Sunday, 21 January 2018

Zazenkai Sat 24 February

I'm pleased to announce that we'll be holding a day of Zen practice in Collingtree village (just outside of Northampton and just off J15 on the M1) on Saturday 24 February 2018.

The day will start at 10.00am and run until 4.00pm, and will follow a schedule of meditation, Zen teaching and one-on-one interviews about your practice (optional), with a communal lunch and work period.

Zazenkai (trans: "coming together for zazen") is an opportunity to deepen our meditation practice in a way that's not always possible in our daily routine. For some, it's also a welcome opportunity to sit with a group of people - a sangha, or community - that isn't normally available. Please consider joining the Northampton group for this wonderful opportunity to firmly stand in our own shoes!

Our Zazenkai are suitable for both beginners and seasoned practitioners - introductory instruction will be given if you've not sat before, or perhaps just not sat with a StoneWater group. Wear dark-ish (i.e. non-distracting), comfortable clothing, rakusu if you have one.

Suggested donation: £20 (£15 concessions) - all proceeds go to meet costs and to support the Northampton group (and we're a bit skint right now!)
Venue: Collingtree Village Rooms, High Street, Collingtree, NN4 0NQ
Bookings: Not required, but it would help if you could give us notice so that we can make sure there's enough food for everyone!
Contact: Call Alasdair on 07807 753 781, or email me on

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Zazen cancelled tonight

Apologies to all - afraid I've stuffed my back up and won't be able to host our regular zazen this evening.

Sure that things will be back to normal next week!

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Cancellation & Xmas closure

Apologies, but the regular zazen on the evening of Weds 13th December is unfortunately cancelled as I'll be in West Sussex attending the funeral of a family member.

We will also not be meeting on the 27th (the week between Xmas and the New Year), but we will meet as usual on the 20th, and will start up again in the New Year on the 4th January.

Saturday, 2 September 2017

Shuso Hossenshiki (Dharma Combat ceremony)

What started as a brief reflection ended up being a bit like one of those 1980s photo-story magazines... brace yourself! (Photos all by Jenny Best unless otherwise credited.)

So it comes to this - the four weeks of retreat, the preparation and admin leading up to that, the 95 hours of zazen in August (sad that I counted this - during zazen of course!), the grappling with Joshu's "Supreme Way", living in Butterwick away from my day-to-day life and family, the preparation done by so many sangha members, the efforts of my fellow monks and of course my teacher, the travelling by friends and family from Northampton and London everywhere else... Right, Alasdair... don't cock it up.

Drums! Bells! The grand entrance...

We find our places. Bowing. We start to chant the Heart Sutra, the tok-tok-tok of the mokugyo echoing out over Hope Street. Jutta gets the sambo (case book) from Sensei's altar, and presents it to me.

"Attention!" I read out the main case, and give my dharma talk -  I won't bore you with the details here! I believe at some point it will be posted on the StoneWater Youtube channel if you're intent on hearing my lies...

I return the sambo to Sensei's altar, and start bowing... there's a lot of bowing to do...

Next, I borrow Sensei's shippei, a stick which symbolises his authority to teach. I say that I will use it: "Freely, giving life and taking it away." I return to my place, and with my assistant's help (with sticks, mats, benches, cushions, robes, I think Keith was kept quite busy throughout!), I sit and display the shippei to the sangha:

"This is a three-foot long black snake. A long time ago, it was a konpura flower at Vulture Peak. At Shaolin it became a plum blossom... Now, in accord with the order of my teacher, it lies in my hands. I feel like a mosquito trying to bite an iron bull..."

Next comes the 'fun' bit... the dharma combat. There's pretty much nothing I could do to prepare for this, I've no idea what questions I'm going to be asked, or by whom. I'd already decided that the best thing I could do for this part of the ceremony - really the whole point of the ceremony! - is just kind of get out of my own way and answer without thinking too hard.

I'm told I did OK - the odd thing is that I hardly remember anything I said to anyone. At any rate, I get through all the questions (and one vigorous challenge from Woo!), and say to all as I thump down the shippei hard and loud onto a wooden block, "May your life go well!"

The ceremony at this point calls for my "humble apology" - much joking during rehearsal about this, but I find I make this apology in absolute dead earnest.

I pass the shippei to Keith, and bow down low. "Being immature and insufficient in training, I was not expecting to be appointed Head Monk. I feel as if a crime has been committed which fills the heavens, and there is not a place on earth for me to hide. I hope there is enough water in the Atlantic for you to rinse out my words from your ears!"

I return the shippei to Sensei, with the words, "Water flows and returns to the sea." Sensei responds, "Very well done." The "very" wasn't in the script - I allow myself to be pleased for a few seconds, and grin at him.

More bowing, to Sensei of course and also to the whole sangha... getting pretty sweaty with all this bowing at this point, but I'm taking things as slow as I can which leaves me time to really mean these bows.

Now the embarrassing bit - sangha members have composed poems about me... erk! I've got some of these in cards (and if you haven't sent me your poems, please email to as I've only got a few of them!). Thanks to all those who composed your poems - as I sat there, sweat pouring down my face, I loved every one of them... and every one of you!

