The story of my orientation by water


           I was born halfway between the Milwaukee River and Lake Michigan. I used to walk my dog alternately to one or the other. In the park by the river, I let her loose. One day she took off after a rabbit and was killed by a car. I was maybe eleven years old. Around the same time, my maternal grandfather died.

            After that I was more inclined to go to the lake. It was vast and gray, tempered by wind, storm and light. I stood on the bluff overlooking its reach toward another shore that could not be seen, though it always seemed it might appear on the clearest day. Michigan was over there, where my grandmother lived and my grandfather died, my grandmother who, as a child, had travelled by boat down the Rhine from Swabia and across the sea, then by rail to Michigan.

            I walked down the winding path to the narrow beach and collected smooth stones, smoothed bits of colored glass, smoothed shells and bones. Each of these was shiny from its water bath. As it dried, its smoothness continued to suggest some kind of peacefulness that came from proximity to water.

            I still have on my desk the Lake Michigan stones I gathered years later, when I was thirty-eight and my father was dying.

            There was a time in my early teens—I was a sophomore in high school—when the vastness of the universe preoccupied my mind and put me in a state of severe dread. I could not understand how people carried on, why they were not overwhelmed by extreme disorientation. Then, for no clearer reason than why my earthly orientation left, it reappeared.

            The year after my cosmic dismay I developed a philosophical certainty that everything is made of interflowing vibrations. I invited my friends over to consider this.



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            When I lived in Milwaukee, I could tell which direction was East by remembering where the lake was. I am still oriented by water. Here it is the Croton Watershed streams and rivers as they flow into the Hudson and on to New York harbor and the ocean, or to the city through the Croton aqueduct. There it was the Milwaukee River Watershed flowing into Lake Michigan in the St. Lawrence River Watershed which also opens into the ocean, on whose farther shore is Europe and the Rhineland watershed of my forebears.

            As a child, I had nightmares of forests being cut down and earth drying up, stone-lined pavements replacing waterways. When I lived in Manhattan in my twenties, which was in the 1960s, I had recurring dreams of a great wave immersing the city. I could see its liquid wall moving toward me from my ninth floor window. My daughter had the same dream there. Now, in our new millennium, droughts, extreme storms and the rise of oceans increasingly threaten. Katrina came to New Orleans, Sandy to New York, drought to California. The focus of my dread and grief is now here on Earth, the future beyond me. This time the dread and grief will not go away, and it is not mine alone. It is a great wave of feeling.




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            My husband died suddenly on the day before Palm Sunday, 1992. That night, as I lay in my bed emptied of him, half of my person deprived of its physical shell, I felt a massive wheeling of astronomical forces, galaxies spinning and churning my loss of ground. In the morning, dawn happened as on an ordinary day. It was the beginning of Holy Week.

            On Monday we visited his body before it was to be cremated. I did not know whether he would wish his ashes to be buried or scattered. His parents, still alive, had a plot in a cemetery in Milwaukee, and it seemed right for him to be buried there, for his place to be marked. He was sealed in a stone box to keep water and worms out under the premise of Christian resurrection, which had impacted on the timing of his death and our mourning. It was our heritage, in which we had been raised. Since his death I have, bit by bit, become Buddhist.

            Every summer I make a pilgrimage back to Wisconsin. I visit my brother and the lakes and the rivers. I rarely visit the cemetery. My husband’s parents are also buried there now. His sister was scattered in the Pacific. My parents gave their bodies to science and had no burials. My grandparents were buried in Michigan. I tried to visit their graves once, but was unable to find them.

            As I remember these loved ones, I am visited with waves of feeling, waves of love and fear that flow toward the future and my children and grandchildren and their children not yet born.



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            My father was a hydraulic engineer who worked for the Army Corps of Engineers. He specialized in flood control. In the late forties, when I was eight, he was assigned to work on the St. Lawrence Seaway Project. For a year we lived in Boston. Since Congress hadn’t agreed on the funding, he had nothing to do. He got tired of waiting and quit working for the government. We moved back to Milwaukee, where he became a builder, first of houses, then of corporate centers for insurance companies.

