Monday, 30 April 2012

Evolution of a modern day Thangka

 (I'm painting this fella/dipingo lui)

I am currently painting a Thangka of the Medicine Buddha initially using traditional techniques with the intention to mix things up once the blue Buddha is in place and then modernize it thoroughly. I thought it might be nice to post the developmental stages as it requires patience and time to build up the image and the stages of development are so clearly demarcated. It is often said that painting a Thangka is a spiritual practice in itself and I can certainly attest to the fact that is requires intense concentration and presence to successfully utilize the traditional grid favoured by Tibetans, which you can see in the first pic.
Here are the first two pics:

Evoluzione di un Thangka moderna
Attualmente sto dipingendo un Thangka del Buddha della Medicina, inizialmente utilizzando le tecniche tradizionali con l'intento di mescolare le cose una volta che il Buddha blu è a posto. Ho pensato che sarebbe stato bello di ‘postare’ le fasi di sviluppo in quanto richiede pazienza e tempo per costruire l'immagine. Si dice spesso che dipingendo un Thangka in se è una pratica spirituale. Posso certamente attestare che richiede una concentrazione intensa e la presenza per utilizzare con successo il sistema di rete che potete vedere nella prima foto.
Qui ci sono le prime due foto:


 Ink pen/penna con inchiostro

Monday, 23 April 2012

Mindfulness of Phenomena, Pt.2

(Ivo Stoyanov, Enlightenment)

 '(An) unchanging, unitary, autonomous self is non-existent. Our existence is nominal. Devoid of an owned, inherent nature.’ Allan Wallace.

‘All our anxieties and difficulties come from our inability to see the true face, or true sign of things.’ Thich Nhat Hanh

If Buddhism denies a permanent self, then how do we deal with the issue of identity? Who are we really? What is the basis of our sense of being ‘a somebody’ that does indeed appear to exist in the world - to have relationships, work, eat, sleep, piss about on Facebook and read Buddhist books? In Wallace’s words we are informed that there is not a permanent, fixed self; yet a self of some kind does exist, even if it is simply seen at first as the process of moving and shifting reference points, preferences, relationships and roles.
Initial questions in response to the teachings of no-self tend to emerge from the insecurity, doubt and fear that arises in response to the idea that no-self =‘I don’t exist’, when you quite clearly do. You’re reading this, right? Underneath such potential insecurities is the existential fear of non-existence, of being nothing and therefore believing somehow that there is no meaning in our existence. This is a fear I have experimented personally and I am fully aware of how unnerving it can be. However, no-self does not mean that we are merely a mass of biological processes, a cog in the wheel of organic life. Such perspectives on existence constitute a form of Nihilism, which is one of the great mistaken views in Buddhism. So, we can relax knowing that at least in Buddhism, this is not the intended meaning of no-self.
The questions should perhaps be then, not whether you exist, but ‘How do I exist?’ and ‘If there is no permanent central core within me somewhere, then what am I really?’ Discovering that a solid, core self is non-existent should not lead us to deny what we do wake up to each day. Our lives stand before us each morning. A tangible world that starts with our bed, the walls of our bedroom, the home that we inhabit, the street below, the feelings and sensations of warmth and of cold, and so on. The Buddhist path is not about denying life and existence. I like to think of it as the establishing of new rules of engagement and enquiry outside of our conditioned, patterned, personal history and collective blindness in order to see and experience things as they are, unconditioned. We are usually so driven to find final, definite answers that we often lose a sense of what the real issue is. Does it matter what we believe? Sure. Does it matter which position we adopt? Certainly. But do we need to be so concerned with getting the ‘right’ philosophical, religious or psychological belief, the final answer, to define ultimate reality or the end game of existence and life? No. At least I don’t believe so. To do so might simply be another mental construct we use to define our sense of self and position ourselves against, or for, a particular side in the endless debates about the true and ultimate nature of things. It is much more useful and relevant to explore directly the mechanisms within you that shape the reality you experience and live. In this way your personal experience takes precedence over the adoption of particular philosophical stances and the idea of no-self becomes an open invitation to explore the ramifications of such a possibility on your life, not only on the meditation cushion, but also in the moments in-between.

