One of the difficulties I have with painting is to resist doing too much.  For a while I spent more time copying the exact number of petals in a flower, for example, as a way to slow down that compulsion to load on the petals.  It has become a practice to see what is “just enough.”  Brush strokes, cooking, talking, and so on… what signals that moment when just what is needed has been delivered?  This, of course, is the flip side of Mindful Consumption.  Mindful Offering.

A long time ago, when we had just moved into our farmhouse and were still socialized enough to have relatives visit, my parents, cousins, and cousin-lings came for lunch.  A rather large presence, my elder cousin swept into the kitchen, lifted lids off pots of simmering curries, looked at the pot of rice and proclaimed, “We can’t feed everyone with what you’ve cooked!  Besides what would they think… rice in a small dish like that!”  She can be a fearful deity in the kitchen and I tend to take a submissive stance with her.  So we dispatched Frank to the far reaches of rural Ontario to find more white rice.  Brave soul, he returned with a couple of pounds of grain and she cooked it all up.  We ended up freezing tons of the stuff and eventually threw it all out.  But our reputation as generous hosts was intact.

This is deeply trained stuff.  “Good enough” is often taken to mean I’m only just doing what is required to get something done – and half-heartedly at that.  The idea that we may do more by titrating our offerings to the actual need of the situation or person is a tough sell. Not only does it require letting go of imagined judgements but it also requires trusting that we have listened deeply for what is truly being asked of us.

An interesting sidebar which may be related in the deep interconnected recesses of my brain: My ordination dharma name is Chân Diệu Thi.  On the certificate, it is translated as “True Wonderful Fulfillment.”  While on a personal retreat at Blue Cliff Monastery, I was helping out in the kitchen.  The monastics were teasing me about my need to get everything done (feeling fulfilled, I guess) before zazen when one asked for my dharma name.  I told her and gave the translation at which point there was rapid-fire discussion in Vietnamese among the monastics.  Apparently, the more accurate translation is True Wonderful Offering.  As disappointed as I am not to be fulfilled, I must admit this is a better challenge for my practice.  How to be True in my Offerings…

Thank you for practising,



It felt a little too conventional practising the Orchid brush stroke.  But that’s OK; that happens when I spend time copying paintings even though this is an acceptable – and expected – process of learning in the world of shodo.

Over the years, I’ve come to see this as an act of humility.  There is something egoless about copying a painting.  I differentiate that from the act of humiliation that I frequently embody when copying the great masters.  The former is a way to get beyond the freeze when breath, body and brush are not up for a dance.  The latter is what I put myself through in a moment of hubris:  “How hard can it be?  It’s just splotches of gray and a bunch of lines!”

Lately, I’ve welcome these moments of humility.  Like bowing when I enter the zendo, or the prostrations at morning service, I feel a release of all that binds me to that high need to achieve.  And part of that practice of abjecting myself to the Creative is to let in the shades of grey.  How else to give depth and spirit?

I like these orchids.  They asked of me something I tend to be stingy with: slow, unwavering attention to each brush stroke.  You can see the unleashed exuberance in buddha98 – chaos with a dabble of grace.  I like that too.  It just that if I want to do one, there has to be a momentary pause to create the intention to do just that and not the other.

Thank you for practising,


PS: I came across Sweetcake Enso in my visitor’s listing and would like to bring your attention to it.  Looks like some great work that will be travelling around the US!


There are Four Gentlemen who have a prominent place in my artistic life – such as it is.  They have been very patient as I wandered various paths of being schooled by the brush.  I’ve appealed to their rules and regulations frequently when sloppiness tried to pass for abstraction.  But I’ve never really become proficient under their guidance.  It’s probably more that I lack actual talent for composition and design than any lack of desire in my heart to be skillful at the formal aspects of brush painting.

The Four Gentlemen are the four styles of brushstrokes: bamboo, orchid, chrysanthemum, and plum branch.  Practising with the  brush strokes that make up a bamboo leaf, orchid, chrysanthemum blossom and plum branch it considered the foundation to learning how to paint in the Oriental style.  Tomoko Kodama, my “root teacher” of shodo, however, noticed that Westerners had a hard time controlling the brush itself rendering the Four Gentlemen more difficult than for her Asian students.  She attributed this to the latter group having grown up using the brush to write Japanese or Chinese characters – which are in fact, the elements of the four primary strokes.

She developed a series of practice strokes using the Roman alphabet – a stroke of genius – and for the past 40 years has been teaching her Canadian students these skills.  You can read more about her on her website; there’s even a DVD – narrated by yours truly.  I spent about 10 years as an inconstant student (only because of the rather bizarre registration policy of the art school which wouldn’t announce when the class schedule would be released until the last minute) and managed to be part of one show at the Japanese Embassy.   I learned from Tomoko how to play with the brush using the lines from both the alphabet and kanji characters, slowly translating them to flowers, people, landscape, and a variety of free form lines.  But the process often left me frozen with anxiety when my eye couldn’t find the lines in the object I was to paint or copy.  At such times, I resorted to the Four Gentlemen and learned how to be in partnership with the brush even if my eye for composition lagged or my impatience created a cluster of chaos on the paper.

