Friday, February 26, 2010

Friend on the Journey

I am now revising a picture book manuscript that has been in the works for several years. It will be a companion to an earlier book of mine, Polar Bear Night. In the first book, a little polar bear cub ventures out on her own and witnesses a star shower. In this book, the cub will meet another cub, and they become friends.

I haven't worked on it at all for almost a year. About six months ago, I met with my editor, David, over lunch, to catch up with each other and to go over the manuscript. In the end, we didn't talk much about the manuscript (except, importantly, that he told me that he was as committed to the book as ever). Mostly we talked quite deeply about our early lives. Within a few days he sent me some notes, which were among the most helpful notes I've ever received. Kind, insightful, offering direction without being intrusive. Where earlier I had felt weary of the manuscript, about to give up on it, I now felt inspired.

I was eager to work on the revision right away, but other projects with more urgent deadlines intervened, and I had to put this book to the side. Now those projects are taken care of (for the time being), and so after six months away, in the last few days I've read over the notes and felt again awash in my editor's good wishes and strong faith in me, as a writer and as a person.

Here is a section of the notes that I keep coming back to.

What I think this book is about is the journey to friendship. In the way that the first book was a celebration of taking an inward journey and perhaps connecting spiritually to nature, this book is about connecting with another. It's about developing trust, learning to share, the joy of finding a companion, the give and take of play. All things that are part of friendship. And that's a great thing to explore.

Yes, it's a great thing to explore. It's also a frightening thing to explore. That has been my experience, both with this manuscript and in life. I'm trying to write a story about a polar bear cub making friends with another polar bear cub, when in truth, I have no idea how one does "making friends." At least, that how it feels. To work on this manuscript is to touch that deep loneliness that has been an inner companion my whole life. No wonder it has taken years for me to get to an "almost, nearly ready" stage with this story. I haven't felt ready at all.

The last lines of the first book are

Snow and sky and sea and ice
and mother bear's soft, warm fur ....

The last phrases of this book will be along the lines of

Snow, sea, and ice, and the broad blue sky ...

On the manuscript, David wrote,

I love this ending of "...friends." It feels right to me. This book is about the journey to friendship, which is a great theme. How do you recognize a friend? What do you go through to learn to trust each other? How do you know a true friend? Actions can speak louder than words: there can be grandeur in instinctual trust.

The first book was about "home." This book is about "friend." These are the two most important themes for anyone's life, or certainly for mine: to come to feel at home in the universe, and to trust oneself and others enough to connect without fear. They are undoubtedly one theme, one journey.

"Instinctual trust": that is what I must touch if I am going to complete this story. That is the way it will have to happen.

How is it that David's notes were so helpful? Because he allowed himself to be fully present to my words and to his response to them. And when he wrote his comments to me, he strove, bodhisatva-like, to be both truthful and kind. And so I feel encouraged to approach the manuscript this way myself: with full presence, honesty, and kindness. I feel encouraged to be a friend to myself.

Thanks, David.

More about Polar Bear Night:

AIGA Design Archives. Includes views of spreads and notes about design approach

Reviews, courtesy of [I encourage people, if possible, to purchase books from brick-and-mortar booksellers (i.e. not virtual booksellers), especially independent booksellers. But I admit I am a regular customer of Amazon.]

For those who subscribe to
The New York Times on-line (it's free, for now), a review and an audio slide show featuring me reading the book. The Gray Lady loved this book: Best Illustrated, Notable, Best Book of the Year, Bestseller. Thank you, NYT.

My author website,

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Mindful Mouthful

In Thich Nhat Hanh's tradition, we are invited to recite The Five Contemplations before every meal. There have been several versions over the years; here is the most recent:

The Five Contemplations

This food is a gift of the earth, the sky, numerous living beings and much hard and loving work.

May we eat with mindfulness and gratitude so as to be worthy to receive it.

May we recognize and transform our unwholesome mental formations, especially our greed, and learn to eat with moderation.

May we keep our compassion alive by eating in such a way that we reduce the suffering of living beings, preserve our planet and reverse the process of global warming.

