Clouds and Water Flowing


Clouds and Water Flowing



Throughout human history, there have been individuals who have given themselves over to a quiet, solitary way of life - to pursue knowledge, to surrender to a particular contemplative path, and/or to focus their full attention, life-force, and heart-mind to an artistic discipline.

Those who consciously choose a solitary path hail from every religious tradition (or they may be non-religious), every culture (East, West; European, Asian, Latin American, indigenous), and every artistic discipline (ranging from the visual and material arts to the poetic).

Regardless of the particular patterned way of life the solitary chooses -- and there can be a great deal of variation in embodiment and expression -- there also seems to be some core common denominators, including: working with silence, spending time in the natural world, modulating or minimizing contact with the human world in some way, and the development and expression of a unique artistic or poetic aesthetic that is unique to them while often radiating something familiar in tone from ancient tradition.

Whether the solitary, cloistered life of Hildegard of Bingen in the Christian tradition, who was a prolific artist who painted her visions, Otagaki Rengetsu, a renowned painter, poet, and potter who blended elements of Zen, Pure Land, and Shingon Buddhism in her spiritual path, or wandering poets like Basho and Saigyo, the contemplative life lends itself to the artistic life, and vice versa.

It is always my honor to have a dialogue with other “wayfarers” who embody an artistic-contemplative-poetic way of being in the modern-day...however their particular path may express itself. Recently, I had such a dialogue with Ando, a contemporary lay Zen poet from Portugal, who lives and practices in the same spirit of Saigyo, Basho, Santoka, Chiyo-ni, and Rengetsu.

In this flowing interview, we emulate the way of flowing clouds and water - ever-moving, ever-reflecting, but never making things concrete and unmovable. Indeed, as you will see, Ando is sometimes hesitant to use labels for herself - even terms like “Zen” or “poet." But, undoubtedly, she is an artist, a seasoned contemplative practitioner, a wanderer, and a guide to others.  

Frank LaRue Owen

NOTE: Throughout this article, there are a variety of names that, when rendered correctly and formally, should contain a macron above the letter i.e. a straight bar placed above the letter 'u' in the name Ikkyu, or a straight bar placed above the letter 'o' in the name Ando, Basho, Saigyo, etc. Due to forced text formatting, the macrons get stripped from names that should receive them, but which traditionally appear in Romaji Japanese. 

Also, throughout the interview, a variety of non-English words are used e.g. satsang, zazen, sesshin, etc. If you encounter unfamiliar terms, a glossary has been provided at the end of the article.  


Ando is an artist and poet who has not only undergone in-depth training in Zen but spent many years living as a lay Zen forest monk in deep retreat. As an artist and poet, her poems express certain themes such as silence, stillness, working with heart-mind, and the human connection to nature. In addition to writing, editing, and designing a series of poetry collections, and actively developing poetry courses for a poetry community, Ando is writing a haiku memoir inspired by her forest years entitled, The Forest: A Haiku Memoir. More information about Ando's creative work will appear at the end of this article, with links. 


FO: Knowing a bit about your path and life journey, one of the first topics I wanted to discuss has to do with the solitary artistic life itself. Those who stand outside of such a spiritual or creative pursuit can sometimes misunderstand it. Part of that misunderstanding can be a muddling of different terms in association with it e.g. hermit, recluse. Modern media and even many dictionaries confuse the matter as well, often treating such terms as synonymous. What are your own thoughts about these terms ‘hermit’ and ‘recluse’? How do you relate to the terms ‘hermit’ and ‘hermitage’ given the unique path you have walked?

ANDO: I find recluse the least relevant term, at least in relation to myself. It indicates withdrawal (from the world), but without any goal other than to avoid the world and evade revelation. For 5 years, I spent most of my time living in hermitage, but much of that time was hermitage in community, or with my partner, who lived that path with me. I don’t see this as contradictory to hermitage, but rather that I lived in communities of hermits, who sought to focus on the inner world, the inner journey, and so withdrew from the world for that purpose. This is withdrawal for the goal of inner work rather than withdrawal for the purpose of avoidance. I don’t consider myself a recluse, nor do I consider myself a hermit. But, I am drawn to hermitage, and am better described as one who is drawn to live in hermitage.

FO: I know that you have been a wayfarer for quite some time in the Zen way, having studied with various teachers. When did you begin formally studying the Buddhadharma?

ANDO: I first came to Zen at art school when I was 19. I was working on the floor, making drawings and paintings in a calligraphic style, with no knowledge of the Zen tradition or path. My tutor looked at me and said he could see me as some old Zen calligrapher, sitting cross-legged on the floor, with an old wooden transport palette for a desk, with two stacks of paper, one inked, one un-inked, writing and painting. He recommended that I look into Zen

Intrigued by his guidance, I searched for and found my first two Zen books, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones by Paul Reps, and Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. I’ve carried Suzuki Roshi with me ever since, wherever I’ve traveled in the world. From that time forward, I sought a Zen master with whom I could meet in person. There have been a few teachers in my life’s journey, but it remains the case, even today, that Suzuki Roshi is my root guru.

Less than a year after art school, I was drawn to explore other Buddhist offerings, as Zen was rare as “hares with horns” in England at that time. I found myself at the first London Buddhist Centre, in an old fire station in Bethnal Green, London. At that time, I explored the opportunity to live in Buddhist community with them, but something didn’t click.

Now aged 56, there has been a long journey since age 19, with many teachers entering my life. The key teachers I have lived with, studied with, and served in these years have been Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, Julian Daizan Skinner Roshi, Mooji, Ananta, Ganga Mira, and Sokuzan. Regardless of the teacher and their background, I have continued to present as a Zen lay monk. I didn’t choose this as an identity, but it seems to have chosen me. I can’t really explain it in any way that might make sense.

FO: Understood. That is a fascinating ‘Lineage Tree,’ as the late Chogyam Trungpa would call it. Could you reflect a bit about taking up the solitary life?

ANDO: As far as the solitary life goes, I didn’t take it up. It was really more like it took me up.

In 2000, I was a successful, ladder-climbing university lecturer, course director, and researcher, leading a Buddhist lifestyle. Quite suddenly, I became rapidly seriously ill, becoming bedbound and housebound for almost 7 years. This presented many challenges and pain, increasing until I was unable to sit much of the time, let alone stand or walk, due to vertigo and other symptoms.

When I could, I would meditate, sitting or lying. I eventually increased my practice time, despite the pain and discomfort. I read and studied Dharma. But, the sickness got worse, and became prolonged. I could no longer hold a book steady, nor focus my eyes steadily, so reading Dharma became impossible to do for a time. My partner stepped in and would read the Dharma to me. I was grateful for that lifeline. It was this Dharma study and practice, the practice of mindfulness, which I now understand more broadly as Awareness, which saved my life. Of that, I have no doubt.

When I look back now, I often call these 7 years “the zazen years.” It was like a 7-year Zen sesshin (Zen intensive). Socialising became impossible, due to my health issues, so a more solitary life began to form. I didn’t set out to lead this kind of life.

Once I was well again, my partner and I acquired an old VW surf camper, and drove around the coast of France, Spain, and Portugal, north and south, in both directions --  twice. Before setting off, I named the van, “The Zen Bus", “Zen” for short, and the trip itself we called the “Zen Road Trip". The idea was that we had no idea where we were going, or what we were looking for, but only that we were looking for something and would know it when we found it.

FO: This is fantastic. Reminds of Chofu Gary Snyder’s idea of the “rucksack revolution.” Wandering. Going with the flow.

ANDO: Yes! We’ve traveled ever since. Initially, there were nomadic years from 1991 to 1994. I view it as cutting our teeth. That Zen road trip was life changing. Eventually, we had to let go of the van, as our region of travel grew and grew. My belongings got down to one checked bag, one carry on, a small collection of rare Zen poetry books, and a tiny tea ceremony kit in a wooden box.

So, you see, this solitary life as you call it, was a partnership, a “sangha of two” as we called ourselves; traveling, sharing the Dharma with one another, our whole life focused increasingly on that.

I became increasingly committed to a more monastic life, even in partnership, and am blessed to have a partner who has, so far, granted permission for me to ordain three times. Yet, I remain a householder, a Zen laywoman, a poet-monk by nature, and - by action - a monk of the heart, like many of the old white clouds of the Way. Yet, I still lived a semi-regular life - building websites to make ends meet, always traveling. A "digital nomad" before the concept was coined. "Van life" before the hashtag was written for the first time.

