Saturday, March 31, 2012

Enku Book Arrived

My copy of Enku: Sculptor of a Hundred Thousand Buddhas, by Kazuaki Tanahashi arrived this morning.

The very first time I ran into Enku's work was in Frank Olinsky's Buddha Book: A Meeting of Images, from 1997, which is a collection of ancient-to-modern Buddhist artwork ranging from monumental, to temple altar, to print media. The Enku carvings were featured in two photographs. The first was of fourteen figures out of "one thousand Bodhisattvas" and the other was what can only be described as a pile of several hundred "chip Buddhas" (or koppa-butsu).

Several years later I happened on a fantastic hardbound book of Enku carvings in a bookstore in San Francisco, but it was written entirely in Japanese. Happily took it home with me anyway and pored over the photographs.

I had a copy of his Enlightenment Unfolds as required reading, but until last week wasn't aware of the extent of Kazuaki's publications, much less that he had done a book on one of my favorite sculptors of all time. Just ten pages into it and already learning a great deal. 

This was published in 1982, but Kaz started his Enku research as early as 1967.  The photo on the back--he's so young!

I give you just a quick excerpt or two:
Enku was a lower class itinerant monk who used any piece of wood he could find as material for his carving. His sculptures provoke such a feeling of intimacy that we are almost tempted to touch and caress them instead of looking at them from a distance.  Once I went with a group to visit a mountain temple, we saw a monk splitting wood with an ax and someone said "Oh, I want to carve a Buddha image on a piece of wood like that!" We all understood how he felt. Enku gives us the heart of creation.
Certainly at a tactile level I resonated strongly with his carvings the moment I saw them. Enku leaves his toolwork so exposed and raw that as a carver myself (although my preference is stone), I could almost feel his movements and the wood shaving off under my own fingertips.
Enku was born in 1632 in Mino, one of Japan's central provinces ... Enku may have begun his religious practice as a monk of one of the Pure Land schools of Buddhism in a temple near his home. It was probably during the first few years of training that he was given the Buddhist name Enku, which may be translated as "round or complete emptiness."
I based my earlier statements regarding Enku's vow of carving 120,000 Buddha forms on a few web references. But Kazuaki corrects that understanding. More likely his vow was to carve 100,000 -- still an astounding and worthy vow.  There are two collections (boxes) that Enku produced as sets that contain 1,000 "chip-Buddha's" each, just to give you a sense of his incredible rate of production. All of these supposedly carved with a single implement: a hatchet.

On one of the boxes of 1,000 Bodhisattvas, Enku  wrote a poem:
The rotting driftwood
picked up
the guardian gods
of children.

More from this great volume at a later date.

Dreams and Radical Creativity

A few years ago I had a dream that challenged my opinions about the human capacity for creativity.

Now, there is not much more offputting than listening to someone trying to recount their dream, but I ask you to bear with me as I share just this one scene:
I am visiting my old college art professor at his home studio, the one where I worked so many hot afternoons helping to prepare canvasses. As we catch up, I am casually flipping through his stack of recent artwork. Pausing briefly to reflect on each image, I comment on perhaps eight to ten paintings, lithographs and other prints. Overall I view perhaps twenty works, before he and I wander into another room, and the dream takes me elsewhere.
None of the works were ones I had seen before. All were done in his style. I was dreaming in full color, because I remember remarking on his use of color in several pieces.

None of the works actually existed, except as instantaneous, fully completed creations of my dreaming mind.

The reason I even recall this dream is that once I woke up, I was struck by the fact that for the most part when I would try to draw or paint I would get completely stuck. Before I even started, all these doubts and judgements would arise about the final product. And more often than not, no matter what I wound up creating, I was unsatisfied with the result.

So how did that square with a dream where I could and did create what to my own critical eye were complete and satisfying works, twenty in a row, in the space of a few moments? Whether I had the skill technically to create them by hand myself is immaterial. The vision was there.

