3step zen

The 3 step zen method


Zen EcoDriving

By Kipp Ryodo Hawley
Reprinted from Sweeping Zen, published on Earth Day, April 22, 2011

How would Dogen drive?

"Don't waste even a single grain of rice" – Dogen Zenji

Conservation is on our mind. Lowering consumption and caring for the environment are becoming so entrenched as cultural values that we're even seeing them used as the backdrop in product advertisements. As we bump against the limits to what we can use, spend and throw away, the result is higher energy prices, more pollution and shortages of food and water. This is making more and more of us realize we have to scale back our demands on the world's resources.

As Buddhists we're used to this mindset – we care for our interconnected life by mindfully using just what is needed. So for us, times like these offer new opportunities for practice.

I'm reminded of Tenzo Kyokun, the "Instructions to the Cook", written by Dogen Zenji over 750 years ago. This is a manual of Zen as practiced in the monastery kitchen, but we also study it to learn mindfulness fundamentals we can use in all situations. Here Dogen lays out the cook's daily schedule in minute detail. Pay full attention to the count of how many monks and visitors will be eating. Don't forget to remove the weevils from the rice. How will you include those donations from your local benefactors? Care for the food as you would your own eyes. "Don't waste even a single grain of rice." This is conservation taken to the extreme – don't do it just when there are shortages, but always. Here he's pointing to the knife-edge of practice, that place where being mindful of the tiniest detail opens us up to… what?

Mindfulness on the Road

Recently I took my car in for a tune-up. I'd been researching plug-in electric cars along with hybrids, and I mentioned these to my mechanic. He said I could get hybrid-like mileage with my Honda by "hypermiling". "There is a person getting 50 miles per gallon in an Accord like yours," he said. That got my attention.

That night I searched the web and found several lists of the basic principles of hypermiling, a term coined by Wayne Gerdes. I later learned another name for it, "EcoDriving", which I prefer now. I put some of these principles into practice, and immediately went from around 17 miles per gallon to 22. Okay, that's not 50 mpg, but it was a start – that nearly 30% increase meant my monthly gas bill would now be about what it was at the beginning of the year, before the latest run-up in prices. Next I inflated my tires to their maximum rating – that bumped me up to 24.5 mpg.

I also noticed another change – when I got out of my car after a trip through the Los Angeles rush hour traffic, I felt calm!

For many years I've been driving in a way that saves the most time. The less I spend on the road, the more I have for my commitments to family, formal Zen practice and work. I've learned the traffic patterns on my usual routes – which lane is fastest on this stretch of the road, how fast to go to beat the lights on that one, what time of day the freeway is clear and when it's better to take the surface streets. I'm also constantly watching the changing conditions so I can switch to the faster lane or get past a slow driver.

Now, after thirty years of Zen I see every thing I do as a practice opportunity, with the hectic freeway being a great arena for maintaining stillness in the midst of activity. But even so, rushing to be somewhere by a certain time can put me in a stressful, seat-of-the-pants mood.

EcoDriving, on the other hand, emphasizes saving gas rather than time. Doing that requires a different style of driving: avoiding the usual jerky, start-stop motion in favor of gradual acceleration and braking. I'd driven the old way for so long without question that it was quite a surprise when the change of orientation from saving time to conserving gasoline made such a difference in my state of mind. When practicing the ultra-smooth style of EcoDriving, my mind and body are smoothed along with the movement of the car. The effect is similar to breath-awareness meditation – the breath settles low and slow, the mind becomes clear and unhurried, and the time spent seems more full even while it feels like it's going by faster. And, just as a regular meditation practice helps the mind function clearly, the driving process as a whole is made more efficient. I found that, even though I'm no longer changing lanes and hurrying to catch that next green light, my routine trips take about the same amount of time as they did before.


As a Dharma teacher I'm always on the lookout for parallels between practice and other fields of endeavor, for new ways to apply the dharma to our own time. So, when I noticed the change in mindset brought about by EcoDriving, I went to work. How might its principles correlate with Zen practice?

Don't waste even a single drop of gasoline.

The heart of EcoDriving is efficiency: get where you're going using the least amount of power. We do this by identifying each area that lets energy leak out and plugging it. My root Zen teacher, Taizan Maezumi Roshi, often mentioned the "samadhi of no leak". This means continuous attention to this moment, and the "leak" is when we slip back from that one-pointed attention into daydreaming, regretting the past, hoping for the future. When we maintain this no-leak samadhi we develop joriki, the power of concentration. That power builds not because we're creating more of it, but because we're no longer squandering what we have. You could say we're becoming spiritually efficient.


The techniques of EcoDriving work whether you're driving an 8 mpg guzzler, a 50 mpg hybrid or even an all-electric model – conserving energy conserves it regardless of the source. Let's look at some of those principles and see what we can apply to our Buddhist practice.

