Interview: Zen Priest Zachary Smith

Zachary Smith is an ordained Zen priest based out of San  Francisco. We connected over zoom to discuss politics,  life, zen and more.

Maybe that's my first question then, Zach. I was going to ask this later, but what does a Zen Buddhist ... What's the right political view for a Zen Buddhist.

Hmm, that's a really difficult one, yeah.

What are your thoughts?

Yeah, I would say this. Zen is a Mahayana Buddhist school, and the Bodhisattva vow which is the centerpiece of Mahayana Buddhism says that even though the delusions are inexhaustible, and everything is a Dharma gate and you can't humanly step through all of them, the Buddha way is either unobtainable or unsurpassable, depending on how you translate it, I vow to essentially accord with all the procedures and rituals, and do all good, avoid actions that have negative Karmic consequences, and do it all in complete acknowledgement and participation in the mutuality and interdependence of all beings, right? So that actually starts to sound like a political stance? The main thing is, we all do this together and we all try and wake up together. If you find yourself behaving in a way that doesn't support that, then stand back for a second and give it another try, basically. Does that make sense?

Yeah, I think so. I asked because I was thinking about the Eightfold Path, and the concept of right view. And sometimes I think about when I was sitting in San Francisco, especially after Trump, it felt like every Dharma talk became a kind of diagnosis of the sangha's reactions to Trump.

Ha - Yeah.

And then I started thinking, "I wonder if you can be ..." If you actually start thinking about Asian forms of Buddhism, and the Bay Area form of Buddhism, they have different kind of political leanings. I just wondered how people think about that sometimes, or I keep thinking about that.

Yeah, I agree. I would say that the answer to that is complicated and some of the complicated history goes back to the Meiji Restoration. During the Meiji Restoration, famously, there was a whole division of the government that was initially planning on purging the country of Buddhism,  They were going to establish Shinto as a state religion, and suppress and deprecate Buddhism. And after a while they were like, "No, it's okay. You can still be here. You need to make these changes, though, as to how you work." They imposed a number of interesting things, like for example, temples had to be passed down from father to son in a hereditary manner, except for certain training temples.

But, what it did was it implant a sort of big householder class with subtly different interests in the middle of the Buddhist hierarchy in Japan. It had a huge effect, first of all, on the amount of activism that Zen Buddhists were interested in engaging in, and second of all, on the political leanings of Zen as a whole. And so the standard story you hear in Japan, not everywhere but I think a lot of places is, "No, you should just be practicing, and also being a resource to your community in the way that Zen priests have been a resource to their community for a pretty long time," right? So there are roughly 25,000 Soto temples in Japan, the vast majority of which are the village, town or regional temples where the priest has a very particular form of engagement with the community and everyone ... The standard story is you do that, right?

I think in the U.S., you still have to think about your political engagement in terms of the Bodhisattva vow, but a substantially wider range of engagements is possible. So if you talk to priests at Zen Center, some of them are doing - especially during the Trump administration - doing activist engagement on the border with immigrants. And so the counterweight to that is that it's pretty important not to be doctrinaire or absolutist about politics as a Buddhist. Because, again, in Mahayana Buddhism, the basic axiom is that all of the concepts, categories and so on with which we structure our thinking and our lives, are provisional and conditioned.

And so if you find yourself getting deeply attached to a particular conceptual framework for looking at politics, that's probably worth looking at, right? And in particular, when somebody comes to you to meet, honestly, the request and practice is to meet that person completely regardless of who they say they are, or who you say they are.

So that's a slightly longer answer, and you're right. I think there was a tremendous amount of essentially agonizing, at least of San Francisco Zen Center, about the unexpected election of Donald Trump. And some people managed to preface their agonized gravitas with, "I don't want to offend anybody here," and then some people didn't.

So talking, Zach, about doctrine. Maybe, why did you select Soto Zen, then?

