Monday, May 30, 2011

Sweetcake Enso at Butsugenji, Eugene Oregon, this Saturday June 4th

Tina Soen Schrager, Impermanence, mixed media: ink, papers, red bark dogwood, copper wire, 26x20"

Coming down from the walls of the San Francisco Zen Center and up on the walls of Butsugenji this Saturday, June 4th, Sweetcake Enso continues its pilgrimage.  As the show moves from place to place the intersangha dialogue is also becoming more expansive and clear.  From Butsugenji here are two works, each of them drawing upon the sutra as the ground for practice.  Above is a mixed media piece by the Butsugenji coordinator of the exhibit, Tina Soen Schrager - the Heart Sutra seems to end at the point of consciousness, making space for a sliver of clear orange color in accord with the divining rod beside it.  Chris Hoge's Gardens and Groves, Palaces and Pavilions, refers to  Chapter Sixteen of The Lotus Sutra, "The Life Span of the Thus Come One."  Expedient means are qualified by impermanence and loss, yet even so the Three Jewels live on.

Come join us for ensos and fresh, home-made donuts at 2190 Garfield from 5:30 to 9:00!  Proceeds of sales will benefit the Butsugenji Zendo.  At 6:00 local artists will begin to talk about their work on view as an expression of their Buddhist practice. 

Chris Hoge, Gardens and Groves, Palaces and Pavilions, photograph on washi paper, 16x20"

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Sweetcake Enso at the Garrison Institute

These works of art are available for purchase and can be seen at the Garrison Institute through August 1st. For more information please contact Catherine Spaeth at catherine.spaeth[at]  All proceeds will benefit the artist, the Garrison Institute, and  to help to cover the fixed expenses of Sweetcake Enso so that it can continue.  If you like this project please consider a donation, known as offering dana, to the right.

Max Gimblett, Moon Enso, sumi ink on Thai Garden smooth paper, 30x22", 2010/11

Across religious traditions the circle has often served as a symbol of unity and spiritual wholeness.  Indeed today for some in the spiritual community there is an idealization of evolutionary consciousness, to the extent that absolutely everything from the smallest particle to the furthest reaches of the universe might become as though a single living mind.  And yet the circle also serves symbolically as zero, providing a fundamental counterpoint to any such idealized notions of fullness and wholeness.  How might the circle continue to be an adequate expression of spiritual life?

Without arriving upon any one answer, Sweetcake Enso is an exhibit that shows the work of Buddhist practitioners who are drawn to the circle as a form.  It is in the diversity of expressions and the timeliness of provisional views that the circle reveals aspects of our spiritual conditions.

Sweetcake Enso is named for the tradition of one-stroke brush painting in monastic Japanese Zen Buddhism, in which the Enso symbolizes the meeting of form and formlessness.  The spontaneity of one brush stroke is palpably sensed in time.  It is both the expression of an individual, to the extent that connoisseurs are able to tell one artist’s Enso from another, and the sense of that individual as composed of fleeting moments, however solid in presentness at each stroke of the brush.  

Max Gimblett’s Moon Enso is in this sense a traditional Enso painting.  The title, Moon Enso, stems from the practice of categorizing Enso with regard to meaning, and the quality of absorption that the artist would like one to become involved in.  Painter and Zen Master Shibiyama explained that an Enso without an accompanying text was like a flat beer, to view it as a pure abstraction was then to miss its true effervescence.  Accompanied by words these circles are not as abstract as they appear, and the category of the Sweetcake Enso, of which one might take a bite, is particularly related to everyday life.

Noah Fischer, Untitled Coin, vacuum-formed plastic, copper leaf, 20", 2011

Some of the artists in this exhibit reach for the content of daily life more than others. Noah Fischer’s vacuformed coin enso reflects upon the coin as a sign for sheer emptiness in exchange value, and for a self draped in its purchase, always compounded at once by desire and obsolescence.  The word LIBERTY is declarative, but in this form it appears as though hovering in the present from a bygone era.

Gregg Hill, Enso for Thay, paint on steel, 22" diameter x 4", 2010

Gregg Hill’s Enso for Thay is a smashed oil drum.  Industrial 55 gallon drums are visible everywhere on the planet, rusty reminders of the global dependence on oil.  In Gregg Hill’s work this heavy object is transformed in the shift from the horizontal field of distribution and conflict to the vertical field of painting, losing its uniform weight in gravity to become a lighter erotic object imbued with a sense of loss.

Karen Schiff, Grate Weight, graphite on paper, 80x42", 2006-2011

Karen Schiff’s Grate Weight is a rubbing from a tree grate in the sidewalk – the tree has died and been removed, leaving blank paper encircled at the center.  The artist explains that Grate Weight expresses the weight of love, of respectfully tending to the world in its varying conditions.

Arlene Shechet, Site Circling, hand made Abaca paper, 34x34 framed, 1997

Arlene Shechet’s Site Circling is a stencil print – paper is pressed to paper as skin to skin.  In Tibetan Buddhism votive stupas are often made to be placed nearby a pilgrimage stupa, a large round structure housing a sacred relic.  Clay is pressed into a mold, and this tsa tsa is then pressed to the earth. Stupas are believed to generate a cosmic energy radiating from their centers, like a stone thrown into water.  Here the architectural footprint is oriented vertically, depicting the iris of an eye as much as a blueprint plan.

