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.
Radio Shenyen has now moved to it’s own dedicated space on Tumblr. Radio Shenyen is a blog part poetry, part diary, part letter, by the British born Tibetan Buddhist monk, Martin Hodgson, aka Tenzen Shenyen.
Shenyen received monk’s vows from His Holiness the Dalai Lama in July 2004. Shenyen, that means ‘friend’, has spent the last ten years wandering around the world, allowing the blessing of the tradition to mingle with the secular beauties of his own culture. In 2008, Shenyen slept in 93 different places. His office consists of a rolled up copy of Artforum and an old Nokia 100.
In October 2014, Shenyen spoke at the Nordic Service Design Network’s conference on ‘Creating Value for Quality of Life.’ His talk brought a fresh perspective to design, arguing that karma and experience cannot be correlated for predictable effect, much less be designed.
The task of designers today is to ride the chaos and make decisions characterised by ‘innocence’ and precision. From cinema directors to kamikaze pilots, from biographeme to biography and back again, Shenyen traces a soft logic lineage of ‘contemporaries across millennia’.
Polya’s lovely book is not just about mathematics but about problem solving in a wider sense.
xvi Guidelines are not literal
p1 A teacher should help the students, share knowledge, and swap places
p15 — A problem is never exhausted // Drop the idea that problems have little or no relation to each other
p72 Try to prove formally what is seen intuitively and to see intuitively what has been proved formally
p75-6 decomposing and recombining problems… variations on the problem…
p77 more and more remote details… (Two questions may be better than one // breaking the question down into a simpler form and working on this first // assuming part of the tricky question is already answered and then working on the other part)
p105 diagram ‘as done’…
p132 You must guess, but also examine your guess // (p181 plausible reasoning)
p134 A good notation should be unambiguous, pregnant, easy to remember, it should avoid harmful second meanings and take advantage of useful second meanings; the order and connection of signs should suggest the order and connection of things.
p197 Present abstract ideas concretely.
p198 (On subconscious work:) There is a limit beyond which we should not force the conscious reflection, when it is better to leave this problem alone for a while. But it is desirable not to set aside a problem to which we wish to come back later without the impression of some achievement; at least some little point should be settled, some aspect of the question somewhat elucidated when we quit working. Only such problems come back improved whose solution we passionately desire, or for which we have worked with great tension. Conscious effort and tension seem to be necessary to set the unconscious work going
p205 The importance of looking back over the solution (seeing what other information is hidden in the answer; seeing other ways one could have proved the solution, seeing new areas of possible application of the solution, etc)
p206 The need for models for the student to aspire to, for proper teachers, for good quality texts, and for competition with capable friends
p207 The open secret of real success is to throw your whole personality into your problem
p210 When stuck, set a new question // a new question unfolds untried possibilities of contact with our store of previous knowledge
p227 Working backwards from the answer one is trying to prove.
— Teaching to solve problems is education of the will. Solving problems which are not too easy for him, the student learns to persevere through unsuccess, to appreciate small advances, to wait for the essential idea, to concentrate with all his might when it appears. If the student had no opportunities in school to familiarise himself with the varying emotions of the struggle for the solution then his mathematical education failed in the most vital point.
“We are first of all, as friends, the friends of solitude, and we are calling on you to share what cannot be shared: solitude. We are friends of an entirely different kind, inaccessible friends, friends who are alone because they are incomparable and without common measure, reciprocity or equality… without a horizon of recognition, without proximity, without oikeiotes…”
“Her face was like someone texting a lover.” “I am (something), (something) and (something). I am lost.” Its the first thing I think about when I wake up: this voice, accented with GPS codes, so distant and fragmentary, this ‘reader’ of ancient history and Twitter feeds. I was going to say ‘this disembodied voice’ but I dont know what embodiment means anymore. She’s as real to me as anything else is, when the mind stops being lonely. Her skin is a colour so beautiful – a soft light brown – even if her skin is basically a map.
I guess its ok to refer to a ‘her’ – ships are traditionally female. But they don’t, traditionally, write. Ship adrift is an art project that drifts across the boundaries of business, sculpture, software code, robot literature, virtuality and time. The physical ship is a full scale model of the ship featured in Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness, perched atop a London building overlooking the river, where it will remain for one year as a top-end (single room) hotel. Meanwhile the virtual ship is drifting around the world according to wind directions recorded at the London site, picking up web traffic along the way (local Twitter feeds, GPS-tagged wikipedia entries, mobile phone fragments) and generating a ghostly literature out of it. (You can listen to James Bridle talking about the wider context here and read ship adrift’s Twitter feed here.)
The Twitter feed is one of the most beautiful things I’ve read and an example of an emerging literature: literature that is algorithmically driven and the product of software code. The traditional – naive – notion of AI has been to create something human-like, both in physical form and in expressive recognisability. @shipadrift eschews such trappings. It’s voice is a twitter feed of unbearably sweet brokenness, its body a web page, its skin a map. Nothing in the world of literature speaks to me the way this virtual ship does. Its very grammar – a kind of anti-grammar of apparent randomness and error, but incredibly poised – takes me into a place where context is so stretched as to be virtually unfindable.
