SPIRITUALITY AND ART

Here are two articles that align themselves very well with the focus of Art and Zen Today.  One deals with visual art; the other with music.  I hope you enjoy them.

Meditations on canvas

By Ollie Reed Jr. / Journal Staff Writer
Sunday, November 26th, 2017 at 12:02am
Meditations on canvas

Titus O’Brien, assistant curator of art at the Albuquerque Museum, sits in front of two of the paintings he will highlight during the upcoming program, “The Zen of Abstraction.” Immediately behind O’Brien is Mark Rothko’s “Old Gold Over White.” At right is Kenzo Okada’s “Abstraction No. 7.” Both works are in the museum’s “When Modern Was Contemporary” show. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

 

Rooted in front of the 1957 Mark Tobey abstract titled “Lyric,” Titus O’Brien talked about the influence the Chinese art of calligraphy played in Tobey’s paintings.

Titus O'Brien talks about Mark Tobey's painting "Lyric," an example of the influence Chinese calligraphy played in the artist's workTitus O’Brien talks about Mark Tobey’s painting “Lyric,” an example of the influence Chinese calligraphy played in the artist’s work. O’Brien, an artist and a Zen instructor, will discuss the influence of Asian philosophies and religions on avant-garde painters of the 1940s to the 1960s. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

“Many of his paintings are much more dense than this,” said O’Brien, assistant curator of art at the Albuquerque Museum. “Here there are no characters, no letters. The energy of the mark making, inspired by calligraphy, is the message. It is radically non-symbolic.”

Tobey’s painting, tempera on board, is among the 50 works in the Albuquerque Museum show “When Modern Was Contemporary,” which continues through Dec. 31.

“Lyric” is an uninhibited shout out of color – pale yellows, whites, squiggles of red, patches of olive green. The effect on O’Brien is to make him pause for a moment, to reflect.

“It’s painted in difficult colors, weird, strange colors, awkward colors,” he said. “I like paintings that resist you. They are sort of like Zen meditation. It’s not so easy to sit still.”

Integrated and engaged

In O’Brien’s view, all works of art should be objects of meditation. But he noted that this is especially so in the works by artists of the avant-garde movement of the 1940s to the 1960s – painters such as Tobey (1890-1976), Kenzo Okada (1902-1982), Mark Rothko (1903-1970) and Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) and the composer and music theorist John Cage (1912-1992). Unlike artists who poured out their souls onto their canvases, O’Brien said Tobey, Okada, Rothko and Pollock, all of whom have works in “When Modern Was Contemporary,” shifted the emphasis in their paintings from their own feelings to the objects depicted in the work.

Clarence Giese and Ingrid Vollnhofer check out Mark Rothko’s “Old Gold Over White,” left, and Kenzo Okada’s “Abstraction No. 7” during a recent visit to the Albuquerque MuseumClarence Giese and Ingrid Vollnhofer check out Mark Rothko’s “Old Gold Over White,” left, and Kenzo Okada’s “Abstraction No. 7” during a recent visit to the Albuquerque Museum.

He said that’s due in part to the fact that these trailblazers were very much influenced by Asian philosophies and religions, especially Zen Buddhism.

“Zen is about your whole body and your whole mind integrated and engaged,” he said. “Many of the artists in this exhibit were looking for ways to expand beyond materialism, consumerism and militarism. These artists are not depicting the world, they are organizing color, line and shape.”

On Saturday morning,O’Brien will lead a brief guided meditation followed by a tour of select works in “When Modern Was Contemporary.”

He is especially well suited to the task. He is an artist, a sculptor and a painter who does abstracts in casein (milk tempera). But he has also studied Zen for three decades and is an instructor in the Japanese Soto Zen tradition. On most days, he meditates in the morning and again in the evening.

“My tradition is just sitting and allowing sensation and thought to arrive and depart without manipulation and engagement,” he said.

And that works just fine for looking at abstract paintings.

‘Here I am’

O’Brien, 50, grew up in Littleton, Colo., and early on was unsure as to what path he would follow.

“I had a grandfather who was a painter and a grandfather who was a biological scientist,” he said. “I wanted to be both. I was drawn to medicine, and I was also interested in anthropology. But the art won out in high school.”

He earned a bachelor of fine arts from the Kansas City Art Institute in 1991 and master of fine arts from the Yale University School of Art in 1993. He was introduced to Zen when composer Cage was a visiting professor in Kansas City in the late 1980s.

Cage was born in Los Angeles and died in Manhattan, but his major influences were East and South Asian cultures. Cage attended D.T. Suzuki’s lectures on Zen Buddhism in the late 1940s and early 1950s and used the ancient Chinese text the “I Ching’ as a tool for creating his musical compositions.

O’Brien attended lectures Cage presented in Kansas City and interacted with the composer during one of those sessions.