Eventually, I found my Zen Master, Daizan Roshi, and trained with him. I walked with him and the sangha for a while. He trained us in eight meditation methods, with approaches to use them for health and well-being, and for insight. As time passed, I found I was only interested in practicing and teaching two of them - Bankei Yotaku’s Fusho (Unborn meditation), and Basso’s “Who Am I?” (self-inquiry). The rest fell completely away. No interest.

I was like a dog with a bone for Fusho practice. Obsessed. I needed a living master of Fusho, of Bankei’s Unborn Zen. The funny thing was, there I was seeking a living master of Fusho, but I was already in his lineage. In fact, the mother temple of my lineage, in which I’m still lay ordained, is Gyokuru-ji, Bankei’s hermitage. Yet, I was pulled away by this obsession. I couldn’t see it there. I was like Bankei in his search for the true meaning of  “Bright Virtue.” So, rather than following him, I was like him, without trying, totally possessed by the search that ensued.


FO: I hear this in your description. Bankei had a fearlessness, if not a restlessness, to seek the essence. If I recall correctly, Bankei tried various methods, such as Pure Land and esoteric schools, but eventually was routed to Zen. This is where he really took off. It seems your path took a similar pattern, leading you quite directly to Bankei’s “Clear-Eyed School.”

ANDO: Yes. I got really into heavy-duty zazen at this time. Hours a day. Usually 3 to 4 hours. But, I also practiced night-sitting. Rohatsu-sits were my favourite night-sits, along with day-long zazenkais, and 7-day silent intensive sesshins. I engaged in mostly self-motivated, independent practice, as I was so rarely near the temple in London, due to my wanderings. I led a small meditation group briefly, in a Buddhist temple in Menorca. It was a humbling time, and a treasured moment in the path.

This quest for a master of Fusho (Unborn) continued. In time, I discovered the teachings of Advaita Master, Mooji, who had moved to Portugal from London. At that time, his teachings were very Zen-like, and he spoke much of the Unborn. Reading Bankei’s books, I found that his teachings were very satsang-like; all based on spontaneous talks and Q&A sessions. I dug deeper. It looked like I was onto something.

FO: I’ve watched some of Mooji’s videos on YouTube. He’s very gifted. Direct when he needs to be. Soft when he needs to be. A big-hearted lion. A real mountain dragon in the river. I can see the parallel between his teaching style and what I’ve read about Bankei, who, like others, eschewed complicated sutras and koans and emphasized face to face teachings, spontaneous exchanges, and, essentially, the same kind of mind-transmission as Shakyamuni to Mahakashyapa. My own teacher, Kuma, was this way. I started thinking of it as "fierce-gentleness, gentle-ferocity." I almost couldn't take it at times.

ANDO: Same quality.

So, Mooji offered a silent 7-day intensive retreat. I wanted to go. It seemed the only way. I assumed, naively, that it would be the same as being a guest student with another Zen master, where one presents oneself to the master with the words: “I am the student of Daizan Roshi. I wish to be a guest student.”

I told my Zen master about it, and that I not only wanted, but needed to go, to resolve this matter of Fusho. Much to my surprise, rather than say “Yes. Sure. No worries. Have a great silent intensive. I hope you find what you’re seeking,” he gave me three choices: 1. Do nothing. Leave everything as it is. 2. Agree to a short term period away, a kind of Zen sabbatical (For example, for 3 months). 3. Drop everything.

I was stunned beyond belief. He totally side-swiped me with this response. Powerful to this day. I couldn’t answer. I had no answer. There wasn’t a choice, and there wasn’t an answer. So, I didn’t offer one. That was my answer, the answer of no-answer. Not even trying to be some clever Zennist. It was just how it happened. Before I knew it, I found myself on retreat with Mooji on a 7-day silent intensive.

Dressed in my samue (Zen work clothes) and rakusu (a garment worn by Zen Buddhists who have taken precepts), carrying my bowls wrapped in their little black cloth, in a group of over 350 people, I was the only one in Zen regalia. But, I felt no oddness. No nothing. It felt the most natural thing on earth to be there. Just as on my previous sesshin with Daizan Roshi, a major shift occurred there.

After the retreat, I found myself visiting Mooji’s ashram (hermitage) in the forest, and beginning to give service. I did some web design work, graphic design, and became his first ebook designer, later doing a little broadcast support work. After a short initial post-retreat stay, I found myself going back for more and more, until I found myself living there, and sometimes on the adjoining lands, in a couple of satellite communities.

Mooji was my Bankei. He was Bankei. Totally. Thousands of people were showing up from across the world, at various times, for retreats, and to volunteer for helping build what is now a forest retreat centre. Back then it was a working ashram. Hard graft. Dust everywhere. Hot as hell in the summer days. A cold hell in the winter nights. Perfect. People living in tents and tiny wooden huts, myself included. Sometimes alone, sometimes with my partner. Whenever he spoke, giving spontaneous or formal satsang, we would gather, and listen.

I remained a Zen Buddhist. It’s like it’s hard-wired into me from birth. The monastic thing, the Zen thing. The search. Bankei. Self-inquiry. I discovered that the other key teaching of Mooji, was Self-inquiry, as taught by Ramana Maharshi, the master of Mooji’s master. These two spiritual tools left me feeling fully armed for the search, and I was committed. Fully committed. I gave my days and nights to it.

During this time, to make a few £s, I would do Zen coaching from my hut after work, using an iPad and mobile internet. Simple tools for powerful work. Coaching and mentoring writers, a lawyer, and a newly qualified Zen teacher, among others.

The whole place was like an ancient, simple Zen monastic setup. In Bankei’s day, there was a hall for Dharma gatherings and Teisho talks by the Master. Monastics would live in tiny huts and shelters in harsh conditions (so much dust, so little water – half a bucket per day for bathing) in the forested hills around him. Thousands of them. More than around Mooji (at that time, it’s a little different now in scale). Mooji would also give his talks, and we were to gather immediately if we heard the horn or the bell, calling us to come, dropping whatever work we were doing, because nothing was more important than freedom. Nothing is more important than freedom.

So, I lived this life for 3 years. First online, then just under 3 years, in person.

FO: I get the image of the hermit communities one hears about from Red Pine (Bill Porter), or in the documentary Amongst White Clouds - Ch’an hermits living in the Zhongnan Mountains in China,...but with a bit of a modern twist. After your encounter with the Unborn through your time with Mooji, what were your next steps on the path?

ANDO: There was another teacher, who overlapped for a while around 2014; an Indian teacher who was a disciple of Mooji’s named Ananta. I also served in his community, an online ashram with daily broadcasts of similarly spontaneous talks, with Q&As. Satsang had become my life. Yet, to me, it was still Zen. I was still Zen. I was born Zen. I can’t explain it. It makes no sense to me, so I don’t expect it to make any sense to others.

FO: Makes perfect sense to me. It reminds me of something the late John Daido Loori Roshi once said. He was talking to predominantly American Zen practitioners in the Catskills, but the essence is the same. “You do not attain it. You were born with it.  Zen did not come to America from Japan; it was always here, and will always be here. But, like the light bulb, electricity itself is not enough. You need to plug in the bulb to see the light.” So, it sounds like this deep work with Mooji and Ananta was the electricity; you were the bulb being plugged in. The light is the result.


ANDO: ...and the regular retreats continued. 7-day silent intensives. Personal solitude. Always silence at the ashram. It was a silent life. In my own home, prior to moving to Portugal, as a sangha of two, we always kept silence in the mornings, all morning. It was powerful Dharma practice. The most powerful I have known. A truly contemplative life. Each day began with either a Dharma reading (usually me) from a book we were exploring, followed by a Dharma conversation, or a spontaneous Dharma battle. It was beautiful.

FO: What an enormous gift; finding a partner who lives the contemplative life alongside you, practicing the Dharma. Someone who “gets” it, breathes it, walks it. I don’t know if it is rare, exactly, but it seems like the two of you have fashioned an utterly unique life-way; one that falls somewhere between householder and monastic. Where else have your Zen wanderings taken you?  

