Sunday, August 29, 2010

Dedicating Merit

I have just returned from a weekend fundraiser for Tibetan earthquake victims slightly sleep deprived and my face warm from spending most of the last 2 days outside. We were treated to teachings by 8 generous Tibetan teachers, tasty meals of dahl and soups prepared by the Tibetan community and a local Sangha.

We were an eclectic gathering of tie dyed 10 yr olds, roly poly babies, many heads of flowing grey locks (both genders) and willowy teenaged girls with fashionably wrapped scarves. We sat meditation under an outdoor canopy at 6 in the morning as the sun rose and the chant master intoned his deep, throaty song. We ate oatmeal in the sunshine and buttered our toast with slippery questions about how to fit issues of the environment, investing and politics into a Dharma framework.

And as the ceremony opened on Saturday I dedicated the merit of the weekend to my mother who died a year ago today. I became acquainted with the concept of "dedicating merit" in the Zen Sangha I belonged to. My understanding of "merit" is undoubtedly incomplete but I will take a stab at explaining it. Perhaps you have something to add?

The idea stems from the fact that certain actions "accumulate merit"; things such as acts of kindness and compassion, sitting meditation, giving alms to monks. Many positive actions, large and small are considered to accumulate merit and often merit from meditation sessions is dedicated to all sentient beings. I can remember at Sangha, people often requested the merit of a meditation evening be dedicated to a sick or dying friend, someone undergoing surgery or someone suffering in some way. We even had a merit board where you could tack up a little dedication for a loved one or friend.

There is a wonderful generous sense in dedicating merit. And it's not one of those things that when you give it away, you have lost it. I think merit increases in volume, like an expanding, rising loaf of bread, as it is shared with those in need.

So it seemed auspicious to be in the presence of numerous lamas and a gathering of dedicated Dharma practitioners on the first anniversary of my mother's death, a meaningful way to remember her. It was through my involvement with the Dharma that I finally found a way to make peace with my mother, with the encouragement of my teacher to never give up on her. Through my mother's willingness to meet both me and the Dharma at a deep level I think she made some great discoveries about her life in her last year on earth. And the two of us learned to do a dance that allowed her to die in peace with me holding her hand. Yetta Leslie 1915-2009. If you feel so inclined, you can read the post I wrote the day after she died here.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Harvest Time

Here's a little shot of some of the work I did at The Altered Image workshop I took a couple of weeks ago. When I wrote the initial post about the workshop I talked about how much I liked the instructor's (Tony Bounsall) suggestion that we look on our work as creative compost and then as a lover of metaphor I stretched this to include all of our life's material as creative compost.

Our wonderful blogging friend 108 Zen Books ran with the compost analogy in a fun series of 5 posts which you should definitely add to your life/garden manual. A couple of days ago I noticed the weather in the garden take a distinct turn in the direction of fall, the air cooled, the sun's intensity waned even though it remained bright. The quality of the light changed in a way I can't quite pinpoint and a feeling of quiet and order settled over everything. Clouds roll around forming, disintegrating and reforming, the weather changes a myriad times each day. The manic intense energy of summer has headed off to another hemisphere.

I have been doing some seed saving: kale, parsley, mustard greens, foxglove, lettuce, onion, nasturtium, cilantro, radish. And this morning I decided it was time to remove the lavender of it's dried stalks. As I rubbed the tiny flower heads off onto a piece of newsprint, it's intoxicating scent filled the air and I thought "harvest". We have been talking about compost in terms of our practice, our training, living our lives, whatever you choose to call it. How about the harvest? Where does that figure into the picture.

We could talk about karma and that we harvest what we sow. Trite perhaps but seemlngly true enough. It is like the story that the grandfather tells the small child about the 2 wolves that live inside us, the angry one and the kind one. When the child asks which one will win, the wise grandfather reminds her that it is the one we feed that grows. So it is with harvest, I think. The seeds we nurture and cultivate, watering and tending, giving them our attention, those are the seeds that will grow in our hearts. The choice is always ours. It is easy to fall back into the dark tangled weed patch of unconscious habit but at some point we stumble out, hat askew, morning glory twined around our left ear. You get the picture. Such is the gardener's life.

When I think of harvest I am reminded of something my Zen teacher used to say to me when I told a story of where I was astonished that something had gone so well . She would say, " those are the fruits of your training." And so I think that about the harvest, that if we are diligent and train and work with our "stuff" in earnest then gradually, often without notice, change comes about. Slowly, surely, we advance in the direction of the little rows of compassion and , the patch of letting go and a basket full of all acceptance. This is the work of a life time, many lifetimes, if you will. If we can remember that this is the most important work we will do in our lives, then there will be something to harvest. And being human, of course sometimes we forget, get blown over in a ferocious storm and fall into the thistle patch, but that's okay. We just get back up, pick out the prickles and gather up the hoe again.