Finally, it's all over. A few more bows, and we process out for a short private ceremony with Sensei, jishas, family, then back for the obligatory group photo!

A special thanks to my family - Selena and Josh, Zandie and Cassie - for making the trip up, as well as other friends from Northampton, London and elsewhere. I asked Josh what he made of the whole thing, and got his heartfelt and wonderful response: "Strange. And a bit boring." Thanks, boyo!

And of course, thanks to Sensei for everything he's done over the years which has enabled me to arrive at this point.

Photo by Andy Scott
Right, Keith. Your turn next!

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Week 4 - and leaving the Lakes

The last week was a return to the less frenetic pace of sesshin. Sadly a couple of cancellations, but it left us with a small and intimate group, and we seemed to work well together.

Janet wasn't just Tenzo, but also somehow grandmother - her offer to do any shopping, leaving me to stay on the property, was very much appreciated, and it seemed to help with my focus for this last, short push.

Really struggled to come up with material for the talks this week - would have been happy to carry on sitting in silence... but the talks are part of the duty appointed to me, so I wasn't about to shirk them. Ended up giving talks on shikantaza through three lenses - the notion of hishiryo (non-thinking), mushotoku (no thought of gain/profit) and jijuyu zanmai (self-fulfilling samadhi). They're still a work in progress, I think... might have to come back to these in a few years and see how my appreciation for shikantaza has changed.

Dryer than some of the other weeks, but gray. Seems appropriate - ordinary weather, in an ordinary valley - ordinary mind.

Some of the locals have been popping by - this woodpecker has been a frequent visitor, along with the blue- and great-tits squabbling over the fat balls, the manic red squirrel sprinting along the wall-tops, the voles in the stone wall at the field's edge, a young grey heron spotted hunting for frogs through the kitchen window.

On the last evening, I finished interviews a bit early (was going to have to continue the next morning in any case), and returned to the zendo for a spot of zazen... after almost no time had passed (but must have been at least 20 minutes!), I saw Jo reaching for the striker to hit the bell for the Four Vows. I wanted to yell out, "Noooooooo....! Don't do it! Don't end it! I'm not finished!" Dong... katz... dong... "Sentient beings are numberless..." dong... "...awaken, awaken... Take heed, do not squander your life."

I get up, bow at the haishiki, and stumble through the last exit of the day - no idea if the jisha got the bells right this time (this was not Clive's forté!). I went straight to the shack, and stood outside the door, looking over the rapidly darkening valley. My last night.

Tears - I wasn't expecting that. And a deep sob; "I'll miss this place."

"Pull yourself together, Alasdair," I mutter. A cup of tea is fetched. But the melancholy doesn't leave that night.

After the last zazen on Thursday, a round-up instead of a dharma talk. Julie's word resonates with me: "precious". Yes. Each person's reflections, their thanks. Mine - manage to somehow express my gratitude to Keizan Sensei for enabling this to happen. Much easier when he isn't here! And to everyone who has supported me through the whole process - my wife and son, Sensei, everyone who's attended (especially three weeks with Jikido Jo!), all the previous shusos who've made the organisation of this easy... even my boss for giving me the time off. Everyone who sent their best wishes and thoughts who couldn't be there. The Northampton sangha whose presence has been such an important support for me over the past five years. Fuck it: all sentient beings. Truly.

A final service. My bows seem deeper. The incense offerings are heartfelt.

Lunch. Packing. Tidying up.


Sunday, 20 August 2017

Samu week

What a change in pace - for the third week of the August training period, the timetable of silence and zazen is overthrown by a routine of daily labour and friendly communion. There's a lot of work to be done each year to maintain the place, and 'samu week' has become an important fixture in the maintenance of the house, gardens and zendo.

At the start, it was all honestly a bit much - having spent two weeks settling into a steady, slow rythym, and a quiet weekend at first on my own, and then just with Sensei, the arrival of the babbling hordes on Sunday had me retreating to a bench in the far corner of the garden by Sunday evening, desperate for some peace and quiet.

I am by nature, though, a sociable being, and it didn't take long for me to realise that as much as I was present to the routine and calm of the sesshin weeks, I had to be present to the chatter, work and laughter of samu week. Soon, I got over myself, and joined in.

Disaster strikes - turns out that the floor of the 'shuso shack' is in bad shape. I'd heard a floorboard break when I stepped in last week - pulling the furniture out reveals the floor is damp through, with wet rot fungus growing all over it.

Andy Scott to the rescue...! With a surprisingly gleeful violence, the skirting boards and half the floorboards are ripped out, and a temporary ply floor fitted - a night on the sitting room floor for me as the timber treatment dries, but I'm back in the next day, very happy indeed that I've been re-homed so fast. Being shackless is a step below homeless!

My job is treating the outside of the shack, a biggish job but plenty of time for it. I also get curtains and cushion covers to the cleaners in town, while John and Karen paint the sitting room. Amazing what a fresh coat of paint will do to a room - and the sage trim on the coving is replaced with a bright yellow (the less charitable might say that it makes me want to move my car to a legal parking spot...). There's a grand unveiling as John & Karen remove the masking tape...