Well, I selected Soto Zen for a very particular reason, and that was that my mom selected Soto Zen. I'm sort of a second-generation convert Buddhist. My mom was a Zen student in the '60s and '70s, and studied a little with Suzuki Roshi but mostly with Bill Kwong, who up until recently was the head of Sonoma Mountain Zen Center. But when I was a kid, he ran a large group in Mill Valley, basically. And so my mom would drag me over there, and Bill Kwong would go around with the stick. He would come up to me, and instead of whacking me on the shoulder you could hear him breathe a sigh like, "Oh." And then he would put the stick up against my back and pull my shoulders up against it, and straighten me up, and then go walk around the room and visit a few other people. Then he'd come back and you could hear him sigh again. He would go, "Oh," and he would do it again.

So that's why. The story after that is I kind of put it down for about 20 years. And then at one point I was looking at my life, and I made a bulleted list that included what I thought of as the parameters of my life. I looked at it and I thought, "That is the Best Life." And then I examined my experience of living that life, and I realized that I wasn't liking it very much. It was full of what the Buddhists call suffering, and furthermore I was being a jerk to pretty much everybody I cared about. I thought, "Well, all of that is bad. I will now fix it, and the place I will fix it is San Francisco Zen Center." Of course, I went off and I jumped into that, and none of the things that I thought were going to happen, happened in any of the ways that I thought they were going to happen. But after almost 30 years of that, the world feels like a radically different place.

What feels radically different, internally or externally or both?

Well yeah, that's an interesting point. I would say yes to both. What feels radically different from the internal standpoint … What feels radically different from the internal standpoint is that just my everyday experience of living that life. I mean, when I was looking at my life back in the early '90s, I was playing in rock bands for a living and had this really sort of, I would say, pretty frenetic but arty life. Now I'm living with Marsha and our two kids, and I actually have a couple of kids from previous relationships. I went back to work after a while in the tech biz, and I'm not even doing that anymore. I'm working primarily, really only, as a Zen priest and that's kind of it. So it's a very different life, but the difference doesn't have to do with the particulars so much as it has to do with the experience of being in the middle of it.

The experience of being in the middle of it is so different that it would be hard to say exactly why. It's just that the emotional baseline of the mind of practice is a kind of unconditioned appreciation that's indistinguishable from love. That's what it feels like a lot of the time. Not like I don't ever lose track of that, but that's the baseline. And then in terms of the external world, I don't know how much the external world has changed. But my perceptions of it have changed sufficiently that I'm pretty sure I didn't know back in the day what was going on in the external world. I'm not sure if I know a lot better now, but it certainly seems just radically different than it was. The things that I thought were motivating people, the things that I assumed people thought were important, or that I thought I observed people attending to the … The drivers for culture and how they work on a day-to-day basis, all those things feel really different to me now. And since they probably haven't changed that much, it's just that my perception of it's radically different.

So Zach then, do you find your Zen practice to be maybe an ethical system, a philosophy, religion, all three?

Yes, Zen contains a kind of large-scale philosophical system and conceptual framework, right? A lot of which is inherited from the Pali Canon, some of which is inherited from the Mahayana sutras, and some of which is inherited in a more elliptical way from the traditional literature, most of which is written down in the Song dynasty and some parts of which were written in the Tang dynasty, right? And, then there have been some additions to that in some other parts of the Zen world, Japan notably, in the Soto tradition. So it has that.

It's also got an ethics which again is mostly the ethics of Mahayana, right?

The thing that it has that makes it more of a religion as opposed to just a form of philosophical and ethical system, is that I've increasingly come to see that it emphasizes devotion. When you do a Monastic practice in Zen, it's not at all uncommon to find people asking, "Hey, why are we doing this stuff," right? Like, "Why are we eating in this really particular way? Why are we sitting, and why do we pick this particular meditation posture? Why do you step over the threshold for the Zendo or go to Buddha hall with the foot that's nearest the doorpost.”

And the standard answer to that is that it's a set of forms that buttress and contribute to mindful engagement, right? And that's true, but it actually goes deeper than that. All of those forms, including Zazen, are fundamentally devotional activities. You just do them because it's the request that you've been given. You do them wholeheartedly and without struggle. If you can do that, there's a kind of freedom that arises out of that devotion. And also, it points out the way in which we struggle with freedom. If you go to ... this is true I think in monasteries the world over, but certainly if you go to a Western Zen monastery, what you discover is that people have this kind of more or less ... Some people are more ambivalent, some people are less ambivalent ... but they have this sort of ambivalent relationship with the formal devotional practice of Zen.

