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.
I’m reading another complex and beautiful Richard Powers novel, ‘Galatea 2.2′. In it, a writer is assisting a cognitive neurologist who is trying to model the human brain by means of computer-based neural networks. The writer’s job is to talk to the computer, to ‘educate’ it, in order to construct in its memory that endlessly sweet web of connections which makes for a ‘world’ and from which we humans speak, so that one day the computer may be able to comprehend human language and talk back. Its a virtually impossible task (and one mirrored in similar conversations – semi-impossible or beautifully present – taking place in the worlds of the people around him: an autistic boy, an old woman slipping into dementia, first lovers in a foreign country, a deeply loved professor sinking into death with unbounded dignity) because what makes us human is an infinite yet particularised mosaic of little somethings and nothings, inexpressibly weighted, the somethings balanced against the nothings. Balanced in ways that defy gravity.
Here’s a slice of the ticker-tape sweetness of that computer’s education, the mimicking of the endless immeasurable context that is consciousness:
“…We told her about parking tickets and two-for-one sales. About tuning forks and pitchforks and forked tongues and the road not taken. We told her about resistors and capacitors, baiters-and-switchers, alternating current, alternate lifestyles, very-large-scale integration and the failure of education to save society from itself.
We told her about wool and linen and damask. We told her about finches and feeders, bats and banyans, sonar and semafores and trail markers made of anything the living body might shed. About mites and motes, insect galls and insecticides, about mating for life or for a fraction of a minute.
We taught her about the Securities and Exchange Commission. We told her about collectors who specialize in Depression-era glass. About how people used to teach their children about the big hand and the little hand. About defecation and respiration and circulation. About Post-it notes. Registered trademarks and draft resistance. The Oscar and Grammy and Emmy. Dying of heart disease. Divining with a fresh-cut alder rod.
We told her how the keys on a piano were laid out. About letterhead. Debutantes balls… We showed her the difference between triforium and clerestory. We traced the famous pilgrims’ routes through time and space. We told her about spoilage and refrigeration. How salt was once worth its weight in gold. How spice fueled the whole tragic engine of human expansion. How plastic wrap solved one of civilisation’s nightmares and started another.
We showed her Detroit, savaged by short-term economics. We showed her Sarajevo in 1911. Dresden and London in 1937. Atlanta in 1860. Baghdad. Tokyo, Cairo, Johannesburg, Calcutta, Los Angeles. Just before, and just after.
We told her about revenge and forgiveness and contrition. We told her about retail outlets and sales tax, about ennui, about a world where you hear about everything yet where nothing happens to you. Bar-codes and baldness. Lint, lintels, lentils, Lent. The hope, blame, perversion and crippled persistence of liberal humanism. Grace and disgrace and second chances. Suicide. Euthanasia. First love. Love at first sight.”
And somehow, mixed in with all this and perhaps precisely because of it, I’ve just discovered the social networking site Twitter, a site where communications are limited to two lines of text. An ‘idiotic’ site, or so i thought. But when such limitation is taken up by the right person – such as the MIT researcher and ‘futuremaker’ John Maeda – it becomes a free-floating source of temporary context, some kind of innocent high-speed mesh of intelligence and simplicity.
Here’s a slice of the ticker-tape sweetness coming from Maeda:
The art of asking questions, is art.
Subtlety is a kind of dust in the room of life that shouldn’t be confused with just dirt.
The computer is now an abacus of many minds.
Time doesn’t fly. It travels leisurely by foot.
“If you can think, you can draw.”
Herbert Simon likened how we think to a pair of scissors. The brain is one blade, the other is the environment in which the brain operates
The sound of your heart isn’t a sound effect.
Watching waves break is non-stressful because you know you can look away at any time … and won’t miss a thing.
Art is the inexplicable urge to manifest feeling, intent, or question as a specific experience outside the artist’s mind.
