Friday, April 1, 2011

Single Mind

My Chinese brush painting class is back in session. Last class, I arrived with a mind full of trouble. That is, I was troubled about something that had happened, and even more troubled by what could have happened, and by what could still happen, and by what it all reminded me of from my past.

Haven’t I heard somewhere something about “Do not pursue the past. Do not lose yourself in the future. The past no longer is. The future has not yet come”? Yes, well.

With as much mindfulness and concentration I could muster, I laid out my ink and paper, my roll of brushes. I filled my water container and poured out some ink. I balanced an Orchid-Bamboo brush on the edge of the water container just so, to soak the brush hairs but not the glue in the tip of the handle that holds the hairs in place. Mr. Choey was playing his usual tape of Chinese classical music, and I tried to let the calm mood of the room become my mood.

Mr. Choey called us up to the front to demonstrate some calligraphy, which is how he always starts the class. “Calligraphy is the first art,” he says, “higher art than painting.” We watched him demonstrate some simple characters, such as “man” or “person"


and more complex characters, such as “spring.”


He showed these in standard script. There are other styles of script which he sometimes shows us, including “running” style. “Running” style (cao shu) is to standard style (kai shu) as Western script penmanship is to printed handwriting. It is looser,  more spontaneous and expressive, but must still follow certain rules in order to be readable as a particular character. You can’t just do messy standard script and call it running script. Another student and I are interested in practicing the “running” style of calligraphy, and we asked him to show us a character. He chose “zen,” or “meditation.”

In standard script, “meditation” looks like this:


Mr. Choey’s “meditation” (chán) in running script looked like this:

Zen Mr Choey

(Ignore the straight diagonal line from the upper right – he made this example over the tail end of one of my attempts.)

As he wrote the character several times, he explained the meaning of the ideogram. On the left is the radical form of the character meaning “god,” “sacred,” “holy.” He said that in this case, it means “mind,” because in Buddhism, the mind is the god of the body. [“We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world.”] On the right is the character meaning “single.” Together they mean “single-mind,” which is meditation. Your mind on one thing.

I set my mind on one thing: trying to get into the groove of this character, trying to tap into chi the way that Mr. Choey had. I wrote this character over and over and over. At some points, Mr. Choey would come by and say, “Getting better.” Once he took the brush from my hand and showed me again how to do it. (That example is what you see above, now pasted into my notebook.) Or he’d say, “This part should be bigger.”

Something happens when you practice a character over and over and over.

zen over and over
[click on picture for a larger view]

I grew more and more focused on the color and texture of the ink on the paper. I noticed how the paper took the ink from the brush depending on how quickly and confidently I moved the brush. I noticed also my own bad habits, and how hard it was to change them – I wanted the body of the left side to be bigger, but I found it nearly impossible to do it differently. I noticed how, as I got tired, a tendency to blame the brush crept in, even though it was the very same brush that Mr. Choey had used when he made me my own personal example. Habit energy is strong. And yet I felt exhilarated. But at the same time, calm. I no longer felt troubled by trouble.

It was only when I took a break and sat down, and considered whether to start working on a different character before we switched to painting, that the meaning of the character I had been working on really hit home. Single mind. Meditation. Working on the character had brought me that fruit – single-mindedness.  And the fruit of that single-mindedness – meditation – had been a clear, calm mind.

“Looking deeply at life as it is, in the very here and now, the practitioner dwells in stability and freedom.”

That guy the Buddha knew what he was talking about.


10518246Bhaddekaratta Sutta
translated by Thich Nhat Hanh

The Buddha taught:
"Do not pursue the past.
Do not lose yourself in the future.
The past no longer is.
The future has not yet come.
Looking deeply at life as it is,
in the very here and now,
the practitioner dwells in stability and freedom.
We must be diligent today.
To wait until tomorrow is too late.
Death comes unexpectedly.
How can we bargain with it?
The sage calls a person who knows
how to dwell in mindfulness night and day
'one who knows the better way to live alone.'"

*     *     *

P.S. Mr. Choey's explanation of the meaning of the ideogram for meditation is very similar to this one by etymologist Adrian Chan-Wyles, who is a teacher in England in the Ch'an Buddhism tradition.  Crudely excerpted:

Dhyana (यान) is represented by the Chinese character 禪, pronounced ‘Ch’an’. The Chinese ideogram has two particles.

The left hand particle is:

This particle represents an ‘altar’, and is derived from the character 示 (shi4). This represents a person kneeling at a shrine, showing both respect and reverence. ...