Whatever arises becomes a support for your meditation by providing an object of awareness; relaxing with the natural arising and falling of all phenomena leads to a panoramic mindfulness – rest there.

Identity is fluid and positional and in part it is a story that emerges through the large collection of experiences we’ve had up until now. These are accompanied by and interwoven with the stories we’ve taken on from family members, friends, school, university, religion and society, as well as the myths both individually formed and absorbed from the collective of the particular moment of history we are living through. The human world is centred on the need of a fixed self; we are supposed to be somebody with a clear identity, fixed clear needs, wants and desires. In our relationships we are expected to conform to a stable and reliable form and to behave in fairly predictable ways. We are supposed to vote for the left or the right, get a job and identify ourselves with the roles we take on through work and the building of a family unit. These elements form the structure within which our supposed self is expected to thrive and within which we are to be happy and fulfilled as a ‘productive member of society’.
The self that we conventionally invest in though does not exist and the mores of society are a house of cards. Have a look for a core within you that defines you and you’ll find it is missing in action. By that I mean search within your body, feelings, and mind for some essential element that is the core of your being and unchanging, not dependent to some degree on circumstances, and you will likely be disappointed. How do we go about doing this? A traditional Buddhist tactic is to break down phenomena into five parts called aggregates, and then examine them each for the illusive self.

(Sopheap Pich - Buddha)

There is no existing independently. You arise in accordance with phenomena.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Mindfulness of Phenomena

 ('Jeez, are they gonna get this one?' Chagdud Tulku; great beard, great guy)

Wow! These posts keep getting longer and longer. This one will be divided into at least two parts, maybe three. If you're reading these that's either good news, or bad news. Take your pick and dive on in. This one's a good 'un. Comments are always welcomed and I'm still waiting for someone to complain about my freehand in dicing up more traditional approaches to presenting these core Buddhist teachings. Maybe you're the guy to start?

The fourth and final Foundation of Mindfulness is of phenomena. You might be asking yourself right now, ‘But aren’t the body, the feelings and mental activity phenomena too?’ and you would be right. This is an indicator of the way that the Four Foundations of Mindfulness function as progressive steps of integration of awareness within the totality of our individual experience. The idea that these Four Foundations exist separately is false. They are simply steps or stages of working with specific aspects of our experience. As with the previous three Foundations, Mindfulness of phenomena includes not only a resultant and integrative dimension, but also an active, volitional path of techniques and material to work through and integrate. And the key term is integration: when we have full awareness of the body, we have awareness of feeling and phenomena and the quality of mental states too. We break down perception into specific perceptual frames first, and then we build up an integrated perceptual outlook that is inclusive and cognisant of the interdependent nature of all phenomena within our field of perception. We work through the foundations individually because our experience of each of them is polluted by conditioning, patterned and therefore partial living, and our gross and subtle conceptualisation of experience.  

The volitional half of this fourth step involves working with quite an array of arenas and material. As per usual I shall try to discuss them in a more contemporary and accessible vernacular based on my own experience and insights, which are not authoritative, so don’t get your knickers in a twist if I seem a little brazen.
In order to start off on the right foot we need to establish a shared understanding of what is meant by phenomena. The Free Online Dictionary (A dictionary that sounds cut-price, but is actually great) defines it as:

1. An occurrence, circumstance, or fact that is perceptible by the senses.
2. An unusual, significant, or unaccountable fact or occurrence; a marvel.
3. In the philosophy of Kant; an object as it is perceived by the senses, as opposed to a noumenon (strictly mental or intuitive).
4.  An observable event.