1. Keep your car tuned up.

When your spark plugs are old, engine timing is off, oil is dirty and the air filter is clogged, your motor loses efficiency and both its gas mileage and its life expectancy go down.

∞ Tune up your sitting by reviewing the fundamentals. You know if your diet and sleep patterns are healthy or not – regulate them carefully and you will notice you have more equanimity during meditation. When beginning to sit, settle the body, breath then mind. To prepare the body, find that sweet spot where the straight spinal column allows everything else to relax, kind of like a straightened plastic tube allows a ball to freely fall down through. Next, let the breath slide down that tube and fall to your belly, doing several complete inhalations and exhalations to let it settle there. When the body and breath are both sitting nicely together, we turn to the mind. Notice that your mental state is a direct result of bodily conditions as well as thoughts and feelings. Let your psychological center of gravity drop down the tube so that the mind can sit with the body and breath. Settle it in your lower abdomen by spending a few minutes counting or following the breath. Now you are ready to begin your meditation practice – not because you willed it, but because you cultivated that readiness by preparing the body, breath and mind in order.

2. Use the lightest grade of motor oil your engine is rated for.

This minimizes the friction between engine parts, so the least amount of energy is lost as heat.

∞ What about the friction between your inner voices? Is your mind at war with itself? Working with processes like Inner Voice Dialogue, developed by Hal and Sidra Stone, can bring the different parts of your heart-mind into harmony. Sometimes while sitting, if I'm feeling agitated, I'll do sort of an inner voice council, where I imagine all those voices seated in a circle. One-by-one I take the position of each and explore its concerns. After I've gone around the circle (sometimes twice), and each one is satisfied it's been heard, they all naturally meld together into a peaceful equanimity.

3. Inflate your tires to their maximum recommended pressure.

Use the pressure printed on the sidewall of the tire, not the one listed in your car manual. This minimizes friction by having the optimal contact between the rubber and the road. According to tire manufacturers and police associations it also increases tire life and gives you more control, but at the cost of higher road noise and a bumpier ride. I increased my mileage 10% by inflating my Bridgestones to 44psi.

∞ We decrease our friction with other people by observing the Buddhist precepts. These arose during the Buddha's time as practical rules to help his sangha members harmonize nicely with each other, but we can also apply them on deeper levels. Building on the "just don't do it", black-and-white aspect of each one, we can delve into the grey areas (compassionately acting in the way most beneficial for everyone) while also tuning in to the fundamental unity of life (that "other person" ultimately is not separate from you). Balancing the precepts from all three viewpoints makes the heart-mind supple and fluid, resulting in smoother relationships all around.

4. Accelerate smoothly.

Watch a bus when the light turns green – clouds of exhaust pour out as it strains to start moving. Flooring it gives the engine more gas than it can handle, so the extra goes up in a cloud of smoke. Minimize this by accelerating smoothly and deliberately, which burns the gas more cleanly and efficiently.

∞ How often do you "floor it" when responding to charged situations? When your coworker mentions a mishap you were involved in, do you immediately start saying "Yeah, well when you did…", leaping into an accusation to defend yourself? Instead, how about breaking the chain of reaction by mentally stepping back and relaxing into a long breath, then making a smooth and deliberate response such as opening up to their feelings and needs with empathy?

Make every action you take a holy act. Rather than letting your automatic, knee-jerk reactions drive you, deliberately settle in the not-knowing mind and let the most appropriate response to the situation appear. Then your action will be like a plum dropping from the tree when fully ripe.

5. Drive as if your car had no brakes.

Brakingthrows away energy. This bookends with the principle of smooth acceleration. If you accelerated just enough to get you to the next stop light, you would have no need to brake. Of course, if you are driving a hybrid, some of that energy is recaptured and used to recharge your battery, but the rest is still lost.

∞ Live each moment fully, leaving no trace. The Sufis say, "Burn yourself up in God until there is nothing left but ashes… nay, not even ashes!" This "self" that burns up when you are 100% involved in this living moment is the substance of dukkha, of suffering. With it goes that hairsbreadth of separation that so quickly grows to divide heaven and earth; with it go all separations of any kind, all boundaries between delusion and enlightenment, Samsara and Nirvana. They're simply gone.

6. Take the golf clubs out of the trunk.

This is an easy way to suddenly boost your mileage. Take inventory of the stuff you're storing in the car. It takes power to carry it around, so you'll save gas by removing all non-essentials. Take that pile of books to the library, drop the old shelving off at Goodwill, leave the toolkit in the garage. Wash and vacuum and voila! – a clean and empty car ready to go.

∞ What emotional baggage are you carrying around? You've built up the power of concentration with your sitting practice, so put it to use. Watch how your mind spends time rerunning that painful family scene from last week or projecting the outcome of tomorrow's meeting. Are you tuned in to the present, or are you grinding an old ax for the 64th time? Use your fire of awareness to burn off old mental habits. Liquidate your emotional assets!