All this harvest talk makes me think of ripe tomatoes and fat squash but it also make me think of a line from Daishin Morgan's little book "Buddha Recognizes Buddha". He says "training and enlightenment are not separate". And so the spiritual garden is like this: we are always planting and weeding and watering and harvesting. It's all going on at the same time. And all the while if we are good organic gardeners we keep adding to the compost heap, because it will feed the garden and make our harvest rich and strong and luscious. Hey, is that a hay seed I see behind your ear?

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Enemies? Invite Them To Tea

Here's a photo of me building a little gate for some wee folk who make their home up on Mt Erskine. All manner of offering have been left by their door so I couldn't just walk by without making some contribution. Let's say I built them a peace arch. This is an offering so that they may live in harmony with all the little folk in their lives and all the creatures they encounter.

In fact this is an auspicious wish for any of us, large or small. Last week when I was in Victoria I had the great pleasure of having coffee with a group of folks who are part of a little Sangha I belong to. It's not a traditional Sangha but a delightful one. We have a fearless organizer and over the years we have attended all manner of Buddhist events together, gathered for potlucks and watched Buddhist movies. Conversation ranges all over the planet in an enthusiastic, harmonious sort of way.

Just before we flew off on our various errands the topic of politics came up. My answer was, "I don't do that anymore." We went back and forth a bit with someone pointing out that politics brings social change. My feelings were that it's too divisive, it's not where I choose to put my energy anymore. It creates us and other and somehow that never seems helpful. If our intention as we go out into the world is "to do no harm" , to be helpful, working from a place of opposition doesn't seem helpful to me. Go ahead, call me Pollyanna but I think that true change comes from people "walking a mile in someone's shoes (even if the fit isn't so great)", from getting to know the "other, from the "other" getting to know us and somehow over time, change can happen. Without that softening of positions and stories, it is hard to make any real headway, whatever your cause. If you win the battle and leave field full of bodies behind you, what have you won?

Someone in the group commented that they'd heard Buffy Ste. Marie at a rally and after someone gave a rather fierce political entreaty. She came on stage and said something like, "after all these years, I think the best idea is to invite them to dinner." It's not unlike Gandhi's comment about the British when told of some action they were about to engage in. "I would like to invite them for tea and biscuits," (and he did, offering them several rounds of biscuits).

It seems important to me that we follow through on our intentions to be compassionate and helpful. And yes it is difficult but I look to people like the Dalai Lama and his position toward China when I think of difficult situations. What better role model could we ask for?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Creative Compost

Last weekend I attended a delicious altered image workshop on Denman Island. Temperatures soared into mid 30's and the lazy little island was parched to summer perfection. The sun beat down and not a wisp of wind crossed the waters. Tall summer grasses bleached golden hugged the roadsides. We ate our meals at a little cafe where in the evenings I sat barefoot in the comfy lawn furniture sipping a glass of wine as a large unseen gaggle of geese laughed in the field across the road. Children swung in hammocks and played in the grass, occasionally popping by their parent's table for a bite of dinner. Our bed and breakfast was run by Ricky the dog and his delightful owners who fed us with freshly baked cornmeal muffins and fresh fruit salad on a property called "Hilltop Magic". They were magicians by trade. Need I say more.

A turn of the century farmhouse that is home to the Denman Art Centre housed the workshop of 8 enthusiastic artists and our generous and knowledgeable teacher, Tony Bounsall. We scrubbed at wet processed photo's with bleach and tools and covered them in clear gesso and weldbond and then recoloured them for exciting and interesting effects. At morning break the thoughtful Linda Weech made us a deep, rich cup of Karma coffee to see us through until lunch. We cured our gel medium image transfers on the old house's porch and filled the late afternoon air with the smell of citra solv as we burnished away at our photocopied image transfers.

It was an info filled weekend with enough time to try out all our little experiments. I love that Tony started the weekend encouraging us to think of the weekend as a time to make "creative compost". It was a freeing invitation. And when anyone felt less than happy with one of their creations they laughingly referred to it as "compost".

