Zen on the trail

Zen on the Trail

Zen on the Trail draws on the author’s expertise in Zen, global pilgrimage traditions, and backpacking to offer an approach to hiking—and, more generally, all forms of walking in nature—as a form of pilgrimage, as a spiritual practice that can deepen one’s connection to nature, both in the woods and back at home. The manuscript is organized around a two-day backpacking trip in the White Mountains, and it draws from anthropologist Victor Turner’s theory of pilgrimage as consisting of three stages: separation from ordinary social life, liminality, and return to society. In addition to describing Buddhist contemplative practices on the trail and an array of pilgrimage traditions around the world, Zen on the Trail highlights lessons that can be brought home from the trail and offers reflections on pilgrimage in a broad sense. In particular, it describes how one can wake up in nature as nature. This book will attract the attention of not only those who venture into nature but anyone who is interested in meditation, pilgrimage, sacred mountains, Asian approaches to nature, and simpler, more mindful ways of living.






“By directing our attention to how we hike as opposed to where we’re headed, and taking as our goal sitting quietly in a beautiful spot rather than summiting a gnarly peak, we can begin to shift from ego-driven doing mode to spirit-filled being mode, from proving something in nature to exploring how we are nature.”

p. 90





“Ives’s thoughtful analyses of Zen meditation and the Zen view emerge seamlessly from a well of nature writing that recalls his hiking adventures around the world. Part Transcendentalist memoir, part Japanese Zen ethnography, and part dharma teaching,
Zen on the Trail makes a bold vow: to ‘help us realize our embeddedness in nature and, ultimately, realize ourselves as nature.’”

Tricycle: The Buddhist Review


“This book is EXCELLENT. The writing is beautiful, the information is eye-opening, and the depth of thought is genuinely impressive. A lot of times I would just stop and reflect for a moment after reading certain passages. It’s a rewarding read and will bring added depth and pleasure to anyone’s outdoor experiences…and frankly, to the way you think about life.”

Reviewer on Amazon


“Like John Muir, Chris Ives knows that going out into the natural world is really going inward. This book about pilgrimage is itself a pilgrimage: we accompany the author as he leaves civilization behind to enter the wilderness and encounter his true nature and original face.”

David R. Loy, author of Money, Sex, War, Karma


“Ives draws from his own Zen practice and spiritual hiking to encourage readers to taste the intimacy of encounter, transience, and the sacred.”

Prof. Stephanie Kaza, author of Mindfully Green


“In this highly informative and personal account, Chris Ives helps us open up spacious vistas that deepen our lives. Along the way we receive rich lessons in Zen philosophy, lore, and practice.”

Taigen Leighton, author of Zen Questions



Author’s Note


I wrote Zen on the Trail to clarify some connections between my love of hiking, my practice of Zen, pilgrimages to sacred mountains in East Asia, and life in New England. This is my first non-academic book, and it emerged from a decision I made back in 2009, after publishing a scholarly book on Zen nationalism during WWII, to make my next book something more personally meaningful and perhaps even something that would appeal to an audience broader than that of my academic writings. In other words, I wanted to have fun with my next book! And, gazing out at turning 60 on the horizon, I wanted to reflect at length on how part of my life path has consisted of meditative time out in nature.


As I mention in the book, I grew up in a small town in northwestern Connecticut, at the south edge of the Berkshires, and I spent my childhood in the woods—fishing, building tree houses, and exploring. My father was the local scoutmaster, and as the troop’s mascot I went with him and older kids on hiking and camping trips up on and near the Appalachian Trail as it cuts its way through that corner of the state.


Though this was before I had any knowledge of contemplative practices in world religions, I engaged at times in what I would now characterize as contemplative practices of my own invention, whether sitting quietly waiting for trout to take the bait, settling into a rhythm as I walked through cow pastures, and letting go of thought as I gazed into campfires.


For college I headed up to the north edge of the Berkshires in Williamstown, and it was there that I first studied Buddhism and started practicing Zen. After graduation I went to Japan for five years, followed by graduate school outside Los Angeles, fourteen years teaching in the Pacific Northwest, and then a return to New England in 2001.


This book was birthed by my travels on the road and into the woods, by my pilgrimages to sacred places in and out of the woods, by life as a grand pilgrimage. I summarize much of this on page 16 of the book:


THIS BOOK IS A REFLECTION ON HIKING AS A FORM OF PILGRIMAGE, especially in relation to Buddhist religious endeavors in the mountains. It is also an attempt to put into words some of the inklings and practices that have emerged on my trips into “the woods.” I hope to sketch a particular way of being in nature, or, more exactly, a way of being nature, as well as a way of integrating the fruits of the trail back into our ordinary lives. Though my main focus is on the spirituality of hiking, I offer this book in the hope that it can help us realize our embeddedness in nature and, ultimately, realize ourselves as nature, expressing itself in the shifting form that is our mind/body, as we hike in the Alaskan wilderness, walk down the street in Boston, or travel along other stretches of our lifelong pilgrimages in this vast and beautiful world.





Book Trailer



Zen, Ethics, and the Wildness of Nature

On this episode of the Wisdom Podcast, host Daniel Aitken speaks with Christopher Ives, scholar and practitioner in the Zen Buddhist tradition and author of Zen on the Trail: Hiking as Pilgrimage, recently published by Wisdom.

Hiking as Pilgrimage with Dr. Chris Ives

Dr. Christopher Ives teaches in the area of Asian Religions at Stonehill College in Massachusetts. In his scholarship, he focuses on modern Zen ethics. In 2009 he published Imperial-Way Zen, a book on Buddhist social ethics in light of Zen nationalism. Currently he is engaged in research on Zen approaches to nature and Buddhist environmental ethics. He is the author of "Zen on the Trail: Hiking as Pilgrimage," out now from Wisdom Publications.

Contact Chris




    Further Thoughts and Discoveries

    A Blog about Buddhism, Nature, and Awakening on the Trail