We accept this food so that we may nurture our sisterhood and brotherhood, strengthen our sangha and nourish our ideal of serving all beings.

I confess I don't recite this, unless I am on retreat with others in this tradition. It has never engendered in me the kind of humble appreciation that I think I'm supposed to experience. It is based on a teaching that the Buddha gave, which is recorded, I learned, in the Sramanera Vinaya, or rules of conduct for novices. I wasn't able to track down a translation, but I found this summary by Ronald Epstein.

Five Contemplations While Eating

1. I think about where the food came from and the amount of work necessary to grow the food, transport it, prepare and cook it and bring it to the table.

2. I contemplate my own virtuous nature. Is it sufficient to merit receiving the food as offering?

3. I guard my mind against transgression, the principal ones being greed and so forth.

4. I realize that food is a wholesome medicine that heals the sufferings of the body.

5. I should receive the food offerings only for the sake of realizing the Way.

Every version and commentary I read referred to the importance of guarding against greed. Some emphasized that the food should be considered only as medicine for the body, and one should eat only enough to ward off physical weakness. Personally, perhaps because of a history of issues around eating, I find it not useful to dwell on whether or not I deserve to eat, or on whether greed is getting the better of me. I do find it helpful to think of food as medicine (but not only as medicine).

But what I find most useful of all is, instead, to recite (silently) the gatha for the First Four Mouthfuls. Here, Thay has fleshed out the idea of taking in food for the sake of the practice by inviting us to develop the Four Heavenly Abodes (the Brahmaviharas) as we eat. These four immeasurable virtues are Lovingkindness, Compassion, Joy (or Sympathetic Joy), and Equanimity.

The First Four Mouthfuls

With the first mouthful, I vow to practice loving kindness.
With the second, I vow to help relieve the suffering of others.
With the third, I vow to see others’ joy as my own.
With the fourth, I vow to learn the way of non-attachment and equanimity.

One evening, the night of a sangha tea ceremony, during which we eat and drink tea mindfully together, the facilitators came up with a new formulation. With the first mouthful, we were invited to nourish our capacity for lovingkindness. With each mouthful, we nourished an aspect of ourselves. This resonated so beautifully for me that that is how I now recite it.

Recently, at a small, mostly-sangha gathering, I offered to lead the group in taking the first four mouthfuls together. In order not to exclude anyone who might find the Four Immeasurable Terms rather foreign, I came up with yet another formulation, which went something like this:

With the first mouthful, we nourish our capacity for lovingkindness, a universal friendliness toward all beings.

With the second mouthful, we nourish our capacity for compassion, the desire and ability to ease suffering.

With the third mouthful, we nourish our capacity for sympathetic joy, the ability to find happiness in others' happiness.

With the fourth mouthful, we nourish our capacity for equanimity, the ability to accept life just as it is, this very moment.

May you be so nourished.

P.S. This is a slice of sorghum bread I made; for once, a successful batch of gluten-free bread. I'm learning ...

Friday, February 19, 2010

Looking Up at the Stars

This week, for Poetry Friday, not a poem, exactly, but a poetic thought.

Mostly I wanted a reason to post this photo of my son from almost ten years ago. It is a collage which must have been a Valentines Day gift. He is two or three here, wearing his favorite train shirt. He was crazy about trains. I keep this little collage on my bookshelf, just above my meditation altar, which takes up another shelf. But I hadn't looked closely at it in a while. I suppose I am feeling sentimental about it as my son has been away for a few days, visiting my father and his wife.

But the foregoing is not the poetic thought I wish to offer. I remembered a passage from a short story by Garrison Keillor having to do with his baby son, and that is what I am offering today.

From "Laying on Our Backs Looking Up at the Stars," by Garrison Keillor:

In 1970, in search of freedom and dignity and cheap rent, I moved out to a farmhouse on the rolling prairie in central Minnesota, ... where I planted a garden and wrote stories to support my wife and year-old son. ... On the Fourth of July, 1971, we had twenty people come for a picnic in the yard, ... and that night we sat around the kitchen ... and talked about the dismal future.

