Sunday, April 27, 2014

BOOK REVIEW ~ Hee-Jin Kim ~ Dogen on Meditation & Thinking

Hee-Jin Kim in American Zen circles is a very  highly respected academic and Zen practitioner. He's a Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Oregon. His reputation is based on one book, Mystical Realist, which he wrote in 1975 that has been reprinted and revised many times. Deservedly so, as it has become the foundation for many subsequent modern commentarial interpretations and critical analysis of Dogen's uniquely poetic, densely argued expositions.

In Mystical Realist, Hee-Jin Kim managed to explore and explain some of Dogen's underlying religious/philosophical views, and the particular rich use he makes of language. It is on occasions impenetrable itself, but on the whole it was more than worth persisting with. A few years ago I spent a very delightful week at Padmaloka, studying one chapter from Mystical Realist, where my ability to interpret and grasp Dogen's zeitgeist grew immensely. So, Meditation and Thinking, published some thirty odd years later came with high expectations.

I have to say I've been largely disappointed. It has many of the faults of Mystical Realist with not enough of its virtues. I think largely this arises out of Hee-Jin Kim writing primarily as an academic. He uses a distinctly specialist language, which many sentences are structurally jammed tight shut with. Sometimes his explicatory statements can seem just like one long list of words separated by commas. I've rarely read or reread paragraphs so much, in the hope that some sense of meaning might emerge, only to result in a 'nope, still don't get it'. It's very sad to read a commentary that appears to demand its own commentary, that makes the impenetrable more impenetrable.  I've only ever had this experience once before, with Masao Abe's ~ A Study of Dogen, where quotations from Dogen's actual writings emerged like beacons of clarity from the surrounding mud of philosophic framework that they were set within.

I'm not so dim witted that I can't get something out of any book, even if it punches above my intellectual ability by often quite a bit. I'll certainly give it a go. But I never want to read another paragraph with salvific, soteriological, hermenutical, perspectival, atemporalised, telelogical, ontological,or epistemological all within it. This is simply not a direct uncluttered communication of the Dharma. Dogen himself, I believe, would despair at use of language that is so remote and excluding.

Well, having given its style and form a bit of a thumbs down, I think I ought to give some sense of its content. It has six shortish chapters, but each is huge in ambition, scope and potential. They touch on Dogen's views on the nondual intimacy of delusion with enlightenment, on emptiness as a dream within a dream, on language as much more than a finger pointing at the moon ,that right thinking and Dogen's term non thinking describe the same thing, and that micha dittis are part of the striving of reason to perfect vision.

Kim also makes quietly questioning, yet searching criticisms of recent assertions made about Dogen, Zen and the Tathagatagarbha doctrine, as being non-buddhist, that have emerged via the school of Critical Buddhism in Japan  Whilst acknowledging that Zen has often neutralised the role of ethics in spiritual practice because of misconceptions around Buddha Nature, he also recognises Dogen was critical of these views in his own time. Kim is therefore not entirely convinced by some of the unfavourable interpretations that Critical Buddhiism attempts to draw. There is in potential at least, a lot that could be discovered from this book, and it might reveal more on a second reading on a long solitary sometime. Perhaps if my understanding this time was of only ten percent , then that was actually not a bad result.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

ARTICLE ~ Instructions for the Artist ~ No 4, 'Put your Awakened Mind to work'

The fourth in a series of articles based on Dogen's Instructions for the Tenzo, exploring how it might be applied to artistic practice and work in general.

'Put your Awakened Mind to work'

I have by no stretch of the imagination 'seen things as they really are' Though I do have an intuitive vision for what it may be like, and I've been lucky enough to find the Dharma as a means of moving myself towards it. So, whilst I'm not fully awakened, my eyes are open and able to see, if not fully comprehend, should I wish to. The desire to see things clearer is awakened in me, even if its still quite densely foggy most of the time. Whatever state my 'awakened mind' has reached, Dogen suggests it should be put to work within my day to day life.

To have any degree of insight, you have first to be able to see, to actually notice and interpret your ordinary everyday life from the perspective of the Dharma . It is, after all, right there before our eyes, yet mostly we blink and miss it, because the 'awakened' part of our mind is not yet substantial enough and is less accessible to being put to work.
Whether we are creating a meal, or creating an artwork it is no different in terms of what we practice. The same general human neuroses, mental habits, self esteem issues, emotional mood swings, fluctuations of feeling are there regardless of lifestyle or circumstance. I can go from elation to frustration in the space of a second, be very still and concentrated one minute only to be tense and restless the next. To start a morning feeling inspired and on a creative roll only to be wallowing in despondency, feelings of stagnation and worthlessness by the end of the day.