“He was saying really interesting stuff about the non-existence of the self,” O’Brien said. “I said, ‘What do you mean I don’t exist? Here I am.’ He said, ‘Yes, exactly. And what is that?’ My brain couldn’t make anything of it.

“He had this Cheshire cat smile and these twinkling eyes. It was a beautiful, transforming experience. I connected with him very strongly. He was a singular and radiant individual. He singled me out, and he started talking to me about Zen.”

While doing graduate work at Yale, O’Brien studied at the New Haven Zen Center. Between 1995 and 2000, he spent time at Zen centers in Rhode Island, Kentucky and Northern California.

“Now, I use the ‘I Ching’ to compose my paintings,” he said.

Organized activity

Just as Cage helped form O’Brien’s zeal for Zen, Tobey’s interest in Eastern religions – he converted to the Bahá’i faith – may have influenced Cage to some degree. The men were friends and Tobey studied piano and music theory with Cage. And there are those who suggest that Tobey’s oriental brushwork and calligraphic strokes prompted Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings.

One of those Pollock paintings, “Number 8, 1949,” is in the show. O’Brien refers to the piece – a roiling, twisted mass of oil, enamel and aluminum paint on canvas – as organized activity.

“All art is a mediation between order and chaos,” he said. “But Pollock was clearly the most chaotic of his generation.”

But that doesn’t mean his work is not Zen.

“Zen tradition is full of rogues, raconteurs and radicals,” he said. “Zen is not just the eternally beatific, monks and monastics.”

Kenzo Okada was born in Yokohama, Japan, and was a realist painter before he moved to New York City in 1950.

“Then he got swept up in the heated, abstract atmosphere,” O’Brien said. Even so, his abstract paintings retain a powerful Japanese sensibility and appreciation of form. His 1953 oil on canvas, “Abstraction No. 7” is part of the exhibit. Large shapes and smaller ones stand out against a desert-sand background.

“Notice the numbered title,” O’Brien said. “You are not supposed to be able to tease out any kind of story. Clearly Okada wants you to view that painting on its own merits. You are approaching these elements in their relationship to each other. He leaves these sort of wonderful negative spaces – landscapes of the mind and heart.”

Floating in space

Okada and Rothko were friends. Did Okada’s Japanese-flavored abstracts influence Rothko? Maybe. Maybe not.

But Rothko’s 1956 oil on canvas, “Old Gold Over White,” might just be the most Zen work in the show. O’Brien describes the painting as hazy rectangles floating in space.

“Do you fall into them, or do they come out and get you?” he said. “The best description of Rothko’s paintings is meditative. They are not promoting any Zen doctrine. They are just inviting you to meditate on them, on your experience with them.

“You can come back to a Rothko painting forever and have different experiences each time. You can say the same of Zen meditation.”

If you go
WHAT: “The Zen of Abstraction.” Art curator and Zen practitioner Titus O’Brien guides visitors through a brief meditation, followed by a tour.
WHEN: 10-11:15 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 2
WHERE: Albuquerque Museum, 2000 Mountain NW
COST: Program is free with regular museum admission of $1-$4.

 

 

 

 

 

A Few Questions (New blog article)

Paint as you like and die happy
– Henry MillierAchieving success and fulfillment as an artist takes more than hard work. It requires the:
* Perception to see your world (inner and outer) as it is
* Discernment to choose a course of action
* Focus to stay the courseThe following questions may help you find this perception, discernment, and focus. Write down your answers in a journal. Some of the challenging questions will ask you to dig deep.
* When are you fully self-expressed and connected as a musician?
+ Identify specific moments. Where were you? Who were you playing with? Who was in the audience? What did the music sound like?
+ How can design more of these experiences?* What artists/performances/recordings most resonate with you at a core level? Art that flips a switch emotionally and/or spiritually.* Does the music you play resonate in the same way?
* If not, what can you change about your practice to connect with your own music on a deeper level?

* Imagine yourself ten years from now playing ideal music under perfect conditions. Where are you? Who is there? What does it sound like? What’s stopping you from doing this right now?

* Choose your audience: Who are the people who will connect and resonate with the music you create? What do they value? What type of experience do the seek? Where do they connect with each other?

* If you never performed again, who would miss you?

* What limiting beliefs get in your way? These biases and narratives may be hard to uncover, because they can be ingrained into our view of the world. A few examples:
+ I’m not naturally talented enough to ______  (a.k.a. “fixed mindset” (https://stevetres.us7.list-manage.com/track/click?u=e48deb90ce850347108686725&id=1c3a55781d&e=ae2503bdd2) )
+ I’ll never be as good as ______, so why bother
+ “Work” is inherently unenjoyable
+ Artists can’t earn a good living without selling out

* In The War of Art, Steven Pressfield outlines strategies for fighting “the resistance”—our biological need to feel safe and secure. This can sabotage our art. How does the resistance interfering with your best work? Some examples:
+ Talking yourself out of a project because of the fear of failure
+ Avoiding listening to recordings/watching film of your performances
+ Stage fright
+ Obsessive perfectionism
+ Procrastinating because you don’t “feel ready”

* Have you defined success and fulfillment for yourself, or are you stuffing your journey into somebody else’s model/expectations?
* If money wasn’t a barrier, what projects would you initiate?
* What’s an exciting project you initiate with little or no cost?

