Arriving from Poland, I had suspected winter ango to be a bleak affair…wind-worn trees, grey skies, and a few nights shivering in the half lotus position. I had forgotten what it was like to live in California, how February can often be confused for May, how sunlight radiates sloping vineyards, how grape vines tempt summer imaginations, and how the quince bush satisfies them with pink buds eagerly in bloom. Winter ango? Judging from the local deer’s easy strides, it passed better for spring. The weather was not Sonoma Mountain’s only distinguishing feature. But it was the first and last stroke of a master painting that lasts long in my memory, that shines still in its distance.
27 bathers/All so mossy!/Holly oaks dance in the sun
David Koten led ango with a tenzo’s awareness for just how long to keep the dough in the oven. As he said in one of his dharma talks, “Ango is when we turn up the heat on our practice”. It was an apt metaphor for one who has spent so much of his time at Sonoma Mountain in the kitchen. His work as shuso liberated him from the responsibility of feeding our stomachs, and granted him another—feeding our minds. In his dharma talks, he mixed ingredients from a variety of sources, including Korean master Chinul, the Dhammapada, Uchiyama’s translation of Dogen’s “How to Cook Your Life”, and David Bowie’s rock album “Hunky Dory”! Who knew that the song “Changes” was itself a dharma talk on impermanence? Koten also shared intimate details of his mother’s recent health battles which most clearly animated his theme of facing loss and clarifying the great matter. He did not add any sugar to his talks to sweeten this matter. Rather, his voice was consistent, earnest, and steeped in the daily practice. Koten routinely made the link between life and death and the mundane everyday tasks. Washing the rice, handling the soup ladle, placing the left foot over the right thigh…each moment is equal in eminence as waves crashing to shore with the moon reflected in them. This undramatic wholehearted effort was made evident every morning when he closed breakfast with “good morning” and lunch with “good afternoon”, when he startled the darkening zendo with his rich chanting of “Fukan—za—zen—gi”, and when he stretched out his legs after the evening’s final round, grimacing slightly, ever so slightly, before tucking his legs back under him, and rising from the floor.
Where the robe ends/The cushions begin/Shuso floats in the clouds
Practicing at Sonoma Mountain allows for greater intimacy with the Kwong family, from the head of the dining table where Roshi sits, to the carpeted floor where lays young Ejo. Our first informal breakfast captured this sangha-family setting. Ejo was on the couch with his lego sets while various sangha members glowed paternally in his company. Meanwhile, Roshi and Shinko took turns retelling the story of the SMZC founding, its growth through hard times, and the nature of rainbows and coincidences. This was my first occasion to hear how the Kanzeon wood sculpture arrived at SMZC, a gift from the Hohm Community formerly led by Lee Lozowick. The current group made an impromptu visit during zazen to pay respects to the Bodhisattva, and I heard all about their Baul tradition of wanderer-begging-singing, how the statue arrived from Arizona amid a series of rain showers, and how the UPS driver commented upon final delivery, “What exactly is going on?” so stunned was he by the spectral show.
Later in the day, Roshi and Nyoze arrived at the sangha house wide eyed and elated, having successfully purchased the center’s newest land truck (and member). The purchase had a taste of zen in it: the owner was a friend of SMZC member Craig Couch, he was found on Craig’s list, and his name was none other than Mr. Lee! After agreeing to terms, Mr. Lee gave a tour of his land, which included a bridge overlook to a river in which the salmon come to spawn each year. Roshi retold this part of the tale with the same excitable smile Ejo wore when describing his superhero t-shirt collection. Nyoze decided that we name the truck Mr. Lee and formally welcome him with a service and blessing. This we achieved the following week, “Mr. Lee” shimmering in the afternoon light surrounded by chanting sangha members, the float of incense smoke, and the song of the singing bowl. To conclude the ceremony, each member damped a washrag in blessed water and together we gave Mr. Lee a thorough rub down. The service later sparked jokes that we offer car blessings to the wider public (if it can happen anywhere, it can happen here). Shinko best interpreted the sincerity within the humor, how the objects that comprise our daily lives are not really objects, but buds of the same creative source and aspects of ourselves. So it only remains to be seen who will write the flyer for the first car blessing ceremony, and whether or not a rainbow will appear.
Sitting without singing bells/Mr. Lee in sunlight/Immovable Buddha
Another distinguishing feature at SMZC is how the residents shared leadership positions. With Koten out of the kitchen, that left tenzo to be divvied up amongst almost everyone. Mike, Eric, Julie and Susan were most regularly designated, but given informal meals, everyone had a chance to stand before the oven and consider the formidable task of feeding a mass (I was lucky—French toast!). Ango functioned so well because the residents have grown accustomed to wearing multiple hats. Mike not only manned the office, he was also responsible for the daily menu, weekly shopping, part-time tenzo and doan, and occasional jisha (along with every concern and errand that gets overlooked). Eric was our dependable shissui, most regular doan, part-time tenzo, and Mr. Lee’s companion. Susan cultivated the garden while most exhaustingly acting as suko for the entire month. Angus was our jikido, drummer, evening doan, and Mr. Fix-it for any apparatus that suddenly failed. Nathan managed the inter-arriving guests as shika, was part-time suko and most regular bonsho. Not to mention Nyoze and Julie, who took turns in the zendo while the other tended to Ejo (amongst their multiple ango funtions). While necessity mothered this occasion, it seemed natural for the functions to be equitably distributed. Why should the teachings afforded tenzo be reserved for one person? And likewise bonsho, suko, or doan? Roshi encouraged more regularity of this multi-functionality. Members grow a lot faster when more is asked of them.
First day no sun/Fog looms over mountain/Everyone gets wet
As ango wound down, the weather took its first noticeable turn. Wintry breezes took hold the trees, and rain, even hail, poured forth in the early morning, jangling the first orange loose from its tree. It was a well timed arrival, the gusts fanning the hard work of each participant, shaking each leaf of the available oaks, leaving no one part behind. After the final recital of the four vows, leaving the zendo with the bonsho bell in my ears, I gazed up and found the moon high above an invisible mountain, swollen as a woman in birth. The next dawn, that moon sat on the horizon, even more plump, as it had swallowed up the moon of the previous evening and was ready to roll downhill. It rested within view of Roshi’s home. I could imagine Roshi’s downhill morning walks, the sky pitch-blue, the “umbrella of stars” alive and sparkling, and then entering the zendo to see the upright backs of sangha members, also still, also shining. As Roshi said, “the universe outside and the universe inside”. Another ango had come and gone, but the stars remained fixed in their positions. In the farewell shuso party, we loosened under them, listening intently as Koten read from his gift cards and collected a mountain of books. Then Ejo treated the sangha-family to a surprise violin recital. He played the traditional sing-along “Camptown Races” (doo-da, doo-da) and for those who stuck around for the second act, fingered arpeggios while sprawled out on his back. What an appropriate way to close winter ango, so alive, so playful, so much at the beginning of life!
All out of haikus/The cat still by the front door/Still meowing