A Journal of Life Pursued

Posts Tagged ‘Zen’

Repost: “Elliott, God is my Lord.”

In Photography, The Examined Life, The infinity of ideas on November 21, 2015 at 10:43 am

I’ve been combing through old postings, looking for a few themes, maybe something worthy of expansion. I came across this post from April, 2010. It grabbed me and I thought I’d share it.

* * *

I gave a talk this evening, a talk about photography, to a group of about seventy-five. The talk went well enough, with slides, travel, ideas and stories. The audience was attentive and the presentation seemed well received. Afterward, a man approached me. “Elliott,” he said, extending his hand. “It means, God is my Lord in Hebrew.” I shook his hand. “Doug, dweller by the dark river. Gaelic.” His eyes bugged out. “Man, that’s why you’re a photographer.” I wasn’t sure what he meant by that.

Elliott and I talked for quite a while. He was, what I would call, a natural seer. That is, as he said, he can walk around Back Bay where he lives, “five hundred times and always see something different.” He continued: “I needed a shim, a piece of wood for something I was working on in the house. I went down to the water and picked up a piece of wood, nicely worn down. I held it to the sun a certain way and I could see the ridges in it, all worn smooth.” He was animated. “I took it and scraped it across my face.” He got excited. “It was just a shim, just a piece of wood, but it wasn’t.” I told him that Picasso said that he spent his whole life trying to draw like a child. I continued: “You, Elliott, God is my Lord, have a child’s gift. You see the world as we all want to see it. Fresh.”

Elliott said that my talk made him think about how he viewed the world and that he was excited to put into practice some of the principles and ideas I had talked about. “No, Elliott,” I said to him. “Forget everything I said. Forget it. Don’t think about how you see. It will ruin everything.” He said he was afraid of that, but that he could do it without it being “artificial.” I admonished him. “You walk around the Back Bay five hundred times and every time is new. That is a gift. That is the universe in a grain of sand.” With this he got very excited. “The universe!” he said. “Yes. It’s all about bringing everything together and seeing it whole, as a universe.” I felt as if I was in the presence of a prophet, a seer, a Zen Master. In fact, he had been a teacher. Fifth grade. Retired. “I was a great teacher,” Elliott told me. “Yes,” I said. “I am certain you were.”

The Ultimate Destination

In The Examined Life on March 29, 2013 at 6:00 am

I’ve said this before, but (I think) it’s important so I will say it again. (The older I get, the more inclined to repeating myself I become.) We think from left to right. That is, we think in terms of a lineal progression, we think in terms of becoming. In reading, the eye moves across the page, as, to our way of thinking, the life progresses along the line. I think this has not served us well. Like a ship in sight of the harbor, the process of becoming delivers us from open water and secures us to the dock. It is safe and we can relax. But security is a lie….

Wait, let me start over. Let’s consider the shop-worn adage, Life is about the journey, not the destination. Since the ultimate destination is–duh–death, we should take this advice to heart. To say that life is about the journey is another way of recognizing that life is to be realized in the present tense. That’s good. However…

Returning to what I said at the outset, this business of “becoming.” Something about becoming suggests destination. I am suspect of destination thinking. Stay out of the harbor. Sail on.

Let’s leave it there for now.

* * *

I have no grudge with technology. However, I believe our nature is fundamentally simple and consequently I more appreciate artifacts of our simplicity than products of our science. I have an unattributed quote in my Moleskine that speaks to this: “The only possessions we feel good about are our books.” It is, of course, hyperbole, but hyperbole has its place.

* * *

I mentioned previously the book I’m reading, the John Cage biography, Where the Heart Beats. Two hundred pages in, the young composer finds himself misunderstood, his avant guard music scorned. He grows close to despair, questioning the very motive of writing music. Then Cage tells the following story:

“Two monks came to a stream. One was Hindu, the other Zen. The Indian began to cross the stream by walking on the surface of the water. The Japanese became excited and called to him to come back. ‘What’s the matter,’ said the Indian said. The Zen monk said, ‘That’s not the way to cross the stream. Follow me.’ He led him to a place where the water was shallow and they waded across.”

In other words, you have to do the work.

* * *

The Encyclopedia of Philosphy

The Encyclopedia of Philosophy

I noted in a past post that my landlord was putting a new roof on the building, that my five-floor walk-up studio-office was subject to pounding and dust, disturbing both Lucy and me. Last week, while finishing the roof–slate, lots of it–we had rain and a wee bit trickled through the roof-top work and leaked into my place. It fell directly onto a stack of topographical maps collected on a crossbeam. The Little Bigelow Mtn. 7.5′ Quadrangle map took the brunt of it. What I today discovered, however, is that volume 1 and 2 of my eight volume Encyclopedia of Philosophy, also got wet. This is a pity.

Opened to the page of most damage we find the entry for “Culture and Civilization.” Despite the now warped pages, the entry begins:

“The word ‘civilization’ was derived from an actual social condition, that of the citizen (Latin, civis). The word ‘culture’ in its social, intellectual, and artistic senses is a metaphorical term derived from the act of cultivating the soil (Latin, cultura)….The cultivation of the mind was seen as a process comparable to the cultivation of the soil; hence, the early meanings of ‘culture,’ in this metaphorical sense, centered on a process; the culture of the mind,’ rather than an achieved state.”

