Traditionally, sense perceptions have been explored extensively by artists. Highly developed perceptual sensitivity is the talent and field of expertise of an artist. Their explorations and discoveries hold valuable lessons about the nature of reality. This series is about artworks that resonate Buddhist teaching.
Alberto Giacometti, Hands Holding the Void, 1935, bronze cast, MoMA
The statue expresses the artist’s recognition of the inherently empty nature of sense perceptions.
O Shariputra, — in this pure there is no form, sensation, thought, activity or consciousness; : No eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind; no form, no tastes, sound, colour, touch or objects;
This morning, the great monk Thich Nhat Hanh passed peacefully away, in his temple, in Vietnam. His writings were some of the first that I read, when I discovered Buddhism, in my mid-twenties. I am grateful for the engaging and accessible way that he expressed the teaching, which struck a chord, straight away.
The internet is currently flooded with tributes and reminiscences of his life, so I will not try to recreate them here. Suffice to say, I feel drawn to reread some of his books and, having lost six people from my life, during these past pandemic years, this quotation, posted by a Buddhist friend to Facebook, this morning, lifted me out of a fog of melancholy and raised my eyes to the sky. Thank you!
“One day as I was about to step on a dry leaf, I saw the leaf in the ultimate dimension. I saw that it was not really dead, but that it was merging with the moist soil in order to appear on the tree, the following spring, in another form. I smiled to the leaf and said, ‘You are pretending’. Everything is pretending to be born and pretending to die, including the leaf.
The Buddha said, “When conditions are sufficient, the body reveals itself, and we say the body exists. When conditions are not sufficient, the body cannot be perceived by us, and we say the body does not exist.” The day of our death is the day of our continuation in many other forms. If you know how to touch your ancestors in the ultimate dimension, they will always be there in you, smiling. This is a deep practice.
The ultimate dimension is a place of coolness, peace and joy. It is not a state to be attained after you “die”. You can touch the ultimate dimension right now by breathing, walking and drinking your tea in mindfulness.
Everything and everyone is dwelling in Nirvana, in the Kingdom of God,”
Professor Thich Nhat Hanh – Living Buddha, Living Christ (1995)
Saturday sleeves are long knitted cuffs, so-called because they are meant for slipping on when you need to do outside chores, on a chilly Saturday morning. They have also proved useful as a way of providing warmth to my husband’s hands, which are wracked with arthritis and unable to take regular gloves and mittens.
Adapting the simple pattern to accommodate the different size and shape of the hands, one glove was knitted on circular needles 4.5mm (32cm length), with 43 stitches and was worked (knitting every row) until it measured 25cm long, and the other on 5mm needles, with 50 stitches, until it measured 15.5cm long. I kept the tension loose so that the finished cuff didn’t drag over his painful joints. The hands and knitting both have flaws. Yet both are perfect just as they are.
I’m pleased to say, he reports that they keep him ‘toastie!’
Each year, when I take down the Christmas decorations and pack them away, I write a motivational note to my future self encouraging me to look up, chill out and enjoy the festive season. That might sound a bit crazy, but the truth is I have an anxiety about Christmas that borders on a phobia. The note is usually brief – ‘Relax and enjoy!’ Or ‘You can do this!’ – instructions meant to cut through the tension. Then I seal it in the box with the baubles and store it away, only to be read when I unpack it again the following December.
I have been in Buddhist training for most of my adult life. Practice helps me to understand why I am the way I am, accept the way I am, and illumines the path to necessary change. Like many of us, I have weathered some very human storms. Through Buddhism, I have come to understand that whilst our suffering is caused by our conditioning and attachments, it is also the path to liberation. I know this to be true. I know how to be still. I know how to direct myself. But then there’s Christmas!
While others happily and excitedly prepare for this seasonal event, I become increasingly aware of my building anxiety. I pledge to pace myself, take things steady. There are presents to buy and wrap, cards to write and send, decorations to put up, Christmas food to order and prepare. Sounds fun, doesn’t it? Yet, as I go through the motions, a sadness descends like a grey mist and even though I make lists and organise myself so that I can get through the preparations in small, manageable chunks, I seem to be ruled by the limbic brain and struggle not to spin into utter panic.
Knowing this, I write the notes in acknowledgement of this unconverted state of suffering. Christmas Past, speaks to Christmas Future and tries to reassure this fearful being that it is not a big deal, yet for me, karmically, it really is!
Christmas 2020 was different. In a state of lockdown, due to Covid-19, the Government allowed us Christmas Day to be with our families but only three households could mix. I have three grown-up children, who usually pile back into the old family home, with their partners and children, so to choose just two households to join us for Christmas, leaving one of them out, was not something that I would countenance, even though one of my daughters volunteered to stay away. So everyone stayed at home. Things were quiet and low key and, without the usual hustle and bustle, I had time to ask more deeply just exactly what my difficulty with Christmas is.
As a result of doing this, I read a very different note to myself this Christmas. It did not chide me to be happy. It spoke not so much of a dislike of Christmas but the ambivalent feelings that it invokes. The idealism of all our hopes and dreams being pinned onto one day in the calendar year and the uncomfortable, unsatisfactoriness of that. It spoke of the love of sharing with others, set against the concern that I have for the homeless and those spending Christmas alone and how the homeless and the lonely are homeless and lonely all year round but somehow, on this day, it feels so much worse.
It spoke of how I found myself tearful and fearful for turkeys and pigs in their blankets, whilst also thumbing through the BBC Good Food Magazine and planning lunch. It spoke of the tension between the wish to be generous to others and a tendency towards excess that does not represent ‘The Middle Way’. Christmas has a quality to it that can seem to promise eternity, whilst slyly leading us away from it if we are not careful.
But the note also pointed out that, in my reflections, I had ‘touched that tender, soft spot of being’ and understood that the basis of my sadness and suffering is love. Christmas has a way of drawing up wistful melancholia that is still present but easy to miss at other times of the year. It is good to acknowledge that, to investigate it.
There is no note in the bauble box for me to read, next year. I thought about it but the need was gone. These missives have served their purpose. Christmas will continue to press my buttons, I have no doubt but I can see some of the causes, if not all and I will continue to do my Christmas training, with open-hearted curiosity, however long it takes.
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