Given that it's the end of the week, perhaps we can be forgiven for the obsessive hilarity we discover in the jumble of yellow-edged waste masking tape that still as I post this sits like an idol on the sitting-room wood burning stove...

Sadly, we're easily amused.

Not sure that the 'idol' will survive this week - sorry John & Karen!

I'm afraid I didn't get good pics of other people working - will post in a few below in any case. Jez ended up doing all sorts - fixing plumbing, painting the chimney, sourcing some 'ridge tiling' for the long shed... and probably twenty other tasks that required more competence than most of the rest of us (Andy aside) could scrape together. Jo's work in the garden made a huge difference - she just seems to know what to do and does it humbly and quietly, and suddenly you notice a corner transformed, a tree pruned to within an inch of its life, or an oddly shaped bamboo plant. All the while, Isshin carries on with the samu tasks that would normally fall to four people - and of course finds a hundred other vital cleaning jobs that cannot remain undone...

I think for all of us the highlights were being called in to eat. Not that we're all greedy or insatiable in appetite (though I am!), but the food produced by Zaza and her daughter Jamilla was simply fantastic. Each breakfast was different (the home-made muesli my favourite), each lunch a banquet and each supper a marvel of culinary creativity. Home-made bread, and even brownies and home-made chocolate on the last day. Yum. Yum squared. Each meal looked as good as it tasted, and Sensei must have pictures of every single dish on his phone, he was so taken by its presentation! Zaza and Jamilla's tireless labour will be long remembered...

We ended the week with a bonfire in the incinerator, sitting around in the occasional drizzle, chatting, laughing, eating and making the very best of the last few hours before it was time to sleep, wake, eat and leave in fairly short order the next day.

Thank you all for a fantastic week. Now, a quiet(ish) weekend, and the pace slows down a bit again as we await the folk coming for the last week.

I'm knackered - the last week has taken a huge amount of effort from us all, so I'm catching up on overdue naps to make sure the tanks are full for the last push - sesshin schedule again next week, and I'll be surfing on the energy that the new participants bring with them. Hope I can stay upright until we leave on Thursday!

Can't believe this has all happened so fast.

Friday, 11 August 2017

Two weeks gone - half way already

How different two weeks can be, following the same schedule in the same place...!

For the first week of the training period, Sensei was here and there was instruction on the 'form', how to officiate at our regular Zen services. There were interviews with him, and essentially he was in charge. The buck stopped with the boss.

For the second week, Sensei returned to Liverpool, and the buck only goes as far as me...

It seems to me right now that this is a big part of the training, too - beyond when to offer incense and when to bow, beyond pondering my koan. How will I stand in my own shoes when the responsibility is mine. I think it went all right.

Each day, the valley reveals itself in a slightly different guise. This afternoon, after everyone had left and I found myself alone, a rainbow spread out across the sky. I stood in the soft rain and gazed at it. Seemed to hang around for ages - long enough that I thought to grab my camera.

It turns out that being shuso (head monk/trainee) is about far more than I thought. I'm still working on my koan, of course, and exchanged emails with Sensei with some reflections on it (really not as good as a face-to-face chat it must be said!), and I'm still spending heaps of time on my cushion, eyes fixed on the floor, knees pressed into the mat.

But I've had to be so much more - chief shopper, samu job allocator, deliverer of dharma talks, dish washer, laundry marshall, service officiant, sounding board in interviews, social soother, even disciplinarian. Sometimes it feels like I'm cheating, doing this while my day job is university lecturer - there's been some significant overlap! But here I've been aware of holding the space for others - loosely, I hope, and gently, kindly.

Doing interviews with all the practitioners here has also really opened my eyes to how much is going on even in a silent zendo. The silence itself seems richer, more pregnant with meaning.

And beneath it all is my own ongoing practice in the zendo. Two weeks in, and I'm still amazed that I've managed to avoid knee pain, my almost constant companion on retreat. I've not once heard the clappers announce the next period of meditation and felt the gut-twist of dread that the next two hours will be spent trying to deal with the stabbing pain of aching knees. There's been occasional discomfort, but nothing more than I might feel on a Wednesday night in Northampton towards the end of our weekly communal zazen. It's opened up zazen for me in a way I'd not been expecting - while I'm not going to tell fibs about wonderful serenity and profound realisations, each period is mostly more settled than the last, as I find myself more fully present, day by day. Mostly, the bell at the end of a period comes as a surprise, not as something I've been urging on with all my might, dragging each second past the next.

This Wednesday was fantastic. I woke before Jikido Jo came round with the morning bell, and stared out over the valley. I've spent ages looking over the valley these two weeks, but this morning was wonderful.

Thin mists banding knipe slopes
Dewey bleats hail cresting sun
Soft hiss of the M6
Such a perfect moment. During zazen that morning I sat in Joy, a stupid grin beaming across my face. It lasted all morning, through breakfast and a trip to the shops in Penrith. Total joy, unreserved, undiscriminating. Eventually of course it passed, as all things do.