And, they express that ambivalence almost completely in subtle ways in which they try to rake back control from the schedule, from the formal practice, from the requests that they receive to do this activity in this particular way, and so on. And that's the dynamic of formal practice generally. It shows you the way in which the self asserts itself, and self-narration is constantly coming up and constantly driving activities. And it also shows the way that lurking right on the edge of that is this other mode of engagement that offers a kind of freedom from all of that, that first of all it's beneficial and, second, that goes beyond simple benefit. It's kind of transformative, right? So that's what I would say. It's all of those. It's a religion. It's a philosophy. It's an ethical system.

You know, Zach, in my own practice now that I'm sitting more at the Diamond Sangha here in Hawaii, I'm sitting every morning, or twice a week at 6:00 am with the people who live there, which is nice. The first time I had some challenges with the salutations that we do at the end of the sit. But then I spoke to the monk and he said, "Instead of thinking of them as an external being, think of it as a salutation to the internal Buddha nature." I felt like that was such a good way to frame the practice ... Some people have problems with like an external God. I thought this was a nice way that they framed it. So I actually kind of like the ritual aspect now, but I can see how it could be off-putting, especially to Western kind of individualism.

Yeah. I think it is something to get over, and I experienced some of that as well, particularly early on. Particularly when you go to Tassara, the services are really long. After that comes a short work period, and then breakfast. And so by about midway through the service ... I was getting up at 3:30, and service was finishing up around ... I don't know, like 7:30 or something like that. By the time I was first of all almost fainting from hunger, and anoxia from chanting so vigorously. I was like, "Wait a second. What did I sign up for?" But in the end, that's right. Once you find a way to frame it that allows it to kind of take root, it's good.
I remember Aitken Roshi has a famous story that he tells about how somebody was objecting to the externalities that were referenced in the ceremony. They were going, "What is this? Are we talking about some sort of God figure or something like that?" And Aitken says, "I walked to the window. I pulled back the curtain, and there was the mountain." He asked, "What about that?" So that also is a way to think of it too - just the unbelievable power and glory of the natural world that gave birth to us. But yes, absolutely, the Buddha nature within, the Buddha nature that we share with everybody because we're all, let's be clear, all of our minds are made up out of the minds of others. The things that people said to us, the behaviors that they demonstrated for us, and so on and so forth. All of that. We're a colony, right?

Going in that line, and not to proselytize, but in the West there's the trend of kind of mindfulness and kind of self-help meditation, you know, apps, Calm and all that?

Why would you encourage someone to actually develop a deeper practice in a kind of a religious setting like a Zen temple, or even a Vietnamese kind of practice? Any of the Zen of Buddhist lineages, what would that offer to them instead of just that? I'm curious what you think.

Yeah, it's a really great question… There's a lot of agonizing about secular mindfulness, particularly, interestingly in some portions of the Zen community. There's a lot of agonizing about it because it's like, "Well, if you do that, it's just self-help." And my response to that is, the selves of the world need all the help they can get. Why not give them something helpful, and then see what happens, right? But I would say the reason I would offer something more spiritual, for lack of a better word, is that the actual reward of practice goes beyond self-help. It just sneaks up on you, and lands on you at its own rate and in its own way.

There's been a lot of literature in the past about how that works. There was a time when people really just couldn't stop writing about it. Like famously during the Tang dynasty, the Five Ranks for example, Tozan's Five Ranks. But there's a lot of other ones. Silent illumination, all those things, that talk about the way in which practice generates its own kind of plate tectonics, and over time your mind and body shift in this way that goes beyond help and benefit, into some kind of ... Like I was saying at the beginning, kind of transformation of what it actually is like to be in the world as a living human. Which is awesome, right? But the benefits of mindfulness are nothing to sneeze at. If you can discover a way to stay close to what's important, to act flexibly and skillfully in the middle of the unquestionably difficult social and business world that we currently have it, then why not?

