drafty mountain hut

always at home, forever on the way

Tag: Intensive Reports

Three Crows

by tendo zenji



Three Crows Dialog on the Paramita of Zeal

Midnight: suddenly forgot moon and finger;
Filing the sky, the solar disk—red!
— Chan Master Jiefeng Yu

The sun sank between the peaks dusk falling like a hood slipped over one’s head. A small, rocky stream flowed down from the north, alongside which there was a trail. It split, one fork running west the other east, a narrow path alongside each.  Where the three roads met there was a shrine to travelers and a small hut for those following the way. In the gloaming the dancing steam, echoed off the valley walls, augmented by the clacking of an occasional crow.  A jingling sound up from the west fork punctuated this soundscape. A moment later it was echoed by a duplicate sound up from the east. For a time there was a jingle from the west, shortly followed by its twin from the west.  When yet another similar jingling began to be heard coming from the north, the pattern was broken.

Around the bend, following the river from the north a conical straw hat bobbed into view, shortly revealing a grey robe on a man carrier a staff with seven rings.  The crows that flew up as he rounded that corner would have seen coming up from the rise to the east a figure that could have been confused for his brother. The hill descends a little sharper to the west, which perhaps accounts for the delay, but shortly thereafter a third monk hove into view again hat first.  The three met at the travelers’ shrine.  They bowed to each other. They bowed to the Bodhisattva of Travelers. They made their way into the small hut, and the soundscape of the valley returned to the chatty creek and the twilight birds.

Inside there was a single room the only feature was a central brazier above which hung a battered kettle. The three men took off their packs and sat cross-legged each in a corner of the tiny space. After some time one of them got up and built a modest fire.  Taking the kettle that hung over the fire pit he exited the hut and made his way to the river. Shortly he reentered the hut and hung the kettle over the fire on a blacked iron hook.  He returned to his seat. When the kettle began to sing he again rose and silently made a pot of tea.  While it steeped he retrieved a bowl from his pack and his companions did likewise.  The three of them placed the bowls in front of them and bowed.  Getting back to his feet the monk picked up the kettle and with a bow filled each bowl with tea. He returned to his seat and with a final bow they picked up their bowls and drank.

Another of the monks rose, retrieved a small pot from his pack and poured water from the kettle and hung it from the hook over the fire.  When it had reached a boil he threw in a handful of rice, raised the hook and covered the pot.  He kneeled by the fire frequently stirring the pot, occasionally adding more water from the kettle. After some time he removed it from the flame and let it stand covered.  When the rice had cooled sufficiently he arose and efficiently distributed it amongst the three bowls in front of each of the monks.  He sat, again the three bowed and deliberately ate every grain of rice in their bowl.  Again the first monk rose and prepared tea. He poured a measure into each bowl which, with a bow, they drank.  They set their bowls down together and made a final bow.

A few minutes later the third monk rose, gathered the bowls and made his way outside to the river.  He washed each bowl, drying it on a cloth he had tucked in his sleeve and returned to the hut placing the bowls and cups behind the monk who had used them.  He returned to his seat.   The monks sat in silence. The fire grew low until it was only a red glow outlining three still forms.

After some time one of the monks stirred and reaching into his sleeve pulled out a small book.  He opened it toward the back and with head bowed over the book read.  Raising his head he began to close the book, paused and read again.  With a slight shake of his head he closed the book and returned it to his sleeve. The monk who had previously cleaned the bowls, stirred and spoke.

“You did not seem to have found much solace in your reading, brother Jisha. What was it that so confounded you?”

With a quick glance at the speaker, the monk sighs and says:

Carry out a detailed investigation of dharma principles, taking awakening as your sole standard.” (1)

“Ahh the Whip. Master Guishan’s words are well worth heeding. What brought you to turn to that specific entry and what difficulty did you encounter?”

“At times during zazen when my mind is assailed by divergent thoughts I will turn to a page by chance. Often the words will give me renewed vigor and allow me to return my mind to a single point. What Master Guishan says is all well and good, but how?”