What this dream -- and indeed the entire human facility of dreaming -- points to is that the human mind is capable of absolutely astounding creativity. And what stops us from accessing that creativity are mostly our own ideas, fears and stories about our limitations, and about what makes an acceptable final product. Ideas which also don't exist except in our minds.

For the purposes of this post, I am only talking about visual art. But I believe that everything stated above just as easily applies to any other type of human creativity, be it music, choreography, narrative or what have you.

Attempting to work with what I learned from that dream, I have tried to retrain myself when faced with a blank page to just dive in and start making marks. To just see what comes up. Sure, I will continue to draw an occasional still life. But I find it a lot more satisfying these days to start without any plan at all and see what happens.

Turns out this is a lot more fun, and more often than not, I am satisfied with the final product.

What is circular for me about all this is that "just dive in and see what happens" is a lot of what my college art professor was trying to teach us so long ago.

This sums it up, from ZenDot Studio:
If I was asked to get rid of the Zen aesthetic and just keep one quality necessary to create art, I would say it’s trust. When you learn to trust yourself implicitly, you no longer need to prove something through your art. You simply allow it to come out, to be as it is. This is when creating art becomes effortless. It happens just as you grow your hair. It grows.
--John Daido Loori from "The Zen of Creativity"

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Magic Disappearing Blog

Talk about a quick lesson in impermanence.

I checked the blog this afternoon and got a message "Blog has been deleted or domain name has already been taken."  Upon further click-through to FAQ's, "why has my blog been deleted" possible reasons included policy violation(s).

I couldn't figure out what policy I could possibly have broken in only a week or so posting. Logged into Google and got it sorted. Still don't know why it was deactivated. There were no messages on the dashboard. Just in case, I deleted the image from the WaPo article.

And I copied all the posts to the local HD.

Just the universe trying to keep me from getting to attached...

A monk arrayed in purple/ would be laughed at by monkeys and cranes.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Brush Painting

For years I admired a certain genre of Chinese brush painting, where tall, distant mountains are revealed in the swirling mists. Perhaps with a spare hut nestled amongst ferns and bamboo . Their scenes have such an ephemeral quality, and evoke the tactile -- you can almost feel the cool humidity on your face, smell the foliage.

For my birthday, a friend gave me a big coffee table book of Zen paintings, full of these types of scenes, and I would try to copy certain elements on rice paper.

I had always thought that these paintings must be very highly stylized. Kind of like a Zen cartoon. No mountains could possibly be so tall or picturesque. Surely it's just a case of wanting to squeeze more mountain shapes into yet another vertical scroll-painting. A style that must have developed over the centuries as a kind of spiritual shorthand, not representational. Kind of like Christian iconography developed its own style and shorthand.

Then I actually visited rural China, and was absolutely gob-smacked. And chastened.

The mountains not only looked a lot like those paintings, they looked exactly like those paintings. Incredibly steep and jagged vertical faces, rows of these mountains sitting like monks in a Ch'an monastery. And mist! Every morning heavily shrouded in the (swirling!) mists. And growing on them all the Chinese herbs and ferns and bamboo you could possibly shake a stick at.

Great jumping jehosephat, those guys were no cartoonists, they were the hyper-realists of their day, just paintin' 'em likes they sees them.
Proud mountains, robed in mist ... open our eyes
they look just like that.


Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Buddha statue contains hidden truths

From the Washington Post last week.

This statue was taken to a medical center and put through xray and CT scans -- leading to a remarkable discovery.

I think it would be great if there could be more blending of the disciplines around research like this. It was wonderful to read about the entire Radiology department gathering around to be a part of solving this mystery of what could be inside the statue.