America was trapped in Vietnam, a tragedy, and how could it end if not in holocaust? We were pessimists; we needed fear to make us feel truly alive. We talked about death ..., about racial hatred, pesticides, radiation, television, the stupidity of politicians, and whether Vietnam was the result of strategic mistakes or a reflection of evil in American culture. It was a conversation with cement shoes.

I snuck out to the screen porch with my son and sat and listened to crickets, and my friend Greg Bitz sat with us and two others came out, tired of politics and talk, and we walked along the driveway out of the yard light and through the dark trees and sat down in a strip of alfalfa. ... And then we lay down on our backs and looked up at the sky full of stars.

The sky was clear. Lying there, looking up at 180 degrees of billions of dazzling single brilliances, made us feel we had gone away and left the farm far behind.

As we usually see the sky, it is a backdrop, the sky over our house, the sky beyond the clotheslines, but lying down eliminates the horizon and rids us of that strange realistic perspective of the sky as a canopy centered over our heads, and we see the sky as what it is: everything known and unknown, the universe, the whole beach other than the grain of sand we live on. ...

Indoors, the news is second-hand, mostly bad, and even good people are drawn into a dreadful fascination with doom and demise; their faith in extinction gets stronger; they sit and tell stories that begin with The End. Outdoors, the news is usually miraculous. A fly flew in my mouth and went deep, forcing me to swallow, inducing a major life change for him, from fly to simple protein, and so shall we all be changed someday, but here under heaven our spirits are immense, we are so blessed. The stars in the sky, my friends in the grass, my son asleep on my chest, his hands clutching my shirt.


Sunday, February 14, 2010

A Tiger for Tết

Today is the Lunar New Year, which in Vietnam is called Tết Nguyên Đán (or just Tết). The monastics, along with many of my sangha brothers and sisters, are celebrating at Blue Cliff Monastery this weekend.

I read that it is traditional in Vietnam to exchange gifts during Tết (more specifically, to give gifts to family and friends who visit your home on the holiday) and I decided I wanted to give the monastics a painting. It is also traditional to give a piece of artwork created in the village of Dong Ho, in their particular style, a woodblock print with black line and bright colors. I don't know how to make block prints, but I could create a painting with black outline. The new year is the Year of the Tiger, so a tiger it would be.

And here it is:

[click on image for an enlarged view]

Seeing it all complete like this, the process is hidden. Here is the process revealed.

I generally need a lot of art reference when I paint or draw. I used to feel guilty and embarrassed about this. But my self-judgment has loosened up a bit since I started studying Chinese brush painting. Traditionally, brush painting students have always copied. That is how they are expected to learn. One should look at mountains, but also look at great paintings of mountains. And copy them. That is the way to enter the spirit in which the artist partook, perhaps centuries ago. It is a way of borrowing the great artist's more enlightened eyes, and more expressive stroke.

So, for this tiger painting, I spent time finding just the right reference. First, some examples of Dong Ho paintings.

While searching for Dong Ho tigers, I found tiger images in another style by a Vietnamese artist, Duy Thai. I liked this one in particular:

I also needed an actual mountain to look at -- a tiger in all his actual stripes:

As well, I looked up the place of tigers in Buddhist lore, in case something interesting came up. What I found was the Zen story about the the sweet-tasting strawberry. (Retold here by Paul Reps, in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones.)

The Buddha told a parable in a sutra:

One day while walking across a field a man encountered a vicious tiger. He fled, the tiger after him. Coming to a precipice, he caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger was waiting to eat him.

Only the vine sustained him. Two mice, one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he picked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted.

Fortunately, I don't need reference for a strawberry vine, since one grew in my garden last summer.

Now I was ready to try to paint a tiger. I painted three; one of them became the Tiger for Tết.

Finally, I looked up how to write "tiger" in Chinese calligraphy, and practiced writing it over two evenings. And I practiced writing "meditation," or "zen," since my teacher had told me that "zen" was almost always an appropriate character to add to a Chinese brush painting. The complete inscription reads, "tiger meditation."

This was the process of painting the painting.