Ignore the resistance and start now.

– ST

https://stevetres.us7.list-manage.com/track/click?u=e48deb90ce850347108686725&id=3baf6396b0&e=ae2503bdd2

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Comments:

 Thanks for sharing this.  It’s funny, looking back at how I began to appreciate art, I took a similar approach. I was drawn to abstract and minimal art because it allowed space for viewer to enter the work without the need for historical contextualization or symbolic analysis.  Rothko and Ad Reinhardt were influential for me.  Have you been to the Rothko chapel?  Definitely worth it if you haven’t.
     Great website. I will look forward to future posts. Hope all is well.
A.
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That was beautifully said.

Thank you for sharing it with us.
D.
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Thanks Steve for posting these articles!

I’d love to go see the exhibit in Albuquerque.
G.

Zen Buddhism and Japanese Art: the Inspirational Life of Hakuin Ekaku

 

As you know, most of the posts at Art and Zen Today deal with contemporary art practices.  However, it is helpful to have some understanding of how the various arts have traditionally been connected with various meditative disciplines.  Below is an article that provides a nice look at that connection in Zen.  This article was called to my attention by Jake Roshi, an avid supporter of Art and Zen Today.  If you come across any articles that you think might make a good post on the site, please let me know. Also, we are always looking for “guest editors” so if you have some prose or art work that you think our readers would like, please let me know.
By the way, you may find two previously published articles on Sumi-e painting practice by Beth Moskal Milligan (Esho) to be of interest.  Click on the links below to read these articles.

Zen Buddhism and Japanese Art: the Inspirational Life of Hakuin Ekaku

 Lee Jay Walker

Modern Tokyo Times

The holy Buddhist monk Hakuin Ekaku revived the school of Rinzai Buddhism based on taking Zen Buddhism far and wide. Indeed, his upbringing meant that he never lost touch with people at the bottom of the ladder, in terms of wealth. Also, despite Hakuin being outspoken towards other Buddhist sects, he never sought to alter the non-Zen Buddhist ways of people residing in the countryside. Hence, the roots of his early life meant that Hakuin could reach out both culturally and religiously to ordinary people in rural communities.

In other words, many lay people throughout the countryside fused the various aspects of rural Shintoism, Confucianism, and the ways of Buddhism. Hakuin fully understood the rich fusions of ideas that impacted on rural society and the religious – and philosophical dimensions – that remained like a rock during times of hardship.

True to nature, Hakuin declined to serve the most prestigious Buddhist monasteries in Kyoto that impacted greatly on high culture – just like other centers of power including Nara. Instead, Hakuin took the teachings of Rinzai Buddhism to the rural poor and extolled the virtues of Zen Buddhism based on lectures to other classes in society.

Hakuin said, “At the bottom of great doubt lies great awakening. If you doubt fully, you will awaken fully.”

Another saying, close to the heart of Hakuin, was “Contemplation within activity is a million times better than contemplation within stillness.”

In the world of art, calligraphy, and literature related to Zen Buddhism, then Hakuin fused these elements in order to reach out to the masses in multiple ways. Indeed, he wrote with great passion and in haste during the late stages of his life. Similarly, despite Hakuin being deemed one of the greatest Zen Buddhist painters of Japan, he only focused seriously on this area of his life when he was nearing sixty years of age.

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“A ROSHI NAMED JAKE GAVE ME A SNAKE” : SHUSO PERFORMANCE # 1.

Below is a link to my first rap performance in response to my Shuso Koan (see:  http://artandzentoday.com/?p=4380     ).  There are three pieces of information that might make my rap a bit more meaningful.  The first is that, following Zen tradition, the Shuso Hossen ceremony started off with my teacher handing me a Shippei;  a staff that is a  symbol of a Zen master’s authority.  I held the Shippei before the audience and spoke the following worlds:

“This is a 3 foot long black snake. A long time ago it had become a konpura flower on Mt Gudrakuta, and on Mt. Shorin it had become plum blossom.  Sometimes it transforms into a dragon and swallows heaven and earth.  Sometimes it transforms into a diamond sword with freedom to kill and give life.  Right now, in accord with the order of my teacher, it lies in my hands.  I feel like a mosquito trying to bite an iron bull.  However, being assigned as head trainee, I have to fulfill my duties”.

