March 30, 2009

Travel to the Mountain

I'm following a long list of preparations to get ready to travel at the end of next week and I'm suddenly horribly busy.  Europe beckons again this spring and I'll be in Switzerland, The Netherlands, and Germany.  At each place I have some teaching to do and I'll also be visiting family in Zurich.  While I'm away I'll do my best to write a few words about the places I'll visit.  I'll teach at Felsentor in Luzern, Zen River in Northern Holland, and Wind & Wolken Sangha in Schleswig-Holstein, Lindau, Germany.

The weather in Olympia is often similar to Zurich weather which is sulky and changeable.  In both places, when it's beautiful, there are no cities more delightful.  Zurich surrounds the river and the lake and much daily life is found along the lake pathways.  My daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren live three blocks from the lake so the children and I stroll over when we can for a  outings.  The last time I was there I engaged in a game of tag and saw how Julian could easily outrun me.  He was 7 1/2.  Esther is two years younger.  We were playing on a hill where there is a fantastic sculpture by Henry Moore which you can crawl under, or sit underneath and have a picnic.  Anyway, we were running around the sculpture and Julian ran by me and ran down the hill.  I followed and found myself going faster than my legs could and unable to stop.  Fortunately, I was able to some to a halt without being thrown to the ground.  He'll be disappointed when I don't play tag this year, but I think it's time to realize my age.  

Zurich has several wonderful museums which I visit each time I go.  The Museum Rietberg is developing into the museum that has the largest collection of non-Western art in Europe.  Last time I was there they had an exhibition of ancient Kannon Statues from Japan.  Their regular collection of Kannon statues however is nothing to sneeze at, and I plan to visit again.  The Kunsthaus Museum has modern art and is home for the Giacometti collection which Zurich has tried to gather in since Giacometti was born in Zurich.  After he died, Zurich realized their honor and responsibility to house as many of his sculptures as possible.  The Giacometti room is not always very busy, partly because many of the Swiss have already seen it, and also because you have to pay extra to enter those rooms.  I do enjoy going because I am often the only one and I can have a solitary visit for a long time with Giacometti and his work.  The presence of his sculptures endures.

I've the long list to do and the pleasure of being with the design of the workshops which this year is called, "These Mountains are Walking, These Mountains are Speaking."  We'll sit Zazen and also paint and write and consider the spiritual aspects of the mountains and ask how they inform our daily lives.  How do we derive strength from the natural world and how do we find patience to live in  today's world?  We will go to the powerful Rigi Mountain above Lake Luzern for solace and restoration.  I must get ready and I'll write as I go.   

March 24, 2009

Shaken Loose

In the early days when I first came to Zen practice, N. Scott Momaday's WAY TO RAINY MOUNTAIN was published.  Momaday is a Kiowa writer and studies Native American spirituality from a literary standpoint.  There were numerous poets among the Sangha, and everyone was talking about this book and about Momaday who, I believe, was in residence close by at Stanford for awhile.  My memory could be fuzzy on this.  Momaday was hosted for a poetry reading at San Jose State and I got to hear him and be in his company for a brief moment around that time.

In any event, later when I came to teach world religions at community college, I always included a section on Native American spirituality.  This is the original religion of this land and the teachings and natural wisdom inform us and seep into us whether we know it or not.  But I was happy when a particular text I had chosen for the course had a part of an address by Momaday, "The Man Made of Words" delivered at and published in The First Convocation of American Indian Scholars (San Francisco: The Indian Historian Press, 1970, pp. 49-62).  

In the address, Momaday speaks of the relationship between language and experience and moves to the moral idea of human beings and the expression that idea takes in the way we react to one another and to the world around us.  He speaks of a land ethic and the importance of how that land is captured in and is not apart from the very blood and sinew of the human being.  The land itself resides in the imagination, expression, and regard for the land.  He recalls an event that resides in the Kiowa calendar as The Year the Stars Fell.  The Kiowa had suffered a massacre and had their most sacred medicine stolen.  It was the beginning of their decline which saw epidemics of smallpox and cholera, loss of half the tribe, buffalo left to rot on the plains.   

On the night the stars fell, the tribe stood aghast as a great meteor flew across the sky lighting up the entire landscape and all thought that it was the end of the world.  In most ways they had been broken.  They stood watching as meteors as large as the moon fell through the sky.  It was a great event and it entered the imagination of the tribe and became part of the racial memory and story of the land.  Momaday points out that when the imagination and the event come together, they take on a deeper meaning.  In this terrible moment they recreated themselves, imagined themselves anew and were able to go forward and endure the most terrible suffering.

Momaday writes:  "They could say to themselves 'Yes it was all meant to be in its turn.  The order of the world was broken, it was clear.  Even the stars were shaken loose in the night sky.' The imagination of meaning was not much, perhaps but was all they had, and it was enough to sustain them."