Inner and Outer Weather

For several years I worked with the practice of pausing whenever I left a building, to just look up at the sky. To notice what was happening there. I would do this especially before entering or leaving the office.
Each morning and evening, look up. How is mind today? Mind has stars, moon and Milky Way. Mind has rising sun. Mind is cloudy. Mind is dark. Mind is clear blue. Mind is cooling into evening redness.
This was a great support for sitting practice, to consider the mind as the big open sky, always changing. To recognize more fully how both are always changing. That thoughts, like clouds -- if allowed to just be in that mind-sky -- would eventually move on or dissipate. That we have internal weather not unlike the outer weather in the sky. 

Just last night I made a new connection between internal and outer weather that caused me to recall my old practice of looking up.

Of course we may become wrapped up in our inner weather, and mediation can help us get perspective on that; to work with it. But consider that we also come into unavoidable contact with other weather systems in the form of family, friends, colleagues. And for those the outlook can be anywhere from calm, to stormy-gloomy, or even stormy-exuberant. For most of us, this is weather that cannot help but affect our own weather system.

The National and International climate may also affect our internal weather.  Earthquakes, floods, financial collapse -- hard not to be affected.

Cultivating a mind that sees clearly. This can be difficult especially if we are not conscious of the effects of outer weather on our inner weather. So we may need reminders to check the weather, to metaphorically look up, and see what is happening.

Like Joko Beck advises about the practice of specifically labeling our own thoughts, not just "thinking. thinking" or "worrying. worrying. worrying." but "having a thought about work." And through labeling, the thoughts become like the clouds and eventually dissipate. (For most of us, quickly replaced by new clouds!)

Over time as we practice labeling our inner weather, we may also find ourselves better able to label outer weather as we encounter it. Not just "Janine: So angry today!" but to be specific: "Janine is expressing her feelings of anger and frustration." Perhaps that way we can, depending on circumstances, either talk with Janine about, or simply ruminate silently on the roots of that frustration without being drawn into its cyclone.

This is just another way of saying, work with circumstances as they arise. Cultivating a mind that sees clearly.

Back to the practice of looking up at the sky. It has another benefit. After a time, this practice becomes just delightful in that you begin to sense down to your bones something normally reserved for dreams: endless, radical variety.  Even viewing the sky from the same vantage every morning and evening, it is never remotely the same twice.  Compare two consecutive grey and overcast days, and the quality of grey, the luminosity pushing through the fog...always new, always different.

I want to write about this and its relationship to creativity a some point soon.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Authentic Suffering and Health

In my family growing up there were two deep cultural traditions around the enumeration of suffering.

One of these came from what I have to assume was a South Eastern US pass-time of gossiping about the neighbors' hardships, with the obligatory hand-wringing, doleful noises, not so secret sense of superiority and relief that lightning hadn't struck closer to home. More than semi-pro, such sessions could go on quite a while in gruesome detail until our elder matriarch might state with finality, "Well let's not dwell on that, no we won't dwell on the negative. No." 

And our poor young psyches, still vibrating from what one of my siblings calls the "litany of horrors" were expected to switch gears and go on with a light and lively conversation. Pass the dinner rolls, dear, thank you. 

Alongside and intertwined with that was a Southern European tradition that I only became conscious of when watching the singularly depressing My Life as a Dog. Which is to say whenever we were confronted with suffering in our own lives, we engaged in a group exercise of pointing out that surely there were others who were suffering much more, and then go on to list a few examples in great detail. So while meant to make you feel better in comparison, such a verbal smoke-bomb instead reduced the value and integrity of whatever experience we might have been needing to work through.

While I think I've done a good job eschewing the gossip, damned if I can't break myself of the My Life as a Dog habit even now, facing my own recent health issues. "Our friends lost their son in a freak accident; so and so's child has cancer..." etc.

All of this is adding story on top of story, layering and spinning so that we aren't present with our own suffering. An attempt at self-insulation. My sense lately is we cannot find perfect health, even amongst infirmities, unless we can be present with the reality of our own suffering.

The Dalai Grandma offers us this translation of a Buddhist chant from Thich Nhat Hanh:

I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.
I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape ill health.
I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.
All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. 
There is no way to escape being separated from them.
My  actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences  of
my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.

