Here's a little picture of some scrabble tile pendants I've been working on. I want to create little pieces of wearable art from my own work and this is the first step. So far as a techno-dunce I'm having some difficulty shrinking my images and maintaining their clarity. These ones pictured are bits of Asian stamps and collaged paper and they seem to be working out fine. Patience, patience. No banging your head on the corner of the table when things don't work out! On another art note if you feel like taking an electronic wander over to Indienorth next week I am doing a little art give-away on Beth's site. But on to the Dharma, the underpinning of it all.
Last night as a comment, someone asked, "you always write about the Dharma, what do you actually mean when you say Dharma?" Good question, yes?
The simple answer for me is that the Dharma means the teachings of the Buddha. And in my constant reference to the Dharma I am talking about how to apply (if you want to call it theory or teachings) the words of the Buddha to my everyday life. If the Dharma says "have faith", what does that mean to me, how do I take the idea of faith and actually make it mine and use it on a daily basis. If I just read about faith and think about faith but never really let it move out into my actions I may "know" about this aspect of the Dharma in my head but I haven't really tasted it. I haven't lived it. I haven't covered it in tears or brushed the dust off it. So while in simple terms I think of the teachings of the Buddha as "The Dharma" an integral part of it is, as the Buddha said "make it true for yourself". He encouraged this working with the Dharma. So for me the Dharma is the basis for how I live my life, it is always there in the background. In a way it's a part of the "Self" with a capital S, as opposed to the little self or ego. Maybe it's like if we all have "Buddha Nature", we all have "Dharma Nature".
If one of the eightfold path is Right Speech then how does this aspect of the Dharma work in my life? If I say I'm practicing Buddhism but never think about the gossip I engage in over coffee or how I talk to my daughter or my mother or my spouse where is the Dharma for me? And I think we get to these places in stages, gradually peeling that metaphorical Buddhist onion. First we have a niggle that maybe what we just said wasn't so nice. And then we see how we are somehow drawn to do this, how we repeat this unpleasant behaviour. Until one day we catch ourselves before the words come out of our mouth. It can be tricky and it takes time --- a lifetime. But in my mind this is what the Dharma is. It's a guideline, a little reference book, a little light that I hold my actions up to and examine. Is that a good thing to do? For me it cuts through the confusion. I can always think about "where is the Dharma in this situation?" Where is the opportunity in this difficulty? It brings me sanity when my mind goes to the crazy channel, not that I don't spend some time shopping on the crazy channel. But somehow the Dharma channel is always playing in the background and as I watch my environment, I pick up the cues and finally hear it loud enough so that it helps point me in the right direction.
So it is important to study the Dharma and know what it says. Otherwise how can it guide us? And as in any learning process there are various ways of studying the Dharma. We can read about it, listen to talks, go to retreats, be involved with a Sangha (a group of like minded practitioners) meet with a teacher. We start with the basics and then refine our practice I think. We work with our own personal stuff. We all have different learning styles so some ways work better for different individuals.
In my mind there are some essential ingredients to working with the Dharma. First you need to do some form of study. Then you need to do some sitting meditation. Some of my best insights into what I should do or what my little self is up to, come when I'm sitting. We need to be willing, willing to be honest with ourselves, willing to be uncomfortable, willing to be humble, willing to be disturbed by the truth. But willingness is a key ingredient. And I think at some point it is good to have a teacher. For me my teacher helped (helps) clarify the confusion, calls me on my stuff when it's easier to pussy foot around it. "Oh my daughter would think I'm just her crazy old mom if I said that to her." And teacher just raises her eyebrow. Or when I think I've mined a Dharma gem all the way down to the bottom, my teacher will say, "I didn't get that you really felt your mother's pain at a heart level." I might initially reject one of her suggestions. I might feel insulted and huffy, but if it is a true statement I always see it's truth in the end. I can see what I might be pushing away.
So to make a short question long (a task I apparently excel at) the Dharma is the teachings of the Buddha and how it relates to my life in a moment by moment way. I could go to Wikipedia and get you the Pali definition and a more in the "head" description, but I know you can do that on your own. For me the Dharma is alive, it lives, it breathes, it enlightens. It is the bringer of sanity and truth. I can't imagine living anywhere but steeping in the Dharma.
When life is just flowing along, well it's just flowing along. We go along doing our thing. We sit, we try to be present and kind and mindful and generous and grateful. We get parts of it right, we get parts of it wrong but life is like that lovely little brook in the forest, just meandering quietly.
