Santa Fe zen – #3: roads to nowhere

I woke before dawn, before my alarm, in the upstairs dorm at Upaya Zen Center. I could just make out the outline of trees through the window. A dog barked indistinctly, some distance away, but otherwise, all was still. This quiet Sunday, my final morning of the weekend retreat, was in fact noticeably still. I felt fortunate to have awakened before the bellringer arrived, a resident in a brown robe who entered each adobe house at 5:30am to let the bell call us to practice… practice… practice….

I slipped out of bed, curling softly down the spiral metal staircase and out the door to the adjacent house, where our morning tea was available. No one in the kitchen; odd, since yesterday, several people came and went at nearly this same time. My mug of tea warm in my hands, I stood a moment in the courtyard between houses, looking up. Slowly twinkling stars answered back the silence we come here to find.

upaya at evening

Quietly I returned, to my dorm, to the soft rug before the unused fireplace, to myself, here in this moment between all things, this silence alone. I sat on the rug and faced the windowed doors that lead out to the gardens, now black but faintly shining with the low lamplight. I sat, and I sipped tea, and I waited for the bellringer, and the morning.

It was when I’d nearly finished my tea that I wondered where the bellringer had gotten to. What time was it? I tiptoed back upstairs and checked my clock: 5:46. No one else was up. I walked out to the paths that lead to the zendo; I met no one. I passed the dark zendo and walked to the main hall; nothing stirred.

This is what I love and scratch my head about with Buddhists: just when you think you understand the rules of the game, they switch it up, to keep you from getting too comfortable with your ideas about yourself. Obviously, I had missed a very clear direction regarding today’s final schedule, but now when I looked for it posted, it was nowhere to be found. No signposts for me to get back on track. It was just up to me now, this morning, to choose how to respond: wait? go back to bed? practice on my own on the dorm room rug? yell out, “Olly olly oxen free”?

I lose track of time. Often. Or I grab it like a drum major thrusting that long, golden mace up high above the marching band, keeping such close count of the time it’s all I can see, all I can feel, all that matters. Until I drop it and lose all track again. Time, which I have long considered my nemesis, a trickster, coyote, was laughing at me again, silently under the stars.

La carretera is Spanish for both the road we travel and also the load we carry upon that road. I think of this as the burden we have loaded upon ourselves, usually. Time is often la carretera, the burden and the road, a long route which appears on the map as school, work, projects, deadlines, career, decisions – disillusionment, longing, and loss, followed inevitably by old age, sickness, and death, those tres amigos who live down at the end of that road.

“Well we know where we’re goin’
But we don’t know where we’ve been
And we know what we’re knowin’
But we can’t say what we’ve seen…” — Talking Heads, Road to Nowhere

I realized that today, however, with no one up, no one near, no schedule and no responsibilities left to complete here, I could do what I love to do when I find a beckoning doorway between the hours – run away. Off road. No map – spiritually speaking.

So I grabbed my pack and left Upaya before dawn, as if the rising sun would close that magic door. But it didn’t. It illuminated the Guadalupe of the City of Holy Faith, out front of the Santuario de Guadalupe Santa Fe, La Virgén standing serenely over the stooped men drifting slowly, one by one, across her sloping plaza by the river, under a glorious pink and orange sky.

santa fe guadalupe 1If you meet the buddha on the road, you’re supposed to kill him, according to the ancient Zen texts. They mean let go of what you believe enlightenment to be, your idealized personification of how to be in the world, usually defined as somehow not you. But what if you meet Guadalupe, over and over? I feel I am expanding, not limiting myself, by loving her personification of compassion, here among these quiet men with all the hallmarks of homelessness upon them. She feels reassuring to me, and her crowd feels very familiar.

I just can’t kill her.

These musings occupied my mind as I left town, heading toward Taos – or so I thought, until I realized I was somehow going south. Even if you’re pretty good with maps, many of the roads between Santa Fe, Chimayo, and Taos stop and start, or simply do not appear on the map at all. Pulling over countless times to make U-turns, you have plenty of opportunity to review your relationship to maps and roads. I kept finding myself in the vicinity of where I wanted to be, without being able to figure out a road to actually get me there. So close and yet so far. And as I sat parked on the side of yet another winding road arcing away to who knows where, I thought about what I was doing.