“Just a few entries beyond the one you stumbled upon, is it not written:

“Redouble the whip to practice zeal. Diligently seek without stopping. This is called the faculty of zeal.” (2)

Brother Monks, these are all the words we truly need. Those who have roused the aspiration for awakening, must hold on to that spark that lit the fire within. Our task is merely to rekindle that fire time and time again until we are entirely consumed. When you find yourselves distracted, unable to concentrate, that is when you bear down, doubling your efforts. This is the water that feeds all of your practices. Recall that

“The first three of the six perfections are contained within morality training. Dhyāna is contained within mind training; and prajñā is contained within wisdom training. Only zeal pervades all six perfections.” (3)

The monk bows, pauses a moment, and then asks, “How is it though that we maintain such zeal? I remember well when my head was first shaved you couldn’t keep me off my cushion. I sat and sat, and sometimes my mind would settle; I’d calm down and seem to merge into my surroundings. But then the thoughts creep in, the distractions slipped past my breath and rarely would I lose myself.”

“Dear Brother Jisha it sounds as if you have not heeded Master Puyan Duan’an instructions to the sangha. Let me refresh your memory:

“Do not do “dead” cross-legged sitting where you fail to keep your eye on the cue (4), where you maintain a “solitary stillness.” And do not do cross-legged sitting where you are minding the cue but have no sensation of indecision-and-apprehension (5). If you have torpor and distraction, no need to give a thought to thrusting them away. Quickly lift the cue to full awareness, shake off the defilements of body and mind—and be ferociously tenacious.” (6)

“Brother monk it is not a matter of “merging with our surroundings” or “settling our minds” or forgetting our feelings in silence and illumination! We are involved in the investigation of this great matter.   In order to see into this matter you must relentlessly pursue this investigation. Great Master Daihui makes quite clear how to undertake this great endeavor:

“Just keep on at all times pulling the cue into full awareness. Even when conceptualization arises, it is not necessary to employ the mind to stop it—just keep your eye on the cue. When walking, pull the cue into full awareness; when sitting, pull the cue into full awareness. Continuously keep pulling the cue into full awareness. When the cue no longer has any tastiness for you at all, you’ve hit the good spot. You must never release the cue.” (7)

“This my brothers is the paramita of zeal: never releasing the cue. When stray thoughts arise, it isn’t a matter of squashing them down, it is a matter of returning to the cue. When you are distracted by pain, feelings, sense objects and so on, you return to the cue. As you become more mindful you will notice these wanderings before they have gone too far afield and without mental commentary return to the cue. This requires a deliberate effort for quite some time and this effort both depends upon and cultivates zeal. I am reminded of Master Guzhuo admonishing his sangha:

Great Worthies! Why is it that you don’t produce the great zeal, and deeply generate the solemn vow before the three treasures? If birth-and-death is not clear to you, and you have not yet passed through the barrier checkpoints of the patriarchs, make a vow not to come down from the mountain. Face your seven-foot sitting portion on the long platform, hang up your bowl and bag, and assume a cross-legged sitting posture like a wall thousands of feet high. For the whole of this single birth, practice the Way until you penetrate. If you do your utmost with this mind-set, you’ll never get taken in.” (8)

Silence descended over the room. The fire burned low suffusing the room with a low red glow. The only sounds are the ever-present babbling of the stream beyond the hut, and occasional pop or hiss from the fire. The monks are just shadows in the room, indistinguishable from sacks abandoned in three corners of the room. With a start one of the monks jerks his head and blinks rapidly.

“Brother Tenzo, what is the matter?”

With a hangdog expression the monk replies, “I have become overwhelmed by drowsiness and am unable to maintain focus. I’ve pushed myself for years, never slacking off, but for all my efforts I still succumb.”