ANDO: Somewhere along the line, in the late spring into early summer of 2015, I spent some months living in Menorca, caretaking a small holding there with many animals. I tended a flock of very old sheep, ducks, chickens, cockerels, and some pet birds, too. Wild tortoises scuttled around the land. It was another powerful time for me, just as Mallorca had been. During this time, I entered an even deeper, more intensive practice period. My main teacher at this time was Ananta, through the online satsangs and online sangha, whom I was in service to. This period transpired into another opening and change. Spontaneously, I spent the last 7 weeks on the island in solitary retreat, working with the Christian mystic text, The Cloud of Unknowing, all the while still practicing as a Zen Buddhist. I’ve always been seeking my teacher you see. That’s why I’m also known as The Unsui...because of that ongoing search.

FO: I’m familiar with the term unsui, but, if you would, take a bit of time to describe it for readers.

ANDO: The meaning of unsui is twofold. It is a term specific to Zen Buddhism which denotes a postulant awaiting acceptance into a monastery, or a novice-monk who has undertaken Zen training. Sometimes they will travel from monastery to monastery (angya) on a pilgrimage to find the appropriate Zen master with which to study.

The term unsui, which literally translates as "cloud, water" comes from a Chinese poem which reads, "To drift like clouds and flow like water.” Helen J. Baroni writes, "The term can be applied more broadly for any practitioner of Zen, since followers of Zen attempt to move freely through life, without the constraints and limitations of attachment, like free-floating clouds or flowing water." According to author James Ishmael Ford, "In Japan, one receives unsui ordination at the beginning of formal ordained practice, and this is often perceived as 'novice ordination.’"

The second meaning refers to Ch'an or Zen monks who, having achieved satori (enlightenment) after an initial period of training under their first master, take to the road in search of other masters. This is done in order to either test their awakening against them or deepen it with them. The term refers to their lack of a fixed abode during this period.

The term embodies me.

FO: Clearly. Were there other teachers or communities you interacted with along your way?

ANDO: For a time, I also visited and led meditations at a Thich Nhat Hanh sangha from time to time, in Brighton. However, the year before that, I had heard of a teacher called Ganga, who had been the wife of Papaji, HWL Poonja. I knew I wanted to meet her.

I went to meet Ganga (known as Ganga Mira publicly). What a meeting! After that, I was with her from June 2015 to March 2017. I continued to have meeting after meeting with her. I would drive, sleep in the car on the wild cliff tops of SW Portugal, in a borrowed tent. I couldn’t stay away. It was not so much that I had to be there, as much I simply couldn’t be anywhere else. It was impossible!…and perfect.

Ganga guided me so beautifully through this time when I needed guidance. I needed an elder of The Way to do that. Quickly, within a couple of weeks, I recognized I had met my Master. I spoke to her privately. Exchanged bows. I returned my name to Mooji (he had named me Bhagavati). She gave me a name; Kashyapi, after Mahakashyapa, the first of the entire Zen lineage, he of the Flower Sermon at Vulture Peak.

During this time, following the Menorca retreat, and those months with Ganga, many experiences occurred. Timeless teachings, each one of them.

There was another motive in meeting Ganga. One I only fully realized later: "To hide behind a master’s knees." The people who had been showing up asking for my guidance had come in increasing numbers. Suffice it to say, in going over to Ganga, rather than trying to walk along with a sangha, I was able to say, “No. Don’t come to me. Come here. See, I have a teacher. I’m nobody. Worthless to you.” I liken it to the custom in Zen when, following awakening, often a monk will be sent off to live in anonymity, under a bridge, to lead the homeless life, for maybe 6 years, maybe less, maybe longer. Sometimes, for a lifetime. I was like that.

I’m aware, with my journey so far, nothing has stopped, or landed, nor must it. Ganga’s words will ring in these ears until my last breath...

“Don’t land anywhere.”

After meeting Ganga, I was miraculously granted a simple hermitage in exchange for caretaking several properties off-grid and deep in the forest, 4km from the nearest made up road or village. Wild boar, honey bees and butterflies for company. The moon, the Milky Way, nightjars, nightingales and owls, cuckoos, mongoose and all kinds of wild and beautiful things. All quite astounded to meet a human, so rare it was. I lived there with my partner for over two years. I had my own room, in which to practice (zazen and qigong/taichi) and write.

In March of last year, following a heavy flu lasting a couple of months, which kept me from visiting Ganga, the caretaking position came to an end. And just as I had been so abruptly dropped into that particular phase of my forest life, I was withdrawn from it. I felt spat out. It was not by choice, not avoidable, and I gave myself to it with total trust. Then, my mother died. Life became a freefall. I discovered The Dark Night of the Soul. The bottom literally fell out of my spiritual life and path. I found myself with no teacher, no path, and no idea of what to do or where to go. Nothing would stick. Nothing was a fit. Nothing felt right. I was falling, falling, falling, in the great descent. Doubt like doubt never before. In everything. No faith.

I paid no attention. I rode out the hell ride. I rode and rode. Surfing the black wave of loss. The spiritual loss, on top of, triggered by, the loss of my Mum, was more than devastating. It took everything.

A more recent teacher, Sokuzan, came into my life a year ago, from a monastery in the US, and has accepted my Rinzai vows in his own lineage. I am touched and grateful for that, as he brought me full circle, back to the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, and that of his Dharma Heir, Kobun Chino Roshi, who has deeply touched my life in recent years.

FO: I've enjoyed Sokuzan's talks on YouTube. Very human, but a very precise human.

ANDO: Yes. I’m now in a position where I can’t say he’s my teacher, and I can’t say he’s not my teacher. The only thing I can say for sure? Everything is my teacher. Everything is Buddha mind. The Dharmakaya. But still, I sit, not searching, but there is a constant meditation now. Awareness 24/7. To sit, is to sit in this awareness, not to develop it.

What was a wild tumbling torrentuous falling, without end, last year, has become a different kind of ride now. Like learning to fly. Learning to ride the updraft when it catches me; the downdraft, too. So many words, but ultimately, I can say nothing at all of this matter. Better to say nothing at all. It’s all just spider silk on the wind.

FO: A beautiful image. I have immense respect for the Dark Night of the Soul process you mention, having experienced elements of my own. It strips everything away. It’s harrowing. Truly harrowing. And yet, as painful, disorienting, and destabilizing as it is, it is ultimately purifying, liberating, strengthening.

I wanted to turn our attention at this time to your artistic life and poetry, as most of our discussion has been specific to your Zen training and experiences with teachers.

Not every practitioner of Zen takes up the Zen arts, or an artistic life in general. Did your visual artistry and poetry grow out of your Zen practice, or did Zen practice grow out of an already established life path of an artist?

ANDO: I first wrote poetry as a child. I carried a little cahier with me, to note down poems of the land and sea. I remember some treasured moments with that notebook, but the treasure was always nature, the wilds, the landscape.

Later, for five years at art school, I was often in trouble with the fine art faculty, for the central nature of my work being the written work, mostly poetry. I didn’t see the separation between poetry and fine art, but I was advised that I should have applied for a literary degree if I wanted to be a poet. I explained that I wasn’t a writer, or a poet, but an artist. For me, at that time in my life, “artist” was the closest I could get to a definition of one who was free, unbound by society, and its rules.

I opted for the ‘Alternative studies department,’ which pretty much had only one rule – “anything goes”. We were creating music, sound art, performance art, installations, video, photography, but very much in the vein of conceptual art. They were magical times.

I took it a step further by refusing to work in the studio of the department, asking for space in the painting studio, despite not being a painter. I proceeded to create installations there. One in particular caught the attention of the sculpture department, who showed up to do a group critique with me. In other words, I was an alternative studies student, working in a painting studio, being critiqued by the sculpture department. There was something unique going on.

That installation was interesting. It was like a memory of the past intertwined with a vision of the future. A temple. A tea house. Most definitely Japanese-influenced. I knew nothing of Zen at that time, but that was about to change when my year tutor recommended I read Zen Flesh, Zen Bones after he asked what I knew of Zen, and I answered “nothing at all!”

That’s still my best answer!

Words started to appear in my work shortly after. Poems and small gift-like handmade artist publications that I would create and give away. I’m pretty sure there was a time when my poetry drove everyone mad. I couldn’t help myself. I was told this was art school, not literature school, but I couldn’t change the trajectory I was on.

