imagesThe old monk sat by the side of the road. With his eyes closed, his legs crossed and his hands folded in his lap, he sat. In deep meditation, he sat. Suddenly his zazen was interrupted by the harsh and demanding voice of a samurai warrior. “Old man! Teach me about heaven and hell!”

At first, as though he had not heard, there was no perceptible response from the monk. But gradually he began to open his eyes, the faintest hint of a smile playing around the corners of his mouth as the samurai stood there, waiting impatiently, growing more and more agitated with each passing second.

“You wish to know the secrets of heaven and hell?” replied the monk at last. “You who are so unkempt. You whose hands and feet are covered with dirt. You whose hair is uncombed, whose breath is foul, whose sword is all rusty and neglected. You who are ugly and whose mother dresses you funny. You would ask me of heaven and hell?”

The samurai uttered a vile curse. He drew his sword and raised it high above his head. His face turned to crimson and the veins on his neck stood out in bold relief as he prepared to sever the monk’s head from its shoulders.

“That is hell,” said the old monk gently, just as the sword began its descent. In that fraction of a second, the samurai was overcome with amazement, awe, compassion and love for this gentle being who had dared to risk his very life to give him such a teaching. He stopped his sword in mid-flight and his eyes filled with grateful tears.

“And that,” said the monk, “is heaven.”


The river is the ultimate teacher, the proverbial monk on the side of the road engaged in zazen described in this parable.  Water molecules are polar- positive and negative, organized yet disorderly, heaven and hell all at the same time.   The first time I tipped over in my kayak when I was just starting out, you could say I was experiencing hell.  It was dark, I couldn’t breath, I was upside down and strapped into this boat without any ideas about how to right myself.  At the time I thought that was hell. After learning to roll I found heaven and hell were actually in the same place at the same time, it was just my fear and then my elation that defined them. Heaven was just as present when I was out of air, in the dark and afraid as was hell. I get to choose heaven and hell every time I paddle, just as the samurai discovered that heaven and hell existed in his own definition of his experience.

By: Erik Boomer

images-1There is a Taoist story of an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically. “May be,” the farmer replied. The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed. “May be,” replied the old man. The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. “May be,” answered the farmer. The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “May be,” said the farmer.


Like a river, life has a predetermined path.  Sometimes, the twists, turns and rapids don’t always seem to make sense, but patience, trust and time will explain each event and show it as part of the bigger picture.  Ultimately, the river will end in the ocean.

This is a lesson that was illustrated more clearly than ever when I recently spent two weeks kayaking Madagascar’s largest river, the Betsiboka.  Many single events on the Betsiboka didn’t make sense at the time but when we reached the take out we realized that some of the things we saw as bad luck saved the expedition and some of the things we saw as good luck nearly ended it.

We started the river and the there didn’t seem to be enough water to get down it.  We saw this as bad luck.  After our first 2 days we also didn’t think there would be enough gradient to produce class 5 whitewater.  After 5 days, we found our first rapid.  Our fears of not finding class 5 were gone instantly and we were all thankful that we didn’t have any more water as it would have been unmanageable.  The rains came hard the next day and we saw the powerful storm as bad luck.  We reached the next set of rapids and had just enough water to open up runnable lines.  This was good luck.  Such was the theme of our trip.

– Brad Ludden

jumbo-teacupA university professor went to visit a famous Zen master. While the master quietly served tea, the professor talked about Zen. The master poured the visitor’s cup to the brim, and then kept pouring. The professor watched the overflowing cup until he could no longer restrain himself. “It’s overfull! No more will go in!” the professor blurted. “You are like this cup,” the master replied, “How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup.”


Although it would be fair for anyone to say that I no nothing of Zen buddhism, I feel I do know something of it and I know what I know through kayaking. After years of kayaking white water I have had moments of clarity, pure focus and joy all coming to me without the feeling of really trying to reach that point, it just happens and often when I least expect it.

So many kayakers seem to kayak to boost their own sense of self, to prove themselves, either to themselves or to other kayakers, or to have that spectacular photo on the wall at home. Many only paddle class 4 and 5 considering less difficult water no fun and/or no challenge or perhaps no way to feed there own ego, so many appear to me to be somewhat disconnected to what they are actually doing.

Its not about what you have run but about how well you have run it, not because running something well looked cool to your friends, but because running something well is a better connection to what you are doing. How many can truly use the forces available to them with out effort, without losing focus?

By Andy Round

soA beautiful girl in the village was pregnant. Her angry parents demanded to know who was the father. At first resistant to confess, the anxious and embarrassed girl finally pointed to Hakuin, the Zen master whom everyone previously revered for living such a pure life. When the outraged parents confronted Hakuin with their daughter’s accusation, he simply replied “Is that so?”

When the child was born, the parents brought it to the Hakuin, who now was viewed as a pariah by the whole village. They demanded that he take care of the child since it was his responsibility. “Is that so?” Hakuin said calmly as he accepted the child.

For many months he took very good care of the child until the daughter could no longer withstand the lie she had told. She confessed that the real father was a young man in the village whom she had tried to protect. The parents immediately went to Hakuin to see if he would return the baby. With profuse apologies they explained what had happened. “Is that so?” Hakuin said as he handed them the child.