Oh, oh oh, we have so much to learn and with our culture and regard for pavement and surfacing, the thickness of boots, it will take awhile for the teachings and wisdom of the blood in the soil to seep up through the soles of the feet.  But indeed, in the reclamation of the imagination, the idea of the human and our deepest fulfillment of humanity can be realized.

March 20, 2009

Living Life, Living Grief

The photo shows a view of Rebecca's work rack.  There's a small Buddha in the center at the top.  In another part of her studio there's a bell for Zazen and a meditation cushion sitting on the only chair in the room.  It's as natural as water to see these there without pretension, without making them into something special, or putting them onto a high altar of worship.  This is where the artist hangs out; these are the tools of expression.  The statue, the bell, the cushion are at home.

Kobun Roshi used to say that sitting Zazen was like washing your face in the morning.  Just as simple and natural as anything you would do.  And, not done for anything special.  We don't think about washing our faces for any particular purpose.  We simply wash our faces.  That's what we do.  Painting, writing, reading, going to the store, cooking, cleaning the house, roller skating, surfing, skiiing, are all the natural activities of the Buddha.  These activities are just being life.

And being life is also to be in its temporality.  When I say the word skiing, I'm taken by the death of Natasha Richardson and how simply her life disappeared.  I can't say exactly why her death moved me so much.  I didn't know her.  I don't know her family except on film.  Yet her death brings up a level of grief that is a daily undercurrent, perhaps in all of us.  It's there, it goes with us day after day, walking side by side and sitting with us in the car.  "Show me a household where there has not been a death."  Surely many other unknown people died in similarly tragic ways on the same day she did.  It's that we can call out her name and recognize her face.  Her death catches us unawares and touches a pain that we all know.  We are reminded how briefly we are here.

The epigraph leading to the poetry in Joseph Stroud's OF THIS WORLD reads:  "And of this world, what did you see?  What did you make of your life?"  It moves us to do and speak at the very marrow moment by moment.  It urges us to be alive in each moment, completely ourselves on the ski slope enjoying the lightheartedness and play of the snow.  Even that shall disappear, yet we engage it fully while we are there, while we are here.  We live wholeheartedly in the painting studio, at the writing desk, receiving what comes up and allowing the life of the painting, the life of the poem.  We live wholeheartedly on the cushion allowing Zazen to live us and for life to be an unmatchable, incomprehensible, immeasurable voice.

March 17, 2009

Working with Themes

So, way back in an old blog I mentioned about writing each morning for two weeks on the same topic or theme, pulling out of a subject all the facets you could find.  This is very helpful to be able to draw inside the subject and open out beyond our typical thinking.  In writing or painting/sketching this way, you find out about the self.  In my discussions with Rebecca in her studio, we came back numerous times to the question of working with a theme.  Rebecca paints with a theme, as I do and have, and I write with a theme in mind waiting to see what's going to happen, and to find out something about the self.

Numerous times in our discussions we returned to Robert Motherwell, perhaps because I'd been reading Mary Ann Caws' ROBERT MOTHERWELL WITH PEN AND BRUSH.  Motherwell had a lifelong affinity with James Joyce.  Caws writes:  "It is sure that Joyce, Stephen Dedalus, and Leopold Bloom all share the philosophy of receptivity, saluted by Motherwell....the Joycean attitude of absolute openness to what happens.  Everything remains to be discovered, newly with each human, about human vice and worth....The action painter had to believe in his own talent, for in some profound sense the entire experiment of action painting puts the artist at the centre, and his act of painting becomes the supreme act of emotional gravity.  If FINNEGANS WAKE is a circle, so is the act of painting.  Its action reveals the self in its circular mythologizing.  Thus the passion for series, for variations, for returns:  Motherwell's passions all fit one into another." 

Joyce worked with verbal associations and Motherwell found this useful in working with associated colors and forms.  Rebecca works with associated emotions, feelings, and color which we can see in her series, "The Puritans."  Rebecca painted out a series of explosive and sometimes seething feelings related to the influence of Puritanism in our culture and in her life.  These make their way into an expression of truth that is transformative in life.

Motherwell worked with other themes such as in Spanish Elegies lamenting the tragedies of Spain under Franco and the encounter with death.  In these paintings, Motherwell takes his primary shape, the ovoid and uses it to show the weight of darkness, the somber blackness of the experience.  In the repetition of the theme and the form you feel the force of his meaning and the power of the message.

Motherwell was equally at home in writing as in painting and he made no distinction between the expressions.  Painting or writing is an energetic gift transferred from the poet/painter to the one who reads or receives the painting.  This doing was his practice, and he was not afraid to work hard.  How hungry are we to discover ourselves, to get to the crux of the matter?  Herein brings us again to the 10,000 hours it takes to become competent at what we do, or to find out what we need to find out.  At least we can say that the belief in ourselves, the belief in expression, keeps us at it, keeps us writing and painting when things around us are going to hell.  The theme we use can keep the ground fertile.

March 12, 2009

Art is something we do...