The poetry went underground for some years then, arose during the time I was sick for seven years. It helped keep me sane during that time. Haiku was what I began to write, and I also painted, as I got better and had the strength to sit up enough to paint. I was inspired by the paintings of Fabienne Verdier, and got hold of a copy of her book In Love With the Way, which was a collaboration of works inspired by Chinese poets of the Tang Dynasty. The words caught my attention. Some lines in that book continue to catch me in that way. Like sabres of mist and clouds, they cut to the root.

I have taken that little book everywhere I go ever since. I never travel without it. It’s a funny thing, a love affair. I sometimes wonder about myself living up in those high, misted peaks, the rain dripping down, gathering herbs, sitting under the moon, conjuring up enlightenment poems. I wonder, I have already done these things, this lifetime, previous lifetimes, seeing the joke of the idea we have “a lifetime” or “a series of lifetimes”. All quite ridiculous.

One brilliant line in that book is “Shh, don’t wake the sky people.”  I don’t know what it is, but the feeling is that I’m one of the sky people. I can’t explain.

Could I answer these questions without words? Or in a haiku or a fragment? Yes.

to those who come asking questions

don’t listen to the words

hear the silence

listen to the pause

not the disturbance

this is the answer

to all questions


FO: For those of us who work closely with Zen and the arts, we are inheritors of a rich nomenclature of philosophical and aesthetic terms. Some of these terms, such as wabi-sabi (acceptance of transience and imperfection), have become more well-known and have begun to capture the Western imagination. Other terms, like fuga ('life elegance' - described by Basho as “being a companion of the seasons”) are less well-known. In your own practice, are there particular aesthetic or spiritual concepts that are your primary anchor points of practice or creative expression?

ANDO: I may be a heretic in the world of poetry. Zen, too. I don’t follow philosophies. They’ve never interested me. No school sticks with me. It’s why I struggle if I try to form a school, because I can’t define what I do. There are people out there who want me to found a school of poetry, but I can’t teach them a thing! I don’t know anything about poetry. Nor do I know anything about Zen. I can barely remember the four noble truths. I know there are the six this and the eight that, and maybe the ten the others, but I don’t know what they are. My memory has no capacity for such things. So, there’s been only one singular path I’ve been able to follow. My own. The untrodden path. Unmapped, yet loving and friendly. I wonder if that means I am wandering like a rhinoceros, to paraphrase one of your favorite sutras.

Can I tell you a secret? I’m not a poet. I pretend to be.

Some years ago, when I was posting a lot of my earlier material on Facebook, a friend (now a patron), kept referring to it as “poetry.” My poetry. She referred to me, therefore, as a “poet.” I never bought the terms, but I did adopt them. ‘A good cover,’ I thought; one that will pacify the ones who come delving deeply, looking for explanations, answers and definitions. But, I’m not a poet. I’m not even a Zen woman. No description matches me. Nothing will fit. These terms are just the nearest approximation I have come across.

So, I’m a charlatan. [Laughs out loud.]

FO: Duly noted, and understood! That said, it is clear you draw inspiration from as stream of sources, and the life example and poetic expression of various types of poets and spiritual figures in history, much as Ryokan Daigu (1758-1831) drew inspiration from Hanshan (9th-century), and Basho (1644-1694) drew inspiration from Saigyo (1118-1190). Among the vast array of contemplative artisans who precede us, who feels like your “etheric teacher", your creative mentor?

ANDO: If there is a singular teacher in this realm for me, it must be Basho. If I were to propose my whole poetic lineage, it would be Saigyo, Basho, Chyo-ni, Ikkyu, Issa, Santoka, the wanderers. I’m also very struck by the haiku of Zen Master Soen Nakagawa. The Chinese poets came later, Ryokan too. Now, I find myself walking in their mists and mountains, lost in their forests, too.

If I propose the three elements that appear to make me up, they are Dogen, for the love of Zen and ultimate truth, Baisao, for the love of tea and conversation, Basho, for the poetry. But, actually, the bottom line is my lineage is that of mountains and rivers, forests and trees, wind and the moon, all wild things, life itself. Is there a better teacher? A higher one? I haven’t found one yet.

FO: Indeed! Speaking of nature, I know that we both share great love of the Tao-influenced, nature-honoring Ch’an poetry that flows forward through time from the mountains of China. The carefree, easy-going way of idleness in mountains and forests feels like second-nature to me. There is another feature of some of these figures I find quite compelling and of particular relevance today, and that is how many of them felt at odds with the cultural life and political strife around them. Whether government corruption, war, or religious fundamentalism, some of these poet-ancestors’ response to these conditions was to draw even farther to the edge of things, while others took up the mantle of activist-poets. In what ways do you feel this poetic tradition is relevant to our own times?

ANDO: I believe there is a lot of potential for it. To be defined as a contemporary poet, means to live in the here and now, to write in the here and now, to address and report on the here and now.

FO: I’m curious about daily rhythms when it comes to your way of Zen and poetic practice. Do you have a particular flow or set schedule when it comes to the heart-mind practice of zazen/shikantaza/silent illumination, working with landscape and nature, and contemplative poetic expression?

ANDO: I wake, I sleep, between these two, life flows. 24/7 is my meditation. Awake or asleep, silent or speaking, still or moving. I have beautiful contemplative practices, too. Some mornings I hold a chanoyu (Japanese Tea Ceremony with matcha tea), cleaning the space, picking a flower. Other days I offer leaf tea and incense. Another time, I may rake leaves from under the trees, or sweep the path. Daily, I clean the surfaces in the kitchen. Queueing for bread at the bakers. Choosing fruit at a street market. Sitting in meetings. Answering questions for interviews.

For many years, since 1982, I meditate; daily since around 2000. Hours on end. Zazenkais (1 day sits). Sesshin (7 day sits). Rohatsu (night sitting in celebration of Buddha’s Enlightenment day). Mountain sitting.  Night sitting. River sitting. Sitting under trees. Sometimes it seems like I must have tried every meditation posture, every possible technique, every duration, every location possible. At some point, I didn’t give up; I just discovered that all meditation practice was occurring inside meditation. Meditation isn’t a practice at all; it’s connection with the source. We’re never disconnected. We just get a little (or a lot) distracted.

I also walk in nature whenever I can. The wild expanses, the open landscape, the dense forests, mountain ridges walked for days -- these are the places that light me up. They often inspire, invite, or offer poetry. The walk itself is poetry. The poetry comes at any time, though.

Once, while sitting on a metro in Lisboa, a haiku showed up. Not about the experience there and then, but from somewhere else. I wrote it down. I don’t even remember it now. I would have to search for it. I could write down all sorts of fancy answers here. But, better to say:

Go brew a bowl of roasted oolong

from the water of a mountain stream,

and sip it on a rock, than listen to me.

Better to walk on a wild and windy clifftop,

and get your head blown off, than listen to me.

Better to contemplate where the breeze comes from.

Better to meditate on nothing at all, but for the question:

”Who is meditating?”

FO: Lately I have been re-reading two works that promote the idea of solitary living - the Khaggavisana Sutta (a.k.a. The Rhinoceros Sutra) and swordmaster Miyamoto Musashi’s (1584-1645) Dokkodo (The Way of Walking Alone).

The Rhinoceros Sutra, with its frequent refrain “Wander alone like a rhinoceros...” advocates the merits of solitary asceticism vs. practicing as householder or monastic. Meanwhile, Musashi (whose Buddhist name was Niten Doraku), puts forth 21 precepts that relate to food, weapons (he was a Zen swordmaster, after all), sensuality, and even spirituality when he says, “Revere Buddha and the gods, but do not rely on them.”

The approach and worldview of these texts will strike most modern people as too extreme. While I do not practice their essence as a city-dweller, undoubtedly there is something powerful about them, especially when considered against the backdrop of a world that seems to have fallen into a perilous state of disharmony, culturally and ecologically.

Are you familiar with these works? What is your own takeaway? Are there other texts or tenets you find guiding your path as solitary practitioner and poet?  

ANDO: Since you shared about The Rhinoceros Sutra, it captured my attention immediately, like a brilliant light. I explored it. I recognized it. I recognised my path in it. I recognized it not as guiding me to a solitary life, but to be solitary in my determination, solitary in finding the way, to walk my own path, not to follow, nor to lead. Simply to walk, alone, like a rhinoceros.