Then there was the process of mounting it on backing paper, with improvised potato starch glue; trimming the backed painting and mounting it with linen-tape "hinges" to the background sheet, a piece of corrugated paper that I'd held onto for more than a year which did not want to lie flat; finding strips of wood lathing to glue onto the back to make the thing rigid, since when it rolled up, the painting would pop off; and packing it up for mailing, flat. A lot of process for this Tiger for Tết.

But how could one expect otherwise? And where else would the joy reside?

Happy New Year!

Chúc mừng năm mới!

Saturday, February 13, 2010

A Message for My Readers

Dear Readers,

First, thank you for reading this blog. I know very little about you beyond how many of you there are. But I am grateful. I would probably post even if no one ever read what I post, but it is wonderful to know that someone, somewhere, will at least glance at it.

Second, to those readers who subscribe: Thank you for subscribing! Whether you receive the posts via e-mail or an RSS feed reader, please consider clicking on the title of the post, to be sent to the blog itself. The post will look the way that I intended, and often, I make corrections or improvements to a post after it has been sent out as a feed. Recently I noticed, too late, how many typographical errors there were in the Heart Sutra which I included in the post. I hadn't typed it myself -- I copied and pasted from another website -- and didn't check it carefully. I promise to proofread more carefully in the future; nonetheless, you will always find a more polished, finished version of a post by going to the blog site.

Third, to those readers who don't subscribe: I know that many people have no idea what an RSS feed is or how to use it. Not long ago, I had no idea, either. But if you've ever wished that you could know when a new post on any blog goes out, without having to check the blog itself, then subscribing is the answer. To make it easy for the least technical among us, I installed a subscription tool which allows you to have new posts sent to you as an e-mail message (as well as to numerous feed readers). You can easily unsubscribe at any time, and I won't have any idea who you are. I generally post once or twice a week (less, lately, since I am busy with my wage-earning writing at the moment), so subscribing won't fill up your in-box.

Fourth, to everybody: please don't feel shy about leaving a comment, if you've ever thought about it. You can sent a comment meant only for me by mentioning that you want the comment to stay private. I preview all comments and I won't post any that are intended to be private. Or you can let me know that a comment is "public OK." Who knows, an interesting conversation among readers could ensue. E-sangha building -- I like that idea.

And if you just want to stop by the blog now and then, that's fine, too. More than fine.

Thanks again, everyone.

Bowing and smiling,


Wednesday, February 10, 2010


In honor of the terrific snowstorm we had this week, I am featuring one of my favorite haiku, by Takai Kito, a disciple of Buson.

Contending –
temple bell
winter wind

I encourage you to read it through a few times. To assist you, here it is again:

Contending –
temple bell
winter wind

My understanding of this poem has changed over time. I once wrote a sermon (as a lay leader at the Unitarian Universalist church I used to attend) based on this haiku, essentially exploring key moments of my life in terms of contention between "temple bell" moments, in which transcendent reality broke through, and "winter wind" intervals of harsh existence. I imagined myself as a hermit, huddled in a hut while a winter storm raged, hearing both the howling wind and the bell of distant temple calling the monks (or nuns) to practice. A chilling picture of the world indeed. Thank heavens for those temple bell moments!

Then, at some point, I had one of those temple bell aha! moments about that word "contending." The poem is saying something much more interesting about life than that the sacred and profane (or mundane) are in contention with one another.

No. I now interpret the poem's imagery this way: the winter wind is the force that is allowing the bell to ring in the first place. Suffering is the very capacity which allows -- invites -- the bell to ring. We think of the peaceful bell and the harsh wind as if they are opposed to one another, but they are working together, in dialectical collaboration (to get all grad-student on you). The harder the wind blows, the louder the bell rings. The wind may gust, bluster, and fume; the bell will only clang and peal with equal urgency. Wake up! Wake up! The music is calling you!

I now also picture myself a practioner within the temple, or at least, as a hermit affiliated with the temple. Missing sangha because of the storm. ("Missing" in both senses of the word.)

Here is the scene out my back window, during the height of the storm.

But I think that this image captures the scene more exactly:

Because it was really blowing out there!

