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“Looking In, Looking Out: Exploring Art, World, and Self”

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Paintings by Lena Levin

I’m really looking forward to co-leading “Looking In, Looking Out: Exploring Art, World, and Self” — a course on art and meditation — with the very talented artist and teacher, Lena Levin. The course starts Feb 1.

A couple of years ago I took an online course with Lena and was impressed by how skillfully she was able to teach us to see in new ways. It was quite mind-blowing to see the extent to which what we see isn’t what’s there, but our mind’s approximation of what’s there. I felt, in some ways, that I was seeing for the first time. Also I was struck by the parallels between the techniques she taught and various approaches to meditation that I’ve explored over the years, although those are more to do with how we “see” the body — not literally but in terms of how the body is perceived internally.

In Lena’s portion of the course we’ll be looking with Lena at eight paintings, literally learning to see them — and by extension the world — in fresh ways. And in my meditations I’ll be doing the same, but with ourselves — and, again, by extension the world.

If you feel interested in learning more, click here.

I’ve put together a little promo video for this course. It’s a new departure for me, and this one’s a little basic. But I hope you enjoy it!

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Seven ways to collect and concentrate your mind and energy

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

I’m old enough to remember a time when people usually answered “good” when you asked them the standard, “How are you?” (often said “harya?”). These days the answer is commonly “busy.”

In the last few months I’ve been very busy myself and starting to feel dispersed: juggling a dozen priorities at any moment, attention skittering from one thing to another, body revved up, feeling stretched thin and spread out like an octopus squished between two sheets of glass.

You know the feeling? Besides being both unpleasant and a spigot of stress hormones, it’s weirdly contagious. Spreading from one person to another and fueled in part by the underlying economics of consumerism, we now have a Western and especially American culture of busyness. If you’re not busy, you must not be important. If you don’t have a lot on your mind, you must be under-performing. If your kids aren’t busy with homework and after school activities, they won’t get ahead. If you don’t look busy, someone will ask you to work harder. Etc.

Enough already. Instead of being scattered to the four winds, collect and concentrate your mind and energy. Besides feeling a lot better, it’s more effective in the long run. For example, what does an Olympic gymnast do before launching into a run or a rocket before heading into space? Come to center.

1. Savor Pleasure
As the brain evolved, pleasure and its underlying endorphins and other natural opioids developed to pull our ancestors out of disturbed fight-flight-freeze bursts of stress and return them and keep them in a sustainable equilibrium of recover-replenish-repair. Let physical or mental pleasure really land; give yourself over to it fully rather than looking for the next thing.

2. Move
Dance, exercise, yoga, walks, lovemaking, play, and athletics reset the body-mind. For me personally, movement at either end of the intensity spectrum – very subtle or very vigorous – has the most impact.

3. Get Wild
We evolved in nature, and multiple studies are showing that natural settings – the beach, wilderness, sitting under a tree in your back yard – are restorative.

4. Enjoy Art
By this I mean making or experiencing anything aesthetic, such as doing crafts, listening to music, watching a play, trying a new recipe, playing your guitar, building a fence, or taking a pottery class.

5. Feel the Core
Most of the inputs into your brain originate within your own body, and most if not all of those signals are like night watchmen calling, “All is well. All is well. All is well . . .” Feeling into your breathing, sensing into your innards, and noticing that you are alright right now are endlessly renewing opportunities to settle into the physical center of your being.

6. Be Now
The center of time is always this moment. A primary difference between humans and other species (with the possible exception of cetaceans) is our capacity for “mental time travel.” But this blessing is also in some ways a curse in that the mind keeps dispersing itself into the past and the future; it proliferates worries, plans, rehashings, and fantasies like manic vines in a speeded-up jungle. Instead, right now be now. And again.

7. Get Disenchanted
This means waking up from the spell, from the enchantments woven by the wanting mind in concert with culture and commerce. We normally pursue hundreds of little goals each day – return this call, organize that event, produce these emails, get across those points – associated with presumed rewards produced by ancient brain centers to motivate our reptilian and mammalian ancestors. Let the truth land that these rewards are rarely as good as promised.

Again and again I’ve had to remind myself to quit chasing the brass ring. While staying engaged with life, return to the reliable rewards of feeling already full – the undoing of the craving, broadly defined, that creates suffering and harm. Try a little practice on first waking or at other times in which you take a few seconds or longer to feel already peaceful, already contented, and already loved. This is the home base of body, brain, and mind.

Come home to center.

