Thursday, October 29, 2009

Opportunities For Generosity

I can't remember specifically why but yesterday I started thinking about generosity. And then I did that very human thing. I started thinking of all the ways I am not very generous. Then I realized how this made me feel. Next thought went something twisted like "well how ungenerous you are to yourself to point out how ungenerous you are. Sheesh! In seconds I was tangled up like some mutant pretzel, all I needed was a little salt for the wounds.

As I watched my little pretzel self I remembered an article I'd read on creativity. It said when they'd done research on what separated the creative folks from the non creative ones, it was, simply, that creative people believed they were creative. Non creative people believed they were not creative. Hmmm. So maybe if I believe I'm generous, I will be more generous. So I tried this on, like a size 10 pair of shoes. I thought about all the occasions I have been generous, instead of the other way around. That felt better but still had an oddness about it. It felt so I, me, my, if you know what I mean.

So as I sat this morning it came to me. Generosity. It doesn't need a subject. It doesn't need a verb. It doesn't need to be "I " am generous". There doesn't need to be a me doing it. If I am going to focus my attention on it, it simply needs to be "generosity". I can immerse myself in a sense of generosity. It really is all around us, all the time, in many and varied forms.

And a funny thing happened as I contemplated generosity. The door bell rang and the post person had a package I needed to sign for. "It's even for you" she said (usually the packages are for the downstairs neighbour). "It's from Thailand and they only opened it once," she teased. I sort of knew then what the package contained. Colin from Spaces & Lines had sent me a beautiful pencil sketch of a Buddha (as a thank-you, he had said, for inspiring him to start his own art blog) and friend, Marcus had added a beautiful sacred Buddha textile from Waht Suthat as a treat. So it was like Christmas morning as I opened the package with all it's little additions and cards and even the beautiful Thai lettering on the envelope and the exotic postage stamp. So how's that for an experience of generosity! I hung my Red Cloth Buddha on my studio door and propped the gorgeous Buddha sketch on my cutting table and happily got down to work. Thanks guys for the Treasures! Bows to you both. What shear delight to get snail mail filled with Buddhist goodies.

The air filled with the smell of incense and generosity as I worked away on a new painting. As I contemplated it some more it seemed to me that kindness and compassion and generosity are all really one. And it struck me that rather than thinking of the ways we are ungenerous we might think of them as new opportunities to practice generosity. That seemed much more generous.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Being With The Body

This is a picture of the Mandala of Chenrezig or the Buddha of Com- passion, the day before it's completion, last Saturday. It is apparently the largest sand mandala ever done here in North America. It's hard to see in this photo but it was luminous under the gallery lights, bursting with detail and complexity. An amazing piece of art, taking 3 weeks to create with several monks working from 10-4 each day. (And never a crib note in sight!) It will remain on display at the AGGV until Dec 5th when a ceremony will be performed and it will be swept into the sea.

I have had lots of time for contemplation today as I lazed about after having an infected tooth extracted. The young dentist who performed the extraction looked more like he should be getting on a school bus and as he sunk in the needle he talked to his assistant about Archie and Veronica getting married. When I could speak without biting him, I commented that it seemed more like Archie and Veronica should be moving into a Senior's Home. In truth this chit chat was an exhibit of compassion, of his kind wish to put me at ease, to amuse, too uplift my spirits, to offer us all an opportunity to lighten up. He was willing to do that when in truth he could have worked away in silence.

The Tricycle Daily Dharma was about "Pain" today so it couldn't have been more apropos for me. It was a helpful reminder to just be with the pain, rather than reject it. As I sat waiting for the procedure and feeling a bit antsy and nervous I imagined the comfort that people who believe in a "God" get from thinking, "God will take care of me." And then I reminded myself of the Buddhist version of that, something my Zen teacher has said, "the Buddhas are always raining down help." It's about faith, really. And that quelled the panic somehow, the urge to get up and run out of the office. And the procedure was fine and as I laughed with the Dental Assistant afterward, it is the anticipation of most things that is the worst. You know the old Mark Twain saying, "I have had many terrible experiences in my life, some of which have actually happened."

What I did really become aware of today is the subtle, almost imperceptible way I hold myself against pain, against ideas that I don't want, against unpleasant scenarios that seem to play in my head. By having time to lie very still, I could watch how certain thoughts produced instant tension in my body. I could go from a little twinge in a tooth, to an unpleasant thought about what that might indicate, to a titanic version of a dental disaster, all in a flash. And I could feel the tension it produced in the body. And the light went on (and this time there was somebody home) that I spend most of my time with my body in this state of subtle tension. I experienced how soothing it was for the body to completely relax, to not be on guard against anything. I am not a hunter-gatherer roaming the Savannahs, yet that on-guard, ready for danger feeling, seems to rest (or should I say un-rest) just below the surface of every waking moment.

And though I am so far from Christian that I might be considered "Christianaphobic", an oddly Christian sounding phrase popped into my mind as I lay there quietly, enjoying total relaxation. "Thy will be done". Hmmm, where did that come from, I wondered? The Zen group I used to belong had some terminology that seemed uncomfortably "Christian" to me and I suspect I heard this phrase from a certain Abbot. And what it was really saying to me as I lay there was "why don't you just relax, you're not in charge here. This is not your show, your restaurant .... you don't need to direct the waiters and the cooks and the dish pit. Just know that things are somehow being looked after and you don't need to worry about them. Just experience them as they arrive." To continue with the restaurant analogy, taste what comes to you, drink deeply, don't be greedy for certain tastes and reject others. Somewhere the meal that is right for your karmic plate is getting cooked up (ingredients get adjusted along the way). Bon appetit! Okay I just have to throw in a one liner. I can't resist. It seems vaguely related. A good friend of mine has a signature on his email that I love. "At the feast of the ego, everyone leaves hungry."

Monday, October 26, 2009

Something To Sink My Teeth Into

Here's the latest addition to my sporadic painting efforts. Done in watery blues. I can never resist adding in a little green and then blue goes so well with yellow, why not a little "Indian yellow" which I love. And of course drips. It's hard to know if I love drips (the watery, runny painty kind) or the addition of some form or text more. Things seem so naked without one or the other. I had even been thinking of adding in a little bit of Buddhist scripture somewhere and maybe I still will but for now the painting is at rest.

I noticed, as I read one of my favourite blogs (Marcus' Journal), that where my name appeared in the blogroll it showed I hadn't posted for 5 days. Has it been that long, I thought? Doesn't seem like it. I do notice in myself, less of a draw to post. In a way it seems like right speech. If I don't have anything to say it's good to not say anything at all. (I believe it was Thumper in Bambi, who used a version of this, as in "if you don't have anything nice to say....) Marcus was also commenting on finding the balance in our lives between writing and reading about the Dharma and actually sitting. It was a good reminder that we can mistake "talking" about something for actually "doing" it, whatever that "it" may be. The words occupy us, fills some hole in us, use up our energy and then we forget we haven't actually done "it".

Another blog I love is Meg Hitchcock's and she's been doing some serious ego wrestling lately, down in the ego wrestling pit. I love her art and identify deeply with her darkly humourous relationship to life. Hey, it's all grist for the humour mill in my book (as long as it's not at anyone else's expense.) And her ego wrestling reminded me of my last couple of days. I've been having a serious non transcendant dental experience (there's a joke about that somewhere isn't there?). A tooth has been brewing up a little storm which produced a lot of pain and subsequently an abscess. Where does my mind want to go? It wants to crawl all over, "what's it all about? In the middle of some house sale happenings. Why now? What does this mean? What should I do with it?" Oh and I forgot to mention the "I don't want this, why me, why now" part of the muddy stream of consciousness (looks alot like Rudyard Kiplings "great, grey, green, greasy Limpopo River").

What I learned was, that all I could do was carry on as best I could amid the pain. The ego got a rest. That ego is an energy sucker, man. Yes, go see the monks, yes go to tai chi, yes go home and lie down. And the rest just falls away. And I could see how the rejecting of the whole experience just intensified the suffering; the asking of the questions that can't be answered. Things just are. "The universe is not answerable to our wishes," my Zen teacher used to say. I could see how much of what I've been labouring over lately doesn't really matter, doesn't really require the energy and attention of that busy, yappy, little self. It's just that I am used to "stewing" over the juicy or tough little bits of life and wondering how things will turn out and trying to anticipate what will happen and what to do.

And so here is my message wrapped up in abscessed little package. Things happen, you're not in charge and oh yeah, don't forget your practice. If you're old like me you will remember all those old British "Carry On" movies. Tons of different topics (Carry on Doctor, Carry on Spying) but they all started with "Carry On". What else is there to do really?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Is That So?

I am going to get a reputation as an art recycler! Here is Green Tara again, a slightly zoomed in view. No wrinkles or skin imperfections like us humans, just a complexion of papers: Chinese newspaper, and rice paper with Korean lettering, a little bit of map, some florist paper that I liked from a bouquet. Tara comes from everywhere, she is part of all things, including florist paper and polka dot tissue. And of course her mantra is tucked away in all the script: Om Tara, Tuttare, Ture Svaha.

I am still pondering those "afflictive emotions" as the monk referred to them at the Fire Puja. I woke up this morning thinking about the story of the old monk who is accused of fathering a young woman's baby. "Is that so?" he says as they deliver the child to him to care for. When they return years later to collect the child, after the mother confesses that he was not the father, again he says "is that so?" I wished I could have been more like this monk as I listened to the twists and turns of yesterday's real estate story. It would have felt very powerful to say to the realtor, "is that so?" But then I am not a monk, in case you haven't noticed!

As we headed to the art gallery this morning for our sit with the sand mandala monks I reminded myself of the irony that each morning I go and sit in the presence of the mandala of compassion but that I was having an awfully hard time feeling one iota of compassion for the woman yanking on our real estate chain. Imagined compassion and real compassion are two different things! This was being played out for me in full colour.

So today the whole ball of real estate yarn unravelled into a wet lump of slightly stinky wool. We suspected it was heading in that direction. And after you're finished feeling angry and betrayed as we were yesterday, today you feel the melancholy of disappointment. And you watch it all rise and fall and blow over, a little storm of afflictive emotion, complete with wind and rain and dark skies. It feels grey for a bit and then as the afternoon wears on the sun pokes it's head out.

It's good to work, to carry on, to not collapse into a little pool of despair or get too tangled in the stories and drama and trying to make sense of it all. So I went off to paint. (I think I might even have something new to post tomorrow!) I went to do an errand. The cool fall air and the coloured leaves on the sidewalk were somehow comforting. Exchanging pleasant words with the folks working in the bank and the grocery store was vaguely uplifting. As I drove home I reminded myself that this is a friendly universe and I simply need to have faith.... faith in the fact that life unfolds as it should, and as I read somewhere, the Buddhas are always raining down help on us; it's just that somehow we don't notice.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Fire Puja & The Afflictive Emotions

Yesterday the art gallery monks did a fire puja. A monk from a local temple explained that it was a ceremony to purify our afflictive emotions such as greed, hate and delusion. In the ceremony we burn up these difficult emotions and they are carried away on the smoke. We each got a pinch of barley flour to throw into the air and imagine the release of these troubling emotions.

It was a beautiful warm day with no wind and no rain, amazing in that the previous day saw 50 ish mm of rain fall here. A small fire was built and while the monks chanted, a helper added juniper branches and incense and barley flour to create a thick opaque smoke that wafted politely upward without smothering onlookers.

Our weekend was mostly filled with peaceful, mindful activities with kindred spirits. Qi gong, a potluck with some Buddhist friends where we watched a documentary on Bhutan made by a woman from Quebec. The film was about Bhutan's (GNH) Gross National Happiness Project, a purposeful program where the government takes happiness in to account when making decisions as opposed to using the GNP that fuels the Western world. Inspiring little film about a mostly inspiring little country. And on Sunday we wrapped up the weekend with a little tai chi and the fire puja, washed down with a little latte at the Mocha House and a stroll through the "Dick & Jane" like streets of Fairfield.

Now goodness knows we needed that fire puja because this morning our real estate deal began it's unravelling and the afflictive emotions made a debut appearance. I got to watch a little brush fire of anger explode in the outback, or is that out in the inback? One minute you're walking along in the sunshine, then someone does something that seems "unethical" and you've got your own little fire ceremony going on. And there's nothing purifying about it. It has to do with pushing the boundaries of contracts, wanting more, not being available and twists and turns that make you wonder if the person you're dancing with isn't trying to break your foot.

And there you are left with it sitting in your lap. So where is the Dharma in it all, you ask after you've had a little rant, vented a little spleen. You listen to your own righteous indignation. And if I know anything, I know not to make any decision when I'm mad. So we give it a few hours and cool, to get some perspective, some distance, some sanity from the crazy making. It never ceases to amaze how quickly the story starts to spin, how quick a neutral face can become a demon. And so much mind chatter. But between my partner and I we manage to talk each other off the ledge a few times.

The truth is someone is behaving badly. We could let the contract expire, we could walk away. We have to choose a response. I see the inclination for payback and decide that Payback is not a destination we care to buy a ticket to. But in truth a large seed of doubt has been planted that this person will complete the transaction in good faith. I can ask myself "what do I know for sure?" And it's not that much. Lot's of assumptions, some uncomfortable signs in hindsight and our inclination to accommodate rather than take a hard line.

So we've had an opportunity to watch our afflictive emotions (apparently they were not completely purified at the puja!). We've hung out with doubt; doubt about the deal, about our actions. And I wished I had more equanimity to just ride it through, to shrug and not care. But there it is. Life with all it's warts. It's not a big deal really. No one will die or get injured. And we got to see how easy it is to get all stirred up. We can see where our work is. We can see how difficult it is to not take offense. Can we bear insult (real or imagined) with equanimity? We can see how not being attached to the outcome of things is truly freedom. We get to see as our qi gong teacher points out, that we should sit more each day, that there is always time, no matter how busy you are. I can see how this does build equanimity, how as Pema Chodron puts it, makes you a bigger container.

And we thank the real estate demons for the teaching! with bows to the mls.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Painting Your Life

I've been promising a new painting. So finally here it is. It is new territory for me in lots of ways. Stepping out into the unknown is always a good thing in the creative process. It shakes things up. And if you're lucky you might even be pleased with the results. But as my Zen teacher has said to me about life choices, just because you don't get the results you want, doesn't mean you did the wrong thing. You decide in your heart what you want to do and are guided by those well thought out intentions. The results are simply that, results, not a measuring stick that we beat ourselves up with.

It is my experience that many of the same rules apply to life that apply to painting. Playing it safe is easy. But eventually that gets boring, the process and the end product. It's easy to end up stifled and trapped in the same old pattern, without even being aware of it. And then maybe a light goes on. Or maybe as in this case, some comments, observations and suggestions led me to a try something new. Not to say repetition is bad. As in practice you often need to repeat things to refine them. But that doesn't negate exploring new territory.

And sometimes you paint something awful. That's life. Crappy stuff happens and eek there it is on canvas! Maybe we have the luxury of tossing it before anyone sees it or painting over it. But we need to have the courage to go to the kingdom of squirm and wriggle, to keep company with our discomfort. I read somewhere recently that a real measure of our practice is can we bear insult or feeling humiliated with some measure of grace or equanimity. Maybe that is the purpose of our bad art? To help us learn how to do this?

In the same way that we need to remind ourselves that we are not our thoughts, I think we need to remind ourselves that we are not our art. It has arrived in the world through us, it is not us. If I can understand this at a deep level I am truly free to create. I don't need to judge and be self conscious and measure and weigh what I create. Will people like this? Will they think I'm a talentless lout? Will they laugh behind my back? Ah the insecurities of the little self. But if we don't identify too strongly with what we create, if we're not too attached to it, it's not a problem. We can look at our work in a more objective way. We are freer to edit, modify, and learn from what we've done. If not we simply feel defensive and protective of ourselves and our work.

So while this painting is not wildly different it is a departure. If I am honest I will admit I feel a bit naked about the primitive quality of this painting. Maybe it will evolve into a new, personal style or maybe it's a dead end? Who knows. Time will tell. Instead of painting the usual painted, hand stamped squares I have collaged the entire canvas with different papers and then added paint. Green Tara is a new subject and I have added her mantra in various places. Can you see it? It's kind of like the "Where's Waldo?" of Buddhist painting. I often go back to a painting later and modify what I initially think is finished. So who knows what it will look like the next time you see it? I find that time gives more space and distance, a better position to edit from. So these are the places where art and life and practice intersect for me. Really we are all our own works of art any way. We just tend not to see ourselves that way. Are you a painting or a song or perhaps a novel?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Blog Action Day - Climate Change of the Inner Sort

I like a good metaphor. And if given the choice between facts and figures and a metaphor, I'd pick the metaphor every time. I might even pick a bad metaphor, you can be the judge of that. Rev Danny Fisher's morning post alerted me that it was Blog Action Day and the topic up for massive global chewing was climate change. I knew I wanted to join the tribe but I also knew I'd go narcoleptic and hit the zzzzzzzz key if I had to get all scientific about climate change.

So what might I contribute to the conversation on climate change, I wondered? Because I'm a big believer that you change the world one mind at a time, that change starts at a personal level, I started to wonder about our internal climate and the changes we could make there. It is true that some people like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. affect huge numbers of people. But most of us, how are we likely to affect the climate of our planet? On a more personal scale, I suspect.

So what's your internal climate like? Is it filled with the heat of anger? Or do you feel the cold arctic winds of separation blowing all around you, keeping you from feeling connected to even those close to you? Perhaps the icy chill of judgement dusts you with a cool layer of frost ? And where does impatience register on the thermometer? Is it a close relative of anger, perhaps a few degrees cooler? Intolerance, hatred -- now those are the territory of wild fires scorching the internal and external landscape. The fallout is mostly devasting. Check the evening news. What's the climate there?

So while it's good to do our bit to turn lights off, drive less, consume less, buy local organic food; to shrink our ecological foot print, maybe it's good to do an internal audit as we go about our day. Sometimes the fallout on the environment comes not so much from what you do, but how you do it. If we shout at our kids to turn the lights off or insist that someone who is coughing on the bus should get off (this happened in Victoria) what climate have we contributed to? We may have contributed to climate change on some level, but is it what we were aiming for? Sometimes we forget that how we get somewhere is as important as where we get to. Have you met activists for good causes that were so strident that they turned you off, that they did a disservice to their cause? Did you empower someone today or make someone feel small? What were the ripple effects of some small action you took? Did it radiate warmth and caring that was passed on? Or when you cut someone off in traffic, did they go home and kick the cat?

So when we check the weather in the morning, maybe we don't need to turn on the weather channel or look out the window? Maybe we only need to look into our own heart to find the internal climate that we operate from. Now this is not to say we will always get it right. It's true Virginia, that floods and tornados happen, even in the inner landscape, maybe especially in that deep inner weather zone. News flash! We're human, kids, and we make lots of mistakes. But I believe it's about intention. It's about awareness. It's about working toward internal climate change that counts. So the good news is we are in control here, we can make a difference. We are omnipotent in the internal weather department.

So for me the internal climate change I'm working with these days is compassion. I'm working toward an internal warming trend. I'm thinking that the warmth of compassion will melt away those barriers and blocks and ice floes of the heart. Really we are all swimming in the same sea of tears. Compassion creates a climate where the needs of others become as important as our own.

And the cooling trend magically happens when we can see the suffering of someone that has caused our anger to rise. Maybe someone speaks rudely to you because you're not wearing your bike helmet. Later you find out that their son was killed in a bike accident while not wearing a helmet. Instantly your heart melts and you get it. Maybe you just get tired of feeling the heat of anger one day and resolve to move toward a cooler state.

So there it is, the challenge to change the inner climate. We can work on it everyday without leaving home, without buying anything, without saying a word to anyone. We can make this world a more temperate place by warming up the frosty bits and cooling down those hot spots. We can work toward a planet that does not blow itself up or self destruct from it's own rage and hatred and greed, one feeling at a time. No accords necessary, no signatures required, only an open heart and willing mind. May the winds of change blow warmly on you.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

What is Your Mind Drinking?

Well this is not the Green Tara as promised but it is green. It's an oldy (from the summer) that I realized I hadn't photographed. It has a high gloss resin finish that gives it a kind of glistening sheen that is quite pleasing. A little recycled prayer flags, some hand stamping combined with a little acrylic paint and some image transfer. The colours remind me of kool-aid or freshie, if anyone remembers that kool-aid tag along.

Today I have been working with patience, trust and surrender. I won't say too much but it has to do with real-estate goings-on. Who said "the doubting mind is hell". Seems like a quote I've heard. And in it's effort to grab onto something, you can watch the mind reach for a tumbler of single malt doubt. Strong, enticing stuff, doesn't take much to get you going. Somehow the mind prefers known intoxicants to standing on the edge of nothing, staring into the abyss of wait and see. It's not a bad abyss, it's just we're so unfamiliar with that whole experience that we don't really know how to balance there on the edge. The edge makes us nervous and twitchy.

The other thing I have been watching the mind do, is go over the details and the facts, combing them for some type of certainty, hoping to pull up some gleaming shard of reassurance that everything is just fine. But in truth we are standing on the edge. And that is fine. It's good to learn how to balance on one foot, not waiting for the other shoe to drop.

So as I go about my day I get to see how important it is to be aware of the little tricks my mind likes to play, the stories it likes to conjure, kind of like a tempestuous 10 year old that likes to tell stories that scare all the small children in the lunchroom. I can cast a stern eye on it and tell it to stop or I can simply give a little grin and remind it that I see what it's up to.

So there's kool-aid and stories even though summer's over. Maybe it's time to put them away and bring out the candy apples and pumpkins and get ready for the Hungry Ghosts.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Considering Compassion

I think I need to paint a little faster! You must be tired by now of seeing different shots of the same Buddha, but here he is again just a little more up close and personal. But I am working on a Green Tara painting that should be ready to photo tomorrow. It's quite different from my usual Buddhas. With any luck you will see tomorrow.

Life is strangely disjointed around here with our house for sale, as we are constantly in a state of cleaning up and leaving for an hour here, an hour there. The constant transition from one activity to another makes it more difficult to paint. I find I need time to just mooch and muck about and sit and stare, that an hour here or there just accounts for a lick or two of paint. Starting and stopping doesn't seem too productive. I get to see how I am attached to a certain way of working. Perhaps if I worked this way for a long time I might learn to slip more easily in and out of the painting state? Or is it like meditation? Our qi gong teacher always says if you sit for too short a time, even if you sit 3 or 4 times a day, you are like a pot that is constantly taken on and off the heat. You never get enough heat going to come up to a boil!

We went again to sit with the monks at the art gallery this morning. They were joined by an additional monk today. It is fun to notice that their hair is growing and the new monk sported a hint of a moustache. Ah, the impermanence of hair! One monk put on some sun glasses this morning to cut the glare that reflects off the sparkly coloured sand under the strong gallery lights. He looked quite movie starish. He is the monk who looks slightly grumpy or bored to me but he is always the first to sit down to work on the mandala. The youngest monk who looks so at ease, wandered the gallery this morning with a small digital camera, taking photos of his fellow monks and some of the art work. The hand-out that tells a bit about the monks said he entered the monastery when he was 7. It is fun to look at the monks and observe their very human traits, the physical and perceived personality differences. And yet (as all of us humans) there is that impenetrable aspect to them, the inner part of another human being that we can never know; the complex mix of karma, past experience, inclinations, health, longings, habitual tendencies. We humans are complex little packages.

And as I sat at the Mandala of Compassion I hoped that compassion was being absorbed into my pores, that some invisible, mysterious action was taking place, that a thin layer of compassion dust was settling on me, that I was breathing it into my lungs and heart. Compassion by osmosis ... I imagined something happening that would cause compassion to arise more naturally, more easily in me. I have had this experience in other aspects of my spiritual life, where after months or perhaps years of wanting and trying to accomplish some aspect of spirit (not feel so much anger, or attain more focus) that the strived after quality or desired outcome arrived much later, of its own accord. My teacher has always said this is "the fruits of training" and that the timing is not up to us.

As I sat with the monks I reminded myself to focus some conscious awareness on compassion for myself and others, to bring it to mind during the day. It reminded me to ask the question as I go about my day "how can I be helpful here?" Not in any do-gooder kind of way but in a way that supports people and situations. Sometimes compassion is something that just oozes out of you so that you can empathize deeply with others, someone or some circumstance opens a little compassion gate inside you. Somehow your self protective skin becomes invisible for a time and the deep needs of another are as important to you as your own. Unexplainable, effortless even. No striving. No me, I'm being compassionate, just compassion.

As I watched the monks start work on the mandala I noticed the focus, the attention they devote to the tiny lines of sand they are shaking, with such care, out of the little metal funnels. Just a moments lapse could ruin a line, create an unsightly lump. I don't see any in all their work. I watch as they go over the lines again. It's like practice I think. We go over the same thing again and again, building it up, making it more solid and visible, stronger. Their hands are so steady. They work slowly, with intent. Sometimes I get antsy when I work and have a hard time settling down. Does that ever happen for them, I wonder?

Later in the day, as I leave a shop where I am getting some photo copies of the Green Tara mantra, to use on my painting, I see 2 of the monks, finished work for the day, walking down the street with the office workers. They don't look happy or sad. They are not talking. They are just walking toward downtown, just fully engaged in the act of walking I imagine. No stories, at least not ones I know. Just the swish of saffron and maroon robes and the cool fall air on their bare arms

Friday, October 9, 2009

Mandala of the Buddha of Compassion

The Art Gallery of Greater Victoria is hosting 4 Tibetan monks from The Gaden Jangtse Thoesam Norling Monastery in India are who are spending 3 weeks here creating a sand mandala of the Buddha of Compassion (Chenrezig in Tibetan, Avalokiteshvara in Sanskrit). We are fortunate here in Victoria as this is at least the third time a sand mandala has been created at the gallery. The first time we saw it must have been about 20 years ago and when our daughter was maybe 7 or 8. At the time the monks gave the children present little bits of the sand to take away.

Each Mandala they make is done from memory and has a specific purpose. The one this time seems very auspicious, the Buddha of Compassion, meant "to encourage everyone of us to generate a compassionate heart for the benefit of all sentient beings". Each element of the mandala has a specific meaning and when you see the size and detail of it, you can't help but know it is packed with meaning.

Not a details person, nor someone focused on the iconography I love to just go and bask in the presence of the monks, the art work and the folks who come to sit. One of the great perks for me is that I have an art gallery membership and live 10 minutes from the gallery so I can go everyday if I like. I have been 3 times this week and hope to go many more times before they finish.

The day starts with a half hour of chanting and meditation. Just to be able to come for this alone is amazing. There is an energy in the gallery that is palpable. Yesterday the crowd contained a former monk wearing his black raksu (Buddhist bib!) and an older lady with a troop of 7 little people. Now there's a daycare for your kids! One that takes them to see Tibetan monks chanting. Not a peep came out of these glowing, translucent little beings as they watched the monks. It was quite heart warming. Today I sat next to a young woman with a toddler and a babe in arms. There is something quite special for me to see these little people being exposed to these lovely monks. My imagination wanders off ... well maybe they were monks in a former life. I can't help sneaking peaks at them as they watch. When the chanting began I watched the babe in arms and although he had been squirming and looking around he stopped. He looked like he might cry at the deep throaty sound of the chanting but he simply sat quite wide eyed. When he started to fidget again, mom simply nursed him and they stayed for the whole half hour sitting.

The group was varied but attentive, an attractive young lesbian couple, a fellow I recognized as a local bookstore owner, several women with canes and a gaggle of us oldsters. Some closed their eyes and sat in meditation, some just watched the chanting and the bells, the cymbals the hand mudras. So much to drink in. Yesterday a friend was there and we had a post mandala coffee in the village (there's always time for coffee). Today a woman I recognized from last year's qi gong class stopped for a chat. Social, spiritual and creative all rolled into one. What a delightful package.

The sand mandalas, as well as symbolizing certain aspects of practice are all about impermanence. Three weeks of painstaking, back wrenching work is undertaken by these monks as an act of meditation and contemplation. When the beautiful intricate work is completed from memory, it is not sprayed and preserved and hung on the wall. It is not sold or auctioned off. A ceremony where it is destroyed follows and then it is swept into the ocean. Now there's some non attachment for you!

If you live nearby I encourage you to go see this amazing work in action or if you have the opportunity to see one elsewhere I recommend it heartily. It speaks to so many longings in our life, our longing for the spiritual, the creative and for that sense of community. You can't help but feel connected to those around you in the energetic field generated at a gathering like this. There is something really heart warming about the mix of people that an event like this brings together. People sit with humility and patience in awe of the process and the unavoidable experience of impermanence. No one is honking, or pushing, or needing or talking. Everyone in the room is just being and when they have drunk their fill the can simply walk round and enjoy the accompanying Tibetan art in the gallery or walk out in the autumn streets lined with giant golden chestnut trees.

Happy Thanksgiving to us Canucks and if you live elsewhere, it may not be your holiday weekend but, well, you can never give thanks to often!

Monday, October 5, 2009

Choosing Our Thoughts

If you are reader of Buddhadharma Magazine perhaps you have noticed this piece of artwork (or not!). It's one of my paintings but as an observant fellow blogger noted it had no credits. Problem rectified. Buddhadharma will kindly include the credits in their next issue.

Enough ego fluffing. This morning after I did my meditation the thought popped into my head, "if I'm energy having a human experience, why don't I make it a more balanced experience? I have a choice of where I turn my mind, don't I? Do I always need to head straight to supermarket of life aisle that stocks mainly suffering? Why don't I turn down the aisle filled with grateful, generous, & upbeat a little more often?"

Just a little reminder that I do have a choice. A reminder that the old habitual tendencies need a little attention sometimes, a little dusting, perhaps some serious scrubbing, maybe a little carpentry? Perhaps this thought was prompted by seeing a clip on BBC World News that it was the 4oth anniversary of Monty Python's Flying Circus. One of the clips showed Eric Idol nailed to a cross singing "Always Look On The Bright Side of Life". Nothing like a little craziness to get you to sit up and pay attention.

It's always an interesting question for me because suffering exists. Denial is more appropriately a river in Africa than something applied to our life situation. Suffering allows us to see what we do and change, if that's appropriate. And sometimes suffering just is (the first noble truth), no action required. There is a compassionate side of suffering as the Buddha pointed out. It is the suffering that leads to the end of suffering. Not to be confused with the suffering that leads to more suffering. Same product, different aisles. The second one definitely requires the clean-up in aisle 7 announcement.

But I find it so important to remember (in fact I forget this a lot) that the whole picture contains a lot of variation. Life is rich and full of many moments of wonder and joy and sheer delight (not to mention a few moments of equanimity). We can be prone (read that as I can be) to forget this, to not notice, and wrap the whole parcel up tightly with strands of suffering. The little tinselly, shiny bits of joy get buried. Simple choices of language can make a difference. In a course called "Awakening Joy" someone once suggested that the simple change of words from "I have to" to "I get to" made a big difference in her day. She replaced "I have to go the the grocery store" to "I get to go to the grocery store". Small children in their innocent wisdom often embrace daily tasks with that kind of gusto for life, a gusto that feeds our energy instead of depleting it.

And while some thoughts just arrive, fully formed in our pointy little heads, we do have the choice of whether we entertain them or set them loose. We can question, let go or redirect our thoughts. We can turn them upside down and inside out. We can plant new ones and have a whole new nursery of little thought seedlings. We are the head gardeners in our strange little minds (ridiculous pun intended).

So that's it for the shopping trip and gardening project today kids, we're clipping the "choice coupon" when it comes to thinking and we're getting coconut ice cream, not cod liver oil. When we're done we'll have a big bowlful while we watch those seeds of contentment sprout.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Zenderella, a Story of Impermanence & Orthopedic Footwear

It's a good thing you're sitting down. There is indeed new art. Not entirely new. ... Started some time ago but just finished this past week. I finally found some studio time and have even started something brand new that with any luck might just appear this coming week. Eek there's a break neck pace for you! You've heard of slow food. This is slow art. I marvel at those folks who can just knock them off, hardly pausing for a breath. But it's not my process. I stare. I sit. I apply a little paint. Another colour, some shading, adjust a line or two. Hours pass without notice. You've heard of slow learners, well I'm a slow creator.

I have a funny Zen master story to tell. Last night we had dinner with friends, christened a new kitchen, welcomed a newcomer to our country with a little toast (no jam) and generally had some fun. It's a group where foolish stories are told and lots of laughing happens. Enough to scare the resident cat and dog (but only a little).

One of these friends helped us move some furniture from my mother's apt. We donated some things to a political party named after a colour which were taken away in a gardener's truck. At the time I gave my friend a bag which contained a few small things for our mutual friend, the Buddhist monk. One of the things was a pair of slippers that had belonged to my mother. The final unloading of furniture and bags happened in the autumn darkness.

When my friend took the bag of goodies to our monk, a cinderella thing happened. There was only one slipper in the bag. And as in the cinderella story, the slipper fit perfectly. She definitely wanted the other one. Slight variation on the cinderella story but as he spun the story we appreciated it heartily. "What is the sound of one slipper, slapping?" I asked We groaned and hooted. My friend continued the slipper saga. The morning following the missing slipper incident he checked with the gardener whose truck he had borrowed to see if a slipper had been spotted. Much scurrying of gardeners followed as they searched for the Zen master's new slipper. No effort was spared to make the final retrieval which apparently involved a little dumpster diving. In the end the slipper found it's way to it's rightful new owner who liked the slippers not just because they fit and were comfy but because they had belonged to my mother and she had helped me negotiate the many slippery steps that my mother and I had travelled together. End of Zenderella, a story of impermanence, attachment and orthopedic foot wear. Sorry no pumpkin coaches or mice even though it is fall and Halloween is heading in our direction.

So that's it for the Zen bedtime story. Grab that little Buddha bear and tuck yourself in. If you still have a self that is.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Generosity, Friends & Right Speech

In what seems like a former lifetime I made and sold handmade cards. As I finished up some things surrounding my mother's death I decided to give cards of thanks to the ladies my mother sat with in the dining room at the assisted living building where she lived. When I went to check my tray for cards I found the perfect ones. There were three cards that used old photos of my mother as a young woman. They were miraculously all "friendship cards". So they were perfect to give to the ladies as thanks for the friendship they offered my mother. One of these cards is badly photographed here! The quote on it says "Friends are those rare people who ask how we are and wait to hear the answer."

The quote reminded me of the Buddhist idea of "right speech". It reminded me to be quiet when I delivered these cards and just listen a bit; not to jump in so quickly with a reply. I think generally we talk too much or maybe I should make that, generally I talk too much. The quote was a good reminder. Recently I read somewhere that any conversation about someone who is not present is gossip. This seemed a bit harsh but over the next few days I watched myself. I was a bit astounded at how often I mentioned other people in conversation (not maliciously). My daughter is doing this or how is so and so doing? And on and on. Hmmm maybe next on the agenda would be to try a day with no mention of anyone not present. I suspect my jaw will have a restful day!

Last night courtesy of my mother I spent a delightful hour with a woman I didn't know was a Buddhist. My mother left a little something to a woman who used to do some home care and cleaning for her. I looked her up, called her and then dropped by with the gift. My mother always felt a special connection to this woman. She was warm and kind and caring and cooked a mean Vietnamese noodle dish that we used to slurp up with gusto if we dropped by on the right day. When I visited her in her home she had a small altar in the kitchen and that started our conversation on Buddhism. When I told her I was interested in Buddhism she quickly went and retrieved some books she had from the Temple she has attended for the last 30 years, one of them called "A Rose For Your Pocket" by Thich Nhat Hanh which is all about mothers and their importance. Another one is called "The Buddhist Doctrine of Life After Death" . "This will help you not be so sad about your mother's death," she offered. It was a lovely visit filled with tea and Vietnamese cookies and a chat that felt like one between old friends. I left with 4 little books on Buddhism and an orchid which she insisted I take. "Think of your mother when you look at it," she said which seemed such a lovely generous offer. She told me briefly of her coming to Canada 30 years ago as a "boat person" and how hard her journey had been. I left feeling I was the recipient of more gifts than I had bestowed. It is interesting how even though my mother is gone, her presence is still strongly felt through the actions I am happy to carry out on her behalf; this little visit that was so heartwarming was courtesy of her. And on this occasion and in another instance I got to feel the delight of generosity in disbursing gifts that my mother had left to others. Even though she is gone from this world her presence still radiates through these gestures of generosity.