After 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

Your Shoes|Willie Illingworth

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