Secondly, in a series of lectures leading up to the Shuso Hossen Ceremony, I explored the nature and function of Zen ritual.  I spent a great deal of time in these lectures discussing an article entitled “Rituals” by Robert Sharf.  The author suggests that it is useful to view rituals as a form of transubstantiation where the participants understand that many aspects of their ritual activities are a form of play and yet can be taken seriously. He says that just as a child who uses a stick to represent a horse when playing cowboys understands that the stick is not really a horse, ritual participants act “as if” certain things are true or real, while knowing that it is only “as if”.  The most common example of this is the idea in communion that the wine offered by the priest is the blood of Christ.  I suggested, in my lectures, that engaging in the “as ifness” of rituals can be a way of learning to remain engaged in everyday life while not being attached (i.e. in society by not of society). To see two earlier posts on “transubstantiation”, type that term in the Search Box on the right and hit “enter” on your computer.

The third  item that might be helpful to look at before watching the video is a poem written by Jake Roshi several years ago and published on this site in an article titled “Poems and  Images of Five Vista Zen Center Artists”  (see:   http://artandzentoday.com/?p=3541     ).  The poem is not long but it is laid out in a visually interesting way and so you have to scroll down a bit to get to the video.

 

 No Choice?

By Jake Roshi

The Way is not difficult

for those who do not pick and choose.

The Way is not difficult

for those who do pick and choose.

When you walk the Way,

just walk the Way.

It is not near,

it is not far.

It just is.

Just do not get in the way

of the Way.

Or, Just get in the way

of the Way.

Either way Is the Way.

Either way is.

Either way

Is neither

The Way

Nor not

the

Way.

I think I’ll go away

Now.

Click on link below to watch the video:

https://youtu.be/x0q15sWm77I

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AARP: A MUSIC/VIDEO PARODY OF “LOUIE LOUIE”

We are all aging but most of us don’t start worrying about it until we

receive an invitation to join AARP.  Although you can’t stop the aging

process, I find that it does help to maintain a sense of humor about

it all.  Thus, the Rap/Music/Video below as performed by “The Senior Moments”.  I hope you enjoy it.  It appears that the hyperlink below is not working so you may have to copy

the address below and paste it in your Browser.

https://youtu.be/Jg5WFONo9xA

WOULD YOU MIND WAlKING THIS WAY?

“Would You Mind Walking this Way?” is the latest video produced by Art and Zen Today and the One Mind Artist Coalition.  It speaks to the notion of being on what is variously referred to as an “inner journey”, a “trip” or a “Path”.  What I tried to convey in this video is that the Path entails  being in the moment while on the journey, no matter where it takes us.  The idea is to let go of concerns of where we are going or when we are going to get there and become fully immersed in the journey itself.  To do this we must let go of excessive conceptualization and allow the shift away from left brain processes that I spoke of in the previous post (Music, Trance and  Mindfulness ).  Although most of us have had experiences involving this type of shift, it is often not a comfortable one because it may feel that our sense of being in control,( which is the basis of our sense of self), is being lost (see previous blog post).  To find earlier posts on “left-brain process” or other concepts, use as key words in the search engine of this site at the top of the page.

On the other hand, when we allow such experiences to happen, it can often be quite liberating; liberating in the sense that one learns that there are other ways of being that are free of stress and strife.  I remember my father, who one health professional described  as a “Type Triple A Personality”, telling me about having  such an experience while on vacation in Puerto Rico.  He found that, even far away from his practice (he was an M.D), he could not stop thinking about his work.  According to him, after several days of not being able to relax, my mother gave him a pencil and pad and told him to go draw something on the beach.  This, he told me, finally allowed him  to “let go” of his thoughts, be more fully present and he enjoyed the remainder of his vacation.  As he told me this story, it was clear from his voice and the tears in his eyes that this had been a major “realization” in his life.

The roots of the word “vacation” are variously described as “free of occupation” and “to be empty”.  In my Dad’s case he was “preoccupied” with thoughts about his work and unable to experience his moments on the beach and elsewhere in Puerto Rico by being fully there.  Ideally, the novelty of the places we visit on vacation allow us to become fully present and this can only happen by “forgetting” our left-brain/self-sustaining thoughts.  This is why, I think, that Dogen famously wrote that “to study the Buddha Way is to forget the self” and why Csikszentimihali said that “flow experiences” happen when we forget the “conceptual  self, but not what Langer calls the “experiencing self”.

In Zen, sitting mediation is the key practice in studying the Buddha Way; the way of reality-i.e. being with whatever is happening in your life rather than what you want to be happening.  Zazen may be thought of as a practice time where one goes on a brief vacation under conditions that facilitate practicing the difficult task of “vacating” or “emptying”. But, Zen, along with other Spiritual disciplines also emphasize the need to eventually extend this practice into all aspects of life.  One way this has been emphasized in Zen is by incorporating “kinhin” or “walking meditation” into the routines of those practicing sitting meditation.   When correctly practicing walking meditation one is fully absorbed in the waking process with no thought of going anywhere.  When you watch the video look for instances of such mindful walking; the title of the video alludes to such mindfulness. The music that accompanies this video is a remix of the song “Caravan”, which is a jazz standard composed by Juan Tizol and first performed by Duke Ellington in 1936.   See the video below.

