Monday, December 27, 2010

Carolyn Fuchs: This and That

By Caroline Reddy

The Sweetcake Enso exhibit presently visiting Zendos across the country displays a variety of Ensos that play in the dance of form and emptiness. In the pieces that were submitted for this exhilarating exhibition, form reflects the myriad conditions of everyday life—elements that equate daily existence are respected and celebrated. 

Inside some of these circles of enlightenment, composed by contemporary Zen practitioners and artists, viewers discover an array of phenomena: gliding red snakes, crows, skulls, fragmented neon stickers, layers of colorful shapes resembling staircases, gritty metallic scraps and morsels, cosmic bubbles, and orbiting squares—all impressions that exemplify and illustrate life in its entirety. Alongside many elegant ensos constructed out of ink, metal leaf, mixed media, homemade paper, and found objects, an interactive sculpture entitled This and That, created by local Empty Hand Sangha member, Carolyn Fuchs, absorbs the participant in the process of creating a black-and-white enso in space the moment that a handle is spun. A mirror, hung serenely on the wall, reflects the genesis of an enso.

This and That, a peculiar sculpture devised from cast, iron, wood, metal and acrylic paint is based on the phenakistascope: an early animation device that used the persistence of motion principle to create an illusion of motion.* The breadth between the artist, her creation, and the participant vanishes as a black-and-white enso surfaces.
“I was trying to decide what to do,” Carolyn—who also goes by Carrie in our Sangha—explains as she shares her impressions on the labor of the phenakistascope. “Originally I wanted to create a painting or a drawing but nothing seemed to inspire me.   I felt like I was forcing it too much, so I took a step back and thought about other ways to express an enso.” In order to emphasize the spontaneity  of an enso, Carrie decided to design a three-dimensional one; this format would allow participants to work with her to create the circle of enlightenment—accenting the energetic, and spontaneous, liveliness that ensos evoke. “I started to think about a sculpture with an element that someone had to physically actualize.  Each person would create the circle in space, activating a series of images that would be reflected in a mirror - their movement initiating the story. I wanted to give to the viewer, as my partner in the process, the moment of spontaneity expressed in painting an enso or experienced through a single brush stroke in calligraphy.” Without the participation of a viewer the images would remain static.

The enso in Zen represents emptiness. In an animated brush stroke a spontaneous moment emerges freely creating a circle of enlightenment; thus an aesthetic union occurs. There is no artist and there is no creator—just an energetic force that emanates and electrifies the space.  Ensos also “evoke power, dynamism, charm, humor, drama and stillness.” Traditional ensos emerge from the monastery custom, where students spend years with their teacher, mindfully practicing calligraphy and creating countless circles of enlightenment. Audrey Yoshiko Seo observes that “only a person who is mentally and spiritually complete can draw a true one. Some artists practice drawing an enso daily as a spiritual practice.” Forgoing the spontaneity of  one stroke painting, Carrie spent a length of time with This and That. “It was an open process; the animated content kept changing and I had to make a concerted effort not to fight that until I absolutely had to make a decision.” 

The animation is intentionally ambiguous. Carrie explains the symbolic allusion ingrained in the enso: “The animation features birds, an iconic and powerfully symbolic image. In this particular flight, a tangled ball of string is tethered to the bird’s feet.  Carrying the string could have different implications: a burden, unidentified/unfocused energy, or anxiety.  At a certain point in the animation the string snaps, unravels, and falls into radiating space; one can interpret this as a catharsis. And as it dissolves - as the tangle falls away from the bird - it disappears, only to reappear to start the process again.  This mirrors the symbolic cyclical nature of an enso.”  

The cyclical nature of the animation emulates the paradigm of creation.  In Zen Circles of Enlightenment, Seo links our hominal relationship to the circle. “Our connection to the circle is in some ways obvious.   We are embedded in the circularity of the horizon. We live on a sphere that, with other spheres, circles around the sun, in the vast celestial dome.  We are enamored with the moon.  In art, we highlight an abstract circle’s many natural forms—the ring, the sphere, the wheel. We create halos that float above Saints’ heads, and perform ritual circle dances.”

Traditional enso calligraphies are often brushed in black ink; likewise, Carrie designed her enso by omitting color from her palette. “I chose to paint the image in black-and-white to simplify the image; it makes the animation more crisp. If it was done in color, the images would be muddled on the disc and hard to discern.  I wanted the whole piece to be monochromatic and calming to the eye; simple and a little mysterious.”  It is the elusive nature of this sculpture that had many Sangha members, including the writer of this segment, spinning the handle before the phenakistascope was unveiled to the public eye during New Rochelle’s Art Festival on Saturday October 2nd and 3rd. 

“Enso is considered to be one of the most profound subjects in Zenga (Zen-inspired paintings), and it is believed that the character of the artist is fully-exposed in how she or he draws an enso.”  Aware of this vital principle of an enso, Carrie also commented on what makes the circle of enlightenment so alluring.  “Ensos come from those who have forgotten about the bird and the tangle—the painter fades and the enso surfaces.”

