buddha 108


Born within the enso of the world
the human heart must also
become an enso


Thank you for sharing these 108 days of being Buddha. 

May we all, through our creative love for each other, become enso. 


Note bene: Bodhidharma image is a copy of Seisetsu’s Seated Daruma in The Art of 20th Century Zen by Seo & Addiss






one stroke

This is a one-stroke Daruma.  Kaz Tanahashi is the master of the one-stroke painting.  Good teachers are skilled in the one-stroke teaching.

Sohan Gempo (1848-1922) brushed a representation of the seated Bodhidharma with one flourish of his brush (below right).  The “flying white” (dry brush technique that leaves white spaces in the stroke) gives the seated Patriarch a feeling that he is dissolving away into the wall he faces.  This is Bodhidharma at the end of his practice.  Body has fallen away, mind has fallen away.  All that remains are the vestiges of form: nose and down-turned mouth.

The inscription reads:

The old wall-gazer’s form
seen from behind –
springtime of flowers.

I worry about practising so intensely that my arms and legs fall off.  Perhaps I can continue if I hold onto the meager hope that this too is an allegory: a challenge, as Barry of Ox Herding explained in his post Try Try Try, to not stop for 10, 000 years, to keep only what is necessary, and then to let that fade too.

Simply try until all that is left is one-stroke.

Thank you for practising,


Image from Seo & Addiss, The Art of 20th Century Zen

waiting for a bus

Deiryu Kutsu (1895-1954; Seo & Addiss, The Art of 20th Century Zen) was a follower of Nantenbo and, while much of his art resembles his teacher’s work in its iconoclastic flourish, Deiryu’s Bodhidharma takes on a different tone.  Stripped of Nantenbo’s comic, google-eyed tea bowl Daruma, our Patriarch looks world-worn.  Somber and seeming to look over his shoulder (below), Bodhidharma appears to be questioning our practice – or projecting his compassion for our struggles.

The inscription above Daruma says:

The Patriarch’s mind
smashes to pieces.

I was assisting at a retreat and asked for an interview with one of the monastics.  She was a fierce Daruma and on the day of our interview several organizational aspects of the retreat had not been going well.  Understandably, I was a bit shaken when she decided we would hold the interview deep the woods surrounding the retreat center.  We marched through the forest at double time and eventually came to rest in a copse of birches.

“How is your practice?” she asked.

I explained that I had hit a difficult spell, that when I sat it seemed like nothing at all, ordinary, as if I was only sitting, waiting for a bus in an empty station.

She looked at me blankly.  Now really terrified, I launched into a plaintive tale of what my practice had become, all the while watching my poor little mind solidify into an impenetrable rock.  Her blank look changed to that intense stare we in the community recognized as an impending verbal kyosaku.

“You’re waiting for a bus and you think the station is empty.”

She got up, dusted off her robe, and marched back to the hall, leaving me bewildered.

Of all the legends about Bodhidharma, the one most likely to stir up the emotions is about the way his disciple Huik’o became Bodhidharma’s student.  Huik’o, well-educated in the Tao and Buddhist literature, came to the Patriarch and pleaded to be taken on as his student.  Bodhidharma, ever the relentless practitioner himself, refused time and time again.  As the story goes, Huik’o stood outside the temple gates in a snowstorm and finally, Bodhidharma came out to ask him what he truly wanted.  According to Dumoulin’s interpretation in Zen Buddhism: A history – India and China, this was Bodhidharma’s call for Huik’o to make a  decisive, clear commitment to practice.  It is a gripping moment in the life of a teacher and student.

In that moment, Huik’o is called upon to cut away his ties to whom he believes himself to be: Bodhidharma’s student, a learned man, a supplicant.  He has to see the only one who is ever in the station.  He cannot wait any longer.  In the story, Huik’o cuts off his arm and offers it to Bodhidharma who then accepts him not only as his student but as dharma heir.  (Dumoulin suggests that Huik’o actually lost his arm to robbers in the persecution of Buddhists in the North, well after Bodhidharma’s death.  But that’s hardly the stuff of legends!)

