As a 10-year-old boy gazed through a telescope at the mystery of the night sky, he dreamed of becoming an astronaut. Today, sitting beside his own paintings of planets, moons and stars, drawn from first-hand observations and impressions, Richard Miles (as Zen teacher Koro Kaisan Miles), speaks of teaching college astronomy and preparing fuel for his next rocket launch.
“I’ve always been a space cadet,” he jokes, telling of the eighth-grade lad who built rockets. So serious about space was he as a child that he wept when a NASA official visiting his school told Miles his prescription glasses would disqualify him for a career in space.
Denied access to space yet undaunted, young Miles turned his attention to the ocean adventures of early oceanographer Jacques Cousteau. However, while still in high school Miles broke his back going over a waterfall during a summer misadventure with friends.
During his seven-month hospital recovery Miles read dozens of books, including biographies of Jack London and Ernest Hemingway. He learned that London lived and worked on a schooner, while Hemingway “Never wrote about anything he had never done, or any place he had never been.”
While still in traction Miles decided to design and build a schooner and sail the world as an adventure writer. Turning his efforts to boat building, he soon realized that designing ships required the same understanding of fluid dynamics he had learned building rockets. Focused on the goal of becoming a world-traveling writer, he worked in carpentry, blacksmithing, commercial fishing, deep-sea diving and metallurgy, eventually becoming a master shipwright and licensed marine surveyor.
Meanwhile a brief, broken marriage sent him in search of what he called “personal sanity,” in the form of the Buddhism he had discovered in the pages of the Dharmapada. Like many others in the 1970s, he headed for San Francisco. There he met Chinese Master Hsuan Hua, received precepts, and began a lifelong daily meditation practice.
Inspired by the book “Zen and the Art of Archery,” he took up Japanese martial arts. He also became a friend and student of Zen teacher and humorist Dan Gilbert , who wrote the book “Jellyfish Bones,” adding lightheartedness to Miles’ own practice.
Miles next moved Santa Barbara, California, to work as a boat builder and deep sea diver. He married again, and his two children were born there. Miles soon gave up wandering adventures for family life, while his shipbuilding projects grew in scale.
During this time he encountered the “monumental” Jiddu Krishnamurti, a philosopher and enlightened master who spoke from a kitchen chair under an oak tree in Ojai, California. This inspired the deepest content of Miles’ future dharma teaching.
Then came a move to San Diego for the building of the schooner Californian, a historic replica commissioned by the Nautical Heritage Society. The move afforded Miles the opportunity to practice with Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck, whose secular “Everyday Zen” greatly influenced his practice.
Following where his work led him, Miles eventually moved his family to Aberdeen, Washington, where he co-designed and built the tall ship Lady Washington, another historic replica. Now operated by the Grays Harbor Historical Seaport Authority, the Lady Washington also is the official Washington state ship. Launched in 1989, this two-masted brig has sailed the West Coast and Canada, appearing in films including “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Star Trek: Generations.”
From ocean ships to stars
At the peak of his shipbuilding career Miles was suddenly hospitalized with a near-fatal bacterial respiratory infection. For nearly four years the persistent illness almost bankrupted his young family. Unable to work outside the home, he fell back on his life-long hobby – astronomy – painting astronomical landscapes and publishing the astronomy magazine Deep Sky Journal.
The near-death experience also persuaded Miles to engage in active Bodhisattva practice, so he trained in hospice care and crisis intervention, becoming a licensed counselor. Although spiritually rewarding, this patchwork of odd jobs could not meet the financial demands of ill-health and family life, so he sought other employment. He eventually landed a job as a facilities manager at Evergreen State College, which is near Olympia, Washington, the state capital.
Eventually the college also brought him on as a faculty member and guest lecturer in astronomy and interdisciplinary programs.
“Miles is passing on his passion for astronomy to the next generation,” said Evergreen faculty member Rebecca Chamberlain. “He is an incredibly talented and versatile teacher and astronomer. Students love Miles’s lectures, doing astronomy field work and learning to maintain and build telescopes. Miles is a brilliant telescope builder, astro-photographer, and artist. He is building legacy telescopes and is extremely well respected in astronomy circles. His astro-drawings have been published in professional journals.”
Miles’ paintings are based on direct observations, creative impressions, and a lifelong interest in outer space travel.