It is a wonderful idea that as we live/work we are creating compost. What we do now feeds and nourishes what we will do in the future. Our art, our lives are living dynamic, organic organisms. We are always planting the seeds for the future and feeding it with our actions, our thoughts, our words. If we are harsh and pour poison onto our lives and creations, how will they grow? Will they be tall and strong and resilient, or will they be sickly specimens with shallow roots. It is always our choice. Go forth into the garden of your life, never afraid to create a little vigorous compost!

Dharma Dreams

Create your own video slideshow at

And now for something completely different (okay so I swiped that line from Monty Python) and have attached it to this little canned video I created over at Animoto to amuse myself. And of course amusement is fine if in fact it doesn't become your sole purpose in life or a means to escape your life. It can be simply a small dollop of pleasure, like a lick of ice cream as it traces its way down your throat. I think perhaps this one is a small frivolous smidge of raspberry sorbet. Enjoy!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

From The Shadows

This little 8x10 was an experiment (isn't all art?). I love creating textured and layered backgrounds, scratching and rubbing and working the paint. So after the layers of brown and green and yellow had gone on and dried I sat down in front of the canvas and closed my eyes. When I opened them, images suggested themselves from the background: first the moon and then the reflected moon, then the Buddha in the foreground. I closed my eyes and looked back again. And so on and so on until I had a host of shadowy figures. I thought of how sculptors talk about looking at a piece of stone until the form makes itself known and then their work is to release it.

This is a darker, more ethereal work than usual and in a strange way it painted itself. The process was a further exploration of trust and faith that I talked about several posts back; trusting that if we wait and listen something will come. It might not be what we expected, but something authentic will make itself known. ( Trust is also a focus for August over at Donna Iona Drozda's blog).

In our (my) usual rush to fill up the uncomfortable void where we don't know what's next, I generally trod over this delicate part of myself, me of skeptical self, of unexplored trust. So there was a slightly uncomfortable relationship with both the creating and with this dark, shadowy image that emerged, but there it is. I suspended judgment and called it done.

I have been enjoying the post retreat posts (does that make sense?) over at 108zenbooks, ones asking us to dig a little deeper, asking questions like what life sentences have we given ourselves. How do we hold ourselves hostage by the stories we tell ourselves or the ones we have accepted that were told to us by others? We create the self as a solid entity, almost by accident. For the most part we forget to tell ourselves the story of our Buddha nature, of our kind, generous, talented and wise inclinations.

And so this little painting reminds me that the shadow is the necessary accompaniment to light. It is always there even when we don't notice it. If we pay enough attention and suspend denial we might learn something.

All this talk of darkness and light makes me think of The Sandokai by Sekito Kisen recited in Zen monasteries. Here is a small portion of the poem relating to light & dark: May it shed some light.

Within light there is darkness, but do not try to understand that darkness;

Within darkness there is light, but do not look for that light.

Light and darkness are a pair, like the foot before

and the foot behind, in walking. Each thing has its own intrinsic value

and is related to everything else in function and position.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

What Does The World Need?

Here's a piece that's been waiting to be finished, hanging out in the dark orphanage of homeless Buddha paintings. It started its life as an abstract and seemed to call out for more, advising me at one point that it was merely the ground for something further. So it has followed in the footsteps of several other Buddha Brothers (or sisters) getting involved with some pattern pieces and a shiny tar gel enso.

Sometimes I look at this calling out for more in my work. Sometimes it is really about the underlying feeling of not being good enough, of thinking I need to be more than I am which of course spills on to the canvas. Sometimes I am right and a piece needs more, I need to push a little further and sometimes it's simply a manifestation of that human delusion of "not good enough". The work is in knowing the difference. Sometimes I get it wrong.

I ran into a couple of Dharma friends today quite to my delight. Over egg salad sandwiches wrapped in sunshine, we sat outside and talked, what else?, Dharma. As the conversation meandered and rolled through the sun filled patio, one friend confessed to feeling guilty about time spent on long term, intensive practice. She found what came up as she sat were feelings that she wasn't contributing to the world and thoughts like "who are you to be doing this". Again it seemed there was this human delusion of "not being good enough", not doing enough. Different situation, no paintings involved, same delusion.

Her situation particularly reminded me of something I'd read the evening before in Jack Kornfield's book, "The Wise Heart" and I offered her my loose recollection of Kornfield's wise words which are: "The quieting of our mind is a political act. The world does not need more oil or energy or food. It needs less greed, less hatred, less ignorance. Even if we have inwardly taken on the political bitterness and cynicism that exists externally, we can stop and begin to heal our own suffering, our own fear, with compassion. Through meditation and inner transformation, we can learn to make our own hearts a place of peace and integrity. Each of us knows how to do this. Gandhi acknowledged, "I have nothing new to teach the world. Truth and non-violence are as old as the hills."

