Friday, October 25, 2013

Chinese to Roman Zen Calligraphy

I don't present the below graphic as an example of aesthetic achievement. It's only here as a suggestion to others interested in Zen calligraphy within a European cultural context.

Calligraphy has been an important form of art in Zen, and a practice such as copying the Heart Sutra while doing a prostration between the writing of each ideogram is an example of how it has been done. When a Zen practitioner in the West takes up calligraphy there's an immediate dilemma. Either the calligrapher must learn Chinese or must write in Roman lettering that spoils the entire rhythm of the traditional form that comes into the mind mostly at one idea (or Chinese ideogram) at a time. There may be some who would object to doing calligraphy in any but a traditional form, insisting on its superiority. I can't argue with such voices. I speak and try things out only as a Zen practitioner in America who has an interest in graphics.

A possible compromise occurred to me a couple of years ago after having chanted the Heart Sutra in English in the tradition of the Kwan Um School of Zen: take the English words and break them down into their syllables and use these as "units of calligraphy." Dividing the calligraphy syllabically would, I hope, parallel the mental rhythms that would accompany the writing of ideograms. The units of calligraphy would also parallel the language as it is chanted in my Zen tradition.

The experiments I composed involved putting a light pencil grid on paper and writing the letters of syllables, the units of calligraphy, in discrete rectangles on the page. Below is the only example I have left, that of the Heart Sutra, with the Sanskrit mantra brushed spontaneously (I'll admit to sloppily) in the middle, with the rest of the sutra written around it in squares subdivided into nine smaller units of calligraphy each. Loose longhand writing is interspersed within the mantra as an accent.

I found myself counting syllables and doing the math to try to divide pages up to hold texts evenly across pages, but I'm not convinced that would be necessary in all cases.

Again, the graphic is really just provided as a kind of schematic for those who would care to experiment with this way of writing. Currently I'm doing most of my calligraphy using the Palmer method and a flex-nib fountain pen.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Effigy Mounds*

Pink Elephant Motel and Supper Club. Postcard.
We drove on a table of land.
It was actually hollow: Spook
Cave lay beneath us, though we never
Visited. I didn’t want to. You scowled.
I have no regrets. The countryside
Lay dotted with dinner clubs.
They stood like barns in the fields,
Wanting to be loved by couples
In middle age, Lutherans perhaps,
Not the unmarried May-July couple
We were. We found our motel,
The Pink Elephant, and adjoining club,
In a town carved into the steep
And crumbling bluffs of the Mississippi.
To this day I can’t remember the town’s
Name, only how it seemed so small,
Like a model railroad village
With tiny streetlamps,
As if it were settling
Easily into the limestone.
You ordered catfish for dinner
And asked, “Is catfish wild?”
And I remember feeling like a bumpkin
Making love to a July woman that night
(I’m past July myself now)
In that room perched halfway up
The stone bank on a level
With Spook Cave.

The effigy mounds lay very flat in the park,
And who could tell the bear’s shape from
An elephant (the motel’s fiberglass effigy
In the valley offered a far better likeness)?
In a photo you hold a stick
And a small purple crystal, about
To plant it in the bear’s earthen
Heart. In another I lean back
Upon a rail at the park’s precipice,
The Mississippi sliding, unseen, below.

Looking back
On that hollow land, it seems
The caverns we didn’t visit
Somehow echo our laughter.
And perhaps the humans who made
Those mounds knew their spirits
Sank, irretrievable, into the old
Earth. They raised those shallow mounds
In humility, would not raise them
To the treetops. Would not erect
Buildings on their crowns because
For them the holy was not in the sky.
No one will find the desecrating crystal
We buried. No, the spirits were too
Hungry, and ate our middle-class,
New-age rock.

And then, a year later, we’re
Fighting. We’re a thousand miles
From there, from my Midwestern,
Undermined land. We’re breaking up.
I can’t get a job. There are your
Children to think of. And I’m thinking
How spoiled you are, a little girl
With crow’s feet, emerged
From hell. I look back at myself
Reaching for your hair, for anything
To fill myself, wanting you to fill
The spaces that you, an animal
Like any other human being,
Could never fill.

