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Yugen

Islands in the Stream

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This is my first post in what I hope will be a multi-year project logging my journeys to the islands of the Maine Island Trail by kayak.

The idea for this project came some time after reading Dogen's "Mountains and Waters Sutra" in the Shobogenzo. After years spent as a kayaker and mountaineer, Dogen's writing helped to crystallize what I had been feeling for many years. When in the outdoors, I do not feel the sentiment of the Romantic or Transcendentalist viewing a beautiful sunrise or mountain ridgeline rising out of the ocean. I do feel a sense of awe, but also something ineffable, something I cannot possibly put into words.

Dogen helped me here:

Mountains and waters right now are the actualization of the ancient Buddha way. Each, abiding in its phenomenal expression, realizes completeness.

I have felt at home in the outdoors - in the forests, on the ocean, in the mountains, because here each tree, each wave, rock, bird, cloud, even the sun and wind are precisely what they are in this moment. In each moment they are fully realized, fully expressed. And I as a human being in these surroundings can exist in a similar way, without the worldly concerns that fill our minds as we sit in front of a computer, or in an airport waiting for a flight. My teacher seems to have realized this way before I did when he gave me my Dharma name - Yugen. Yūgen is said to mean “a profound, mysterious sense of the beauty of the universe… and the sad beauty of human suffering”. It is an important term in Japanese aesthetics, and speaks deeply of the ineffable.

In taking in this journey I'd like to chronicle the life of the coast and islands from the perspective of a human being, sometime interloper, and Soto Zen priest in training. The Maine coastline speaks of geology, earth time, as well as human communities that have clung to existence along the shore, and disappeared, leaving traces on the land. The coastline also speaks of the beauty, tragedy, and struggle of human existence. The coastline that tourists visit for holiday is the same one that locals engage to earn an existence - sometimes marginal, sometimes bountiful. The beautiful bays and islands where visitors eat lobster rolls and french fries were often homes to Native American tribes that were eradicated, moved, or decimated by disease. One of the more beautiful islands and bays I have visited served as a settlement in the late nineteenth century for African Americans who were isolated from the general community on the mainland and lived, surrounded by pine trees and the ocean, in poverty and disease. In the early twentieth century their settlement was disbanded and the surviving residents placed in asylums. The ocean and trees are silent witnesses.

This journey is an exploration of beauty, of life, of death, of suffering and toil, and living. It is an exploration of the tapestry of the environment, where the sentient and insentient coesxist and are fully realized in each moment. They are not one, and not two. They are not separate, and they are not one. In the midst and passage of toil, suffering, tourism, livelihoods and fishing seasons, the mountains and oceans abide in their phenomenal expression.

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Jewell Island, looking inland, on the Maine Island Trail 07.14.13

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