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,
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,