To circle back to the beginning: cultivation is the journey, no matter the quality of the soil. Just do the work.

* * *

Two quotes, coming to my attention within two days of each other:

“I do not believe in God. But I am not an atheist.” ~ Albert Camus


“All is God and there is no God.” ~ D.T. Suzuki

* * *

I leave you with that. Make of it what you can. Have a nice weekend and thanks for visiting “…the house…”


Sunday Repost: Out of Ambivalence

In Nature, The Examined Life, The infinity of ideas on March 17, 2013 at 6:00 am
Morning, Moosehead

Morning, Moosehead

Two weeks ago [original post, June 2010], Carole, Lucy, and I went north to Moosehead Lake for a few days of North Woods camping and canoeing. At one point, as the sun set and the stars emerged, I stood on the shore and looked across the lake. I was peering perhaps two miles across the water. I studied the silhouetted landscape up the lake another couple of miles, then down the lake, to the south, maybe three miles. There was not a light to be seen on any shore, in any direction. It was complete and utter remoteness.

The filling aspect of this experience is found, for me, in supplementing experience with an element of the wild–that is to say, nature, and the compliment to a singular experience it affords. (I am encouraged by remembering the Zen philosopher Dōgen‘s comment, “Practice is the path.”) I don’t subscribe necessarily to the idea of the transcendent. Indeed, I don’t wish to transcend. Rather, I strive to enhance, to experience a world that spans wide(r) and forces me out of ambivalence.

The Burning Purity of Creativity.

In Creativity, Photography, Writers on March 4, 2013 at 6:00 am

I’ve been thinking about obscurity. This comes on the heels of my post last Friday, A Fashion of Discomfort, where I ponder this business of playing to an empty house, toiling for the sake of the effort without promise of recognition.

Do you recall the post I put up last summer, where, while exploring the North Woods, I happen across an art installation? Here is the photograph I took at the time:

Art in a land of wild giants.

Art in a land of wild giants.

I wrote:  “She–for there was something beautifully feminine about this exhibit–she, this goddess of creation, was beyond the work and the work was purer for that. It is possible to create for the purpose of creation only, not needing the prism of ‘the other.’ It was an exhibit of voided ego precisely executed.” The nature of this discovery was to understand that creativity is sometimes simply and purely an expression–without the need for reciprocity. That is the antithesis of obscurity and leads down the path to bliss. Yes, bliss–how else to express the satisfaction of creativity for the sake of creation alone?

Since writing the post last week I’ve been thinking of Emily Dickinson. Scholar and poet, Susan Howe, writing of Dickinson, says she was “one of the greatest poets we have, and I don’t mean ‘we’ merely in America. I mean she is one of the greatest of poets.” I do not know very much about Dickinson, but have no reason to doubt Howe’s assessment. Dickinson comes to mind because despite her obvious genius she published but one poem in her lifetime. (As Van Gogh sold but one painting.) Obscurity or genius operating beyond the prism of the other? I wish to think the latter.

Here is another, more contemporary, example: Vivian Maier (1926-2009). Maier worked as a nanny in Chicago, but we know her because she left behind a body of work–photographs–that she jealously shielded from eyes other than her own. In 2007 approximately one hundred thousand negatives were discovered in a garage sale. Eventually the cache was understood for what it truly was: a life-body of work, reflecting a singular genius, heretofore unknown. It was like the Dead Sea Scrolls of street photography.

There is much I find encouraging here and it has something to do with the soaring capacity of the human creative spirit. It uplifts me, as it should any human being, to glimpse the burning purity of creativity, no strings attached. I am reminded of a passage in Alan Watts’s The Way of Zen: “This is a first principle in the study of Zen and of any Far Eastern art: hurry, and all that it involves, is fatal. For there is no goal to be attained. The moment a goal is conceived it becomes impossible to practice the discipline of the art, to master the very rigor of its technique.” There is a white flame warmth about that.


A three-minute CBS story on Vivian Maier:

On My Mind

In Books, Life, Memoir, Reading, The Examined Life on February 15, 2013 at 6:00 am

A few odds & ends, things I’ve been contemplating recently:

I read about 50 books a year. I am 57. Let’s say I live another 30 years. That’s: 30 x 50 = 1500. Fifteen hundred books in front of me, given the assumptions. That’s a focus I need to get my head around.

* * *

There are 196 countries in the world. To the best of my recollection, I’ve been to about thirty-five of them. That’s about 18%. I would like more, but am satisfied. Fifty seems a nice round number, though. If wanderlust is your thing, you might want to check out The Art of Non-Conformity, Unconventional Strategies for Life, Work, and Travel. I met Chris, the unassuming force behind The Art of Non-Conformity, here in Portland a year or two ago as he was passing through on a book tour. He’s on country 193.