I find when I really turn to the Dharma is when the road gets a little bumpy and the stream turns into a somewhat belligerent torrent. Is that wrong? I don't know. I think it's just how it is. It's kind of like a good friend. You might not talk to them for a while and then something happens: your dog dies, your kids are giving you grief. You call up that old friend to have a little chat. And you always gain some wisdom or solace. The Dharma is like that for me; a solid, old friend, wise and supportive. Sometimes I lean on it a little harder than others, sometimes it carries me.
So here's the small bit of life where the Dharma has been so helpful for me lately, where it has helped me negotiate the little torrent that flows behind the fences in my neighbourhood. You've heard me talk about the "barking dog" next door, maybe once too often. But it's a good place for me to practice. And I bet you have a barking dog somewhere in your life: your boss, your sister-in-law??
Since December I have been listening to the intermittent barking and wondering what to do. I know the pitfalls of irritating young people who live in rental units next door to you. Sometimes your well intentioned words can backfire in your cute little face. Lots of people out there are not working within the framework of the Dharma. So I've spent a lot of time considering my options. To speak or not to speak? Could I make it worse? Should I approach it as an issue of quieting my own inner barking dog or deal with the physical issues of the real life loud mutt. Maybe if I could somehow not care I would be released from a whole slew of little things that can seem bothersome? Maybe if I could see it as their suffering and lack of awareness and have compassion for the human condition it would be the most helpful thing. I have been able to do that with the neighbour on the other side who sometimes fills all the parking spots in front of the houses as some sort of angry statement. It used to annoy me, now I just see it as her suffering when she gets up to that and know that it doesn't matter.
Sometimes you need to give things time to get clear. The leaves and silt swirling around in the little creek need some time to settle down so you can see to the bottom. The other day I looked into my Dharma creek and there was the answer lying in the bottom. Nathan at Dangerous Harvest had talked about dealing with a noise issue in his living space. The barking escalated next door. Due to the fine weather both dog and I were spending more time outside alone. And then a conversation with another neighbour who has two large dogs made it really clear. Someone had called "Animal Control" on her. She said she wished the neighbour would have spoken to her and they could have worked things out. She said she had heard that the kids next to me were pretty noisy. So I put all the grist in the mill and came out with a little cake. It seemed clear to me that I needed to talk to my over-the-fence neighbours. I know not to speak in anger. That much I have learned.
And so yesterday I caught the young woman as she hurried into her basement suite. At first she was defensive but as we chatted about what made the dog bark she warmed a bit. I told her about the neighbour whose neighbours had called "Animal Control" and how she wished they'd spoken to her instead. I think the light went on for her then. In the end she thanked me for talking to her. She didn't look overly happy and I wasn't necessarily convinced she would take huge amounts of action about the barking. But I feel better for dealing with the situation, instead of letting the little current of my displeasure swirl under the surface. We can move from here as the situation evolves. This to me is Dharma in action. I felt freed and satisfied with my choice and each time I navigate a difficult stream with the oar of the Dharma, it becomes clearer to me how to do this. I gain much needed skill that will be helpful in more difficult times. I don't create new karma for myself and others by doing something unskillful, like speaking angrily or calling Animal Control or chewing on the noise bone. I learn how to do the uncomfortable thing which can be applied in so many places in this life.
So that's the Dharma story for today kids. It has dogs and streams, a problem to be solved, a point of tension and a resolution. What more could you ask for in your Dharma tales? Go ahead tell me. I can take it. And I promise not to chuck a bucket of water from the Dharma brook at you.
I have been munching on lots of little Dharma tidbits here on the lovely Quadra Island. As I did my qi gong on the grass overlooking the ocean this morning I was reminded of how infrequently I live in the depth of the moment, how soul refreshing it is to notice the little weeds, to feel the sun and the breeze, to settle in to the movements of the body. How when nothing needs to be done it is easier to just be. The slowing down of time and life. And where are we going in such a hurry anyway?
It is interesting on the island that after a minute or two of conversation with someone there comes the inevitable, "you're not from the island," or "where are you from? Mostly it's just natural human curiosity but it makes me think about the "self" or "little self" as it is sometimes referred to in Buddhism. How quickly we establish the boundaries between self and others in so many ways. Just another way of creating separation. None of it done with malice but one of those unconscious ways we build our little shell: a habit, a way to create some order, a protection, a defense, but always inevitably an unconscious strengthening of the "fortress me".
And there have also been lovely moments of connection, chatting with artists about their process. John Schevers, who does amazing Vietnamese style lacquer work and enormous textured mixed media was my favourite stop on the artist's studio tour. I loved the experimental and exploratory quality of his work. He seemed to be always reaching and exploring his medium. A builder too, he uses concrete and sand and horsetails, even toilet paper in his pieces! We were treated to a searingly hot glass blowing demo at the "I Blew It Studio" of Cherie Hemmingson, stopped by guitar maker, Richard Peilou's studio and got the personal guided tour of all the steps and woods and hand made tools he uses to create a the labour intensive hand made guitar.
