I always fall sort. I fail myself, my expectations, and my family. I will never not fail. Not every time. Just occasionally. It’s unpredictable. It is very difficult to accept. Yet I am enough. I try my best. I will fall short. It will have to be enough. That’s why we have family; to carry each other when by ourselves we fall. It is my shortcomings that make me need others, and my shortcomings that make me feel unworthy of others.
Here is a large scale sumi painting of Azul the Blue Dragon. Azul is the enlightened master who teaches Yendor to be a wizard in “The Song of Yendor.” I’m really happy with the way it came out. There is so much energy in this painting.
I have been wanting to paint a large scale sumi painting. For me this means about 20×30 inches. I know there are much larger paintings, but I have been doing 5×7 ones. The handmade paper I get comes in 20×30 & I’ve been cutting down to make folios for my sketchbook. You use a whole different set of muscles when you work larger scale. This is my first one. It’s a tree on the property of my apartment complex and I think it lends itself nicely to the project. I did a sketch first because the materials can be costly working large, if you have to throw away a bunch of mistakes. I don’t normally make preliminary sketches, primarily because I’m so lazy, but in this instance I wanted to get a feel for for how things might play out. It was helpful for composition and knowing which brushes would be useful and other procedural processes.
Legitimate problems with too much preliminary work is that it can reduce the improvisational surprises that can keep your work lively. Also, if your sketch comes out better than your actual work, it can be a drag, because usually it’s done with cheap paper and materials. But, many people do sketches of different angles, compositions, color comps, and really like to lock down all the details before rendering the final piece. I tend to work out a lot of that with my reference photos. I generally take all my own references, and since the advent of digital photography, there’s no reason not to experiment at this level. It’s important to get lighting, angles and composition just right in reference photos so your final piece has as much worked out in advance as possible. This way, my drawing can be loose on the final and keep as much energy as possible. There’s a saying that if you’re not enjoying it, you audience won’t enjoy it. If you’re not surprised, and interested by your work, your audience won’t be either.
The sumi style requires painting without an under drawing on your paper, so that’s why doing a separate preliminary painting can be helpful.
I may work on the final more. I had to stop because my children woke up from their naps. One of the challenges was getting a light touch on the delicate foliage using ink on absorbant paper, so there is a light look that may be too light. Also, working large requires photographing the piece rather than scanning it.
Here is my 1st attempt at a traditional sumi Dragon. I’ve done sumi Dragons before, but those were done in a kind of one stroke method that I thought best utilized the energy channeling zen technique of Hitsuzendō. When I first started translating Hitsuzendō from calligraphy to painting, I hadn’t realized the breadth of the sumi style. I was trying to do calligraphy in picture form. I still really like the way that kind of image comes out, but I’m trying to to be more true to the sumi heritage while also learning to apply it to my more traditionally Western style of painting. That is a total contradiction I know, but luckily Taoism and tàijítú allow for, and indeed rely on contradictions.
This image is really tiny; and I realized I’d like to do this kind of thing on a large scale, so I have to figure out how to make that happen. The problem with that is, this kind of technique doesn’t lend itself to corrections, and materials can be expensive on a large scale, so I’m going to need some practice.
I made this piece for my son, Gabriel, who is obsessed with the moon. Originally, I had planned on making it more detailed, but I really like the energy of this direct and simple execution. I am experimenting with this zen style of painting. The idea of the style is to empty your mind and let the energy of your spirit flow into the painting. When executing a Kanji calligraphy, the calligrapher would concentrate on the word or phrase and Chanel the energy of that into the calligraphy. When I do Sanskrit Calligraphy that’s what I do. It’s kind of a learning curve. I get a small brush and practice the word over and over until I’m comfortable with it. Even if it’s a word I know really well. Then I prepare several sheets of paper and execute the word full size several times. Sometimes I do several full size practices 1st, but if I have enough good paper, I just go for it, because sometimes the best one is what you thought was a practice one, and if you did it on practice paper, you’re screwed. At the end of the session, I’m exhausted and maybe have one or two good pieces. Maybe none came out good enough. It’s hard to tell because the aesthetic is different from traditional calligraphy. It has to have a vibe to it. It should also be relatively centered on the page and not have any glaring mistakes or drips.