I took a peek at the Dokkodo. They seem rather beautiful, and no doubt helpful, but 21 precepts is too many for me. It seems I had to find another way in my own life. Not by choice, more by destiny, if I were to believe in that sort of thing.

My memory was affected by my seven-year illness. Whilst many aspects of function returned, areas of memory function did not. It was my longest sesshin ever, those seven years. I am not troubled by the lack of memory. I find it a blessing! So, I can’t always remember the Four Noble Truths,...the 6 this, the 10 that, the 21 the other… Like the Tibetan monk Lam Chung, sometimes I can’t even remember a single line of Dharma. Yet, I hear it in every heartbeat and the breath of the wind. Sometimes when I speak or write poetry, it speaks through me. These aren’t my poems. This is not my Dharma. I belong to it, not the other way around. Everything is Buddha Mind.


FO: I wanted to turn now to your Patreon project, because this is one of the pristine ways you radiate Buddha Mind. I have to say this is one of the most unique things I’ve ever seen a poet do. Not only is it a platform through which you are publishing some incredible nature-inspired, heart-mind cultivated, silence-infused Zen poetry, it’s also a way for fans of your writing to serve as patrons of your solitary life. Share a bit about the inspiration for The Unsui on Patreon, and where you feel this unique project is going.

ANDO: I find it quite striking that you say my Patreon is one of the most striking things you’ve seen a poet do. In actuality, I didn’t do it. It was gifted to me by my first patron, you could say. Someone who had come to me for help with some aspects of life, and whom it seems I was able to help. So, bearing in mind that I didn’t come up with the idea, let’s talk about it.

I have lived solely by donation for many years now. Sometimes I have gone without food, water even, and, of course, money and housing. I have lived in shelters, huts and tents, tiny cottages and luxury mansions in this time. All the shades of a life, lived.

The Patreon came at a time when funds were at their lowest, February 2017. I say “lowest.” There was none. Somehow, word got out. Sangha began sending donations, others pushing €20 notes into my pockets. Monks sent PayPal across the oceans, and a friend showed up pressing this Patreon on me, saying I should try it, and that she would build it. I said no. She persisted. I said no. She persisted. I said no. She said “Make this easy. Say yes.” I said yes.

It felt awkward and alien at first, and not a match for me at all. But now, it feeds me. Now, it is growing. It has continued to grow since day one. I discovered there were people out there who supported what I am doing, whatever that is. We can call it poetry, for the sake of naming it. So, it’s been the most incredible, path affirming patronage, both the initial gift of the Patreon, and the showing up of other patrons there.

So Patreon is a place where a community has formed around my work, you could call it a sangha (of Zen poetry), a gathering of those who share the same spirit, seek it, or who simply wish to help feed and shelter me.

I walk this path with great joy. If I am to trust the ultimate truth, the universe, the one, the absolute, life, then I must trust wholeheartedly. I could have surrendered to it, but that wasn’t necessary, because rather, this path came along, and swallowed me whole. I don’t need to stick my head in the tiger’s mouth, when I’m in it’s belly already. That would be a step too much.

There are a set of clear and simple goals for the Patreon fund now. It began as a digital begging bowl, along with the donation page of my website, which has been around for a few years now, serving me food and water now and then.

The first goal was to raise enough to put food, water and medicines on the table. I have long term chronic health issues (ME/CFS: myalgic encephalomyelitis and chronic fatigue syndrome), so need to maintain a good diet, and supplementation, with herbs, minerals and other therapies when needed. This goal has been attained, although I may have set the bar a little low, in actual fact, it probably needed to be a little higher to cover health needs.

The second goal is that once I have $500+ coming in, I will be able to begin to set aside a little each month towards buying a vehicle.

The third goal is that once I have $1000+ coming in, I will be able to begin to consider renting a home somewhere. For the first time since 2007. I still aim to wander, travel and make pilgrimage in the wild and holy places of the earth, but this body needs a place to rest when it is weary. Aged 56, with ME/CFS, that is not a luxury but a basic essential. It is also the reason a vehicle is needed.

Later in the goals, I will move into bigger place, where I have not only space to live and work, but also land where I can offer a few small hermitage huts to visiting poets and seekers. I will offer solitary retreat time there, with guidance available from me. I may also offer something similar online, supported solitary retreat.

Another goal is to upgrade a vehicle to create a mobile hermitage / zendo / tea house / poet hut. One that allows me to show up anywhere. Not too big, just a converted van of some kind, made with repurposed natural materials.

Eventually, a tea house at the home/studio/hermitage too. That will complete the circle.

Along the way, what I offer is exclusive access to more than 95% of my poetry, early release of ebooks and printed published books, your name in them on a list of patrons, notes from my notebook, journal entries from my journals, chapters from The Forest, which I hope to really dig into as soon as I’m able to live in a more forested environment again.

I also offer poetry readings and commentaries on Zen and Zen poetry by the masters, and the ancient art of Zen divination, using a couple of my most loved Zen texts, ‘Zen Sand’ and ‘Wind in the Pines’.

Zen, tea and poetry are my passions. Their principles are at the heart of all my work and activities. So there will be plenty of reference to tea too.

In a nutshell, the Patreon project is to enable a community of lovers of the contemplative way of Zen, tea and poetry, those with a passion for silence, stillness and the slow life, to gather around my work. This community supports me so I can continue to share my words, and publish them more widely, it supports me to allow my trust in the ability of life to provide for me, to support the expansion and development of my work.

Whether that leads to a life like Basho - roaming, writing, sharing, teaching and resting, then doing it all over again, or, like Dogen, hosting a tiny haiku zendō somewhere in the forested hills, or like Baisao the old tea seller, selling tea by the river, sharing conversation, or that old crazy cloud, Ikkyu, time will tell.

Ultimately, it is what leads to this present life as Ando, and that’s good with me. When I walk or sit with nature, I meet my own heart. Find me on a mountain top, under a tree, on a rock at the foot of a gorge, in the wind in the pines. Meet me there.

For more information about Ando and her poetic work, visit:

To explore and support Ando’s The Unsui project on Patreon, visit:

For more information about the traditions and individual expressions of individuals who have taken up hermitage as a spiritual and artistic discipline, from various cultures and traditions, visit: The Hermitary


Buddhadharma/Dharma: the teachings of the Buddha

haiku: short, three-line poems with a 5-7-5 syllable structure made popular by Matsuo Basho

householder: a layperson (non-monastic) in Buddhist tradition

sangha: assembly, community of practitioners

satsang: from Sanskrit, "to associate with true people"; sitting as a group with a guru

sesshin: a period of intensive zazen (sitting meditation in Zen tradition)

Unborn (fusho): from the Sanskrit, anutpuda (no origin); a method of seeing into the true nature of existence; the focal teaching of Zen master Bankei Yotaku (1622-1693)


Touching the Burning Infinite Light


Touching the Burning Infinite Light

"Friends, all is burning."

Shakyamuni Buddha,

The Fire Sermon, Samyutta Nikaya Sutra

An interview with

multimedia artist, Miya Ando

Frank LaRue Owen


We live in a high velocity, technocratic, and a (sometimes) loud and harsh world. It is a world increasingly characterized by violence, environmental degradation, psychological stress, cultural marginalization, urban anonymity, and a mind-numbing overload of digital imagery and information. Living within such conditions can have a detrimental impact upon the human psyche. Under such duress, art -- a universal human leaning shared across all cultures -- can serve as a salve for the heart-mind.

Art, both East and West, ancient and modern, causes us to pause, to contemplate, to return -- if for just a moment -- to a slower, more natural rhythm. Art also invokes experience, specifically within the inner life of the viewer. When that art is -- by its very nature -- spacious, contemplative, minimalist, and evocatively mind-like, the viewer is naturally invited into a meditative process. Therein, one can find healing and illumination.

With such art-making, and within such art-viewing, a person may even experience a sudden flash of deeper spiritual insight. This is one of the key features of what the late Tibetan meditation master Chogyam Trungpa called "Dharma art"; and, this was my own experience the first time I saw the art featured in this article. With my first glance, something elemental and primordial reached out to me.