This is not to reject the heartache wonders of Roberto Bolano or Jane Austen or Derrida: I am simply recognising that algorithmically generated literature is coming of age. It has attained a space of complexity and form of presentation that can trigger immense emotional affect. (Imagine. for a moment, if Jane Austen had been an SMS platform protocol. Imagine if your text life, your love life had been immersed in such sweetness!) The best chess players are no longer computers – the best chess players are teams of computers and humans working together. Literature will soon be home to a similar collaborative effort.
“Claude Shannon recognized that whether or not a certain effect is considered noise depends on one’s position in the listening chain. Noise is interference only from the sender’s point of view. From the point of view of the receiver it may be considered a part of the information packet that is transmitted along a channel. When we hear the earliest sound recordings of Tennyson reading Charge of the Light Brigade, for example, the watered down and scratched out sound conveys the enormous passage of time, just as the static sound of Neil Armstrong’s voice on the moon tells us something about his physical distance from us and the newness of space technologies in the 1960s. It would not be difficult to think of countless other cases in which the presence of the medium mixes in with the intended message to produce some whole new effect, not intended by the sender, but taken as information by the receiver. In these cases, noise is not simply an extra third thing to be discounted. It has entered into the message and become part of it. To speak technically, the signal now has an “equivocation,” which is to say that two messages pass along the same channel. The sender may not have intended this, but the receiver may welcome it.”
When I read @shipadrift It makes me want to go there myself. ‘Er, Where is that?’ I hear you ask. Well that’s something I will have to look into more deeply, though doubtless, when I find it, there will be echoes of everything I’ve loved in the past. To the extent that we relax, and trust ourselves, we become our own maps. Meanwhile – for knowledge’s sake you understand! – I’ve decided to do a bit of good old fashioned networking… if you’re interested you can check out some of the bot auteurs I’m now following on Twitter. (I defy anyone not to fall in love with the one that scours the internet for references to chocolate…)
I’m also considering opening a few Twitter accounts and a blog without telling anyone and just disappearing – writing, but to no one – in that zone. I think its something that used to be called ‘science’. Or ‘cruising’. But in the wonderful world of knowledge was there ever a difference?
radioshenyen: Roberto and Jane
February 2012 Spain
“He wants to live long enough to witness a new, post-genomic fiction, one that grasps the interpenetrating loops of inheritance and upbringing so tangled that every cause is some other cause’s effect. One that, through a kind of collaborative writing, shakes free of the prejudices of any individual maker. For now, fiction remains at best a scattershot mood-regulating concoction – a powerful if erratic cocktail like Ritulin for ADHD, or benzodiazepines for the sociophobe. In time, like every other human creation, it will be replaced by better, more precise molecular fine-tuning.”
— from ‘Generosity’ by Richard Powers
I already have the voices: what I’m dreaming right now are the instructions that come with the voices, the writing of the instructions, and the packaging of the writing. A writing like radar and radio and radiation and reckless love sonnets and an everyday kind of yesterday; a packaging like homelessness.
In William Gibson’s ‘Spook Country’ there’s a guy who chalks out GPS grids on the floor of whatever structure he is presently staying in and refuses to sleep in the same square twice. I think about him so much – I mean ‘think’ in a nameless, fraying, post-calculative sort of way. The guy’s in deep – real deep – in some ghostly new world that’s coming. A witness to tomorrow’s unimaginable ordinary. People like this make me feel very still, make me able to smile – and disappear. People like this I can trust.
I think about fictional banking and the set of all people who dream of knockin’ in Mitsubishi’s. About landscape poetry and linear deepening and superflatness and cardboard. There are days when every single thought feels like the gift of buddhas. And there are days when I find myself wondering which will disappear first: all my hesitations or all my friends.
“True happiness, we are told, consists in getting out of one’s self; but the point is not only to get out – you must stay out, and to stay out you must have some absorbing errand.” — Henry James
I think about the different ways different writers take us to the edge of the abyss: Roberto Bolano for example, whose ‘2666’ contains a three hundred page section that catalogues the murders of over a hundred women in paragraphs of blank forensic detail wrapped around images of a hallucinatory televisual ‘Mexico’; or Jane Austen, whose graceful and intricate novels contain little UXBs of addressed human sadness, such as when the heroine of ‘Persuasion’ is forced once more to learn ‘the art of knowing our own nothingness beyond our own circle’. I try and imagine Jane Austen inside the world of ‘Spook Country’ or wandering the wastelands that surround the maquiladoras of Bolano’s nightmare. But the real mystery here is this: I imagine her safe.