Suzy Sureck, Chance Operation, sumi ink and dye on mylar, 18x18" framed, 2010

Suzy Sureck’s Chance Operations are characterized by a slower openness towards her medium than the traditional Enso painting.  The viewer’s absorption in her work is not directed by gesture so much as how pigment takes hold in the process of alchemy.  Paper holds the ring of water which in turn receives colored ink, and the artist’s hand leaves the picture, now a field of delicate local incidents that exceed human will.

 Ross Bleckner, Four Locations, from the Meditation series, Color spitbite aquatint with chine colle, Somerset white paper, Image size 30" x 22", Paper size 39" x 30", Edition of 50.

Finally, Ross Bleckner’s Four Locations is a print from his Meditation Series.  At the center is the trunk of the Bodhi tree, surrounded by radiating leaves.  In the ‘80s Ross Bleckner’s work was understood to be ironic, an expression of postmodern simulacra – the copy of a copy for which there is no origin.  But painter and critic Peter Halley, who most strongly advocated for this understanding of Bleckner’s work, could in the same breath also write that Bleckner’s paintings are an uplifting response to nuclear energy as the superhuman code to knowledge.  Referring to the light in Bleckner’s paintings, Halley wrote: “His work conveys a mood of questioning in the wake of this troubled history, and a realization, relatively novel in Western civilization, that knowledge may be doubt and that doubt may be light – that the reality of disillusionment may also offer the possibility of transcendence.”*


* Peter Halley, “Ross Bleckner: Painting at the End of History,” Arts Magazine, Volume 56, No. 9, May, 1982.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Man 0, Fish 1

By Patricia Mushim Y. Ikeda

Suzy Sureck, Chance Operations: Drawing Series 2010 
15"x15", ink, dye and mylar on paper.

“Man zero, fish one,” I said jokingly to my cousin, who is a Zen Buddhist priest. When I called, she had said she couldn’t stay on the phone because she was on her way to the hospital to see a Japanese man who had come to Hawai’i for a vacation. He went deep sea fishing, and had a heart attack while fighting a large fish. I assumed he was resting, or in the intensive care unit.

“That’s right,” she sighed. “His family is in a state of shock. They’re just grateful that he died while doing something he enjoyed."

“What?” I said. “You mean it really was man zero, fish one?” 

“I’m going to see him in the hospital morgue in a few minutes,” my cousin said. “I’ve got to get my robes and I’ll chant the Heart Sutra.”

The Bodhisattva of Great Compassion when practicing deeply the prajnaparamita…

“OK,” I said. I thought I too should chant the Heart Sutra, to make sure my bases were covered. Here, heart means “heart of wisdom.” For Zen Buddhists, it’s a succinct one-size-fits-all teaching, though hard to accept until you’ve touched a human corpse and know, as one meditation practitioner said of her father at his funeral, “As he is, so shall we be.” 

Perceived the emptiness of all five skandhas, and delivered all beings from their suffering…

In other words, human zero. From the ultimate point of view, fish zero also. Everything else, zero as well. Zero is perfect roundness, emptiness, completion, peace without sharp angles. The great Om, the alpha and omega, the cosmic belly button, the Big Mu, and as the kids in Oakland say, the shit. Complete equality, and everything equally precious, from the Dalai Lama to a Spanish speaking hot dog street vendor in San Francisco’s Mission District to the Hubble Telescope to a dog turd on the sidewalk next to a flattened soda can. Ultimate inclusion – the end of all discrimination suits.

Man one, fish zero. It is a winter evening in Ohio and I am seven or so. In these memories, the lights inside are always dim and very yellow, and the darkness presses in from outside, improbably blue as arctic ice. I am sitting in the kitchen of the house trailer, watching my father clean some tiny bluegills he’d caught, ice fishing. It must have been a Saturday evening, therefore, since on Sundays we’d have an early dinner, often Swanson’s frozen chicken potpies, and sit and watch Bonanza on TV. It was the one day of the week that we were allowed to eat dinner in front of the television.  

O Sariputra, form is no other than emptiness… 

Fishing was important to my father, combining the instinct to hunt one’s own food with meditation and connection to the divine. My brother, who is not Buddhist, when I asked him what form he thought Dad might take next if reincarnation existed said, without hesitation, “A fish.”

This may be true, for all I know. My father might have been reborn hundreds of times since 1996, as a guppy in a kid’s aquarium, a catfish in a fish farm pond, a shark, a trout, or the very large salmon that was served at a dinner party I attended last night, on a mirepoix of vegetables, poached in white wine. “Dad?” I thought, contemplating the food on my plate. There is a Buddhist practice in which we look at all beings as having been our mothers and fathers, our children, friends, and enemies in previous cycles of existence. A friend swears that after her uncle’s death her family acquired a bassett hound that looked remarkably like her long-eared uncle, and she would sometimes come upon her mother and the dog staring soulfully at one another in the kitchen.

