About Cloud Mountains

Who are Cloud Mountains?

Graham Ross and Mako Voelkel were both ordained by Ryushin Zendo in the shukke tokudo ceremony of home-leaving within the tradition of Sōtō Zen Buddhism of the San Francisco Zen Center. Mako received the name Unzan Dōshin (Cloud Mountain, Path of the Heart) on September 18th, 2004 while Graham Ross received the name Unzan Etsudō (Cloud Mountain, Joyful Way) on September 11th, 2007. Who are these Cloud Mountains? The founder of Sōtō Zen in Japan, Eihei Dōgen, comments on clouds and mountains in the following way:

“Although the white clouds have no mind, wherever they go they seem to be attracted to the old mountains. What are these white clouds? What are these old mountains?
Dōgen struck the sitting platform with his whisk.
After a pause Dōgen said: No guests remain within the dragon gate. Turtles and cranes are inherently mountain sages.”

In Dogen’s Extensive Record: A Translation of Dogen’s Eihei Koroku, Taigen Dan Leighton footnotes it thus:

“These two sentences are a quote from Dongan Changcha, an early Song dynasty master descended from Yaoshan.

Clouds are images for monks or practitioners; mountains are images of masters or of ultimate reality. The dragon gate is a legendary Chinese underwater gateway that fish swim through and become dragons. Fish do not stay there, but either become dragons or don’t swim through. Similarly clouds visit but do not remain on any mountain. Turtles and cranes are symbols of longevity. “Mountain sages” are sennin, mountain hermits said to have very long lives.”

[Eihei Koroku, Dharma Hall Discourse 65]

Both Graham and Mako entered Zenshinji, Tassajara Zen Mountain Center as Unsui (in 2004 and 2002 respectively), and have been living, working, practicing and serving in a variety of temple positions over the years.  Mako has been the Work Leader, Tenzo (head cook), Ino (head of the meditation hall), and Director. Shuso (head monk) in the fall 2009 ango, she has been a practice leader for the past three years. Graham has been the Physical Plant Manager, Shika (guest manager), Tenzo (head cook), and Ino (head of the meditation hall), and was Shuso in the winter 2011 ango and a practice leader since then. As indicated in Leighton’s footnote above, clouds visit but do not remain on any mountain. This is the starting point for this blog as both Graham and Mako embark on a year-long sabbatical from the San Francisco Zen Center, which has been their home, community and refuge since the mid to late 90s.

Still attracted to old mountains, their hope and intention is to travel through Southeast Asia and India where they will re-enter into the wider world with open hearts and gift-bestowing hands. In India some of the possibilities include participating in an Ayurvedic retreat in Coimbatore, helping to build the Seizanji zendo in Thiruvanamalai, visiting the Nagaloka Buddhist Training Center in Nagpur, attending the Sakyadhita International Conference on Buddhist Women in Vaishali and paying homage at some of the main Buddhist pilgrimage sites in the Northern India. In Southeast Asia Graham intends to enter Pa Auk’s Forest Monastery in Myanmar for several months while Mako does shorter retreats interspersed with volunteering at schools and orphanages. Throughout the entire trip their hope is to be able to rest and relax, reflect on their monastic training, be of service, and to find perspective on next steps.

The intention of the Cloud Mountains Blog is to keep in touch with friends and family through stories, photos, and reflections and to ask for support in the form of ideas, suggestions, contacts, and donations.

Peace to all beings, whether near or far, known or unknown, real or imaginary, visible or invisible, born or to be born. May all beings be happy. May they be joyous and live in safety, free from fear and suffering.

8 thoughts on “About Cloud Mountains

  1. hi there,
    It sounds like you’re embarking on a wonderful journey and I’ll certainly follow your blog – I’m just sad that you’re leaving as I’m arriving as I would have liked to meet you both. I’m sure our paths will cross in the future 🙂
    Deep bows,
    Kim Koei.

    • Yes, We’ve met briefly over a few occasions – when you were collecting/dropping off foodstuffs at SFZC for Tassajara during the Winter PP at the beginning of this year, and during the Mountain Seat Ceremony, but unfortunately we never really got to chat – I only ever saw you from a distance and knowing you were the director at Zen Mountain Centre I was looking forward to meeting you properly when I come and do the Winter PP this year at Tassajara, but you’re going to be stretching your wings.

  2. John and I wish you the best in your travels. Be safe. Sounds so very exciting. Blessings on you both! Laurie Szujewska and John Sheehy

  3. Such a beautiful reflection on Cloud Mountains. I’m so grateful to have heard it. Now I understand even better the gratitude and friendship I feel for you both. Now I understand even better the way I was stirred, Mako, when I heard you describe the Torrii/Gate to Suzuki Roshi’s memorial as a “gate into the wilderness” and what I felt when I passed through the gate. Blessings, blessings, blessings on your journey. Thank you for creating this journal so that we can follow along. These old mountains will always connect us.


  4. I like your thoughts about money. I think another important question, besides the main one: what can I do to be most helpful in the world?, is what you mentioned briefly in your last blog: how much is enough.

    Love Susan

    • Dear Susan,

      Thanks for your comment. This is a question I feel I am constantly asking and am so unsure of! As we were recently in a train zipping by the countryside, seeing people contentedly squatting by the roadside doing their daily business brought this question to mind for me. What if that were my life? Would that be enough to be happy? to be ok? I recently saw a beggar with the brightest eyes, an elderly woman who had the most beautiful smile (mostly toothless) and I wondered about what she has or does not have… what can we give, what is enough, what do we need?

      wishing you just enough to be supremely content and joyous!

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