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AARON COPLAND ON MINDFUL LISTENING

 

My guest blogger today is Aaron Copland (1900-1990), one of the most respected American classical composers of the twentieth century. By incorporating popular forms of American music such as jazz and folk into his compositions, he created pieces both exceptional and innovative. As a spokesman for the advancement of indigenous American music, Copland made great strides in liberating it from European influence.  Not only did he write symphonies, ballets and film scores, he was a scholar, critic, writer and teacher.  The passage below is from one of his books called “What to Listen for in Music”. (Thanks to Jake Roshi for sending this my way.)    Interspersed between quotes from Copland’s book, I have included some comments (in italics) that reflect some personal thoughts on his ideas. 

                                                                 

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The first prerequisite for listening to music is so obvious that it almost seems ludicrous to mention, yet it is often the single element that is absent: to pay attention and to give the music your concentrated effort as an active listener.

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 (As a musician, I might add that learning to pay attention to the sounds you are making is an essential skill in learning to play any instrument.  In future posts, I will review a couple of books that make the case that mindfulness is key to masterful performance on any instrument)
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It is revealing to compare the actions of theater audiences to those of symphonic audiences. In the theater the audience listens with full attention to every line of the play, knowing that if important lines are missed understanding can be diminished-this instinctive attention is too often lacking in the concert hall.

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(This statement fascinates me as it makes me wonder whether composers/performers can do more to help make the audience listen more mindfully.  This will be a theme I will return to in later posts.  Since, of late I have been experimenting with pairing video with music, I found it interesting that John Cage wrote the following, in an essay describing his approach to sound and music:

       Where do we go from here? Towards theatre. 

       That art more than music resembles nature.                             We have eyes as well as ears, and it is

      our business while we are alive to use them.”

      Pg. 12 in Silence by John Cage.

This suggests that the pairing of visual imagery and sound may be one way to foster mindfulness in the audience.  Particularly, in the creation of music videos, this seems to raise the question of how to combine visual stimuli and sound in ways that one does not take precedence over the other.  If the video portion has a strong narrative element to it , the music may become merely a backdrop much like a film score.  On the other hand if the music is so compelling as to draw in most listeners, there may be no need for visuals at all.  I am wondering whether music/videos can be created where the visual and sound aspects are equally important and mutually supportive in fostering mindful attentiveness on the part of the audience.  This wondering will most likely be in my mind as I work on future projects.)

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One has but to observe listeners at a concert to witness the distractions of talking or reading or simply staring into space.


Only a small percentage are vitally concerned with the essential role of active listening. 

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.(Remember the above was written years before the appearance of cell phones and other devices of distraction that prevail today.)
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This lack is serious because the listener is essential to the process of music; music after all consists of the composer, the performer and the listener. Each of these three elements should be present in the most ideal way. We expect a fine composition brilliantly performed, but how often do we think it should also be brilliantly heard?

The destiny of a piece of music, while basically in the hands of the composer and performer, also depends on the attitude and ability of the listener. It is the listener in the larger sense who dictates the ultimate acceptance or rejection of the composition and performer…Unfortunately for music, many listeners are content to sit in an emotional bath and limit their reaction to music to the sensual element of being surrounded by sounds. But the sounds are organized; the sounds have intellectual as well as emotional appeal.
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(I think Copland’s use of the term “intellectual” here is unfortunate.  I don’t believe that he is suggesting that mindful listening entails protracted left-brain/discursive thinking.  I believe it is more accurate to say that mindfulness entails “whole brain thinking” (Olson, The Whole-brain Path to Peace) or “open focused attention” (see earlier post called “HAVE YOURSELF A MERRY OPENED- FOCUS EXPERIENCE WHILE READING THIS POST!”    ) where so called left and right brain processes are working interdependently.  Langer seems to capture the so called “intellectual” aspect of mindfulness by describing it as “”drawing novel distinctions..”noticing new things” and “seeing the similarities in things thought different and the differences in thing taken to be similar”.  (pgs. 5 and16, On Becoming an Artist,  For more on Langer, use the blog search box, using her name or “mindfulness”   )

Various mindfulness practices that accompany spiritual disciplines seem to encourage practioners not to be so immersed in left-brain thinking that they are out of touch with their right brains.  Mindfulness practices thus helps to increase one’s awareness and sensitivity to feeling and emotions that were previously beyond awareness.  However, my understanding is that the aim is to expand consciousness to include sensations often unnoticed but not necessarily to do away with the capacity for left brain functioning. 