For a spell the monk said nothing. He scratched the back of his head. “Hmmm”, he finally said. “Hmmmmmm.” Looking toward the sky, he continues, “Your statement brings to mind the tale of Master Xueyan Qin and his long struggle for awakening. Like you he spent years and years devoted to his practice, engaging in myriad austerities:

“…for two years I hadn’t slept with my body in a horizontal position, and I was suffering from being dazed and fatigued. Thereupon in one fell swoop I gave up all of these painful practices. Two months later my prior state of health was restored due to this giving up—I was in full vigor.”

There is a lesson here that has come down all the way from the World Honored One to the present day. To penetrate this great matter requires dedication, zeal, forbearance and letting go of many things. But we must always stay on the middle path between austerity and excess. Too far in either direction and you will not see into this great matter. Each monk must find the middle path for himself; some will require greater austerity, some less. After recovering his health Master Qin recounts an encounter with Head Monk Xiu:

“Xiu said, “The true practitioner of the Way doesn’t even bother cutting his fingernails. So why would I find time for a useless conversation with you!” At that I raised an issue: “Right now I’m trying to clear up my torpor and distraction, but with no results.” Xiu said, “It’s because you’re still not fierce enough. Make you sitting cushion high, straighten up your backbone, and merge your whole body into oneness with a single cue—what torpor and distraction will there be to make into a problem?” (9)

“Heed well these words Brother Tenzo! You need to be fierce, you need to not be led astray by externalities. Start with ‘Straighten your backbone’—recall Master Guzhuo instructs us thusly: ‘…assume a cross-legged sitting posture like a wall thousands of feet high’. If you feel yourself nodding off sit even straighter! Sit wide eyed if need be and when torpor fades into the background raise your cue. “

“Is there not also a comment in the Whip that a certain monk stabbed his leg with an awl to keep himself awake?”

“Thus so! Some may need to go to such extremes, yet many have not had to resort to such methods. In our investigation into this great matter we must do what is required. Both of you now take heed: Your struggles are not just your own; Followers of the Way in every land throughout every time have faced the same issues, have faced the very same problems and have surmounted them.   The records of the Masters of old have addressed these issues time and again. Consider well their words. Your efforts fortify your zeal and it should always be increasing. This then is how you practice: fully engaged, entirely immersed in your inquiry. This is how you shake off torpor and distraction: rouse all your zeal, put in all of your effort, be fiercely tenacious. Master Puyan Duan’an describes the fruits of such unrelenting, uncompromised practice:

“If you practice in this tenacious manner, suddenly, where before the cue was not raised without your effort, not it is raised of its own accord; where before the indecision-and-apprehension did not arise without your effort, now indecision-and-apprehension arises of its own accord. When walking, you won’t know you are walking; when sitting, you won’t know you are sitting. There will only be the probing of the sensation of indecision-and-apprehension—solitary and distant, clear and bright. This is called “the locus of cutting off the defilements.” It is also called “the locus of the loss of self.” (10)

He clapped his hands once and with that the three of them bowed and resumed sitting with no further interruptions.

The sky was a slate grey, matching the weathered wood of the travelers’ hut. Slowly the grey lightened and edges became more defined. A beam of light from the sun broke between two hills touching color to the scene. Atop the hut three crows roused themselves, spread their wings and flew off, each following a different path into the mountains.


The Chan Whip Anthology: A companion to Zen Practice
Jeffery L. Broughton with Elise Yoko Watanabe
Oxford University Press 2015 New York, NY
ISBN: 0190200723

  1. p. 166, Guishan’s Warning Whip
  2. p. 167, Sequence of the Boundaries of the Dharma [Gates: First Gate]
  3. p. 163, Yogacārabhūmiśāstra

