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Heave To —- by Lao Di Zhi Shakya

Heave To

Dogen’s Second Awareness: Be Content

For those of us who have forgotten, the first of the eight awarenesses by Dogen is Have Few Desires. A short discourse on it can be found here. Before I launch into the second awareness to be content, I want to encourage us by pointing out our challenge. It may seem odd to think a challenge is an encouragement, but for the spiritual seeker challenges require us to be courageous. This hot spot event of the global epidemic challenges us to use our courage to be content.

In order to shed light on this awareness and bring clarity to it, I have taken the liberty to change Dogen’s wording to: HEAVE TO. I think you’ll understand as I tell my story and the story of Voss.


My Confession

I have little to no experience with boats and sailing. What I do know can be said in one sentence. The stern is the back of the boat and the bow is the front. That’s it.

I recently learned what HEAVE TO means while reading the The Adventuresome Voyages of Voss. If you know about sailing, you know what it means and how to do it. If you are like me, you don’t know the meaning and need a brief explanation. Here is a sketchy explanation.

Heave To

Heave-to is a sailing maneuver used to slow a boat down in heavy seas. It is done by adjusting the sails and dropping the ships anchor in a storm. This maneuver keeps the boat from traveling with the high winds. For if the boat goes with the wind, it can be sucked down by the force of the water and capsize. The winds, you see, move faster than a boat can move. To the inexperienced and ignorant, heaving-to seems counter intuitive and dangerous!

Heave To is the same as Be Content while in life-threatening winds.

The Story

It is allegedly a true story of two men in a retrofitted canoe on the open Pacific Ocean during high winds. To say the least, many of us feel we, too are in high winds in a retrofitted canoe in unknown waters. If so, it is time to heave-to! Now the story.

In 1901, in Victoria, Canada, a young journalist asked Voss an experienced sailor if it was possible to sail around the world in a small boat.


Not every captain would be able to do it. But, yes I can captain such a journey!

The journalist, I’ll call him the mate, offered to pay the captain $2,500 dollars and half the profits from a book he would write about the trip, if the captain took up the challenge. The mate, who had no sailing experience at all, saw the impending voyage as an exciting adventure with minimal danger. Turning his experience on the high seas circling the globe into a best seller was his motivation.

The captain purchased a 38 ft dugout canoe carved from a single tree which he skillfully turned into a vessel capable of sailing on the open ocean. There was plenty of work and preparation before they set sail. When the canoe was finished, it included a one-berth cabin, tiller and three masts. Very tight quarters.

Making the effort to sail around the world in this canoe brought many difficulties. Gales, storms, high winds and rough waves on the open sea can dangerous for all boats and are even more perilous in an ocean going canoe!!! But the captain, trusting his sailing and navigating skills enough knew that the venture had a possibility of succeeding.

The first few weeks the weather was calm. The mate, the journalist, entered into an easy routine with the captain, learning the skills required for living on a small boat: cooking, cleaning, raising and lowering sails, steering and doing night watches to keep the boat on course.

During this time the two men worked and lived on board as friends. The mate didn’t feel he was obeying orders, he was just learning the ropes of sailing. The captain did not feel the need to assert his authority because the mate was a willing learner.

They encountered rain, choppy seas and thunderstorms but nothing that proved dangerous. Until one afternoon, the captain noticed the darkening clouds and that the winds and waves were stronger and it started to rain. He knew a gale was almost on them.  

At this point, the roles of the two men, take a drastic change. The mate, never having been at sea in a gale, was terrified and feared for his life. He did not trust that this amiable man who taught him how to cook could manage a storm this dangerous. He lost confidence in the captain.

As the storm got closer and winds got stronger and the rain started, the captain had to yell over the wind to his mate.


You have to go to the stern of the boat and drop this anchor overboard. I will tie this rope around you, so if you get tossed out, I can pull you back. I’m going to steer the boat and set the sails. We are going to heave-to.”


Terrified, the mate let the captain tie a rope around him and fighting the wind struggled to the stern carrying the anchor. When he got there he saw a huge wave coming straight at him. In sheer panic he dropped the anchor in the boat and climbed up the nearest mast. The captain yelled again, louder.


“Climb down and drop the anchor overboard right now!

Shaken, the mate climbed down and threw the anchor overboard. Fighting the wind and rain he struggled back, frightened, angry, defensive ready to argue with the captain. The mate felt that dropping the anchor was wrong. The boat should be going with the wind, not stopping in the middle of it. Didn’t the captain know how big the waves were? The mate saw the size of the waves and knew he was going to be drowned.

As the storm raged, the captain knew the power of heaving-to. He knew from experience what actions he had to take, and what actions he had to order his mate take to make the boat, his mate and himself safe. And he took them.

Having done all he could do, and knowing the space was too small for disagreements, he welcomed his terrified, angry mate into a surprisingly dry and steady cabin. The rain and wind and rough waves hadn’t stopped, but dropping the anchor, slowed the boat and it was no longer fighting the wind and waves. The captain helped the mate untie the rope and dry off. He offered him a cup of coffee and a seat to ride the storm out.

The Twofold View

Notice how similar this story is to our being asked to drop everything and slow down. To withdraw from the stormy winds blowing this virus across the globe, to have a cup of coffee, to calm down, to trust that dropping everything will keep us safe.

That is the material realm safety.

This applies to our spiritual life as well. Drop every fear-mongering thought – heave-to right in the middle of what comes into your life. Face the challenge without fear; trust, be confident in spiritual fortitude to get up and keep going. Study the teachings in a disciplined way – be reasoned with knowledge of spiritual teachings, take action when required, offer devotion and praise in silence and meditation. Give like the captain who knew the fear of his novice mate.

The novice seaman thought he knew more than the captain and almost lost his life. Take to heart the teachings – heave to and have few desires; two of Dogen’s life jackets in the storm’s of life.


Humming Bird

Author: Lao di Zhi Shakya

Old Earth

Zen Contemplative Priest of the Order of Hsu Yun


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