May you offer the world what it needs.

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Earthworms of Synchronicity

Here's a little shot of my Green Tara painting spending some time at the sand mandala ceremony last week. She was honoured when Lama Tenzin Tsundun found her a spot right behind him.

I am still reading "Buddha Recognizes Buddha" by Daishin Morgan of the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives. Several comments in the chapter on Faith popped out for me. How about this one? "... true faith is not the opposite of doubt, as faith does not exclude doubt. Rather it is the willingness to let doubt, along with every other thing in the universe, show itself fully. Faith does not oppose anything, since it springs from enlightenment itself."

Faith, trust, I use the words interchangeably and perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps I am missing some subtlety in my generalist inclination to life. Just last week I was thinking about trust and how my inclination is to rush around and do things, make things happen. It is a deep seated tendency to think that things happen because I make them, but at a deeper level something in me knows this to be untrue. There is timing and flow and synchronicity and karma always working in the background while I'm out there with my hard hat and shovel, slogging away.

When I started thinking about trust I realized I needed lots of reminding that I am simply a small partner in the grand scheme of things. It doesn't mean I shouldn't act but it means I need to be more mindful of all the other factors at work. I need to keep my ear to the ground as the earthworms of synchronicity are always tunneling about. And out in the ether, mixed with sunset and thunderstorms, subtle messages about timing and just being ride the breezes. I need to remember to do more listening. I need to remember to stop clutching after what I think I need. I need to take off my hungry ghost mask, halloween isn't for a while yet. I need to sign up for a course in trust, the one offered by the squirrels and the trees and the little stream down the road.

And I can savour the sweet scent of truth when Morgan reminds us that faith (trust) has no opposite. It holds our doubt gently and lovingly as it holds all things.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Letting Go

I have sand in my hair. It is true I was down to the beach. But that's not how sand came to be in my hair. It was dusted on the top of my head by a Lama, right from the green sandiness of Tara at the centre of her sand mandala. And if that wasn't enough we again received a slurp of blessings in the form of a dark sweet water, the origins of which had been prayed upon by the Dalai Lama and other auspicious monks. Today was the final day for the Green Tara sand mandala that Lama Tenzin Tsundun began on Monday.

Today was the day of letting go and a fine array of Salt Spring folks crowded into the gallery for the prayers and blessings. Together we watched flower petals from our gardens tossed in the air and finally a dorje drawn through a weeks worth of careful work to create a slightly grey pile of sand. There were babies breastfeeding and toddlers sitting in laps eating juicy plums and Dorje the dog sniffing the wonderful assortment of shoes mixed with the aroma of incense.

There was chanting and a Dharma talk and five lovely Dakinis singing in Tibetan while one played the guitar, a tune composed in a day by a young woman who disappeared after the song as quickly as she'd arrived Wednesday morning. The altar overflowed with lush collections of summer flowers, fat yellow plums, cherries, tofu, gummy bears and chocolate dipped cookies. The day was mixed with a little morning fog and some afternoon sunshine.

For the grand finale we followed Lama down to the beach, a rag tag bunch; baby strollers, a blue glass vase of sand and a prayer flag string of coloured outfits trailing down the road, surprising cars rushing to the ferry. A young man in a straw cowboy hat volunteered to row Lama out into the bay to release the sand. Later someone pointed out that in a very Salt Spring sort of way the boat was named "Clara T".

Today was all about letting go. There are so many things we can let go of on so many levels. Lama talked about letting go of fear, that not only is this is a gift to our bodies but fear holds us back from experiencing life as it is. We can let go of our busyness and just be. He reminded us in a very concrete way how to go about this. "Sit in the morning," he said after you brush your teeth. Maybe just for 5 or 10 minutes and think what am I doing with this life?" He reminded us to go out into the day with a positive attitude and a compassionate heart.

At the end of the day he suggested, "look at how the day went, some things were good, maybe some things not so good." Perhaps recite a little prayer or mantra for the things that you did that were not so good, a purification, and then let them go."

And so the painting above reminds us in words attributed to the Buddha, "Each day we are born again. What we do today is what matters most." This little painting uses an old wooden stamp from Nepal to create the shape of the Buddha's head. I was enamored with the shape of it when I found it at Kebe & Fast's traveling sale last month. May you let go of what troubles you and may you let go of something you love. One day we will be called upon to let go of it all. May you savour your precious human life while you have it.