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Author of this essay:

Yao Xiang Shakya
(July 7, 2009)

by Yao Xiang Shakya

Because there is something inside us that responds to a trusted voice, we find in Zen that whenever we're troubled, in fear or in confusion, the direction of a good master is indispensable.

Once my partner Marilyn and I went on a canoe trip with a number of other women. There were three guides. We were going to canoe the Wisconsin River and stay overnight under the sky on a sandbar. So we had brought clothing and gear for the overnight stay. We were paired up randomly and began to canoe single file along the river.

Every so often the river widened enough for all of us to canoe side by side. During one of these side by side positions someone suggested that we tie the canoes together like a flotilla; a small convoy of women canoeing. No one objected. It sounded fine.

Off we went tied together, smoothly at first. Everyone seemed to relax and laugh and there was a lot of banter between the canoers.

We were very close.

Of course we would be…the canoes were literally tied together.

Maybe no one knew the topography of the river very well or else maybe there had been a downpour upstream because we suddenly and I mean suddenly found ourselves plunging down some rapids.

After one canoe tipped over and women and gear were dumped into the water there was a frantic race to untie the rushing canoes.

I remember the canoe I was in. The woman I was with told me before we began that she was an experienced canoer and that I seemed like I did not know what I was doing. I readily agreed that I didn’t know so she told me to sit in the back and she would be the lead. It was fine with me. I did what she told me to do, paddle on the opposite side unless otherwise informed. No problem, I thought. Well, when the canoe armada began to tear itself apart our canoe swiftly headed for a whirlpool of water underneath low growing branches. As soon as we reached the branches she grabbed one of them which, for those who know about canoes, know would cause the canoe to tip over and get caught in the whirlpool. The canoe was rapidly going forward and she was holding on. You get the picture?

Others who were safe in the middle of the river saw her holding onto the branch and began to shout. “Let go of the branch!”

She wouldn’t, at least not at first, she wouldn’t. Although I did not know why it mattered I too began to plead with her, “Let go of the branch!” Still she held onto it and the canoe began to pivot around her.

In a moment of stunned silence, a guide's booming voice commanded, "Release the branch!" She let go but by this time the canoe tipped enough for her to fall into the water. I'm not sure how I managed to stay upright, but I did even though I was starting to go backwards in the current. And then the canoe completed its circle, and I faced forward. I had swirled past her, but the canoe remained upright.

The guides helped her to get safely to shore and to recover most of the gear that had spilled out when the canoe tipped. We looked back at the whirlpool that we surely would have been sucked into if she had not let go of that branch. I told her how everyone had been hollering at her to let go.

"It's funny," she said. "The guide's voice was the only one I heard."

From Master Hsu Yun we read:


Through this impenetrable fog
His mind surges confidently.
Who steers this boat?
His heart - clear as the Autumn water
His body - pure and undefiled as the white clouds.
Being with him is just like being immersed in the True Emptiness;
Why in my breast do I cling to the dross of worldly problems?
This trusted master has the Three Secret Powers.
Can I not, with him, roam the oceans and the heavens?

Humming Bird