Posted by: Brad Nixon | January 18, 2016

Zen Umbrella

We all seek enlightenment. This post is about one path to walk toward truth, but we can only ask questions, not answer them. As the Tao teaches us, “The way that can be named is not the way.”

It’s the rainy season in southern California. That’s normal. This is the time of year when weather patterns typically bring masses of wet air which crash into the mountainous coast and produce rain and snow.

This rainy season, though, is unusual, because it’s actually raining. Normally, rain exists as something that might fall, could happen. We accept the concept of rain, but having real water fall on us, pool up and impede our progress on the streets is atypical. Thanks to El Niño, that’s the case this year.

Thus, the first koan of today’s meditation is:

The rain that does not fall is still rain.


Human cultures are shaped by how much rain falls on them. The rainy British Isles have, in a sense, a rain culture: their clothing and even the language accommodate almost infinite degrees of raininess, from none to constant. A true Londoner never carries a raincoat: she wears it. Because it may rain at any moment on any day, she wears a raincoat every day. Putting it on and taking it off is a waste of time, so she wears it, rather than carrying it. Demonstrating perfect British resolve to face adversity with optimism, weather forecasts that here call for “partly cloudy” conditions, there are described as, “with bright intervals.” Carry on!

The Pacific Northwest of America is another climate accustomed to rain where, as in Britain, residents simply accept rain as normal. Ask a Portlandian (as I did) how many umbrellas they have and they’re like to answer, “What’s an umbrella?” There, rain isn’t something to be warded off any more than one avoids breathing air. Rain abides.

Here in SoCal, though, we believe in umbrellas, and we possess multiples of them, perhaps in part because we’ve never had to use them, so we’ve never left them at the restaurant or work.

The matter of having umbrellas one never uses has, in fact, developed into a uniquely southern California branch of contemplative philosophy, the Zen umbrella.

Think of kyudo, the Japanese martial art of archery. At its extreme contemplational extension, the bow becomes an embodiment of Zen principles; hitting the target is secondary to the act of correctly preparing, drawing and aiming, expressed as “true shooting.”

So with our umbrellas. One need not deploy them in order to follow the Zen umbrella way.

Consider a common experience here. One is at work in the office. Just before quitting time, it begins to rain. One has an umbrella: It’s out in the car in the parking lot. No matter. One can be mindful of the fact that one could have had the umbrella, had one wished. It’s a thought to calm the mind as one splashes through the rainy lot, fumbling for the keys.

One finds, in fact, that one’s umbrella is never quite where it should be. If you’re in the car, ready to dash through rain to the house, it’s in the hallway closet. And so forth. It’s okay. It leads us to the central koan of today’s meditation:

The umbrella that is not used sheds water.

It’s been suggested that the first Japanese immigrants to the California, in the 1880s, hearing consistently that there would be “no rain,” mistook this for “Noh rain,” and adopted the Noh-umbrella philosophy as their own (Noh pun intended!).

However it came about, it’s now an inherent part of the rich fabric of southern California life, and you’ll find it referenced in Frommer’s Zen California on Zero Dollars a Day.

Let it rain.

© 2016 Brad Nixon



  1. I have a Zen hat, for rain only, because I don’t like it when my head gets wet. If it is not raining here in Southern California, but I think it might rain, I leave my umbrella (which is always in the trunk of my car) in my car and wear my Boston Redsox baseball cap and a wind breaker.

    If there is no chance of rain, then I do not wear a Zen hat. I wear either an L.A. Dodgers cap or a Roland Garos tennis cap, because it never rains in May in Los Angeles or Paris. 😎


    • FYI, the French Open tennis tournament is played annually at Stade Roland Garros in Paris in late May. 🙂


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