“Uncle, is that you?” her mother would say softly. 

Emptiness no other than form…

Fishing was important to my father in any season and fishing required bait. I was never any good because I couldn’t bear to shove the barbed hook through the earthworm, its twisting body and many small hearts. Someone else always had to bait the hook for me, and then I’d keep fishing with the same worm until it disintegrated to a shred of flesh, dragged through the water for something to do. The boredom of not catching a fish was counterposed to the excitement and horror of catching one, successfully reeling it in, and seeing the hook embedded in its jaw or, much, much worse, swallowed so that pulling out the hook resulted in dragging its guts out through its mouth, killing it immediately. Otherwise a fish could be unhooked, thrown back, and would swim away without discernible fear or haste.

For winter ice fishing the bait was sleepy inch-long, pale grubs, purchased in round petri-dish-sized white cardboard containers filled with sawdust. Sometimes Dad was inspired to collect galls from oak trees and split them open to find the little worms inside, or to attack rotting downed trees like an old bear looking for plump larvae.

In late spring and summer, after a thunderstorm when the earth was warm as a soaked dish sponge, Dad would take a special metal rod on an extension cord, run it out onto the lawn next to the house trailer and stick the rod, which I remember as looking like a chef’s sharpening wand, into the earth, then plug it into an electrical outlet. By the next morning the area around the rod would be filled with large earthworms, whose quiet and essential activity of munching their way through the wet soil had been interrupted by an unnatural current of low electrical shock. They had swum sightlessly up through the soil, seeking relief, and lay on top of the wet grass in tangled skeins of cold flesh. It was easy to pick them up and toss them into Dad’s bait bucket.

The same is true of feelings, thoughts, impulses and consciousness…  

Man one, worm zero. The sum remains the same, I notice. But it must have been a winter night, our lawn long frozen, that I sat in the yellow light of the trailer’s kitchen, looking upward at my father. He’d been ice fishing that day and had caught a mess of tiny bluegills. Normally he would have thrown them all back, but had decided this day to clean and fry them up, each fish’s tablespoonful of flesh winter pure and sweet as the most delicate ocean fish or snow crab claw when painstakingly separated from the needle-fine bones.

I didn’t like cleaning fish, either, and Dad didn’t ask me to scale the bluegills after he’d chopped off their heads and tails with his sharpened buck knife, slit their bellies and gutted them. Their scales were tiny and slimy and required some delicate manipulation of the fish scaler, a gray metal tool that one rubbed against the lay of the scales, scraping them off into glittering piles like sequins fallen from a tap dancer’s outfit.  

O Sariputra, all dharmas are marked with emptiness. They are not born nor annihilated, they are not tainted nor pure… They do not increase nor decrease….

Wesson oil heats in wavy patterns on the bottom of the cast iron skillet that had come with Dad’s family all the way from Minturn, Colorado to the family farm in Indiana when Dad was one year old. My father dredges the cleaned fish in white flour mixed with Morton’s salt and Durkee’s black pepper from a red and white can. There is an image on the dark blue salt canister of a girl in a yellow frock. With one arm she hoists over her an opened umbrella, white lines representing rain slanting down. In the crook of her other arm she holds a canister of Morton’s salt, angled downward, the salt sprinkling out behind her like Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs. It’s an illustration of their marketing brag, which was that Morton’s salt would not clump in humid weather, or when it was raining. Their motto was, “When it rains it pours.”

Copyright © Patricia Mushim Y. Ikeda 2011 

About the author:

Poet, essayist and fiction writer Patricia Mushim Y. Ikeda has studied Zen in North America and Asia as a monastic and layperson. She is a former member of the boards of San Francisco Zen Center and Buddhist Peace Fellowship, and currently teaches classes and retreats at East Bay Meditation Center, Vallecitos Mountain Refuge, Insight Community of Washington D.C. and Flowering Lotus Meditation Center. “Man 0, Fish 1” is a chapter from a collection of autobiographical fiction, Elegy with Blue Shirt, Tie and Gun and Other Stories that she has been working on with fellowship support from the Ragdale Foundation for a writing project designed to bring awareness to a contemporary issue having to do with peace, social justice, or the environment. 

About the artist:

Suzy Sureck's sculptural installations, drawings, videos and photographs involve the physical and metaphoric qualities of wind, water, light and shadow, with attention to the environmental. Her works have been exhibited in the U.S., Europe, the Middle East, Korea, Australia and India.  The pieces here are available for purchase and are on exhibit in the Sweetcake Enso installation at the Garrison Institute.  For more information about the artist visit her website, here.  Of Chance Operations she writes:

I lay the ground of a wet circle, then let the inks go where they may, removing my hand as much as possible for probabilities to occur. Made with water, this barely visible, highly impermanent gesture lies beneath the image.

Within it inks and dyes run, collide, drip, dry, don’t dry, merge, separate. This I see as the texture of our lives in flux within the greater non visible circle of being.
Each image is a surprise to me, and I look forward to seeing what appears on the watermark.