  4. Cue is a translation of huatau, or the critical phrase usually from a gong’an (koan). In Gongfu, or Zen Practice, the dominant form became cue practice. The core of the practice is to relentlessly focus solely on the cue. Daihui first explicated this practice, see note 7 for further explanation.
  5. Indecision-and-Apprehension is the translators rendering of the third of Gaofeng’s Three Essentials of Chan: the “faculty of great confidence,” the “determination of great fury,” and the “sensation of great indecision-and-apprehension” (p. 7). This is often rendered as “Great Doubt” The word in Chinese is yiwhich can be translated as doubt, puzzlement, perplexity, uncertainty and so on.  This word would have these meanings in an overlapping sense.  Gaofeng’s describes it thus: “it is as if you have in secret committed an atrocious act, and it is the very moment when you are about to be exposed but you are not yet exposed.”  That sort of state is far beyond doubt, though doubt would certainly be part of what you are feeling.  One writer on Dahui’s use of yi said that if you consider doubt in the Christian tradition where it lies in opposition of faith, specifically in times of deep existential crisis and anxiety (think of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane), would convey a similar meaning.
  6. p. 118, Preceptor Puyan Duan’an of Mt. Dasheng Instructs the Sangha
  7. p. 78 Chan Master Dahui Gao of Jingshan Answers Questions
  8. p. 120, Chan Master Guzhuo Instructs the Sangha
  9. p. 89, General sermon of Chan Master Xueyan Qin of Yuanzhou
  10. p. 118, Preceptor Puyan Duan’an of Mt. Dasheng Instructs the Sangha


Encouragement Talk

by tendo zenji

“I could show you my clenched fist and open it—and bid you all good night.But that is not the way things are done in the West—and so I am forced to give as a substitute, dualistic explanations, though that’s not at all the way to express Zen.” (1)

It was the fifth day of this winter retreat when the storm hit.  The last few days had been clear and cold with a persistent, bone chilling wind out of the west. It was early afternoon, time dragging down eyelids forcing one to struggle to remain upright.  Sitting upright, eyes wide, gazing out the window at the tops of the trees at the far end of the lake.  Suddenly, as if in a dream, the trees are obscured by a pale mist.  Visibility rapidly decreases. What seemed to be a fog rolling in was revealed to be a snowstorm that quickly struck the windows as if it was hail.  The only view now, outside any of the windows, was one of a white blur.  Throughout all of this the bell was periodically struck.

“The teacher [Seppo] said: “Don’t stop until your axe cuts the very center of the trees.” He was an expert woodsman as well as a Zen master. Many Americans are currently seeking truth, visiting classes in philosophy one after another, and studying meditation under various teachers. But how many of these students are either willing or able to cut through to the tree’s very core? Scratching halfheartedly around the surface of the tree, they expect someone else to cut the trunk for them. Zen wants nothing to do with such mollycoddles!” (2)

When one has committed oneself to monastic practice the options narrow. You can abide on the surface, coasting along sit after sit.  Yet sit continues to follow sit and retreat follows retreat relentlessly. Struggle as you might that is inescapable. Choosing to do retreat after retreat, being fully present for sit after sit presents a different set of circumstances. Checking out is an option; not attending the next retreat is an option. Equivalently delving ever deeper, pushing ever harder, balancing on the edge of the knife; this too is a choice.  In whatever manner you are able it is this latter choice that should be supported.  Things can never be made easy enough for those who have checked out, but those testing their limits can always be pushed harder.

“Zen masters used to hide themselves in remote parts of the world, meditating in the deep mountains among trees and rocks, with monkeys and rabbits for companions. They did so not because they were misanthropic, but because they wanted to guard their Dharma against the dust of glory and fame. Modern students of religion are altogether too impatient. Without waiting for the fruit to ripen, they open up their stores and begin to sell their wares. Such unripened fruit is unhealthy, and may cause injury to those who do not know the difference.” (3)

It took three days hard cycling to reach the lake. It was late in the season and there were few people about.  The mountains had yet to reclaim their white beards, the rings around the lake attested to the months without rain. The salmon, bright red in the clear water, struggled ever further inland to reach the place of their birth. The cold nights bring out the endless stars like handfuls of diamonds cast upon a blackboard. The cold drives the few people to retreat into their dwelling places and bedclothes. A few strange bird calls. When asked why I’m here, I have nothing to say, but futilely gesture toward the stream, the lake, the mountains.