On the river it is easy to identify those that have a true understanding. They flow down the river making no more effort than the water itself. Their presence is not threatening while simultaneously poised to engage in a fluid act of aggression. They are committed and remain acutely aware of their surroundings. They are accountable. Their accountability is not only to their personal actions but also to those of everything around them. Hakuin displayed unwavering accountability to his community and offered, I would argue, the most effective path toward the truth. Those that have a true understanding are able to calmly work through issues, despite their origin in pursuit of a greater good. On the river, this greater good is easily materialized in the mere arrival of the “take out”. In other circumstances the “greater good” is not as easy to visualize, but the same lesson applies.  I believe true accountability extends past ones own self.  You might be thinking, “is that so?”

By: Jay Gifford

zen-bell1A new student approached the Zen master and asked how he should prepare himself for his training. “Think of me a bell,” the master explained. “Give me a soft tap, and you will get a tiny ping. Strike hard, and you’ll receive a loud, resounding peal.”


With any new sport/movement/activity, we tend to overexert ourselves because the movement and the timing of the movement seems so unnatural to us. Kayaking is no different.

When we start out kayaking, we are told, “When in doubt, paddle harder.”  This allows new paddlers to stay upright, get through rapids, etc, with a better chance of staying upright.  However, if one only learns to “paddle hard” through rapids, they will never create the relationship of “oneness” with the river.
To create the unity between the river and you, you must be able to use what the river is giving you.  Instead of focusing so much on just getting through a rapid, focus on HOW you are getting through the rapid.  Focus on where the water is accelerating, where the waves are crashing, where the river wants to push you.  Once you start “feeling” the river, you can then determine how your strokes, boat placement, timing and acceleration need to be adjusted to be successful.
We’ve all heard the saying, “Practice makes perfect”, and this is true.  Our movement with the water may not feel natural at first, you may feel like your paddling hard and nothing is working out – your boat is spinning, you hit a rock and flip – this is when you need to take a “time-out”.  Pull over in the river, take a few deep breathes, and say to yourself, “Relax, don’t fight what I am out here choosing to do . . . Just feel the water, and dance with it!”

By: Heather Herbeck

The First Principle

bobs3_3When one goes to Obaku temple in Kyoto he sees carved over the gate the words “The First Principle.” The letters are unusually large, and those who appreciate calligraphy always admire them as being a masterpiece. They were drawn by Kosen two hundred years ago.

When the master drew them he did so on paper, from which workmen made the larger carving in wood. As Kosen sketched the letters a bold pupil was with him who had made several gallons of ink for the calligraphy and who never failed to criticize his master’s work.

“That is not good,” he told Kosen after the first effort.

“How is that one?”

“Poor. Worse than before,” pronounced the pupil.

Kosen patiently wrote one sheet after another until eighty-four First Principles had been accumulated, still without the approval of the pupil.

Then, when the young man stepped outside for a few moments, Kosen thought: “Now is my chance to escape his keen eye,” and he wrote hurriedly, with a mind free from distraction. “The First Principle.”

“A masterpiece,” pronounced the pupil.


My biggest fear around paddling isn’t the dark and scary, “can’t breathe, it’s dark and I feel like I’m in a washing machine on spin cycle” fear. My biggest fear is what people I respect think of me. Hiking into a run I’ve never seen before causes me some anxiety, but hiking down to a run that I’ve never seen before with a group of really accomplished paddlers makes me hyperventilate. How I paddle on those days is usually just what you’d expect when someone is way more focused on what people think than on the task at hand.

Like Kosen, when I’m by myself, or with people I don’t feel like I have to impress paddling becomes the most beautiful and amazing thing I could ever be doing. It’s not one of my proudest admissions, but “I” really do want to fit in, “I” want to be “good,” and “I” want to be accepted. This story is a reminder to me of how married I am to my ego and what the price of that is. In those brief moments of clarity, how silly it seems to apply my focus to an ego that doesn’t really exist at the expense of the moments I’ll never get again.

– Scott Zagarino


205px-kodo_sawakiBelow is a textbook definition of zazen. I’ve often thought as I put on how paddling is like zazen in motion. Of course I don’t think anyone would recommend the cross legged position in the boat, although I’ve done that just before a swim…

Zazen is at the heart of Zen Buddhist practice. The aim of zazen is just sitting, “opening the hand of thought.” Once the mind is able to be unhindered by its many layers, one will then be able to realize one’s true Buddha nature. In Zen Buddhism, zazen (literally “seated meditation“) is a meditative discipline practitioners perform to calm the body and the mind and experience insight into the nature of existence and thereby gain enlightenment (satori).

The posture of zazen is seated, with folded legs and hands, and an erect but settled spine. The legs are folded in one of the standard sitting styles (see below). The hands are folded together into a simple mudra over the belly. In many practices, one breathes from the hara (the center of gravity in the belly) and the eyelids are half-lowered, the eyes being neither fully open nor shut so that the practitioner is not distracted by outside objects but at the same time is kept awake.