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Lights at a roadside shrine

In his introduction to Tantra Song (written about previously here) Lawrence Rinder invites us into the world of Tantric images by describing how he feels when he is out in the countryside, looking at the trees and the stars:

I have little idea what I am looking at, even though I might be able to give it a name, or perhaps recall some principle of nature that has made it as it is. What I see is color, texture, shape. I see energy, evidence of change, and the transforming powers of life and death.

He goes on to draw an analogy to the experience of looking at mystical images such as those contained in Tantra Song:

Franck André Jamme’s collection of Tantric images affects me in a similar way. Just little scraps of paper really with barely a mark upon them. Simple. Anonymous. Repetitive. But utterly riveting. I can’t begin to say what these images are. I know virtually nothing about the tradition from which they spring…In these divine images, I find an echo of art.

It helps that I have a very broad definition of art…Maybe art isn’t quite the right word: let’s call them experiences that ground us in the real, images that cut to the quick of what we might be.

Rinder’s response to Franck André Jamme‘s collection of sacred Tantric images parallels my own response to those exquisite forms. It also played out for me again during my weeks visiting living Hindu temples in southern India.

Much has been written to denigrate the dark side of our Western proclivity to be idea tourists, shopping for concepts and tokens inappropriately stripped of their sacred cultural context. But there is a significant distinction between insensitive, sacreligious appropriation and the open mind/open heart position that Rinder describes. His words have helped me find a place of integrity to stand as I encountered these deeply moving rituals and celebrations. And even though I am not an expert on Hindu thought and will always be an observer looking in from the outside, I feel the connection to the “transforming powers of life and death” that are played out every day in these ancient shrines.


Inside the temple at Madurai


Chanting in the ancient temples of Hampi


Offerings of coconuts and flowers, ready for the pilgrims at Chamundi Hill in Mysore


Jain priest at the foot of the immense statue of Lord Gommateshwara


Hindu variation on milagros


Temple entrance, Madurai


Altar at Madurai


Nandi in the Shiva temple at Madurai


Generally inclusive, Hindus have their limits too


Puja procession at Madurai


Putting the gods to bed…Madurai


Temple elephant at Thanjavur: A coin offering gives you a gentle tap on the top of the head


Sacred lingam at Thanjavur


Brahmin family’s prostrate offering at Kanchipuram


Gods adorned, a sign of being cared for


Pilgrims in Chidambaram, a part of life


Wise men in the digital age


Ornamenting the tree


Offering to Nandi, in Kanchipuram


Reader at Sri Kanchi Kamakshi temple

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The view of Coolidge Point near Manchester Massachusetts and home to my friend Laurel, a hermit artist extraordinaire. Being a 21st century Thoreauian is a singular stance.

More on the theme of isolation, solitude, quiet (see the earlier post Where it Works.) Online artists and friends Walt Pascoe, Luke Storms and Holly Friesen directed me to an essay that appeared two years ago in the Chronicle of Higher Learning titled The End of Solitude by William Deresiewicz. Tracing the concept of solitude from Ancient Greece through Romanticism, Modernism and now Postmodernism, Deresiewicz illuminates a rich history of how time alone has been viewed. During certain periods, such as the Romantic age, it was highly valued. At other times, like our current era, not so much.

Deresiewicz captures the essence of our time in a word:

Celebrity and connectivity are both ways of becoming known. This is what the contemporary self wants. It wants to be recognized, wants to be connected: It wants to be visible. If not to the millions, on Survivor or Oprah, then to the hundreds, on Twitter or Facebook. This is the quality that validates us, this is how we become real to ourselves — by being seen by others. The great contemporary terror is anonymity. If Lionel Trilling was right, if the property that grounded the self, in Romanticism, was sincerity, and in modernism it was authenticity, then in postmodernism it is visibility.

Say it isn’t so, Joe. I value the qualities of sincerity and authenticity, and most art that I respond to has a strong relationship with both of those concepts. But Deresiewicz is naming something that has shifted significantly in the last ten years in so many aspects of our lives.

As an artist, the visibility-first approach to art making and marketing is something many of us find deeply disturbing. I’m not shunning the value of visibility for anyone who is a maker. We need audiences to read our poetry, look at our paintings, listen to our music. And when the Internet can help us find those who are receptive, that’s a plus. But is visibility the grounding for the contemporary self? Is it possible to do your work with sincerity and authenticity and still have a high Klout score? These are questions I’m not sure can be answered just yet.