Spotting these shifts of mood and being able to respond creatively and with sufficient agility to transform them, is the bread and butter of everyday spiritual practice. It requires confidence in oneself, not just as an artist, but also as a spiritual practitioner. What throws our state of mind and emotions into such states of turmoil?  It's usually a 'wordly wind' making itself strongly present in our mind. There's a need for praise, or to avoid blame, the desire for fame, or to escape shame or guilt, you've lost something you loved, or gained something you wanted, experienced great pleasure, or strong aversion to a painful situation. These 'winds' can suddenly rise up and blow us off course at any time.

When one of them gusts through the artistic process, questions of 'I want' or 'don't want' will undoubtedly be fouling and clogging up the aesthetic air. Worldly winds are generally instantly recognisable. they are just that very obviously 'worldly'. They are neither good nor bad, just unhelpful if one wants to encourage spiritual progress in oneself.  Making a negative judgement any time they should appear, tends to only compound the issue, by introducing further 'blame, and 'pain' on top of what is already all too present.  As these issues arise during the day, an artist, or anyone for that matter, has to train themselves not only to spot the 'wordly mind' when it is present, but then to put their 'awakened mind' to work, in order that a healthier perspective can be reestablished.

ARTICLE ~ Instructions for the Artist ~ No 3, 'Carried out by Teachers'

The third in a series of articles based on Dogen's Instructions for the Tenzo, exploring how it might be applied to artistic practice and work in general.

'Carried out by Teachers settled in the way, and by others who have aroused the bodhisattva spirit within themselves.'

A tenzo isn't just someone who fancies a bit of large scale catering. It's someone who is 'settled in the way,' notice it is now 'settled 'not 'settling'. There is nothing much that isn't sorted out, this teacher has to some degree 'gone beyond.' sorting themselves out.  Dogen adds, it could also be someone who has  'aroused the bodhisattva spirit within themselves', which ultimately means the Bodhocitta, but they may have at least aroused the aspiration to attain this. He also goes on to warn that those who don't possess 'such a spirit' are setting themselves up for suffering and a very hard time indeed, where all efforts in pursuit of the Way would be ineffective. Being a tenzo means exerting 'all your energies', all your mental, physical and spiritual strengths and resources into practice. A tenzo needs to be a reasonably well integrated, clear thinking and emotionally robust person.

Similarly, an artist whose succeeded in making their work a spiritual practice, has to know themselves pretty well, and be emotionally resilient. Primarily because being an artist can be such a solitary existence. To prevent any artist's work from becoming an egotistical  self-indulgence, their creation has to be informed by an altruistic spirit. It's not so much about who an artwork is for, but what the artwork is for. Does it have a positive life enhancing benefit at its core?

A painting is unlikely to 'save all sentient beings from suffering'. Whilst an artwork does not necessarily have to be about human suffering, it should be informed by, or be in response to suffering. Art should aspire to be an encounter with beauty, that lifts the spirit and lightens hearts. It should be a torch light that shines until we get to the end of the longest and darkest of tunnels imaginable. Art that lacks 'such a spirit' isn't necessarily 'bad art' but it will be of no spiritual use in the pursuit of the Way. This is Dogen's main theme in these opening paragraphs of the Instructions for the tenzo. He's laying out the ground, the background ideals that underpin what he is to say subsequently.

Any artist whose in the midst of creating has imagined the effect on the persons who might view what they have made. They may want the viewer to be excited, exhilarated, perplexed, thoughtful, intrigued, or whatever response they wish to conjure in another persons being. For in these moments they 'imaginatively enter into the lives of another' as Sangharakshita puts it, which cultivates loving kindness the root of all compassionate feeling. Envisaging creating this response ithrough their artwork is a huge responsibility for an artist to take on their shoulders. It requires a lot of love and generosity to keep giving of your artistic talent for the benefit of others.

The function of much contemporary art is quite different from this, and though it serves its own function, its not one the Buddha nor Dogen would have necessarily endorsed. It can have an air of nihilism about it; provoking, challenging conventions, causing offence or breaking moral taboos. Engaging a viewer not with their aspirations but with cynicism or humiliation. Often aesthetically amoral, unkind, hostile, angry, even cruel, it exemplifies what happens when art 'lacks a spirit' of love, benevolence and altruism. It ends up causing further hardship and suffering, pulling ones attention away from any spiritual path and into the path of despair.

Whether you're a cook or an artist, your individual talents are being put to the service of others, and in a sense to serving all humanity. Feeding a world that's full of hungry stomachs and souls. An unpalatable meal is no different from an unpalatable artwork, in that it is unpleasant to look upon or consume. There should really be no inedible or unedifying art, only rich feasts for the eyes.

PROJECTS 2014 ~ Larger Pieces

Developing on from those smaller random colour selection studies, I created these two larger pieces on my Art Retreat, which I'm quite pleased with how they turned out.

