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: interference

radioshenyen: interference
april 2011 Sweden

“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.

Until next time


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: Nonlinear Friendship

Radioshenyen: Nonlinear Friendship
February 2010 Cornwall, UK

(click here for someone to watch over you, then come straight back and continue reading…)

“With each new boost to the number of connections, Lenz had to improve the computer’s ability to discard as it generalised. Intelligence meant the systematic eradication of information. We wanted a creature that recognised a finch as a bird without getting hung up on beak size or colour or song or any other quality that seemed to put it in a caste by itself. At the same time, the discarding had to stop short of generalising the finch into a bat or a snowflake or a bit of blowing debris…”
( – Richard Powers, ‘Galatea 2.2′)

– Ghost Brought Back to Life
– A Song of Love
– Flight
– Country Gentleman
– Deranged Man
– Catacomb
– Arere
– In a Fret: A
– Face
– Man of Excessive information
– In a Fret: B
– Faculty Meeting
– La Grande Place
– Efflorescent Town

I ask her what’s her favourite book. “It’s called Hey! Digger-Digger!” she replies, “and its about this monster which befriends abandoned technologies and makes them feel wanted and useful again. It also makes friends with the swanky new technologies and leads them astray, gets them into trouble with their owners.” “Is it a fairy-tale type of thing?” “Er, Yes… A combination of fairytale and molecular anthropology, distantiation poetics, paramathematics and er.. plot.” Its the way she says that last word that’s really sweet. She’s a thousand years ahead of me already, and accelerating..

– Dealings
– Boss
– Hi !
– A Man Climbing the Stairs
– Immensity
– O, la, la !
– Family

“European starlings have a way of appearing in unexpected places — the United States, for example, where they are not native but owe their origin to a brief reference in Shakespeare’s “Henry IV, Part 1.” In 1890, a drug manufacturer who wanted every bird found in Shakespeare to live in America released 60 starlings in Central Park. After spending a few years nesting modestly under the eaves of the American Museum of Natural History, they went from a poetic fancy to a menacing majority; there are now upward of 200 million birds across North America, where they thrive at the expense of other cavity nesters like bluebirds and woodpeckers, eat an abundance of grain — as well as harmful insects — and occasionally bring down airplanes.”
( – from an article on the photography of Richard Barnes

– Lab Oratory
– Jameel Jiddan
– And Then It Was Gone
– Sleeping Bag Concert
– A Year From Monday
– How I Got Home
– Phrase-Book for Shy People
– Last Orders
– Bumping Into the Network
– Playpen

“As I, the girl Dawa Drolma. continued on my way, a yogin dressed in white, with long flowing locks of hair, approached, surrounded by a host of dakas and dakinis. He turned a prayer wheel with an elaborate brocade cover, and his feet did not touch the ground. He passed by me on the way to the hells. When I asked him where he was going he replied, “To the lower states of rebirth. I’m going to lead away all those who have shared food with me. I am a master guide of beings, Togdan Pawo, whose very name means ‘hero of spiritual realisation’.” As he chanted the mani mantra three times to a melody the houses of burning iron became palaces of crystal, and all the beings there were transformed into bodies of light. He headed off, taking them to the sublime pure realm of Potala mountain, like a flock of birds startled by a stone from a sling.”
( – from a Tibetan Delog text)

– Molecules and Buildings
– Colecao
– This Is Almost You And That Is .. Almost Me
– Breakfast Date
– Parenthesis
– The Sick Panda
– Icon

“…Jesus slips into a house to escape enemies,
and opens a door to the other world.
Solomon cuts open a fish, and there’s a gold ring.
Omar storms in to kill the prophet
and leaves with blessings.
Chase a deer and end up everywhere!
An oyster opens his mouth to swallow one drop.
Now there’s a pearl.
A vagrant wanders empty ruins.
Suddenly he’s wealthy.