Teaching is the rare profession where the customer isn’t always right and needs to be told so appropriately.
small is not only beautiful, but memorable.
and here’s something flagged by William Gibson about an hour ago, ‘tokyo sky drive’.
watching this, I know I’m never going to make it back to any monastery…
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.”
london, just before leaving for spain.
“People on distant streets seemed to be moving gently over my own remote periphery…”
– paramahansa yogananda, “autobiography of a yogi”
“we pass on merely from village to town, and from town to desert… but we are also passing from century to century…”
– holman hunt
she walks right past me, one of thousands drifting across the floor of this crowded afternoon train-station in japan, doesn’t even catch my eye and doesn’t need to, she just needs to be the person she has always been, living at a pace that allows me to read those two amazing words on her t-shirt, those two words that stop the world: “incense planet”.
at the airport a few hours later i’m reading a 15th century zen poet sing of his blind lover’s name: “your name Mori means ‘forest’ like the infinite green distances of your blindness”.
back in london i’m reading an essay on partial and complete orderings in mathematical sets. the thoughts and pre-ceptions it is triggering are really beautiful: “… the mathematical structure known as a partial ordering better describes most humanly interesting phenomena than do other orderings. a partial ordering is any set with an ordering (ie some elements of the set are greater than others) that allows for some pairs of elements to be incomparable. it is to be contrasted with a linear or total ordering where everything has its place in the order… in fact, trying to convert a partial ordering into a total one is, i think, at the root of many problems. for example, reducing intelligence to a linear ordering – a number on an IQ scale – does violence to the complexity and incomparabilities of people’s gifts. likewise with a beauty or wealth index… when we must compare things, a tree is often a better model than a pole. a tree allows for incomparable elements (on different branches) as well as for comparable ones (along a single branch), while poles collapse everything into one dimension…”
buddhism favours partial orderings, including the radical one of seeing oneself as an emerging pattern that one ‘recognises’ more and more creatively, at one and the same time more and more expansively and microscopically. not knowing exactly what you are doing is a partial ordering. just walking through your culture, paying attention to the tiniest things, a kind of music that never repeats. and being kind along the way. its a dizzy sweet simple thing. i wish i could tell you what i am sensing more and more right now – the lack of any need to know where one is going, the lack of a need for a storyline, an explanation, an identity or even something as modest as a desire to pin one’s trajectory to.
just listened to another sweet ted.com talk about how molecular biologists are using principles from the ancient japanese art of origami to design structures that can travel, enfolded, down arteries to blocked or collapsing sections and then open out to push out and support the artery wall. right now imagining some such biologist working in immunology or something, reading ‘the tale of genji’ and getting fascinated by those court nobles wearing their twelve layers of kimono with the edges of the individual sleeves showing…
you know, you are surrounded by partners, by landscapes. they come into focus as you partially order your life.
a designer is offering people who have recently lost a loved one the chance to have batteries that use the gastric juices of the recently deceased person. the batteries are capable of running a torch or radio for several weeks. he intends them as a gift for people facng the death of their loved ones and with no belief in an afterlife. we shouldnt be too quick to judge him, not before we’ve turned on the radio, felt the deep love.
on a street in london a man who seems a bit uncomfortable by a flock of pigeons scurrying about just behind him utters aloud the single word ‘imagination’.
a japanese painter from two hundred years ago was known to have had 93 different addresses in his lifetime. i used to marvel at this fact, probably knew it was a song from the future coming my way in some way. it made its way into a thousand pages of notebook entries which i destroyed ten years ago, just before leaving japan. and tonight on my way to spain, at stansted airport, i will be sleeping in my 93rd different place this year. i know i will never paint a wave in stillness like him, but i will live at the same speed in some incomparable way..
in spain i have the blessed opportunity to be stable and silent and in retreat for several months. a retreat which is buddhist in a partially ordered way – doing my 100,000 prostrations, getting shantideva’s bodhicaryavatara encoded in my unconscious as a series of meditations and visualisations, visiting lama yeshe’s stupa, talking to the centuries, studying mathematics, listening to bach and waiting for my karma to unfold into 2009 and beyond.
i may not have much email contact – not sure right now – but will be in touch further down the line.
radioshenyen: distribution of love
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,
japan – kannon pilgrimage over and wandering around once again in shikoku.
“know nothing i know nothing nobody does can you face me and know nothing know”
“the wise know nothing, well maybe one song” – ikkyu
so little left to tell you, as i home in on that one remaining indescribable thing: the pattern of furniture in your room as the roof collapses in the fire at the end of time.
tokushima station, sunday afternoon. an old woman walks incredibly slowly across the long diagonal on one of those multi-directional zebra crossings they have here in japan. the video billboard half way up the building opposite me suddenly changes to worldless images of nature – the edges of trees, flowers, insects perched on blades of grass. an old man whose face is filled with some inexpressible personal agony is being led away by three policemen, their action expressing a certain degree of force. on the t-shirt of a young guy the word `goddess`. it`s like, when i see these things i feel like i`m seeing them forever. and i`m standing here, holding my bowl, chanting silently and visualising flowers falling endlessly through a universe shining with the light from flickering jewels and lamps and shining texts. and someone somewhere is seeing those falling flowers forever too. only `falling` isn`t the right word. i don`t have a word to describe the motion of those flowers. you have to understand that visualisation is a different world.
and then, a few hours later, i`m walking along a darkening lane out of some village into the mountains where an empty temple awaits me. this place has a special resonance for me: its the place where i very nearly spent my first night sleeping out on the pilgrimage last year. that other time, for some reason, i lost the confidence to just stay there and continued on to the next temple which was a town temple with no atmosphere. but this time, after a summer of endless wandering, i`m completely ready to make this place my home for a night. just inside the entrance i sit on a bench and enjoy my last snack of the day. the place is lit by a single lamp-post near the bell tower, shining like the full moon. i take off my shoes and walk about barefoot in the coolness of the evening, brush my teeth next to the bushes which mark the edge of the graveyard, choose my spot for the night on the veranda of the buddha-hall, and settle down to meditate for an hour before sleeping long and well, waking before dawn for another hour of meditation. it`s times like this that make my present way of life so meaningful: just being in a place like this, alone, with just the nothingness and the details. then i pack my bags and leave just as the first visitor of the day enters. and as i roll back down the hill i`m thinking to myself `that was so close, so close…` so close to where i want to live – not, of course, in this actual temple, but in that pattern of anonymity and solitude. i keep thinking i would like to spend 12 hours a day alone in some studio, just walking up and down and thinking, listening to music and imagining music, drawing or thinking about drawing. it would be a mistake to call it art, but if anyone asked i could say i was designing fields of information for non-existent objects. i could make a virtue out of my existencelessness and write to you occasionally – from the other side of the room or the other side of the world, it doesn`t really matter – little postcard apocalypses written from within the nothingness of the love that i feel: bits of poetry, fragments of buddhist teaching, the quietest quotations – just enough to show that i`m taking you with me, wherever it is that i`m going. which isn`t far actually… here`s another poem by ikkyu:
sitting alone night in my hut
eyes closed hands open
wisps of an unseen face
on a mountain trail i come across a statue of a bodhisattva surrounded by flames sculpted in metal. i touch the flames, the feet of the bodhisattva, and my own head. the `frozen` metal flames remind me of another poem by ikkyu: `chrysanthemums hammered out of raw iron, that cloud gone now just like my father…` in an exhibition of treasures from the temples of shikoku there`s a photograph of a wooden buddha statue whose arms end abruptly just below the elbow, the flat wooden stumps pointing out into the universe and a look on his face that says `my arms never end…` on the train, on the back of a woman`s t-shirt i see the words `always the same`. i`m watching her walk out the door. i feel like i`ve been here before.