A Bright Response

Going At Tangents

PROJECTS 2014 ~ Development of a random colour experiment

PROJECTS 2014 ~ Random Colour Selection Experiments

I've been experimenting with selecting colours randomly. Usually its six colours which I then have to work with, and see what I can make of them. It is certainly stretching me. Any artist will have their favourite colour combinations, or predictable choices for contrasting or complimenting. I've discovered there are often hidden colour taboos, like not to use black, or earth colours with other brighter colours. One selection produced colours which were tonally very similar, so this encouraged me to use white and black to create more dynamism in their relationships. In future I think I may try reducing the number of colours and see what happens.

Quite apart from this freeing up of colours, I also cast dice to decide what colours go where. Generally I do these sort of experiments because it introduces an element of spontanaity into my working process, and loosens the degree of control I have over the final appearence of a piece, and as you may have noticed my work is technically quite controlled enough. 

Fractured Rays 2

DIARY 123 ~ Doing an Art Retreat @ Abbey House

A Buddhist Community you might think was an ideal place to hold a retreat. Not necessarily, there can be quite a lot going on in a community during any day of the week. So trying to get a sense of being solitary and hermit like has to be really worked for. At the same time you have to remain flexible because ordinary life will continue to go on all around you regardless.

I decided to take a fortnight off work specificallyt to do an Art Retreat at home. I wanted to see what conditions were like for that, and what happens to my creative process when I give it a concentrated period. My community's been very supportive and sort of kept out of my way as much as possible. Jnanasalin was around for the first week, and on a buying trip for the second, so it wasn't feasible to be completely solitary for a full two weeks. My cellar workshop proved to be an ideal space in which to quietly work away undisturbed. It has a quality of stillness and silence that allows me to focus quite intensely on being fully present.  I also attempted to support this by doing meditation, puja and study.

So how was it in the end, and what did I learn? Well, as is often the case for me, my set up was over ambitious, artwork, meditation, puja and study proved unsustainable over the whole two weeks. I had a seriously bad period of sleep during the second week, probably as a result of the strain of attempting too much. Instantly my programme got slimmed down to 'just painting.' Its not easy to maintain creativity over so many fronts. Also being so close to my usual distractions but trying not to engage too much with them, creates a very specific strain in a solitary at home, that I think is not helpful to have to fight with. So next time I'll take a much more relaxed approach, and not attempt full silence or solitaryness, to pare what I do right down, do more with much less.

I observed a change in my creative process as I could instantly follow the flow of pursuing and develop ideas. My usual artistic process is constrained by working full time, and means completing larger pieces is spread over a number of weekends, and I now know that this tends to encourage me to play it safe, creatively. In this last fortnight I've learnt I can complete a largish piece within 3-4 days of admittedly quite intense full on work, and this does of itself stimulate me to be adventurous to push the boundaries of my work that little bit further.

Beneficial ideas came out of the study I did on Dogen's Instructions for the Tenzo. The main one was that the virtue of the artistic process is in generously giving of ones talent with the intention of benefiting others. The fact that these works have been made is, in a sense,enough. That they now exist creates its own small change in the world, how I created them makes its own small change in me and in the world, and this will have a positive effect even if no other person ever sees them.  In a way this helps free any creative process from obsessing about who they are made for, or from strenuously seeking appreciation, fame or wealth through them.  My artistic process and the world both benefit more, and are actually infinitely richer the more freely I can give them.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

ARTICLE ~ Instructions for the Artist ~ No 2, 'The Activities of a Buddha'

The second in a series of articles based on Dogen's Instructions for the Tenzo, exploring how it might apply to artistic practice and work in general.
'Carryout the activities of a Buddha'

Whatever the office held within a monastery Dogen suggests they all should ' carryout the activities of a Buddha' through their role and task. What would this mean, for a cook, for an artist, for anyone? Someone who does 'carryout the activities of a Buddha' must be Going for Refuge to the Three Jewels, have Buddhist practice at the very centre of their lives.

Uchiyama Roshi's notes to my translation describes this as living 'constantly settling one's life' Settling is an interesting term to use. In English we often say people have 'settled down' which can be used in a slightly derogatory way. That someone has become quite conventional or boring. From a Buddhist perspective to 'have settled down' might imply that someone had grown too comfortable, abandoned the spiritual life, gone for refuge to domesticity, signed a truce with dukkha. There is however another meaning to the word 'settling,' and that is 'sorting out' or 'coming to terms with things. So 'constantly settling one's life' is really describing the purpose of Buddhist practice. To be constantly coming to terms with how one is, how things really are, with reality, till you can settle and abide there.

