In ten days time, our friend Tenzin Shenyen will embark on a 3-year Tibetan Buddhist retreat in Germany that “begins a cycle of practices to stabilise, concentrate and open the mind through more meditative practices that… include practices aimed at transcending one’s deeply ingrained delusional tendency to see oneself and the world as ordinary.”
Q: It’s been 3 years since you gave a talk at Service Design Conference in Stockholm. It was wonderful to see the whole conference meditating with you. It palpably changed the energy in the room. I especially appreciated your advice for design professionals to ‘Just Say No!’ more often. I think that advice is more important than ever. Can you expand on that a bit?
A: As I said in one of my posts about the approaching retreat, I think human beings are machines for producing works of art, and that the best works of art are nameless and invisible. Saying “no” to what is visible and which already has a name is one way into that space. I also re-read Castaneda’s Journey To Ixtlan recently and was touched by how deeply I still resonated with it. There’s a lot of ‘no’ saying in it, from ‘erasing personal history’ to ‘losing self-importance’, to ‘becoming inaccessible’ and ‘disrupting the routines of life’. The genuinely ‘new’ comes out of nowhere – and I mean absolutely nowhere, a brutally total nowhere- but we are too eager to be ‘somewhere’, no matter how shabby and derivative that ‘somewhere’ might be.
I hope at least one designer out there reads this and decides to say ‘no’ to the whole works — until reappearing twelve years later with something with no name and no identity that the whole world needs.
“Saying goodbye to house sits and temporary rooms, to the forest and one-litre bottle-showers at twilight, to the over-exposure of homelessness. Saying hello to deep seclusion and practice. The worlds we inhabit are neither visible nor invisible, but secretive, coded, nuanced and blessed. Saying goodbye also to Facebook, and hoping something more nuanced, respectful and soulful has taken its place by the time I come out again. I’ll meet you there, I’m sure.”
Q: What impact does your Buddhist practice have on your daily life today? How does Buddhism work as a practical guideline for daily decision making? How can this shape a layman’s decision-making to live an ethical life as an ‘ordinary’ person?
A: My daily life is perfumed by Buddhism. It allows me to see everything I do as a kind of prayer. For example, right now I’m watching the world cup. It’s football and I love it, it needs no justification. My unconscious is working tremendously hard preparing for the retreat, so Shenyen is balancing that by just relaxing. I don’t need to justify it. Justifications are for people who are organising pogroms, or asset-stripping entire national infrastructures, etc. not for people who are … content just being nobody, nowhere, just talking with The Invisibles, just owning one pair of shoes … or just watching Argentina’s slalom into the knockout stage while reading Jorge Valdano reflecting on the military dictatorship of the 1970’s, along with his plea to stop treating football as a science; it all turns it all into a kind of dream yoga. And dream yoga is part of the path to Buddhahood. You cannot live an ethical life without nurturing your imagination.
Elaine Scarry’s talk, Beauty as a call to justice, will explain that in detail. I re-posted it on my youtube channel. Ultimately no-one can tell you how to live, they can only seduce you into living in a specific way. Ethics thus emerges from Eros, from loving relationships — with yourself, people around you, your own karmic history, and the culture around you and the times you have been born into.
Q: You spoke once about the importance of combining Buddhist practice with your own ‘culture’ or your natural place in contemporary society as a western monk. Will you still have space for that kind of ‘personal cultural research/ observation’ on your 3-year retreat? Can you watch football when you are there?! Can you read Artforum? Can you write your blog, radioshenyen?
A: Football? Probably not! But in between the meditation blocks, that will usually last about 6-8 weeks per topic, we are encouraged to relax, maybe even listen to a little music. And I will have my Artforum scrapbooks with me. Enough for one exhibition a week I think! But I don’t see too much separation between the centuries-old tantric stuff and my personal interests. Doing the retreat in all its traditional structure is also a part of my ‘personal cultural research’.
“Study, a mixture of chaos and silence, concentration and fragment.”