When we mindfully expose ourselves to visual art or music, having a grasp of the choices available to and made by the artist, is a part of our appreciating the art piece or performance.  Appreciating an art piece  does not necessarily entail “liking” it, but may involve having an understanding of the historical, social, and personal reasons why the work unfolds as it does, along with an awareness of how one personally is responding and why.  


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The adventure of learning how to listen to music is one of the great joys of exposure to this art…Your efforts to understand more of what is taking place will be rewarded a thousand-fold in the intense pleasure and increased interest you will find.

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I believe that what Copland says above can be extrapolated to the benefits of mindfulness in all aspects of life, not just music.

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1700 Koans

This week’s guest blogger is Jake Jiyu Gage, Roshi.  He wrote a reply to my last post entitled “What Are You Presently Listening to?”  Because his response was in the form of a poem, I decided to publish it as a post.  Since poetry is one of the most useful expressions of a spiritual practioner’s inner experiences, there has been a  close association of Zen and poetry throughout history.  If you haven’t already, I would suggest that you read the previous post before enjoying the poem below.  For those unfamiliar with Zen, the description of Koans, below the poem, may be helpful.  Jake is
the founder of the The Vista Zen Center in Vista California.
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“What Am I Listening to Presently”
featuring Jake Jiyu Gage 
and
The Hotei-ji Chamber Orchestra
    (with special thanks to “System
     of a Down”)
1700 Koans*
1700 Koans
Going off
All at once
In the Zen Symphony
Known as:
“What Am I presently listening to?”
Each Koan
Different:
In Name
In Number
In Collection Found
In Tone
In Duration
In Dynamics
In Frequency
In Beginning
In Middling
In Ending
In Trailing Off
In Disappearing
In Reappearing
In Main Case
In Commentary
In Capping Phrase
In Resolution
In Acceptance
Or
In Denial
Ring, Ring, Ring
In Starting Over
In Trying Again
In Gaining Acceptance
No Ringing
*Koans (from Chinese kung-an, literally “public notice,” or “public announcement”) are based on anecdotes of Zen (Chinese: Ch’an) masters. There are said to be 1,700 koans in all. The two major collections are the Pi-yen lu (Chinese: “Blue Cliff Records”; Japanese: Hekigan-roku), consisting of 100 koans selected and commented on by a Chinese priest, Yüan-wu, in 1125 on the basis of an earlier compilation; and the Wu-men kuan (Japanese: Mumon-kan), a collection of 48 koans compiled in 1228 by the Chinese priest Hui-k’ai (known also as Wu-men)
in Zen Buddhism of Japan, a succinct paradoxical statement or question used as a meditation discipline for novices, particularly in the Rinzai sect. The effort to “solve” a koan is intended to exhaust the analytic intellect and the egoistic will, readying the mind to entertain an appropriate response on the intuitive level. Each such exercise constitutes both a communication of some aspect of Zen experience and a test of the novice’s competence. A well known koan is: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?
                                                                              

Here is an old Zen story I just found that seems to relate to Roshi’s Poem.

The disciple was always complaining to his master, “you are hiding the final secret of Zen from me.” And he would not accept the master’s denials. One day they were walking in the hills when they heard a bird sing.

“Did you hear that bird sing?” said the master. “Yes” said the disciple.

“Well now you know that I have hidden nothing from you” “Yes.”

 

                          

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HAIKU IN FOUR SEASONS

Today’s post features a video entitled “Haiku In Four Seasons” by James Wilson.

A traditional Japanese haiku is a three-line poem with seventeen syllables, written in a 5/7/5 syllable count. Often focusing on images from nature, haiku emphasizes simplicity, intensity, and directness of expression. Although not all original haiku poets were Zen adherents, some of those considered to be the best were. 

Zen is a school of Buddhism concerned with the cultivation of a profound down-to-earth awareness of this ‘suchness’, unmediated by doctrine or other concepts. Haiku are the most thoroughgoing expression of literary Zen. They are also one of the several meditative ‘Ways’ (like calligraphy and the minimal ink paintings, zenga and haiga) whose form both gives expression to insight and helps to deepen it.

The ‘haiku moment’ is thus no less than a tiny flash of an ultimate reality which in fact is just what is under our noses. These brief poems also distill what is the essential “truth” of Zen; namely that all is impermanent.

This theme is clear in the video below, which adds music and visuals to spoken words.  Enjoy!

 

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BORDER MUSIC BY GLENN WEYANT

 

ARTIST GLENN WEYANT, ACCOMPANIED BY BORDER PATROL, PLAYING THE US/MEXICO BORDER FENCE.