The interplay of flight and entanglement also implies the relationship between the relative (conditional life) and the absolute (infinite); hence, Carrie envisioned her sculpture to invoke interdependence. “Flight is the activity.  The entanglement and the release become a natural result of flight.”  Linking emptiness and the shavings of daily life, This and That expresses non-duality differently and alongside of the many other pieces submitted for the Sweetcake Enso exhibition.

The phenakistascope allows many visitors a chance to play leading them to approach the whimsical instrument with an eager eye. “I wanted this piece,” Carrie explained, “to invoke a sense of wonder and magic, to invite curiosity and playfulness.”   

In The Way of the Peaceful Warrior, by Dan Millman, Socrates, the protagonist’s mentor and spiritual teacher, associates child-like wonder to the Garden of Eden. “Every infant lives in a bright garden where everything is sensed directly, without the veils of thought—free of beliefs, interpretations, and judgments.” Perhaps, spinning the handle of this enduring sculpture echoes the famous koan: what did your face look like before your parents were born?

“When someone reaches out to turn the handle they are open to the unknown and momentarily forget themselves in the activity of watching and spinning. Then the image truly comes to life,” Carrie affirmed. This child-like innocence is precisely the reason why This and That has been aptly-nicknamed, by a few Sangha members, “the spinny-thingy.”


Millman, Dan. The Way of the Peaceful Warrior.  California: New World Library.

Seo, Audrey Yoshiko. Enso: Zen Circles of Enlightenment.  Massachusetts: Weatherhill.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Painting a Needle With a Pointed Life

By Dosho Port

Twenty years ago I spent most of a year at Bukkokuji, a Zen monastery in Obama, Japan. The teacher, Harada Tangen (Unfathomable Mystery), was the only surviving successor of Harada Daiun (Great Cloud) Roshi (1871 – 1961) the Zen monk who reintroduced koan introspection to Soto Zen and launched the Harada-Yasutani lineage with the Maezumi, Kapleau, Yamada and Aitken branches now so influential in the West.

The most striking feature of Roshi Sama, as Tangen’s students called him, was his powerful hara-based, joyful energy. His dharma talks and dokusan, in their unfathomable mysteriousness, almost always included his most important two words of Zen – “Ichi tantei!” Or “One doing!”
Dokusan with him was unpredictable in many ways, including whether Roshi Sama, who had studied English more than 50 years previously in high school, would have access to his mind’s English language file or not. But it didn’t matter much. Whatever I said to him, presenting the Mu koan, or cold, tired, hungry, clear, confused, or lonely – all might be met with him a hearty “One doing!” Or, depending on the day, it might also be the Japanese, “Ichi tantei!”
And despite his koan Zen orientation, his “one-doing” was exactly right from my previous training in Dogen Zen. In what follows, I will explore Tangen’s “One doing!” from the perspective of Dogen’s Zen, starting with a passage from Actualizing the Fundamental Point and follow with a fragment from the Healing Point of Sitting Zen poem.
The question that I want to explore is how to live life to the full. What I’ve learned from thirty-some years of Zen practice is that in order to live life to the full, it is critical to be clear about one point – where am I standing?  Am I outside looking in or inside looking out? Put another way, is Zen about the business of being free within this life of suffering, living fully in it, or being free from this life of suffering, transcending the world? 

Kimsooja, A Needle Woman, Tokyo, 1999, video still.
In order to investigate these questions, let’s dip into how Dogen’s thinking is translated and how the translations, perhaps due to constraints of English, lean to the transcendent or the immanent, sometimes of the same passage.

For example, in Actualizing the Fundamental Point, Dogen says, “Since the Buddha way by nature goes beyond abundance and deficiency, there is arising and perishing, delusion and realization, living beings and buddhas” (Shohaku Okumura translation).
From this translation it sounds like the Buddha way is transcendent – going beyond fullness and lack and all the other this and thats of this life. Other translations seem to support this. Tanahashi and Wenger have leaping clear of” and Nishijima and Cross say transcendent over.” However, other translators see the Buddha way as immanent: Cleary has the Buddha way “springing forth from” abundance and deficiency. Kim prefersleaps out of.”

Looking at the original exacerbates the issue. Dogen used these characters: 豊倹より跳出 (hoken yori choshutu suru). The phrase at issue here can be read “go beyond” or “leap out from.” Perhaps there is a third place option, something that isn’t fully encompassed by either side of the freedom-from-suffering or freedom-within-suffering teeter totter. What would that be?
In another work by Dogen, Healing Point of Zazen, Dogen quotes a poem by an earlier Soto Zen master, Hongzhi. The most relevant part for our inquiry is this:

Essential function of buddha after buddha,
Functioning essence of ancestor after ancestor –
It knows without touching things;
It illumines without facing objects.
Knowing without touching things,
Its knowing is inherently subtle…
Remember, we’re exploring the question of how to live life to the full and what the Buddha and Zen masters suggest in terms of where we stand in relation to our life. In other words, is the Buddha Way transcendent or immanent?
The first point of this poem fragment is that the essential function and the essential functioning are marked by a kind of knowing that doesn’t touch or face the things of the world. It appears to be transcendent, yet it is “knowing.”
 “Knowing without touching things/Its knowing is inherently subtle.” What kind of knowing is this? In his commentary on this poem, Dogen cautions us that “‘…Knowing’ does not mean perception; for perception is of little measure.”

