Little Grid Drawings

My friend Amy is making grid / dot paintings I think are exquisite, the way the painted dots glow & find a relationship to other dots & to the grid. Inspired, I’ve been making these little 4″ x 4″ drawings with colored pens–a very different feel from what Amy is doing, but united in the procedure of moving from left to right & top to bottom in drawing the dots into the grid, which is made first.

The idea is to focus just on the one dot & its surrounding cell. Let everything else fade into the background. Let the results take care of themselves (since they will in any case).

 

 

Samu

One of the oldest & yet to-the-point Zen pointers is: “Chop Wood, carry water.” My North Country sangha came round today & stacked wood. They had no need to carry water since it was pouring out of the sky.

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  • Samu: Work practice; work undertaken with full attention to the task.
  • Sangha: One of the three treasures, the community of practitioners.
  • Three Treasures: The Buddha, The Dharma, The Sangha. 

Making Art (A List of Six)

What’s the point of making the collages, the drawings, or the poems I work on sitting up in bed beside the window overlooking the river? Well, I have been making poems my entire adult life, even making a profession of it, though I would prefer that word be taken in the sense of profession of faith. (Full disclosure: I have made my living as a teacher of poetry.) And I have made little visual things almost as consistently. So, even though I am now limited by my disease, why shouldn’t I continue?

And yet, reader, you know what I mean–Now that the end of my life sooner rather than later is a real possibility, why bother with these trivialities? This is the question, in a bleak mood, with which I began the first draft of this post last week. Here is how I answer the question, as of the middle of June, 2016:

  1. It is what I have always done.
  2. It distracts me from the bleaker aspects of my situation.
  3. Other people have found them pleasing.
  4. For the poems: I have been working on a book for more than ten years that I should have finished long ago & I now feel a particular pressure to bring that project to a close.
  5. Who knows? Perhaps there will be another book after that–I’m writing fast these days.
  6. For the collages & drawings: I couldn’t really stop if there were a reason to.

Sangha

I have been so calmed & uplifted just now by the visit with my North Country sangha1 this morning. The sangha is one of the “three treasures” of Buddhism, along with the Buddha & the Dharma. It is not impossible, but it is very difficult, to practice Zen outside the context of a sangha.

My friends came just before ten, we sat fifteen minutes of zazen, our dogs being remarkably & unusually quiet, then they went out & stacked our firewood for two hours in the pouring rain. After that samu,2 they came in again & we drank tea together. Doesn’t sound like much, you say? I cannot even begin to express how precious this contact with my fellow Zen students is at this time in my life. At any time, yes, it would be lovely; but given my pain & the lethargy that follows pain, the transformation of mind / heart / body I feel right here right now is almost unbelievable. One is not used to medicines that work so quickly & dramatically & to such good effect.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. Sangha (Pali: सङ्घ saṅgha; Sanskrit: संघ saṃgha; Chinese: 僧伽; pinyin: Sēngjiā; Tibetan: དགེ་འདུན་ dge ‘dun) is a word in Pali and Sanskrit meaning “association”, “assembly,” “company” or “community” and most commonly refers in Buddhism to the monastic community of ordained Buddhist monks or nuns.
  2. Samu (作務 samu?) refers to physical work that is done with mindfulness as a simple, practical and spiritual practice. Samu might include activities such as cleaning, cooking, gardening, or chopping wood. Samu is a way to bring mindfulness into everyday life as well as to get things done. Samu is popular in Zen monasteries, particularly as a means of maintaining the monastery and as practicing mindfulness.

A Children’s Book . . . Reimagined

I was probably three or four years old when my mother gave me this little book by Margaret Wise Brown, published in 1952, the year after I was born. As a physical object the book is a delight–small, slim, sturdy, the cover boards measure 5 ½″ x 5″ with the width slightly greater than the height, giving the book its appropriately horizontal feel. The illustrations, by Barbara Cooney, in black, white & red, fill the double fold of the open book, with the text always on the right. The illustrations combine a certain naturalism with a tightly controlled whimsy.1

 

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The structure of the book is perhaps the most common in children’s poetry over the last 100 years or so: The poet begins with a formal structure, often, as here, a question & answer pattern, simple rhymes with frequent repetition. In Where Have You Been? the title sets the motif: Someone is asking first one animal & then another the title’s question–Where have you been? The rhetorical payoff or punchline of each stanza is the witty reply of the animal being interrogated.

 

little cat_sm-1

little mole-sm-1

 

Little Old Cat
Little Old Cat
Where have you been?
To see this and that
Said the Little Old Cat
That’s where I’ve been.

The typographical convention here is clearly maximum capitalization & minimum punctuation. The lines are broken at grammatical junctures emphasized by rhyme, sometimes identical rhyme, though as it turns out this leaves room for a fair amount of variation from section to section. Thus:

Little Old Fish
Little Old Fish
Where do you swim?
Wherever I wish
Said the Little Old Fish
That’s where I swim.

And one more example, with a slight variation, from Where Have You Been? In this stanza, the question shifts from the empirical to the metaphysical:

Little Old Mouse
Little Old Mouse
Why run down the clock?
To see if the tick
Comes after the tock
I run down the clock.

There is one other stanza in the book that makes use of this kind of grammatical shift. It was that opening to the metaphysical–from where to why–that gave me the idea of writing a few of my own stanzas, using Brown’s poetic structure & rhetoric. Mine are darker.