And I was reminded that the Dharma is everywhere as I lay on the lawn reading the introduction in a drawing book I brought along. Listen. Does this sound like the Dharma to you? "Whatever your motive, try not to be impatient. Impatience has probably been a bigger stumbling block in the way of real ability than anything else. Doing anything well, I'm sure, means hurdling obstacles of one kind or another most of the way to the goal. Skill is the ablility to overcome obstacles, the first of which is usually lack of knowledge about the thing we wish to do. It is the same in anything we attempt. Skill is a result of trying again and again, applying our ability and proving our knowledge as we gain it. Let us get used to throwing away the unsuccessful effort and doing the job over. Let us consider obstacles as something to be expected in any endeavor; then they won't seem quite so insurmountable or so defeating." Sounds like good advice for just about anything.
In this paragraph Andrew Loomis has addressed the value of patience (one of the 10 perfections in Buddhism), of studying (and the Dharma is no different) how else will we understand the nature of the truth and learn to work with our confusion and greed and anger? And of course good old persistence because it takes a long time to change our habitual tendencies, maybe a lifetime, maybe several lifetimes! And the part I love is that if we know there are obstacles (as in, there is suffering) we will not be surprised or defeated. So often people say, "oh Buddhism, it's so negative, it's always droning on about suffering." But the fact is that suffering exists. Do you know anyone who has not experienced suffering of some sort? To think otherwise is to set yourself up for disappointment. You can put on your rose tinted glasses, stick your fingers in your ears and sing the la la song but it won't change this.
And the discovery that I make quite often is that I hear the Dharma everywhere. So even in a book called "Drawing The Head and Hands" there is the Dharma all dressed up as drawing instructions. The world is steeping in Dharma. Yes, that's it, the Dharma is like a giant tea bag gently infusing the world with it's wonderful colour and flavour, creating something warm and nourishing. Can I offer you a cuppa?
Today was our third day on the small island we are staying on and it feels like I've slowed down to something approx-imating "island time". Not that I consider myself a speedy person, but it's like when you go on retreat and at some point you just settle into it. Here, there is less to be done, more sitting time, more walking time, time for an afternoon nap.
And in the quiet, more isolated island life it is interesting to see that less Dharma "tidbits" are served up to me, the hot flaming morsels of everyday life that burn as they go down. It reminds me of the story of the monk who sat in a cave in meditation for 20 years and felt very calm and peaceful and then rejoins the world. With the first nudging he pushes right back. There is no one nudging me here. The rubbing up against others than can seem so painful seems minimal here. The opportunities for practicing with your jagged edges are less. And in a way that is a good thing, a pause, a breath, a small reprieve. I think we need this sometimes. It's like an opportunity to digest, as if we're a snake who just swallowed some Dharma frog, all whole and wriggly.
I am savouring it all: the quiet, the breeze, the abundance of air, just spending most of the day outside. Out here you get to sense the energy of the natural world when you slow down. Today I took a nap on the grass, pressed up against the earth, soaking up its energy. Such a healing thing. How often do we do this when we live in the city? We are getting to know the eagles we are feeding: the shy one that will watch the chicken leg we toss out but seldom come for it, and the other one that will swoop down almost instantly and scoop up the offering. We can tell them apart because they always sit on different branches, the shy one always comes first and sits on the top branch, turning his head almost full circle, watching in all directions. Today when we thought he was checking our menu offering, he glided to the ocean (an enormous distance) and scooped up a fish. The eagles are spooked by us because we are not the usual folks that live here. Would you think an eagle could distinguish between one of us humans and another. Almost instantly it seems, by our movements, our habits, by who knows what. We are different enough to make them wary. Such are the wonders of the natural world when you have time to hang out there.
I have been thinking about noise, partly because it is quiet here but also because there is still noise, barking dogs, voices carrying across the water, a generator here, some music wafting in from a fish boat radio. At home I have been feeling pressed by noise on either side of my house for a variety of reasons. It has become my latest koan. Partly it happens as people spend more time outside, partly because of changes in the rental house next door. It is not my preferences that are a problem, it is my attachment to them. The noise raises irritation in me and then I add on by wishing it didn't bother me. As is always the case I create my own suffering. First by pushing away the noise and then by pushing away, my pushing away, if you know what I mean. I could suffer once, but apparently I prefer to supersize the suffering (would you like fries with that?)
