Artisans and artists whose work is an attempt to express the inexpressible will often speak about their practice as a settling into the moment, a relaxing in the now, or even as a dissolving into wild unknowingness – and creating from that far side. Years ago I came upon a way to explore the intimate and fleeting moment; I began painting the exhalation of my breath. I reckoned that the length of one exhalation – as laid down in one simple brushstroke – was a pretty good portrait of a moment in my life, and a measure of my essential ‘beingness’.
But when I read Ruth Ozeki’s novel A Tale for the Time Being, I had to rethink my moments. Turns out that in the Zen view of time one exhalation of my breath would amount to not one, but hundreds of moments. In a revealing note at the end of the book (Appendix A: Zen Moments) Ozeki fleshes out the Zen view of time. It’s mind-scrambling, like most things Zen:
The Zen nun Jiko Yasutani once told me in a dream that you can’t understand what it means to be alive on this earth until you understand the time being, and in order to understand the time being, she said, you have to understand what a moment is.
In my dream I asked her, What on earth is a moment?
A moment is a very small particle of time. It is so small that one day is made of 6,400,099,980 moments.
When I looked it up afterward, I discovered that this was the exact number cited by Zen Master Dōgen in his masterwork, the Shōbōgenzō (The treasury of the True Dharma Eye).
Numerals resist the eye, so let me spell it out in words: six billion, four hundred million, ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred and eighty. That’s how many moments Zen Master Dōgen posited are in one day, and after she rattled off the number, old Jiko snapped her fingers. Her fingers were crazily bent and twisted with arthritis, so she wasn’t very good at snapping, but somehow she got her point across.
Please try it, she said. Did you snap? Because if you did, that snap equals sixty-five moments.
The granularity of the Zen view of time becomes clear if you do the math*, or you can just take Jiko’s word for it. She leaned forward, adjusting her black-framed glasses on her nose and peering through the thick murky lenses, and then she spoke once more.
If you start snapping your fingers now and continue snapping 98,463,077 times without stopping, the sun will rise and the sun will set, and the sky will grow dark and the night will deepen, and everyone will sleep while you are still snapping, until finally, sometime after daybreak, when you finish up your 98,463,077th snap, you will experience the truly intimate awareness of knowing exactly how you spent every single moment of a single day of your life.
She sat back on her heels and nodded. The thought experiment she proposed was certainly odd, but her point was simple. Everything in the universe is constantly changing, and nothing stays the same, and we must understand how quickly time flows by if we are to wake up and truly live our lives.
That’s what it means to be a time being, old Jiko told me, and then she snapped her crooked fingers again.
And just like that, you die.
Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being
Will I ever be able to look at the paintings of the Western Desert artists the same way again? If one fingersnap equals sixty-five moments, surely one dot would amount to something similar. So, how many moments are portrayed in a work like this one above, by Willy Tjungurrayi? Or the one below, by Lily Kelly Napangardi?
I know this much – one of my exhaled breathstrokes is equal to around seven fingersnaps. That means each complete painting portrays many days’ worth of moments. Was I present at every miracle moment? I doubt it.
But something in me suspects that those Aboriginal artists were, and are, and that they would agree 100% with old Jiko, and Zen Master Dōgen.
want to step so quickly
over a beautiful line on God’s palm
as I move through the earth’s
I do not want to touch any object in this world
without my eyes testifying to the truth
that everything is
Something has happened
to my understanding of existence
that now makes my heart always full of wonder
I do not
want to step so quickly
over this sacred place on God’s body
that is right beneath your
Translation by Daniel Ladinsky
See more at Poetry Chaikhana
* 1 fingersnap = 65 moments and 6,400,099,980 moments = one day, so 6,400,099,980 divided by 65 = 98,463,077 fingersnaps per day.
National Gallery of Victoria to November 4
Sadly I won’t view this exhibition as I live too many hundreds of kilometres away. But I’m prompted to share a post about it here after reading a review by Christopher Allen last weekend, in The Australian newspaper. I always enjoy Allen’s reviews; he fleshes out his essays with asides that I’m often not familiar with. I learn much from him.
