(The 2000 year-old art form of Japanese brush painting is spiritually rooted in Zen Buddhism. My friend and fellow Zen student, Beth Moskal Milligan has practiced both Zen and Sumi-e and finds that the two disciplines are mutually supportive in her spiritual growth. I have asked Beth to be a “guest blogger” for this post. I think you will find her piece, found below, a fun, informative and inspiring read. It is also a great example of the “Genjo Practice”, as described in the previous post. Steve Wilson)
Zen tells us to wake up! How does one do that? One way is to leave a totally familiar environment and move to a strange, new one. That’s the way I started the process-leaving almost heaven-West Virginia for heaven-Southern California. Ocean, desert, palm trees, odd flowering plants, low humidity, altered seasons, day after day of sunshine, multiculturalism, surfing, avocados, abundant wealth (seemingly). I knew 2 people-the friends I was renting from. The rest was an adventure awaiting. But first I had to fall apart. And then in the process of finding the pieces and putting them together in a new way, I came to Zen, specifically the Vista Zen Center. My son, Ryan, came to live with me and was a practicing Zen student of the San Francisco Zen Center. He had his sitting practice and I was intrigued. I was from a strong Lutheran background and had been involved in the Christian charismatic movement and later became very interested in meditation and the labyrinth, both of which introduced me to the value of silence. When I entered the Vista Zendo (meditation hall) for the first time, I knew I belonged. A welcoming, strong silence was present there and there were people who believed in its value. I knew this was a place where I could grow from the bottom up, and explore the possibilities that had presented themselves in my new world. The pieces began to come together.
One of those pieces was art. I had been an art major for a year in college but had dropped out after my freshman year. I dabbled in drawing and watercolor a little bit in my adult life but always had a problem with being too judgmental of the work and not able to enjoy the process except for a few brief periods of inspiration. But the desire to create was there, just buried. It was awakened in an art workshop taught by Alessandra at the Zen center and the spark became a flame when I discovered Japanese sumi-e painting. Minimalist and nature-inspired, a technique where every brush stroke counts and taught in a classroom in which the Japanese teacher, Takashi Ijichi, creates a peaceful and concentrated environment, the focus of which is finding your vision and putting it on paper. The focus is on the process, the result is fun and interesting and occasionally even looks good. Everyone’s creation is different and uniquely theirs. It is a discipline but it is not onerous.
I take Tuesdays as a day off from work and attend painting class in the afternoon and sit at the Zendo in the evening. The two complement each other; PRACTICE, DISCIPLINE, FOCUS, DISCOVERY—AND JOY.
PRACTICE “Practice, practice, practice” my Sumi-e painting teacher, Takashi Ijichi tells us.
“Practice, practice, practice” my Zen teacher, Jiyu Roshi tells us.
Practice is repetition, repetition is practice.
DISCIPLINE Discipline enables the practice, it brings us to the practice in time and in place. It makes the decision for us to come to the practice. Make the time, prepare a place, enable the process: the painting, the sitting, in the art room, in the Zen Center, at home where the place is ready and waiting, for painting, for sitting.
FOCUS Pay attention. Be the hawk perched and watching, the flower blooming, the horse galloping, the mountain standing, the fish swimming and leaping, the enso circling. Be one in the moment with the subject of the painting. Be one in the moment in the stillness of sitting. Practice and Be.
There are 3 main elements to both my painting practice and my Zen meditation practice. The teacher, the meditation practice, and the Sangha (spiritual community) . One on one relationship with my teachers is a very valuable part of both practices. During our Zazen sessions, I meet individually with Jiyu Roshi to discuss my practice and progress. During my painting classes, I meet individually with Takashi Ijichi to carefully observe his painting technique as he paints on my individual tablet and answers any questions I might have about the subject. Sitting meditation occurs in the quiet Zendo. Sumi-e painting is also a form of meditation, we practice in a community library setting. And each activity involves a Sangha, a group of people dedicated to practicing that unique meditative discipline and who become intertwined with each other through that unique practice.
DISCOVERY I have discovered that the process, not the results is the important part of these activities. Living in the process and not living for the results enables me to live in the present moment, immersed in the activity. This is very refreshing for body, soul and spirit. And the results are not completely under my control and the results are more often than not, surprising. In a painting, the ink may be absorbed by the paper in a very interesting way or the lights and darks of the ink formed a wave of water or a flower petal that I did not plan. In Zazen practice, calmness in the face of a difficult situation or a solution to a previously unsolvable problem may present itself unexpectedly. The terms ‘beginner’s mind’ and ‘non-grasping’ come to mind to describe these occurrences.
JOY Joy results in being in the process, in creating, in relationship with my teachers and in relationship with the other students and Sangha members, being a part of a long and honored tradition, passed on person to person, no technology needed! Simplicity indeed! Learning, growing, focusing, practicing, discovering. relating—Life.
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