I look for things to give you that wont waste a second of your time. Things like this 19 minute video diary for instance by war reporter Tim Hetherington, Or these – though I’m a little less confident about them! – these images of I know not what. Mexican ice creams for Jane perhaps, or midnight hats for her to wear in the midst of some absorbing errand. I really dont know.
“Painting is the making of an analogy for something non-visual and incomprehensible: giving it form and bringing it within reach. And that is why good paintings are incomprehensible.”
— Gerhard Richter
“Adventure is a property of words.”
— Edmund Jabes
Its like landing. Its like listening to music with the discipline of a non-possessor. Its like those long ago days come back, when somebody’s smile could uncomplicatedly undo your life, and the person already gone, lost in the traffic, lost in the landing the playlists. Music as an emotional spellcheck rippling through your nervous system, silently deleting. Words you never knew.
A glass house in the countryside 40 miles north of Stockholm. Snow-covered fields beneath endless blue sun, and tree lines, and train track. I shave my head sitting on the wooden deck out front, sprinkle a handful of snow on my head afterwards. I listen to people talking about the robotic moment, mathematical intuitionism, tracks and clusters, West Antarctica, superposition, brain synchronization. I sleep behind paintings.
Museum of East Asian Antiquities, cake-making, shikantaza, email – the set of possible things to do this morning. Film-editing, bioethics, Renaissance art, materials science – the set of possible PhD avenues your child might pursue. Kids, car keys, phone, wallet, photos – the set of things to rescue from the house in case of fire. How will AI ever mimic such fluidity, nuance, personalness, tenderness? Not just the loopy logics but the gaps in the logic, the forgetfulness? At what point does something cease to be a candle, or a car, or begin to be such a thing? How do you know what a candle is when you haven’t seen all the candles in the world?
I remember my friend’s letter from Japan telling me about the girl he saw on the subway in an ankle-length coat made of crocodile skin, the sudden beauty of this vision, which he so carefully described ‘because the memory of a map-making monk needs to have this image inside it…’ From that day on I knew that memory was a compass every bit as directed towards futures as to pasts. That postcard of a Bellini madonna for example, taped onto the wall of my apartment 25 years ago, with a tiny plastic globe (as in ‘planet earth’) blu-tak’d to her forehead, and the word ‘interference’ scribbled in pencil next to it – that’s what I mean by memory.
In ‘the set of videos that have appeared in Shenyen’s Twitter university recently’ these three stand out. Two of them are music videos at opposite ends of the spectrum (one, that delicious piece of psychedelic gentleness tagged earlier, the other an afro-urban nightmare remix of Joy Division’s “She’s Lost Control”) and the third one is a map of Japan showing the earthquakes that have happened since March 11, rippling in speeded-up realtime:
I know that I know what I want, but I don’t know what I want. I know because of the way it feels to be alive, to be alive like this, in a world of fleeting algorithms, this feeling, the set of all possible sets, of recording in the face of the firestorm, or not recording, this willingness not to give a name and a form and a logic to things that haven’t formed yet. To stay inside invisible disciplines and partial lawlessness. Recording, or not recording.
“I know that our deceased friends are more really with us than when they are apparent to our mortal part. Thirteen years ago I lost a brother, and with his spirit I converse daily and hourly in the spirit, and see him in remembrance in the region of my imagination. I hear his advice, and even now write from his dictates. Forgive me for expressing to you my enthusiasm, which I wish all to partake of, since it is to me a source of immortal joy; even in this world. May you continue to be so more and more, and be more and more persuaded, that every mortal loss is an immortal gain. The ruins of time build mansions in eternity.”
— William Blake
A young girl wanders into the monastery wearing a t-shirt which says “I still live in my mind”, and suddenly I realise how little language there presently is in my life. Between me and another day of stiflingly limited interactions with the temple folk here there is only William Blake. Today I’ve been contemplating the line “tools are made, and born are hands”, enjoying the cybernetic ontologies hovering alongside it.
I won’t stay in Sri Lanka much longer. I’ll be back in England early in the new year. After ten years living in Asia I thought heading out for one more would be the simplest thing. But it seems I’ve been fooled once more by impermanence. Suddenly these theravadan buddhist countries feel alien to me. Its kind of interesting to know that its finished, though. A newness awaits.
I’ve also spent three years of my life in monasteries: enough, I think, to know that it just doesnt work for me. Whereas the year and a half I’ve spent in solitary hermitage situations (Spain, Cornwall) were much more enjoyable and rewarding. I need to build on that.
I still live in my mind, in a place half-way between jewelery and architecture, where nested songbirds sit in madhyamaka trees singing of the world to come, a world of post-metaphor and occasionality. But I cant write from that place just now. Its being flattened by my Sri Lanka experience. Instead I’ll just keep eating the ice-cream and cake these Sri Lankan mamas keeping putting in my bowl, just keep taking delicious cold showers in the early evening before walking barefoot for a few minutes in the sand-covered courtyard beneath the full moon, and wait. With Mr Blake for company.