But don’t be satisfied with stories, how things
have gone with others. Unfold
your own myth, without complicated explanation,
so everyone will understand the passage,
‘We have opened you’…”
(- Rumi, ‘Unfold Your Own Myth’)

– Speaker’s Corner
– Reverse Commuter
– Bokeh
– One Line in a Letter Written From a World of Two
– Cicada Program
– Technology Shepherd
– Talentless But Connected
– Rub With Ashes
– Dictionaria

“Help them, then, to speak and write themselves in unstable, open, undecidable spaces… without ideological, moral, or biased suggestions, but through a simple listening, lovingly absent-minded…”
( – Julia Kristeva, ‘Tales of Love’)

– Insect 47
– The First Two Seconds
– Immaculate Panda
– Evensong
– Exit Anywhere


radioshenyen: immersion january 2010 Cornwall, UK

“When spring came, when every crow announced its arrival by raising his cry half a tone, I took the green train of the Yamanote line and got off at Tokyo station, near the central post office. Even if the street was empty I waited at the red light—Japanese style—so as to leave space for the spirits of the broken cars. Even if I was expecting no letter I stopped at the general delivery window, for one must honor the spirits of torn up letters, and at the airmail counter to salute the spirits of unmailed letters. I took the measure of the unbearable vanity of the West, that has never ceased to privilege being over non-being, what is spoken to what is left unsaid.”

(from Chris Marker’s film, Sunless)

She is standing two steps beside me. We are re-characterising the world. We are tracking the transformation of beauty into exact science. Or so i like to think. But then she does something like this:

I wake up each morning to find busy bees in the L.A. night leaving gems like that in my twitter box. Its like what that one square metre of space next to the front door – where the mail would land – used to be before the white envelope culture took it over.

I live alone – everyone does, one way or another – but the walls of my castle are broad: bands of strangers stroll the battlements or camp out overnight in ten minute segments, wrapped in shawls of golden languages and unique, precise worldviews. More super-barrio than superhighway, it is a new kind of talking and listening, raggedy, discontinuous and a kind of heaven, where the mind can feel distributed yet focussed. I’m happy here..

As a Buddhist monk I no longer use the word ‘battle’, and if I still have a fondness for reading the Art Of War its only to better appreciate the strategies of up and coming artists as they edge their way in from the periphery, from tiny gallery to magazine reviews to mid-career museum retrospective, or FIFA’s breathtakingly semi-conscious attempt to reposition the world cup as a kind of secular kalachakra.

Did you know there are kids – I mean here in our American-European cities – who have never heard of Bugs Bunny or the Soviet Union? (In 20 years we’ll be able to add ‘universities, newspapers, national anthems’.) Their world is changing so fast. Those plastic toys they play with which you think of simply as dinosaurs, they’re actually Winicottian transitional objects representing the whole of culture up to 1992.

We drive ourselves to exhaustion trying to be productive and ‘a little bit famous’ while our 9 year old kids shuffle dreamily around the house, productively playful and famously anonymous. Their one-sock-on-one-sock-off world is awesome in its simplicity, and so new it doesn’t even have a name. But yes: “ordinary is no place to be…”

I think what the web is secretly saying is ‘forget about fame: its just an electronic slum, a leftover from the pre-1980s world of 4-channel tv, soon to be replaced by towerblock forests of web-feeds and URLs.’ Watching the X Factor show highlights just before xmas I couldn’t help thinking of the helicopter evacuation of the US embassy in Saigon in 1974… Its the end of a world, not the start of one; a nostalgia for fame. “And when all the celebrations are over it remains only to pick up all the ornaments – all the accessories of the celebration – and by burning them, make a celebration.” (‘Sunless’)

A typical night of immersion: I read essays on the mathematician Godel while listening to music from Sweden and Santa Fe (the Swedish music brought to my attention via a secondary review from a reviewer of a book on Godel, creating a beautiful strange loop), wander through the last few years’ work of, watch old Russian folk-tale animations and electronic art pieces on Youtube, see a thought-provoking photo on

… set up a list of future feeds into my Twitter site that extends into the next two months. They will be released at the times given for each tweet, down to the very day-month-year-hour-minute – if i wanted i could make it look like radioshenyen is the monk who never sleeps!

… friends in London take actionmonk photos according to specifications and post them to me in minutes (check ’em out on / radioshenyen) while someone who lives half an hour away phones to arrange a meditation sitting for tomorrow. But it takes me forty minutes to walk to the garbage drop-point and back. high-speed super-slow.