Kimsooja, A Needle Woman, Delhi, 1999, video still.
Our ordinary perception is small. Habitual unawakened perception can stand apart form the world, but this is different than the kind of knowing that doesn’t touch or face things of the world. Perception is also dependently arising – eye, eye consciousness, and red maple leaf interact. I (subject) see (sense organ transfers information to the mind that recognizes) the red maple leaf. As such, ordinary perception is a mental image, a shadow of the world and so is divided, and what is divided is suffering.

While perception is not Hongzhi’s knowing, it is also not understanding, because, Dogen says, “…understanding is artificially constructed.” For example, look at an enso, any enso. What do you see? Black color and zero form – and then the mind projects a meaning (including lack of meaning) based on some understanding. According to Wikipedia, the enso “… symbolizes the Absolute enlightenment, strength, elegance, the Universe, and the void.”

However, maybe for you (like me), it just looks like a zero. Maybe you like zeros and maybe you don’t (I do). Maybe you see a corporate logo (like and all the associations and understanding that arise with that.

I suspect that in understanding the enso, you are not much more free or big happy than before you went to all the trouble to artificially construct something. Me either. However we artificially construct an understanding of the enso before us, there seems to be only a limited measure of essential functioning there. If so, then we know that we’re not sitting in the bull’s eye of Buddha’s essential functioning. In other words, given that the process of understanding involves a constructed meaning, understanding is not the knowing of which Hongzhi speaks.

Then what is right? Dogen says, “Therefore, this ‘knowing’ is ‘not touching things’ and ‘not touching things’ is ‘knowing.’

Knowing is not perception or understanding because it does not touch things and because it does not touch things, it is knowing. This begs the question, where can we go, how can we position ourselves, such that we are not outside, touching things? How about if we position ourselves “inside” and perceive and understand from there? However, this won’t do either because it falls into the same limitations of perception and understanding.

Kimsooja, A Needle Woman, Shanghai 1999, video still.

If the knowing of the Buddha’s isn’t realized from either outside looking in or inside looking out, then where do we optimally stand in our practice? Indeed, before breaking through the separation of subject and object, it seems impossible, like stopping the sound of the far-off temple bell. But it is not. It is very simple and close, now.

Glowing appellations of the simple-and-close don’t reach it. This is not some ga-ga bliss trip. Dogen continues, “Such ‘knowing’ should not be called universal knowledge; it should not be categorized as ‘self-knowledge.’”

It should not be called self-knowledge if that implies setting the self apart from other. That would be to transcend the things of the world.

What is the knowing that is the essential function of Buddhas? How can we do it? Dogen gives us two more clues. First, “…this ‘not touching things’ means ‘When light comes, hit the lightness. When darkness comes, hit the darkness.’”        

This admonition is attributed to a wild-and-whacky monk who was close to Rinzai, Puhua. He is known for wandering from town to town, ringing his bell and singing, "When brightness comes, hit the brightness. When darkness comes, hit the darkness.”

“Hit” in this context suggests the nuance of “hit” that is “…to come in contact with” and not in a violent way.  In other words, in whatever circumstance arises, meet it directly. If it is light, become light. If it is dark, become dark – with no space between, like a ball meeting a window. That is where to stand. But Puhua meant more, I suspect, than “become” – vigorously express light, vigorously express dark. Just one doing!

Dogen concludes with the second clue.  “This ‘not touching things’ means … ‘sitting and breaking the skin born of mother.’”

The essential function of the buddhas and ancestors, then, is hitting light when light comes, hitting dark when dark comes. In so doing, we break the hardening of all the categories, even the notions of the origins of this body from the body of our mother. Not that we didn’t come from there. Just that sitting means we break the skin, just like the baby’s head crowns in the birth process. Interestingly, the line doesn’t say whether we break in or break out, through or down – because that would suggest a separation.

So where does this leave us standing?  On my first day at Bukkokuji, after morning zazen and service, everyone shot to their cleaning assignments. The work leader, Kodo, grabbed a broom and danced along the main side-walk in front of the Buddha Hall, furiously brushing away the dirt and leaves. Zen temples are usually rather constrained and sober so I couldn’t help myself but to stand and stare at his dynamic presentation. Seeing me by the side of the passage watching him, Kodo continued his work but came directly at me, vigorously sweeping as he went. Stopping abruptly a foot away from where I stood, he said in rough English, “Me Mohammad Ali and I float like butterfly, sting like bee.” 

And away he went showing me just one doing.

Kimsooja, A Needle Woman, Tokyo, 1991, video still.