Q: How much meditation do you recommend to a layperson or beginner? Is frequency important for practice? Are there other types of activities such as physical work (making things, cleaning, gardening, etc.) that are also seen as part of Buddhist practice? In Asia, meditation isn’t seen as something that ‘ordinary people’ do. Lay people often ask the monks to meditate and pray on their behalf.
A: Meditation is extremely over-emphasised in contemporary Western presentations of Buddhism. Ethics, study, art, service, offering, confession, purification, prayer, chanting, and vows, among other things, are all sidelined, or dismissed as ‘obvious’, ‘old-fashioned’, ‘embarrassing’ or ‘peripheral’. But Buddhism only really comes alive when you take on board it’s entire culture, it’s ‘world’ while being willing to do the work of engaging that world with your own. Thus, my love of contemporary art is inseparable from my study of Madhyamaka and tantric meditations. My best moments of mindfulness occur when on alms round. You can’t just meditate in a vacuum, in a fog of mundane activity and thinking.
But nevertheless, it is part of the path.
I would recommend a very short commitment — 10 minutes a day is fine — to being quiet, still, disciplined and visionary on one’s cushion. But instead of wanting to meditate I would suggest that people simply pray to be able to meditate, and then relax. Thinking about what other people need — the immediate needs of the people around you right now, at home or on the train platform — is so much more powerful than some half-hearted meditation practice.
Genuine meditation comes out of uncontrived faith. Faith arises out of joy and ethics. Ethics from art and empathetic disciplined imagination.
Q: We need to manage negative attachments to the idea of future, such as fear or sadness or anxiety, as these feelings arise, to avoid shutting down altogether. Is hope also an attachment?
A: Attachment is one of those words that are easy to misconstrue. In Buddhism, liking something isn’t an expression of attachment; wanting something good to continue, or to happen if it hasn’t yet happened, isn’t attachment. Attachment is defined as a state where ‘you are willing to do something bad in order for something to continue (or begin)’. So ‘hope’ in itself isn’t attachment. Love isn’t attachment, not even fierce love. Whereas cowardice would be.
Q: What is your favourite festival or holiday? What practices in your life have changed significantly since becoming ordained?
A: I like New Year’s celebrations. Awareness of time cycles is a lovely thing and transcends specific religions and worldviews. And the atom bomb memorial day in Hiroshima is also high on my list of ‘things which make the heart beat faster’ – if that’s what you mean by ‘festival’.
Ordination, by providing an absolutely fundamental challenge to my sense of identity, in both challenging (demanding, humbling) and transformative (blessed) ways, has helped me to explore more deeply the teachings on non-self as a meditative state.
Q: How important is it to be altruistic?
A: It is impossible to become a Buddha without practising altruism. And never mind Buddhahood, it is impossible to keep enjoying positive samsaric rebirths without practising altruism. All art comes from altruism.
The exhibition by Pavel Matveyev at Cigarrvägen 13, Stockholm, is titled “With everyone’s imagination atrophied, no one will ever be a threat to the world #3.” A complex and though-provoking title presents a very simple installation of one large scale photographic image to be viewed from an armchair, with headphones of a soundscape, an audio documentation from the same site.
The image he chose was of an abandoned manor house on the outskirts of Moscow. The house was originally an aristocratic palace, but like many buildings of its kind, was converted into a public institution during Soviet times. After the revolution, properties that weren’t converted into sanatoriums or hospitals fell into disrepair. And in turn, those institutions have long since been abandoned.
With everyone’s imagination atrophied, no one will ever be a threat to the world #3
The specific history of this house, although uncertain, calls into a questioning of what history and cultural identity means in the post-soviet era. Without a ‘golden age’ to fall back upon, how can these fading, decrepit romantic visions be anything more than documents of catastrophe? What image of ‘culture’ can be salvaged from history to remain relevant to today and moving forward? The manor house is viewed through an entanglement of overgrown branches. Dead wood obscuring the view a once splendid, great culture? Or a new, neural network emerging out of the ruins? Maybe both.