The right hand particle of the ideogram for Ch’an is:

Interestingly, as a distinct character in its own right, this word, pronounced ‘dan’, has two relevant meanings. The first is that of a net, used to capture animals in the old days, whilst the second meaning refers to an individual – that is a single person – and carries the implication of ‘isolation’, or ‘aloneness’. ...

Taken together, the two particles that create the Chinese word ‘Ch’an’ carry the meaning of a spiritual or religious activity (the altar), often performed in isolation, that involves the gathering of scattered thought (symbolised by wild animals), through a one-pointed concentration of the Mind, represented by a net.

You can read the whole of his explanation on-line here.

P.P.S. Of all my Single Minds, if I had to pick one, I'd pick this one, even though it's not quite right.

Friday, January 14, 2011

One Hand

Last week I visited an exhibition at the Japan Society, "The Sound of One Hand: Paintings and Calligraphy by Zen Master Hakuin." Hakuin Ekaku (1685–1768) was a Rinzai Zen Master who is attributed with renewing the Rinzai (or Lin-zi) tradition, which is Thích Nhất Hạnh's root tradition. Hakuin promoted koan practice and was the creator of the koan, "You know the sound of two hands clapping. What is the sound of one hand?" I was interested in the show because of this, but also because he was such an accomplished artist and calligrapher, in the true Zen way.

It was a wonderful show, well-lit and spaciously laid out, with helpful but not overwhelming commentary beside each piece. I only wished that there were benches in front of a particular few of the works, because for those I wanted to linger long, really absorb them.

One such work was the calligraphy titled "Middle." This is a big work, fifty-three inches tall, and as with all calligraphy, each line is made with one stroke. Thus that long stroke down (the final stroke when making this character) would have involved not just the hand or arm, but the whole body. Hakuin was elderly at this point; such a stroke required, and conveys, deep conviction.

Hakuin middle

The commentary pointed out that here, "middle" is used in the sense of "in the middle of," "amid." The smaller calligraphy reads,
Contemplation amid activity is a hundred million times better than contemplation in stillness.*
This saying became Hakuin's motto, but he borrowed it from an 11th- and 12th-century Ch'an ancestor, Ta-hui Tsung-kao. I think it was Hakuin's way, in part, of validating his criticism of what he saw as the quietism of Soto Zen practice, of "just sitting." What is interesting to me is how the saying echoes Thầy's view of right engagement. Or, better, how Thầy's view echoes this saying.
Meditation is not to escape from society, but to come back to ourselves and see what is going on. Once there is seeing, there must be acting. With mindfulness, we know what to do and what not to do to help.
Below is another painting that I wished I could have spent more time sitting with. Called "Large Daruma," it is one of many paintings of Daruma, or Bodhidharma, Hakuin made over his lifetime. As I looked at it, I felt I could tell the order in which he laid down his strokes: first the large eye (a mini enso), then the nose, then the other eye, then the wonderful pate (with fresh ink) and face, and then the short strokes of the beard and eyebrows. I'm guessing, largely, of course, but I know from experience that in Chinese brush painting (i.e. sumi-e in Japan), the ink itself leaves clues: first strokes always remain "on top of" later strokes.

Very striking are the touches of dark ink added to the face, the folded robe about the neck, and the bottom swoosh. From an artistic point of view, these varieties of tone, this use of white space, and use of wet and dry brush are all masterful.

hakuin daruma

The calligraphy was probably added last. It reads, quoting from Daruma himself,
See your own nature and become Buddha.
I like the way Daruma seems to be regarding his own words with approbation, as if he is thinking, "These words have nothing to do with it." And in fact that is the gist of the saying in its entirety:
A special transmission outside the scriptures,
Not founded upon words and letters;
It lets one see into [one's own true] nature and [thus] attain Buddhahood.

*  *  *

* Another translation I found of this teaching is, "Zen practice in the midst of activity is superior to that pursued within tranquility." This sounds much more solemn and officious than "a hundred million times better." I also found, "Meditation in the midst of activity is a thousand times superior to meditation in stillness." I wonder which is closest to the original Chinese?