Which I will begin working with, and for which I am grateful.

Dogen Zenji

Ariel Pork gives us a snippet from Dogen's Valley Sounds, Mountain  Colors:
Slipping out of your old skin, not  held back by past views, you manifest immediately what has been  dormant for boundless eons. As this very moment manifests, "I" don't  know, "Who" doesn't know, "You" have no expectations, and "the buddha eye" sees beyond seeing. This experience is beyond the realm of human  thinking.
Just this.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

On Not Sleeping

So I'm doing it again, where resistance to being present with suffering includes storytelling about how someone always has it worse, really. One of our friends goes several days in a row without being able to sleep. I'm not dealing with anything like that.

When the adrenals are slagged, while they may not work at full power, they also don't really believe it is ok to take a rest. Having been in emergency response mode for the better part of a decade, it is hard to convince them that the crisis (most of which was manufactured) is really not immanent.

What is happening is the experience of being tired and dizzy all day, working with random symptoms and trying not to panic about those. Having cut out any screen time after 8pm, filling that time before sleep with drawing, quieting the mind. Then finding that sleep just won't come. Breathing through that, counting breaths, finally asleep and something in the flow of our house (a literal catfight under the bed, for instance) will wake me again and then it's 45 min or more of working through annoyance at waking, then spinning on all of the above, about not sleeping, finally returning to counting the breath, calming the mind, and again sleep. But it's not a deep restful sleep.

The predominant description I am finding for this state on the adrenal recovery sites is "wired & tired."

So it was with great thanks that I ran across the below this evening,  from ZenDotStudio:  
I was reminded of a Gil Fronsdal talk on insomnia where he suggested rather than fretting about lack of sleep a person could lie there and appreciate that they were safe and comfortable, resting in the present, rather than building a story around sleeplessness.
So simple a prescription, will just be giving that a try in a few hours.


For some time I have felt rather on top of the issue of personal health. Not obsessively so, just at level one might call quietly smug. (on edit: This is the smugness of youth that hasn't realized we're well into middle age.)

Kept good track of the myriad possible things on the radar that could kill me, including a specific family history of prostate cancer, heart disease, IBS, etc. and whatever flavor of the  month fatal distraction the popular press might throw up.

Always take the stairs, years past of martial arts training, more recently the gym four to five days a week for an hour and a half. Once I understood the link to heart issues, I had even moved through the entire spectrum from dental floss refusenik to twice a day.

Burnout always seemed describe an emotional state. As in, "that job really burned me out for community organizing, I just couldn't do it anymore, so I had to move on to something different." My man was not aware that you could physically burn out your adrenals. Sub-clinically,  it appears, but still. Just was not on the radar.

Leave aside the litany of activities I've engaged in, and things I have done on purpose over the last three decades that piled insult upon injury to the poor little bastards, it turns out my entire personality (this current ego structure) may be toxic to those unsung, kidney-riding, grape-sized producers of over 50 essential hormones.

My Myers-Briggs description starts with something along the lines of "lives in preparation for emergencies."

This is all about mission-readiness. Grew up in a military family. As a small child, once I understood the scenario of possible house fire, I packed a small bag with the items I was sure I would need to grab on the way out, and put shoes by the side of my bed. 

When we flew, which back then was mainly when we were moving somewhere new, I packed what I called my Desert Island kit--things that might be essential were we cut off from civilization (band-aids, a bar of motel soap and sewing kit, candy, comic books...not really survivalist items and nothing you would get thrown off an airplane for today).

Not to draw to thick a line from then until now, but I find myself in a career that while on the upside is focused on helping others, also keeps me focused on natural disasters, their aftermath, and working with specific efforts for immediate aid, longer term recovery and rebuilding.

At night, I'm the one who wakes up to any odd noise, whether it's to corral and dispose of whatever vermin our cat may have brought in to the killing floor under our dining room table, or to discover a leak under the kitchen sink, or just in time to miss catching one of our kids vomiting with a towel.