All of that's okay. But I would say that the practice as a whole, done in the way that is recommended by any number of Buddhist schools but certainly the Zen school, offers something that goes beyond that. It's just a matter of engaging it and giving it time to work, and also engaging it in a way that doesn't run entirely on expectations. That's the other objection that people have about secular mindfulness, is that it puts in place a set of expectations which in some ways are a barrier to that deeper development. The only answer I have to that is, if you read all the literature it's full of aspirational messages, right? So everybody is trying to plant some kind of aspiration, and having an aspiration to be a more effective engineer or something like that is not bad.

But it's good to have a system in place whereby those aspirations get ... I'm not sure exactly what the right word is. Where you're asked to check them out on a regular basis, because they can also stand in your way, right? You can easily find yourself sitting there going, "Why are my aspirations not being fulfilled?" And find that your practice is a source of frustration and disappointment, rather than letting it run on its own course.

You know what's interesting, Zach, when you talk about aspirations? You know I've been doing ... I feel like I started with meditation with Vipassana, doing a Goenka retreat, you know? And Vipassana has kind of a formula that they go through. And the Zen practice kind of just emphasizes the physicality of it, and they don't emphasize any anchors. For me, it's kind of re-exploring meditation without the anchor. But then I've been doing a lot of reading on Zen, and I guess sometimes even in Japan they still practice Vipassana, even in a Zen frame?   So I'm just curious, what are your thoughts about anchoring and anchorless, and you know?

Yeah, right. So I think everybody who practices Meditation in a serious way for an extended period of time either comes up with or receives from their teacher, a collection of skillful techniques that allow them to work with their own particular cycle of attention and so on. It's easy to say how Shikantaza is just sitting, right? Yes, that's true. But everybody has the experience of wanting and benefiting from some technique in the pursuit of Shikantaza.  If you look around the Soto school, you start to see places where people have suggested other these very specific physical techniques around say what you do with the breath, what you do with the gaze, what you do with the input from your auditory sense and so on.

I think that's inevitable, right? I think people want and benefit from an anchor, and want and benefit from an invitation to right effort. And, what happens after that is that right effort is the effort that naturally tails out to no effort, as the mind settles and the body aligns itself. So, at some point there's no effort, and it's just sitting but there might be this idea that somehow no effort is best, and sitting with an anchor or with a particular set of physical practices is not as good. That's incorrect. That's maybe even sort of heretical. Sitting is ... Shikantaza is actually completely doing what you're doing now. If that involves a particular breath then so be it, right? That's okay.

All right. Talking about anchors, does Soto have any esoteric kind of practices?  Some of the Tibetan schools are very kind of mystical esoteric. I'm just curious about the Soto Zen, if they have any of those.

Well, for example, there's a guideline for the gaze that's called “gazing at distant mountains”. Have you heard this?  The idea is that once you settle, you let your gaze settle such that your peripheral vision is as wide as it possibly can be. Your eyes are not wide - wide squeaking open - but kind of relaxed and downcast. With the relaxed and downcast eyes and the very wide peripheral vision, if you can just let your eyes settle there, there's this surprisingly vast visual field that can just arrive moment by moment in your visual cortex. The request is to enact that in such a way that your gaze is completely relaxed but completely comprehensive. It's as though you're taking in as much as you possibly can of a mountain range that's way far away on the horizon, right? And so those techniques are esoteric in the sense that nobody teaches them in zazen instruction. They're like…

Buried in some scripture somewhere?

They're buried mostly in instructions that are passed down from teacher to student. And then every now and again, somebody will write a book with a few of them. But basically, it's stuff that's passed down from teacher to student, and they're quite specific. There's another one that has to do with the breath. It says that your breath actually should be experienced as a wheel that comes through the middle of your body and, when you breathe out, it's the forward part of the wheel that essentially turns into your hara.

When you breathe in, it's the back leg of the wheel which comes up your spine and lands at the forward crown of your head. And so you breathe in that way as a kind of visualization. And again, as you do that, the effort and attention that's required to do it settles slowly, and then finally it would be hard to say who's making the effort.

Zach, right now in your daily sits, I mean how are you focusing your effort, I guess is not the ... I don't know if that's the right term, but what are you working on?