Today’s post features a socially conscious musician/artist who raises interesting questions about  art, music, social activism and spiritual practice.  You will be introduced to Glenn Weyant in a couple of short videos.  This feature is the beginning of a shift in my approach to this blog.  Up to now, most post have mainly been devoted to exploring the interrelationship between art and Zen practice.  In the future, I will not spend so much time with theory and focus instead on actual art and actual artists.  There is so much interesting work going on out there, locally as well as globally, and I aim to make my readers aware of it.

I have always used the terms “art” and “spiritual” in the widest possible ways and will continue to do  so in the future.  To my mind, almost any activity can be approached as an art and so if you know of some art or artists who you think should be covered in my blog posts, please let me know.  For now, enjoy the videos below.  For those familiar with the work of John Cage, be sure to listen to the last part of the second video.

 

 

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NEITHER HERE NOR THERE AT THE COYOTE BAR AND GRILL

This post starts off with a short video I took several weeks ago at the Coyote Bar and Grill in Carlsbad, which is where my wife and like to go dancing. On this night, one of my favorite singers (Valerie Pierce) was singing one of my favorite tunes (“This is How We Do It”) with one of my favorite local bands (SmokeStaxx).  Before I get into my usual pontification, I’d suggest that you watch the video now.  Unfortunately, I was not quick enough to capture the whole song, but I got the best part.

 

Click here to see video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zw7bciE7F2U&feature=c4-overview&list=UUVRR6l491Aafe34H23PwdNA

I had talked briefly with Valerie after she had performed this rap at an earlier date.  I asked whether she would be OK with me recording her the next time they did this tune and she said “yes”. I also asked her what her state of mind was while she was performing that night.  Her answer was ” I don’t know where I went”. (Valerie was recently named “#1 Ranking New Jazz Artist in the Hollywood Talent Quest”.  See more at ValeriePierce.com)


 The idea of being somewhere else (or not being one’s self) is common among musicians when trying to describe their state of mind while improvising.  The same language is common among those witnessing such performances (e.g. “like he’s gone, man”  or “He’s possessed”).(see Improvization in Jazz and Zen).  I would suggest that such performances are good examples of what Dr.Mihaly Csikszentimaihalyi calls the “flow experience” where the experiencer  “forgets the conceptual self” and loses a sense of time.  (See To Know Flow or No Flow?).  The idea of being “far out” was also the topic of an earlier blog “The thin line between”  and “aliens”

 

While it is common to refer to such performancer as not being here, in other posts (for instance  “The Artist Is Present”, I also suggest that the performer is totally here in the present in the moment.  The language we use to describe and try to understand these kinds of experiences could, at first blush,  be seen as contradictory.  Is the performer “gone” or is she “totally here in the present moment?  Is the performer “far out” or “present”. The problem lies in trying to describe human experiences that lie outside the commonplace or “normal”  These kinds of experiences are simply not easy to describe in words because they involve a dropping away of the usual thought processes (predominately “left brain” processes) that we use for making distinctions and understanding what is happening.  As I have shown before, these are the very kinds of experiences that spawn creativity (See “Sudden Insight and Creativity“)

As I look at Valerie in this video, I see both someone who is “gone” and “fully present”.  She is gone in the sense that she is not exactly her usual self, but she is present in that she is responding immediately and quickly to what is going on around her; making split-second decisions that can only occur when one is fully focused in the present moment.

 

I was talking with my brother recently about all of this and he said that when he is improvising (he is a jazz saxaphonist) the audience can tell when he is in the state of being Gone/Present and they let him know by their response.  When someone is in this state (whether a performer or not) they have a “Presence”. (see Performer-Audience Communication” ).  How is this “presence” communicated?  I would suggest that it is conveyed as much visually as through sound.  I have played drums while my brother is improvising and I can always tell when he is “into it”; it is conveyed by facial expressions and various other forms of body language (try watching the video of Valerie again, with your volume turned down).

Monk and Diz

 

There is reason to believe that this is true of performers in the relatively subdued and staid classical music. I just read about some surprising research that seems consistent with this idea.  Chia-Jung Tsay is both a classical pianist and a psychologist who conducted a study where she showed both amateur and professional musicians clips from classical-music competitions. She asked her volunteers to guess the winners.  But, some saw videos with recording, some listed only to audio and others watched silent videos.  What she found is that it was only in the silent videos, the videos without any sound, that participants were best able to identify the actual winners.

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(http://www.npr.org/2013/08/20/213551358/how-to-win-that-music-competition-send-a-video)

Chia-Jung Tsay

 

My interpretation of Tsay’s results is that the “presence” of the winners was largely conveyed visually.  Interestingly, Ellen Langer’s studies on creativity and mindfulness also suggest that “presence” may be conveyed from artist to viewer even when the artist is not physically present.  In a series of experiments where volunteers were either encouraged to create art pieces mindfully or allowed to create with no intervention, she found that artist who created more mindfully were judged to be more “authentic or charismatic based on viewers perceptions of their work.  Now “presence” is one of those words that are difficult to define but I think that “authenticity’ and “charisma” are elements of what we generally mean when using the term.