Japanese art and artisanship is, however, a familiar and deeply loved topic for me, having had the good fortune to spend time studying in Japan and working with extraordinary artisans there. The young Christopher Allen also spent time in Japan, and while I’m not sure whether his understanding of Zen was formed in those early years, it’s a joy to read his wise summation in his review of this exhibition.
To read the entire review please click through to the page at The Australian
What bows, arrows, swords, calligraphy brushes and teacups have in common … is the philosophy of Zen Buddhism. The word Zen is the Japanese equivalent of the Chinese Chan, in its turn an adaptation of the Sanskrit Dhyana, which means meditation or the meditative state of mind. This variety of Buddhist thought in particular seems to have absorbed much from Taoism, which emphasises stillness, attentiveness and awareness of the life of the natural world, and is the deepest inspiration of classic Chinese painting and calligraphy.
Zen teaches presence above all, inviting us to be in the here and now rather than distracted by memories, anticipations, desires and fears. This state of presence is constantly available to us, yet it is not something that we can want or aspire to, since the very act of desiring separates us from being in the present moment: to look for enlightenment, as a famous Zen saying goes, is like looking for an ox when you are riding on it. We only need to stop wanting and desiring and we will find it.
This philosophy of presence does not require one to live a monastic life; it is rather the spirit one can bring to all aspects of daily life, and for that reason Zen was able to become the spiritual philosophy of the samurai. Its relevance to the art of the bow, for example, was the subject of a book by Eugen Herrigel, Zen in the Art of Archery, originally published in German in 1948. The secret is in the direction of attention and in the elimination of self-consciousness; the archer must forget himself and think only of the target.
The principle is not hard to understand. You obviously cannot meditate if you are thinking “I am meditating”; the meditation starts when self-consciousness stops. Similarly with almost any craft: a potter, a pianist, a painter or a writer has to forget themselves and be entirely in the act. It is the same with swordsmanship, which superseded archery as the quintessential samurai art of war.
The great swordsman, as Zen writers such as DT Suzuki explain, achieves a state of emptiness, of “no-mind”, which alone permits the rapidity of reaction and the accuracy necessary to preserve one’s life and defeat the opponent. The conscious mind is simply too slow: it would get in the way of action.
Many famous samurai stories are about swordsmanship, two of which are illustrated here: in a triptych of ukiyo-e sheets by Kuniyoshi, the 12-year-old Ushiwaka, a prodigy of the art, overcomes the master warrior-monk Benkei at the Gojo Bridge (1839). And once again in a set of three sheets by Utagawa Yoshitora, Night Attack of Kumasaka (1860), we see the young samurai Yoshitsume single-handedly fighting off a band of brutal thugs.
The serenity of his expression and the refinement of his youthful features are contrasted with the grotesque types of the bandits, as he parries an attack from their leader with his fan while beheading one of his henchmen. The attackers are in a blind intoxication of rage; Yoshitsume is in the stillness of no-mind, so that to him each blow is executed with the slow deliberation of a calligraphy master composing the characters of a poem.
Images courtesy of the NGV website.
Top – Upper portion of a suit of Samurai armour.
Middle – Samurai sword
Bottom – Utagawa YOSHITORA
Japanese active 1850s-1880s
Kumasaka’s night attack on Ushiwaka-maru at the
Akasaka Post-station in Mino Province
1860 Edo, Japan
colour woodblock (triptych)
Eugen Herrigel, Zen in the Art of Archery
“The peacock’s tail,” said Charles Darwin, “makes me sick.”
That’s because the theory of evolution as adaptation can’t explain why nature is so beautiful.
Really, does the peacock’s tail have to be that beautiful? Do butterfly wings need such brilliantly varied patterns? Do seashells need such exquisite architecture and patterning to house a small crawling creature? Does a spider really need to spend all night spinning such silken symmetry? And don’t get me started on flowers…
Nature’s nature is to be excessive when it comes to design, and there’s nothing random about it. The beauty of nature is not arbitrary, even if random mutation has played a role in evolution.