The most interesting part of the exhibition is not the image by itself, or image as art, but the decision by the artist to merely wallpaper the gallery with the image and guide the viewer to be seated in a comfortable old-fashioned armchair, to view the work whilst listening to an audio sample taken from the site. The work becomes temporal and highly evocative as you are emerged in the soundscape and the blown up patterns. You can hear and feel that this is a documentary of an abandoned space as you are surrounded by the rustling of leaves and the feint sound of dogs barking in the distance. It is a catastrophe that has happened. It is too late. You wait for a narrative or voice to appear, some semblance of human presence, but it never does. The audio is on a 3-minute loop, offering no answers and no conclusions. You almost start to hallucinate traces of human life. Can you hear voices or music in the background or is that sound from outside the gallery, the here and now seeping in through the corners? For a few minutes you are thrown into a powerful drama in this space. But it is emotion observed, not filtered, emotion filled with gentle acceptance.
Elena Fanailova describes Matveyev’s work as a contemplation of the “post-Soviet, post-cultural, post-historic space devoid of emotive meaning.” But the work itself is far from lacking in emotion: you are caught somewhere between a photograph, a still image and a film you once saw. It’s like watching a Tarkovsky film for the first time, but even that analogy is far too obvious. When so much of our consumption of images, still and moving, happens in the digital realm, this is a space in between, a ‘Russian’ sensibility in exile. You are a foreigner to the experience but complicit in it. Fanailova writes: “There is no pity, no nostalgia, only the purity of observation: photography and sound. This is post-history, post-culture, post-game.”
Whether this is a questioning of a image-making, a nostalgic longing for a meaningful contemporary cultural identity, or a personal coming-to-terms-with-history, Matveyev captures your heart through your senses with a sensitive and elegant intervention. He swiftly avoids the work becoming bombastic or clichéd by merely pointing us to experience an image in a new way again. It’s optimistic: your imagination is not atrophied; it just needs to be awakened gently. Matveyev’s exhibition is a commentary on all the consumption of all ‘culture’, bringing into question the relentless flow of images we experience on a daily basis in bite-sized packages of ‘history.’ Imagination is not dead or atrophied. But we must understand that images contain a tremendous power to influence on the way we think. They direct our awareness, and by doing so, shape our world view and our collective memory -no matter who we are or where we are from.
About the artist
Pavel graduated from Moscow State University’s faculty of journalism in 2002, and in 2006-2007 studied photography at the University of Brighton, UK. In 2012 he received his Master’s degree in Fine Arts from Konstfack in Sweden, where he is now a permanent resident.
In his work Pavel Matveyev explores connections between the private and the public, reflecting on nostalgia, melancholy and the luxury of boredom, often investigating notions of the gaze and the poetic image. In this process he employs simple tools in the form of photographic and audio recordings. His works are held in private collections in Sweden, UK, France, Norway and Russia and he has exhibited at Konstfack, Gävle konstcentrum and Arkitekturmuseet, Stockholm.
About the space
Cigarrvägen 13 is a 30-square-metre art space run by Stockholm-based artists Ami Kohara, Frida Krohn, Ylva Trapp, Johan Wahlgren, Helena Piippo Larsson, Maryam Fanni and Lisa Renvall. Together they form an artists collective who aim to make it easier for all types of local artists to exhibit their work. Cigarrvägen 13 has been opened with support of Stockholms stad.
“In the mist, snow fell for nine days and nights.
Then more and more for a further eighteen nights and days.
The snow fell, big as bags of wool,
fell like birds flying in the sky,
fell like a whirling swarm of bees.
Flakes fell small as a spindle’s wheel,
fell as tiny as bean weed,
fell like tufts of cotton.
The snowfall was beyond all measure.
Snow covered all the mountain and even touched the sky,
falling through the bushes and weighing down the trees.
Black mountains became white,
all the lakes were frozen.
Clear water congealed beneath the rocks;
the world became a flat, white plain;
hills and valleys were leveled…”
– from ‘the hundred thousand songs of milarepa’
“she would not cross a road or a rail line in daylight. she would not cross under a wire fence twice in the same place. these were the new protocols.”