What I'm working on is this. I've long been working on my personal cycle of attention. I think everybody has a cycle of attention. Mine has a particular length and quality and so on, and some of the things about its quality depend on how agitated I am, or how much sleep I got last night and all of that. But basically, it's pretty familiar to me now and what I noticed over time is that there are subtle ways in which I still emphasize engagement with the absolute over self-narration and thinking. So that's one. And so one of the activities I work with is noticing when that preference arises and just letting it go.

And then the other one has to do with noticing the way in which ... I don't know. The way in which my idea of what my inner life is like, is actually distorted by my desire to construct a sort of unitary, continuous narrative of self. The truth is, the more I pay attention, the more I notice that the mode of self-construction, self-narration and emotionally-driven engagement is always present along with this other mode of unloaded, broad, receptive attention in a way that you can actually stay connected to even in the middle of thinking. And so I've been trying to explore the details of that relationship as intimately as I can.

It's a long process, but where I am with it right now, it really feels like bliss. The promise in Dogen’s Fukanzazengi is that Zazen is the “Dharma gate of repose and bliss,” right? I remember once asking Paul, my teacher, "How is sitting on a bed of nails, making mistake after mistake after mistake, the Dharma gate of repose and bliss?” I kind of forget what he said, but my experience at this point is that most of the things that made it feel like sitting on a bed of nails, making mistake after mistake after mistake, settle when I practice in the way that I was just describing.

I think when I've done longer sits, I think the bliss aspects become very clear, as well as like the nightmare kind of places. I mean the goal is just to have no preference of either, I guess, but that's much harder. I mean, this just automatically connects me then, just the connection between Zen or even meditation and psychedelics is just more and more apparent sometimes when you sit alone, or even short sits, you know?

Well, I have a lot of experience with psychedelics. I did a ton of acid in high school and up through college, and less frequently as I got older. But I did a lot, right? What I remember about it is that it had all the features that people usually describe, but what was the most compelling was that, in the middle of all that business with the walls flexing and patterns appearing everywhere, and the thoughts spinning thought, spinning thought in this way that was really sort of exhilarating and exciting, there was this sense of an imperturbable piece.

And in some ways, that feels like the same trajectory as sitting, and then here's the other thing. Having done all that acid, when I get in the middle of a Sesshin, my eyes and ears kind of run riot. Because, I don't know if that's true for everybody, but I always assumed it was because I was predisposed to it because of all that acid. I would be walking in kinhin behind somebody, and their garment would take on some sort of elaborate pattern and sort of flex and wave around. So that also is kind of fun. But mainly it's that sense of being settled and quiet, and imperturbable in the midst of all this activity. That what was the crux of it and I think it's great that that experience is available.

The good news about that monastic living is that if you wig out, then usually there's some people to take you by the hand and lead you to your room or something. Whereas when I was tripping, except for the first time when my parents gave it to me, when I was tripping in high school and college, it was not always clear there was somebody there to take me by the hand.

No, I think that's one of the reasons why being part of a sangha is so important.   Because if you do have a negative, dark night experience, there's at least a vessel to help contain it. I just wonder if you've had any thoughts about the dangers of meditation? I mean, the same as the dangers of psychedelics.

Yeah. I've had some very dark night-y experiences while sitting. I did a sesshin a number of years ago now where I went into it with a kind of athleticism, working with a particular kind of breath technique. I also took on this practice where I would only ... The eating is very formal, and you don't take food ever. You're just served food, and I had this practice where I was eating only the first scoop of each of the three bowls that were put in front of me. So that regardless of the size of the first scoop, even if they only managed to get a couple cashews into my bowl, I'd bow and that would be it. All that seemed fine at the beginning, and actually it was pretty marvelous for the first few days.

And then after day four or something like that, it was like somebody flipped a switch in my head and I was in this kind of horrific fugue state. I was having really disturbingly violent and awful images arise in my head, and I felt very agitated emotionally and really just awful. I think that's a danger. I think it's possible to overdo it. My take on what happened to me was that I was starved and anoxic, basically. The breath thing I was doing was to breathe out and then rest in the space that your body makes at the bottom of the breath, until my diaphragm specifically told me that it was time to breathe in. And if you do that for a while, you can have these long pauses where you're essentially not breathing. And it's always tempting ... There's a little tiny temptation to stretch it out just a little bit longer, right?

