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:
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.
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.
The second painting is of a recognisable species; it is a red headed barbet which is found in South America. I’ve kept to the actual colours fairly accurately. Recently I’ve tended to choose birds with bright colours and mostly species which I’ve never actually seen. The colours of the birds suggest what other colours to use; for example I often use complementary colours (they are the colours opposite each other on a colour wheel). Here, blue is the complementary colour for orange, so together they seem more vivid.
As with the first painting, I’ve positioned the bird on a lotus; in this one the lotus is more obviously a throne or altar. I painted the shower of petals thinking of the Sunday Festivals at Throssel Buddhist Monastery. During the ceremony a monk weaves in and out of the walking congregation showering everyone with artificial petals. I also seem to remember showers of flowers being described in The Lotus Sutra.
I hope both stillness and activity are conveyed in the painting – the stillness of the bird and the activity of the petals.
Note; In some of the tales about the previous lives of the historical Buddha he is ‘king of the wild geese.’ This is one reason why geese are depicted so often in Chinese and Japanese Buddhist art. There is also a charming Buddhist ‘Conference of the Birds’ where Avalokitesvara is transformed into a cuckoo and the rest of the birds gather round while he expounds the Dharma. For anyone interested in reading this it is included in Penguin Buddhist Scriptures.
The painting is acrylic on board, 34cms x 30 cms
I used to be an art teacher and became a Buddhist in 1985 at Throssel Hole Monastery. I’ve been a keen birdwatcher also from the 1980’s. Now retired, I recently started painting again and chose birds as a theme. I’m not interested (or skilled enough) in wildlife illustration, so although I start out with a reasonably faithful depiction of a species I will change colours and shapes to fit the composition. This one is different; the bird is entirely imaginary.
As you know, the lotus is a common and potent symbol in Buddhism so I featured a large one here. Instead of a Buddha sitting on the lotus I painted the imaginary bird to suggest that everything is Buddha. The rest of the landscape is semi-abstract and developed without any pre-meditated composition. I hope it suggests the life-force with the tree-shapes and vegetation. I chose the colours as I painted, again to suggest life-force and fecundity.
The painting is acrylic on board and is 30cm x 29cm. There are two more in the series.
My favourite summer walking jacket, many years old, soft and beloved. Another one ripped by the dog as he tried to get treats out of the pocket as the coat hung on the hook. I have mended previous damage with iron-on tape, effective but unsightly. So this time I have tried my hand at an amateur imitation of Japanese ‘sashiko’ mending – where the mend itself becomes a treasured part of the garment.
I have had to let go any idea of perfection, and accept that my first attempts are a touch on the rough and ready side. But what joy it has brought me! First of all it was a pleasure to do it, secondly it has given more life to an irreplaceable garment, thirdly it gives me joy to see this mend each time I put the jacket on. My own little contribution of crafting to the world, something special for my jacket. I can even be grateful to the dog for providing the opportunity to do the repair.
Continued from the previous post and contemplating further on the power of words, I was also reminded of the line from the bible:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” In essence, this is about the power to create.
As I went to buy groceries today and I was looking around, I had to acknowledge that everything I saw, the streets, the pavement, the buildings, the supermarket, the aisles with food, with products, money, the clothes I was wearing, my house, the tap I use to wash my hands, everything, started as a concept, a word in the mind. The world as we know it started as a concept, started as a word; our world is the result of our innate power to create. We can use this power for self serving goals, or use it to create a world that is inclusive and beneficial to all. Now that we are collectively forced to a halt and forced to reassess our unsustainable way of life, an enormous creative energy rises to find alternatives, to consider choices that take into account our interconnectedness.
Through the formidable effort that is being made, through the anxiety, the grief, the uncertainty that is palpable, still this creative force shines more brightly than ever. Alternatives are found, things previously thought as impossible are carried out. Our power to create does not diminish in the face of adversity, on the contrary, it rises to the challenge and shines even more brightly.
I am currently experimenting with batik for an assignment to make a batik design for a kimono, consisting of writing / words and using indigo blue.
I had the following contemplations on the nature of words.