The last night together the
Photographs came out, and you
Wanted me to have them, to remember.
And I remember (save me from remembering)
The picture of you standing
In the opened, lightning-struck
Tree, your hands sloped against
The lips of its wound. And save
Me, again, from the image of
Myself, standing next to the pink
Elephant, leaning on a creature
Only seen in withdrawal. See the
Pride in my eyes in having found
A monument when hunger stopped
and I posed by a being hollow as myself.
And I said, no, you keep the pictures.

Today I know these were pictures
Of our spirits about to descend,
About to enter the place the world
Stands on. You get down there
Through the hollow body of a god,
Of an elephant, of a tree.
I say this now that it is October
And we are nearing rivers of ice
With caves where the catfish swim like
A thousand moons.
Save me from saying that there
One spirit holds another,
And their amethyst hearts
Know no pride, no hunger.

*This refers to a trip to the Effigy Mounds National Monument where figures of animals were landscaped by ancient Americans.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Zen Does

Traditional Korean brush rendering of Bodhidharma,
who founded the Zen tradition in China.
Before dawn 108 prostrations. Counted breaths, counted mantras, thousands a day. Zen makes breakfast. Zen goes to the bathroom. Zen goes to work. At night, before bed, Four Great Vows to save all beings. Sleep. Repeat.

Zen completely overwhelms. Zen takes a break. It's not a religion. Then it thinks it is. But it isn't, really? Zen asks lots of questions. Who am I? I will never fulfill all these Zen demands. I'm not supposed to. I try anyway. Sometimes not. Sometimes for 10,000 years nonstop! There's no attainment. There's nothing to attain.

Zen and I got into a pissing match. Zen won. Zen always wins. Except when someone loses, but even then.

Zen sits and sits and sits staring at the floor. Zen hurts an awful lot. Zen eats it. People ask Zen if it will help them calm down. This is Zen.

I ask Zen if it is just a further amplification of the extreme stance on self-reliance everyone in my life including the yokels in my Podunk hometown told me was the only way to go. Zen says yes. Screw you, Zen. So I quit Zen. I punch the wall out with my fist. Who did that stupid feat? It all seems very familiar. Everything reminds me of Zen.

Was Zen here before you? Zen sits some more. Zen doesn't see, hear, smell, taste, touch or think. It's sort of like talking to a wall, which is a kind of inside joke for Zen people. And then it sees and hears and smells and tastes and touches and thinks and maybe there's a lot to dislike about Zen, but we keep watching it. Who's making all that dislike? Zen asks that.

Zen asks that over and over and over. Forget who answers. Zen doesn't answer.

Who listens?

for F. Kwan Zheng Dao

Friday, October 11, 2013

About Taxi Driver, Journal Entry, August 20, 2000

Both the politician  and the pimp are successes where Travis [the titular taxi driver] is a failure: they are able through words to exist in their society and to seduce the women under them into doing their work. These are the people of whom Travis is most jealous. By using firearms Travis is calling a bluff. His weapons are the literal and more powerful embodiment of what the pimp and politician do with language.

"Are you talking to me?" Travis asks a mirror. Then he pulls his weapons. In his own mind, words have become means of manipulation, a silly and trivial kind of manipulation compared to what may be achieved with naked violence.

No community or identity can exist in Travis's hellish view of things. All representation is a lie covering violence.

In his conversation with Iris the prostitute, he tries to convince her that her pimp is not looking out for her but is using her, and that when all is said and done, the pimp is a killer. What Travis does here is not only trying to do Iris a favor by trying to talk her out of a bad life, it is also trying to beat the pimp at his own game of words. That he is indeed using words and at this point not planning to kill the pimp is a hopeful moment, in a way. But Travis is still speaking from the perspective of brute force in a world he does not want to survive.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Lost Art of Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton
(period portrait)
Yesterday I read a friend's Facebook thread about the impasse in Washington. His threads attract people of opposing viewpoints, and the discussions often become lively. One participant argued in favor of the portion of the legislative obstinancy the Republicans own. A subsequent poster put up these words, which come from Alexander Hamilton's Federalist Papers, No. 70, as an overall summation of the current political situation.
Men often oppose a thing, merely because they have had no agency in planning it, or because it may have been planned by those whom they dislike. But if they have been consulted and have happened to disapprove, opposition then becomes, in their estimation, an indispensable duty of self-love. They seem to think themselves bound in honor, and by all the motives of personal infallibility, to defeat the success of what has been resolved upon contrary to their sentiments.