Deresiewicz’s essay is worth the read in its entirety and full of insights on a number of themes including generational differences, cities, suburbs, friendship, cultural history. But here are just a few other passages that speak most directly to my own solitude-seeking, hermit-hearted self:

* * *
And losing solitude, what have they lost? First, the propensity for introspection, that examination of the self that the Puritans, and the Romantics, and the modernists (and Socrates, for that matter) placed at the center of spiritual life — of wisdom, of conduct. Thoreau called it fishing “in the Walden Pond of [our] own natures,” “bait[ing our] hooks with darkness.” Lost, too, is the related propensity for sustained reading. The Internet brought text back into a televisual world, but it brought it back on terms dictated by that world — that is, by its remapping of our attention spans. Reading now means skipping and skimming; five minutes on the same Web page is considered an eternity.

* * *
To hold oneself apart from society…is to begin to think one’s way beyond it. Solitude, Emerson said, “is to genius the stern friend.” “He who should inspire and lead his race must be defended from traveling with the souls of other men, from living, breathing, reading, and writing in the daily, time-worn yoke of their opinions.” One must protect oneself from the momentum of intellectual and moral consensus — especially, Emerson added, during youth. “God is alone,” Thoreau said, “but the Devil, he is far from being alone; he sees a great deal of company; he is legion”.

* * *
No real excellence, personal or social, artistic, philosophical, scientific or moral, can arise without solitude. “The saint and poet seek privacy,” Emerson said, “to ends the most public and universal.” We are back to the seer, seeking signposts for the future in splendid isolation.

* * *
The last thing to say about solitude is that it isn’t very polite. Thoreau knew that the “doubleness” that solitude cultivates, the ability to stand back and observe life dispassionately, is apt to make us a little unpleasant to our fellows, to say nothing of the offense implicit in avoiding their company…But Thoreau understood that securing one’s self-possession was worth a few wounded feelings. He may have put his neighbors off, but at least he was sure of himself. Those who would find solitude must not be afraid to stand alone.


Monologue of Ice, 24 Hours, by Atta Kim

This is a follow on to my earlier post about Grain of Emptiness at the Rubin Museum, a show that features works by artists who have been influenced and inspired by Buddhism.

From the catalog introduction by Mary Jane Jacob:

To make the most of experience and have it be transformative in positive ways, we need to cultivate presence of mind. The presence of mind….not only erupts in the conception of an idea for a work of art but also…is sustained throughout the act of making. The very act of doing cultivates the mind, and not “on some kind of theoretical level”…thus, the process of making is the art as well as the final result, the experience of doing is part of the whole: means and end are one flowing together…

So there is the need on the part of these artists to get the most out of the doing, the fullest experience. This phenomenon is achieved when “your interior and your exterior meet”…then the mind-in-making, being full present in the experience of the process, gives to the work of art its presence, too. It is this quality that draws us into a work that first was a revelation for the artist as it emerged from a process of creative inquiry. At that point the work of art “has its own energy”; “those are the real power objects.”


Partially frozen fountain at Ojo Caliente, New Mexico

I am in a bit of a detached and quiet place these days, a state of mind that is drawing me to Zen concepts, Zen words.

One of my daily rituals when I arrive at the studio is to flip open Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Tao Te Ching. This one, number 65, showed up for me this morning:

The ancient Masters
didn’t try to educate the people,
but kindly taught them to not-know.

When they think that they know the answers,
people are difficult to guide.
When they know that they don’t know,
people can find their own way.

If you want to learn how to govern,
avoid being clever or rich.
The simplest pattern is the clearest.
Content with an ordinary life,
you can show all people the way
back to their own true nature.

And this passage is from Terrance Keenan’s St. Nadie in Winter (more excerpts from that book here):

The “practice” at the Zen Center of Syracuse is a lay practice. It is founded on the simple understanding that if Buddhist practice cannot help ordinary people live ordinary lives more completely, then it is not much good for anything. One should not have to become a special case or live in extraordinary circumstances in order to grasp the fundamentals. Zen emphasizes ordinary day-to-day things because when we grasp the essential emptiness in the least thing we simultaneously apprehend it in the universe.

So simple but the resonance of these two thoughts feels particularly useful, grounding, a return to the center.