“Yes, it is the taste that matters— the flavor of the moment, of people and places. When I make a cup of tea for a guest, I become a servant; when my guest receives the cup with naturalness and ease, he becomes the host. This is the taste of tea and the essence of ceremony.” (4)

Saying nothing is often the most appropriate response. It is tempting sometimes to think that explaining something— our perspective, our point of view, an experience, our feelings— is always worth doing.  Being able to sit with someone and not have to say anything is genuine intimacy.  This late in the history, in the west, could one just sit there silently? hold up a finger? a flower? When giving words is there a dwelling on the speaker? or the listener? or the words? If so, who is the host and who is the guest? “Have a cup of tea.”

“Now while I certainly don’t want any of you to die before you are very old, I do want you all to die like buddhas—peacefully and calmly. We are performing birth-and-death every minute, every hour, every day and every year. Whether you make yourself a three-minute Buddha or a ten-year Buddha is up to you. Only two more days remain of this seclusion week. Make yourselves at least two-day buddhas!” (5)

The rain had been coming down steadily for the last few days; the snow was fast retreating from the onslaught. The rain would slam into the building, filling the space with a bright wash of sound. Then it would just as suddenly cease, leaving only the dripping and the creaking of the old building. At night we would raise our voices in a single syllable, layer upon layer, rising and falling, extolling our connection to all things.  A raindrop is born in the clouds, exists as a separate entity while it falls, then mergers with the absolute when it reaches the earth. The rains start and stop and each time countless raindrops fall. Two days left.

“To live in Zen, you must watch your steps minute after minute, closely. As I have always told you, you should be mindful of your feet, not of your head or chest, in your meditation as well as in your everyday life. Keep your head cool but your feet warm! Do not let sentiments sweep you off your feet!” (6)

There I was center orchestra, just a few dozen rows back from the stage.  The symphony poured their hearts into this rich, romantic drama and my thoughts began to drift. What was I going to do that evening after the symphony? Would it be too late, or could I perhaps get in some reading?  How crowded would the train be do you think?  Suddenly it came to me, these are just distracting thoughts! In the same way you bring your attention back to the breath, I need to bring it back to the symphony.  And so I did. Again and again.  Fully present, for much more of the time, the rich music evoked so much more to me. For a piece that I had heard probably hundreds of times, it became fresh once again. Do this for all things.

“As Buddha himself was cremated, my corpse should be treated the same way. The funeral must be performed in the simplest way. A few friends who live nearby may attend it quietly. Those who know how to recite sūtras, may murmur the shortest one. That will be enough. Do not ask a priest or anyone to make a long service and speech and have others yawn. Silence is the best offering to me!” (8)

All the rituals surrounding impermanence are for the living. Who is to say that what will bring comfort to one, will bring comfort to others?  The dead give nothing but silence.  The lesson of impermanence is straightforward, but we make it so much more complex.  Is it because we cannot let go? So much we do let go of without a thought: the raindrop hitting the earth, the breath leaving the body, sweat evaporating on backs, hoar frost fading in the sun, the yellowing leaves, an exclamation on entering cold water, the mosquito under the hand, each evenings setting sun. These connections are like all of our relationships and while they are a part of us we shouldn’t cling to them.

“Everything appears as if it exists, but we only recognize things in relative terms. The world is formless—simply a phenomenon of flux, consisting of various relations, conceivable only in relation to subjectivity and objectivity. Without this close relation, there is no thing, there is no world. Non dwelling means non attachment. Non attachment discourages our clinging ideas of loss and gain.” (7)

The long day is drawing to a close, only a few of us now seated under the glowing tree.  Sounds become more clearly delineated. Distantly there are some sensations of form, reminders of shape. Outlines become indistinct, slow down. Sounds merge into white noise. Who is it that is listening right now?  A serene light washes everything out. Silence. The sensations of form become increasingly acute. Nagging thoughts arise. The night ends before the morning star rises. Soon now there must be observances made, ritual observed, form followed.