Dosho Port teaches from Minnesota for local sanghas as well as on line at his award-winning blog Wild Fox Zen. Dosho wrote the book Keep Me in Your Heart A While:  The Haunting Zen of Dainin Katagiri, in honor of his teacher, and is currently working on a book describing his experience with Dogen.  From New York I was very fortunate to have been in an ango with Dosho Port, a small community living and dreaming Dogen's Zen with capping phrases and video dokusan.  From around the world students poked their heads up before the camera to meet face to face in the forceful teachings of Genjokoan.  Since then Dosho has made the leap and as a Soto priest formally taken up koan study with James Ford, David Rynick and Melissa Blacker.  Knowing that Dosho is involved with koan study as he writes his book on Dogen adds to the savoriness of his own one doing.

I first saw Kimsooja's A Needle Woman in the "Street Art Street Life" 2009 exhibit at the Bronx Museum of Art.  What you see here are stills excerpted from a video installation.  Kimsooja stands absolutely still in a standing meditation pose. A  video camera is installed behind her, registering her own body and pedestrian reactions to her stillness from a variety of places around the globe.  Sewing and the needle are a strong motif in her body of work, and here we might say that in her one doing she breaks through the skin born of mother on each spot she stands.  You can see and read more of her work here

Catherine Seigen Spaeth 

Sweetcake Enso opens at Brooklyn Zen Center November 20th!

Noah Breuer Eagle/Tomcat Pinwheel15x15"  Pigment Print, Collage, Resin and Mixed Media, 2009

On Saturday, November 20th, the No Eyes Viewing Wall at Brooklyn Zen Center will be hosting Sweetcake Enso. The Brooklyn Zen Center exhibition is co-curated by Noah Fischer and Catherine Seigen Spaeth and is the second stop in a series of exhibitions that will be traveling to various Zen Centers across the country over the next several months. The opening celebration will take place on the evening of the 20th, from 6:00 – 8:00pm following a one-day sit. Tea and cookies will be served, and there will be a discussion of Zen practice and contemporary art.

The Brooklyn Zen Center is between 3rd and 4th Avenues in Gowanus/Park Slope. To come by train, take the R train to the Union Street stop or the F train to the Carroll Street stop.  For more information visit the Brooklyn Zen Center website, here.

Noah Fischer, Endless Circulation, wood, wax, metal leaf, 20" diameter, 2010.

Sunday, October 17, 2010


Christina Fernandez, Lavandaria #8, 2002, Copyright Christina Fernandez, courtesy of Gallery Luisotti.

By Gillian Cummings

Starkness: in the dogwood a robin’s nest
the bottom of which has become unwoven from the top
so that, looking up, you saw a frayed O
and through it the dusk color of sky
before a night when it would snow.  It made you think
of the shadowed ceiling of a church and white
candles burning and what it feels like when the body
is trying to teach the mind stillness.  There is an O
in Buddhist calligraphy that has the quality of being
finished and unfinished, as if endings and beginnings
only brush each other lightly, or as if a break
runs through perfection making it more
luminous.  The dragon swallowing its tail
in alchemical texts is similar but not the same.
Seeing the nest, you paused, then walked down the path
to the laundry room where your clothes had stopped
tumbling in rough circles.  You wanted to remember
how your life had come to this point, but you couldn’t
so you folded.  The brief heat of dried cloth.
The solace taken, in winter, from something worn,
warmed, freshened.  The open space at the center.
The gesture.  The open space that surrounds.

Gillian Cummings is a member of the Empty Hand Zen Center, and would like to thank the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Memorial Foundation for their generosity in providing her a grant, with which she was able to write this poem.  

Tremendous gratitude is expressed towards Christina Fernandez, whose  photograph accompanies Gillian's poem.  An exhibition of her work, "residue/residuo," is currently on view at Gallery Luisotti in Los Angeles.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Sweetcake Enso: Works in the First Exhibition at the Empty Hand Zen Center

These works at the Empty Hand Zen Center in New Rochelle, NY are in the first of the series of Sweetcake Enso exhibitions. They are all available for purchase and to benefit the participating zendo. For more information about these Ensos please contact Catherine Seigen Spaeth at

Miya Ando,  okyoo [sutra 108], 16.5" x 88', liquid graphite on paper, 2010
 Photo courtesy of Ivory Serra.  Proceeds to benefit the Empty Hand Zen Center.

Miya Ando, okyoo [sutra 108], detail.  Photo courtesy of Ivory Serra.

Sanford Biggers, B-Bodhisattva Slipmats, silkscreened polyester felt slipmats, 15x28", 2001.
Proceeds to benefit the Empty Hand Zen Center.

Nonin Chowaney, No Birth, No Death, brush calligraphy written on handmade meadow grass paper, 31x25", 2004
Proceeds to benefit the Empty Hand Zen Center.

 Noah Fischer, Endless Circulation, wood, wax, metal leaf, 20" diameter, 2010.
Proceeds to benefit the Empty Hand Zen Center.