I’m working slowly through hours of good responses by 168 ‘smart ‘uns’ interviewed by Edge magazine ( about ‘how the internet is changing the way we think’

I’ve saved the best till last: I watch this video over and over – about the 1982 Brazil world cup team – 5 minutes of immaculate editing and awesome beauty (no, seriously..) made to honour the passing of team manager Tele Santana when he died in 2006. Even the incidental details in this video would have made a medieval painter proud. Check out the Scottish (?) goalie walking back towards his goal like someone in the corner of a Breughal painting.

The video is a measure of what ‘sacredness’ should mean, regardless of – and way beyond – the fabricated limitations we place on the term. And i know of no western buddhist practitioners – individuals or organisations – who get anywhere near exuding this level of beauty in their sense of who they are and what they are doing. Including of course myself. And you will have to decide for yourself just how serious I am when I suggest that one shouldn’t even consider oneself as having a spiritual life if one isn’t asking the painful question ‘why aren’t I as beautiful as this video?’

And maybe that’s what this essay is all about: ‘how the internet is changing the way we think about the sacred’…

till next time


radioshenyen November 2009 Spain/France.

“When I come to lie in your arms, you sometimes ask me in which historical moment do I wish to exist. And I will say Paris, the week Colette died… Paris, August 3rd, 1954. In a few days, at her state funeral, a thousand lilies will be placed by her grave, and I want to be there, walking that avenue of wet lime trees until I stand beneath the second-floor apartment that belonged to her in the Palais Royal. The history of people like her fills my heart. She was a writer who remarked that her only virtue was self-doubt. (A day or two before she died, they say Colette was visited by Jean Genet, who stole nothing. Ah, the grace of the great thief…)
‘We have art,’ Nietzche said, ‘so that we shall not be destroyed by the truth.’ The raw truth of an incident never ends, and the story of Coop and the terrain of my sister’s life are endless to me. They are the sudden possibility every time I pick up the telephone when it rings some late hour after midnight, and I wait for his voice, or the deep breath before Claire will announce herself.
For I have taken myself away from who I was with them, and what I used to be. When my name was Anna.”
– Michael Ondaatje, ‘Divisadero’

Barcelona, twilight. After five weeks in a monastery its time to… well, its time.

I’m standing at the crossroads waiting for the lights to change, and enjoying them not changing, enjoying the cars and the people’s faces waiting on the other side, the light around everything. Edging off the pavement like everyone else, anticipating the break that never comes, knowing it will. And then an old guy appears a few metres to my left, shuffling out from between two parked cars. He begins walking along in the road itself, and then collapses. I dash over and start shepherding cars around him and some locals gather round and try talking with him. Someone calls an ambulance that takes about five minutes to arrive. It looks like a stroke, but maybe its alcohol someone else says. They carry him back between the parked cars out of the way of the traffic. A lady appears – maybe from one of the nearby shops – offering a duvet still in its plastic bag. I remember her standing there, like a shy animal on the edge of a forest, holding her offering (which the men reject, but not unkindly), and I’m thinking its only in fairy tales that animals carry gifts. Is this a fairy tale? It’s a fairy tale if you realise it in time. In time. I remember, too, holding the man’s walking stick and watch (which came off his wrist during the fall) and its only as I write this, back in the monastery in France a few days later, I realise that for the second time in a few years someone has entered my life unexpectedly, dramatically, and presented me with symbols of space and time.

Sometimes people in the monastery dismiss city life as a meaningless distraction. They say its just a machine for creating consumers. But I’m not convinced. Cities generate much more than consumerism: they create patterns of beauty and complexity. On the escalator in the metro, among the usual posters there is one asking me “will they still exist, these escalators, in 150 years?” I’m on my way to be haunted by a homeless Mongolian woman staring up from out of the darkness of a manhole. An upside-down Korean helicopter follows me around the city. There are shops – Paramita, Tezeniy, Number – whose names slow down and pacify language itself. In the hands of beggars I notice their archetypal polystyrene cups and am reminded of Heidegger and Japanese tea ceremony and the unknown architect who brought these three things together in a half-read, untraceable essay of long ago. As I walk along a lane quietly singing – or being sung to, I’m not sure which anymore – I see a man in a side alley arrive at the corner and stop, turn towards the wall, lean forward slightly and gently blow on the stones, and I do not stop to conceptualise or interpret, I do not stop singing. A little bookshop has precisely fifteen English language books on a cramped shelf, but one of them is Michael Ondaatje’s latest, which I take away with me. I dont feel ‘manipulated into consuming’, I feel blessed, wrapped in the frayed edges of a thousand patterns and things which are less than patterns.