“Remember me as a monk, and nothing else. I do not belong to any sect or cathedral. None of them should send me a promoted priest’s rank or anything of the sort. I wish to be free from such trash and die happily.” (8)

All citations are from the following collection:

Like a Dream, Like a Fantasy
The Zen Teachings and Translations of Nyogen Sensaki

Edited and Introduced by Eido Shimano
Wisdom Publications Somerville MA, 2005
ISBN-10: 0861712803

1) In This Lifetime, p. 144
2) In This Lifetime, p. 145
3) Ripe, Unriped Fruit, p. 138
4) Have a Cup of Tea, p. 164
5) Ripe, Unriped Fruit, p. 139
6) My Last Words, p. 167
7) The Diamond Sutra, p. 134
8) My Last Words, p. 168

Mountain Practice

by tendo

Tour 2014 day 54 Sequoia NP

“Deeply realizing ourselves and the true nature of these mountains and rivers is perhaps the most important and profound thing each of us will ever do with our lives. We should not take it lightly. Our lives and the life of this planet depend on it.  —John Daido Loori, The Way of Mountains and Rivers

Mountain Practice

A Pilgrimage with Dōgen’s Mountains and Waters Sutra

I went to the mountains to find my way into the heart of things; to drink deeply from glacier fed waters; to walk with the trees; to gaze out into that wilderness where the mountains march endlessly into the distance fading into blue layers. All routes into the mountains follow rivers and as I made my way into the North Cascades I followed the Skagit River. In the flat, rich loam of the Skagit Valley the river cuts a wide, muddy green, slow path. Right on the edge of the Puget Sound the winds blow constantly off the water and one easily frays into just existing in the midst of the wind working one’s way east.

“Because green mountains walk, they are permanent. Although they walk more swiftly than the wind, someone in the mountains does not notice or understand it. “In the mountains” means the blossoming of the entire world. People outside the mountains do not notice or understand the mountains’ walking. Those without eyes to see mountains cannot notice, understand, see, or hear this reality.” – Dōgen zenji, Mountains and Waters Sutra

As the flatlands transition into forestland and begin their inevitable rise into the mountains, the river too transforms becoming increasingly blue-green, shallower, rockier and more lively. The hills in the distance resolve themselves from watercolor diffused blue shapes into spiky tree green mounds that poke out above the valleys the rivers have carved through them. Vast patches of desolation, gouged out of these mountain forests reflect humanities needs, needs seemingly without limits. When you are in the midst of the foothills and mountains, following the river path, these scars feel like wounds on your very body. You feel as if humanities appetite knows no limits and must be fed regardless of cost. It is much harder to feel oneness with those who have caused these scars, as it is to feel a connection with the landscape that you are part of. Deeply question our how our actions, directly or indirectly, have led to these wounds.

Tour 2014 day 27

“All of us can appreciate that we must be responsible for our actions — whether it’s in the context of our work, our family, or our relationships. What is harder to understand is that the simplest of events also affects the environment. To realize “you and I are the same thing” points to our identity with the whole universe. It also underlines the great responsibility that comes with being human.”  — John Daido Loori, The Way of Mountains and Rivers

The foothills give way to towering edifices with increasing amounts of snow crowning their rocky peaks. Clouds seem to hover above them like silent, ephemeral alien beings. The river now is exuberant, moving vibrantly over rocks, sometimes pooling under shady trees, other times falling in swift rapids. The glacier melt has transformed it into pure blue with flecks of white from its path through the stones of the mountains. The rivers continuous activity is withheld by dams; this landscape has been transformed to power the city and the needs of humans throughout this region. We marvel at the heroic efforts of those who have built these gigantic cement structures out here in the wooded wilderness, while shaking our heads at the imposition inflicted upon the landscape. It is always this dichotomy: what is that imposition in the dead of winter as we heat our homes and read our books in the light they have made possible?