From Wikipedia: "Another way to understand dialectics is to view it as a method of thinking to overcome formal dualism and monistic reductionism. For example, formal dualism regards the opposites as mutually exclusive entities, whilst monism finds each to be an epiphenomenon of the other. Dialectical thinking rejects both views. The dialectical method requires focus on both at the same time. It looks for a transcendence of the opposites entailing a leap of the imagination to a higher level, which (1) provides justification for rejecting both alternatives as false and/or (2) helps elucidate a real but previously veiled integral relationship between apparent opposites that have been kept apart and regarded as distinct."

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Heart Sutra

In sangha, as part of the ceremony of the recitation of the Five Mindfulness Trainings (and of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings), we chant the Prajna-Paramita, or the "Heart Sutra." Thay has a short book about the sutra, but I am now reading the book that Red Pine (aka Bill Porter) wrote, with his own translation and commentary.

It is interesting -- and useful -- to read the sutra rather than chant it. I find I can reflect on the phrases more deeply. Here is Red Pine's translation:

The noble Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva,
while practicing the deep practice of Prajnaparamita,
looked upon the Five Skandhas
and seeing they were empty of self-existence,

"Here, Shariputra,
form is emptiness, emptiness is form;
emptiness is not separate from form,
form is not separate from emptiness;
whatever is form is emptiness,
whatever is emptiness is form.

The same holds for sensation and perception,
memory and consciousness.

Here, Shariputra, all dharmas are defined by emptiness
not birth or destruction, purity or defilement,
completeness or deficiency.
Therefore, Shariputra, in emptiness there is no form,
no sensation, no perception, no memory and no consciousness;
no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body and no mind;
no shape, no sound, no smell, no taste, no feeling, and no thought;
no element of perception, from eye to conceptual consciousness;
no causal link, from ignorance to old age and death,
and no end of causal link, from ignorance to old age and death;
no suffering, no source, no relief, no path;
no knowledge, no attainment and no non-attainment.

Therefore, Shariputra, without attainment,
bodhisttavas take refuge in Prajnaparamita
and live without walls of the mind.
Without walls of the mind and thus without fears,
they see through delusions and finally nirvana.

All buddhas past, present and future
also take refuge in Prajnaparmita
and realize unexcelled, perfect enlightenment.
You should therefore know the great mantra of Prajnaparamita,
the mantra of great magic,
the unexcelled mantra,
the mantra equal to the unequalled,
which heals all suffering and is true, not false,
the mantra in Prajnaparmita spoken thus:

'Gate gate, paragate, parasangate, bodhi svaha'."

[Stanza breaks are mine, for ease of reading.]

I haven't gotten far into the commentary yet. But two things caught my notice.

First, the artwork on the book cover. The painting is titled, "Zhao Mengfu Writing the Heart Sutra in Exchange for Tea." There's tea again! There is a legend here that I will need to look into.

Also, the acknowledgments note at the end of the introduction. "Thanks and an always ready pot of oolong tea to .... and to my wife for supplying me with the Chinese texts and tea." Well, he is a student of Zen, so it shouldn't be surprising, perhaps, that tea plays such a role in his practice and work.

He goes on, "Thanks, too, to all who have continued to support me and my family while I worked on this book, including the Department of Agriculture's Food Stamp program, the Port Townsend Food Bank, the Earned Income Tax credit program administered by the Internal Revenue Service, and the Olympic Community Action's Energy Assistance program."

Wow. I have never seen anyone admit to needing food stamps while working on a book, never mind thanking the government for them. Or a food bank, or the IRS, or an energy assistance program.

Would I be willing to persist with a project that was leaving me in such need for assistance -- public assistance? I don't think so.

Would I be supportive of my spouse persisting in such a project with such results? I don't think so.

More to reflect on.

Credit: The Heart Sutra: The Womb of the Buddhas, translation and commentary by Red Pine. Copyright (c) 2004 by Red Pine. Counterpoint Press, Berkeley, CA.

Jacket art from scroll by Qui Ying, Chinese, Ming Dynasty, 1492/5 - 1522. (c) Cleveland Museum of Art.

Red Pine photo (c) Damon Sauer 2004