 Carolyn Fuchs, This and That, cast iron, wood, metal, acrylic paint, 2010.
Proceeds to benefit the Empty Hand Zen Center.

Max Gimblett, Sweet Cake, sumi ink, Thai Garden embossed handmade paper, 22 1/4x30 1/2", 2001.
Proceeds to benefit the San Francisco Zen Center.

Gonkar Gyatso, Buddha in Modern Times, silkscreen print, 22x19", 2009.
Proceeds to benefit the Empty Hand Zen Center.

Gregg Hill, Enso for Thay, paint on steel, 22" diameter x 4", 2010.
Proceeds to benefit the Empty Hand Zen Center.

Anne Humanfeld, 100 Different China, acrylic transfer, 30x24", 2010.
Proceeds to benefit the Empty Hand Zen Center.

Anne Humanfeld, Eggs and Babies, acrylic transfer, 30x35", 2010.
Proceeds to benefit the Empty Hand Zen Center.

Anne Humanfeld, Eiger Enso, acrylic transfer, 35x30", 2010.
Proceeds to benefit the Empty Hand Zen Center.

Liz LaBella, Enso Dawn, mixed media, 2010.
Proceeds to benefit the Empty Hand Zen Center.

Jeff Schlanger, Lens, acrylic on Whatman paper, 30x22", 2010.
Proceeds to benefit the Empty Hand Zen Center.

Jeff Schlanger, Maija Wheel, acrylic on Whatman paper, 30x22", 2010.
Proceeds to benefit the Empty Hand Zen Center. 

Jeff Schlanger, Planet, acrylic on Whatman paper, 30x22", 2010.
Proceeds to benefit the Empty Hand Zen Center.

Jeff Schlanger, Ring, acrylic on Whatman paper, 30x22", 2010.
Proceeds to benefit the Empty Hand Zen Center.


 Fran Shalom, Untitled, oil on wood on panel, 11x14", 2010.
Proceeds to benefit the Empty Hand Zen Center.

Fran Shalom, Untitled, oil on wood on panel, 12x12", 2010.
Proceeds to benefit the Empty Hand Zen Center.

  Fran Shalom, Untitled, oil on wood on panel, 11x14", 2010.
Proceeds to benefit the Empty Hand Zen Center. 

 Karen Schiff, Pointing at the Moon (all through the night), gesso on paper bags, 20x16", 2010.
Proceeds to benefit the Empty Hand Zen Center.

Karen Schiff, Pointing at the Moon (under a mackerel sky), gesso on paper bags, 20x16", 2010.
Proceeds to benefit the Empty Hand Zen Center.

Bridget Spaeth, Pull,  gouache, graphite on spliced paper, 12x16", 2005.
Proceeds to benefit the Empty Hand Zen Center.



Michael Wenger, Untitled 1, 2, 3, 4, sumi ink on paper, 2010.
Proceeds to benefit the Empty Hand Zen Center.

Monday, September 27, 2010

When a Buddha Meets a Buddha: Zen Art and Sweetcake Ensos

Michael Wenger, 1, 2010, sumi ink on paper, a percentage of the proceeds have been designated to the Empty Hand Zen Center.
By Catherine Seigen Spaeth

The exhibition of Hakuin’s work in the United States together with the series of Sweetcake Enso exhibits provide an opportunity to revisit the notion of  a Zen Art.  That there is a Zen Art is a notion that has earned its place, but at the same time there is no insurance of its security. The interest here is in a shift from the monastic practice of Japan to a stronger emphasis upon lay practice in American Zen, and what this means for understanding contemporary art as Zen practice.   Michael Wenger’s paintings, and his sense of the value of trust and permission in contemporary American student-teacher relationship are an opening towards such a discussion.

Many scholars of the relation of Zen and art have identified specific principles between them.  Of interest in the context of Sweetcake Enso is that in the history of Zen practice painting has been a vehicle of dharma expression between teacher and student.  Helmut Brinker explains that in broader Chinese aesthetic theory it was already the case that the signature of an artist was considered to be a “mind seal,” bringing the artist, the work and the viewer together simultaneously in absorptive aesthetic experience.  This became particularly important in the Zen tradition, where the brushwork of a Zen Master is an unbroken continuity of embodied dharma expression across generations.  Contemporary American practitioners will flock to the Hakuin exhibition at the Japan Society, becoming absorbed in the authentic gestures of Hakuin’s eighteenth century teachings.

Audrey Seo, who together with Steve Addiss curated the Hakuin show, has done considerable research to understand this phenomenon in the context of Japanese monastic practice.  A Zen Master will teach his painting practice to his disciples as yet another way of carrying the dharma forward mind to mind.   These simple and direct works meet well a practice of art historical scholarship in which the connoisseurship of various hands supports what is understood of the artists personalities and their varied expressions of the dharma, from teacher to student.  This includes their relationship to one another:  Seo explains that where Deiryu portrays his Zen Master Nantenbo with awe and slight apprehension, Nantenbo portrays himself as a weathered old man, “But the strong force of the Master’s brushwork is still felt in the dramatic splash of the ink surrounding him.”**
Michael Wenger, 2, 2010, sumi ink on paper, a percentage of the proceeds have been designated to the Empty Hand Zen Center.