A scene involving multiple subjects and composition and thought about meaning, mood, color, brushes, inks, requires too much mental activity to do it all in advance and then just execute a plan, like a well rehearsed dance. Spontaneity is a big part of of these pieces. It’s not Bach, it’s the blues. Pieces like the sumi moons on blue paper, are fairly spontaneous; I’ve painted similar scenes enough to not have to plan it out too much to get the right feel. Still the process of emptying my mind is the new element that has to fit into the puzzle. It’s difficult to do it for a prolonged period of time.
For this piece, I thought I would start with this simple moon/sky. First I did it in black; a series of enso circles to define the moon and the surrounding sky, then broader with water, to create a wash. Then back in with gold for the moon and a halo, and then blue violet for the sky, using the same technique. For each stroke, I empty my mind, breath out, breath in and then execute the stroke on the exhale, driving the energy through my body and down my arm and into the painting with each stroke. Then I had planned to go back and add detail to the moon, perhaps a ground beneath, maybe the ocean. Maybe add clouds, or stars. However, I was struck by the energy in the underpainting, and I thought further detail would weaken what seemed to me to be a strong piece. It’s for my son anyway, and not really for sale, so it doesn’t matter if it’s polished or not. He’s two years old. Almost three. But it was a real learning experience. To reset after each stroke, concentrate on what I am doing and not what I did or what I am going to do. This is the goal of this kind of technique. It’s a meditation practice for monks. Hopefully, I can keep this lesson learned.
A print of this piece can be purchased here.
I see a lot of articles about “being present,” “be in the moment,” and things of this nature. Some say that that is all there is to enlightenment. Entire books are written on mindfullnes. As a person who has spent a lot of my life daydreaming… I mean “writing fiction,” uh… anyway, I’ve struggled with this concept. Yoda says that Luke “Never is his mind on where he is, what he is doing.” The Tao espouses this concept, as does the Dharma, and Krishna. Even Western religion calls for this kind of behavior as when Jesus says to be like children. And again when He says how we should be like the lilies of the field, (that Jesus and his references to mortality with “lilies”) and the birds of the air who neither reap nor sow, but are taken care of by their father in heavan. This is telling us to “Leave tomorrow for tomorrow and worry about today instead” (which he also says in his hit musical: “Jesus Christ Superstar”.)
But what does all this mean? Are we supposed to not think about the future? Do we discount the lessons of our past? Are we to be automotons? I think we are not supposed to be slaves to our thought processes. In the Bhagavad Gita we are told of the blind King Dhritarashtra, who is the ego, who is the regent, and when the rightful king comes to claim the throne, Dhritarashtra refuses to relinquish the throne. Our brain is a tool like our eyes or our arms, but we are not our bodies. We are more than our arms, more than our eyes, and we are more than our brains as well.
When a dancer is best, it is when she is not thinking about the next move, but when she is so practiced, that she does not have to think about it. Artists often talk about when they are so involved in the creative process, that time seems to have flown by. This is known as Aphrodite time, named for the Goddess of love, as opposed to normal time, named for Chronos, the Titan that consumed the gods, (his children) only to be saved by Zues (thus freeing them from time and giving them immortality.
I read instructions that tell me to pay attention to my breathing. Listen to my heart beating. The term Buddha means, “the awoken one.” and so being awake means being aware. Being aware of what’s going on that normal people are asleep to. Yet it is impossible to concentrate on all my senses at once. To pay attention to my heart beating and my breathing and the people talking to me, and feel the breeze and all that.
It is impossible to silence my mind as well. There is no way for me to do all these things. I am not a buddha.
The problem, as I see it, is that these instructions to be in the moment lack one key ingredient. Motivation. Why be in the moment? Because it leads to enlightenment? What is that? Being aware? I try and I just don’t seem to get it.
Until last night.
The reason to be in the moment is this:
Because to be awake to what is happening is FUCKING AWESOME!
This realization makes even a mundane trip to the market thrilling. I don’t have to simultaneously be aware of my breathing and seeing what’s on sale. I can seemlessly move from one to the other. To realize that every moment is brand new and the present is right now, and the eternal present is all there is. Even if I’ve done something a million times before, It’s still new in this moment. Think about that dancer. In order to not have to think about her dance, she had to practice the dance a million times to perform it flawlessly.
