Row the Current You Are In

The first day of sesshin Sojun spoke of cultivating “flexibility,” “proficiency,” and “actualizing the fundamental point.” This seemed to raise a lot of questions for practice discussion. One person wondered: How does one know when one is actualizing the fundamental point? This is an important question: Why do we do this difficult thing called sesshin? One needs inspiration, needs to have one’s motivation quickened, even to know one is in the right ballpark. But then, how does one navigate this path without falling into expectations—fixed notions of how it should be?
I have long thought expedition-length river trips bear striking similarities to sesshins. In addition to the elaborate preplanning required, the whole world condenses down for a period of time to these people—this place, this journey. The motley group becomes a tribe: different from a family, more manageable than a neighborhood, with shared goals and shared operating principles. One is completely reliant on the group, and the group safety depends on the activities of each person.
Wilderness travel teaches one to appreciate silence and vastness. Extended exposure to silence seems to change one’s nervous system in a very satisfying, settled direction. For many years I tried to capture the feeling I carried from a river trip and bring it into my ordinary life. After many failures, I finally concluded that this deep, settled feeling required some kind of continuing daily nurturance, and ultimately found my way to Zen practice.
Rivers were my first teacher. Water behaves the same way the world over: it flows around obstacles and through channels in predictable ways. The first task is to learn to read what the current is doing on flatwater and whitewater. The ability to read current is affected by conditions: water on a cloudy day is more difficult to read than on a sunny one, where the differences in the colors are more dramatic. Likewise, a river full of sediment changes the colors to a monochrome, requiring a shift to reading textures of water. This is a beginning lesson in flexibility.
In a raft, the only current that matters is the current immediately under your boat: your boat will be taken where that current is going. Immediately on either side of you the current may be doing something else, which may affect the pull on your oars, but unless you put some portion of your boat in that other current, it has no effect, no matter how close, strong, or alluring it is, or how much you would like to go where it is going.
In addition to current, one needs to attend to one’s downstream oar. Most of the time one floats at an angle to the current so as to be able to respond more quickly, which means the downstream oar points at the obstacles in the current’s path. If it catches on a rock, the press of the current has the effect of driving it back through the oar-right where it can do all sorts of damage—jam a thumb or knock one out of the raft, to name two.
Navigating serious rapids usually requires scouting. All the rafts stop at the top of the rapid, and assess the best path through. Beginning with identifying the preferred place to land at the bottom on the rapid, one works backward, determining where in the river one should be at each turn and obstacle, until one arrives at the best entry point at the top of the rapid. This is Plan A. The most important thing is not to be attached to Plan A. There are rapids—usually those with the word “falls” in their names—which are by definition “Plan B rapids.” Plan C isn’t a plan at all: it is a crash-and-burn route, where success is best measured by being upright at the bottom, with everyone still inside the raft.
There was a time when I spent hours watching videotapes of runs through serious rapids. After a while, it was clear that the rowers and paddlers divided themselves into several camps. On one end of the spectrum were those who flailed their way through, oars and paddles in wild, continuous movement. At the other end were those whose movements were minimal and precise—a dip of an oar here, a back-row there, each move accomplishing just the right amount of leverage on the raft to place it in the precisely right current. I called these folks zenrowers. I endeavored to be a zenrower. Over the years, I came to feel that I approached it, at least some of the time. Once, I even had a profound experience in a very difficult rapid on the Colorado River, which has become something of a touchstone: after I was through, it did not feel as if I had rowed it; rather, rowing happened.
Then there was Blossom Bar, on the Rogue River in southern Oregon. It is the most difficult and complex of the rapids on the Rogue—a long, boulder-strewn slalom requiring several mid-rapid lateral course corrections. The entrance is guarded at the top by a small-house-sized rock, incidentally also known as a wrap rock. At certain water levels it is easy to pin a raft against this rock with the whole weight of the river’s current. The is known as “wrapping” one’s raft, and it requires hours of lines and pulleys and effort to undo, and is very inconvenient. The whole of the river current pushes one toward this rock, so the first move is to pivot in such a way as to slide to the left of it, where most of the current continues.
As we scouted, our whole tribe watched as a “zenrower” paused briefly above the rapid, and then, with an oar dip here and there, navigated effortlessly through the boulder field. I wanted to zen-row this rapid in the worst way, because in the bow of my raft was our Vice Abbot and his son. Not being confident of any other zen-ness I might manifest, I wanted to zenrow this rapid.
We slipped into the current after scouting, floating briefly at an angle to the current. Immediately, I caught my downstream oar—the very oar I needed to make the essential pivot—on a rock. The oar sailed out of the oar-right, coming completely untethered from the raft, loose in my hand. I watched helplessly as we moved toward the rock—then, up the pillow of water forming on the its upstream side, our noses a few inches from the granite. While I calculated the danger of wrapping, the raft slipped around to the right of the rock. The celebration lasted a micro-moment. I had never been down this side of the river, nor had I known anyone who had. It turned out to be what is called a “rock garden.” While I tried to reset the oar in the oar-right, we pinballed off one rock after the other. The river goddess was kind: we ended upright, all still in the raft, at the bottom, grateful for sufficient waterflow to have avoided getting stuck.
I entered this rapid with a fixed idea about how it was to go, how I wanted it to go. There was little bandwidth left to meet the actual circumstances. I had limited flexibility to respond to this rock, this current, this oar and oar-right.
What is the fundamental point? In various ways our dharma speakers this week have alluded to this: touching big mind; realizing buddha nature; bodhicitta; returning to balance; flexibility. The Vice Abbot said: “Enlightenment is not something added on. It is the thing itself. Activity. Not a performance. Not trying.”
Here we are in this ark of a zendo, traveling together. There is no way out but through. This effort we make, to surrender to the schedule, to surrender to our positions, to become one with our circumstances, is in the service of tuning up. Becoming attuned. And then we turn everything over—our effort, our service, our activity—and the next crew carries it forward just as the cook turns the offering tray over to the head server. Whatever effort the cooks have brought to the food, it belongs to the servers now. We bring forth the dharma together in this way.
Someone mentioned the koan of jumping off a 100-foot pole to describe this letting go. For me that imagery has a bit of the quality of samurai Zen to it. Perhaps a more grandmother-mind way of saying it would be: “There is nothing to hang onto . . . and this is not bad news.” It is the freedom to respond in any situation without any fixed notion, without having to have something happen. Letting what arises arise. You turn yourself over to the river: you can count on being floated.
Suzuki Roshi said: “This Sesshin was wonderfully done. . . . It is because of your bodhisattva-mind, which is to do things for others rather than yourself. . . . We (should) understand that each one of us is a tentative form of the absolute being—whatever we do is the activity of the absolute being, which is not possible to be known by us completely. This is the origin of our life. . . . So the purpose of our practice is to get accustomed to live without being attached to many things but this unknown being. When we find our meaning of life in this way, naturally we can help each other. We will love each other, keeping a harmonious way between us, and between other sentient beings. We are all friends.”
This week we heard some of Aitken Roshi’s gathas. This one was especially apt for our ark:

When I sit with my friends in zazen
I vow with all beings
To touch and receive and convey
The mind of rivers and stars.