* * *

I’m a baby boomer. I was raised in a Mad Men world of: More, Bigger, Faster. That hasn’t worked out all that well. The future is: Less, Smaller, Slower. Not everyone agrees with my assessment and that’s fine. Eventually, however, more people rather than less must embrace the future mantra, Less, Smaller, Slower, or there will be no future to experience–or rather, no species to experience it. This is a hard thing and I worry we’ll not pull it off.  Wm. James:

“The world may be saved, on condition that its parts shall do their best. But shipwreck in detail, or even on the whole, is among the open possibilities.”

There is a blog I follow, Zen Habits, that might be of interest if you want to think more on a Less, Smaller, Slower lifestyle.

* * *

Alan Watts writes that the Zen mind is like a mirror: it reflects everything but absorbs nothing. This image has dogged me since I first encountered it. It seems much of what remains difficult, in politics, in business, in life, is the result of that which has been absorbed–what the Buddha called attachment. What is the cost-value ratio of that which we have “absorbed?”

* * *

Dostoyevsky wrote: “You must know that there is nothing higher and stronger and more wholesome and good for life in the future than some good memory, especially a memory of childhood, of home…” Our recent snow storm prompted memories of my fondest childhood experiences: towering snow drifts, King of the Hill battles atop snow mountains, bundled neighborhood friends. I said recently that, as a species, we have no calling to a natal stream, no return to a territory; yet, perhaps the territory of memory is our blessing-curse natal shadowland. There is comfort there, but like a strong drug, memory over-use is addictive and ultimately debilitating.

* * *

The world remains a wonderful–and wonderous–place. There is not so much effort required to make this observation, though it does not come freely. I subscribe to a modest discipline to maintain this perspective: “Develop your legitimate strangeness,” said poet, René Char. The world would rather we not take this course and remain with the herd. You know my thoughts on this.

Thanks for reading and your continued interest in “…the house I live in….”

Zen and Being

In Life, Philosophy, The Examined Life, Wisdom on January 28, 2013 at 6:00 am
Chinese character for "Tao" -- the way. A gift, as it hangs on my wall, from Zen Master, Sunim Potwah

Chinese character for “Tao” — the way. A gift, as it hangs on my wall, from Zen Master, Sunim Potwah

I used to study Zen with a Korean Zen Master. He said a lot of things I did not–do not still–understand. For instance:

“Any single word loads all sorts of connection and is always valuable as the wholeness of the truth.”rightcol_banner_art


“Mistake or error is still good.”

A Zen Master will typically give the student a koan. A koan is like a riddle without an answer–at least most of us would think it is without an answer. The Master, however, might differ. Most likely, the Master would not consider it in such terms. Here is the first koan my teacher gave me:

A Monk asked Zen Master Yunmen the following: “When not producing a single thought, is there any fault or not?”

To which Master Yunmen replied: “Mount Sumeru.”

It would be bad form to discuss it here. That is a matter between teacher and student. But you are welcome to pick it up and noodle it. Mount Sumeru, indeed!

I like Zen in its austerity. Zen has no doctrine, no sacred texts, no gods, saints, or sinners. There is no heaven, no hell,  devil, or superstition. There is simply the practitioner and the meditation cushion. Despite all that, I don’t practice any longer. I cannot explain why. It is the koan of my life, the way I plunge into a pool, dive deeply, then dry off and never swim again. Like I said, some koans have no answer.


I opened Alan Watts’s classic, The Way of Zen, the other day. Watts was a

The Way of Zen, by Alan Watts

The Way of Zen, by Alan Watts

friend of Ginsburg, Burroughs, and the Beats. He was also a scholar. His book on Zen is considered a classic introduction to eastern philosophy. This passage caught my eye, in particular:

“Zen Buddhism is a way and a view of life which does not belong to any of the formal categories of modern Western Thought….It is an example of what is known in India and China as a “way of liberation,”…a way of liberation can have no positive definition. It has to be suggested by saying what it is not, somewhat as a sculptor reveals an image by the act of removing pieces of stone from a block.”

To pull Watts’s metaphor, the working sculptor, a smidgen down the road, let us consider sculpting in clay and sculpting in marble. One day you, the artist, arrive at your studio, lets say, and want to create something three dimensional. You grab some clay and start molding, adding a piece here, a piece there. You form it to your vision, building it, smoothing it, building more. That, it seems to me, is how we live. We build on existence until an object conforming to our vision is created. We call it our life. It is a process of addition. I note that this method does not conform to the Zen Master of New England‘s  admonition to simplify, simplify, simplify.

David, as released from the stone.

David, as released from the stone.

But, should we turn to marble, that is altogether a different matter. That is a process of subtraction, of chiseling away, of polishing and removing until the form is revealed in the rock. Michelangelo looked at the block and saw his David locked inside. As “a way of liberation,” David must have been grateful.

What is inside? is the question. It is the opposite of What should be added? Eastern thought asks the first question, Western thought the latter.

For me, after years of working in clay, building an image to conform to my vision, I wish to turn to the marble block and attempt to release its contents. Now where did I put my chisel and hammer? (Boy, I love exhausting a metaphor!)

Thanks for reading