Divinely Superfluous Beauty
The storm-dances of gulls, the barking game
Over and under the ocean …
Divinely superfluous beauty
Rules the games, presides over destinies,
makes trees grow
And hills tower, waves fall.
The incredible beauty of joy
Stars with fire the joining of lips, O let our
Be joined, there is not a maiden
Burns and thirsts for love
More than my blood for you, by the shore of seals
while the wings
Weave like a web in the air
Divinely superfluous beauty.
– Robinson Jeffers
Robinson Jeffers’ luscious poem eased its way back into my memory this morning when I read Deborah Barlow‘s post Useless Beauty on her blog Slow Muse. I’m grateful for her permission to share it here – for the benefit of those of us who might be in need of an awe-and-wonderment recharge.
Who needs a peacock’s tail when you can build this for your lady love?
The bower created by a male bowerbird.
David Rothenberg is a jazz musician and a professor of philosophy. He has written a number of books, several of them focused on the interface between natural sounds (like the songs of birds and whales) with jazz and other musical forms.
In his most recent and thought provoking book, Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science, and Evolution Rothenberg moves into the visual realm, exploring how beauty fits into the current concept of Darwinian evolution. Is beauty part of natural selection? Can its abundance in nature truly be explained by sexual selection?
Rothenberg makes a strong case for aesthetic selection. Beauty as a determiner. This is a delicious thought.
One of Rothenberg’s prime examples is the bowerbird. Each species creates a very particular style of bower, an undertaking that is extremely arduous. Amazingly, these structural—and very sculptural—creations are not nests nor are they used for anything “practical.” They are extravagant expressions designed to please the eye of the female bowerbird.
In many ways they seem to defy evolution since their sole purpose is to look good. But Rothenberg suggests that birds have their own aesthetic, similar to human “schools” of art, like abstract expressionism or cubism. And looking at the photographs of bowers below, how can anyone not think of our own human bowerbird, Andy Goldsworthy?
From the book:
The female satin bowerbirds do choose their mate after what they see in the bower and what they take in from the song and dance. But are they really evaluating the quality of their mate? Modern sexual selection theory says what they are looking for is good genes, while Darwin’s original sexual selection theory focused only on what the females like. Look what he has created — an artwork with style and substance, something no animal besides humans is known to do. Are we to brush all this effort off as a sign or a code for something more mundane and hidden? What if bowerbirds attract, mate and procreate for the propagation of bowers, not offspring? Look at the process as an example of aesthetic selection…
[These are] not structures to live in, but for the females to admire. They are built to be one thing — beautiful.
Rothenberg goes to to say that he does not believe evolution as we know it can explain art, but “a deeper consideration of art can enhance our understanding of evolution.”
He also writes this memorable line:
I believe our understanding of nature increases if we spend more time wondering about all this useless beauty.
Below, a sampling of different bowerbird offerings:
It’s rare to come upon an extraordinarily creative artist who also has a wise and poetic way with words. And to find that this artist has brought together her two skills within the covers of a book that is not only a visual delight but an inspiration for the contemplative creative, is such a joy. Her name is Karen Divine, and she hails from that hotbed of creativity, Boulder, Colorado.
Karen joins the Colorado crew – Jordan Wolfson, Robert Spellman and Lisa Gakyo Schaewe (have I missed anyone?) at the artisans’ gallery. I’m delighted to welcome her. She has opened my eyes to the astonishing creative possibilities of iPhone art.
Our world is filled with internal dialogue, judgments, assumptions and analysis.
We choose these perspectives over having a “direct experience”.
When we view the world with these perspectives, we do not see at all.
We live in a world where certainty and familiarity are most important.
There is another way.
(LOOK WITH FRESH EYES)
LOOK with fresh eyes at the play of COLOR,
FORM, and TEXTURES that surround you!
