Poem After the Retreat – Not Two

Photograph by Kathleen Campbell

by Kathleen Campbell

The self feeds on desire
However noble.

The self puts the self down
And puffs the self up.

The habits of many years
Seem hard to undo.

Yet what else is there
But ongoing training?

Transcendent and immanent
Are not opposites.
Through this

We free ourselves
From suffering.

Silent Illumination

Early morning by the River Trent at Attenborough Nature Reserve – photograph by Tom Kirwan

“In darkness it is most bright, while hidden it is all the more manifest.

The crane dreams in the wintry mists. The autumn waters flow far into the distance.“

From the Guidepost of Silent Illumination

Zen Master Hongzhi, trans. Taigen  Daniel Leighton with Yi Wu

Attenborough, April 2019.

Walking with Alice

Editorial note: The author of this poem has motor neurone disease. He used to enjoy his walking holidays with his wife, Alice.

Alice needed a rest after nine months of lockdown and care as my functions melted away.


A hurried phone call as she explored north Derbyshire

“I only want to do this walk with you”


The shock of our temporary mutual isolation
The foresight of the end of this story.

Tom Kirwan

Singing, Breathing, Connecting – Karen Richards

Along with many other socially based activities that used to be done ‘in the flesh’, since the Coronavirus pandemic, our local Sunday morning Sangha meeting is now done via Zoom. Conducting our lives on the internet can have its limitations but there is also a unique quality to it, in terms of staying connected, that more conventional methods lack. Obviously, a phone, tablet or other form of compatible technology is needed and it helps to have enough IT ‘know-how’ to troubleshoot any minor technical difficulties but aside from that, anyone can join in, making it accessible to all.

Recently, I have been taking it in turns to precent at these meetings. The precentor’s function is to facilitate the singing of the scriptures along with striking the gongs to signal the offering of incense and striking the inkin or hand bell to signal the bowing, which helps to harmonise the ceremony and keep it flowing. When we are all together, in the same room, there is plenty of opportunity for the precentor to take a breath because once the scripture is underway the congregation carries it forward. The congregation will be chanting together online, of course, but the difference is that because of potential feedback, people’s microphones are muted and the only voice that can be heard is that of the precentor.

It’s an interesting experience singing on your own, knowing that others are listening to you but not being able to hear them back. There is a feeling of being exposed, a self-consciousness, and it’s a challenge to get the breathing right, so that you don’t suddenly find yourself gasping for air. As a result, I have become much more aware of my breath, the function of breathing and how the breath is affected by any emotion that I may be feeling – that is any residual emotion that may already be there and those that arise during the ceremony. The latter sometimes applies if the words of a particular scripture touches me (this happened during the recitation of The Scripture of Great Wisdom, shortly after my mother had died) or if I am concerned that someone might bang the front door and affect the sound, as has happened on more than one occasion. In short, I find this offering both a joy and a challenge.

Sometimes, it’s good just to accept the foibles and idiosyncrasies of both the situation and yourself but, trying to get it as ‘right’ as I could, I decided to get some online singing lessons, not to try to be ‘perfect’ but so I could understand the technicalities of breathing and singing and maybe relax a bit more.

At my first lesson, the teacher spent most of the time getting me to stand properly, become aware of all of the tiny muscles in my head and face and relax my jaw. She also asked me to observe the bodily sensations that arise from humming, as opposed to blowing – closed mouth v open mouth. It was helpful and I was grateful but once I’d listened and practiced a few times, she said, ‘Really what you’re there for is to support other people. You need to adapt your tone and pitch to help them. Pow!

Of course, it isn’t always possible, when you are connecting via the internet, to know exactly what other people’s needs are but the principle of moving from awareness of yourself, to awareness of others and their needs was a bit of a game changer. Strangely, it made me relax.

Dogen said, To know yourself is to forget yourself’. I thought it interesting that in Buddhist training we start by becoming aware of ourselves and what is going on with us. Then when we have done this for awhile, the barriers soften and we see our connection with others more clearly and can harmonise.

I don’t think that all the singing lessons in the world will prevent me from continuing to find precenting and managing my breath both a joy and a challenge but that is the point, I guess. It’s not meant to be easy, is it?

Increasing not decreasing not?

Veil nebula-Hubble Space Telescope
Veil Nebula – Courtecy Hubble Space Telescope

I very much enjoy listening to a BBC Radio 3 progamme called ‘Private Passions’ presented by the composer Michael Berkeley. It’s a sort of upmarket Desert Island Discs which you can find via the wonderful BBC Sounds App.  A few weeks ago, it featured Patricia Wiltshire, who turned out to be a rather engaging forensic ecologist.  I was struck by what she had to say about her beliefs, which were emphatically not religious.  

“The only life after death is what you leave behind, which becomes incorporated into life. So you are decomposed, you break down into your constituent little bits.  The energy all drains away because it dissipates.  You can’t do much about that. But the bits of you that are left, and all the molecules that make up your body are dissipated and then they are recycled.  So you will be recycled.  So that’s the only life after death that I can imagine.  I don’t have any spiritual feelings.  (…) This is the natural cycle and of course there is only so much matter, so if it weren’t recycled we couldn’t have birth at all.”

It was the throwaway phrase ‘There’s only so much matter,’ which set me wondering, as it seemed to resonate with the words in ‘The Scripture of Great Wisdom’.  The matter which makes up this planet must indeed be ‘Increasing not, decreasing not’.  And all things (being pure or empty) ‘are neither born nor do they wholly die.’ 

And so we talk of finite resources; we say that our planet is a ‘closed system.’.  And, I wondered, with the ever increasing numbers of human beings (matter) does this inevitably mean fewer of other beings (also matter.)  Thus as we watch animals, plants, birds, insects disappearing from the earth, is it because there isn’t enough matter left for them to be born and sustained?  And as we convert resources into non-recyclable materials like plastics and burn fossil fuels and convert them into damaging gases, are we gradually and not so gradually reducing the amount of matter that can sustain life and putting it into forms which are effectively dead? Such that in the end there can be no birth?

Perhaps this is all obvious, but that little phrase somehow gave me a different sort of insight into what is happening.  It didn’t really cheer me up.

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.

Buddha Bird 2

Buddha Bird 2
Buddha Bird 2

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

Bird and Lotus

bird and lotus
Bird and Lotus

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.

Gassho

Eric