The publication of Acequias and Gates by Joan Sutherland is a tremendous gift to modern seekers of the Way. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in Zen practice, or in bringing a spirit of inquiry and creativity to meditation practice.
This book has two parts that fit together and complement each other. Acequias is a collection of essays by Joan Sutherland, a contemporary American koan Zen teacher (and my own beloved teacher). There are reflections on koans and the gifts they bring to meditation practice, as well as some advice for those who take up company with koans. Joan’s prose is full of the beauty and richness of the koans, and contains none of the easy formulas that often seem to be the hallmark of contemporary Buddhist writing.
The Gates section of the book is a collection of the Miscellaneous Koans, which I have never seen in print before. For this reason alone the book has tremendous value. The Miscellaneous Koans are traditionally taken up after one has seen into their first koan, and are variously joyous, silly, helpful, and destabilizing. The Miscellaneous Koans have always been the part of the traditional koan curriculum in which innovation is most welcome, and Joan has made many new offerings. In 21st century Western life, most koans are taken up by people who are not monastics and who have full lives with work, family, and community, and this version of the Miscellaneous Koans speaks vividly to contemporary lives.
We are finding in our tradition that koans can be very helpful to people who don’t take up the formal koan curriculum, but who find koan work adds a new dimension of vitality to meditation practice. This book is a good source book for anyone who finds the koan way intriguing, and will give you a lifetimes’ worth of companionship for practice.
Koans in the West are at a crossroads. On the one hand, some of the forms of practice we received from Asia are being updated to speak to contemporary lives, including a full inclusion of women. On the other hand, we need to respect the wisdom of the tradition, and not take our innovation so far that we dilute or lose the essentials of the Way. Acequias and Gates gracefully navigates the need for innovation while also preserving the integrity of the koan tradition.
Acequias and Gates offers a beautiful invitation to practicing with koans, radiant with a feeling of their beauty, creativity, and strangeness. It is also a lovely book, lushly illustrated with the art of Ciel Bergman, and designed by Piper Leigh. And I find the haunting pictograms that accompany the koans to really add another dimension to the work. This is a book that will stay on my nightstand for a very long time, a companion for any circumstance.
The bright road that the ancestors knew is right in front of you, in everything you see and hear.
To order Acequias and Gates, go to
In the current enthusiasms for “mindfulness” and yoga, the practice of Zen can seem intimidating or foreign. It’s often not clear what it means to take the path of Zen. Our tradition offers a path of liberation, tested and refined over dozens of generations. But what does that actually look like?
The practice of Zen first and foremost means zazen, seated meditation. I recommend three levels of practice.
First, practice with a group that meets regularly, what we call sangha. Meditation in a group feels different than on your own, and often feels more powerful. In meditating in a group, we support each other’s practice. We also make dharma friends, and begin to develop spiritual community, which is invaluable along the Way.
Second, as best you can, work toward developing a daily practice. At first, regularity is more important than the length of time. If you can only sit for five or ten minutes a day, it’s a great start. Eventually working up to twenty or thirty minutes a day is a worthy goal. First thing in the morning works best for many people, but whenever you can get on the cushion is just fine.
Third, when you are ready, try out longer retreats. It’s great to check out a daylong retreat, to get a taste of what can happen in a longer stretch of meditation practice. If and when you can, try going to a sesshin, a multi-day silent retreat under the guidance of a teacher and with senior students to lead the way. Retreat practice changes lives, no joke.
Many people who are starting out in meditation practice ask for book recommendations, and there are some I suggest (look here). But consider starting to practice without filling your head with words and ideas, rather just relying on your own experience. There is a time and place for reading and study, but it can be a good thing to approach practice without our usual mediation by “experts.”
Finding a teacher who is a good fit for you is a tremendous blessing in this path. A teacher can help when you hit inevitable rough patches or blind alleys. She can offer encouragement and spiritual friendship. And she can help guide you through the sometimes strange landscapes we encounter in the practice. It’s possible these days to have a teacher online, or to have multiple teachers, and all kinds of arrangements can work. But finding a primary teacher who can offer guidance along the way is most helpful for most people. I recommend a teacher who is authorized in a recognized lineage; I’m suspicious of people who are authenticated only by themselves.
