When I first heard Don Dianda’s story, it was over news-wrapped French fries and chicken avocado sandwiches at San Francisco’s The Brixton, where the two of us sat opposite each other, next to our respective significant others a few days after New Year’s. As the surrounding crowd indulged in mimosas and Bloody Marys to prolong inevitable hangovers, I was struck by the now writer-and-entrepreneur’s aplomb as he spoke of how he gave it all up–the parties, the booze, the entire lifestyle on which the students of the University of California Santa Barbara stake an almost cultural identity–for the quiet mindfulness of the Zen practice.
“I had a really intense dream,” Don reminds me over the phone, as he recounts the contrast between his deep connection to nature and fifteen to twenty-mile solo hikes in Isla Vista versus his “five-day-a-week” college lifestyle. “Of a black snake on the back of my neck sucking my blood out of me. I threw it off of me and watched it writhe and wiggle, and when I woke up the next day, I moved out [of the fraternity]. It was so powerful I had to get out of there.”
He cancelled a trip to Vegas where he and his friends had booked a suite at the Venetian to celebrate his birthday that weekend and began living differently.
“After that, here I was,” he chuckles. It’s been nearly four years since his transformation, and Don recently founded Redwood Zen, an organization dedicated to helping people, particularly his fellow Gen-Y-ers, practice mindfulness. He will see his first book, See It For Yourself: Zen Mindfulness for the Next Generation, hit the Amazon e-bookstore on June 6. Don explains his lifestyle switch and how his interest in the outdoors made his transition to the Zen practice natural.
“I had this deep connection to nature. I stopped partying and drinking. Someone had given me a book called Awakening the Buddha Within, by a Tibetan-based Buddhist … who ties in Buddhism with Western culture. From there, I knew Buddhism was a path. I began watching myself and watching my mind,” he said.
His interest evolved to Zen which has ties to the region where Buddhism began and the Buddhist school of thought of “being a good person,” but differs in the sense that Buddhist followers worship Buddha, whereas Zen practitioners believe in “the direct experience of being Buddha,” the writer told me.
“I started reading Zen at the beginning of junior year. From there, it took off. I started meditating daily and beginning mindful practice. It was a great excuse to go hiking all the time,” Don jokes.
When he graduated and moved back to his hometown of San Francisco, his hikes migrated to Tam Mountain, where his surroundings inspired the name for Redwood Zen.
“There’s this beautiful hike called the Steep Ravine with these towering redwoods and mist, and if you go during the weekday you have the whole ravine to yourself. It’s such a magical experience … I just thought it was so fitting [as a name for my company],” Don explains. “The other thing, too, is Zen intertwines with natural symbols. In Buddhism, there’s the Bodhi Tree, and as Zen … rose in America and grew its root–zen has only been around here since the Beat Movement in the 1950s–I thought that in California there’s no other tree fitting [to describe] it. It’s the Redwood, and California and America claiming Zen, and I just enjoy that.”
Redwood Zen is built on the principle of “koans,” which in Japanese mean “public cases,” and are sayings from a master or conversations between a master and his “monks,” or followers. With each post, Don focuses on a koan and expands upon it, intending for his audience to read it and apply it to everyday life.
“[Koans] are these evocative little sayings like “the great Way is not difficult if you don’t pick and choose,” by Sengcan, and I hope you meditate on it and bring it with you throughout the day,” Don said.
Don pens captivating phrases like, “there is also a joyful sense of playfulness wrapped within Sengcan’s words: when faced with a decision between cake or pie, I might decide in that moment, ‘redwood!’ blowing up my small mind and opening a door towards a kind of internal freedom or vastness I would otherwise not have been able to experience.”
When asked to explain, the writer laughs.
“Zen … there’s so many interpretations that writing about it is almost blasphemous. There’s an example where a student asks his master, ‘What is the path to enlightenment?’ and the master responds, ‘Close your mouth; be here and shut up.’ There’s a kind of humor in it all, you know,” he said, before elaborating on his former statement. “It’s a creative move. When you’re looking for happiness, that very simple thing that is life is already taking you out of the vastness that is right now … when you’re thinking chocolate or vanilla, it’s almost already breaking everything. [The phrase], it’s funny; it represents an open mind, like a playful, childlike mind. A lot of people like to watch children play because they’re just feeling the texture of the tennis ball or rolling in the grass; it’s just an example of a really open and free mind that just is what it is.”
It’s this freedom he hopes to bring to his generation, those currently holding the capacity to change how the world works through Redwood Zen and through his book.
“Whenever I go hiking and backpacking, I won’t see many young people. I just see older people, and I’d like to bring that out in our technologically-advanced, typing machine, like 20-something generation,” Don said. “That’s us, which by the way, is very powerful. A lot of things happening, like Arab Spring, one of the biggest revolutions of the 21st century, stemmed from college students able to outsmart the government. We have a lot of power in this time with Facebook and especially with zen … I look at a lot of people and go to a lot of meetings, and it’s all older people; I’m always the youngest person there. A lot of people turn to Zen after a midlife crisis or a near-death experience, and I believe why have to experience that first before turning to Zen?”
He knows, however, that in order to convince his generation of the usefulness of Zen, he must first capture its increasingly fleeting attention span. This is the other main focus of his book and of Redwood Zen: translating the typically “esoteric” Zen dialogue into a language more easily understood by a time-strapped youth.
“A lot of people have trouble … they’re like, ‘The ego is what?’ ‘What’s this guy’s name?’ There’s a kind of barrier between me and my mind and my culture and this Zen stuff. It took a while for me to get into it and used to it, and I thought, ‘Wow.’ I wanted … to make it simple and feel like it’s not exotic, and it’s not a different culture but it’s here, it’s now. I wanted to make it really accessible for young people who might be dissuaded by complicated terms when it’s really not complicated at all,” Don explains.
He hopes that, in the future, he can expand Redwood Zen to tie in to the environmental movement, to support the work of non-profits, and to collaborate with companies who exercise corporate social responsibility in terms of going green, like Patagonia. For now, he’s concentrating on his mission: to encourage people to open their minds to questions and “pluck” to the ego so that “life manifests.”
“[Zen] isn’t this exotic other thing. You are Zen; everything around you is Zen,” Don effuses. “It’s just the opening of your mind, and it could really be an interesting experience to jump into that and see for yourself.”