            Eventually the Seaway Project went through. After that alewives died and washed up in stinking windrows on Milwaukee’s beaches. They had entered the lakes through the opening of canals by-passing Niagara Falls. The top alewife predator, lake trout, had been wiped out by overfishing and the invasion of sea lamprey. Alewives are not designed for Lake Michigan’s cold waters. They stress and die coming out of winter, when they head into spawning season. Coho and Chinook salmon were stocked as non-native alewife predators and gamefish.

            Although our neighbor Bill Coblentz had developed Parkinson’s disease, one of the things he could still do and liked to do was fish from the jetties. He caught a lot of Coho salmon, big fish that gleamed with the silvery grays of the waters, their scales like the light on small ripples. He was part Native American, and could sit still for hours, attentive to the water.




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            The route from the Atlantic Ocean, the “Great Salt Water,” up the St. Lawrence River, through Lake Ontario, Lake Erie and Lake Huron to Lake Superior is the route of a sacred migration journey the Anishinaabe people’s ancestors made over a period of about 500 years, beginning in 900 CE. According to their medicine teachings, a luminous Megis Shell arose from the waters to guide them. The Megis was the shell through which the Great Spirit blew breath into the four sacred elements. Then Nokomis, spirit Grandmother, bore lifeforms, joining physical body and soul-spirit.

            My grandchildren Gabriel, Ivan and Inara’s Anishinaabe father lives on Madeline Island in Lake Superior. The island was the final destination of the migration, where the Megis settled its abode. In the Big Bay lagoon there, the water is very clear, gold and amber in sunlight. Breezes ripple the surface and green underwater grasses bend in the current that flows toward the lake, articulating the sandy bottom. I like to canoe there, and Gabe likes to fish. Sitting very still in the bow, he observes the patterns of fish movement, where fish feed, the schools and the loners. Suddenly there’s a flurry of action, he pulls his line in and a big northern pike is jumping at his feet.

            The Great Lakes hold 20% of the planet’s fresh water. They and their fish and the waterways of their regions are endangered by iron mining, frac sand mining, crude oil by rail, industrial and agricultural run off and CAFO waste.



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            When I was a teenager water was my element. I did water ballet, distance swimming and canoeing with the same unquestioned necessity with which now I do seated meditation, yoga and daily walks. I went on and led Girl Scout canoe trips in northern Wisconsin and Minnesota’s Boundary Waters with the same unquestioned necessity with which I now travel to India and lead school trips to Dharamsala in the Himalayas. There we dip in glacial waters that stream into the Beas River and flow on to the Sutlej, Chenab, Panjnada and Indus, and on into the Arabian Sea. I collect stones smoothed by the rushing streams. They too are on my desk, along with a stone I bought from a monk who inscribed it with the mantra OM MANI PADME HUM, “the jewel in the lotus,” the lotus also called “mud-born,” rooted in earth, rising through water, to open in the sunlit air above—a symbol of the earth-born mind, its watery support and luminous flowering. It is embedded with the jewel of compassion.

            The sound of waves may be the original mantra, the OM of the womb waters and of our 70% water composition, and the OM of the ocean covering 70% of the Earth. A human, when conceived in a fertilized egg, is 96% water, and a baby at birth is 80% water. A newborn continues to remember the womb sound as it orients itself in its new world. It brings to mind the underwater songs of dolphins and whales, of whale mother and child. It brings to mind too the sonograms of my grandchildren in the waters of my daughters’ wombs.

            Grandmother whales have been found to lead their families toward food in times of food shortage. They have in their memories a repertoire of ways to survive. Their purpose is not for themselves alone. It is as if they know that life is given for each part to help in the life of the whole, that they are ecologically and archetypally vital on the living Earth and in living minds. I have much to learn from these exemplary mammalian mothers and grandmothers.