Men of upright, benevolent tempers have too many opportunities of remarking, with horror, to what desperate lengths this disposition is sometimes carried, and how often the great interests of society are sacrificed to the vanity, to the conceit, and to the obstinacy of individuals, who have credit enough to make their passions and their caprices interesting to mankind. Perhaps the question now before the public may, in its consequences, afford melancholy proofs of the effects of this despicable frailty, or rather detestable vice, in the human character.*

The precise mood or meaning of many posts on the internet is not usually clear. Hamilton's words are clear. The pro-GOP poster's response to these words, that he couldn't bother with them because it would take too long to translate them, may leave emotions and meanings that are not expressed. It's nearly impossible to tell how much humor that poster intended and at what level of sarcasm. My reaction to his comment was emotional. Immediately I wanted to pour my own sarcastic humor over the irony of the situation: a conservative dismissing the foundational words of one of America's truly great conservatives as time-wasting gibberish. For purposes of this post, I will mostly address the fact of the text's easy dismissal, which may occur to most of us.

I myself was a stranger to The Federalist Papers until reading this Facebook thread, which has, apparently and mercifully, been deleted or at least purged of that part of the discussion. Growing up I always heard about how important The Federalist Papers were to understanding American political history. Unfortunately for me, the recommendations usually came from people I did not agree with, such as George Will, or people I thought might want me dead, such as contributors to The American Scholar under Joseph Epstein's reign as editor-and-troll-in-chief. In other words, it was sheer bigotry on my part that I did not get around to reading Alexander Hamilton. The words I've quoted have afforded a personal revelation of Hamilton's eloquence, and the mere presence of his words on this page make me want to write better.

Hamilton's words are not an easy read these days. Usually our best writing does not reach this level of complexity, a complexity meant to bear a lot of meaning shaded in delicate ways. For this reason we can call the writing effete. Who needs it? The poet Marianne Moore wanted to write in a plain American language "cats and dogs can read!" This passage does not qualify, but it is prose as American as you could ask for. Hamilton wrote as a member of an elite to other members of the same American elite at a time when literacy was not assured in the population. We are not that elite audience these days even if we are fortunate enough to know how to read. People who occupy similar positions to Hamilton in our society and government no long use the complexity of language he used in The Federalist Papers. If someone wants to complain that they need a translator to read Hamilton, can we really be shocked?

And yet we live with the heritage of these words, not just Hamilton's words but an era of them written by his cohorts that show a richness of spirit politicians do not dare show today without being slammed on cable news shows.

"...opposition then becomes, in their estimation, an indespensable duty of self-love."

We could translate this to say, "They oppose things because they're stuck on themselves," but we would lose slyness, a sarcasm moderated--moderated!--by that softening phrase "in their estimation" which itself opens into other shades of meaning. We could, in short, write a press release for Michele Bachmann.

Which raises a series of questions. Would Michele Bachmann need a translator to read this passage? If members of the House GOP attended workshops to "get" the meaning of Hamilton's words, would they also perceive the moderation and wisdom of the eloquent human being who wrote them? Do we still have a recognizable American political discourse when we no longer care to trouble ourselves with the language in which it founders conducted it? Most importantly and less partisanly: Is it possible at all today to have political discussions in language that expresses deep human concern. If we reject, out of bigotry, ignorance or laziness, the political expression of human concern, can we expect government that has human concern at its heart? Today we must see the consequences of language gone flat and sentiments too shallow to afford the depth of compromise.

We live in a time when language must sell things and sell them quickly. A genie has been let out of a bottle, it seems, and perhaps we will eventually become the inanimate objects we desire to trade so much. Certainly we will resemble them in death. In an elitist dream world of mine, no one would get into political office without being able to understand Alexander Hamilton and his elite of strange and eloquent Americans. That complex foundational language would serve as a shibboleth allowing only the most humane a passage into halls of power.

In my egalitarian fantasy, almost everyone would understand Hamilton to begin with. Hamilton was an obstinate man by most accounts, maybe as opinionated as anyone in Congress today. But he could question himself. He had a heart and knew how to look at it. That would be our general state of affairs.

*I am almost certain the inspiration for posting this quote in the thread came from an opinion piece in The Atlanta Journal Constitution . That is where I've copied the quoted text.