I do not always want this love.
I want you to know that I fear the death of everyone I love, as though the fear itself was the same as living.
I want you to know that I believe this world can be otherwise.
I want you to know the feel of the waves over your body once you’re no longer in the water. I want you to know earth that rises to meet your feet. I want you to know to take off your shoes on holy ground. I want you to know that (I believe) we consecrate each other.
I want you to know, I want you to know, I want you to know.

I’d Like You To Hear
History says don’t hope
On this side of the grove
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
and hope and history rhyme.
So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge
Believe that further shore
is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles
And cures and healing wells.
Call miracles self-healing:
The utter, self-revealing
Double-take of feeling.
If there’s fire on the mountain
Or lightning and storm
And god speaks from the sky
That means someone is hearing
The outcry and the birth cry
Of new life at its term.

What I want you to know is…
Death is certain. How do you want to live/practice getting there?

While other faith communities have been meeting and supporting each other online in virtual zendos and live-streamed services, we here at Tassajara wanted to share our practice and experience in our way. Practice is still being enacted and embodied here, for the benefit of all beings. You might be surprised at some of the changes, but you would still recognize the heart of this practice.

This is an expression of Tassajara practice.

We would like you to know that we love you. We miss you. We hope you are safe.

Words submitted by Gurmeen Aneja, John Anklow, K., Tim Ream, Jordan Gardner, Eilis Ward, Krista De Castella, Nobuko Hori, Bapu Vaitla, Dan Gudgel, Zuzu Myers, S. H., Brent Haas and other Tassajara sangha members who wish to remain anonymous.

See parts I, II, III, IV and Coda.


A Livestream Call with Abbot Ed

Have you donated to our Emergency Fund or are thinking about it but have questions about SFZC’s financial picture?

Many people have asked for more information on how finances work at SFZC and how their donations will help. Central Abott Ed Sattizahn will address SFZC financial questions on a live video call on Monday May 18, 7 – 7:30 pm PT.


Perspectives from Tassajara, PART III

The monks at Tassajara have written a letter to the boundless sangha: friends, supporters, guests, former residents, fellow practitioners, all sentient beings. The letter will be published here in four parts over the next several days. See parts I, II, IV, Coda.

PART III: What I Want You To Know Is…

Perspectives from Tassajara

Of course we didn’t want to change the forms at Tassajara. For 50 years this training temple has been imparting Suzuki Roshi’s vision of Soto Zen practice. But as we’ve deconstructed these 1000-year-old forms that express a 2500-year-old tradition, the lively, beating heart of our practice has emerged.

Half the community sits zazen in the zendo, and half in the retreat hall to maintain distance — and so two people a day get to support the community by being doan. The hot springs plunges are drained and the steam rooms are off to reduce possible transmission vectors, and we have to count the shoes outside the bathhouse to make sure we don’t go over capacity. But we continue to offer incense at the bathhouse altar before entering.

We chant the meal verse outside together in the courtyard, before filing slowly into the dining room to be served, cafeteria style, by masked-and-gloved serving crews. We eat at opposite ends of 8-foot tables and yet, when the clackers end the start-of-meal silence, we still speak from the heart, listen completely and give ourselves to the moment.

After a few weeks with no services at all, we created a simplified morning service that we can do outside in the work circle, appropriately spaced, chanting the Loving Kindness Meditation so we don’t need chant books. We have to chant loudly to be heard over the sunrise birdsong and some days the wind blows out the candle, but it’s a joy to have the mountains join our ceremony.

What I want you to know is…


One beautiful planet, full of mountains and forests and rivers, to call home amidst the vast darkness of the cosmos;

One human body, endowed by four billion years of evolution with a host of skills, including self-consciousness, breath and wonder;

One long life, one natural death, and general freedom from the hunger, disease, and violence suffered by your ancestors*;

Unlimited stories, music, and laughter time-tested over a thousand generations of humanity;

Infinite opportunities, redeemable in any moment, to love and be loved.

*Restrictions (i.e., poverty) apply.


What I want you to know is…

Tassajara creek keeps flowing.


What I want you to know is…

How resilient this practice is. The hiking trails have sprouted grass and wildflowers, and every morning we turn the zendo inside out.


What I want you to know is…

While stacking firewood in the sun today, I started laughing so hard that I had to take a break.


What I want you to know is…

The whole earth, all life itself, is watching.


Words submitted by Gurmeen Aneja, John Anklow, K., Tim Ream, Jordan Gardner, Eilis Ward, Krista De Castella, Nobuko Hori, Bapu Vaitla, Dan Gudgel, Zuzu Myers, S. H., Brent Haas and other Tassajara sangha members who wish to remain anonymous.

See parts I, II, IV, Coda.