Wednesday, January 5, 2011


We spent some time this past December in Wisconsin, visiting my husband’s family. His sister Claire and her husband Mario (and their two-year-old, Nina) live on and work an organic farm, Clario Farms, in Kewaunee County. We always love staying there. They sell their vegetables and berries at the farmer’s market in Sturgeon Bay, but they couldn’t get by without the money they make from selling eggs from their beautiful heritage-breed chickens, and meat from their livestock. (And their full-time jobs.) The cows and lambs have names and are loved, but they are always destined for market. When the hens are old and tired, they become supper. Birth and death, roses (or tomatoes) and garbage (or compost, or food for the chickens) are part of the cycle here.

Wisc Dec 2010 015

I wouldn’t say that Claire and Mario have become hardened in the face of so much end-of-life, but they do accept it as part of the life they have chosen. Yet both Claire and Mario, and even Nina, were deeply affected when, over the past year, so many of their pets, or near-pets, died.

Mr. Toes, an old cat from their city days, and Izzie, a barn kitten they had semi-tamed, both fell victim to the county road in front of their house. DeeDeetz, another barn kitten, simply disappeared. Bold and friendly where her brother Smokey was shy, DeeDeetz had a habit of climbing into visitors’ laps and cars. Perhaps she inadvertently drove off with the UPS guy, though numerous phone calls to UPS and to subsequent stops on the route turned up no DeeDeetz. Perhaps she was carried off by a coyote. All they know is that she is gone without a trace.

Most wrenching has been the loss of Pogo, their black standard poodle. Pogo was part of their family for twelve years. He was a Pogohandsome and intelligent dog. And very affectionate. He was a little jealous when Nina was born, but soon enough he became a protective big brother to her. He tolerated all kinds of abuse from her little hands and fingers. When we were up on the farm last summer, his coat was frosted with gray, and he seemed to be slowing down. Claire and Mario knew that they were moving toward the end of their time with him.

But when the end came, it was awful. One evening Pogo was stricken with an attack of twisted stomach, or bloat. (The technical term is Gastric Dilatation and Volvulus.) The condition is excruciatingly painful for the dog and extremely distressing for his keepers to witness. An attack is life-threatening and often fatal. Claire and Mario had been on the lookout for bloat from the beginning, as broad-chested dogs such as standard poodles are prone to it. They had always taken every preventive step. Yet age makes the condition more likely. When the crisis was clear, they loaded Pogo and toddler Nina into the car and began a desperate, hours-long journey from one vet center to another. They ended up in an animal emergency care center in Green Bay. There, they were advised that euthanasia was the most humane choice. So they said their goodbyes and let Pogo go.

They cried for days, and still find themselves in tears to think about it.

After several weeks, hoping to rise out of her funk, Claire decided to adopt another dog from a nearby shelter. Her name was Scarlett. She was a sweet, puppyish poodle mix who enjoyed the farm. But within a month or so, it was clear that Scarlett needed a different home. She had a tendency to attack smaller creatures, including their remaining house cat, Wilma. She wasn’t adjusting to sharing Claire and Mario with others, namely Nina. They made the painful decision to rehome Scarlett to a family where she could be an only child. With the help of the county shelter program, they were able to do that.

Come December, Claire and Mario were shaken by the many losses they had experienced, though the year had brought its share of bounty as well.

Here in Brooklyn, we also mourned these losses. In particular, we felt the pain of Pogo’s final ordeal. He had been a member of our extended family. And our son, Owen, had enjoyed romping with him around the property, especially in summers when his cousin Anna would be visiting the farm as well. The death of the kitten Izzie was hard on Owen and Anna, too. They had fallen in love with her two summers before. And Owen particularly relished her company over Christmas two years ago, when Nina was a boring newborn.

Amidst so much loss, it was especially moving this Christmas trip to watch as hearts opened toward the remaining barn kitten, Smokey.

SmokeySmokey had always been skittish, avoiding interactions with people. But when DeeDeetz disappeared, Smokey seemed to feel lonely. Perhaps he was also cold, sleeping on his own now in one of the sheds. Mario said that he’d seen Smokey checking him out. (Claire wasn’t surprised; she says that Mario has a way with animals, especially cats.) If Mario sat very still and spoke very quietly, Smokey would sometimes approach and rub against Mario’s boots, or even jump up next to him. Sometimes he allowed himself to be petted. But with any sudden noises or moves, Smokey would scramble away. And Claire and Nina still couldn’t get near him.

Claire and Mario felt skittish themselves about taming another barn kitten. They were hesitant about getting too attached, so soon. Yet they had managed to bring home a big bag of kitten kibble and a new litter box. Just in case.