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Mindfulness: enhancing the experience of the arts

Jessica Haessly, Post-Crescent: Mindfulness is the art of awareness, using the five senses (six if you count intuition), to bring attention to the present moment. Whether performer or audience member, whether making art or viewing it, we can benefit from bringing mindfulness to our experience.

When we practice mindfulness, we are not concerned with past or future, nor are we making judgments on what is happening in the moment, but rather we are simply observing the moment through sight, smell, sound, taste, touch and intuition. We may not use all senses in the …

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Pop Art Buddhas

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“Pop art,” Wikipedia tells us, “is an art movement that emerged in the mid-1950s in Britain and in the late 1950s in the United States … Pop art presented a challenge to traditions of fine art by including imagery from popular culture such as advertising, news, etc. In pop art, material is sometimes visually removed from its known context, isolated, and/or combined with unrelated material.”

For some reason I found myself using Google’s images search to look for Pop Art representations of the Buddha. There’s rather a lot of them out there, and I’ve included a few here, with links so that you can support the artists, if you’re so inclined. (None of these are affiliate links.)

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The second arrow

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San Diego–based Seyo Cizmic is a surrealist artist who creates bizarre objects whose everyday uses have been subverted. This particular work is a striking reminder of the Buddha’s “two arrows” teaching, in which he points out that we take an initial instance of hurt and replay it over and over in our minds, magnifying and intensifying our pain. In other words, most of our suffering is caused by ourselves.

(Thanks to Caroline Hagerman on Google+ for bringing this image to my attention!)

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The Buddha in proportion

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These rather gorgeous images are from an eighteenth-century book consisting of 36 ink drawings showing precise iconometric guidelines for depicting the Buddha and other figures. I stumbled across it today on a site called The Public Domain Review, which draws attention to non-copyright media of all sorts that are available for general use.

As the site points out, “The concept of the ‘ideal image’ of the Buddha emerged during the Golden Age of Gupta rule, from the 4th to 6th century. As well as the proportions, other aspects of the depiction – such as number of teeth, color of eyes, direction of hairs – became very important.”

It’s worth checking out the other images in the collection.

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French tourists guilty in Sri Lanka over Buddha photos

Charles Haviland, BBC: A Sri Lankan court has given suspended jail terms to three French tourists for wounding the religious feelings of Buddhists by taking pictures deemed insulting.

Two women and one man were detained in the southern town of Galle after a photographic laboratory alerted police.

The pictures show the travellers posing with Buddha statues and pretending to kiss one of them.

Most of Sri Lanka’s majority ethnic Sinhalese are Theravada Buddhist.

Mistreatment of Buddhist images and artefacts is strictly taboo in the country. The incident is alleged to have taken place at a temple in central Sri Lanka.

Website posting
Police spokesman …

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Bodhi art: reclaiming the body with Buddhist tattoos

People often ask me why I get tattooed and why I have so many. I have 40 tattoos, including one that covers my entire back. I have also been branded and pierced in various locations on my body. I started out with a small tattoo paid for by my best friend as a 25th birthday present. He said, “I want to give you something that you can never get rid of!” I continued to get tattoos regularly, a couple times a year and at one point every six weeks. For many years, I was not conscious of any particular reason for being continually tattooed. I liked how they looked; I actually liked the pain and the feeling of being tattooed. When I was first tattooed, they were not so trendy and I guess I was trying to look like a “bad ass.” Some of my tattoos have deep personal meaning and some are meant to be funny or merely decorative. All of them have been done by Tex at Authentic Tattoo in San Francisco.

I later discovered, in the course of my own personal psychotherapy and introspection, that there were reasons why I modifying my body to such an extreme. It would take hours to go into these, but to summarize, I was subjected to various forms of abuse as a child, was bullied in junior high school, survived cancer with two surgeries and six months of chemotherapy and struggled with drug and alcohol addiction for many years. These factors, particularly the abuse and the cancer treatments, caused me to feel that my body was not my own. Being tattooed has helped bring me back to my body: to quite literally mark it as my own and take ownership of it. It no longer belongs to those who abused me or to the doctors and surgeons. Being tattooed is certainly not the only way I truly inhabit my body; Zen Buddhist practice — especially zazen — and yoga, certainly help me in this regard.

Several of my tattoos are what you’d call “Buddhist tattoos,” though I get the impression that tattoos are generally frowned upon in Zen. I once asked my teacher what he thought of so-called “Buddhist tattoos.” He furrowed his brow disdainfully (or so it seemed to me) and said, “What about invoking Bodhi-mind?” Well, that stopped the conversation before it even began. I got all of the Buddhist tattoos I will discuss after I got into recovery from drug and alcohol addiction and re-committed myself to Zen practice. The top half of my body is devoted to more serious or sacred themes, the bottom half to more profane or irreverent subjects. I don’t remember doing this consciously, that’s the way it turned out.