Monastery in Ladakh, 2008

Terrance Keenan’s book, St. Nadie in Winter: Zen Encounters with Loneliness, has been my companion while traveling for the last few days. An enigmatic mix of Zen wisdom—part personal memoir, poetry and recovery confessional—Keenan has offered me a rich variation on that unique conversation that can happen with a book.

Early on Keenan describes the source of the entity he has named St. Nadie. When he was still quite young, he had the realization that there was “something more behind who I thought I was. I had no words for it. No one I knew had any words for it—this profound sense there was nobody home. Not emptiness exactly, but not individuality either. My experience of it was deep but erratic…I have spent my life trying alone to understand this nobody within.”

Blending the presence of saints from his Irish Catholic upbringing with the Spanish word for nobody, St. Nadie became a private name for his personal search. When he encountered these words on the gate to the Dai Bosatsu Zendo Kongo-ji monastery in upstate New York, the Zen resonance with that personal “nobody” was clear:

Along the Way
goes no one,
this autumn evening.

In one section of the book he offers a way of viewing ways of knowing. Quoting a scientist friend of his, Keenan shares this point of view:

Science is a method of knowledge by description and that, on the whole, scientists think that the language we use to ask questions and formulate answers, the terms and mathematics of science, mean this or that…”They don’t, he said, “They never did…There is the math. There is the world. And there is the structural correspondence. That’s it.” He recognizes this is a conditional way of knowing and a limited one. He says that it is inadequate to communicate literal experience, or what he calls knowledge by acquaintance (after, I suppose, Bertrand Russell). He suggests that poetry and art are all we have to communicate what we know by experience.

He goes on:

The language of poetry, the act of poetry, is maddening and wonderful—uncertain. There is a plurality of possibility—and impossibility. For me, poetry has become the voice of my inner nobody, of St. Nadie. Recognizing the differences in the ways of knowing is not to give one ascendancy over another but to recognize that understanding the reality of human experience is not satisfied by either or both. There is no one thread, no complex whole, no one answer in the way we want the real to be.

I like the simple elegance of this middle ground. It is one that aligns closely with my view.

More to come…(a phrase that is becoming a mantra for me.)


Outside a Hindu shrine in Maharashtra, India

In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.

–David Foster Wallace

If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world, and a desire to enjoy the world. That makes it hard to plan the day.

— E.B. White

Two excellent quotes to begin a day, any day. Thanks to Meehan Rasch for both of these.


Points of light: From the Kiki Smith installation at the DeYoung Museum, San Francisco

If you don’t look at things through your concepts, you’ll never be bored. Every single thing is unique. Every sparrow is unlike every other sparrow despite the similarities. It’s a great help to have similarities, so we can abstract, so that we can have a concept. It’s a great help, from the point of view of communication, education, science. But it’s also very misleading and a great hindrance to seeing this concrete individual. If all you experience is your concept, you’re not experiencing reality, because reality is concrete. The concept is a help, to lead you to reality, but when you get there, you’ve got to intuit or experience it directly.

–Anthony de Mello

De Mello was a priest and a psychotherapist whose wide angle mind caused him to be seen as, well, a troublemaker. In 1998 a certain Cardinal (who later became Pope Benedict XVI) declared that de Mello’s positions were “incompatible with the Catholic faith and can cause grave harm.” (Harm? I’m having a hard time imagining what he had in mind.) And some editions of his books include this caveat: “The books of Father Anthony de Mello were written in a multi-religious context to help the followers of other religions, agnostics and atheists in their spiritual search, and they were not intended by the author as manuals of instruction of the Catholic faithful in Christian doctrine or dogma.”

Here is a bit more from the backgrounder posted on deMello.org:

Until his sudden death on June 2, 1987, Fr. Tony de Mello was the director of the Sadhana Institute of Pastoral Counseling near Poona, India. Author of five best selling books, renowned worldwide for his workshops, retreats, and prayer courses, he aimed simply to teach people
HOW TO PRAY, how to WAKE UP AND LIVE.

Most people, he maintained, are asleep. They need to wake up, open up their eyes, see what is real, both inside and outside of themselves. The greatest human gift is to be aware, to be in touch with oneself, one’s body, mind, feelings, thoughts, sensations.

Here are some of his typical challenges:
Come home to yourself!
Come back to your senses! Do you hear that bird sing?
How can you hear the song and not hear the singer?
How can you see the wave and not see the ocean?
How can you see the dance and not see the dancer?”

Sounds like he was my kind of religious transgressive.

___
Thank you Whiskey River for the quote at the top.