“…We’re not little children
And we know what we want
And the future is certain
Give us time to work it out…”

We choose our destination, and then we fit our roads to our course. But that’s not how it works in New Mexico. Or in life. I was trying to pick a direct route where none existed, trying to control my “off map” adventure by making it conform to the way maps work. The destination is a nice idea, but we can’t change the road or force it to get us there. Choose a different way…or a different destination. Or maybe, just quit choosing and controlling for a while. That is going off the map.

NM hills final


“We’re on a road to nowhere
Come on inside
Takin’ that ride to nowhere
We’ll take that ride…”

So I continued on whatever road I was on, and let myself relax into the easy swaying rhythm of curving among the hills, which brought me to the beautiful and mysterious places of northern New Mexico, to Bandelier, and Tsankawi.






“I’m feelin’ okay this mornin’
And you know,
We’re on the road to paradise
Here we go, here we go…”




It’s fascinating that as maps and destinations lose their hold on you, time slips off your shoulders as well, and the day rolls out before you like a broad and inviting trail. I hiked and drove, and stopped and looked, and by more back roads Taos Mountain eventually came into view, and suddenly, by surprise, I arrived. I asked directions of a local woman manning a parking lot fee kiosk, ristras of chiles hanging all around her like fiery braids. She told me to “go five lights” to find my way back toward Tres Piedras and Colorado – five lights because that’s how they give directions here, since the roads keep changing directions. Follow the lights. Navigating by stars again.

The Rio Grande Gorge awaits you northwest of Taos, a farewell sendoff on the road home. As I crossed the bridge, I noted all the vendors displaying their wares along both sides of the road, on both ends of the bridge. After crossing I parked, to walk back and stand in the middle of the bridge over this spectacular, narrow canyon, the wind swaying the steel under my hands, the concrete under my feet.

Rio GorgeI turned to go, when one artist’s work caught my eye, and so I crossed back on foot to the Taos side of the bridge. Here sat Mark A on a folding chair outside his van, a big man with a woodworker’s hands and many hard years etched around kind eyes, carving an old gray wooden post into an icon of a saint, his other santos on the long white table in front of him. He sells them too cheap, he knows, but…, he says, and shrugs, smiling. An 8″ tall Mary and Joseph carved from tree branches stand together, their expressions loving and real; they must be sold together, I am told. Saint Francis sits solidly on the table holding a bird, clearly carved from the same type of gray post that will now become another image of Mother Mary. I pick up a smaller female image, with a crown and a long robe. “I just came from the zen center in Santa Fe,” I tell Mark A, “and this one reminds me of Kuan Yin. You know her?”

“Yeah, Kuan Yin, she is kind. My friend, he is one of the heads of the zen center we have here in Taos. He’s 94 years old, but he comes over to my house to visit me every day. I like zen. She was Mary, but she reminds you of Kuan Yin, yeah?” I want to tell him how much his work means to me, and how humbled I feel to have found him here on another road to nowhere. I buy the Kuan Yin, and Saint Francis, whose face reminds me of this santero, carver of saints. No killing this buddha on the road, either.

saint francis blue lichen

“Vast is the robe of liberation…,” we chanted as we sat together in the zendo, under the statues of Kuan Yin, known also as Kannon, and Avalokiteshvara, all “She Who Hears The Cries of The World.” This is also just another description of Our Lady of Guadalupe, whose beautiful blue robe covered in constellations of stars is simply the sky, to my eyes, the universe, compassion being the liberation of both the one who gives it as well as the one who receives it. Vast within the universe is our ability to step under that wide robe and out of time into a space that prioritizes the moment – and the person – right in front of us.

I guess I was off-map as we chanted, however; I thought we were all saying, “vast is the road of liberation.” Losing track seems to be mi carretera. And my hope.

kuan yin blue lichen

“Maybe you wonder where you are
I don’t care
Here is where time is on our side
Take you there…take you there

“We’re on a road to nowhere
We’re on a road to nowhere
We’re on a road to nowhere….”