(c) L. Young from 'Obon (Puerto Rico)'

(c) L. Young from 'Obon (Puerto Rico)'

The year was 2010. I don't recall what I was looking for on Google, but as my eyes scanned the smorgasbord of images before me, I saw a photograph that suddenly stopped me dead in my tracks. Without knowing anything about the artist, I immediately uttered the phrase, mono no aware (pronounced mo'no, no, ah'wah'ray) -- a Zen-influenced literary concept first coined by Japanese scholar and philosopher Motoori Norinaga (1730-1831).

Mono no aware does not translate very easily into English. Languages are different because different cultures think and conceptualize differently. Yet, there is a universal human realm that connects us all and that is the realm of emotion; and, it is on that level that mono no aware gently flows in.

Some of the most widely accepted phrases used to communicate this deeply spiritual and aesthetic Japanese term suggest that it means an empathy toward things, a sensitivity to ephemera, awareness of impermanence, or a deeply felt comprehension of the transience of all phenomena. Even more so, what the term truly points to is the resulting tender feelings, including gratitude for the preciousness of things and the melancholic sadness that can result from having such a stark and precise perception that all things will eventually pass from existence.

As I gazed at some of the images you now see placed like stepping stones before you, I realized that many of the pieces stirred memories in me of landscapes I've wandered through; horizon lines I have looked out at while meditating near a shoreline, or mountain ranges that are dear to my heart. Other examples of this art conjured pure emotion, washing me in a haunting atmosphere I was unable to articulate with words. In all cases, something about this artist's work has a strong sense of mono no aware and seem to invoke -- in visual form -- something of the kensho-experience (sudden illumination) of Chan/Zen, or a quality of wabi-sabi -- another term from the Japanese tradition of aesthetics, which suggests beauty shining through a rustic sense of minimalism and simplicity.

Three examples of Miya Ando's stunning work. / (c) L. Young

Three examples of Miya Ando's stunning work. / (c) L. Young

It is no accident, then, that I first reached for contemplative and aesthetic terms from the Japanese tradition to describe these works. As it just so happens, the artist is versed in an understanding of these terms, both from an intellectual point of view and as an internal experience as an artist.



Miya Ando is part-Japanese, part-Russian, and the direct descendent of Bizen samurai sword maker Ando Yoshiro Masakatsu. She was raised in Japan by sword smiths-turned Buddhist priests, and grew up in a Nichiren temple in Okayama, Japan. After her early years in Japan, another phase of Miya's childhood was spent in the misty redwood forests around Santa Cruz, California.

Now, Ando lives in New York City, where she -- to a large degree -- continues working with the materials of her ancestors; namely, steel. However, rather than firing, pounding, bending, and shaping the steel into swords, she uses steel, pigment, brushes, and the fire of a blowtorch to express her artistic vision in contemporary forms.

I had the opportunity to connect with Miya to discuss her background, her artistry, and some of the themes and influences that find their way into her work.

FO: Frank LaRue Owen / MA: Miya Ando

FO: You have a compelling lineage, Miya; both the fact that you were raised in a Nichiren temple, and that you are a descendant of swordmakers that carried on samurai tradition. From the point of view of cultural and spiritual identity and consciousness, how do these energetic forces influence you on a day-to-day basis?

MA: My exposure to Buddhism occurred very early. Since I was a child, Buddhism has made a strong impact on my perception of the world, as well as my art practice. I feel a deep affinity to the Japanese word otonashii (quiet). It is from a place of deep quiet that I create, and it is a place of deep quiet and reflection that I invite people to visit through my art.

The other half of my childhood was spent living in a redwood forest in Northern California, completely surrounded by nature, miles from the nearest store or gas station. I consider this experience to be equally influential and complementary to my time living in Japan. They are very different countries and cultures, but each place and each culture has offered something to me. As a result, I now see that the practice of harmonizing and finding beauty in disparate things has become an artistic and philosophical pursuit. Simple forms and non-denominationalism interests me greatly.

FO: Your spiritual and cultural roots are undoubtedly an important part of who you are. What is your artistic lineage -- your mentors, your influences, and the figures from the past that inspire you?

MA: My Japanese grandparents, with whom I lived, have always been my moral compass. My grandfather was head priest of our temple, but also my caretaker. The connection of family and religion has been significant in my life and have drawn me to make certain choices in my artistic expression.


FO: Due to your Japanese and Buddhist roots, the tendency of some could be to pigeonhole your work as "modern Japanese art" or "contemporary Buddhist art." I want to resist that because your work stands on its own as a captivating and unique manifestation. At the same time, the links with your ancestral background are undeniable. To what degree do certain principles of Japanese and Zen aesthetics influence your work such as wabi, sabi, wabi-sabi, mono no aware, etc.?

MA: I have been strongly influenced by the philosophy and aesthetics of Zen reductivism. I appreciate very much the idea of paring away all except that which is essential and I seek this also in my thinking and execution of my work. Mono no aware is a wonderful concept. I have been investigating the idea that all things in life are ephemeral and transitory and this force, being universal, has always been a subject matter of my work. Hakanai (fleeting) is one of my favorite words and is a feature of some of my installations.

FO: There is a phrase I have heard that: "Some Japanese are Buddhist, but all Japanese are Shinto." What is your own relationship to the kami and how do the ancient nature-honoring traditions of Shinto influence you and your own relationship with nature, the elements, and the seasons?

MA: In my childhood, living in the redwoods in Santa Cruz, I had a particularly close relationship with nature. This, coupled with my experiences in Japan, and being exposed to a culture that has such a deep respect and reverence for nature, has been a strong influence on my being and also my pursuits as an artist.

I have always loved the Shinto idea that stones, trees, mountains, and natural forces such as wind are sacred. When I was a child and learned that Shimenawa meant that there was a spirit present inside of a particular tree or stone, I was delighted beyond belief. (Note: The shimenawa is a large braided rice or hemp straw rope placed around certain holy trees, stones, or above archways around Shinto shrines).

Shimenawa , near Dewa Sanzan, Wikimedia Commons

Shimenawa, near Dewa Sanzan, Wikimedia Commons

Seeing the spiritual power of nature and natural forces myself, it makes perfect sense to me that Shinto would recognize the sacredness of these forces. I have such a respect for the Japanese awareness and sensitivity and adoration of nature. It's really ubiquitous in Japan, from the architecture that allows one to live with nature, to interior design elements like the tokonoma (a recessed alcove in traditional Japanese homes and teahouses), which is a place to display flowers and scrolls for that particular season. The attunement to nature and harmonizing with nature is really second nature to me, personally, but as an artist I also find it as an inspirational theme in my work.

Example of  tokonoma  (alcove) where plant cuttings, ikebana, and scrolls are often placed to acknowledge the season. source: Wikimedia Commons

Example of tokonoma (alcove) where plant cuttings, ikebana, and scrolls are often placed to acknowledge the season. source: Wikimedia Commons


FO: On that note, something we learn from your biography is that you divide your time between the quiet, pristine environs of the redwood forests around Santa Cruz and the vibrant pulse of New York City. How do the distinct energies of these places influence you as a person and as an artist?

MA: I lived in California when I was child. Now I am based in New York full-time. Santa Cruz is like Japan in that respect for me. They are both filled with strong, beautiful memories and they are both in my heart wherever I am. I think ontonashii, quiet, is inside the self; it doesn't truly matter what the surroundings are.

"Let the mind flow freely

without dwelling on anything."

The Diamond Sutra

FO: Are there other places to which you feel an exceedingly profound connection? If so, what makes the spirit of these places particularly important to you on the level of your heart-mind? I'm thinking of how Basho, the wandering haiku master, had a deep connection to a stretch of land near Natagiri Pass, which he explores in his various travel journals, Narrow Road to the Interior; and also some of the other "spiritual-creatives" of Japan felt a deep relationship to a specific place which they nurtured, and which nurtured them; like the Zen hermit, poet and "wisdom clown" Ryokan Daigu ("Great Fool") who felt a deep affinity to the bamboo and hardwood forests around his hut "Gogo-an", or the 'crazy wisdom' Zen master Ikkyu, who had some influence on individuals who developed of the Japanese tea ceremony, or the potter, painter, poet, and martial artist Rengetsu (Lotus Moon).