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            When Buddha became enlightened, the Earth goddess Vasudha wrung water from her long hair to bear witness. Rivers are the veins and channels of Her body. From Lake Anavatapta, “Not Heated,” beside Mount Meru at the center of the world, flow four purifying rivers: Ganges, Indus, Oxus, and Yellow. The lake’s waters cool the fires that torment us. “Everything is burning with the fires of desire, hate, delusion, with birth, aging, dying, with sorrows, lamentations, pains, griefs and hopelessness.” The lake’s waters come from the mouth of a dragon king who heard Buddha’s teachings and became free of his burning. It was 2500 years ago when Buddha spoke of the burning.

            Anavatapta is one of eight great dragon kings who assemble to hear Buddha’s teachings in the Lotus Sutra. Different kinds of lightning come from dragons’ claws and mouth and their writhing in clouds, thunder is their roar, and rains fall from their gleaming scales. Serpents, nagas, are their subterranean counterparts. They guard treasures and concealed teachings, and avenge disrespect for their environments. The Indian Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna entered their world to receive the slippery teaching of the interdependence of all things, their emptiness of separate being.

            For Tibetans Mt. Meru’s earthly manifestation is Mt. Kailash, with the earthly lake Mansarovar, the Lake of Mind, beside it. The earthly Indus, Sutlej, Brahmaputra and Ganges with its tributaries are sourced near this center at the western end of the Tibetan plateau. They water Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh. The Irrawaddy, Salween, Mekong, Yangtse and Yellow rivers are sourced from the plateau further east and water Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and China. Michael Buckley, in his book Meltdown in Tibet and related video documentaries, details the escalating affects of global warming, black soot from fuels burned in China and India, and Chinese river-damming, water diversion projects and mining, endangering the glaciers and the fragile ecosystem of the plateau and the water supply for all these Asian countries. Because of the potential global impact of its glacial melt, Tibet has been called the third pole.

            Buddha taught meditation practices for observing the mind’s stream of thoughts and emotions, for experiencing the luminous spaciousness and energy of consciousness through which they come and go, for cooling the mental fires that drive our patterns of ignorance, denial and suffering.

            Hermann Hesse grew up in Calw in Swabia in the Rhine River watershed near where my maternal grandmother was born. His character Siddhartha does not follow Buddha. He takes a river as his guru. The river opens his awareness of the flowing mental world, the river of consciousness, the moods riled and calm, the recycling through clouds and precipitation. He learns how his changing suffering mind, his samsaric mind, is not separate from nirvana, mind awake and clear. This thought is ungraspable, like trying to hold water.

            Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche, a Tibetan healer, calls the eyes the “water light doors” of inner light. He teaches a practice that, through the channels of the eyes, connects the inner luminous space of the heart with the external luminous space of the sky. He describes visions called the “fish of the rays in movement” that move like a fish moves in waves of water, and teaches how to catch the fish in the net of darkness with the dart of presence. The luminous space of the mind generates energetic waves, a rainbow spectrum. He tells how mind begins to enter samsara when it physicalizes, solidifies and constricts its attention and forgets to maintain awareness of its spacious luminous nature.

            I am moved by Tibetan teachers who are able to liberate their grief and anger at the genocide and ecocide in Tibet, to energize their compassionate engagement with our samsaric minds and suffering world.



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            Spiritual healers around the world picture subtle energy channels, counterparts to the fluid channels in living beings and in the Earth as a whole and region by region. For healing, for purification of harm and grief, both must be tended, both must be seen.

            The African healer Malidoma Some tells of being healed and learning to heal through the help of his mother’s brother, his “male mother…who ‘carries water,’ the energy of peace, quiet, reconciliation, and healing.” He writes of this learning as being “liquid, living, breathing, flexible,” in contrast to the inflexibility of the colonial education that had been imposed on him.

            The spiritual leaders of the Kogi people of Colombia speak of sensing both the physical rocks, plants, animals and rivers of their watershed, and also the spirit rocks, plants, animals and rivers, the intelligence inherent in the natural world, including in their natural minds. They picture their Sierra Nevada mountain environment as the world’s heart, and its river and cloud cycles, linking the mountain glaciers with the sea, as a vital circulation system that is being destroyed by modern development. On the physical level, they see the rapid melting of the glaciers, the flow of pollutants into waters, the blocking and changing of water courses, the degradation of waters by mineral extraction. The spirit rivers they see are not exactly the same as the physical rivers. They believe both must be tended. The spirit rivers are tended by their spiritual practice, meditation, prayer and ritual. They call upon us to tend to the physical rivers. The Kogi heartland might be called the 4th pole.