Japanese Zen painting is not always as lineal as this, however, and it is Hakuin who is the most well known for painting for the laity.  There is no question that Hakuin is understood to be a Zen master of considerable force, “a sea of vital energy,” but the manner of this energy was as much in his fondness of  humorous characters in popular folklore, and his own humor in the visual pun as it was in anything else. Hakuin was not terribly interested in the Enso, there are only four known such paintings of his.  But an ox is staring at a round and gated window from a distance, and Hotei fits in his own round sack.

Hakuin Ekaku, Hotei Watching Mouse Sumo. Ink on paper, 14 5/8 x 20 5/8 in. Ginshu Collection. Photo: Maggie Nimkin.  Found here.
In contemporary American Zen circles the Enso is more likely to be seen without words or punning tendency.   In postwar American Zen direct experience and the absolute present occupied the space of high culture at the expense of meaning and the figurative, and today there are numerous Zen painting workshops that work abstractly with the Enso in an attempt to fuse art and life as unmediated experience.

But among those with an appreciation of the Enso tradition, the circle is rarely an isolated abstract form.   Audrey Seo explains that in 1969 when Shibayama wrote his book Zenga no enso:

His only request was that the book should not merely reproduce the enso but also provide the calligraphic commentary accompanying each enso.  He believed that the teachings given by Zen Masters in their inscriptions was of the utmost importance, and that therefore the image of the circle should not be indiscriminately introduced without the text.  To this end he also said that an enso without an inscription was like “flat beer.” ***
Michael Wenger, 3, 2010, sumi ink on paper, a percentage of the proceeds have been designated to the Empty Hand Zen Center.

Not unlike Hakuin in his popular approach, contemporary artist and Zen teacher Michael Wenger of the San Francisco Zen Center was perhaps first well known for his book 33 Fingers: A Collection of Modern American Koans.  Drawing upon a variety of teachers as well as popular figures such as Yogi Bera and Woody Allen, vending machines, candy, patience and ruinous hyphens recast the traditional koan meanings of clay tiles, a man up a tree, and the sound of a pebble hitting bamboo.

About eight years ago, Wenger began painting as a regular practice, something he had only done occasionally before.  He describes this practice in the subtitle of his blog, inklings:

My work runs the gamut from primitive cave paintings to the post modern; it is influenced by traditional Asian brushwork, modern painters and new yorker cartoonists, from doodles to bizarro.  Its subject matter is meditation, sports, politics, social conventions…in short, everything that crosses my brush/mind I call them inklings…creations brought to life by ink, brush and the air the secret of the work is in each stroke of the brush.
Important to Michael Wenger is that “it’s easy to do freestroke painting, but it’s not so easy to tie it back into the mind.  That’s a different step.”

Michael Wenger, 4, 2010, sumi ink on paper, a percentage of the proceeds have been designated to the Empty Hand Zen Center.
It was eight years ago that the painter Max Gimblett came to the San Francisco Zen Center and met Michael Wenger.  Across the distance from the east coast to the west, a Buddha met a Buddha.  Gimblett was already a painter of some renown, and encouraged Wenger to paint his inklings, noticing Wenger’s inclination to write on his finished drawings and encouraging this.   And Max Gimblett accepted the Precepts from Michael Wenger in 2006, exhibiting in The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, in 2009.  The permission and trust between them has amplified what they each can do:
When two Buddhas shine
Teacher and student 
Become Wisdom *****
What exists between Michael Wenger and Max Gimblett is rare in that very few teacher-student relationships in America today are grounded to this extent in the shared practice of painting – I know of no others like this one.   What their relationship does show is how generously the dharma unfolds in the acceptance, permission, and trust between a Zen teacher and a lay practitioner. 

Of course these existed equally and well in the Japanese monastic relations of teacher and student.  But it does seem to me that if there is such a thing as a Zen Art today, without the narrower parameters of monastic life proscribed forms and previously understood principles are loosening and shifting to make room for what acceptance, permission and trust will allow in a culture of lay practice.

Exhibitions such as Third Mind have done much to show how much room there has been, but in the context of “contemplating Asia.”  Sweetcake Enso does want to narrow the parameters from such a broad contemplation, but only in order to understand how open the contemporary lay practice of Zen is to contemporary artists.  This is the acceptance, permission and trust of these shows.

Below is the painting Free at Last, painted by Michael Wenger in 2009.   He explains that he was providing a workshop and made the statement that religion and art belong to no one.  It was at this time, when painting Free at Last, that he most understood what it was that his student Max Gimblett had given him the permission to do.