He recently completed a painting for Blue Origin, the space launch company founded and owned by Amazon Chairman Jeff Bezos. The painting was based on Miles’ own speculations about the future of “space tourism,” and on Blue Origin’s goal to make space accessible to interested non-professionals.
Miles has more space paintings on the way including The Curiosity Rover on Mars, Space X’s “Big Falcon Rocket” (BFR) approaching Mars, and a lunar lander on the surface of the moon. The painting of the Curiosity Rover, nearing completion, is already sold.
“My next series of space-related paintings may have a 1950s-1960s retro look to them,” Miles said.
To further his observations of the night sky, Miles has built a number of reflector (mirror type) telescopes from 5 to 17.5 inches. He is currently building a 16-inch telescope he expects to complete this summer.
Also a rocket enthusiast who launches unmanned rockets equipped with GPS and video cameras, Miles is developing his own company to produce rocketry components. The shop he’s building will utilize computer-controlled milling equipment to fabricate parts. He also develops new rocket motor configurations and propellants, and designs high-powered rockets for other rocketeers to assemble and fly.
Regrettably the medical and financial strains of his shipbuilding period contributed to the end of Miles’ second marriage, in the late 1990s. As he recovered from this calamity Miles took up residence in Olympia, Washington, near Evergreen College.
Building Boundless Way in Olympia
It was here that he joined a group of like-minded individuals who were incorporating martial arts with Zen practice. Together they built Koin An Zen Dojo and were also instrumental in the construction of the Olympia Zen Center. In 2002 Miles and his colleagues officially incorporated as the Order of the Boundless Way (OBW), a nonsectarian, secular Zen organization.
In the early 2000s and his son Jeff Miles began practicing “street dharma” among the homeless in downtown Olympia. This transitioned into a prison dharma practice, which continues to serve the inmates of five Washington State prisons today. About the same time, he also met his third wife, Kathy Miles, and settled down on a wooded property that provided an exquisite site for the building of Open Gate Zendo.
The completion of Open Gate marked a significant transition: Householders with jobs and families arrived, as well as curious students (some from as far away as; Australia, South America and Europe), retirees and neighbors. Many original members stayed on, supporting what they helped to create, with Miles providing the unifying element through unrehearsed, relevant evening dharma talks and quarterly Zen retreats.
Throughout this time Miles also has continued to enrich his personal Zen training and practice. He publishes articles (often under his Chinese dharma name, Fa Lohng Huo Hong Fa, abbreviated as Fa Lohng Shakya), and teaches the dharma from his life experiences and unique perspective.
Always considering himself a student of the dharma, with what he calls “an open heart and a beginner’s mind,” Miles continues to study with Most Venerable Thich An Giao of the Vietnamese Zen (Thien) tradition. This includes regular trainings at the Desert Zen Center in California, and frequent visits to the Mount Adams Zen Buddhist Temple in Trout Lake, Washington.
Forever inclusive, Miles has been involved with the Northwest Dharma Association for many years. He also co-founded the Thich Nhat Hanh-style silent peace walk in Olympia, commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King. For over a decade this annual public event has attracted a regular following, often more than 100 people.
Along the way Miles encountered yet another health crisis: a rare pancreatic-related autoimmune disorder, with prognosis of recovery highly unlikely. Undaunted, Miles made enormous lifestyle changes including early retirement and a very restrictive diet. He eventually regained his health, and remains an unexplained “medical miracle,” simply by getting up every day.
Asked about his personal legacy as a Zen teacher, Miles says it’s all about “opening your heart and your mind.”
“I never got the idea that I couldn’t do something,” he said. “My spiritual practice has helped me to overcome incredible obstacles, and whenever a door opens, I go through it.”
What does he dream of today? Well, there’s always a chance he could climb aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard space vehicle, and head into space…prescription glasses and all!
FAQs and further information:
Order of the Boundless Way: http://www.boundlessmindzen.org/
Valerie Grigg Devis is an artist and recovering bureaucrat, who has practiced Zen in multiple traditions. She met Richard Miles at Open Gate Zendo shortly after it was created, and became an ordained member of the Order of the Boundless Way in 2010. Grigg Devis is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Buddhist studies through Buddha Dharma University, and facilitates a college student sangha in her home.