If we take the legend as fact, it seems blood and limb is often asked of the student and, if so, Zen may well have died out or at best been populated with one-armed practitioners.  As an allegory of seeing into the true nature of practice, Huik’o’s action is a clear statement that he was willing to give up what seemed to be an indispensable part of himself for the opportunity to give up something even more fused to the self.   He was willing to sacrifice his arm – representing all his previous learning – for a true education: the liberation that comes when his mind is shattered.

We can do no less.

Thank you for practising,


to make a painting

See your own nature,
become Buddha

Yuzen Gentatsu

At some point along the journey there is a moment of softening.  This Daruma is a shift from the stern Patriarch and shows a gentling in the old teacher’s features.  The artist, Zen Master Yuzen (his Daruma is below) was best known for his plum blossom paintings and the soft hues that reflected his calm nature.  Although he began to paint from a young age, he was discouraged from continuing because, he was told, it would interfere with his training as a monk.  He put aside the ink and stone but, thankfully for us, took it up again later.

The beauty in Yuzen’s perception of practice is the softness he elicits from ink and paper.  Bodhidharma no longer needs to project the harsh unyielding authoritarian teacher (inner or outer) but rather can sit in an empathetic space.  The upturn of the inner brows, the open gaze, and cartoon nose invite us to pour our struggles out to him.

No.  Really? he says.  Why struggle against yourself?  You are not the enemy.

In the path of practice, there was a moment when I felt the shift from hoping practice would make me a better person to realizing practice was only going to bring me face-to-face with this person I am.  And, in  bearing witness to the reality of who I am, I had to face the harsh, unforgiving, relentlessly self-abusive ways I had developed to deal with myself.  Jomon, author of Nothing to Attain, quoted her teacher, Rev Hogen, saying, “Zen is not a self-improvement project.”  I really liked reading that – and also feel it’s one of those pronouncements that can too easily slip away from what is really meant.  Zen cannot bring about self-improvement; but the practice of zazen is like calling in a housing inspector before the renovations start.

To see my own nature, as Yuzen exhorts us to do, is to be that inspector poking around in the rotted beams and taking disciplined measure of the flow of water and electricity.  In fact, I’ve had inspectors come through This Olde Farmstead who ended up looking at me with the same kindly expression on Daruma’s face.

“Really?  No, seriously.  I know you’re really attached to these wall switches but they are short-circuiting your lights.”  The wall switches went and enlightenment was possible – when I remembered to flip the switch.  And that was what practice becomes: not just a process of pointing out the warped planking or the rattling plumbing and restoring them to their true nature.  It becomes a process of remembering to flip the new switches so that I can see everything alight.

Yuzen was also fond of putting off his patrons who demanded art from him.  He was crafty:

“Hmmmm.  That painting?  Well, to make a painting requires a lot of zazen.”

(Seo & Addiss, pp. 65)

Well, to make a person requires a lot of zazen.

Thank you for practising,


productivity to presence

In August, Joseph and Chong Go Sunim of the amazing Wake Up and Laugh! blog delivered a one-two punch on the topic of “difficult people” and “difficult emotions.”  Being the quintessential difficult person, I side-tracked the discussion to the picture Joseph had included of Huik’o cutting off his arm in an effort to be accepted by Bodhidharma.  The comments devolved from there to Joseph’s suggestion that, with the closing of the 108buddhas, I might consider a new project of 108Bodhidharmas.

The answer is an enthusiastic: “Nope.”  However, we did chat about sharing some experiences of the First Patriarch.

108buddhas come to a close this week as we head to the first anniversary of 108 Zen Books.  A deep bow of gratitude to all of you who have encouraged my practice and tracked the paintings!  It has been a fascinating journey, all the more for the approach-avoidance pattern I have with the brush.  The idea of productivity is still deeply ingrained in my mind. One paints for a reason and that reason is to produce something of (monetary) value. Throughout this journey, I’ve struggled to embrace these 108buddhas as sufficient in and of themselves.  Breath, brush, and body are not the the path to a practice of shodo.  They are practice.