So the challenge right now is how to notice and try to amend lifelong patterns of seeking -- from a Buddhist standpoint let's call it addiction to -- a feeling of immanent crisis, and preparations for remedies for same. As if you can ever be fully prepared for life.

At a retreat for individuals interested in end-of-life care more than a decade ago, Roshi Halifax once asked us to practice with the following: "Anything that can happen to a human being, can happen to me, and I accept that."

Surely thought I had accepted that by now. Clearly had not.

Working with a shifting landscape of symptoms and anxiety about possible remedies and whether this is recoverable, it has occurred to me to wonder if, at times, all this focus on attention is just one more strategy of preparation for disaster. Life, perceived as immanent or ongoing disaster. Trying to get to that place of acceptance, like the part in the movie Parenthood when Steve Martin finally relaxes and laughs into the moment.

This is all wrapped up in layers of recovering perfectionism

No answers on this one today, I'm in the thick of it.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Working with Fear

Working with fear, emerging from a fear-centered framework or set of circumstances, we notice a few things.

There is the fear itself, which if fed becomes a self-amplifying loop and can lead to complete overwhelm.

Then there is whatever it is that can sit and watch the fear arise, and which can also insert a needful brake: breathe, notice, breathe, notice, breathe...

There is the fear about present circumstances, and there is fear about possible outcomes or implications. Many different fear-flavors.

There is even a Book of Hours for fear, the fear of the early morning is not the same as the fear felt at mid-day or while trying to fall asleep at night.

Fear often seems tied to intense feelings of panicked attachment to or frantic avoidance of certain circumstances. Whatever it is we don't want to change might change. Or whatever it is that we don't want, will never change. Surprise! Thanks to impermanence, everything you don't want to change will always change, and nothing that you might fear will always stay the same.

Perhaps getting stuck in fear is because we forget about impermanence, even for a little while.

So can we make friends with impermanence as an ally to help us work with fear? To help us understand that no matter what we find at the root of our particular fears of the moment, it will not last?


Thursday, March 22, 2012

Just This

I was all set to post this evening and then I read the latest on Dalai Grandma, called the Nirvana Fallacy.  Really so well put, what more is there to say?

And yet as Katagiri Roshi puts it "You have to say something!" 

One of the quotations she posted this evening points out that many of the lineages were practiced, codified and transmitted not by rarefied intellectuals, but by regular folk. Nobody closer to the absolutely unavoidable wrack and struggle of everyday existence, who better to practice with it and from that practice generate wisdom worth sharing?

Ikkyu says:

wife, daughters, friends this is for you satori 
is mistake after mistake

So very guilty of putting an intellectual distance between myself and something that called me. I studied Buddhism for years academically until one of my teachers required me to meditate in order to pass his course. That was the crack opening the door. Still kept it at an academic distance until I found Joko Beck. Her two books helped me understand among many other things, that being present with this absolutely pedestrian moment, that is the practice. Later Roshi Halifax and Pema Chodron further underscored that perspective.

In one of Pema's talks, a woman during Q&A says something along the lines of "Lately I just want to chuck all the day to day frustrations of my life and set sail on the great burning ship of the Dharma!"

"Oh honey..." says Ane Pema, with that grandmother compassion that does not spare as it cuts. "That everyday life you're talking about leaving, that IS the great burning ship of the Dharma."

Even knowing that, for several more years I felt that one couldn't truly practice unless one were to take vows and become a monk or a nun. And one day while I was very unattractively pining for such a life it took a young Tibetan monk, very politely, putting my nose in it for me to recognize, as he put it "My life, your life, no difference. Just the practice."

As a householder the last ten years with two children...many very full episodes. In my more wry moments I had to wonder if a lot of what the younger monks are put through is so they can get to recognitions that Householders get for free at 1:30am after a week of no sleep because the baby is still sick. More ego and story but it made me feel better at the time, joking to my wife "hey we're having our own sesshin."