– cormac mccarthy, “the crossing”
full moon night. i’m staying in a shed, reading descriptions of eleventh century snowstorms like it was today’s news, wrapping myself in milarepa’s childlike sense of safety, a safety i need now at this point in my life. and a safety i will find, for sure. when you read properly, with the self held in abeyance, the written things that trigger love in you become memories, and when memory comes out of love (the love of another’s world, another’s words) rather than experience you understand a little more clearly the nature of the emptiness of all phenomena and the unity of emptiness and compassion, openness and otherness. so i read often, and everything: i read, too, cormac mccarthy’s howl of a book, a book that destroys false faith, a book that uses wolves and bandits and blindness and quiet mexican doctors the way nagarjuna uses madhyamaka logic.
i’ve just arrived in london, for some teachings and a whole lot more. i should be able to write a few times, i feel, as i pass through. but i’m on my way out of here. suddenly a voice beside me said stop. those well-dressed people from the invisible world. i’m physically exhausted but mentally at peace after another three months of wandering and i’m on my way out of here, walking in one last snowstorm, surrounded by books and telephone calls and subway stations, heading towards some hut in sri lanka, some world, and the feeling of someone’s hand on my shoulder, just the lightest of touches – otherworldly, you might say – telling me to just let it all go. memory and love. surrounded by friends and strangers and arcs of silence. but on my way.
“…the truth may often be carried about by those who themselves remain all unaware of it. they bear that which has weight and substance and yet for them has no name whereby it may be evoked or called forth. they go about ignorant of the true nature of their condition, such are the wiles of truth and such its strategems. then one day in that casual gesture, that subtle movement of divestiture, they wreak all unknown upon some ancillary soul a havoc such that that soul is forever changed, forever wrenched about in the road it was intended upon and set instead upon a road heretofore unknown to it. this new man will hardly know the hour of his turning nor the source of it. he will himself have done nothing that such great good befall him. yet he will have the very thing, you see. unsought for and undeserved. he will have in his possession that elusive freedom which men seek with such unending desperation.”
– cormac mccarthy “the crossing”
The best signs of history are objects so complex and so bound in webs of unpredictable contingency that no state, once lost, can ever rise again in precisely the same way.
– stephen jay gould
Since there is no way the human world is in itself, language need not – in fact, cannot – simply correspond to reality. But we can’t just arbitrarily make up any old vocabulary either. Rather, language has the crucial role of reflecting and focussing the current practices in any epoch. It does the same job as a cultural paradigm. For Heidegger a vocabulary, or the kind of metaphors one uses, can name things into being and change the sensibility of an age… Language is a marvellously powerful way to preserve and extend practices by focussing them. For Heidegger it is the poets and thinkers, not the priests or scientists, who are receptive to, and use, new language and so promote and stabilise new ways of being… they alone offer hope of some new, non-individualistic, non-wilful world.
– Dreyfuss on Heidegger
on the back of a man’s t-shirt, an image of a tree with flowers and birds, painted medieval style.
a japanese guy busking in a corridor on the underground – completely immersed in the song he is singing, with very soft-edged guitar and with equally elusive vocal patterns drifting in and out, amazing stuff – can still be heard as i arrive on the platform to be greeted by a poster advertising a film about a woman with motor neuron disease which announces that she wrote the text of the advert using tiny movements of her chin.
a few steps further along the platform another poster confidently announces in big type: “I was the man in the blue shirt sitting opposite who stared at you all the way from camden town to charing cross. You were the woman in the fantastic glasses.”
the woman opposite me on the train is reading a matt black paperback with a gold band around the top. i cant see what the book is but i sense that it contains a beautiful language, mathematical and attentive in a formalised but kind way. and then i realise: i am that language.
a blond girl carrying a small swedish flag – the kind used to guide large parties of tourists through busy urban settings – walks quietly down a crowded street, on her own, lost in thought.
on a man’s sky blue t-shirt is a print of an orange bicycle, but only the front two thirds have been printed: the back wheel, half of the chain, and the frame from just behind the seat are all absent.
as i sit down on the train i suddenly sense that the woman in the seat next to me is shining. i do what i always do in this situation: i refrain from looking at her, allowing the sensed algorithm of beauty to generate medieval patterns of respect and quietness and joy inside me.
entering liverpool street station a few hours later that awareness re-emerges inside me for a few moments. i slow down my walking a few degrees and feel the soft focussing of a kind of loving intelligence inside my body.
she sits next to me on the train.
