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.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Sweetcake Enso Opening at the Empty Hand Zen Center, Saturday October 2nd and 3rd, 12:00-5:00

Anne Humanfeld, 100 Different China, 18x12 collage and monoprint on 30x24" nylon.  As designated by the artists all proceeds from this sale are to benefit the Empty Hand Zen Center.

Sweetcake Enso draws attention to the abstract circle as a symbol of presentness in daily life, and opens out the traditional calligraphy of the Enso to include the work of Buddhist artists that is thriving in the contemporary art context.  Alongside of Zen Master Nonin Chowaney’s traditional calligraphy will be that of artists more internationally known in the contemporary art context, such as Sanford Biggers, Noah Fischer, and Max Gimblett.  Above is an image by Anne Humanfeld, a member of the Empty Hand Zen Center. Sweetcake Enso will also include the work of local community artists, and is traveling from Zen center to Zen center in order to showcase their work in the context of larger Buddhist community.

The inaugural exhibition at the Empty Hand Zen Center in New Rochelle coincides with the opening of the Hakuin show at the Japan Society, a very rare opportunity for people in this country to see the work of a Japanese Zen master of a distant century. Exhibited alongside of Hakuin at the Japan Society is the work of Max Gimblett, below, also in the Sweetcake Enso exhibitions.  Sweetcake Enso exhibits are a tribute to the teachers who have come before us and those who are with us now, to an exchanging of the bones from one generation to the next.  As these exhibits move from Zen center to Zen center they will be raising funds to support the tradition of the student-teacher relationship. 

Max Gimblett, Sweet Cake, sumi ink, Thai Garden embossed handmade paper, 22 1/4x30 1/2", 2001, as designated by the artist all proceeds  from this sale are to benefit the San Francisco Zen Center.

The Empty Hand Zen Center is located  at 45 Lawton Street, New Rochelle, New York, 10801.  Directions can be found here.

The work in these exhibitions is for sale.  To make an inquiry please contact Catherine Seigen Spaeth,