Little Old Man
Why do you run?
I’m just about done
You can put down the phone
Said the Little Old Man
That’s why I run.

Little Old Rat
Little Old Rat
Where have you been?
I’ve been under my hat
Said the Little Old Rat
That’s where I’ve been.

Little Old Man
Little Old Man
Where were you
When the shit hit the fan?
I was right here with you
When the shit hit the fan.

Little Old Flea
Little Old Flea
What do you see?
I have been out to sea
Said the Little Old Flea
To bring you This Disease.

Little Old Man
Little Old Man
Where have you been?
Why do you flee?
I have been out with the flea
Sailing over the sea.

I don’t make any great claims for this little piece. I’ve always admired the rhetorical stance that adopts children’s language & vocabulary, recasting it for adult purposes.2 Or maybe I felt the need to drop the attitude of The Good Cancer Patient for a little while & simply indulge in some dark play. In fact, I think that is mostly what I have been doing.

I understand the connection between mind & body in cancer treatment, including the need to focus the mind on what is good & useful; no doctor, though, would deny the existence of bleak moods & it seems to me that my poetic exercise incorporates this kind of bleakness into a larger creative act. Poetry, even as the highest art, can have therapeutic value even when that is not the motivation of poet or poem. Used consciously as therapy–though that only dawned on me gradually–making this sort of poem must be an act of healing. This has been a pretty rotten day, actually. I had to spend the time & energy to go to the hospital for another MRI scan, a procedure that, while necessary, does not foster peace of mind. But because I came home & worked on a collage for a while, then rested & ate, then took up this little essay, I feel fairly peaceful, though not without a trickle of anxiety. Well, poetry isn’t magical, is it?

Show 2 footnotes

  1. To my way of thinking, whimsy is always best when tightly controlled.
  2. cf. Elizabeth Bishop’s “Visits to St. Elizabeths.”

Medicine Buddha

It would be a comfort to believe that chanting the dharini of the Medicine Buddha Bhaisajyaguru could cure cancer. Seeking comfort, people sometimes cultivate such a belief.  To the extent that people gain comfort from such a belief & the practices flowing from it, I have nothing critical to say.  Sick people will find relief if it’s available. Call in mind-over-matter, or the placebo effect, it seems clear that comfort & relief. They will also look for it even if it is not available & this slips over into a distortion of reality, delusion. (“They?” I know this person–it is me.) That’s something we Buddhists like to avoid when we can. No doubt it easier to to maintain healthy, non-delusional belief within the context of a culture-wide belief system. Such cultural systems are disappearing from the world–and have been doing so for at least a couple of centuries–under the pressures of modernity.

The scholar & teacher of Tibetan Buddhism Robert Thurman does what is most difficult for a Western Buddhist: He adopts the traditional Tibetan worldview that Western Science is wrong in its most fundamental assumptions about the nature of reality. As far as I can tell from reading & listening to a number of Thurman’s lectures, he is completely sincere in this. He can say, for example, that the fundamental underlying force in the universe is bliss [nirvana] & that it was the Buddha who discovered it. Thurman follows this with the idea that the Buddha’s discovery constituted the founding of a “buddhist science.” Thurman follows this up with what I take to be a metaphysical or spiritual insight I find valuable. Referring to the Four Noble Truths, Thurman remarks that the big deal here is not the first truth, that our world is characterized by suffering, but the third, that there is relief from suffering. “Any fool can invent suffering,” he says–“it takes real genius to see that there is a solution, nirvana.” Like many other religious modernisers, Thurman wants to find a justification in science for his belief in “buddhist science.” I don’t really get this. I remember seeing the same phenomenon when my parents used to drag me to the Grace Brethren church in San Jose. A lot of those men were engineers & I used to think that was why they tried so hard to find ways to align their faith with science; unfortunately, this almost always meant distorting or misunderstanding science.

Thurman is such a fine & energetic explicator of Buddhism I wish I could join him, but I can’t. There is a kind of old-fashioned film called, Travel with Robert Thurman to Bhutan, in which a group of students does exactly that. Along the way he delivers a couple of dharma talks that are pitch-perfect & offer genuine insight into liberation; the film ends, however, with Thurman lecturing Bhutanese education officials on the need to oppose modernization. The logic of this, flowing from his initial assumptions, is flawless. As practical politics it leaves a good deal to be desired.

And yet, imagine a post-apocalyptic planet in which some small pocket have kept “buddhist science” alive & imagine that over centuries a new world culture emerging based on the idea of relief from suffering. Well, I never liked that John Lennon song anyway. For one thing, it’s not “easy if you try.”

Nevertheless, I love the idea of a medicine buddha & the images are striking. Bhaisajyaguru is almost always portrayed with deeply blue skin, much darker than the Hindu god Krishna, for example. In both traditions, a distinction is made between light blue, associated with turquoise, and dark blue, associated with lapis lazuli. One could get lost in the tangles of Indian color symbolism & never emerge from the tangles, but it seems safe to say that early Indian culture, both Vedic & (later) Buddhist, associated light blue / turquoise with the sublime & infinite. Just spend some time staring at the sky. So here I am out on the cutting edges of modernity, yet trying to find some use for these images from a traditional culture that retain something powerful for me. Perhaps I can only read & understand them in symbolic & aesthetic ways. But is that a diminishment? Isn’t that how the peasants have always understood such images?