Try being fully present in the moment. Zen isn’t about making lists or setting a timer. It’s about doing what’s needed in the moment and not worrying about how long it takes you or how many things you can get done. Trust yourself; trust in the process. The world will turn even if you don’t get a million things done.
There’s an old zen saying, “chop wood, carry water.” Unlike many koans, this wise saying it’s not difficult to unravel. It means do what’s needed. It may be mundane but it needs to be done. Do what you’re doing; don’t worry about what hasn’t been done yet. This is reflected in Jesus saying,” Leave tomorrow for tomorrow; think about today instead.”
One way of thinking about Zen is that it’s a matter of focus. Give your complete attention to what you are doing. There are a couple of books entitled “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” and “Zen and the Art of Archery.” What this means is you can apply Zen to every task you are doing. And that is actually a form of meditation. It’s very powerful. You let yourself be a tool in the task you are doing. One method of this meditation is called Shodo or Japanese zen calligraphy. In this technique you concentrate on the meaning of the word you are doing and not on your penmanship. In this way the very shape of the brushstrokes conveys the meaning. You are an extension of the brush and the energy of the intention is what is completing the action. In this way you don’t become distracted buy other things. You are fully present in the creation of your calligraphy. This method has also been used by feudal Samurai and other Japanese artisans such as flower arranging. This is because this technique can be applied in everyday life. Using it to do calligraphy it’s like practicing for the rest of your life. Many people think that meditation is a kind of recharging of your battery or resetting your hard drive. But really in this technique it is practice for how you can be all throughout the day. Try using this technique with whatever mundane tasks you’re doing. If it’s washing the dishes, wash the dish that is in front of you and in your hands until it is completely washed. Pay attention to it; did you get all the parts inside and out? Is it free of dirt? Then you rince it and set it in the drying rack. You pick up the next dish and give it your complete attention. Soon your dishes will be clean. There’s no need to set a timer. If one of your children need your attention in the middle of this task then you can give your attention to what is most important.
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.
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.
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.