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The Journey to the West

Though we journey to the West We pray to the East More or less that's the way Each day begins and ends It’s a tale everyone ...

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

To the Joys of Sagging Flesh

Having recently celebrated my 60th birthday, and today being the first regular working day of the 7th decade in my current incarnation, here is this year's edition of a birthday poem:


The same but different
That's sex in your sixties
Younger folk may avert their gaze
But love is never shameful
Or indifferent
Really at my age
There’s no such thing
As a bad erection
While love and sex
Have become all but
Indistinguishable
And I love the world
I really do
Every day
I stand myself up
And recite out loud
The innumerable blessings
Of this all too sagging flesh


Thursday, May 18, 2017

60 - With Respects to the Henan Magistrate

A few days ago I celebrated my 60th birthday.  Discomforted by a severe head cold and few sleepless nights in the run up (thanks to both a hacking cough and an unaccustomed sense of nighttime dread), I hadn't been looking forward to the occasion.  But my wife threw a small party and I ended up being very sweetly escorted into the new decade with a handful of family and friends.  My younger son serenaded me with his rendition of Neil Young's Old Man Take a Look at My Life and my closest friends took the opportunity to embarrass me with stories regarding some of the poet's youthful indiscretions.

I wasn't going to let the chance pass by to read a translation of one of my favorite Tang poets.  I picked this poem by Bai Juyi.  Although it's not entirely clear, my best guess is that Bai Juyi is addressing himself here because he was, in fact, a governor in Henan right around the time he himself turned 60.




Sixty years old
Is the Henan magistrate
The outlook has become
Exceedingly clear

Age must be accepted
There’s no place to hide
Though illness is not
An immediate fear

Blessed by many days of
Fragrant blossoms
Still possessed of
Vigor and ample means

But the gold coins have
Lost their luster
One small cup seems
More than enough

The waters flow on
And time grows scarcer
Glory is slow in arriving
It sits like a cloud floating
On the distant horizon

Our human lot
Would be unbearable
Without wine
So let’s empty our cups
As our hair becomes
Finer than silk

* * * * *

六十拜河南尹
白居易


六十河南尹     前途足可知
     病不与人期
幸遇芳菲日     犹富
万金何假藉     莫推辞
流水光阴急     浮云富贵迟
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苦无酒     尽合





     

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Infinity Net: art and the experience of Buddhism

Last weekend Marissa and I visited family in Washington.  We woke up early Sunday morning, hoping to score tickets to the Yayoi Kusama show at the Hirshhorn, but after waiting on line for a few hours, we came up short and had to settle for a quick tour of the museum shop where we found art souvenirs decorated with Kusama’s distinctive polka dot styling.

Thanks to my wife I manage to stay at least peripherally aware of what’s going on in the art world.  I had never heard of Kusama before this trip to Washington, which is little surprising, given she seems poised on the brink of art star status.  Perhaps it’s just another indication of how our culture continues to fracture and lose coherence –that it’s possible for an artist like Kusama to be both renowned as a genius (with her paintings commanding the highest price for any living female artist) and yet virtually unknown to the broader public.

This new show at the Hirshhorn may change that.  The show has drawn enormous crowds thanks to Kusama’s signature style, which is highly decorative and accessible, almost pop-arty in spirit, while still full of mystery and pulsing with life.  Not only that, but Kusama’s personal story is compelling and quirky enough to give her a further lift in the public arena.  She comes from the same mold as Vincent Van Gogh – an artistic genius inspired by intense personal vision and a touch of madness.  Making her home by choice in a mental hospital for many years, she has nonetheless navigated her way through an incredibly productive art career, spanning more than half a century, and has achieved a level of recognition recently that has allowed her to pursue her vision on a grand scale. Perhaps this will be her moment to achieve breakout fame.

The Kusama paintings that I find most interesting are part of the series she refers to as Infinity Nets.  This is a mode she has been working in for many years.  The Infinity Net paintings are composed of arrays of dots that sprawl across the canvas; on closer inspection each dot can be discerned as a small, crescent shaped brushstroke daubed thick with paint.  The overall effect (at least to the extent I can tell from looking at reproductions) is both luminous and hypnotic –sort of the visual equivalent of what you see when you meditate with your eyes closed, and your entire visual field pulsates with energy and speckled light.   These paintings are very contemporary in look and feel, being steeped in the vernacular of abstract expressionism; but at the same time they are also infused with a primitivism and decorative glee, which reminds me of a cosmic Aboriginal wall painting as well as the great (and obsessive) patterning you see adorning the finest outsider artwork.




There’s one other element that I find most compelling about Kusama’s Infinity Nets.  These paintings are infused with a Buddhist spirit. I feel this strongly even though the paintings do not include any discernible Buddhist imagery or iconography.  But the whole idea of depicting the cosmos this way strikes me as close to the core of Buddhist aesthetics.