This is the most heartfelt approach to embracing
each and every moment. By CONNECTING with HEAVEN
and EARTH you can bring the whole
UNIVERSE into your HANDS
As Rilke expresses beautifully in Letters to a Young Poet: Depict your sorrows and desires, your passing thoughts and beliefs in some kind of beauty, depict all that with heartfelt, quiet, humble sincerity and use to express yourself the things that surround you, the images of your dreams and the objects of your memory.
I have learned to step out of my way, quiet the critic and allow the process to happen, revealing to me a story.
I just shoot my life, stay present and watch what develops.
The opportunities are endless.
- Karen Divine
The image above is from Karen’s book A Small Amount of Courage, which features her iPhone art
…which you must see to believe. In her book, Karen says, “As an artist, tapping into your own creative spirit is, first and foremost, a matter of developing awareness. This inner awareness allows you to quiet the senses and allows the unconscious to reveal rich imagery.”
Karen used the I Ching as the starting point for each of her images, and her creative process flowed through her meditations, yoga practice, and inspiration from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. The result is 64 images, each accompanied by a short verse, that offer profound insights into the most basic human experiences – those that you are more likely to see in the mirror than on the news.
Karen is an internationally recognized artist with more than a dozen prestigious awards for her iPhone art. After one glance at her work, it’s easy to see why – each image in her book is a composite of many images that feature color, lines, and balance. It is whimsical with a touch of melancholy and offers much for the eye to explore. The verses express Karen’s interpretation of the accompanying image and leave you with much to consider. A Small Amount of Courage is a masterwork that belongs on the bookshelf of all who appreciate art and how it can inspire self-realization.
- Jeanne Hansen, editor.
Jena Argenta brings her exquisite papercutting to the artisans’ gallery, and contributes an equally exquisite, deeply thoughtful essay about her work.
In papercutting and in drawing, I can’t capture the Mystery of a crane or a lily.
I can only trace the contours of my bewilderment.
Walking the Dark (detail), black newsprint unmounted, full size 9″x16″
Frederick Franck and my mother were early teachers in how to see and how to love. And if one makes a practice of falling in love, everywhere, with everything, it pushes the reach of one’s arms. Far becomes near. There is no “other” in the margins. Suffering is not on the peripheries. Like beauty, it is palpable and immediate. Drawing can leave you feeling broken and small with God on your skin. It can change your life. And yes, Jordan Wolfson, it can change the world.
My papercutting, while part prayer, is just a fancy way to get back to that line. To illuminate it by leaving it out. It turns the experience of life drawing and its loving inside out. I want to share eyes with you. And to take my time. I want to dig my heels in like a heavy rooted oak in the city’s technetronic center and hold ground and show you how beautiful light is when it’s mediated by shadow.
- Jena Argenta
The purpose of art is to take the senses on a journey back to the source of perception, which is pure Awareness.
- Rupert Spira
In order to understand the true meaning of Abstract Art, we have to conceive of ourselves as a reflex (reflection) of reality. This means we have to see ourselves as a mirror in which reality reflects itself.
- Piet Mondrian
The body is a sensing instrument of consciousness. Without the body and the mind, the trees couldn't see themselves. Usually we think that we are looking at a tree, but the tree is looking at itself through us. Without this instrument, the tree doesn't get to see itself. We are the sensing instruments of the Divine.
Art is a form of supremely delicate awareness ... meaning at-oneness, the state of being at one with the object.
- D H Lawrence
The heart of creativity is an experience of the mystical union; the heart of the mystical union is an experience of creativity.
- Julia Cameron
I am Not,
but the Universe is my Self.
- Shih T'ou, AD 700 - 790
It is [the] flash of realization of not-two-ness, that is both the center and the endpoint of our human experience.
- Frederick Franck
I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas.
I’m frightened of the old ones.
- John Cage
God created the giraffe, the cat, the elephant ...
He has no real style, he just keeps trying things.
- Pablo Picasso
Slow motion opens the mind.
Smooth motion opens the heart.
Slow smooth motion
the inexplicable delight.
- Paul Reps
Art evokes the mystery without which the world would not exist.
- Renee Magritte
The basic project of art is ... to close the gap between you and everything that is not you.
- Robert Hughes