Later I studied with one of Tomoko’s students – a brilliant and warm-hearted man whose work you can see here.  Peter encouraged me to stick with a single kanji character until I felt every brush stroke!  Then slowly, painstakingly, he would let me in on the secrets and nuances of how the character deconstructs just enough to create something new, yet familiar.

The 108buddhas have been a journey of melding the teachings of two very different teachers with one single love: the love of a simple line.  And it has been a journey in seeing buddha in all things.  Not that different from my path of practice.

Thank you for practising,


PS: The commonality between the buddha97 & 97a is subtle but they are there – single lines expressing the essence of both bamboo and buddha.  Buddha97b shows the common brush strokes more overtly.

sin and virtue

Q: What is right and what is wrong varies with habit and custom.  Standards vary with societies.

Discard all traditional standards.  Leave them to the hypocrites.  Only what liberates you from desire and fear and wrong ideas is good.  As long as you worry about sin and virtue you will have no peace.

Sin and virtue refer to a person only.  Without a sinful or virtuous person what is sin or virtue?  At the level of the absolute there are no persons; the ocean of pure awareness is neither virtuous nor sinful.  Sin and virtue are invariably relative.

(You will know you are beyond sin and virtue) by being free from all desire and fear, from the very idea of being a person.  To nourish the ideas: “I am a sinner,” “I am not a sinner,” is sin.  To identify oneself with the particular is all the sin there is.  The impersonal is real, the personal appears and disappears.  “I am” is the impersonal Being.  I am this is the person.  The person is relative and the pure Being – fundamental.

True virtue is divine nature (swarupa).  What you are really is your virtue.  But the opposite of sin which you call virtue is only obedience born out of fear.

Sri Nisargadatta

from Who Am I? in I Am That

no sin, no self

The idea that Buddhism doesn’t have a concept of “sin” has floated through various readings and dharma talks.  It’s also been thrown around dharma discussions by people who come to Buddhism because of the apparent lack of punitive measures.  It intrigues me because I wonder how we slide pass things like the precepts, karma and all that stuff that points to taking responsibility for our actions and making a commitment to not create suffering. True, many practitioners I know (and hold dear) will take a pick-and-choose approach to Buddhism – as they did with Christianity until the drop down menu ran out.  And I openly place myself in that camp all the while knowing deep down that the drop down menu really has only one option.

Like most things, I’ve accepted this pronouncement that there is no concept as “sin” in Buddhism without any real reflection.  It probably has more to do with a need for Buddhism to be different from Catholicism than any deep examination of Buddhist concepts.  Let’s admit it: I want a practice where my actions don’t stamp me with the ink traces of disregulated behaviour.  In other words, I don’t want there to be any evidence of my wrongdoing.  And blindly accepting that Buddhism has no concept such as “sin” allows me all kinds of angles to play when I’ve crossed the line.

Sin is a word that evokes some deep fear and reactions against old learning and experience.  So, I asked myself: what might happen if you let go of that fear?

The online dictionary gives this definition:


noun, verb, sinned, sin·ning.

transgression of divine law: the sin of Adam.
any act regarded as such a transgression, esp. a willful or deliberate violation of some religious or moral principle.
any reprehensible or regrettable action, behavior, lapse, etc.; great fault or offense: It’s a sin to waste time.

I don’t think we like having the edges of our nature defined so strongly but that begs the question.  Does Buddhism have a concept such as “sin”?  Based on the definition, I’d have to say it does.  There are precepts – five, ten, sixteen, three hundred, four hundred of them.  To transgress the precepts is to commit a regrettable action (I’m chickening out and going to the least fearful definition).  So what’s the big deal?  If I have a self, it’s going to transgress, i.e., it’s going to sin.  What arises is not anything other than what has stuck to the word “sin” culturally and religiously – all that hellfire and damnation.  In fact, a “sin” or “sinning” is the only way I can experience my humanity and cultivate self-compassion; it may be the door to seeing the self.  The more important issue is in how I meet that transgression or close that door to insight.

I need to get past the fear of being blamed with no recourse to protecting myself if I am to understand what it means to be upright.  Digging under the word and all its accretions, sin is really just another way of saying, “How was your commitment to practice here?”  And, I think, that is where Buddhism offers more to work with.  To extrapolate from Daido Loori’s book “Heart of Being,” the practice of Buddhism (and Zen) trains us in a different concept of control.  Not the punitive control of crime and punishment but a control that arises out of “championing improvement.”  No stain, no gain, no penance, no absolution.  Simply the insight that to champion improvement is to take up the Eightfold Path as the set of precepts they are.