            A Medicine Song set in Havasupai canyon in Arizona honors the healing beauty of the place where the singer is, where his people are: “The land we were given is right here, right here.” He honors its spring, the beauty of its waters, the waters his people drink. He sits down alone and sings himself a love song of where he is. “My illness,” he sings, “is absorbed.”



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            Mystically, wherever we are is the center of the universe and hubs into the whole.

            Like most non-native Americans, my family came from somewhere else. We are only recently here, and once here, we have moved around and continue to do so. We have lost the art of being where we are, of honoring our place, of feeling we were born from its ground and arrived through its channels. Yet those of us who are not native to the particular place we now inhabit are in any case native to Earth. We are subject to the global flows of wind and water, light and temperature, and with our actions we affect them. We are all part of one body.

            Masaru Emoto observes how our emotions of love and gratitude affect the vibrational energies of water, generating healing in ourselves and in water and all living beings partaking of water. He has oriented his life by all the waters of the Earth and of our bodies. It is a way, he says, of discovering ourselves, a way of deepening our consciousness of the negative and positive impacts of our emotional patterns.

            Wangari Maathai tells how she was inspired to plant trees by seeing how the cutting down of a fig tree beside the stream where she played as a child caused the stream to disappear. “If the stream dies,” she saw, “the frog eggs, the tadpoles, the frogs, and everything else that lived in those waters disappears, and we can no longer go there to fetch water.” Since 1977, her Green Belt movement in Kenya has aroused hundreds of thousands of women and their communities to plant more that 40 million trees and recover forests and water sources.

            I lived as a child near a stream banked with willow trees. The trees were cut, the stream died, and the fields are now paved for sports and parking.



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            The Buddhist Wheel of Life depicts desire, aversion and ignorance spinning out into birth-realms and causal sequences of suffering. Buddha, outside the wheel, points to the moon, symbolic of Dharma, the way things are, the clear and luminous truth and the compassionate path toward seeing things as they are, penetrating through our mental and emotional obscurations.

            All of Earth’s waters, including those in my body and in the glass from which I drink, are moved in their rhythms by the moon in its cycles. When I was younger, I felt the moon cycles more viscerally in my body. Now, past the age of fertility, I try to pay attention to the cycles of the moon, especially in relation to plant life and also to my moods, but I quickly forget to pay attention.

            I used to volunteer-teach in a men’s maximum security prison, where the guards told me that violent confrontations escalate among the men during full moon.

            When I visit Madeline Island in August, I have more leisure to pay attention and I start to notice the affects of the moon on Lake Superior. As I submerge, I feel my inner waters continuous with the lake waters and the rhythms of the moon, the cycles of light and dark, of filling and emptying, storm and calm, power and beauty, the cooling from the excess heat of the burning sun, the luminous clarity of water and sky, the love-cries of the loon and the sandhill cranes, their lengths like arrows in the sky as they move from water to water.

            The season for immersion with the body is short, as Superior’s waters are cold even in summer. The seasons for immersion with the “water light doors” cycle through ice-bound winter, its blizzards and fierce winds. Some years the whole lake is thickly frozen.

            When I read of all the developments that threaten this special place, as of all the developments that threaten the other Great Lakes and the Hudson Valley where I live and the Himalayan Valleys where I lead student trips and the Rhine Valley of my forebears, and all the special places on this Earth that are dear to others’ hearts, water covers light in my water light doors.

            Buddha said, “Reflect on this body and consider it according to the characteristic of each element. ‘In this body is the earth element, the water element, the fire element and the air element.’” He also taught a practice of mentally giving the body to fire and its ashes to a river. We are our own refuge, he said. It is up to us to experience our mortal selves as we really are.