Uchiyama's note goes further than that, putting it in very Dogen like terms; 'to actually put your life to work, to make it function, in a way that things become most settled' Our purpose then, throughout our life and work is to help it function in this way, to use daily life itself to clarify the way things really are. This means that any job, however humble, non-descript, apparently useless, or without meaning or purpose, can function as a forum  for making sense of reality. It does require constant attentiveness, nothing stays the same for long, as conditions and ourselves change. What appeared to be a useful approach that had life to it one week, can seem utterly dead in the water by the next.

Nevertheless, cooking remains cooking, and making art remains making art. Its unhelpful to make worldly value judgements about them. These are both just activities that human beings do, and can potentially function as a means of self transformation.  This has to be consciously sought out in whatever situation we are in, we don't naturally see what the spiritual transformative purpose is in everything we do, it needs some reflection and working at. This is what the Tenzo Kyokun is all about.  Setting off on a journey of discovery, to find what the ways are to 'build great temples from ordinary greens.'

ARTICLE ~ Instructions for the Artist ~ No 1, 'From Ancient Times'

The first in a series of articles based on Dogen's Instructions for the Tenzo, exploring how it might be applied to artistic practice and work in general.

Instructions for the Tenzo by Dogen, is a favourite Buddhist text that I treasure. It presents practical no nonsense instructions for a task on a simultaneous footing as spiritual practice. I find it inspiring and it raises up my aspirations whenever I read it. In this series of articles, drawn from notes and reflections made during my recent Art Retreat, I explore how these instructions might apply to the work of an artist.

The translation I'm using is From the Zen Kitchen to Enlightenment by Dogen/ Uchiyama Roshi, Translator Thomas Wright, Publisher Weatherhill, 1983

'From Ancient Times'

The cook in a monastery does a very practical and life enhancing task. Cooking is an act of service, its other regarding and a cooks culinary talents are daily put before everyone to savour or dislike. This makes it an ideal vehicle for working with the exigencies of self and other. Cooking can build or crush ones ego. People complain about the smallest things when it comes to eating. Buddhist can have as many like and dislikes as anyone else when it comes to the food they consume. Food is rarely right for everyone. Similarly, art is very subjective and a personal preference, it's not for everyone. People either love, loath or are indifferent to art. Creating an artwork is as personal a thing as making a meal, except its served up on a wall in a gallery for admiration or ridicule. Artistic and culinary tastes tends to both be areas where subjective preferences are presented as if they are incontravertible objective facts. Art and Cooking then, share similar working grounds for spiritual practice.

Dogen emphasises in the Instructions for the Tenzo that its important not to over invest in the perfection of a meal. A meal like a painting is never as good as you'd first imagined in your mind. Nevertheless our ego will still look out for every crumb of praise to bolster our self worth. It doesn't mean we shouldn't care, but in trying to do our best creatively we should aim to do it for the benefit of others, much more than for the benefit of ourselves. Everything turns out better that way.

When you first look at art and the artistic process, the similarities with cooking are not always apparent. Art doesn't have the same tangible immediacy or practical benefit. Sure it can be life enhancing, but not quite like cooking. Cooking sustains life. By comparison art is pretty useless.  Sangharakshita has perversely turned this uselessness on its head and made it arts primary virtue. Art has no practical life giving role, its quite unworldly, other worldly even. It isn't created in order to make a dull life more tolerable,nor to be a drug or a coping strategy. Art speaks to the core of us, lifting the spirit by pointing to something other, just out of tangible reach. Art is able to touch us with a vision for a life transcended, and refines our spiritual receptivity. Its no surprise that the creation of art over the millenia has been under the control of religious patronage. An artist in early civilisations was thought to be an oracle or divinator, someone touched by the hand of the gods.

Art has performed this function for humanity 'from ancient times' It has a responsibility to introduce us to 'awe'. The moment we step into a cathedral or Buddhist temple our breath is taken away. There is a momentary intake, our souls are exalted, the spirit is uplifted like a bird.  Art's primary purpose is to 'build great temples from ordinary greens' Something beautiful created seemingly out of nothing, out of no where, out of this world.

Though lets make no bones about this, no one has yet died from a lack of art. Yet it is the very stuff and essence of our dreams.  In another essay Dogen talks about 'creating a dream within a dream' as a metaphor for among other things, spiritual practice. Art is par excellence the creation of a 'dream within a dream'  Its made by proffessional day dreamers. its so embroidered with spiritual intent you can't remove that quality from art without rendering it lifeless. 'From ancient times' this has been so. From the moment representations of animals were painted on the walls of caves and caverns buried deep underground, art has had a magical function. No one stops to think these days, why were these caves abandoned?  Perhaps they no longer had religious significance, the belief in their magical efficacy was lost, the spell was broken, the culture of their society changed and required new magic, and a new 'dream within a dream' then emerged to replace them.

Artists present a vision and a sense for values that our society can easily lose sight of in the midst of its rampant consumption. Whilst food feeds the stomach, art feeds the heart and emotions, it is soul food.