Michael Wenger, Free at Last, 2009
* Helmut Brinker, Hiroshi Kanazawa, Andreas Leisinger, “Zen Masters of Meditation in Images and Writings,” Artibus Asiae Supplementum, V. 40, c. 1996, pp. 3-384, p. 37.

** Audrey Seo, The Art of Twentieth Century Zen: Paintings and Calligraphy by Japanese Masters, Shambala Press, c. 2000, p. 37.

*** ibid., p. 187.

**** Telephone interview, September 16th, 2010.

*****Michael Wenger, 33 Fingers:  A Collection of Modern American Koans, San Francisco, Clear Glass Publishing, c. 1994, Verse from Case Number 13, "She is my Teacher," p. 33.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Rafe and Ariya Martin: On "Gabyo," Zen Master Dogen's "Painting of a Rice Cake."

Ariya Martin, Teeny Tower #1, archival pigment print, 34x22", 2010

By Rafe Martin

If you say a painting is not real, then the material phenomenal world is not real.  Unsurpassed enlightenment is a painting.  The entire phenomenal universe and the empty sky are nothing but a painting.  Since this is so, there is no remedy for satisfying hunger other than a painted rice cake.  Without painted hunger you never become a true person. - Zen Master Dogen, "Painting of a Rice Cake," (Trans., Gary Snyder, Mountains and Rivers Without End.)
When [the Dharma] internalized it is most naturally taught in the form of folk stories: the jataka tales in classical Buddhism, the koans in Zen. - Robert Aitken Roshi.

Painted rice cakes, it’s said, can’t satisfy hunger. How could they? It would be like reading a menu and expecting that to nourish us – this is how one traditional Zen view puts it. To be satisfied, we’re told, we have to sit down and eat. To satisfy our real existential hunger, we have to sit down and actually practice. We’ve got to eat a real meal, bite into, chew and swallow a real rice cake. But Dogen brilliantly states, “There is no remedy for satisfying our hunger other than a painted rice cake.”

No remedy for satisfying our deep hunger other than a painted rice cake? A painting of a rice cake is going to do the job – is actually the only thing that can?

Hmmm. So, is it that without illusion, imagination, dreams we can’t be whole, can’t fulfill the potential of our realization of this very moment? Without stories of previous exertions, without temples, teachers, thangkas, painted and carved Buddhas, altars, Centers, Shakespeare, zendos, Beethoven, Blake, Gandhi, Dogen, Mary Oliver, Gary Snyder, Martin Luther King, Tarzan, Ryokan, Rembrandt, Rothko, Hakuin, Hamlet, Gandalf, Frodo, mothers, fathers – who would we be? How would we proceed?

Dogen goes on to say in “Gabyo” that the idea of ourselves as either unenlightened or enlightened is itself a painting built of the five skandhas. Likewise the rooted idea of self and other is such a painting. Buddhas themselves are paintings created with clay shrines, a blade of grass, limitless aspiration, the thirty-two marks, and countless kalpas of assiduous practice effort.

If this is so, then what kind of truth would we seek, what kind of truth could we actualize that is not a painting?

How would we become whole, that is, be satisfied, without a painting of a rice cake?

For it is out of the imagination that we create our real lives. Athletes know this better than scholars. If you want to swim better, visualize yourself in the pool, the water flowing smoothly past, the chiming, churning sound of that flow, the kick of your legs, the perfect effortless stroke. What happens in the imagination affects us, even makes us who we are. As Yeats says, “In dreams begin responsibilities.” Stories, paintings, art itself is a tool that our ancestors worldwide passed down to us, an impressive technology, if you will, to refine the inner life, to improve our dreaming. To paint a picture.

This goes against the grain of a certain contemporary view that Buddhism, especially Zen, is not about dreams and imaginings, but rather about “reality” and “truth.” The salvation Buddhist practice offers is, in this view, freedom from all such old-timey “fluff.” I have even encountered some Zen practitioners who hold that imagination is the furthest thing from Buddhism, and, indeed, useless to its practice.

But we could just as well assert the opposite — that Buddhism, Zen included, is a great engine of wish and dream. In fact, the Bodhisattva ideal, the core of Mahayana Buddhism of which Zen is one aspect, might be said to depend almost entirely upon the power of Imagination itself. To vow to save all beings one must not simply imagine, but one must imagine bravely, totally, immensely, and deeply. Why commit oneself to a small dream, tediously emptying a vast ocean by the teaspoonful, when a great dream can encompass everything, even Truth itself, and swallow up the entire universe in a single gulp?

Of course, “imagination,” like “myth,” can for us, today, summon quite opposing connotations. The popular meaning of myth, like imagination, is that it is something “false.” But myth can also mean something so true it cannot be put into one final linguistic or imagistic form. It underlies all forms. It is a story truer than words can say.