            The Tibetan poet saint Milarepa said, “When I gave rise to heartfelt compassion, it was like being cast into a pit of fire.” We cannot truly feel compassion, the teachings say, without the despair that comes with facing the extent of our sufferings and of our thoughts and actions that cause them. The burning dread and grief of our profound lack of love and care for ourselves and for the web of life we all share together begins the pilgrimage to Lake Anavatapta. To the degree I ignore it, the heat will increase its intensity to get my attention.



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            My Hudson Valley pilgrimage lake is Awosting, a mountain lake in the Shawangunk Ridge. I often visit it on the way up to my dharma center, Karma Triyana Dharmachakra, in the Catskills at the trailhead to Overlook Mountain. At the end of April this year, on my first visit after a long snow-deep winter, tiny white blessing pills, delicate hailstones, veiled the space over the water as with a white pointillated cloth. On the walk there and back again, I met three sky porcupines and no humans.

            On the way home, I attended an art show dedicated to the Lord of Compassion, the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, Chenrezig in Tibet, Guanyin in China, Kannon in Japan. I learned that the mythical dwelling place of Avalokiteshvara is Potalaka Mountain Island in the seas south of India, and that the Chinese manifestation of Avalokiteshvara, Guanyin, is said to appearmiraculously in a blaze of golden light at the Cave of Tidal Sound on Mt. Putuo Island, a manifestation of Potalaka, in the South China Sea. Chinese painted and sculptured depictions of Guanyin are typically androgynous or female and include the Water-Moon Guanyin and White-Robed Guanyin and the Guanyin of the Southern Sea. A 10th Century Chinese text, “Moonlight in Water Guanyin Bodhisattva Sutra Spoken by the Buddha,” corresponds to these depictions. She sits on a rocky promontory of the island, rests her chin in her hand, and gazes into empty space. Sometimes she is enveloped in a full-moon nimbus and meditates on the moon’s reflection, sometimes she isenveloped in white cloths. Japanese and Korean Zen paintings adopt these pensive forms. Sometimes in the Japanese paintings, she is gazing toward a waterfall. These paintings have very little color, their lines are minimal and subtle, as if her cloaked and mystic form barely manifests out of the mind’s mist.

            At the end of Winter in the Korean film Spring Summer Fall Winter Spring, the Zen master, having lived through and purged the ignorance of his childhood, the lust of his youth, the rage of his adulthood, climbs a mountain overlooking the lake where he lives in a floating house. He carries a Guanyin statue and places her to watch over the world, the valley and the lake below.




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            Water is a sacred mirror reflecting the vastness and luminosity of space at the heart of life’s profound communality.  When a shaman wears a mirror disk over her heart and drums earth’s and her inner heartbeat as one, she journeys through this sacred doorway and moves in the space of mind. She seeks some kind of healing vision. She trusts in nature and spirit, knowing they will give her what she needs.

            My mother was not a shaman nor am I, but I think my mother had not lost this kind of trust. She carried water for me, and she gives me this responsibility to be carried and passed on, as it has been by my mother line and every mother line since the first human mother perhaps 160,000 years ago, or since the first mammalian mother of primordial time, or the first mothers of any kind in Earth’s waters. Both sons and daughters, both my own female and male natures, carry the mitochondrial DNA and its remembrance of the mother line.

            In the first watch of the night of his awakening, Buddha recollected his past lives, a hundred thousand births, through many cycles of world-contraction and world-expansion. In the middle watch of the night he understood how beings pass away and are reborn according to their actions. In the last watch of the night, he realized a way leading to the cessation of all taints and the liberation from suffering. He taught a slow step-by-step process, a raft of dharma for riding life’s waters toward a realization ungraspable by words or thought.

            Between the vital flows of thoughts and feelings and the clear luminous space of awakened mind, of Buddha mind as yet clouded in me, writes Nagarjuna, “not even some subtle thing is to be known.”

            The lake mirroring the sky is beautiful and true and dear to my heart because of this insight, and this insight is beautiful and true and dear to my heart because the lake mirrors the sky.