Imaginary Life

@radioshenyen. On Buddhism and design.

Radio Shenyen has now moved to it’s own dedicated space on Tumblr. The old posts will remain here in the archives. 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, Shenyen will be speaking at a Nordic Service Design Network’s conference on ‘Creating Value for Quality of Life.’ His talk will offer a Buddhist take on 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’.

Tenzen Shenyen

radioshenyen: another girl

feb 2011 Birmingham, UK

“There is a fine line between what we like and what affects us. There is a fine line between what we can manipulate and what is close to us. There is a fine line between using technique and making music. We must be open to the spaces (silence) in order to fill them just right. We must see the spaces, inhabit them, live them. Then the next note, the next move, becomes apparent because it is needed. Until it is apparent, nothing should be played. Until it is known, nothing should be anticipated. Until the whole appears, the parts should not be criticised. Until — ”
— (source unknown) (IL: Keith Jarrett, we think)

“Another picture was of two girls with their arms around each other’s shoulders, their heads tilted to the left, gazing at the camera with similar expressions and an incredible assurance, as if they had just set foot on this planet or their suitcases were already packed to leave.”
 Roberto Bolano, ‘2666’

In Colombo a man lies sprawled out along a bus shelter bench, holding his head. beneath a poster of a smiling vibrant female boxer.

A girl steps onto the bus wearing a t-shirt that says ‘another girl’.

A shop selling bird cages and weighing scales, examples of both hanging in the window, each of them empty in their own way.

An 87 year old blind woman becomes president of Egypt. The ghost of a 9 year old girl wanders the Midosuji line singing her grandmother’s favourite enka song.

A traffic accident victim lies dead in the middle of the road covered by a plastic sheet with only his feet sticking out, next to his smashed motorbike which has only one wheel. In the twenty minutes it takes for the police to arrive and sort out the traffic jam that my bus is caught in I watch people get out of cars and off the bus to go forward to have a look. I cannot understand anything they are saying but I know its a death scene. As the bus finally drives past the body the image of the victim lying there with just his feet sticking out of the sheet strikes me very strongly and I start saying vajrasattva mantras for him.

The bus driver is driving like a maniac but I dont mind, wrapped as i am in a cocoon of silence and faith, inside the formlessness of my life’s direction. The bus radio is playing Indian pop, the kind where the male singer sounds like he’s singing in front of a mirror and is profoundly moved by the beauty he’s seeing there, and the female singer sounds like an angel who made it to heaven on the strength of her housework. And then Abba’s ‘Dancing Queen’ mixed to a techno beat starts and suddenly I realise there’s no such thing as a ‘buddhist country’, there are only buddhist moments: buddhist bus journeys, buddhist convenience store car parks, buddhist playlists.

Outside departure gate 7 an airport worker walks past pushing a cart stacked with a pyramid of different coloured plastic bins. As she passes beneath a structure hanging from the ceiling – a crown of little golden lights – her gaze meets mine and we smile. And I say to myself: all tools, all technologies, are essentially extensions of the body: pencils, shopping bags, aeroplanes, tantric sadhanas. I make no distinctions.

Secrets, when combined with love and selflessness, are the greenhouse of language.

On the plane during take-off, listening to favourite songs, I can still see vividly the image of the road accident victim, and the songs become prayers that the dead man’s universe reappears as a white limousine with 17,000 wheels to make up for the one he lost yesterday, a century ago, just now.

Until next time


radioshenyen: brother. december 2010, sri lanka.

“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.

So, until next time…


radioshenyen oct 2008 – 2

radioshenyen: distribution of love
oct 2008
japan, just before flying to uk

“the future is here.  it just isn`t widely distributed yet.” – william gibson

“you have to tear down the old completely sometimes, to build the new in the spirit of the old.” – nishikawa senrei (nihonbuyo dance teacher)
another beautiful sunny day, i`m going nowhere as usual, but that`s ok, each step so sure and self-contained, ” … and your family sprang from such beginnings; your mind impartial as the wind…”,  i`m just a child in time, living off appetite, living off dust and visualisations and last year`s prayers, living off dreams of tomorrow night and a year from monday.  i stroll into a convenience store for the last snack of the day, salt lines on my robes from long hours of walking but my head clean-shaven after an evening in the public baths, and really that`s all that is required of me: to be natural and to look the part.  nothing else.

i could unpack that last sentence continuously, but we both know its not necessary anymore.

i wander across the seto inland sea, island by island, sleeping with kittens and dinosaurs, beside observation towers and coastal shrines.  a child cycles past with “king of bags” on the back of his t-shirt.  dont ask me what it means – my job right now is not about the fabrication of meaning but simply to observe the presencing of events.  i dont even see things half the time, just the spacings and the patternings.