When you realize each moment, each experience is brand new, life is an adventure. People pay huge sums of money to be thrilled by adventure: they go skydiving, they go on safari, they go to exotic locals. There is nothing wrong with doing these things, but every second of everyday is unique, whether you are stuck in traffic, being chewed out by your boss, screwing up the courage to ask out that girl in accounting, or going to bed for the night.
I fall back into being humdrum, getting frustrated, and these things. life goes on, but once having realized the adventure that is each moment, I can re-enter that sensibility at any time. There is a Buddhist saying: “Chop wood, carry water.” It means to do what is needed in the moment. But it also means that that is the meditation. That is what to be awake to; not some spiritual ethereal concept, but the concrete reality of living life. I have long said that just going to church for an hour once a week is not enough, that each action we take is an act of worship, whether we realize it or not. If we chase money and are assholes all week long, that’s what we worship, that’s what we are dedicating our lives to, not just something we do for an hour. Of course, going to church can center us, give us our direction and if we fall short much of the time, we can still aspire to be more like we want. Living life in the moment, realizing the adventure can help us to feel less stuck, help us to be the kind of person we want to be in the moment.
If we fall into the rut of feeling like there’s nothing new, and we’ve done everything a million times, we rob ourselves of the thrill of being in the moment. Once we experience this thrill, we can motivate ourselves to do new things, and accept things as they are. There is a place for both of these in our lives.
Welcome to the adventure.
I write alot about love as a force we can use to effect positive change around us, but I rarely talk about the need to charge ourselves with love so we can live in its abundance and share that positive energy with our fellows.
Sometimes this can be easy; if our lives are going the way we want, then connecting to a feeling of love takes little effort. If, however; we are at odds with what’s happening in our lives, it may seem like love isn’t there to connect to. I have always been told that God loves me and is always there for me. This is hard not to take as an empty platitude when you don’t know how you’re going to provide for your family, whether there will be enough to pay the rent, buy food, etc… It’s hard if you are fighting with family members or people at work. We all know struggle; it defines the human experience.
With 2 small children, it can be a challenge to find some “me” time. I feel guilty telling my wife I need to do something for myself. We both work hard and spend all our spare time taking care of our children and trying to keep up with the housework. The other day I expressed my desire to work on an art project. My wife insisted I take the time to do it. Many of our arguments are the opposite of normal arguments with us each advocating for the other to do the thing they want.
My newest bent on creating art is to attempt to do them all like zen calligraphy. Zen Calligraphy is a process where the Calligrapher becomes the instrument of what is called “Chi” in Chinese. In Japanese it’s called “ki”, in Korean it’s called “Qi”. Seeing as how none of these languages use the alphabet we use, I consider the word to be basically the same in these languages. In Sanskrit the concept is known as prana. These words all mean “life force” or energy. The process involves being in a meditative state during the execution of the project. Zen masters say the process is the same whether one is doing calligraphy, flower arranging, or swordfighting.
When the children are screaming and I leave my wife in the next room to deal while I guiltily go to a quiet room to do art, it is difficult for me to put myself in this state. It is a state of love. how can I put myself in a state of love, which is giving and caring, and selfishly go to create art?
I realized that I was missing the love that was there. My children were screaming because they love me and want me near them. My wife gave me the time to work on my project because she loves me. It was the love charge I was needing that was there all along. Part of love is being able to accept it.
We see ourselves as limited, finite beings. We’re only human. We’re fragile. While on some levels, these things are true, and we need to treat each other with care, that is only part of the story. The other part is that we spiritual, luminous beings. We are limitless energy. We are conduits of the most powerful force in the universe: love. We are, in fact comprised entirely of love. We can learn to focus this miraculous energy, and heal ourselves and each other.
You don’t have to quit your job & become a monk to harness this power. It is your birthright. There are simple steps that you already know how to do that can lead you in the right direction. Smile. This sends the people who receive your smile positive energy. They can probably use it. Everyone has a struggle they are going through, and a little encouragement can go along way. Once you feel comfortable with this, you can expand your methods. Smile at strangers. Don’t expect anything in return. If they smile back, that’s great, if not, that’s ok too. If you get caught up in whether or not you’re getting reciprocation, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment, which is the opposite of positive energy. Nobody bats 1000. That means nobody is successful 100% of the time.