“You may not notice that you study the green mountains, using numerous worlds of phenomena as your standards. Clearly examine the green mountains’ walking and your own walking. Examine walking backward and backward walking, and investigate the fact that walking forward and backward has never stopped since the very moment before form arose, since the time of the King of the Empty Eon.” – Dōgen zenji, Mountains and Waters Sutra

Sitting breath after breath in the cool mountain air the sounds of myriad birds, insects, woodland creatures, chuckling brooks, wind shaking the trees blur into undifferentiated aural vibrations. It was hot this summer, even at four thousand feet amongst the trees on the western side of the Cascade Mountains. Having scrambled over rocks beyond a narrow rocky trail below Sourdough Mountain I sat and watched the continuous fall of Sourdough Creek from the rocks above. It seems to slow down and become this wavering white streamer undulating in the wind and then snaps into the deep focus of countless drops of water spraying out from the rocks above. Put yourself in the place of a fish in its water home suddenly shooting over that edge and into freefall still fully enveloped in water. Put yourself into all possible views of Sourdough Creek falling down that rocky mountainside.

Tour 2014 day 8 waterfall

“The nature of the mountains is completely different when we separate ourselves from them as observers, and when we are the mountains with the whole body and mind.” — John Daido Loori, The Way of Mountains and Rivers

Moving along the forest roads where for mile after mile you seldom see another person any sense of separateness begins to fade away. The need is just no longer as necessary and simply absorbing all of the sensory stimulation is becomes sufficient. The butterflies and dragonflies that float alongside or perhaps hitch a ride on your handlebars are your fellow travelers. The sky in its multitude of conditions is better than any painting and it is always there and it is always your world. The closer you get to the bare essentials the less there is that stands in the way. There is no silence in the woods but there can be a deficit of the sounds of humanity and the distractions of perceived distinctions. Is that the knocking of a woodpecker or a raven clacking its beak? Sitting here in these woods it doesn’t seem to make much of a difference.

“Thus, the views of all beings are not the same. Question this matter now. Are there many ways to see one thing, or is it a mistake to see many forms as one thing? Pursue this beyond the limit of pursuit. Accordingly, endeavors in practice-realization of the way are not limited to one or two kinds. The thoroughly actualized realm has one thousand kinds and ten thousand ways.” – Dōgen zenji, Mountains and Waters Sutra

How is that we came to this place where nature is this place that we have to travel into to rejuvenate ourselves as if “nature” is this thing “out there” that is pure and completely distinct from us. If we can come to see that there are myriad views of everything and that all of them do not ‘add up’ to reality but merely point towards it, can we not also come to see that our cities and suburbs are not separate from nature. And yet, and yet… Why is it so much easier to forget yourself amidst the sounds of the roaring river, the calling birds, the tapping of rain on your tent, the quaking aspens that, in a light breeze, sound so much like a gentle spring rain? John Daido Loori reminds us: “Because so many of us nowadays are city dwellers, it is easy to romanticize nature at a distance. Sitting in an apartment somewhere in Midtown as we plan a summer adventure to Yellowstone Park, it is important to remember that wild nature is also in our backyard.”

Pursue this beyond the limit of pursuit.

Tour 2014 day 51 DrainedLake

 “It is not only that there is water in the world, but there is a world in water. It is not merely in water. There is a world of sentient beings in clouds. There is a world of sentient beings in the air. There is a world of sentient beings in fire. There is a world of sentient beings on earth. There is a world of sentient beings in the world of phenomena. There is a world of sentient beings in a blade of grass. There is a world of sentient beings in one staff.” – Dōgen zenji, Mountains and Waters Sutra

As I made my way south it became increasingly dry, the effects of years of drought draining the lakes, burning the landscape. Is it hubris to question whether our actions have had an impact here? There is no doubt that our activities have raised the temperature on average and even that small change has driven animals into new territories, alpine flowers further up the mountains, glaciers to retreat, oceans to warm and become more acidic. Deep in the Sierra-Nevada Mountains you find many lakes used as reservoirs for the endless cities below. Year upon year these reservoirs have given more water than they have received and like the ring in a bathtub, they are marked by rings descending down into the mudflats that surround the bare amounts of remaining water. Looking at these bodies of waters, each a universe of universes there can be no doubt of the impact of our needs. Our needs drained these lakes.