When I looked at what bothered me about the noise in my neighbourhood last week I saw something interesting. When the dog was barking next door and the owners partying in the backyard I wasn't responding just to the noise as it was at that moment but my mind had done a fast frame to the future. I was worrying that this noise would make our house hard to sell when the time comes. Imagined situations, imagined outcomes, kind of like the Mark Twain quote that goes something like: "My life has been a series of tragedies, some of which have actually happened." It's one thing to feel annoyed at a bark, it's another thing to turn it into a pack of rabid dogs ruining your life. My mind is kind of like a ferrari, from present to future projection in 6 seconds or less.
And so when I came to this quiet rural setting and heard all kinds of sounds I realized that if you don't make peace in some way with your "noise" whatever it is, it will follow you around wherever you go. This metaphorical noise will get louder and louder and more painful until you look it in the eye and address it in the form that it needs to be addressed in. We all have these lovely bittersweet koans, the ones that make us crazy but will give us great peace when we finally approach them and find that whatever it was we thought was snarling and drooling at us, really requires our attention and compassion. It is different than we imagined and making friends with it in some way will set us free. It is the most courageous thing we will ever do, look at what makes us crazy, really see it and make peace with it in some way. I am talking to myself now. I just hope I don't have my hands over my ears.
First of all I would like to give a heartfelt thank-you to Beth at Indienorth who featured 3 pieces of my art and gave me the nicest write-up yesterday. I discovered her site by merrily clicking down the road (like Dorothy I'm not in Kansas anymore), following a comment left on an article I wrote for CanArtisan by Laura Bucci (who makes awesome linen pouches and things) to discover indienorth. Now if you know me, you just know I'm going to tie this into the Dharma. And not because I'm stretching things that don't really fit (oh, oh whose been into the organic dark chocolate?) but because if you look at this, it's the modern day, internet version of "we are all connected', by a thin, invisible electronic thread, We are all dependent on each other in some way, which in very simplistic terms describes the rather complex Buddhist topic of "dependent origination." And as a small digression, a local Rinzai monk just wrote a wonderful blog on dependent origination the other day.
The other aspect of Dharma which Beth at Indienorth illustrates is the spirit of generosity, of thinking of others, in that she spends some time almost everyday featuring different artists and their work. She is not out there screaming, "look at me, come to my shop, buy something, buy something from me."
I sometimes hear it said that there is alot of "calling out" on blogs and websites and people saying inappropriately rude, harsh or insulting things to each other. Over at Dangerous Harvest Blog, Nathan wrote a really good post on this and a great discussion ensued. But this has not been my experience of the blogging and internet venues I have encountered since my arrival in this strange land in December/08. My experience of it has been that it's a pretty generous, friendly place. I visit mostly Buddhist sites, art sites and handmade art/craft venues, so my experience is specific and somewhat limited I admit.
But I am blown away by the willingness of people to share and help in the both the art world and the Buddha's world, to help promote and link and support each other. Now as artists we could all be standing in our little corners, eyeing each other suspiciously as competition, but frankly I haven't smelled a whiff of "eau de me cologne" anywhere in my travels. And as we know when we try hard to have a sincere practice, nothing makes you feel more shrivelled and withered and truly tired than focusing only on what "I" want and need.
As I write this I am sitting in what feels like a heavenly abode, on a spacious deck in a Quadra Island home exchange watching a Toni Onley mountainscape fade from pink and blue to grey and black. A few tall pines frame a plexi-glass sheet of ocean, backed by darkening mountains. We have been wandering the stony beaches in unheard of 28 degree sunshine here and exploring the island. We have fed raw chicken legs to Eagles (eek! at the request of our hosts) and been awed by the force of that swoop as they flash by to grab dinner for their little ones. But we have also been surprised at the shyness and caution of these giant birds who purportedly can knab a small dog on the beach. We are not the only complex and contradictory species on this planet. So I shall retire from this glowing screen to watch the final descent of darkness as it comes in for it's evening landing. May your day be this pleasant and peaceful.
Buddhism & Art...if I had to pick two words that give an overview of what I get up to in this world those would be my choices. Buddhism is the ground upon which I rest all else. I like to think it brings me some sanity. It helps me think in some logical way about what I am doing and look at it as deeply as possible. What did I just do? Why ? What's that all about? ...To try and look at my life without sliding over things or fooling myself...To be present for life, not rejecting or preferring one experience over another. Buddhist practice makes my life full and rich, sometimes filled with joy and sometimes with a deep experience of the suffering present in this world.
After all those words does it seem odd to say that it is the simplicity of Zen that appeals to me? This inclination to simplicity pulls me to try and integrate my practice and work, to paint Buddhas, to observe my process as I work.
I am drawn to mixed media, integrating script and words with images and colour.