I thought Bodhidharma would be a nice way to explore this progression from productivity to presence (with no suggestion that I’ve cultivated presence!) especially through his presence in Zen art.  In The Art of Twentieth-Century Zen, Audrey Seo & Stephen Addiss describe Zen master and calligrapher, Nakahara Nantenbo (1839-1925), as fiercely dedicated to the practice of Zen and whose “use of the brush (was) a form of Zen practice.”  Nantenbo was often impatient with the constant demands to produce works by his hand; he was prolific and productive but not willing to be controlled by quotas.  His style was unrestrained and the often-over-sized characters exploded across large doors, screens and scrolls.  The characters he painted are blunt, direct, and filled with spirit and his attitude to painting reveals an unrelenting practice:

The reason for not speaking while writing a large character is that the character will “die” unless it is written in one breath.  One should magnify one’s spirit and write without letting this magnified spirit escape.  The character will die unless it is written using the hara (literally, gut, here suggesting the center of one’s spirit).

Seo & Addiss, p 21

There are so many examples of Nantenbo’s art that embody this passionate dedication to magnifying one’s spirit.  Daruma painted on a tea bowl  (1913) is my favourite.  Bodhidharma is rendered with childlike simplicity: the wide-eyed look, bushy eyebrows, uncompromising mouth.  And the ear-ring.  I like to think of this rendering of Daruma as the early days of the Holy Man from the West: youthful, determined, and still able to be astonished by his unfolding practice.

My version (above) of the tea bowl Daruma likely reflects more of my own early days.  The eyes are not straight ahead, ready to meet whatever shows up.  They glance to the side and down as if watching for some obstacle I might trip over.  And no ear-ring; not yet ready to be different.  I do remember innocently buying into the form of practice as it was in the first sangha I attended.  But in a short space of time, under the weight of the blind, unquestioning faith that was required to be in that community, I began to feel my spirit shrink with the breath rather than magnify.  And then the real teachings began.

I appreciate the shared worry in our expressions.  Perhaps Bodhidharma is wondering why he had crossed the subcontinent to end up in Northern China, doing battle with the already established Buddhist practitioners who found his wall-staring meditation style somewhat on the fringe.  I know I worried about the vast inner expanses I was covering doing battle with established habits and reactionary behaviours, feeling this new way of being unravel my fringes.

Nantenbo’s inscription on the tea bowl is Vast emptiness; nothing sacred.

And so it is in the practice of staring down the self.

Thank you for practising,


Image: Tea bowl from Plate 7 in Seo & Addiss, The Art of Twentieth-Century Zen

plum branch

Parabola Magazine on Facebook had some wonderful quotes from and comments about John Cage on his birthday.  I particularly liked this one:

“The first question I ask myself when something doesn’t seem to be beautiful is why do I think it’s not beautiful. And very shortly you discover that there is no reason.”

— John Cage

A day or so later, Tricycle’s Facebook blog had a terrific article titled Disconnect the Dots by Cynthia Thatcher who explores the teachings given to Bahiya by the Buddha:

“When seeing,” the Buddha said, “just see; when hearing, just hear; when knowing, just know; and when thinking, just think.” (Udana 1.10)

Thatcher goes on to apply this practice of bare awareness to a painting by George Seurat:

Consider the painting again: close-up, you see meaningless flecks of tint that don’t represent anything. Beings and objects, time and place, have vanished. The Seine, the trees, the woman’s face—all have exploded into particles, scattered across space. But when you step back from the picture, recognizable shapes leap into view as the eye “pulls” the specks together.

The individual points of color, and the identities that coalesce when the eye connects them, occupy the same space. From one vantage point there is a vista of permanent beings and things. From another, there’s no solid ground—only empty sensation that you can’t name. The painting presents a visual metaphor for conventional truth versus ultimate reality; self versus nonself.

Suddenly, it all makes sense.  Sometimes, I pull too far away from the dots and lose the coalesced images; from that point out in the universe, everything is a lumpy blur, even beauty.  Then it’s easy to find reason why something isn’t beautiful.  The balance between the flecks of brush strokes and the pulled-together specks is tricky.  One seems so much more reliable than the other, as self is less anxiety-provoking than non-self.  And yet, self cannot coalesce without nonself – and certainly cannot do so unless I’m willing to take a step back and out of my own vision.

Thank you for practising,