Tour 2014 day 8 water

“On the other hand, from ancient times wise people and sages have often lived on water. When they live on water, they catch fish, catch human beings, and catch the way. These were all ancient ways of being on water, following wind and streams. Furthermore, there is catching the self, catching catching, being caught by catching, and being caught by the way.” – Dōgen zenji, Mountains and Waters Sutra

I was on the edge of one of these lake reservoirs near the end of my journey in the mountains filling up my water bottles when a recreation company employee asked me about my trip. We got to talking about Yosemite and he told me about his time working there and of his encounters with the bear population. He continued to talk to me about an injury he sustained and how that changed his prospects and what he was working towards now and his hopes and dreams. I just stood there listening, marveling that here I am, a complete stranger, a traveler from thousands of miles away and he was telling me these intimate, personal details of his life. This wasn’t the first time this happened on this trip and while I’m sure it’s not the entirety of the matter, I feel confidant that encountering anyone who will listen, really listen is so rare that people will genuinely open up. Spending this kind of time in the mountains demands presence opens your ears to the sounds all around and you spend a lot more time listening than talking. Practice.

“Descending the mountain is by far the most demanding aspect of our practice — much more difficult than realizing the emptiness of phenomena.”  — John Daido Loori, The Way of Mountains and Rivers

It was Labor Day Weekend when I reached Lake Isabella the furthest south I would travel in the mountains. The landscape was all dusty browns and tans, dry with hearty twisted shrubs poking up from the barren terrain.   Lake Isabella was a dusty, jewel of blue amidst theses tans, but like so many of the lakes I’d encountered in California it was shockingly low. The first night I was in this campground there was very few other people, but on Friday families began to stream in for the holiday weekend. That evening the barest sliver of a moon rose between two scrub-like trees as I washed my dishes from dinner. The next day I rode down from the Sierra-Nevada Mountains into the scorching San Joaquin valley to Bakersfield where I’d catch a train back north. The road out of the mountains followed a river that drained out of Lake Isabella, a line of green life cutting an increasingly deep valley in this arid, sunburnt landscape. I was on the valley walls for a spell but eventually was on the main road. Cars streamed up the other side as people headed to the various campgrounds away from the cities. I came into Bakersfield via suburbs that seemed just dropped onto the desert and then into clearly depressed parts of town that were all check cashing shops and fast food. I had to wander miles to find a grocery store where I could purchase food for the long train trip. While I was waiting in the train station police entered the woman’s restroom and forcibly dragged a person out in handcuffs. Twenty-four hours later I was back in the Pacific Northwest, the train just rounding Chambers Bay, the sun descending toward the water, lighting the fluffy clouds from below and suffusing the sky with a magical glow.

“It is becoming more and more evident that this earth will not tolerate our apathy much longer. But even if we succeed in wiping ourselves off the face of the earth, the planet will eventually renew itself. Given enough time, it will heal. The question is whether we will be part of that healing.” —John Daido Loori, The Way of Mountains and Rivers

Tour 2014 day 60



  1. Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dōgen’s Shobo Genzo
    Zen Master Dōgen and Kazuaki Tanahashi
    2013 Shambhala, Publications, Boston
    ISBN: 9781590309353
  2. The Way of Mountains and Rivers
    Teachings on Zen and the Environment with commentary on Zen Master Dōgen’s Mountains and Rivers Sutra
    John Daido Loori
    2009, Dharma Communications, New York
    ISBN: 9781882795215
  3. Plum Mountain News vol. 22.3 Summer 2015
    the Dai Bai Zan Cho Bo Zen Ji newsletter
    Seattle, 2015