Thank you for practising,


what have i done

The gatha of impermanence or Evening Gatha begins:

The day has ended
What have I done…

Depending on my day, the inflection on that second line can vary from reflective to panic-stricken.  Lately, it’s been more the latter as I struggle with the right and left hand of a preceptual issue: not telling lies and mindful speech.

Last week, I noticed I left out buddha57 from the stream of 108buddhas.

I practiced writing that out as straightforwardly as I could.  No apologetics.  No explanatory cutsie precursive remarks.  No BS.  I’ve been noticing how the placement of words in a string can really prevent me from taking responsibility for what I’ve done (or not done).

Take this sentence for example: In my rush to get everything set up before I left for the Upaya Chaplaincy program, buddha57 was left out of the stream of 108buddhas.

Excuse followed by elevation followed by a neutralization of responsibility.  I may be wrong but the sentence evokes compassion for the image of a mistake made in a pressured life trying to cultivate something worthy and churning out these pieces of art and prose.  Nothing wrong with the compassion; but I feel it’s obtained through a manipulation.  It sucks you into subtly falling into my angst as I slide my oversight over to the background.

Now, even reading that first sentence, you might have felt something about buddha57 being left out.  Perhaps you would have felt indifference; who really cares if buddha57 is missing, just put it in somewhere!  Perhaps you would have felt annoyed; after all this is supposed to be a practice of Attention!  Attention!  Attention!  Perhaps you would have felt compassion for my obsessive nature; only the Catholic Church could have invented a sin called Scrupulosity!

Both sentences invite an interaction; the first by opening to and the second by closing out possibilities.  If my intention is to tell you I messed up the first is true to that intention, the other not.  If my intention is to ask for forgiveness (yes, even us zennies need forgiveness at times), the first requires trust; the second controls your feelings so that you are more likely to forgive the oversight.  If my intention is to elicit sympathy in the face of the oversight, the first might be seen as defensive and closed, the second more available for understanding.

An honest writer is sensitive to the intention of each word.  She knows the difference between stimulating reflective thought and eliciting loyalty for her perspective.  A courageous writer trusts what might emerge from the interaction of the written word and the true nature of the reader.  She knows her intention when she selects a specific word, when she brings it into the presence of its companions, when she watches them tumble together and when she leaves them alone to orchestrate the smooth flow of an idea.

The form and structure of the precepts can be taught just as the craft of writing can be taught.  But honest writing cannot be taught any more than living into the spirit of the precepts can be taught.  Which brings me to the other thing I have done which has caused me some loss of sleep.  More on that tomorrow.

Thank you for practising,


compost 5

Is it now an Enso-Friday?  Or a Poem-Friday?

Anyway, this is what I get when I want to use up all the ink by holding all four brushes close, squishing the hair bristles together, and GO!

Pre-composting is like pre-satori – it can be fun and turn out some neat stuff.  I’m reading Wild Ivy, Hakuin’s autobiography and am considering the implications of pre- and post-satori experiences, not to mention repeated experiences of satori.  James Austin had a lot to say about that in his Zen Brain talk on ego- and allo-centric processing and the kensho experience.  But more on all that when I finish the book.  What I am struck by, in this moment, is the resonance I feel with Hakuin’s Song of Zazen.  A balm, especially after all the chatter this week about what can only be summarized as “sex, pray, more sex.”

How easily we forget the interpenetration of water and ice.

How quickly we get lost on dark path after dark path – pre- and post-satori.

Hakuin’s Song of Zazen
Translated by Norman Waddell

All beings by nature are Buddha,
As ice by nature is water.
Apart from water there is no ice;
Apart from beings, no Buddha.
How sad that people ignore the near
And search for truth afar:
Like someone in the midst of water
Crying out in thirst,
Like a child of a wealthy home
Wandering among the poor.
Lost on dark paths of ignorance,
We wander through the Six Worlds,
From dark path to dark path–
When shall we be freed from birth and death?
Oh, the zazen of the Mahayana!
To this the highest praise!
Devotion, repentance, training,
The many paramitas–
All have their source in zazen.
Those who try zazen even once
Wipe away beginning-less crimes.
Where are all the dark paths then?
The Pure Land itself is near.
Those who hear this truth even once
And listen with a grateful heart,
Treasuring it, revering it,
Gain blessings without end.
Much more, those who turn about
And bear witness to self-nature,
Self-nature that is no-nature,
Go far beyond mere doctrine.
Here effect and cause are the same,
The Way is neither two nor three.
With form that is no-form,
Going and coming, we are never astray,
With thought that is no-thought,
Singing and dancing are the voice of the Law.
Boundless and free is the sky of Samádhi!
Bright the full moon of wisdom!
Truly, is anything missing now?
Nirvana is right here, before our eyes,
This very place is the Lotus Land,
This very body, the Buddha

Have a colourful weekend!

Thank you for practising,