Serenity Prayer

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change

The courage to change the things I can

And the wisdom to know the difference.

I have always found the Serenity Prayer quite beautiful. It was written by the American theologian, pastor and social commentator, Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr could be called a ‘middle way thinker’ who, throughout his life, reflected on, wrote about and tackled some of the most contentious socio-political and religious issues in American history. Several US presidents, including Barack Obama, have credited Niebuhr as having influenced their own thinking.

The original prayer was much longer, with courage to act on change coming before serene acceptance of things that cannot be changed but the central message has remained the same. In the 1950s, the prayer was adapted and adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous and it became a cornerstone of the organisation’s recovery programme for those struggling with addiction. It has had many other incarnations, with people changing the wording to fit a particular purpose and audience.

As a Buddhist, I do not use the word ‘God’, for instance – or at least I conceptualise ‘God’ differently – so instead of viewing the qualities of serenity, courage and wisdom as attributes outside of ourselves to be ‘granted’, I see this trio as a state of being that is naturally occurring and can be found through deep reflection and which we align our body and mind with, through Buddhist Practice.

Niebuhr’s treatise, in its original form, began: ‘Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other’, which points to the openness needed to face both the events happening in our lives and the wider world and our willingness to look at our reaction to them. To change what must be changed is just as much a call to work for self-change, as it is to act compassionately and responsibly to change the world around us.

In the earlier version, courage came before serenity. Is this because serenity is synonymous with reflection and this has to be our first step? The Merriam Webster Dictionary associates serenity with ‘depth of ocean and expanse of sky: clear and free of storms and shining bright’ and gives the descriptive metaphor ‘steady the moon, serene in glory’ to exemplify this. This is imagery familiar to a Buddhist and points to the source of Truth and Truth itself.

And yet, in this regard, we cannot separate courage and serenity. We need courage to seek serenity and serenity to find courage. Intrinsic in both is wise activism and acceptance.

The prayer has a second, longer verse, which begins:

Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace

These words sit easily with me as a Buddhist. They are the essence of Practice. In living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time, fully accepting both joy and difficulty as equals, we find peace.

However you wish to tap into the prayer’s message, it is awe-inspiring to me that, despite various adaptations, words that were first spoken from a pulpit in 1940s America, have stood the test of time. This, I conclude, is because the message is both simple and True and by ‘True’ I mean that, irrespective of their religious origins or which version of the prayer is used, the words align with a universal honesty about the human condition and how we can approach the days of our lives.

References:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reinhold_Niebuhr

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serenity_Prayer

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/serene

Buddha Recognises Buddha

Lovely Cotinga and a Black-Necked Red Cotinga

In this third painting I’ve attempted to subvert the more familiar image of two love-birds framed in a heart. I hope I have avoided sentimentality by framing the birds in a twisted branch shape which can even be ‘read’ as an upside-down heart. Also, in the sea of lotuses there are plastic bottles. This is to represent samsara and nirvana because within Zen practice there is no difference; they are not opposites.

The birds are a Lovely Cotinga and a Black-Necked Red Cotinga, species found in South America and Central America. The names themselves speak of the miraculous beauty of nature.

Buddha Recognises Buddha is a familiar saying in Buddhism. On one level it describes how we should approach everyone in an attitude of compassion and acceptance; on another level it describes how we can recognise the buddha nature in another person when we don’t have a personal agenda, in other words when ‘self’ is out of the way. The birds are beak to beak to show this meeting. The twisted branch and the central lotus support the two birds to suggest how karma can be converted within Zen practice.

I’ve been reading Zen in the Art of Painting by Helmut Brinker which is a historical study of Chinese and Japanese Zen art. In this ancient art, birds are often depicted, usually as unassuming creatures in a natural landscape. The style seems effortless and spontaneous. My more exotic bird pictures in no way parallel these typical ink on paper or ink on silk marvels. However, there is one quote from the book which chimes with my more modest aims. After writing that certain Japanese artists were not concerned with creating an exact reproduction of reality, Brinker writes,

rather, they sought to grasp the inner vitality of things, their inner essence, and their ear was quietly receptive to the ‘spirit resonance,’ if we may use a classic expression from the ancient Chinese theory of art.

Many people know these lines from William Blake:

To see the world in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower.

But he also wrote these less familiar lines:

How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way
Is an immense world of delight closed by your senses five?

This evokes the sort of sense of wonder I feel as I watch swallows skimming across the surface of a lake; or the delight I feel when looking at the endless forms and vivid colours of nature. And it is really this sense of wonder about existence which I try and put into my paintings.

As you may have noticed I’ve a penchant for symbolism and, on reflection, the three paintings taken together could represent the three treasures of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. I will leave you with that thought and would be interested in any responses you may have. Looking at art is subjective so we will each see something different in the same art work.

There are other Buddhist-related articles and other paintings on my blog.