BETH MOSKAL MILLIGAN ON SUMI-E PAINTING AND ZEN PRACTICES

Ensoes by Beth Moskal Milligan

 


(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)

Leaping Fish by Beth Moskal Milligan


 

 

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.

Landscape by Beth Moskal Milligan

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 Ensoes by Beth Moskal Milligan

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.

Practice Bird Heads by Beth Moskal Milligan

"Three Cranes" by Beth Moskal Milligan

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.

Beth's Meditation Space

Beth's Painting Space

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.

"Bodhidharma Bird in Contemplation" by Beth Moskal Milligan

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.

"Ocean Waves and Rocks" by Beth Moskal Milligan

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.

" Galloping Colt" by Beth Moskal Milligan

 

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ELLEN LANGER ON THE “TALENT MYTH”

If you have been following my last few posts, you know that I have been riffing on the book On Becoming an Artist by Ellen Langer, a professional psychologist and amateur painter.  Langer suggests that painting and other creative arts can be a way of developing mindfulness and the path to a richer, more authentic and satisfying life.  As I mentioned in my last post, the author sees our tendency to compare ourselves with others and evaluate ourselves according, as the biggest block to developing creative mindfulness.  In this post, I will focus on one chapter where Langer tackles what she sees as the most damaging belief that prevents people from engaging in new activities such as painting.  Even though we understand that engaging in new activities can lead to a more rewarding life, we often avoid doing so because we are convinced that we have no talent in that area.   The name of the chapter from Langer’s book dealing with this is called “The Myth of Talent”.

WHO IS TO SAY WHO IS TALENTED OR CREATIVE?

In this chapter, Langer makes the bold declaration that: “Everybody has an equal talent for everything” ( pg. 171). Drawing upon the biographies of successful artists, and studies of artists, she concludes that creations by people generally seen as creative artists are more a product of learned skills rather the result of some inherited quality.  In other words, what we usually consider to be some innate or inner quality, is largely a matter of learned skills.  According to Langer:

“we usually impute to people who are very talented, like Picasso, a knowingness that he wouldn’t recognize as he embarked on a new work.  It isn’t that the talented “know” what they are about to do as much that they are willing to start something and see where it leads them.  We, however, tend to focus on their results and ignore the struggles, uncertainties and false starts.” (pg. 150)

Langer points to recent laboratory studies of Mondrian’s work that showed that he constantly scraped his canvases to revised his paintings until he was satisfied.  According to Langer, “Like all of us, Mondrian painted step-by-step, despite how he or anyone else might describe his work”  (pg. 159) The final product and the statements of critics and/or the artist, leave the impression that the work could only be the product of a quality (genius or talent) that most of us do not processes. The failure to grasp this error in logic, prevents countless numbers of people from trying activities that they might find rewarding and which could lead to their developing their own unique talent in that area.

 As the author points out, most of the artists now considered to be talented were not seen as such at first or even during their lifetimes.  Langer asks:

“Would we want to say these artists were not talented because they lacked audience appreciation?  Of course not, yet many of us consider their works and can only feel inferior by comparison……..By definition, “everyone can’t be great at something” if we think that is so. No. everyone can’t be equally great if we hold still a single criterion for evaluation.  But criteria can and do vary” (pg. 172)

With "mindless judging" most of us become convinced that we have no talent.

When we subscribe to a single rule or set of criteria, we are reacting mindlessly.  If the artists that are now considered talented had mindlessly accepted the current cannons on what constituted talent, they would never have begun their practice.  The whole point of Langer book is to  help her readers break through the kind of mindlessness that will deter them from trying something new and potentially rewarding; new activities that could possibly help the readers learn to become more mindfully creative.  One way Langer attempts to do this is by suggesting that they mindfully consider the consequences of exploring new creative pursuits This is nicely summed up when she asks:

“If I try, and fail, am I any worse off?  It is interesting exercise to attempt to do things we think we can’t do, but would like to try just for fun.  If we don’t globalize the result and conclude “I can’t paint (or more global still, I can’t do anything artistic) because I can’t draw this dog,”  for example, what is lost?  Whose affection is at risk?  What opportunity that we’ve counted on will not be ours? … (pg. 172)

I have personally found in my own painting process, that my most “creative” painting occurs when I am willing to take risks- doing something that I’d never seen done before or something that I knew could end up being considered “a mistake”.  Taking such “risks” is not easy and these kinds of risk never seem to go away as you develop as a painter.  Risking “failure”  is part of the territory but is also what makes painting (or anything else) a challenge and fun.  It requires a fundamental shift in one’s world view where we put our choices and our actions into perspective and to stop taking ourselves so seriously.

Now, dear readers, “for your moment of Zen” (apologies to The Daily Show’s John Stewart) we will include one more quotation from Langer’s book.  It is a continuation of the quote I included immediately above where she is talking about taking chances to do something like painting which you have never done before.  Below she continues by  applying the same principles to life in general:

“Someone might point out that these examples are mere avocations, so with them there’s not much at stake,  Fine, now do the same exercise with matters we take to be more serious.  The results are not all that different.

To my good fortune, I’ve never thought to ask myself whether I have the talent to do something.  If the activity- academic, artistic , or physical- seemed interesting, I tried it.  If I didn’t quite get it, I tried it differently.  Why should I know how to do something I’ve never done before?”

Wow!  Is she saying that we can stop worrying so much about how everything we do in life is evaluated and take risks to try new ways of being without worrying about whether we are judged by others to be a failure?  I think that is exactly what she is saying and I also think this is one of the key lessons that can be learned from practicing meditative disciplines like Zen.  I agree with Langer’s approach of starting your mindful practice in the so called “avocations” or “less serious” pursuits such as art.   As we learn to become more mindful in these areas, we are “practicing” so to speak for other areas of life where the stakes seem to be or actually are higher. It is for this reason that, at The Vista Zen Center, in addition to Formal Zen Practice a more informal practice is also emphasized. This informal practice is described on The Vista Zen Center Website as follows:

The second approach, “Genjo Practice” is concerned with a student’s engagements outside the traditional Zen setting. The students everyday lives become the focus of their Zen practice.

To facilitate “Genjo Practice” Jiyu Sensei encourages students to work with him focusing on a specific aspect of their lives. Often this will be something they love to do and will probably continue to do no matter what else is going on in their lives. For some students, this might be the time spent in working in a creative domain such as painting, poetry, or music. Or it might be home-schooling one’s children, taking care of the garden, or the livelihood that puts food on the table and a roof over their heads. 


Note that at The Vista Zen Center the “Genjo Practice”, which could be viewed as encouraging what Langer calls “creative mindfulness”, is practiced in conjunction with Zazen which is a more formal and specific mindfulness training.  In future posts, I will look at why I think this combined training program is probably more effective, at least for most people, than Langer’s approach.

And so there, ladies and gentlemen is Art and Zen Today’s moment of ZEN.

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