I have two koi, in a Japanese style, on my forearms. They are not exactly Buddhist, but they were the first tattoos I got when I got sober. I have a Dharma wheel, a Tibetan “Knot of Eternity,” a Daruma and several texts: pieces of Buddhist scripture and a Buddhist poem.

The text tattoos are:

1. A poem:

Satori
Don’t think
That it will be glorious:
That momentary burst
Of radiance
Illuming all.
Nonsense
It is more like
Losing your mother
In a large Department Store forever.

I have always loved this poem yet I do not know wrote it.

2. Dharma Hall Discourse #53 “Nothing is Hidden,” from the Eihei Koroku (Extensive Record) by Eihei Dogen Zenji, the founder of Soto Zen:

“Directly it is said that not a single thing exists, and yet we see in the entire universe nothing has ever been hidden.”

When I first read this piece, I had the most incredible sensation and had to sit down. I could barely speak for half a day.

3. An important quote from the Genjo Koan by Dogen.

“Here is the place; here the way unfolds.”

Another one of those “gob-smacked” moments.

4. A verse repeated several times during the Full Moon Ceremony in which we Zen practitioners repeat our Bodhisattva vows:

“All my ancient twisted karma,
from beginningless greed, hate and delusion,
born through body, speech, and mind,
I now fully avow.”

I get chills just thinking about saying that verse, and I usually weep at that point in the ceremony. This helps me free myself from the incredible amount of guilt and shame I carry at times — my “ancient twisted karma.”

5. The Robe Chant from the morning ceremony after the first period of zazen at Zen Center — the point at which the Priests put on their okesa and the lay people put on their rakasu:

“Great robe of liberation.
Field far beyond form and emptiness.
Wearing the Tathagata’s teaching,
Saving all beings.”

The Daruma tattoo is especially dear to me. Daruma is a wobbly Japanese toy, a version of Bodhidharma, the mythic founder of Zen. The image is that of someone who keeps getting up when knocked over. While struggling to get sober, I would fail like most addicts and alcoholics tend to do. My teacher would repeat the Japanese Proverb, “Fall down seven times, get up eight. Like the Daruma.” Once, during an evening at Zen Center, my legs had fallen asleep while in half-lotus position. I was probably hung-over or had taken a few pills, and I did not notice. I stood up for the ceremony, staggered, and started to topple over — right there in the Buddha Hall. My teacher leapt over, cat-like, and caught me. He held me until my legs woke up and I could stand on my own. Everyone was staring at me, and I was deeply mortified. My teacher said, “Fall down seven times, get up eight.” The zendo erupted in loving laughter and my shame faded quickly.

Other Buddhist tattoos are the lotus and Bodhi leaves on my chest. The symbolism of the lotus, flowering beautifully from muddy water (although perhaps it’s even more beautiful to think of it growing from sewage), holds special meaning for me, given my life experience and background.

While it’s definitely not Buddhist, I have Oscar Wilde’s prison number, “C.3.3.” tattooed on my arm. When I was a very lonely, bullied, and abused teenager struggling with my sexual orientation in rural Tennessee, a kindly retired schoolteacher gave me “The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde.” Wilde got me through those dark days. Reading about Wilde’s trials for “gross indecency” and his subsequent imprisonment and ruin, began in me an interest in social justice and political activism, especially for LGBT rights. To me, one of the worst aspects of the legal action against Wilde was the way his writings were used against him at his trial. I could never fathom the gross indecency of using an artist’s own art against him. The Prosecutor famously said, “There could be no worse thing [than Wilde’s homosexuality]”. Really? Really??? But, I digress…

My back is covered by an exact rendering of the Buddha on the main altar of San Francisco Zen Center. The statue is a priceless and ancient Ghandara Buddha from a formerly Buddhist region in Afghanistan. This statue has very deep meaning for me. It is not an Asian Buddha at all; it is Western, with a European face, done in the Greco-Roman style because Ghandara was a Greek outpost at the time the statue was carved. For years, this fact was lost on me as I sat in the Buddha Hall and struggled with the idea of this “Asian” religion, feeling like one of the people I would criticize when in a dark and hateful frame of mind: “…silly white cultural vampires and spiritual materialists, trying to adopt some Asian religion because Asians are superior to us and more spiritual than us Westerners….” (pretty harsh judgments, no?). But, it hit me one day that this Buddha I was sitting in front of was Western, like me, and that Buddhism is not about race or culture, but about something universal that is in all of us.

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