Circles on the Water: Reflections on the Women’s Wilderness Retreat

· Sangha News

The week of July 19-24, 2016, fourteen women set off for Little Tupper Lake in the Adirondacks to attend Circles on the Water: A Wilderness Retreat for Women, led by Hojin Osho. What follows are the reflections of two of the retreat participants; photos by Carey Joyu DePalma, MRO.


by Diana Strablow
Mist, hues of orange and mountains blending…the most glorious sunrise greeted us on the first morning as we paddled to our gathering site for morning zazen. I’d left my sleeping bag cocoon reluctantly at the sound of Genjo’s rock-and-tin-cup wake-up bell. But here was this heart-opening reward.

Misty pines on Tupper Lake

Misty pines on Tupper Lake

We left the Monastery and then the shore of the Ranger Station on Little Tupper Lake, our canoes loaded with packs and gear, our heads loaded with questions of: How will this unfold? Excitement and fear danced in our heads. We ranged from experienced paddlers and campers to those more comfortable on city streets, bravely venturing into the wild for the first time. How will this unfold?

The fourteen of us had four campsites to share within our own little cove on Little Tupper Lake—our place to call home and zendo, nestled in the forest for the next week. As we set up our tents and tarps, cooked our first meal and hung ropes for bear bags to keep our food safe, it became apparent that our week would be a mix of teamwork and solitude.

Campfire zazen

Campfire zazen

Hojin Osho led us in sitting zazen each morning around a campfire, reading from Zen Master Hongzhi, outlining plans for that day or the next day, sharing thoughts and feelings, exploring how is this happening for each of us. We laid our paintings on the ground. We received just the right amount of paddling skill instruction each day from ever-calm and expert Caroline, assisted by Hosei, who were also our guides on the water.

Then we would set off for the day, carrying our bags of paint supplies and journals. We pulled them out at rest stops, painting and writing at sandy shorelines, perched on rocks or pine-needle carpets. Some days were filled with setting off together for a destination, while others were solitary, with time to explore and express in our art practice the outer and inner worlds we were discovering. We gathered again each evening at our zendo in the woods to close our day with zazen.

An altar in the woods

An altar in the woods

Hojin, Shoan and Caroline’s skilled and thoughtful planning gave us the canvas while life, nature and our unique beings completed the palette of what unfolded.

Hojin Osho painting under the clouds

Hojin Osho painting under the clouds

Dipping into life and watching our minds as we dipped paddles into water and brushes into paint.
Letting it all unfold as we shed tears and fears.
At times we struggled and then later rolled with laughter.

So how did the week in the wilderness unfold? We opened to knowing that we had all we needed. We had ourselves, our gear in our packs, Mother earth and each other. We were held and sustained and nourished by our practice, our connections to each other, the trees, wind, water and all the life in us and surrounding us.


by Jordan Burnett
Going on the women’s wilderness retreat was frightening for me in so many ways. I imagined I would feel like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, except I’m from Brooklyn and I’d be landing in a strange place where bears would eat me alive, I’d have to sleep on the ground, I’d be a buffet for the mosquitoes, and there were no toilets or showers!

On the water with watercolors

On the water with watercolors

Dorothy had the yellow brick road but what would I have? Turns out I had thirteen phenomenal women and zen practice leading the way—not to the Wiz with a magic trick to send me home, but to the realization that I had never left home.

The women of Circles on the Water

The women of Circles on the Water

The secret to the power I found while living in the woods for a week was that there was nothing to be afraid of because I belonged just as much as the mosquitoes and bears did. The first evening, we gathered around the fire and Shoan challenged us all to set an intention for the week. I was completely out of my element, but I set the intention to allow myself to be completely free in the woods. And I did just that. I pitched my tent and kicked off my shoes—my personal symbol of letting go. I spent the week barefoot and warrior-strong, running through the woods feeling liberated.

Jordan feeling warrior-strong

Jordan feeling warrior-strong

When I noticed aversion, frustration, and struggle arise, I realized that I hadn’t actually left the world; I wasn’t hiding. Being in a canoe, feeling helpless and frustrated because I couldn’t go where I wanted to; burning my pot every meal because I was impatient; pumping water through a filter taking forever; and getting in a tent, closing my eyes to sleep, being completely vulnerable were moments I remembered: I had practice. These moments helped me see that practice doesn’t just happen during caretaking, or in the zendo. Rather, practice happens everywhere I go. Having such a realization so close to the end of my year-long residency was a breakthrough.

All the fear and grave anticipation I had about what could go wrong in the wilderness washed away when I made the vow to allow myself to be free and remembered to come back to my breath. It allowed me to feel the earth cradling me to sleep each night; to relish the sun making love with the melanin in my skin as I paddled along the lake each day; to realize the fog on the lake kept me safe, reminding me how much I am loved; the moon breaking open the darkness each night reminded me there weren’t monsters out there—just life wanting nothing more than to commune with me.

The moon on Tupper Lake

The moon on Tupper Lake

Not being on Mount Tremper or in Brooklyn didn’t mean I was invading some sacred place where I wasn’t welcome. In fact, it felt as if the woods were waiting for all of us—waiting to show us how powerfully dynamic we are, especially since there weren’t any men to do the heavy lifting. The patriarchy that I as a zen practitioner am so familiar with was gone, and the practice wasn’t diminished in any way. In fact my practice felt intensified.

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