I was away at a conference for Soto Zen priests at Zenshuji in Los Angeles.  It was wonderful to arrive in a sunny and reasonably warm climate after the drippy past month in the Pacific Northwest.  California has its own magnificent, golden charm.  I rode on supershuttle to the hotel with a woman from Ohio who said she worked at the Rock and Roll Museum there, but she was headed downtown L.A. to the new Grammy Museum to see a friend.  Suddenly the world was round again in a completely different way from the usual doings of the tame atmosphere of Olympia, Washington.

It was after the conference that I went to see and spend time with Rebecca.  She was my very first student of Zen practice in Olympia, and now she lives in Santa Monica with her partner Lisa.  They are two of 35,000 gay/lesbian people who are legally married in California.  I'll talk about this another day.  Rebecca is a working artist/painter.  From the time she began meditating in Olympia, Rebecca sat every morning at 6:15  without fail.  From there each day, she went to her painting studio and threw herself completely into creative expression. 

On the plane, I had been reading ROBERT MOTHERWELL WITH PEN AND BRUSH by Mary Ann Caws.  In the book, Motherwell explains that painting is not something you hang on the wall, it is something you do.  It was the practice, the actual doing that excited Motherwell and it was this that gave him the steadiness to enter such a vast field of philosophical and creative understanding.  This reading whetted my appetite for the wonderful discussion on art and life that Rebecca and I engaged in as we walked the boardwalk in Santa Monica and Venice Beach.

We also went to the J.Paul Getty Museum, a wonder to behold.  The vast Pacific Ocean, blue, blue juxtaposed to the city of Los Angeles, white, grey and tan.  The recent rains made the foliage alive with green and the people were out in full to lap up the spring gardens.  The galleries were full, and almost, but not completely forgotten as we sat for a coffee on the patio overlooking the action.  I'm into photographing shadows as our portraiture.

The next day we went to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a huge place with an enormous collection of art.  Later we went back to Rebecca's studio and saw her current painting.  I played around with some sketching while Rebecca prepared for a job she had the following day.  Rebecca also stacked up books of the current artists she is studying and is influenced by and I spent some time reading these.  

I continued the Motherwell book on the return flight and came back to find an article about Ellen Dissanayake in "Columns" UW alumni magazine which can be found online.  Dissanayake is a brilliant thinker who writes on the origins of art and the impulse to create.  So, I took a nice art shower this past weekend and am invigorated to explore with ink and brush, and paper and pen.  For now, I'm just saying what we did, and in upcoming writings I'll try to say more about what was learned and how the conversation and reading roamed into meaningful landscapes.  So much to be done here in the next few days.  I can do no more than my best at touching all the bases. 

March 04, 2009

Joseph Stroud reads his poetry in Olympia

You folks in Europe most likely won't know Joseph Stroud or his poetry although you may have unknowingly crossed paths in your travels.  He read in Olympia last evening to promote his new book, OF THIS WORLD, NEW AND SELECTED POEMS published by Copper Canyon Press.  These poems are a wide landscape of the heart that loves all that it means to be alive, and to see and touch the world of suffering and the saving world of grace.

I'm going to call him Joe, as he signed my book, and not the journalistic Stroud, because you feel, after hearing him read, that you've always known him.  He embraces the best in us in his way of seeing and being in the space he inhabits which means he has stepped out of himself and does not require a small identity.  As you listen, he opens you into generous spaciousness, an endearing and healing quality of the Buddha.  In that space, there is no hurry, no time, no distance.

He said in his commentary about teaching at community college for 35 or so years, that it was sometimes difficult for students to understand that poetry serves the lives of human beings and not that human beings serve poetry.  He could have only said that much and I'd have been content, but every moment, every poem he read was life-giving.  He mingles his voice with everyone:  Han-Shan, Issa, The Buddha, Li Po, Tu Fu, every voice on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, every voice on the Inca Trail, Joyce, Pound, Hawthorne, Shakespeare......and on.....

I do not have permission to quote this poem, and it's a tad rude of me to put it here as it is protected by copyright.  Perhaps there's a fine involved for doing so.  Still, this blog is akin to a mini-review and I place it with apology and with the understanding that perhaps its presence here will entice others to buy the book.  It is one of many fine teachings and moments of insight.

Homage to Life
"Hommage a la vie"
Jules Supervielle
It is good to have chosen
a living home
and harbored time
in a constant heart,
to have seen one's hands
touch the world
as an apple
in a small garden,
to have loved the earth,
the moon and the sun,
like old friends
beyond any others,
and to have entrusted
the world to memory
like a luminous horseman
to his black steed,
to have given shape
to these words: wife, children,
and to have served as a shore
for roving continents,
to have come upon the soul
with little oarstrokes
for it is frightened
by a sudden approach.
It is good to have known
the shade under the leaves
and to have felt age
steal over the naked body
accompanying the grief
of dark blood in our veins
and glazing its silence
with the star, Patience,
to have all these words
stirring in the head,
to choose the least beautiful
and make a little feast for them,
to have felt life
rushed and ill-loved,
to have held it
in this poetry.
Joseph Stroud