MA: Yes, the redwood forests still are the most magical to me. I was just in Santa Cruz filming for a documentary that the filmmaker L. Young is making about my work. The forests are so comfortable to me. Every time I return, it takes my breath away. The fog and mist, in particular, is magical and mystical to me. That said, I also have a strong affinity to Miyajima, which is near where I lived in Japan. There are torii everywhere (gates associated with Shinto shrines that signify moving from the profane to the sacred). It is such a spiritual place to me, and for many Japanese people.

Miyajima Floating Torii, image:  Michael Day

Miyajima Floating Torii, image: Michael Day

FO: One of your most well known installations is the 9/11 Memorial in London, commissioned by the 9/11 London Project Foundation as a permanent addition in England. Crafted from polished World Trade Center steel from Ground Zero and the 9/11 attacks, you were actually given the opportunity to create a piece of sculpture from the rubble.

What was your own personal experience of 9/11 and what was your experience on the artistic and emotional level working on the 9/11 Memorial in London?

MA: Creating the piece for 9/11 was very taxing on an emotional level for me. I worked for two years on the monument and the entire time I kept praying that I make something that had reverence for the victims. I prayed that I was able to make something that was respectful. My concept was simple; to polish to a mirror finish the World Trade Center steel. My hope was to create something non-denominational and put forth light into the world. So, I made a highly reflective piece.

9/11 Memorial, London, Miya Ando, (c) L. Young

9/11 Memorial, London, Miya Ando, (c) L. Young

FO: One of your most recent installations, commissioned by the Fist Art Foundation, is called "Obon (Puerto Rico)." It also deals with the theme of light. Share with us the initial inspiration of this site-specific, large-scale exploration.

MA: I was inspired by the ceremony of 'Obon,' which occurs in August in Japan. The belief is that one's departed relatives return to the home for 3 days. On the third day, the spirits return to the spirit world and small boats with candles are floated down rivers and bodies of water. I have always loved Obon, in that it is about respect and memory.

FO: Seeing the images of the long strand of leaves, each emitting an eerie luminous glow, I had my own association of a "blue spirit road" of the ancestors. Truly fascinating. Share with us a bit more about the materials you used, as it is a definite departure from your use of steel and metals of various kinds.

MA: For "Obon (Puerto Rico)," I wanted to create something in Puerto Rico which introduced some of the ideas surrounding the theme of the tradition of Obon, but I also wanted to create this using unexpected forms and materials. So, I used phosphorescence instead of candles because the phosphorescence absorbs light from its surroundings and emits a glow continuously. I love the idea of a sustainable light source and I have had interest in light as part of my vocabulary as an artist for quite some time.

Also, I used leaves from the tree known as Ficus religiosa, which is the type of tree, sometimes called the Bodhi Tree, under which the Buddha attained enlightenment.


FO: So, there is the theme of light again; the light of the ancestral festival of Obon, the light of Buddha's enlightenment, and the phosphorescence or light of nature. It's not only wonderful, artistically, I like how it really is a teaching for the eyes to behold but communicated on levels that are more visceral and primordial rather than rational.

So, what is next in the luminous, light-filled world of Miya Ando? Do you have any specific upcoming shows or gallery openings you would like to tell people about? From an artistic 'always-in-process' point of view, what is stirring for you as far as inspirations, directions, and possible creative expression?

MA: I am currently in the studio working on pieces for a solo exhibition at Sundaram Tagore gallery next spring. The work is inspired by my continued interest in states of transformation.

FO: Thank you, Miya, for your work and the light you are shining into the world.

To learn more about the work of Miya Ando, visit her website:

All photos (c) L. Young except where otherwise noted

This interview originally appeared in the Winter 2012 issue of Written River: The Journal of Eco-Poetics


Mountain As Mandala


Mountain As Mandala

An interview with the filmmakers of Shugendo Now

Frank LaRue Owen



I conducted this interview for the Winter 2011 issue of Written River: A Journal of Eco-Poetics. It is about the still-living traditions of the shugenja (Japanese practitioners of Shugendo), their ecological message, and a very special film that documents modern-day shugenja called Shugendo Now. The film was featured by the Buddhist Film Foundation in the 2010 International Buddhist Film Festival.


The filmmakers, both from Montréal, are Mark Patrick McGuire, a humanities professor at John Abbott College, and Jean-Marc Abela, a talented self-taught filmmaker. Driven by my own “haunted familiarity” with elements of Japanese Shinto, and a natural interest in the subject from my decade of training in Japanese Buddhism and martial arts, I watched the film in early 2011 and reached out to Mark and Jean-Marc to connect with them about their beautiful film.


Believed to have first been organized by a 7th-century mystic named En no Ozunu (a.k.a. En no Gyoja), Shugendo is not one isolated tradition but various expressions of spiritual practice that share similar aims. Ozunu—who is venerated as a bodhisattva (saint)—authored the Sutra on the Unlimited Life of the Threefold Body, a central text used by the shugenja even today. Modern-day practitioners of Shugendo, most of whom are city-dwellers, intentionally leave the world of man behind to head into nature on retreat, to commune and connect with mountains, forests, rivers, and waterfalls, in a truly unique spiritual training path that weaves elements of Shinto, Buddhism, Daoism, Shamanism, martial arts, and - now in the 21st-century - environmental activism.



From the very first sounds we encounter in the film Shugendo Now, we realize we are in for a highly textural, sensual film-viewing experience. Water droplets, wind, and subtle vibrations radiating out from metal chimes all coalesce with various kinds of imagery, ranging from pristine natural places to bustling cityscapes in modern Japan.

We then see words on the screen that indicate we are entering a spiritual geography:

“The yamabushi are those who enter the mountain to seek experiential truth. They perform austerities and ritual actions adopted from shamanism, the kami tradition (Shinto), Esoteric Buddhism and Daoism. This syncretic tradition is called Shugendo.”

A map appears, stylistically produced as a landscape painting of the Kumano mountain range in Japan, including Mt. Omine (one of the pilgrimage sites and holy mountains of this ancient tradition). As we hear reverberations from a temple bell, the “geographic map” fades backward and an image rushes forth to meet us, namely ancient Japanese iconography depicting the buddhas and bodhisattvas that occupy the Womb-Realm and Vajra-Realm mandaras (Skt: mandala, Japanese: mandara, a circular design depicting images of religious significance).

Without overtly interpreting or over-intellectualizing, the intuitive filmmaking and editing style of Shugendo Now softly guides viewers into understanding: the mandalas are the mountains, the mountains are the mandalas, and practitioners of Shugendo journey through the mountains-as-mandalas to the dwelling place of the kami and buddhas.

WR: Frank LaRue Owen for Written River
MARK: Mark McGuire, JEAN-MARC: Jean-Marc Abela

WR: First of all, Mark and Jean-Marc, thank you for taking the time for this dialogue. You’re both men-on-the-move, with lots of creative endeavors and projects, so I’m grateful for your willingness to discuss your film – Shugendo Now.

MARK / JEAN-MARC: We thank you for the opportunity to share our reflections on the film!

WR: You have created a compelling documentary that will appeal to readers of Written River for different reasons. What was your initial inspiration for the film and how long were you in Japan shooting?

MARK: I was initially attracted to these places and practices as a first-year graduate student looking for a field site to do my Ph.D. research. It was about to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage site and become a global hot spot for tourists and curiosity seekers, so I wanted to learn as much as I could about its past and present and chart the changes that would occur in the future.

After having the chance to participate in some of the mountain ascetic practices, and spend time with some of the priests and lay practitioners, my attention shifted to the motivations each had for participating in these traditional practices. They come from a fast-paced, modern age, so my interest was in the ways diverse urban pilgrims apply what they learn in their daily lives, in urban centers like Tokyo and Osaka. The stories they told me about what took them to the mountain—and what they came home with—inspired me to collaborate with Jean-Marc in trying to represent the practices and places through an accessible documentary film.

WR: Briefly describe the tradition of Shugendo for readers of Written River.

MARK: Shugendo is a Tantric vehicle, which means that its practices are only for the initiated and features some hidden or secret practices only transmitted from teacher to student. It brings together ritual practices from the kami tradition (Shinto), Shamanism, Tantric Buddhism and Daoism with a premium placed upon a physical experience of the teachings' truth. So, practitioners enter mountains, forests, waterfalls, caves and streams in order to have a visceral contact with the sacred. As Tanaka Riten of the temple Kimpusen- ji explains at the beginning of the film, “For us, these mountains are the dwellings of the kami and buddhas. If you want to simply enjoy trekking, you can go hiking on your own time.”

