Posts Tagged ‘Wet Planet’

zen-shoesAfter ten years of study, Zenno believed that he was ready to be made a Zen master. One rainy day, he went to visit the famous teacher Nan-in. When Zenno went into the house, Nan-in asked: “Did you leave your umbrella and your shoes outside?” “Of course, I did,” replied Zenno. “It’s only polite. I would do the same thing anywhere.” “Then tell me this: did you place your umbrella to the right or to the left of your shoes?” “I haven’t the slightest idea, master.” “Zen Buddhism is the art of being totally aware of one’s every action,” said Nan-in. “Lack of attention to apparently minor details can completely destroy a man’s life. A father hurrying out of his house must never leave a dagger within reach of his small son. A Samurai who does not polish his sword every day will find that when most he needs it, the sword has grown rusty. A young man who forgets to give flowers to his beloved will end up losing her.” And Zenno understood that, although he had a good knowledge of Zen techniques when applied to the spiritual world, he had forgotten to apply them to the world of men.


When taken in a kayaking context, is this koan about misplaced gear? Is it about not endangering those you care about? Is it about keeping equipment in good working order? Is it about breathing love into your relationship with the river to keep it alive? The nature of Zen defies description, so there would be no lesson in my telling you what this story means. I’ve yet to be confused with a Zen master, but my belief is that self-awareness beyond self-consciousness or egotism — selfless-awareness, if you will — is the path to authentic higher learning and favorable development. Ram Dass touched on this when he urged people to “be here now”. Practice this: feel connected to all things as you inhale deeply, hold for a count, then smile and know deeply that all is as it should be as you exhale evenly. This method teaches the value of being aware and having intention in even the smallest action — something you do thousands of times per day. Jim Snyder will tell you that any lack of intention on the river quickly becomes apparent. He’s right. Further, Zen on the river extends beyond the Zen paddler’s mind and into the interaction between that mind and the world. With practiced presence of mind comes a clarity and freshness of thought, a feeling of child-like wonder and freedom, and a sense of newness in those physical actions that may have become “old hat”. Reader, your exercise is to ask yourself where you’ve been putting your umbrellas, and see if you can find new joy by focusing your entire awareness on a river-related activity that has become routine and mundane with time — challenge yourself to turn it from an afterthought to a “herenowthought”.

– Willie Illingworth


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chopwoodcarrywaterWhen Bankei was preaching at Ryumon temple, a Shinshu priest, who believed in salvation through repetition of the name of the Buddha of Love, was jealous of his large audience and wanted to debate with him.

Bankei was in the midst of a talk when the priest appeared, but the fellow made such a disturbance that Bankei stopped his discourse and asked about the noise.

“The founder of our sect,” boasted the priest, “had such miraculous powers that he held a brush in his hand on one bank of the river, his attendant held up a paper on the other bank, and the teacher wrote the holy name of Amida through the air. Can you do such a wonderful thing?”

Bankei replied lightly: “Perhaps your fox can perform that trick, but that is not the manner of Zen. My miracle is that when I feel hungry I eat, and when I feel thirsty I drink.”


Bankei was not impressed with the Shinshu priest’s story because, to Bankei a true miracle is Zen.  Bankei understands that when Zen is present one performs at their best and that is when a true miracle can happen.  Kayaking teaches one this by the way we mentally approach a certain play move, rapid, or river.  In Zen a kayaker can perform at his/her best by being totally focused on the task at hand.  On the other hand, if one focuses on an entire rapid he/she will loose focus and perform under their natural ability.  For example, Gorilla rapid on the Green River was one of the first true class five rapids I ran.  When I first starting running it I was extremely intimidated because all I could see was one huge, scary rapid with lots of potential for carnage.  With more kayaking experience I realized that Gorilla was like three, “smaller” rapids instead of one huge rapid.  Further down the line I started focusing on particular moves within these three smaller rapids.  Next, I learned to focus on each individual move within the rapid.  Once, I learned to be in the moment and focus on the present task at hand I started having more success in paddling Gorilla.  Not to say that it doesn’t still make me nervous but it is more manageable when taking a Zen approach.

What is Zen?  To me, Zen is a state of mind where the mind is relaxed yet focused.  Zen is living in the moment thinking about neither the past nor the future.  Because the mind is focused entirely on the present this allows one to perform above their natural ability.  Eastern culture calls this Zen as where western culture would say being in the Zone.

Anyone can find themselves in a Zen state or the Zone.  It could be a musician playing a hard piece of music, a machinist shaving off the last 1/1000 piece of metal off a part, a teacher giving a lecture, a Buddhist Monk meditating, or a kayaker paddling a rapid that is challenging his/her ability.  In speaking of kayaking, or other extreme sports there are three things that must be present to enter Zen or the Zone; a commitment, confidence, and control.

If you kayak long enough you will find yourself in company with someone who is like the Shinshu priest.  This person will be telling you of some miraculous trick they know of and will challenge you to do the same.  It may be paddling a certain river, a particular rapid, etc.  I have found that just because a certain someone can paddle a clean line through a rapid, it doesn’t always mean that I can.  Why is this important?  In kayaking and life it is important to be honest with yourself about your skills and what consequences you are comfortable with.  When you can honestly judge your own skill level you will find yourself with more control that leads to more confidence and this allows total commitment.  When you have control, confidence and commitment you will find Zen more often.

One can find Zen in anything they do.  For me kayaking has been a terrific gateway because kayaking is where I spend the majority of my time.  The Zen I find in kayaking has allowed me to find it more often in other aspects of life.  If you are interested in learning more about Zen I recommend three books.  The first one is, “The C Zone Peak Performance Under Pressure.”  The second is, “The Art and Zen of Motorcycle Maintenance.”  The third book is, “Chop Wood Carry Water.”

– Jason Aytes

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