i walk up mountain paths looking for another night`s shelter.  so often this daily routine ends in nothing, but today i find a beautiful shrine hidden round the bend of the mountain, a single room with three walls and a roof and a tiny altar with two buddhas sitting there, surrounded by trees and protected from the wind, the floor raised off the ground so its warm sleeping on the matting, and i stay here three nights, my trip nearly over and i`m slowing down into the ending of it.

and art starts appearing.  paintings from hundreds of years ago, bridges and branches that look like bits of computer code dipped in nature, a universe of single rooms, furniture-less, amidst gold-dust clouds… and fantastic sculpture: a temple with seemingly no doors or windows, just a solid mass of wood, a fantastic brooding nothingness wrapped around it that feels likethe real thing after all the tourist focussed temples, and which turns out to be a james turrell art piece – a beautiful experience of light and space and the willingness to move with trust – when taken inside.  and a shrine with imitation blocks of ice resting on each of the steps, the line of steps disappearing into the ground, but visible again from within an underground gallery built under the hill, the ice blocks glistening in a quiet light.  and like i said, i dont even see these things anymore…  but i go back at night and just circle it for an hour, talking to myself.  sometimes i feel like i`ve become so raggedy, just a collection of minor gestures and soft voices, each one inconsequential in itself but together creating an attunement with the nameless and the new.

and finally, osaka.  i cant begin to describe what i`m seeing here.  tens of thousands of people swaying in the breeze of finance, a myth of little sacrifices and little gifts that is still just about functioning.  a woman whose t-shirt states simply: “BREVITY – something real.”  a fashion shop with a volkswagon van inside, and inside that a little restaurant, and it wont be there next week.  a shop window with a reindeer sculpted out of metal girders with D-2010 scrawled on its side faces a woman wearing a coat with a half million yen price tag.

tonight, fly back to london.  a wandering among friends before going off to spain and a three month retreat.  more from there,


radioshenyen may 2008 england

Letters from imaginarylife’s travelling artist monk, and CEO, Tenzin Shenyen.


may 2008, england

“the world carries on as if nothing has happened. some artists from before zero find the new world is full of potential; others fall backwards into the old world, resigned to a creative life that has tangible boundaries.”
– “haunted weather” by david toop

below is a link to a ‘beautiful song recommendation’ from a friend in korea, with a fan-made video filmed on the streets and subways of Seoul. if you like you can switch it on and listen while reading the rest of this,,,

so, i’m back in the west. 19 places in six weeks, and more to come. it’s exhausting but i dont see any other way right now. i’ve returned to the west, obeying an impulse to leave the buddhalands of asia, and i’m finding my life is… kind of dissolving around me just as i expected, but it’s ok. that’s just what life does: it collapses, dissolves around you. and it’s not happening in any unpleasant way. it’s ok.

tomorrow i head off to the southwest corner of england and the shoreline of devon. two weeks to pass through before a visit to a couple of monasteries in northumberland. i was going to sleep rough but my friends talked me out of it – told me how cheap tents are, etc. and the weather joined in to support their argument: horrible icy blustery wind and rain. so i bought a tent and feel a lot safer for it actually.

i’m taking a good book with me: “haunted weather: music, silence and memory”. i just want to sit on the beach and read something that really interests me, beyond the limitations of any obvious logic. to tell you the truth, i’ve no idea where i’m going or what i’m doing. i just have this feeling haunting me, a mixture of dopeyness and ruthlessness. and the quiet voice is saying trust it. ‘feed the hungry bee’. so i want to just give it some space for a while, give it permission to be without laying a bureaucracy over it. “you want to sit on the beach like a tramp, reading about the softer edges of contemporary music for a while? ok, off you go…”

if there’s one thing i’ve learnt from the past few years its that we all shy away from doing exactly the thing we dream about, hiding behind all kinds of spurious logic. but now i’m beginning to realise its my job to be the king of dopey ruthlessness. everyone should feel the king or queen of something. something daft, ideally, beyond accountability.

“there is such a thing as a treasure hunt within tradition which creates a living relationship to tradition.”

its interesting: as my life unravels back here – as i feel more and more contextless and aimless – my meditation sessions become clearer, and very warm. an indescribable feeling that combines sadness and trust and which expresses itself in mindfulness of the body and feeling. to actually be able to perceive sadness is, in itself, an expression of profound possibility and grace. there are the details (the details of the hundred thousand ways people suffer) and there is the radiance of the details. you have to see (feel) both. but i’m disinclined to try and explain things just now, so i’ll end this broadcast here and will write again further down the line.

till next time