Now I’m back in the monastery, where I will stay until December. The tickertape sweetness of Ondaatje mixing with the more austere beauties of my Buddhist studies: “… he had no idea whether he would ever be able to return to the corralling work that art was, to have whatever he needed to make even a simple song. Dissolving into darkness was enough, for now. Or playing from memory an old song by a – “; “… but he had come to love the playing of music with no-one there. Could you waste your life on a gift? If you did not use your gift, was it a betrayal?”

I will miss Barcelona. But yesterday Artforum arrived, in whose pages even the advertisements are like cities: beautiful, complex, almost nothing, like beggars, philosophers and ad hoc tea ceremonies.

till next time,


Radio Shenyen: voluminosity

Letter from a wandering artist monk

june-august 2009
the south west of england
radioshenyen: voluminosity

“proximity to a concept, and a gentle shove, are often all that is needed for a major discovery.”
– douglas hofstadter

“i dont have to give them any rules about poetry. they live in that space already. close to things.”
– natalie goldberg

indescribable music. the kind that will be played in hospitals in the 22nd century to accompany brain surgery. dj orchestras, lost appetites, pacification of the emotions. stranger-radio. i’m wandering around again, sleeping in forests and fields, in unlocked churches and ruined castles, reading on beaches and listening to such music float through my mind at odd moments. just turning the pages – essays and books on mathematics, architecture and the post-death experiences of tibetan ‘delog’ wanderers, and imaginary five-second songs that come out of sudden moments of gentle formlessness in the mind. folded patterns. voluminosity.

i’m tying nothing together. i’m very disciplined. almost invisible. just a series of frayed edges. and i love imagining your ticker-tape gaze, your own inexpressible speed as you read. you really are free to read your way into your own subconscious, past the grammar and the stories. that’s what i want.

fifteen years ago she was living in london where she saw the dalai lama give a public talk and felt some kind of connection with him. now she’s back in cornwall and trying to meditate on her own but feeling a bit isolated. so one night she makes a simple spontaneous prayer to the dalai lama: “please send me a friend i can talk to about my meditation practice…”
a few weeks later she sees me walking down the street in cornwall. “are you a buddhist monk?” “yes.” “what’s your name?” “shenyen.” “what does that mean?” “it means ‘the friend’ …” and that’s how we came to practice together for five days, as smoothly as if we had known each other for years.

wandering on the moors, i rest for a while on a hill with beautiful large stones deposited from some ice age maybe. i find a little hollowed out stone containing two inches of rainwater, strip myself down and wash myself in it. i feel clearly the unfabricated nature of the space, of a water supply from the sky, held by slender parameters of sun and wind, and a basin designed by geological forces rather than factory processes. in such a space the act of washing becomes something neither forgetful nor forced, and a given thing, unexpected, unrepeatable, which is the way meditation – all things – should be understood.

i’m listening to two old folk laughing and teasing each other in a small village square: “how come you got that grant? i thought it was only for young ‘uns.” “well i’m only 21…” “if you’re 21 i’m only 18…!” “well then maybe we two should get together…” (laughter) … and then i notice that the car pulling away from the kerb just in front of me has three or four beautiful lotus flowers painted on it.

i may be catapulting out of the uk again this autumn. its already too cold, wet and windy here for my liking and it’s becoming physically tiring. and something is saying it’s time now to settle and practice in silence, in solitude, for a good stretch of time. if i can find a way to do it here in the uk i will, but i can’t quite see it somehow. i’m thinking sri lanka but i’m not totally clear yet. but for now i’m still on the road.

till next time