7. Glide up to stop lights.

Let off the gas well ahead when approaching a stop and let your momentum carry you. Don't shift to neutral – that is a traffic infraction in California, and may actually use more gas than leaving your car in gear while gliding. Be mindful of others, though, and don't drag down the flow of traffic. We do this for everyone's benefit, not just our own.

∞ Whenever you get a chance during the day, put your mental transmission into neutral. As Uchiyama Roshi says, "Open the hand of thought", relaxing that mental cramp so the mind can settle in the state of not-knowing. Do it even if it's only for a few seconds while waiting for the light to turn green. Then, when you put yourself forth and take action, you find you're fresh and alert instead of trudging through an emotional hangover from whatever it was you were just daydreaming about.

8. Practice predictive parking.

Position your car so you won't have to go back and forth to pull out of your parking place. Park facing downhill so you can coast a bit after starting up.

∞ An important koan Zen students study is "Hyakujo's Fox" in the collection called the Mumonkan. It's about the ancient priest who once told a student that enlightened people are not subject to cause and effect. Because of that statement he lived 500 lives as a fox. Finally he came to Master Hyakujo with his student's original question – "Is the enlightened person subject to cause and effect or not?" Hyakujo said, "The enlightened person does not ignore cause and effect." Hearing this, the old monk was finally freed from the fox body.

Nothing happens without cause. The more time you put into meditation, retreats and study with your teacher, the more equanimity and insight you develop as a result. Don't ignore the basic truth of cause and effect – use it.

9. Turn off your engine whenever sitting still for more than 10 seconds.

The cheapest gallon of gas is the one you don't have to buy. Today's fuel-injected engines don't use much to start up, so if you've pulled off to the side to look at the map, or are just sitting in your car chatting with your friend, give it a break by turning off the engine.

∞ Turn off your mental engine regularly. In the Akankheyya Sutta Buddha said "Be devoted to internal serenity of mind and don't neglect meditation." He spent time in samadhi every day. By following his example you satisfy your need for spiritual communion with the source while giving yourself downtime for recharging your emotional battery.

10. Plan your trip to avoid left-hand turns, long traffic lights and other places that make you idle.

A good friend of mine used to say, "Use head, save feet." The ultimate goal is not to get the highest mileage, but to bring our use of gasoline down to the minimum. One way is to get the most miles per gallon, but how about minimizing the miles themselves? Can you combine errands so you make one road trip instead of two or three? Did you call ahead to make sure the store is open today? Do you really need to take that pleasure cruise down by the river?

∞ In Zen we're taught that when we live in this moment, right now, the future takes care of itself. But being fully present doesn't mean ignoring the past and the future. It simply means laying aside the habitual assumptions and thought circles that usually cloud our awareness. When you set that mass of brain noise aside, what do you see? Your family is hungry, so you make dinner. Your son is starting high school, so you revisit your plan for paying for college.

Being here-and-now doesn't mean treating the future like it doesn't exist – making clear, well-formulated plans is simply another part of living in this moment.

Dogen tells us not to waste even a single grain of rice. Well, what's so important about that grain of rice? What's so important about that drop of gas? Sure, conserving resources saves you time and money, and decreasing your carbon footprint is beneficial for everyone. But why the emphasis on that single grain? Isn't it enough that you're now wasting 15% less than you did before?

That 15% you're saving is actually the side-effect, not the goal. Being fully aware of the grain of rice that fell out of your measuring cup or that one drop of gasoline exploding in cylinder 2 of your engine is itself the flowering of your Zen practice. We practice by waking up in this moment… in this moment… in this moment… as long as there is this moment, wake up in it! Always returning, constantly tuning in to just this, is our practice. Can you see the entire universe in that single drop of gas?

Master Mumon, as translated in Yamada Roshi's book on the Mumonkan, said in his commentary on the koan "Joshu's Dog",

Dog! Buddha Nature!

The perfect manifestation, the absolute command;

A little "has" or "has not,"

And body is lost! Life is lost!

This is the dynamic spirit of Zen, alive right now. Rice! Gas! Buddha Nature! When you take care of this living moment with complete attention, you find yourself in natural unity with the environment. As this happens, seemingly all by itself rice is conserved, gasoline is conserved.



Zen Mindfulness Cloudbook
Roshi Ryodo's online reflections on mindfulness and Zen, along with a revised version of the 3-step zen method.

Zen Mindfulness Cloudbook


Three Steps to Mindfulness
A complete manual for applying the 3 step zen method to mindfulness in paperback form.

Three Steps to Mindfulness



Zen Mindfulness



Westchester Zen Circle
Westchester, California



Tricycle Magazine
Roshi Ryodo's Interview

Sweeping Zen (Reprint)
Roshi Ryodo's Earth Day Article on Zen Ecodriving