WR: I have known about the traditions of the shugenja, or yamabushi, since the late-1980s when I began practicing Zen and Aikido, and learning about the life and many influences of O-Sensei, Morihei Ueshiba, its founder. Like Shugendo, Ueshiba was influenced by many forces including the kami tradition, Japanese Vajrayana Buddhism, Zen, Daoism, even contemplative-esoteric Christianity, but also Shugendo. While it is not immediately obvious, the worldview of Aikido is shaped by Shugendo. Later, I encountered Shugendo as a topic in my undergraduate studies in Japanese religions.

It is fascinating to see these ancient traditions depicted on film, and a truly soul-stirring component is seeing modern people (many of them from highly congested urban settings) taking part in pilgrimages, honoring nature, participating in a nature-based spirituality. What were your own personal impressions about these juxtapositions – ancient-modern, nature-technological, etc.?

JEAN-MARC: I think we all have a deep connection with nature.  That may sound like an obvious statement but in our modern and urban lifestyle it needs to be stated. Of course, cities offer great cultural experiences and places of refuge, but nothing seems to compare to standing in a forest.  The sounds, the vibrations, the smells, and sight of it all, I think, bring great peace within all of us.  Therefore, the people who live in highly congested urban settings have an even greater need to get out there and breathe the forest into their lives. Many viewers tell us after watching the  film that they want to go for a walk outside the city and this is how we hoped people would react.

WR: Like Shugendo’s own characteristic weaving of different facets together, your film does a magnificent job of weaving different elements: stunning footage of the natural world, documentation of a unique spiritual tradition, and investigating certain key questions. Was the theme of the film already in place at the outset, or did it organically evolve as you were documenting these traditions?

JEAN-MARC: From the start of the project we wanted to weave together urban and natural spaces. The question that remained was how we would achieve this without hitting any of the clichés normally associated with Japan. The opening sequence was the scene used to explore this. I started editing it while shooting in Kumano.

Before I left Japan, I had several different versions of the opening. Returning home, I continued this exploration, from very drastic juxtapositions of images and sounds, but it never felt quite right until I decided to keep the sounds of nature throughout the opening sequence, which included scenes of cityscapes. When we watched it together, Mark instantly approved and observed that this was more in-line with our views on the subject: that nature is everywhere around us.

MARK:  There were two important juxtapositions that we wished to highlight: that of the productive tension between the mountains and the city, and the different personalities, efforts and intended audiences of our two main characters (Tateishi Kôshô and Tanaka Riten) as they sought to creatively re-invent the traditional practices for busy, urban people.

On the surface, these men are very different personalities, with different approaches, who, in turn, attract different individuals. However, at their core, what they are doing is very similar. As for how we illustrated these juxtapositions with our footage; that came together organically both during initial shooting and post-production. Jean-Marc is a highly intuitive, self-taught  filmmaker with an excellent eye for detail and pattern, so I was comfortable giving him full creative decision-making power over the direction the film would take.

WR: In the film, you offer viewers an inside-view of the preparations that some of the practitioners of Shugendo undertake. How did you make these connections, meet these practitioners, and secure permission to be part of their sacred ceremonies?

JEAN-MARC: Each connection is a little bit different. Mark had a previous relationship with Tateishi Kôshô and Tanaka Riten.  These were important people to know as they each gave us access to their respective temple and the participants who visit them. I think this says a lot about the relationship that Mark cultivated with the head priests over the years. He has a very respectful and sensitive approach as an academic and a filmmaker.

A good example of this is the story around the release forms that we got each person in the  film to sign. I had brought examples from previous projects, but, of course, they were in English and they needed to be translated into Japanese, which Mark did. When he presented to me his translation, the new version of the release form was no longer written in cold, direct legal language, but was much softer. It also shared the goals of our  film and what we intended to do with it, offering our responsibility with the material we were filming instead of just asking people to sign away their rights. From there, I knew I wanted to proceed carefully as a camera operator and I found that I was much more welcomed by the people as they now understood our intentions and wanted to help create this film.

WR: In one part of the film, we see a large gathering of people (men, women, children, families). Sacred arrows are shot into the air and offerings are made to a ceremonial fire (goma). Describe for us your experience of this gathering as both filmmaker but also as an individual awake-and-aware spiritually.

JEAN-MARC: All of the Goma ceremonies we filmed were special in their own way. It’s a very powerful shamanic experience and I personally feel a deep connection to the transformative powers of fire. I didn’t feel the need to know exactly what they were saying and Mark informed me that even most Japanese people didn’t know as they were talking in an older dialect. The significance of fire ritual is universal.

As a cameraman, I try to fuse with the subjects I am shooting, and so I got taken into a trance with the drumming, chanting and fire. Of course, while I try to fuse as much as possible, I also need to step out of the moment, look around, and see how I can best capture it.  It is is the job of a documentary cameraman: sometimes it’s a sacrifice not to be able to totally participate in an event so that you can capture it and share it. But, sometimes that journey brings its own benefits and discoveries.

WR: One of my favorite parts of the film is your documenting the life of Tateishi Kôshô. What a compelling figure! Just to make readers aware, Kôshô lives on a Shugendo compound (complete with temple) beneath the Kumano Mountains and performs the role of priest but also of guardian of the land.

In the film, we see that some expressions of the Shugendo traditions restrict women from access to certain sites and holy mountains; yet Kôshô-san has broken off on his own, practices more of a householder (family, village-centric) expression of the traditions. He seems to have a remarkable ability to balance things in life. He practices a minimum-impact lifestyle, raises his own rice, and sees cooking as an extension of Shugendo practice. On the one hand, he has an apprentice, and performs the duties of a yamabushi, yet he also has a family and plays the role of environmental activist for a specific patch of ground. Tell us more about this man.

JEAN-MARC: I first learned of Tateishi Kôshô in Montréal when Mark told me about his idea for this film. My  first response was, “This man would make a perfect subject for a film!” Mark replied,“I know. It’s why I’m telling you so much about him!”

Tateishi Kôshô has many facets to his personality. His activities range from cooking, playing music at sacred ceremonies, tending to the forest and his experiences as a priest and traveler. Discussions with him always make for fascinating stories.

When I first met him in Kumano, we were in the middle of a typhoon, and we spent the night cooking, drinking sake, playing music, sharing stories and ideas. I was instantly enamored with this man. Later on, I realized that spending 21 days with him would only give us a glimpse into this amazing person. I learned that he had lived in New York working in business, travelled in India for a few years as a musician, and had been part of a butoh dance group as well.

I think this is what cinema does so well. Without ever sharing some of his stories or telling the audience more details about him, people tell me that they get a good sense of his personality just from watching the  film. You can sense his rich lifestyle in everything he does.  This is how I see this man: a rich person because he fully enjoys each little thing that life offers him as a precious gift; and this gratefulness he experiences is in full expression each time one of his devotees sends him a gift, which he quickly takes to his altar.

WR: The account he gives of combating unchecked dumping and pollution is inspiring. It is, in effect, an expression of “engaged Shugendo” (spirituality meets environmental and social activism). You were afforded a very intimate view of this particular expression of contemporary Japanese environmental activism. What were your impressions?

JEAN-MARC: Kôshô-san expresses himself quite clearly on this issue throughout the film. For him there is no separation between his devotions to the Buddhas and kami, and his work as an environmental activist.  They are one and the same. I fully agree with him. I think this is true for everything we do, and one of the great challenges of our modern lives is to  find a way to live in our actions the values that we hold dear in our hearts and minds. We are constantly swayed towards a lifestyle of consumption that contradicts what we know to be more important issues, such as social welfare for workers around the world and environmental protection. Finding that balance is difficult.

As Kôsô-san shares with us: “We must not become ‘eco-fanatics’ because we might not enjoy the process or we might become too rigid and lose sight of our purpose.” 

To learn more about the film Shugendo Now, and to purchase it, visit: SHUGENDO NOW

To learn more about the ancient tradition of Shugendo and a modern-day training program of shugenja, visit YAMABUSHIDO