Our first night there, Mario spotted Smokey hanging around outside the kitchen door. Owen watched him through the window for a few minutes, then went out to “make friends with him.” I wasn’t surprised when Owen came back later saying that Smokey had come right up to him and let him pet him. Owen has a way with animals, especially cats.

Owen started asking that Smokey be allowed into the mudroom between the kitchen door and the kitchen proper. The space was unheated, but Owen felt it would be warmer than the barn or Smokey’s usual shed. Nina also wanted Smokey to be near, so that she could give him food and water. She wanted whatever Owen wanted. “Smokey food. Smokey come in house.”

Claire relented to the idea of Smokey trying out the mudroom. It would be a good way to see if he would use a litter box. So the kibble bag was opened, plastic bowls found, and litter poured into the tray. Claire kept saying she hadn’t prepared for this, yet she had. Then Owen and Nina wanted to make a bed for Smokey. Claire helped them tuck a worn towel into an old diaper box. Owen considered carefully before deciding where the bed should go. Nina helped place it just so.

There is one image that is fixed in my mind. Owen was holding a bowl with water, and Nina a bowl with kibble. They had opened the inner kitchen door, and were calling to Smokey through the opened outer door. Nina came up to just above Owen’s knee. Owen, a lanky young teenager just about my height now (five foot five), stepped carefully to keep his big feet clear of Nina’s little feet. “Smokey! Come here, Smokey!” they both called in soft, high voices. To see Owen’s tenderness toward Smokey and Nina reminded me again what a great kid he is, in spite of his frequent anti-tender disguises.

Smokey came in and devoured the kibble. Smokey poked his head through the inner doorway, beckoned by Owen and Mario. Smokey accepted lavish petting and cooing. (“This kitten needs love,” Owen said.) Smokey advanced through the kitchen and as far as the Christmas tree in the living room before running back to the mudroom. Smokey spent the night in the diaper box bed and used the litter box, too. It was a good night for Smokey.

The next day, though, Smokey wasn’t interested in entering the mudroom. He mostly stayed in the barn or one of the other outbuildings. Owen searched him out. Smokey didn’t want to come near the house, but when someone approached, he would find cover for just a moment, then come out for petting. In what was called the milking shed (even though the cattle on this farm aren’t milked), Smokey would jump onto a cooler, then to a bench, then to a high table in order to be most easily petted. Owen spent a lot of time out there.

The afternoon came, and it was time for us to leave. I joined Owen in the milking shed to give a “good-bye pet” to Smokey. That’s where I took this photo of Owen, nose to nose with his new friend.

Soon the car was loaded and it was time to go.

“Bye, Smokey,” I said. “See you next time we’re here.”

“If he’s not dead,” Owen said.

“Yeah,” I said quietly. “Or, moved on to a different manifestation.”

Owen ruffled through Smokey’s fur a few more times, then said, “Okay, let’s go.”

Wisc Dec 2010 020

From No Death, No Fear: Comforting Wisdom for Life:
The true nature of all things is not to be born, not to die, not to arrive and not to depart. My true nature is the nature of no coming and no going. When there are sufficient conditions, I manifest, and when the conditions are no longer sufficient, I hide. I do not go anywhere. Where would I go? I simply hide.
If your dear one has just died, you may have a difficult time overcoming your loss. You may be crying all the time. But look deeply. There is a divine medicine to help you overcome your pain, to see that your dear one is not born and does not die, does not come and does not go. … Our beloved is not lost. … Our beloved is manifesting in a different form. If we can understand this, then we will suffer much less. (pp. 64-65)

*   *   *

Peace is a cow chewing its cud. Three cows are a revelation.


P.S. I directed Claire and Mario to this post, and they got back to me with news about DeeDeetz:

I do have some happy yet bittersweet news, though! We found Deedeetz! Mario saw a post on Craigslist from Luxemburg, a town about 15 miles west, about a found Calico cat. He emailed the guy and it turned out to be Deedeetz! He found her in the parking lot of the Subway! She must have gotten in that UPS truck and rode quite a few stops before she disembarked. He instantly loved her and asked if he could keep her and we said yes. She always wanted to be a housecat and wanted more attention than she was getting here, and the guy has a really good home for her with other cats she loves playing with. So I'm pretty sad we didn't get her back, but for some reason it felt like the right thing to do. More than anything I'm so happy that she is alive and well and didn't suffer a terrible, violent death.
We decided to take care of any cat that shows up at our house, but to never bring a cat onto the property because death is so imminent.
So we're feeling "happy now," to quote Nina.