Words have great power, both to obscure and to reveal the truth, to divide and to unite. We can use words to create stories, stories about us and them, and believe these stories to be the truth. It takes the reality of a pandemic to eminently bring to the fore the truth of our shared being, of our interconnectedness, the truth of what is essential and what is redundant. Words that express this clarity have the power to unite, to heal.
I’ve just finished reading a very soothing book called ‘Craftfulness’ by Rosemary Davidson and Arzu Tahsin which, as you might surmise from the title, recommends various forms of crafting as a useful adjunct to mindfulness and meditation. I needed no convincing. I am a fairly regular crochet and knit person. But one thing caught my attention. The idea of decorative mending, referring to the Japanese art of Sashiko stitching.
Cut to another day and another time. My dog has ripped out the pockets and/or the linings of several of my coats in search of the treats in the pockets. I’ve cured this now, no long keep treats in my pockets, and had mended or arranged to be mended, two out of the three damaged items. The third seemed to be beyond my ability to repair, so I decided to charity shop it. But first I washed it, as I didn’t think I could send to the charity shop a coat all covered in dog slime and dried biscuits.
Having washed it, I then thought I couldn’t send the coat to the shop with the lining hanging in rags. It was actually torn into strips, reasonably clean rips, so I tacked the edges together with matching thread so it was at least tidied up. But I was attached to the coat, and it sat in the bag, waiting to go, but not being taken.
And then I read this article. And I began to wonder. Could I embroider along the joins and make them obvious, but beautiful? And yes, I could! I used a mixture of herring bone stitch and running stitch (the true Sashiko stitch) in pale pink embroidery silk. This created a different effect on either side of the join, as the herringbone on the back gives two rows of running stitch, which are very strong. Where the fabric was too thick for the needle, I used running stitch on its own.
And here is the result. I am so pleased with it! I almost prefer the mend to the coat!
I briefly looked at Christianity in my younger days but I never embraced it fully. However, being brought up in a Christian society I have some idea of what faith means in that belief system. Perhaps my understanding is incomplete and I stand to be corrected. Within the theistic religions it seems to be a strong belief in something that cannot be tested or verified in a logical, rational way. For many believers it is a prerequisite of following their path, although perhaps not all modern Christians would hold to such blind faith.
With this understanding (possibly incomplete) I have sometimes found it hard to grasp what people mean when talking about faith in a Buddhist context. Is there something, a greater power in which a Buddhist has faith? The Buddha taught that there is no creator/God/higher power and yet at the same time many scriptures seem to imply that there is something beyond our ‘small mind’, although this is not a creator figure. I think Reverend Master Jiyu implied this but perhaps I misunderstand her teaching.
Recently I listened to a Dharma talk by Reverend Master Shiko Rom, a monk at Shasta. She quoted from a booklet put together by Reverend Master Koten in which he says that “Faith is not the belief in particular things, it is rather active willingness and the activity of continuing on.” (The talk is well worth listening to and this quote is around the 23rd minute. The link is below). This definition resonates with me and after many years of training I feel a strong faith growing.
I believe that it is a faith rooted in my experience of training. After all, in the beginning no matter how strongly we may be attracted to Buddhist practice (and I was) we have only the scriptures and the words of others to go by. The Buddha said that we should not believe what he said but rather we should find out for ourselves whether what he taught was true. Knowing this is, in part, what caused my confusion when I also heard people talk about having faith while training.
However, little by little I have seen how training has changed me and benefited my life. Thus, when I now come up against obstacles and often great pain, I am better able to tell myself to just keep going; to be willing to take another step even if at that moment I can see no light at the end of the tunnel. But it is also important that when doing this I have no expectation as to the particular outcome or way through the difficulties that I might like. That imposes an expectation of my ego and prevents me from simply embracing whatever comes.
I don’t think training ever gets easier. To break through the delusions of mind and samsara requires constant diligence and effort, perhaps even more as time goes on because the mind tricks become more subtle. Yet within the challenges there has grown a certain quiet understanding that all I have to do is to keep going and that comes from my experience. I think that is faith.
I would love to hear what anyone else thinks. This is the link to the talk https://shastaabbey.org/audio/rmsWhatItMeansToTrainWithABrightHeart19.mp3