It was difficult, and it took several days to work itself out. My solution was,  "Okay. For the rest of the Sesshin, I'm going to just breathe however I want and I'm going to eat a lot." And it actually made a tremendous amount of difference. By the end of the time, I felt exhausted like I'd swum the English Channel, but I also felt good. But then, I had this experience lurking in memory that was actually quite difficult to integrate. So, I think it's good to be careful. The Bodhisattva Vow says, “Delusions are inexhaustible.” It's easy to trick yourself into doing stuff that's not that good for you, even in the context of something as well-defined as a Zen Sesshin.

Well, I think the response I've heard from people about that usually is that it's like the same as if you went to the gym and tried to bench press 400 pounds versus whatever, 100 pounds. You're going to get hurt, so the same thing.

Yeah, exactly.

For meditation, you need to be stretched appropriately or whatnot, you

I think that's exactly right.

You know in Japan there was the gas attacks in the '90s, 1995, the Aum Shinrikyo, and they were kind of a new-age cult that had some ... The cult leader ... The one danger with these kind of very intense practices is that sometimes it leads to the ability to manipulate people, because it breaks down their ego and you can then kind of insert other elements into the ego. How did you maintain a kind of positive relationship with your teachers and elders or sangha? So what should people be looking for to avoid an Asahara as their guru?

Yeah, I think that it's a problem, that it's not exactly inevitable, but it’s showed up in enough places in the world, certainly in the West, certainly obviously in the West, but you read the poetry of Ikkyu. All of that same stuff is attested in his poetry, right? Both the way in which practice can become formal and stuffy, or it can become a pursuit of riches, because one of Ikkyu's objections to his fellows at Daitoku-ji was that they were all pursuing rich donors, so they could get nicer robes. So there is that, and then also his bingeing on sex and alcohol, just right up front in his poetry. All of that is there.

The required humility is also there, right up front, in the vow that says, "Delusions are inexhaustible.” What that means is that wherever you are, you should check yourself, right? And you should stay close to the momentary particulars in a way that softens and aerates fixed ideas, because otherwise it's really easy to get attached. As I understand it, the infamous Richard Baker actually said that the only reason people thought he was behaving badly was that they weren’t enlightened, which is fundamentally delusion.

Now to be fair to Richard Baker, Richard Baker is way different now. I think, in the end, he learned a lot from that experience and he's been tremendously helpful to a lot of people. But that really was a problem, and it caused a huge disruption in the lives of people that didn't deserve to have that disruption. It practically killed off Zen practice, at least in that part of the world, which would have been kind of tragic. So, what I look for is humility and simplicity and a kind of holding self-concern lightly. The problem is that often, people who are go-getters like Baker was ... And he did a marvelous thing, setting up Zen Center. He really did. He was great, right? But the problem is that it's easy for them to not hold self-concern lightly, because they've gotten to where they are and they've become the person they are by emphasizing self-concern. So it's good to check each other. It's good to check yourself, and it's good to stay close to the kind of humility that's inherent in your vows.

So what should pupils then be looking for? That same humility and simplicity, then? Is that what you're saying?

Yeah, humility and simplicity, and a willingness to both question themselves and be questioned by others, right? If you don't see that, then yeah ...

Look somewhere else. Got it. So maybe one of my last questions, Zach, then is in terms of a parent then, how does that play into how you parent?

Hmm. Parenting is a stupendous field for practice, right? I mean, it's got everything. It’s got formal activity, which changes over time. Initially it's changing diapers and giving baths and all the rest of that sort of thing, and then it graduates into picking your daughter up from school and taking her to the orthodontist. But it's got plenty of work that you can dedicate yourself to in the way that work is fruitful, right? It also has this marvelous opportunity to become really close to another being in the middle of their development into a full-fledged human, with all of the aspects of humanity that we're familiar with, including the predilection for suffering and the creation of difficulty for themselves.

