Navigating Our Lives

Earlier this week we completed our Appamada summer residential intensive (July 31 - August 5). The focus of our study and practice for the week was Genjokoan, a powerful teaching from the 12th century Zen Master Dogen Zenji. This piece of writing was not a formal Zen treatise or philosophical writing, but was a personal letter Dogen sent to one of his lay disciples, Koshu Yo, in 1233. Even so, it is probably the most famous piece written in all of Soto Zen literature and is beloved by many. It was written when Dogen was still a young man. He had embarked on a dangerous voyage between Japan and China in 1223 with his Japanese teacher Myozen because they were both committed to discovering the authentic Zen teachings in China. Myozen died while they were on their pilgrimage, but Dogen returned to Japan in1227 with Myozen’s ashes and the way of practice he had received from his Chinese master Rujing.

Just before our summer retreat began I finished reading a book I had begun during my stay on Molokai, Hawaiki Rising: Hokulea, Nainoa Thompson, and the Hawaiian Renaissance by Sam Low. This is a history of the amazing and inspiring story of the rediscovery of open ocean navigation without the aid of a modern compass, maps, sextant or satellite signals. This feat brought together a young Hawaiian man (Nainoa Thompson) with an older man who would become his teacher and mentor, (Mau Pialiug), from a tiny atoll in the South Pacific who held the authentic lineage of the ancient navigators. Nainoa was totally dedicated to his vision of re-enacting the voyage that transported the first people between Hawaii and Polynesia, and Mau yearned to find at least one more committed student to whom he could pass on his ancient knowledge and skill of navigation.

Both stories are about young men with the courage and dedication to meet very difficult challenges. Both found true teachers who believed in them and who transmitted their lineage to their young students so it could be carried forward. Both young men embarked on tasks which had enormous transformative potential against great odds and at great personal risk. Both suffered painful losses in the process and both brought lasting gifts back into the world. This Inquiry used these two stories to encourage us to practice with commitment in order to learn to navigate our lives despite the challenges, fears, lack of clear instructions, and losses along the way. I read some of Dogen’s words and some of Sam Low’s account of the Hokulea’s incredible voyage. I will copy the two readings here and you can listen to the Inquiry on the blog post. What does it mean to find “home?” What does it take to navigate your life when it sometimes seems so unclear and complex? How do things appear when you can’t read the signs? How do the way ultimately unfold through true practice?

From Genjokoan:

For example when you sail out in a boat to the middle of an ocean where no land is in sight, and view the four directions, the ocean looks circular, and does not look any other way. But the ocean is neither round nor square; its features are infinite in variety. It is like a palace.

It is like a jewel. It only looks circular as far as you can see at that time. All things are like this.
Though there are many features in the dusty world and the world beyond conditions, you see and understand only what your eye of practice can reach. In order to learn the nature of the myriad things, you must know that although they may look round or square, the other features of oceans and mountains are infinite in variety; whole worlds are there. It is so not only around you, but also directly beneath your feet, or in a drop of water.

From Hawaiki Rising:

“Bring her down!”

With this command from the navigator, my watchmates and I threw our weight against the steering paddle to bring our vessel off the wind. We are aboard a sailing craft the likes of which has not been seen for centuries. She is called Hokule’a—star of joy—and she is a replica of canoes that once carried Polynesian explorers to discover and settle thousands of islands in a vast watery domain know as the Polynesian Triangle.

For twenty-one days we had sailed through storms and uneasy calms and now we were nearing our destination. Our navigator, Nainoa Thompson, had guided us here without compass, sextant, or charts by signs that only he could read—the paths and shapes of constellations, the curl of ocean swells, the winds. It is an ancient art, practiced for millennia before the “discovery” of Polynesia by European explorers.

Our voyage took us northeast from Tahiti for twenty-four hundred miles until today when Nainoa ordered us to steer directly west. Running with the trade wind, a gossamer mist wafted over the canoe, parting ahead and reforming behind us as we continued on.
Except for catnaps, Nainoa had been on watch the entire voyage, willing himself back to a time when his Polynesian ancestors sailed across similar expanses of ocean. Now, having observed signs invisible to the rest of us, he was certain that the island of Hawai’i lay directly in our path.

“The mist to the north and south moves,” he told me, “but ahead of us it seems to stall. It sits there like a constant fog. That makes me think there’s land ahead.

There was also the wind. For a time it held steadily from astern and we sailed wing-on-wing—one sail to port an done to starboard—then the wind shifted southeast making it hard to fill our sails without changing course. For those of us manning the sweep it was an annoyance. For Nainoa, it was another sign of land.

“The trade winds cannot rise over the high slopes of Mauna Kea so when they encounter the volcano they split to flow around it. Our branch flows southwest down the Puna coast, the other southeast along the Hamakua coast. When the wind veered southeasterly, it was an indication we are north of Hilo.”

As the sun descended, Nainoa observed a slight shift in the density and the color of the sky ahead.

"To the left I see a brightness on the horizon. Looking to the right it’s dark, until farther right it becomes light again. Where it’s dark, there is land breaking the rays of the sunset."

None of us could see these signs. We do not doubt that they exist, but to predict our position within a few miles after such a long voyage seemed impossible. We tacked the canoe to starboard. The Hamakua Coast, if it was there, was invisible in the darkening mist.

Slowly by a latent instinct, we became aware that something large lay to port. We felt it—a kind of pressure. The feeling drew us to the rail, where we stood peering into the darkness. Then, the clouds began to lift, and we saw the twinkling lights of Hilo on our beam.
Speaking for all of us, Nainoa said simply, “We’re home.”
(p. xiii - xiv)


Inquiry Recording: