Monday, November 30, 2009

Snow Globe Buddha Offers Greetings

Okay here's a Christmas Koan. What kind of holiday card do you send to your Buddhist friends? Is that like the joke, what did the Buddhist find when he opened his Christmas present? Emptiness. I know this is okay because you've come to expect complete foolishness from me if you pop by here now and then. I don't bill myself as a Zen fool for no reason at all!

I did this little mixed media piece last year (it's sold) and decided it would make a nice little holiday card. I've been searching around for the perfect quote. This morning on Tricycle's Daily Dharma there it was waiting courtesy of Sylvia Boorstein: "(I often think about the snow globes with lovely scenes at their center, scenes hidden from view as long as the “snow” is shaken up. Once the globe is left alone on a steady surface, the snow settles, and what is meant to be seen is revealed.)" I have simply used the last part of the quote "the snow settles and what is meant to be seen is revealed." And a little shameless shilling - they are for sale on Etsy if the fancy overtakes you!

It's a great thought actually because it is so habitual for us to be stirring things up. I have heard Dharma talks with the same message based on a glass of water and sand or a lake, but the stirring of silt and mud all have the same effect. These liquids and their swirling bits are offered to us as reminders that running here and there, with our incessant chatter and pouring over things simply muddy the water. If you are engaged in a regular sitting practice you will know how helpful it is to just sit; how sometimes the answers or solutions to problems just arrive as you sit. Or the problems loosen their grip on you. But we also know how difficult this is when life puts a little squeeze on us. It's hard to stop shaking that globe. We just grasp it as hard as we can and shake and shake.

Our wanting to make things happen, to have things go our way, our sense that we are in control; these are the things that cause us to grab that lovely clear snow globe and shake the dickens out of it. We think all the shaking will make the snow land in just the loveliest little drifts that will please us, but in reality life doesn't work this way. Yes our actions have consequences, but we are not privy to all the things that go into creating the results. So here is the Buddha in all his lovely hot pinkness offering up holiday greetings and Dharma from within his little enso of a snow globe.

What are you shaking up in your world today?

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Four Immeasurables - Holiday Baking Without Cups

On Thursday night I went to hear a talk by a Tibetan teacher. It was part of a series of 4 talks on "Trans- forming Suffering". It was easily accessible and I was curious to hear the Dharma from a Tibetan point of view, as the direct teachings I am most familiar with come from a Soto Zen perspective.

The talk was on the 4 Immeasurables which are Love or Lovingkindness, Joy or Sympathetic Joy, Compassion and Equanimity. It was interesting to me that he started his talks here, rather than the 4 Noble Truths (life is suffering, attachment is the cause of suffering, there is an end to suffering, and the 8 fold path is the way to this end.)

If you're not familiar with Buddhism, you will probably twig onto the fact that (as the joke goes) Buddhism is a religion of lists. I always think this is because Buddhism is so logical and things are organized in a way for people to examine and study the ideas that form it's basis. So if you're a list maker, this may be the practice for you!

In my understanding of Zen, you do your practice and these qualities arise. They are not cultivated, per se. At least there were no practices associated with these states of mind in the Sangha in which I practiced. This belief is based on the fact that you can't make these things happen. They take time to develop. They arise naturally as a result of practice. Let me say that I am by far no expert on the subject, this is just my understanding of it. And also, I am not offering criticism but exploring the path. Allan Wallace, in a book called "Buddhism With An Attitude" says: "The treasure is really within your own mind and heart. Teachers, traditions, techniques, all have the single purpose of helping unveil that which is already within you." This is the spirit of my exploration here.

The 4 Immeasurables are based on the fact that we are all connected and the Buddhist belief that in past and future lives we have been and will be closely connected with those who now seem to be our enemies or those to whom we are indifferent. And even if this is an idea you need to put on the back burner or reject completely, it is easy to understand that embracing feelings of love, joy, equanimity and compassion in this life are indeed more pleasant and generally helpful to the world than their opposites.

The love that forms part of the 4 immeasurables is not our traditional idea of romantic love, but the type of love or loving kindness you might feel to your child or someone dear to you. The aim is to extend this outward to others. This is done through a loving kindness meditation in which you first generate love toward yourself and as you become more skilled you radiate it out into the world, working from friends and family, to neutral people and then toward people we have difficulty with, and finally to all beings.

This practice is repeated for the cultivation of compassion in which we generate the wish that beings be free from suffering. Joy or sympathetic joy, which I think is more descriptive, (I have also heard it called appreciative joy) is taking pleasure or finding joy in the good fortune and success of others. It is an extending out of feelings of happiness when things go well for others. It helps in loosening the grip of our habitually self centred feelings. In my mind it expresses the true sentiment of generosity of spirit.

And the last of the 4 immeasurables is equanimity which I think we all long for. Equanimity in my mind is that steady feeling of everything is fine just the way it is, right now. We are neither pushing away what we don't want or chasing after what we desire. We are not overly excited or discouraged. It expresses true peace with what is.

I know that amongst old Zen friends the question would sometimes come up, well if these things don't arise or don't arise for a long time, wouldn't it be good to cultivate them in some way? For me, right now I feel that I would like to spend some time cultivating the weedy parts of my mind, that I would like to explore working with habitual mind sets that don't lean naturally toward joy, love, compassion and equanimity. Maybe you'll have to give me a little poke and see how I'm doing with it.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Buddha's Auction

Just a little reminder that The Shambhala Sun On-line Auction officially kicks off today with lots of great goodies. Proceeds go to supporting a worthwhile spiritual publication. Check it out at

Well we can think of desire and attachment to stuff or we can think of generosity and the spirit of giving. Or maybe we can be like a juggler and hold all of these in our mind at the same time. Or maybe we can just be in the present moment with the colour and words and the clicking of the keyboard, perhaps the fragrance of the cup of tea that is keeping us company. As my Zen teacher always says, "We have more options than we think."

Friday, November 20, 2009

Buddhist Cowboy Songs

Last night just before the howling winds started and in the middle of a torrential downpour, in the dark of night (7pm eek) we went to hear Brad Warner's public talk at UVic's Interfaith Chapel. After all the vitriolic commentary that swirls around him in the blog world I was too curious not to go. I will confess that I don't read his blog on a regular basis and that I did read his book "Hard Core Zen" when it came out. I bought the book for my daughter who was seriously into the "Punk" music at the time, thinking it might appeal to her. In last nights talk, someone asked about his books and he said he originally thought of "Hardcore Zen" as something he was writing for his 14 year old nephew and never really expected to get it published.

It was an interesting evening. Warner presented as a very youngish looking (my friend asked if he'd written the book when he was 12!), reasonably at ease looking guy. He looked like he needed a shot of sunshine or geritol. Some of my meat eating friends might have suggested he looked like he needed a good steak! My preconceived ideas about him from "Hardcore Zen" and the second hand commentary I'd heard in the blog world, had me thinking he was a bit of a provocateur and a little cocky. I watched my own reaction as the talk opened and I thought to myself, "I can feel myself getting ready to bristle and be all fault findy. I can look at him through the jaundice tinted glasses of preconceived opinion. I can let other people make up my mind for me OR I can just take him at face value. I chose face value, instead of value loaded. I could feel the shift. I was just listening now. I was not searching for things to prop up any "ideas" I might already be holding about him. It was a much more pleasant way to receive his words.

He was low key and pretty soft spoken. He is irreverant, but frankly that's a quality I like. And he was not the least bit confrontational or provocative. He described himself as a pretty conservative Soto Zen kinda guy. I could see that perhaps his inclination to be a little flippant could get him into trouble, but it didn't last night. I cannot refer to any of the content in his latest book which some find offensive, because I haven't read it.

My agreement with myself was I would take him as I found him. He was not a particularly engaging speaker. He was not an orator that fired you up and inspired even the unconverted. He chose to simply answer audience questions rather than deliver a talk which is a responsive point of view. I didn't disagree or find fault with any of the answers he gave. He seemed to know his Dharma. He didn't seem full of himself or impressed with himself. He seemed very human, sometimes mumbling or loosing his train of thought. He didn't appear to "need" to be anyone in particular. He didn't appear to need to be a punk rock guy (he actually reminded me of my electrician, a t-shirt, jeans a hoody, slightly messy hair and some facial hair). He didn't appear to "need" to be a good speaker or be overly concerned that we like him, no fabulous stories, no name dropping. Just honest answers to the questions posed.

He talked about the need for some form in practice and that he had tried it with none and that it didn't feel right. He pointed out that different practitioners opt for observing different aspects of form. Someone asked him about transmission but not as a personal affront and he answered in a very non defensive way. He said his teacher described transmission as a recognition by the teacher that the student has understood the teachings in some deep and essential way and is therefore qualified to teach.

Someone asked about enlightenment and he gave the good Zen answer, that you may have an experience that matches your idea of an enlightenment experience but that doesn't make you enlightened. He told a story of how he had described such an experience to his teacher and the teacher said something to him like " you're a comic book kinda guy, you have a pretty active imagination." He talked about how there are references that show that even the Buddha continued to meet Mara after he was enlightened.

Initially, Eshu and Warner shared a little banter and conversation over the on-line Sangha thing verses the real life Sangha experience. They had a little fun with this, comparing it to internet sex with Eshu asking well isn't some better than none? Eshu even pulled a local paper out of his robe and showed the write up about Warner on the page opposite adds for "consenting adults". Everyone had a little giggle over that one. Zen for consenting adults... In the end Warner's comments were that virtual Sangha is not a replacement for the real life experience but that it can augment practice.

I asked Warner about all the who-ha that goes on out in the blog world about him and if he is intentionally provocative. His answer was that people get all fired up over things that he doesn't intend as provocative and then seem not to bite when he is intentionally provocative. And perhaps this all ties in with the virtual/ real life based meeting of teachers and students and Dharma practitioners. Maybe the people who froth and fume over Warner might feel differently if they were sitting in the same room with him. Maybe that face to face interaction would diffuse some of the reactions that seem to arise in response to Warner's on-line presence. Or maybe a Zen punch or two might be delivered. You may love him or hate him or perhaps you couldn't care less. But if he makes you think deeply about how you view the Dharma, well then he's done his job.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Zendots To Zen Squares

If I'm Zen Dot Studio then what happens when I paint squares? Is that a koan? Are these Zen Squares? And what is Zen Squared? Is that a math-ematical equation? Would Einstein know the answer?

We've all said "shit happens" or am I leaping into the realm of giant assumptions? But sometimes fun things happen too! This little painting happened the other day in the studio. I say this because in truth that's how it is sometimes. Things emerge from somewhere and you recognize them as something to work with rather than something to line the bin with. When work goes well I never really feel like " I did it". I am often as surprised as anyone at the end result! Look what fell off the easel. Where'd that come from?

I don't know if you can see but I cut little squares of words out to add in. Come on in for a closer look. Little words like meditation and happiness, and self and faith and see and kindness and few more. Something about it made me think "encaustic" and because I don't work in that medium I decided to do a little kamikaze encaustic. I melted some beeswax and applied it to the surface. I used an embossing heat gun to smooth out the wax and called it done! For me there's a retro feel about it all but also a feel of film stock and pixels. These little squares are just jumping around. Also there is a sense of the ethereal, of mystery and foreigness too, maybe French. Someone on one of the art blogs was talking about getting sound or taste relating to colour, for me it's just feeling.

And where is the Dharma for me in all of this? I am really relishing taking back my studio from the clean state of ever preparedness for the real estate market. And two observations come to mind. After a long period of not much studio time I seem to have more creative energy. It's like it was a dormant, underground period that was helpful. It wasn't like, oh I haven't been working, now I'm stiff and arthritic and I need time to limber up. Quite the opposite.

And that is the mystery I think. We never know what will happen. It is about relinquishing expectations and control and just being with what is. And well tomorrow who knows what? Maybe everything will come up black smears and brown lumps. Where I do have choice is in how I view it. Barry over at the Ox Herding Blog once said something that really struck me, "we're always saying things like "expect the best but be prepared for the worst." Why don't we prepare for the best?" he suggested. Something about that reminded me of a saying my Zen teacher has:"look up".

From a lot of the reading I've done on the human mind, it seems we're a hard wired to "look down" or at least behind us to see what's chasing us. It takes a conscious effort, a turning of the mind (at least for me) to expect the best and look up. It's subtle and it's something I find I need to be constantly vigilant about. That old monkey mind is a busy little customer, that often likes to fling you-know-what at anyone who might decide to enter the temple. And if we know that's what monkeys do, well then we don't have to get too excited about it. We just use whatever skillful means we know to send them on their way. Or maybe we just enter by a different door? Happy monkey hunting. And be careful, I hear they have been known to bite.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Karen Meets Ted - Not Just Another Story

Here's a new little 8"x10" done on a wooden cradled panel. It has a textured background created with something I bought in Toronto a few years back called sludge or something equally appetizing. It's interesting as it's made from waste products that come from production of other paints & mediums (yum!) I liked the idea that we're using this stuff instead of dumping it into the water system or a landfill. To create the enso I tried a little experiment with some tar gel mixed with ultramarine blue acrylic to give it a resin like look. Hope this doesn't sound more like a toxic waste site than a painting!

I had some pieces of old sewing patterns kicking around the studio that I have been itching to use, and well, this seemed to be the time and place for them. Here's the part where zen meets canvas, or board as the case may be... It's about letting go of thinking and being drawn to what feels right for the piece ... walking the critic to the door ... letting go of questions like what would be good here? Just trusting and following.

The piece called out for the line drawing of the Buddha (I have no idea why, like so many other things in life.) And the bits of text... something I love but am not always brave enough to add. The text often gets left behind in some second guessing or when doubt rears it's familiar two headed little self. I seem to be in an exploring mood these days with one painting not looking at all like the last. Ah, the schizophrenia of creation. Is that Sybils signature on the back?

On the Dharma front it seems to be cloudy with a hint of compassion, maybe a 60% chance of compassion today. Perhaps it's the season for compassion, days are getting shorter, all things Christmassy are making their appearance? First there were the monks who worked so tirelessly on the mandala of compassion at the Art Gallery here in Victoria.

Earlier in the week continuing on this theme, I heard about Karen Armstrong's "Charter of Compassion". Then later in the week a friend emailed me a link to the site. If you don't know Karen Armstrong I highly recommend her book "The Spiral Staircase" which chronicles her journey from young Catholic nun to a secular life. Recently she was given a TED award and with it, the recipient gets a wish. Armstrong wished for help in creating a charter of compassion for the world. She sums compassion up as the "golden rule", do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It's about taking ourselves from the centre of the universe and putting others there. She talks about how the spiritual life is really about "what you do everyday". If our practice isn't translated into how we treat the clerk at the dry cleaner's or how we behave when someone runs over our toe with their grocery cart then what is the value of our practice? And of course we don't always get it right, but it's about working on it.

Recently there was a good reminder about working with compassion in Tricycle's Daily Dharma. It talked about treating our enemies in the same way we might treat those dear to us. And to me that's a really important nitty-gritty reminder about compassion. As a concept compassion is nice to think about. We can read, we can sit, we feel inspired by the idea of compassion, We feel all warm and cozy but then bingo, someone rear-ends us in traffic.

It's easy to be nice to someone when someone is nice to you or when the day is going our way. The real test of practice is when strangers or people you're not so fond of behave badly. Someone insults us or criticizes us. What do we do then? Are we like the rat in the experiment? Do we bite? Can we count to 10 and let it go? Can we say something firmly but with kindness? There's the cutting edge of practice.

I feel encouraged by people like Karen Armstrong to work on building the compassion muscle, to get out there and lift a slightly heavier bar bell of compassion than I might normally choose. I am encouraged that the charter is out there to remind all of us about compassion. I am reminded of the Dalai Lama whose people have suffered so many losses. He says so simply and directly, "my religion is kindness."

Monday, November 9, 2009

Thinking About Art, Meditation & Science

Here is a new painting. I have been spending a lot of time at the Art Gallery here in Victoria, watching the monks who created the sand mandala and wandering the galleries of old Thangka paintings and statues, attending the curator's wonderful talks and tours. We watched a film about an American woman who makes applique thangkas, regarded as the highest art form in Tibet. Truly amazing to watch the meditative detail as she winds threads around horse hair that outlines the pieces of silk brocade.

A couple who came to look at our house even brought me a book on Buddhist art and architecture from the Met! So I feel like I have been immersed in the ancient world of Buddhist art. And so it wasn't too surprising to find myself being drawn to do something that had an old world look. It's very different from what I usually do, based, in fact, on an old fresco of a Buddha. The colours are mine but the style is much more detailed and delicate.

On the Dharma front, we have been working our way through a series of 5 or 6 DVD's on the Dalai Lama's 2005 Mind Life Meetings lent to us by a friend. Each disc is around 2 hours worth of talks and presentations by scientists on brain research and how it relates to meditation. Some of it is pretty, dry, and sciencey for my taste and yet it all relates. Jon Kabbat-Zinn and Richard Davidson talk about their research on meditation and mindfulness. The work that Kabbat-Zinn has done with his "Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction" makes you wonder why the medical community and schools haven't embraced it more whole heartedly. It's cheap (you just need space and an instructor) and it's effect in influencing the body seems amazing. One piece of research shows the effectiveness of meditation on healing psoriasis, a very tricky skin condition. We get to see what a powerful tool the mind is if used skillfully.

Ajahn Amaro, a monk in the Thai Forest tradition, uses the term "adventitious suffering" to describe the suffering that we conjure up in our minds. He distinguishes it from the suffering of real pain that is part of the human condition. The pain that we create and have control over is this "add on" pain where we worry and fret and imagine possible outcomes.

Some of the most interesting information came from Robert Sapolsky's research that explores the activity of our limbic systems as they relate to stress, the old fight or flight syndrome. Super system when being chased by tigers. Digestion shuts down, detoxification shuts down, blood pressure and heart rate go up, all dedicated to giving us the best chance to mobilize and escape danger. Trouble is in modern society most of our perceived danger is psychological and prolonged and this has serious implications for our health. What protected us and served us well when being persued by tigers on the savannhas doesn't serve us well in cube city or wherever we hang out.

He talks at length about the old 'shock the rat experiments'. Interesting, even though perversely unkind. If poor Ratty (remember him from "The Wind In the Willows"?) has no outlet after being shocked, he develops ulcers. Interestingly if there is another rat in the cage, guess what Ratty gets up to after he receives a shock? If you guessed that he runs over and bites the other rat, you'd be right. And that, apparently, prevents him from getting ulcers. Interesting if extrapolated to human behaviour. Got rats at the office? Oh, footnote. The rat can also bite a piece of wood for the same results. Note to foot: Hurry out and buy large box of wood and distribute to all angry human/rat associates. Also ulcers are avoided if the rat knows when to expect the shock.

We haven't finished our Dalai Lama video marathon but I have to say these DVD's have been great for reinvigorating my dedication to sit. It's great to be reminded of the health benefits of meditation. So excuse me for a moment I'm off to either gnaw on a piece of wood, bite someone or sit on a cushion for a bit. I haven't quite decided.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Spiritual Path As Heros Journey

Orange Buddha wandered into the studio the other day looking for a facial. "I've been hanging out in the hallway feeling a little dark, a little flat, perhaps a little too tentative. Maybe I need a little paint Dharma," he said. I invited him to hop up on the easel and we'd spend a little time together, exploring the possibilities. And here he is, post facial, feeling a little lighter, more defined, no botox required. We shared some fine time together and parted company both in good spirits.

I have been reading a book by Lama Surya Das called "Letting Go of the Person You Used To Be". Does that sound too "self-helpy"? I am always drawn to Dharma books that offer specific ideas for working with your life and this is one of them. It is true that we are fine just the way we are but we could all do a little better. That's what I like about Buddhist thought, these 2 seeming contradictions don't stand against each other. I thought I'd share some tidbits from the book that seemed helpful and uplifting in contemplating daily life.

In a chapter called "You Are The Hero of Your Own Life," he says: "Walking the spiritual path is inevitably an heroic journey. ... Sometimes just getting out of bed in the morning and stumbling to the shower, requires a heros spirit. Trying to live a meaningful life requires a brave heart. Whenever we try to act in ways that correspond with our deepest beliefs and values, we will, by definition, face major challenges. ... How are we being called, and are we heeding our deeper call? In what ways are we being deceptive or truthful? How are we being brave or cowardly? As seekers we are climbing huge mountains, but we are climbing them step by step. ... We can rescue our heroic higher Self from our conflict-ridden and ego-driven self concepts. We can save ourselves from preoccupation, narcissism, indolence, hedonism and love of comfort."

Right now rain is lashing in, riding sideways on the wind from the south, from the ocean, just down the street. Winter in the Pacific Northwest: no snow, no below zero temperatures, just lots of grey and white sky, wetness and wind. Bone chilling, drenches you in minutes. Can you hear my comfort seeking behaviour! Perhaps I should try out the storm lovers stance? I have seen them out there, facing into the wind driven water, hanging out with the cleansing sea breezes and the powerful pounding waves. Where will your heros journey take you today?

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Spiritual Renovations

Do you feel like going to an auction? Naw, is that what I hear you saying? You drive, you sit, you come home empty handed or maybe over spent. Or maybe you wake up the next day with a new koan: "Why did I buy that papier mache rooster, anyway?" Mostly they're noisy affairs, a little boring and just a general waste of an evening? I agree.

But if you wander your self over to the on-line Auction that the nice folks at Shambhala Sun are having ( you can even wear your jammys), you will find lots of goodies like this painting I donated. There's lots to savour. I was drooling this morning over several retreat packages, including one for a retreat centre in Italy. Anyway it's all for a good cause. Shambhala Sun and Buddhadharma offer up great Dharma covering a wide range of topics. Worth supporting I think. The auction starts on November 23rd so there's lots of time to ponder choices and watch as new goodies roll in.

And what Dharma nugget have I been chewing on? Nothing with chicken in it and no side of special sauce. I am a big believer in "your path or your practice (however you like to think of it) is in what life brings you." And sometimes you need to hold that little lump up to see where the light comes in. Yesterday was a strange comedy of errors around here. At about 10 in the morning jack hammering and sledge hammering erupted from the basement storage room in the rental house next door. Not only was the sound overwhelming and constant, but I got an instant mental attack of "what are they doing there, they're up to no good, they're adding more rooms, another suite. Lament, lament.... That will make it harder for us to sell our house. Yada, yada, yada." Ah, the drama theatre of the mind, such predictable plots, the protagonist always so self centred in her dialogue. And in the late afternoon we went out while the jack hammering continued and a realtor was scheduled to show our house. Apparently some screaming accompanied the house showing as the frayed nerves of next door residents came unravelled at around the same time.

It was truly an opportunity to let go. I reviewed my options. Options 1. For reasons you might well imagine, there is no talking to the 2 brothers that own the next door house. Like my little self they have an agenda. Option 2. Despair. A familiar, well traveled road. I'm starting to know this play so well it's getting boring. I could collapse myself into a fit of despair, or I could save myself a lot of suffering and see it as an opportunity to practice equanimity.

I have come to the conclusion that there is always someone around willing to yank on your chain, so you might as well loosen it up a notch or two. Oh excuse me, that's me yanking on my own chain. Sheesh! It's so easy to lay blame in the chain yanking department.

Maybe it sounds like magical thinking or new age drivel, but it feels like this has come to me for a reason. It is just another call to give up the self centred preferences that cause so much suffering. The outer world is always somehow related to the inner world. It's just up to us to figure out how. It's like a strange puzzle or making sense of a dream. And besides which is the dream? And what is reality? Oh, oh, is this play sounding like "Waiting for Godot?"

I always think of it as keeping my eye on the ball, that's what I need to do in situations I find difficult. Just paint, just make my phone call, tidy up, have some lunch, do what needs to be done. Don't run off down Despair Alley screaming and wailing and creating that internal drama of "what if?" If action that seems good to take, becomes clear, well then I'll do that. In the meantime I will just trust that in the grand scheme of things, it all fits together in some way that is not clear to me. It felt good to just "keep my eye on the ball." Strength giving in it's own way, building spiritual muscle and new neural pathways. I was doing my own excavation and renovation of sorts. So I wish you happy carpentry and rewiring and plumbing (of the most spiritual sort).