What Langer calls the “authenticity” and “charisma”, (which can be seen as part of “presence”) of painters can be conveyed to viewers through what they see on the canvas.  Generally, I would say, we are drawn to art of all types when it conveys the presence of the artist, even if the artist is not physically present.

In the most general sense “presence” means that others are impressed by a person”s appearance and manner.  But, as I discussed above, the term often implies the existence of  something or someone not physically present.  Different people will have different interpretations of the “something” or “someone” but I think the quote from Wikihow below best sums up my position:

“In some spiritual circles, presence and spirit are one in the same. Meditation, contemplation, dance, chant, all seek to connect with something deeper. Presence is the result of getting in contact with your deeper self.”

 http://www.wikihow.com/Have-Presence

 

Even the nature of “your deeper self” can be debated but I would suggest that this is what is often referred to in the Zen literature as “realizing one’s Buddha nature”.  That is, it is in our nature to be “present/awake/alive” but for most people, this must be realized through practice.  The term “Buddha nature” is one of those that can be difficult to grasp but I think that author William Westney may provide some insight into it’s meaning.

Westney, author of “The Perfect Wrong Note: Learning to Trust Your Musical Self” suggests that if you watch 3 year olds engaging with music you get a sense of the inherent joy that can be evoked from playing and listening to music.  Artists with “presence”, I would suggest, allow the enthusiasm and involvement of the child to shine through their performances.  To use Westney’s worlds: ..”there is  total involvement, every fiber, sinew and nerve-ending alter to the musical impulse…” (pg. 17).  This is what I see when watching the video of Valerie.

Westney suggests that this inherent joy, in most cases, is sufficated by lessons and other adult demands until most of us forget or deny it and we become convinced that we do not have the talent to either perform or fully listen music (see “Ellen Langer on “The Talent Myth). 

 Westney goes on to say:

“The energized, fluid creativity of play, for example is a childhood treasure that is often lost later. People happily forget themselves when they are absorbed in play, and at the same time they are acutely aware” (p. 22).  In other words they are simultaneously “there” and “here”.  Dale Wright’s deconstruction of the Buddhist  Six Perfections, designed to provide students with the “goals” of practice suggests that a sense of joy is a key element of spiritual practice as well.  It makes sense to me that this joy would develop as one breaks through the conditioning that has stiffled the joyousness of childhood. It seems to me that what Westney is describing as the three year old’s natural inclination to play and musicality is very similar to “Buddha nature” in that both are inherent and both usually need to be re-discovered or realized in later life.

From all accounts it appears that the historic Buddha, after years of spiritual practice,  had a presence that others could acknowledge and were drawn to.  At the same time I would guess that had Buddha been around during the early days of jazz, he would certainly have been seen as “real gone”.  The Heart Sutra, seen as one of the most important of Buddha’s teachings ends with  the phrases “gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha” which is translated as “ gone, gone, gone beyond, gone completely beyond“.  Gone, as gone beyond ordinary egjo-based consciousness and suffering.  From what I can tell, Buddha conveyed his “goneness” to those he met but  was also very much present; present enough to effectively convey his teaching, organize an order of monks to succeed him and become engaged in civil society.  According to the Venerable K. Sri Dhammananda Maha Thera, “The Buddha had gone beyond all worldly affairs, but still gave advice on good government” (http://www.saigon.com/~anson/ebud/whatbudbeliev/229.htm)

So, the historic Buddha was gone but not gone.  Neither “here” or “there”.  Interestingly  Buddha uses terms similar to this in the following quote attributed to him:

When for you there is only the seen in the seen, only the heard in the heard, only the sensed in the sensed, only the cognized in the cognized, then you will not be reckoned by it.  When you are not reckoned by it, you will not be in it.  When you are not in it, you will be neither “here” nor “there” nor between the two.

This, just this, is the end of suffering.

Buddha Gautama (563-483 BC)

 When I am dancing to a great band like Smokestaxx or watching/listening to a great performer like Valerie Pierce, I am often temporarily “neither here nor there” and I get at least a taste of what it might be like to realize my “Buddha Nature”.  Does Booty Shaking = Buddha Nature ?  I’m not sure but I intend to keep up my booty shaking practice and I’ll let you know when I find out.

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 I don’t understand capri pants. They seem like neither here nor there.

Jesse Eisenberg

Lyrics from Neither Here Nor There by Eleisha Eagle

The secret of life
now I’ve got the key,
I’ve got the key,
I’ve got the key
but I can’t find the lock
so it’s no use to me

La Dee Da Da Da
I’m not worried
La Dee Da Da Da
Happen to care?
La Dee Da Da Da
I’m happy though I’m
Neither here nor there
I’m neither here nor there

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