“are you a monk?”
“do monks usually call themselves monks?”
“well, only when their mind is very quiet or the situation is kind of formal.”
“what do they call themselves at other times?”
“they call themselves whatever they want.”
“what do you call yourself at such times?”
“i call myself a mathematician.”
“a mathematician. how would you define a mathematician? ….. i guess a mathematician is just someone who does maths.”
“well, that definition is a bit weak. everyone does some maths during the course of the day. they look at the train timetable and look at their watch and do a little subtraction, that kind of thing. but they dont consider themselves mathematicians. a better definition would be ‘a mathematician is someone who sees opportunities for doing mathematics where most people dont.’ ”
“you could apply that to being a buddhist too i guess. to being a buddhist monk.”
“yes. a buddhist is someone who sees opportunities for studying or practicing buddhism where most people dont.”
“as a buddhist mathematician what have you seen today?”
“well, i saw a tree on the back of a man’s t-shirt, painted medieval style, with leaves and birds on it. it was recognisably medieval. and i started thinking about how trees change through the centuries, both in art and in real life – how a tree in a nineteenth century painting doesnt look like a tree in a fourteenth century painting, and how the DNA – do trees have DNA? – anyway, you know what i mean – how the DNA of trees has probably changed too. and i started thinking about mapping these two histories of change onto each other, two fuzzy discontinuities, and mapping these two lines onto logic trees. i started thinking of creating a kind of … foliage … for logic trees using algorithms of change created from the natural and artistic history of trees. i wanted to paint these trees, and have all the lonely people walking beneath them…”
“this is my stop. thank you for talking with me. do you think we will meet again?”
“i’m sure we will.”
Letters from our honorary CEO and wandering artist monk.
radioshenyen: bach hospital
“As a child, I had a running commentary in my head when I was playing. It wasn’t really my own voice. It was the voice of a television anchor from the 1970s, Pierre Cangioni. Every time I heard his voice I would run towards the tv, as close as I could get, for as long as I could. It wasn’t that his words were so important, but the tone, the accent, the atmosphere, was everything…”
– from ‘Zidane: a 21st century portrait’
“They talked among themselves in a language like weather, like high fast clouds…”
– from ‘Spook Country’
last days in spain. i’m doing what i love to do: engaging in slightly loopy behaviour but with the radar switched on….
it’s the last wednesday in may, the night of the champions league final, and barcelona have just scored their crucial second goal. i’m watching the game on a big screen in the main square of a small spanish town, surrounded by barca fans. for a few minutes there’s delirium, and then people begin to settle into that delicious quiet euphoria that comes from a two nil lead with not long to go, and your team playing brilliant effortless passing football. a group of teenage girls sitting on the front row start chanting the name of the brilliant argentinian striker who scored the second goal; the two syllables of his name softened and extended within their childlike devotion and joy. and that’s when i hear it – the fact that the most exciting young player in world football also has a name that floats him into that extra two or three degrees of measureless, accidental beauty: “Messi – Messi – Messi…”
this is what i’ve been collecting these past six months: little bits of unlocatable phenomena, little bits of… how can i say it?… evidence of some kind of floating, unclaimed ‘newness’ still outside of agenda or focus.
i find a japanese mathematician so ‘out there’ he cant be bothered to tie his shoe laces (i try it for a few days up on the mountain – it slows you down beautifully), who wears a suit made from some green cloth so garish that no-one else in the family could find a use for it, but who’s gentleness triggered this wonderful paragraph in a friend’s obituary for him: “he was gifted with the special capacity for making many mistakes, mostly in the right direction. I envied him for this and tried in vain to imitate him, but found it quite difficult to make good mistakes.” the two of them were working on modular structures – objects in four dimensions of space ‘located’ using a combination of real and imaginary numbers. some of these objects possess ‘infinite symmetry’. i’m pretty sure i dont know what this means but as i read it suddenly i feel a deep desire to do thirty five buddhas confession practice, and for ninety days i do the practice – six times a day, every three hours or so, the buddhas rotating in my mind, each one a different colour and with different ritual implements in their hands, floating in a three dimensional space. and maybe that’s what ‘infinite symmetry’ means – the desire to confess, over and over?