Now, please don’t get me wrong -- I have no idea if Kusama herself is a practicing Buddhist or fellow traveler of one stripe or another.  It doesn’t really matter.  Whatever her personal beliefs may be, Kusama’s work can be understood as developing out of a grand tradition of Buddhist art that has sought various ways (over the course of the millennia) to represent the infinite extent and interconnectedness of all phenomena and all living things.  These are major themes evident in the mandalas, wall paintings and prayer flags on display throughout Asia, in the temples and stupas from Varanasi to Phnom Penh to the plains of Tibet.  Considered alongside a wall painting with hundreds of nearly identical Bodhisattvas sitting in meditation on their Lotus platforms, it’s easy to recognize the connection between Kusama’s Infinity Nets and the more conventional ways that Buddhist artists have tried to convey the idea of infinite space and time, subject to the confines of a shrine or temple’s wall space.  

Still more specifically Kusama’s Infinity Nets (consciously or not) make reference to Indra’s Net, which is one of the central metaphors used in Mahayana Buddhism to describe the composition or fabric of the universe.  Indra’s Net is composed of a fine mesh of jewels woven together – each jewel is a microcosm and reflective of the cosmos in its entirety.  The image is used to help explain core ideas of Buddhist doctrine - how Buddha nature resides in every living being; and each part of the cosmos is reflective of the whole.  Like the sparkling jewels in Indra’s Net, our capacity to experience this infinitude eventually becomes exceedingly clear and unhindered.  Connecting the dots, from Indra’s Net to the Infinity Nets, the fabric of the universe can be perceived and experienced as one and the same.

There’s a particularly striking parallel to Kusama’s artwork that dates back to 8th Century China.  That was when a Buddhist monk by the name of Fa Zang, came up with an idea for creating a work of art that would demonstrate the iterative and infinite reach of Indra’s Net.   The immediate purpose of this art project was to provide China’s Empress Wu with a better understanding of the fine points of Buddhist doctrine.  In order to do so Fa Zang placed large brass mirrors all around the inside walls of one of the rooms in the palace; then he placed a statue of the Buddha, along with a lamplight, at the center of a room.   As Fa Zang explained this arrangement to the Empress, the statue of Buddha in the middle embodied the concept of Emptiness, while the image of the statue reflected in each of the surrounding mirrors represented the phenomena of the world – mere reflections of Emptiness.  Then looking more carefully into each of the mirrors, Fa Zang showed the Empress how each mirror reflected all the other mirrors in the room – a way to experience first hand the infinite reach and iterative nature of each jewel that makes up the fabric of Indra’s Net.  Although Fa Zang’s artwork has not survived to the present day, it can be inferred that his demonstration worked well, since the Empress Wu went on to become one of the staunchest supporters of Buddhism in China’s long run of dynastic succession.

In any case, Fa Zang’s demonstration with mirrors stands as a direct precursor of Kusama’s Infinity Net – it’s an attempt to draw the infinite into the realm of immediate experience.  It also may be one of the earliest recorded examples of conceptual art – undertaken more than a millennium before such happenings and conceptual art projects became a staple of our downtown art scene.

The art historian James Romaine has noted that Kusama’s Infinity Net paintings share this same quality evident in Fa Zang’s work – they are not merely pictorial representations.  They are also experiential.  As Romaine has written: 

Kusama participates in a tradition of the sublime expressed in abstract painting . . . . [Her] Infinity Nets first emerged in the late 1950s as Abstract Expressionism was both triumphant and waning.  In the work of an artist like Willem de Kooning, the gestures are grand, boisterous, unique and directional.  They are repositories of bursting energy.  By comparison, Kusama’s gestures are unpretentious and repetitive, without relinquishing their individuality; yet, collectively, they build and generate energy latent in the material paint and capture (remember, these are nets) light.  The Infinity Nets shift from pictorialism, in which a painting suggests a vicarious experience, to a more direct perceptual experience.  This process draws the infinite into the imminent.

This is a wonderful way to describe the challenge faced by any artist of a spiritual bent – hoping to create an imminent experience instead of a mere depiction of the spirit that resides within. 

 One of the best ways I can assess Kusama’s success in this effort is that the experience of her work, at least for me, already felt compelling even while we were standing in line outside the museum.  Maybe Marissa and I will have a chance to see Kusama’s Infinity Nets up close and in person in Cleveland or Seattle when the show hits the road later this year.  But for now we must content ourselves with the promise of imminence based on the immanence indwelling – a realm where spirit and metaphor reign supreme - and where Kusama's vision can be savored, no matter how it has been reproduced; it's a microcosm and a cosmos all the same. 




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Monday, May 8, 2017

Meditation on I-95

To be on intimate terms
With Guan Yin
That's what it means
To be human
To let the wave of compassion
Wash over me
The roadbed opens ahead
Sparkling with bits of mica
In the bright morning sun
Perhaps there's a Buddha sitting
Atop one of those fleecy clouds
It may not be the best
Of all possible worlds
Yet it still places
Second to None


Photo by M. Bridge

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Mind is Metaphor and Metaphor is Mind

There is no place to seek the mind,
It is like the footprints of the birds in the sky.
~ 'Zenrin Kushu'


Zenrin Kushu says that there is no place to seek mind – it is like the footprints of a bird overhead in the sky.  Yet right there in this metaphor Zenrin Kushu points us in the direction of mind.  Mind is metaphor and it is mirrored in the signs we see every day.  A bird leaves no footprints in the sky, but the snow goose’s passage overhead can be read as a sign of time’s passage, which leaves a strong impression on heart and mind.  Through metaphor mind can see sign of itself just about anywhere it looks - even in the tracks of the migrating geese passing overhead.