Part One:

Zen Training

An interview with Andō,

Zen poet & guide

Andō 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, Andō is writing a haiku memoir inspired by her forest years entitled, The Forest: A Haiku Memoir. More information about Andō's creative work will appear at the end of this interview, with links.


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, African, 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 Stonehouse, Saigyō, Bashō or Santōka, 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, in whatever manner their particular path may express itself. Recently, I had such a dialogue with Andō, a contemporary lay Zen poet from Portugal, who lives and practices in the same spirit of Santōka, 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, Andō 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.

H: Hawk of the Pines / Frank LaRue Owen

A: Andō

H: 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?

A: 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 a 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.

H: 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?

A: 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 a 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.

H: 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?

A: 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). Socializing 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.

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

A: 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.

H: 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.”

A: 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.

H: 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.

A: 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.

H: 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?

A: 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.

H: 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.

A: ...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.

H: 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?

A: 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.

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

A: 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.

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

A: 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.

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

A: 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.

H: 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.

Thank you, Sister Andō, for sharing your Zen journey and lineage of contemplative training with readers.

In the second part of our interview, Clouds & Water Flowing, Part Two: Contemplative Art, we'll continue to discuss Zen, of course, but we turn our attention to the topics of poetry, creativity, Andō's artistic life, and her unique community of contemplative poetics, which she fosters on Patreon. >>>