Once you have established a regular practice with a teacher and a group, the next step is to consider taking the precepts, the Bodhisattva vows. Through our commitment to ethical living, we make sure we don’t just practice for our own peace of mind, but also to benefit others. The precepts are not prohibitions or commandments, but rather a description of how to live in order to find and spread joy.
Ultimately, true practice happens in the midst of our lives, while we tend to a sick child or pay our bills or write a letter to our senator. All our practice on the cushion and with our teacher and with the precepts is in support of the practice of daily life. The real measure of our practice is in how we respond to life as it is, in our ability to be present and helpful. Our task is to show up, to allow our heart to break, over and over. To mess things up, over and over, but to keep an open heart, and to find a way to do some good in the world.
IV. The Staff Dragon Dream
Zen koans are a kind of dream for us to experience and begin to understand. When we work with a koan, we can’t just take it up as a problem to be solved. We must live it emotionally, relationally, socially. Each koan is a marker for a type of contact with the vastness. Of course in Zen there is nothing separate from Buddha nature, it is fully present right now. But in our human lives, we lose sight of this, and we live in the dream (or nightmare) of our lives. Working with koans helps us keep our eyes open for the dream navel present in every moment.
Yunmen showed his staff to the assembly and said, “This staff has become a dragon. It has swallowed up the whole universe. The mountains, rivers and great earth, where do they come from?”
In this koan-dream, Yunmen invites us along on a breathtaking, fantastical journey into the inconceivable. He shows us the swooping movement between the three kayas. We start out in the ordinary world of form, the staff. In Zen, the presentation of the staff is often seen as a complete presentation of the dharma. This is what we call tathagata, thing-in-itselfness. Before we know what hits us, the staff becomes a dragon, a swoop into the sambhogakaya, the dream. It is a fantastical beast from the big dream, the big unconscious. And then, another swoop, the dragon swallows the whole universe. Nothing left. There is a feeling of spaciousness, emptiness, and at the same time fullness. This is the feeling of tipping into the dharmakaya, the realm of the vastness.
Then, with this mind of holding the three kayas as simultaneously existing, we face the mystery. The mountains, the rivers, the great earth, where do they come from? What is the source? Our practice is to sit in that mystery, to really look into this great matter with love and curiosity and fearlessness.
V. Dream Navel Redux
Where might we locate the dream navel of this koan? In one sense, we might find it in the action of swallowing up the universe, the movement of the dream from the dragon into the swallowed-up universe. A movement into something vast and still and beautiful.
We might notice, as would Freud, that the action here is one of swallowing. It is an image of what we would call in psychoanalytic terms, incorporation, taking something in from the outside. The dragon swallows the universe. This points to a link with the early relationship with the mother, in which we might have a lived experience of swallowing the whole universe, the feeling of completeness that could be had. Here we have a feeling that something infinitely vast can be taken in and swallowed in one gulp. Then the universe and the staff and the dragon and the swallowing all disappear. In this way the dream navel is a poignant connection to the original mother, who we can swallow and take completely in. And then, swallowing even swallows itself up, folds in on itself, and disappears.
In another way, this dream is full of navels, it is made of navels, nothing but navels. When we work with koans, we practice in the dream navel. We sit in the tidal zone, in the transitional zone of meditative space. We watch the dream, and that watching is always interpenetrated with an awareness of what Freud calls the unknown, the Great Mystery. We watch as we eat mangoes or make love or undergo an emergency dental procedure. We show up fully for the dream, for the beautiful and heartbreaking experience of being human. But we also feel an awareness of the navel, of the vastness from which the dream streams, and to which it returns.
Zen training is fundamentally about changing our identity. Many of us live primarily in the theater of the dream of the separate self. We live as though how we feel, what we want, is the most important thing. But through practice, we begin to identify with the process of transformation from staff to dragon to universe and back again. We experience how we are always rippling in this dance between materiality and the vastness. We don’t have to get stuck in a cul-de-sac of repetitive habits of mind and heart. Instead, we know that we are just the pattern of flow swirling between form, emptiness, and dream, and our task is simply to step into the dance.
Megan Rundel is the resident teacher at the Crimson Gate Meditation Community in Oakland, CA..