On edit:
Become one with whatever you are doing. That is the way.
Isshiki ino bendo
To practice the way with wholeheartedness.
      --Dogen Zenji

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Ego and Rest

So sure of myself, I took the robe and bowl, hustled off and got lost. Would I be so wise today if I hadn't screwed up so badly?
"There are many hours in a day, and I am not indispensable." -- Greg @ Upaya retreat circa 2000

A dear friend of mine lived in New Zealand for a year on a Rotary scholarship. She roomed with a woman from South Asia who remarked to her one morning while sipping her tea: "You Americans, you only know how to do. Why can't you just be?"

After an almost ten year hiatus, I am picking back up a formal meditation practice (and starting this blog) just when I need to be removing as much effort as possible in order to focus on healing. My hope is that both will serve that purpose more than they work against it.  For instance working on drawing, posting, sitting helps me to not obsess about getting better -- to not work recovery relentlessly like a business problem.

Our tech-permeated culture, much influenced by Protestant and other hard-working immigrant traditions, doesn't much cotton to rest as a value. Whether focused on the fruits of labor, accomplishment, the sweat of your brow, or kicking back to party hard, chill with Angry Birds there is just not a lot rest-full about our days, weeks, months.

Vacations are for going somewhere and doing things you don't normally do when you're working.

Most often, how we enumerate our own value is completely wrapped up in what we do, our job role, family role, what we contribute, what we earn. Living up to our own and other people's conditioned expectations of who we should be and what we should do. All so much story and ego. This nurse who worked with the dying tells us that nobody on their deathbed ever said "I wish I had worked more."  In fact, #2. on the list was "I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me."

It is radically counter-cultural to practice being. Even when in every visible way we who choose to stop, sit, breathe in and breathe out, may not be cultivating being. In my own practice I have caught myself over and over doing what Suzuki Roshi called "trying to be the best horse." Trying to get to some goal through practice.

Lately that goal has been better health, and that means most of my meditation time is spent lying down, counting breaths in the middle of the night. Or just being with symptoms, trying to allow them to be ok without fighting because that creates an ever greater energy deficit.  Trying not to practice with the goal that it should serve healing -- trying not to make it work. Just letting it be.

Recovery and Renunciation

Renounce means renounce.

Some of us dealing with healing and recovery have talked about how difficult it is to stop eating or drinking their familiars and often favorites. 

This week, giving up the eating habits of many years in order to heal means -- in addition to my having given up alcohol, coffee, tea, chocolate (!) -- I now must add to that list all wheat, fruit juices, whole fruits...and begin paying attention to the glycemic index of any vegetables I may consider for the daily menu.

For someone who grew up in a household where meals were centered on pastas and breads, followed by a double espresso, this has been no small adjustment.

This also means adding in new things like green smoothies (which without the fruit/fruit juices are really lacking). The best recipe I've found so far: throwing celery in with the kale and baby bok choy makes something reminiscent of a V8.

The fact that I feel so incredibly terrible or immensely better when I do eat certain things provides a certain operant conditioning to help me along in this process.  Really wanting not to wind up in the ER again. That also provides great motivation.

Another: No smartphone/ ipad/ computer screens after 8pm, to quiet the mind and prepare the body for a more restful sleep. On night two of that one, we'll see how it goes.

Working with renunciation means noticing our cravings as they arise, acknowledging them, and making a different choice.  I'm making sliced apple for the kids, it smells so good, just one won't hurt...remember last time...right. Time for celery and hummus.


Simple enough.  Enku sought to carve 120,000 wooden Buddhas. As a Dana practice, here we will post original Buddhist artwork at whatever rate it may arrive, with the only criterion that it be the original artwork of the person making the submission.  Other themes may include recovery, social justice, Buddhist practice for householders, and contemporary practice in geographies like the EU and US where Buddhism is not part of our historical culture.