The key point made by both dictionary and Kant is that phenomena is ‘perceptible by the senses’ and thus being observable, we can actually relate to it. It does not exist solely in our imagination or amongst our thoughts. Phenomena as experience do not exist solely in someone else’s imagination either, so we are dealing with experience and not theory. So, to make it extra clear: phenomena imply that which is perceptible and that which can be experienced through our five senses first hand.
The five senses are called doors because our relationship with the phenomenological world takes places through these doors of perception. Our perception works two ways; information comes in and our energy goes out and interacts with experience, flavouring the subjective nature of our interpretative tendencies. This applies whether it is sight, hearing, taste, touch or smell as they are a form of perception. They are multi-sensorial and layered that is to say our sense of relating to experience is built upon the accumulation of sensory data from a variety of our senses operating at different depths and levels.
Part of the art of ongoing practice is the expanding ability to break down experience into its seemingly individual elements and then integrate and harmonise those elements by allowing them to naturally co-exist. As a teacher of mine from the shamanic world once said, ‘Sure, it’s important to take apart Matthew, but it’s equally important to build.’ In a way she was reminding me in my more de-constructive days that our growth and evolution must mirror the natural tides of creation and destruction that mark the natural world which surrounds us. If we only allow for one of these primal forces to exists, we are denying the possibility for renewal to occur in practice and we are blinding ourselves to what impermanence means, which not only tells us that everything ends, but that everything is also born and this includes our breath, our blood cells, our thoughts, our feelings and pretty much everything else.
Followers of the earliest, remaining school of Buddhism, the Theravada, often leave a sense in their texts and practices of a highly de-constructive and reductionist approach to the Buddhist path that in my experience, at least so far, seems to lack something. What I find myself coming back to again and again with these blog posts is the need to embrace seeming opposites and contradictory approaches to relating to experience. Perhaps this is the famous Middle-Way that so often features in Buddhist speech? Form and emptiness are standard word play in Buddhist circles and yet within the essence of selflessness there is a pregnant space of bliss and fullness and I wonder how we can reduce that to the linguistic waste land of ‘emptiness’?
If we are to include the second of Free Dictionary’s definitions into the equation then we must be willing to assign all phenomena significance and thus worth our attention in the way of mindfulness. I would be tempted to leave aside ‘unusual’ but I don’t want to so I’ll give it the sense of ‘unique’ and add with ‘significant’ as a label for each moment of experience. We cease to make certain events special based on arbitrary valuation if we are willing to level the playing field of desirable phenomena. It’s important not to make that playing field a very large grey area.
Special becomes a form of favouritism that alienates or prioritises certain experience over others and this is actually a major part of the problem as far as suffering is concerned. Allowing the uniqueness of each unfolding moment of our day to be appreciated on its own terms opens up experience and the mundane gains greater worth and therefore potential, to lead to a ‘marvel’.
I will add that taking such an approach can be a useful strategy for initiating a deeper engagement with the world, when the time is right. We do not engage in a profound appreciation of their presence in our experience. I feel this body, and I know I am alive. I feel the sensations that make up my experience and I know I am alive. I am aware of my shifting moods, thoughts and states and I know I am alive. I feel a profound connection to all phenomena around me and I know I am part of the great web of experience that is life. This does not need to be romanticised or forced. It is a timely, natural arising of deep appreciation for the moments and days of our short existence in this body and in this life that runs counter to the impulsive urge to make experience something it has not yet become.
Thich Nhat Hanh demonstrates a profound and vivid understanding of the integrative approach through many of his books. His encouragement and instruction to smile at the parts of our body and welcome the connection to our past and future ancestors strikes me as profound, deeply human and wise.  It is, in many senses, a shamanic approach to understanding our place in human history; we are part of the great unfolding of the human experiment, linked through a long unbroken line of births and deaths that is our family lineage. Because life is so short, each moment must become profoundly important, and in making them so, our lives become both smaller in importance and greater in worth at the same time opening us to feeling our connection to all life.