Ariya Martin, Teeny Tower # 2, archival pigment print, 34x22", 2010

As for imagination, it need not mean fantasy, reflection, daydreams, thoughts, insights, or the stream of internal vision and thought, where we are isolated, withdrawn, and separated from whatever is right before us: that teacup; this bug. That damned leaky faucet. It can just as authentically mean Imagination, in the sense of infinite creative potential, the realm we might enter in meditation (zazen) when body and mind fall away; emptiness that is neither static nor dull, but free (empty) of all limitation; that is, a realm of infinitely creative potential, the realm out of which we dream/create our own unique daily, never-to-be-repeated, moment-by-moment, breath-by-breath, thought form-by-thought form, lives. It is where the highest we can imagine is the same as what IS, the state one might experience in watching the night dances at Zuni Pueblo where plants, birds, thoughts, galaxies, and stars enter the plaza as living, dancing beings. “There is a dream dreaming us,” is a Bushmen saying pointing to this realm. It is the Empty realm of Reality. Blake says, “The imagination is not a State: it is the Human existence itself.” And what is that? It is simply, “To see a world in a grain of sand,/ And a heaven in a wild flower, /Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,/ And eternity in an hour.” (W. Blake, “Auguries of Innocence”)        

So, what we most usually term “reality” is, as it turns out, simply another dream, an imagining and a somewhat limited one at that. In the end, reality and imagination, Mind and stories cannot be separated. Painted cakes do feed our hunger. Not only are they not two, they are not even one: “In other words, myth is reality and reality myth. Dogen did not believe . . . in a dualism between reality and myth . . . rather his purport was to clarify, purify, and reinforce myth — that is, Buddha-nature — in order to see and touch reality as it was.” (Hee-Jin Kim, Eihei Dogen: Mystical Realist

Again, to repeat Dogen himself:

If you say the painting is not real, then the material phenomenal world is not real, the Dharma is not real. Unsurpassed enlightenment is a painting. The entire phenomenal universe and the empty sky are nothing but a painting. Since this is so, there is no remedy for satisfying hunger other than a painted rice cake. Without painted hunger you never become a true person.

One of the central koans (literally “public record”) in the venerable Mumonkan (Gateless Gate or Gateless Barrier) collection of koans and commentaries by the early thirteenth century Chinese Zen Master Mumon (Wu-men) is its second case, that of “Hyakujo’s (Pai-chang’s) Fox.” The case itself is essentially a folktale about karma and essential nature in which a head priest is reborn 500 lifetimes as a fox. Wu-men’s pithy comment on the case ends, “If you have the eye to see through this you will appreciate how the former head of the monastery enjoyed his five hundred happy blessed lives as a fox.”

Here Mumon might be making a sly reference to jataka tales – stories of the Buddha’s former births, often in animal form. In the jataka tradition, the Buddha himself lives (essentially) five hundred past lives, before stepping forward and making his final, total effort to embody the Way, thereby becoming Shakyamuni, the Buddha of our own historic period. Mumon’s reference touches an interesting and classic point —were any of those 500 previous lives any less “Buddha”? The Zen question here is — are any of our lives now?

The voice of a mythic, deeply imaginative Zen runs like quicksilver through the koans, turning back and forth on fundamental points of karma and essential nature. And behind that, lie pointers to the Buddha’s past lives as brought to life through the Dharma folklore of the jatakas, little paintings, snapshots of moments on the Way, all part of the traditional context of Buddhist practice and aspiration. They show the Buddha painting his own picture of Buddha, an enso portrait, with the brush and ink of countless kalpas of sustained and dedicated practice.

Ariya Martin, Teeny Tower # 3, archival pigment print, 34x22", 2010

In Ariya Martin’s Teeny Towers one surface meets another in a clambering balancing act of daily aspirations. Containers at a modest bathroom sink - familiar to our hands in weight and shape and barcoded - summon grand triumphs in small daily actions.  Intimate, domestic spaces are the scene of our own placing, where we often contemplate our actions in more administered spaces.  Here, the symbolic imagination has been invited into the measured placement of one thing atop another in the midst of precarious life.

Ariya Martin is the daughter of Rafe Martin, a nice review of these photographs can be found at her website here.  Martin received her MFA in imaging arts-fine art photography from Rochester Institute of technology. She moved to New Orleans in 2006 to put her photography skills to use as instructor and co-director of The New Orleans Kid Camera Project (a project of One Bird), the non-profit organization she co-founded. For the past two years she has been teaching photography as adjunct faculty at University of New Orleans, where she currently is the Artist in Residence.

Rafe Martin is an award winning, internationally known author and storyteller whose work has been featured in Time, Newsweek, and USA Today. He has been a featured teller at the National Storytelling Festival, the International Storytelling Center, and the Joseph Campbell Festival of Myth and Story among many others, and is a recipient of the prestigious Empire State Award. He was Roshi Philip Kapleau’s chosen editor for his own final books, and is also a fully ordained lay Zen practioner, with many years of Zen practice and study. Among his many books are The Hungry Tigress: Buddhist Myths, Legends, and Jataka Tales. The Banyan Deer: A Parable of Courage and Compassion, and available on September 28th, Endless Path: Awakening Within the Buddhist Imagination – Zen Practice, Daily Life, and the Jataka Tales.