And so, to really take it as an important place, first of all, to learn about that, because you really learn about it if you watch. Even if you have a great memory, nobody really ever remembers what it was like to learn how to suffer. I remember my now-adult daughter. I was talking to her on the phone one day when she was, like, two - maybe not even, but in any case something like that - and she said, "You know, Dad, I just discovered that I can talk to myself without talking out loud." Isn't that amazing? And then it goes rather downhill from there.

You can observe the way that that self comes into being in the way that all of the Buddhist literature talks about it, complete with the grasping and aversion, complete with the self-reification and self-narration, complete with the 12-fold chain of causation and everything else. You can watch it happen, and that is a powerful lesson. And then you can help, right?

Okay. I just wonder, as a religious kind of person, do you feel like some of the freedoms were kind of infringed on during the COVID pandemic?

I think that's a complicated thing. SF Zen Center is a perfect example. They’ve been very cautious. I mean obviously, I understand that they're trying to take care of their residents. They have a lot of people living there who, if they got COVID or even a breakthrough case after the vaccine, they could very well get severely ill or die, so that's not very good, right? But I think the restrictions have been difficult for everyone.

But that was a decision by themselves, right? Not from the state. Or, was it from the state?

That's correct, yeah. I never felt excessively restricted by the state guidelines. I mean, there are a few of them I probably broke a little bit. I chose the pandemic to do a whole bunch of really long-distance solo bike riding. I hardly talked to anybody, right? It was like extreme social distancing, but I didn't stay at home. So maybe that was kind of bending the rules. I met a small business owner, early on in the pandemic, in El Dorado County, who ran a whitewater rafting company. He was really struggling, and he was a great guy that had an incredibly positive outlook, and really his heart was completely in the right place, but he was having a hard time with it, and my guess is that the state, if they had the energy, foresight and willingness to do it, could have done a much better job of calibrating the rules to make them less onerous for people like that. I think he and a bunch of other small business owners felt like they were being unnecessarily restricted, in spite of their willingness to take precautionary measures.
And by comparison, the restaurant business in North Beach; things were closed for a while but actually not that long. After a while, everybody built a parklet and they were dining outside, right? I think a lot of people there did fine during the pandemic.

I think what troubled me, Zach, what you were saying about the simplicity and humility of leaders. I think that's the frustration for the rafting guy, that you couldn't ... If you questioned anything, then they either label you as something you're not or so-

Yeah. I totally agree..

It's a very challenging time, and I think yeah, we're lucky maybe if we work from home, or have certain skills. We'll see in 10 years what the counting, the true costs are of the pros and cons. We'll see.In the last year, I became probably more inclined to lean towards individualist freedom in making choices. Because when you start ... You know, there's this Japanese book called One-Straw Revolution.Yeah, and it's just we have a kind of an ego that we think we can control nature. But in the end, it's just so beyond our grasp, you know what I mean? It almost seems ... So, it's the same with the virus. We can try and control it, but it's like the weeds. It eventually will just come through, you know what I mean?

Yeah, I completely agree. That's one of the primary features of the human condition. We have this dream of understanding and control that's utterly delusive, right? And you might think that's sad, but actually it's not sad. It's just because nature is magnificently more complicated and ungraspable than we usually give it credit for. But yeah, totally agree. And it's an occasion for humility and simplicity.

One last question. I was going to say I was going to send metta, but you know Zen doesn't really have that, it seems like. But that's the one other thing I really love about kind of the Vipassana school. Is there any kind of Zen metta?

San Francisco Zen Center regularly chants the Metta Sutta, right? And metta practice, at least in the San Francisco Zen Center tradition, has kind of gotten adopted as a valuable practice and object for practice both sitting and also standing and walking. So yeah, I'm a firm believer in metta.

Great. Well, I want to send you and your family and all of San Francisco a lot of metta. I'll sit next and try to send you guys some positive vibes. Cool.

That's marvelous, and I hope it was helpful. Thank you so much for thinking of it, and for offering the opportunity. I really, really appreciate it.

No, I could ask you hundreds of questions more. I think it's a whole ... It's an endless practice, a life practice, so-

It is, yeah, definitely.

Great. Thanks so much, Zach. Have a nice day. Bye.

“bending double like the knee of a grasshopper, i pass through"

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