Another method of conveying positive energy is the hug. However, hugs are only for people you are close enough to feel comfortable with. Forcing a hug on a stranger is not helpful and could be a crime! But that energy can be sent without physical contact. The wholesome, positive encouragement you convey in a hug can be sent psychically. You don’t have to be a jedi to transmit positive energy to people. Don’t exhaust yourself, and don’t be obsessive. Don’t feel bad if you don’t get immediate results. When you find out someone is sick, send them positive vibes. You can focus your energy by vocalizing what you’re doing. You can do it silently. Just say to yourself, “I’m sending so & so positive, healing energy.”
Don’t ever focus your energy in a negative way. Don’t send energy to hurt someone you’re mad at. If you can, send people you’re mad at a blessing. Even if you can’t do it while you’re angry, do it later. We all get angry, and we all act on anger in ways we regret. Don’t chanel your energy in a negative way. It can become a habit, and will be hard to come back from. Don’t let simple mistakes ruin this process for you. If you do something negative, just put it behind you and stick to the positive. Always take responsibility for your actions.
Also, it should go without saying that while sending healing vibes is an honorable way to learn to focus spiritual energy, always seek professional medical help for illnesses or injuries. Do not under any circumstances think that the methods described above can replace or substitute a doctor’s attention.
Fill your life with positive love & actions. Be love. That’s what you are.
The tàijítú is the name of the symbol commonly known as “yin/yang.” It is a symbol for the complementary nature of opposites; night defines day, shadow defines light; an inhale isn’t complete without an exhale… All existence can be seen to utilize this seeming duality to for a unified whole.
Also, In non dualistic Shaivism of Kashmir, there is a tradition known as Spanda, which like the material of a similar name, expands & contracts. That is the the universe, like a beating heart, or a piece of metal that expands in the heat and contracts in the cold, or water which does the opposite. It’s very much a yin and yang view of reality.
These pieces are rendered using a zen technique that infuses them with chi (the “ji” in “tàijítú”). They are aproxamately 8×10 in size. They are rendered with gold, purple and sumi ink with a sumi brush on lokta paper; a paper made in the Himalayas from materials indigenous to that region.
“The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao” so begins the Tao te Ching; “The Book of the Way,” by Lao Tsu. Over 25 years ago I consciously began my journey on the Path. One of the first books I stumbled upon was Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Tao. I keep a copy with me and drag it out every once in while. Sometimes I get in a mood where I take my pocket copy with me everywhere, though I may never look at it when I do. The message is pretty simple: Don’t try to control the universe. Be in the moment, let life guide you, and become a master by not trying. Of course there’s more to it than this. I refer you to the first sentence in this post. I’m sure the Old Boy knew the irony of making that the first line of his book.
In the passing years I’ve learned many things, and unlearned many as well. I have to keep unlearning them. One of the things I’ve seen real value in for me is practicing zen calligraphy. The method is very similar to what I’ve just stated; be in the moment, let the universe be in charge and in this way, become a master. As zen is a Japanese form of Buddhism, the calligraphy is Japanese as well. Japanese traditionally write in Kanji, which was originally Chinese, like Taoism. The calligraphic method can be applied to any writing; indeed it can be applied to life itself. Using the tools to render the Taijitu (yin yang symbol) is a natural.
What made me realize this was of course watching Kung Fu Panda III.
I was struck by the idea that the image can be seen to describe a spinning effect; as is often depicted with the yin and yang chasing each other. What was significant this time was how it is a symbol for everything. our galaxy is spinning, the sun revolves around it, the earth around the sun as it spins on its own axis. Dervish spin in meditation. Also, in reading up on the symbol, pronounced “Tai Chi tu” by the way, many of the complimentary aspect it represents were explained including one which I hadn’t thought of: the expanding contracting duality of life. This is key to Hamsa meditation, as well as understanding non dualist Kashmiri Shavism, which is another key component of my education.
So rendering the Taijitu deeply gratifying to me. It is a powerful exercise and a powerful symbol.
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