the secretary for mountains appears at my side with a little plate of english fudge and an ipod. “we’ve found another one,” she says. “a guy walking in brazil. wearing electronic sneakers. here’s the report…” i put on the ipod and start listening. its a beautiful report, composed strictly according to protocol: every statement both logical and beautiful. a writing that’s about the naming of new phenomena, not the re-arranging of familiar phenomena.
he’s walking along isolated beaches in northern brazil, outside the tourist areas, a kind of 21st century patrul rinpoche. He is meditating on … the breath? no, on container shipping. or more precisely, on those big metal boxes that have become ubiquitous in our world, piled up five or six high in yards on the edges of cities and towns, carried majestically on freight trains that are so long it takes five minutes for one to pass (the watching of which can lead to access concentration) or stacked up on container ships, their colours rusting and sun-bleached and almost singing – to no-one. sometimes these metal boxes get lost at sea in storms and are ripped open on harsh rocky shorelines, spilling their contents: hundreds of left-foot-only sneakers washed up on beaches (the right foot ones shipped separately to discourage theft), hundreds of mickey mouse hats and pink woolen childrens socks, the whole array being tentatively explored by hermit crabs in the moonlight. like some kind of ghostly karmic echo of beach landings through the centuries: the conquistador invasions, or the normandy D-day landings. i’m listening to the report and i’m wondering: how did he know that a container had spilled and the contents were arriving on this deserted beach in the middle of nowhere in northern brazil? what is it to him? is it some kind of death meditation for a generation that doesnt believe in death? the ‘corpse meditation’ of traditional theravadan buddhism translated into the modern world of man-made fabrics? “… gathering his awareness and going alone to a deserted place, he meditates on lost shipping containers… on lost shipping containers broken open… on the spilled contents of lost shipping containers floating on the water… on the spilled contents of lost shipping containers washed up on the beach… sun-bleached… sun-bleached and rotting, the labels no longer readable…”
a few days later she finds one more. “its a movie director, a film about a footballer…” turns out to be a piece of footage i’ve been hearing rumours about for a couple of years. a kind of video-portrait. in fact its called “zidane: a 21st century portrait.” seventeen cameras following zinadine zidane through an entire game, the game itself barely captured in any normal sense of the word. yet present, as a world. present but commentaryless… occasionally the gentlest statements by zidane float across the bottom of the screen. zidane’s voice – in subtitles! – mixing stories from childhood wih more recent experiences as a footballer, stories that come close to being paranormal. but its the half-time section that blows me away. instead of the normal inane review of the first half action, the film maker has collected news stories from around the world the day of the match: a story about hundreds of frogs expanding and exploding in a small pond in germany; a 48 hour marathon reading of cervante’s “don quixote” to mark the 400th anniversary of its publication; an amazing piece of footage showing the english actor sir johnj mills (who died that day) holding a photograph of a woman up to camera and saying with intense emotion “this is what i am thinking about now, the human face…”; and most amazing of all a car bombing in iraq, with brief news coverage of the chaos just afterwards, people running about in all directions, and for a few seconds you see an iraqi guy wearing a football shirt with ‘zidane’ on the back. and for just the briefest of moments i see zidane working overtime. as if to say “there is no such thing as half time…”
at night i fall asleep listening to bach and images too formless to name float through my mind. but i need them to have some kind of ‘address’, however slight, in order to keep them alive for another day, so i gather them into some illusory whole and label the collection ‘bach hospital.’ when i can, i’ll tell you about them, but this broadcast is already too long for most readers. i’ll stop now. just to say that the most stable six months of my life as a monk is coming to an end – i fly back to england in two days and head back out to cornwall with my tent and bowl and godel’s ‘incompleteness theorem’. i’ll write from there.