The great square has no outside,
the great circle has no inside.
from Enso: Zen circles of enlightenment by Audrey Yoshiko Seo
Knots are easy to get into. This enso started with the intention of being what I call a “spatter” enso. You know, the kind with all that energy thrown across the page. Chi gone native. I probably should not be so irreverent because Kaz Tanahashi does some amazing work with “chi gone native.”
My spatter, on the other hand, would bore a CSI field tech. Yup, looks like the brush dropped here in one collapse of hair and ink. Nope, nothing in the reservoir. Seems the alleged artist didn’t fill it up before doing it in.
The reservoir of the brush, by the way, is the thick body of the brush where the ink is absorbed into and “stored” to be released on its path through the brushstroke. I tend not to fill my reservoir up much; sometimes I claim it’s deliberate – to get that “flying white-dry brush” effect. Sometimes, I lie.
So I will continue to work on my spatter patterns. But in the meantime, I should look into this malady of empty brush syndrome. Empty as in lack – à la David Loy.
Now, I make no claim to understanding Loy; his is one of those minds and thus one of those who can string words together that annoyingly point out all the books I need to read before I can “read” him. Nevertheless, there are snippets I pick out that I get, if somewhat superficially. One of those is the idea of constantly chasing after something without any idea of why. In fact, the chase is so intense that the end is obscured by the means. Loy’s chapter “Preparing for something that never happens” in A Buddhist History of the West lead me into this thick part of the forest of craving. Loy argues that we’ve lost sight of the “end” to which the “means” is dedicated. We study for grades not understanding; we seek merit at work for salary benefits not contributions to community. And so on.
No wonder I get tied up in knots. This “endless-means” takes away the ground of practice, of living. Losing sight of what drives practice makes it tough to track the fuel gauge, to know how and when to replenish. And when the tank is filled only with fumes and the engine rattles, it’s not long before everything stalls, knots up, ceases.
The solution: Loy says it’s in learning how to play. This reminds me of my shodo teacher’s ardent plea to my stiff handed brush wielding: Play! Play with the brush! And, playing in circles makes letting go of those endless-means easier.
A good idea – load brush, play in circles.
day this is!
Some of you may remember the 108Buddhas series of last year. 108 days before the anniversary of this blog, I committed to 108 brush paintings of “Buddha” in Kanji script. That turned out to be a fascinating practice in patience and the willingness to be with the eternal uncertainty of the creative process. This year I feel the need to practice with wholeness and what better teacher of wholeness than the Enso.
So let me introduce you to Enso1. For those of you with children, you may know that Red is Best; a delightful children’s story that my daughter and I now use to signal absolute perfection (regardless of the colour we’re perceiving). Red is like that. So is the enso. It becomes a signifier of all that is.
Enso paintings act as visual and poetic koans – apparently paradoxical statements, questions, or demonstrations that point to or suggest the nature of reality. They reflect the artist’s understanding that, at their best, words and images cannot express the truth completely.
from Foreword by John Daido Loori in Enso: Zen circles of enlightenment by Audrey Yoshiko Seo
Seo explains that how the enso is drawn exposes the character of the artist. In that case, this enso likely says a lot about my need for perfection and completeness. Some call it closure. Inevitably – and probably for the good – my brush-mind has other ideas. It leaves a space for coming and going and yet… and yet, it respects my anxieties by filling that space with little islands of tenderness. And there were other lessons. Frank proclaimed that this was not his favourite of the three I showed him. I protested. My favourite has to be his favourite, I proclaimed. That’s what husbands are for.
It’s not only the drawing of the enso that teaches me about my character. It is also all that went before and comes after.
Join me in these 108 days by taking a moment in your day to visit yourself. Hold up the mirror and look into the circle of enlightenment. Nothing fancy required. A pencil, a finger dipped in tea, a brush wet only with water. A circle drawn in the air.
All the true vows
are secret vows,
the ones we speak out loud
are the ones we break.
There is only one life
you can call your own
and a thousand others
you can call by any name you want.
Hold to the truth you make
everyday with your own body,
don’t turn your face away.
Hold to your own truth
at the center of the image
you were born with.
Those who do not understand
their destiny will never understand
the friends they have made
nor the work they have chosen
nor the one life that waits
beyond all the others.
from All the True Vows by David Whyte
I’m trying to learn the difference between giving everything away and giving an opportunity for something to emerge. It’s the difference between donating blood and bleeding out. Is this what makes dedicated activists head for a cave in the hills?
Creating the space for connections to coalesce into relationships is different from evoking a sense of commonality that seduces people into believing they have something in common a priori. Is this what makes religions popular as well as dangerous?
I don’t have the answers. One shadow side of generosity is deceptively easy to spot – it’s usually marked by a sense of elevation from the unwashed masses. Another shadow side is subtle. It’s marked by hope.
Thank you for practising,
A few days ago, I took up an exchange with someone who is leaving me feeling wonderfully righteous and quite holier-than-her. I’m enjoying this. It’s always a delight to my dark side to see clearly how greed is operating in someone else, how it has motivated her subversive actions, and how it’s revelation to the larger community is causing her grief. Now, I’m certainly not enjoying the resonant experience of her suffering. As a good Buddhist, how could I? But as a karmic accelerator for her unskillfulness, I do feel I’m acting in her best interest by confronting her craving and grasping. After all, it’s not only that she’s violating the precepts (or at least, if she were Buddhist, she’d know they were precepts) but that the larger community is being harmed in many different ways.
Incredible exercise, isn’t it? I thought I’d write from my real Dark Side. This is the side that easily justifies all manner of unskillfulness and likes to throw the victim/recipient under the Dharma Wheel. It was scarily easy to write and very uncomfortable to read. And a good lesson for my quickly inflatable ego.
But let’s not rush past this. The shadow side of morality or virtue is a hugely challenging practice for me. So easy to climb up onto that pedestal. If it wasn’t such a cardio workout to get up there, I’d install one of those side-saddle chair lifts.
The incident is real. I can’t judge my skillfulness in confronting the person. Opinions vary. However, I heard two things that made me stop and question my own practice of shila. The first was a response from a colleague that said, “Wow. Remind me never to piss you off.” If the translation of shila is “cool and peaceful” then my interventions were hardly that; nor were they perceived to be that. This is the first clue that virtue has slid into the shadow of righteousness. Oh yes, I can defend my actions as the skillful outrage designed to protect the innocent. Hell, it took me two hours to craft my written letter to the supposed antagonist. But that’s an inadmissible defense because not only did it cause ripples in the system, it created an edge with others that they fear to tread over. And, ironically, collateral damage to relationships is the very thing I was confronting in the first place.
The second thing I heard was in the person’s response. After a long and winding explanation of how she had and had not meant to do what she did and did not do, she said, “But I don’t know what I did that was seen as unethical!” It’s hard to feel righteous in the face of helplessness. I suppose I should know by now that our scars create blind spots in our vision of self and of others. I mean both for her and me. And Manjushri’s sword is no scalpel that can carefully excise away someone else’s scar tissue. In fact, wielding that Bodhisattva’s sword is about the only time we can do brain surgery on ourselves.
I hate it when I’m right. I hate it much more when I’m righteous.
Thank you for practising – at least one of us is…