Movement

Introduction

We don’t sit on the cushion all the time. We walk kinhin. We wash dishes and work in the garden. We practice sitting still, and we practice moving.

We may celebrate that movement with images that show our spiraling, flying, falling. A train’s surge thrusts us back in our seats, a rider moves in concert with her horse, a top spins. Our hand and arm may circle the brush without thought to make an image of movement around stillness. We move our bodies through space and time, attending to an inner prompting, making our movement sacred.

This month’s issue speaks of movement, how our attention to it brings us alive. —Sarah Webb

Sandy Lowder on Making Art



ENSO

JT: Looking at your ensos made me think how art comes out of the same empty place as the center of the enso and the same place of spontaneous energy as the motion that makes the circle. You may think of it a different way.

SL: This is somewhat accurate…but the spontaneous part is often difficult to “make” happen. It takes so much constant effort and practice (sort of like sitting zazen...) and then there might be an opening for the spontaneous part to happen.


DANCER, 56"H x 35"W

JT: When you draw an enso, what happens in you? Does anything like that happen for you in your practice, your ceremony, your zazen?

SL: Making the enso takes preparation, like warming up before a run, stretching before zazen, letting go of outside input, stilling struggle and “effort.” Certainly it is not as spontaneous as I might wish. Again, it seems much like sitting zazen—but the most significant thing to me, is that when things are really going the best, the activity of doing or making any of these things is the same as BEING these actions. Barbara has reminded me that making art is my practice, it is my zen practice.


HORSE AND RIDER, 48"H x 36"W

JT: Is there a place of emptiness or silence in your creating?

SL: Yes. But first of all, there is the hard work and training. Then, if you live through the groundwork and just keep on going, you might get to kind of pull up some unknown part. Not so sure how to describe it, but I love how the painter Nell Blaine described the process. She really puts her finger on it this way: “I felt that I had made contact with something in myself–something like a physical force that would come out through my fingertips.” She says she read about how painting is like a spider’s web. It comes out of the body of the artist, is pulled out of the body. Then she says “from that point, I felt I could judge whether it was true or contrived, synthetic or really felt. You know when your whole person is coming together to do this act. You learn to make it come—how to spring open the door.” That seems to me to sum up a lot of the real struggle in making art: to learn how to spring open the door; over and over and over again, or you stop making art. It can happen, after lots of failure and effort that just feels wasted (though, I guess I do know that the “wasted effort” is really not wasted, the failures are necessary for growth and development. It is pretty hard to live with though!)


LITTLE DANCER - NEW LOVER, 36"H x 25"W

JT: Do ideas and images arise in your sitting or in sesshin?

SL: Not that I have ever noticed. But sitting seems to helps clear space somehow.


MATTIE'S AUTUMN TREE,20"H x 18"W

JT: Why do you practice Zen? Why do you create art? Are there differences when you answer those questions?

SL: I actually don’t know why I do either of these things. Maybe it is the recognition that both processes felt like “home,” like there was no more right place for me to be.


NEW RIDER BLUE RIDER, 57"H x 39"W

JT: Do you feel that some of your art is somehow more Buddhist than other things you create, or is it all one thing?

SL: No, I think that it is all the same regardless of whether there is any particular “Buddhist” imagery or subject matter or intent. I do not really think that there is a difference.


NIGHT LOTUS POOL, 42"H x 60"W

JT: Does your practice, or some aspect of your practice, like sesshin, free you to create more readily, or has your practice ever blocked you?

SL: I really can’t say that zen practice has helped the practice of Art.... Maybe it has freed me up from needing to have any “intent” or message for art. I’ll think about that. But for a while, sitting seemed to take the place of making art, and I really hated that. Now I usually only sit at home a little. As for art, I just do it. It succeeds or it fails or it does both at the same time. It just is whatever it is. Like zazen. Maybe they are the same thing, they only look a little different on the outside.


UNTITLED/FIGURE

JT: I'm wanting to ask if when you create in response to an object, there is some kind of unity in you and the object, but the words are not quite coming to describe that.

SL: Yes, I think I know what you are asking...and when I am painting or drawing, if things are really going well, there is unity with the subject matter, the process, the media, the materials, and my own awareness or lack of conscious awareness. And then it is like the description from Nell Blaine—a physical force, a spider’s web is coming out from the fingertips. Then, it feels triumphant! Like there was no conscious control over the process, it is just pulled out of necessity, naturally—like a spider spinning its web. I made a series of drawings dealing with movement on a 2-dimensional surface, horses and riders and dancers: the push and pull of stillness and movement. Again, like when we are sitting. We sit on those cushions, not moving (well, trying not to move.) But all the time we really are moving: we are breathing, hearts are beating, blood is flowing throughout our bodies, we shift a little, stretch our shoulders, wiggle toes, stomach grumbles, we blink, on and on…. We are “sitting still,” but not really, because our living bodies are in constant movement with the universe. It was so interesting to me, to find a vehicle to explore movement/stillness. These drawings get to that point more than most others, I think. Many years ago, I used to take dance classes and I used to ride horses with my daughters. And the process and activity of making those drawings was sort of like awakening a sleeping cellular memory of those movements living in my body again.


UNTITLED, 40"H x 26"W

Visit Sandy’s website: http://www.sandylowder.com/home

Joan Son on her Art

Joan Son is a member of the Houston Zen Center. She writes,

I like to say, “I am an artist, working in the medium of paper based in the discipline of origami.” Truly an afternoon of repetitive folding is something like a meditation and an honest time to settle down and get closer to center.



In my art, I look for harmony, balance, for that stream of clear thought that grounds me and connects me to a greater flow. It reveals itself to me through repetitive images that appear like a visual pulse, calming me and aligning me with my own heartbeat. My work now is about making visual the pulse I see in the paper and feel in my core. With recent large-scale installations, I've have the opportunity to explore that pulse in a more expansive way. That I find magic in the manipulation of paper, that others might glimpse the Source through my eyes—that is my wish, my pleasure and my plan.

I reluctantly include my web site...so much has changed!
http://www.inthefold.com/

I leave you with a recent image...from my front porch. This installation of butterflies lasted through hurricane IKE the month before the photo was taken. Some say they are my protectors, others claim it shows the power of art. –Joan Son


Sumi Komo on Zen Dance

A portion of Sumi Komo’s  Weaving and Casting performance is available here. Sumi’s Dharma name is Sumi Ryoko. She writes,

Over the years I have developed a dance form that utilizes ritual, meditation, and mindful movement, wherein the dancer dances, rather than the emotional drama of the ego. This kind of dance is quite influenced by my work with Merce Cunningham. There is a moment-by-moment presence, rather than reliance on narrative, drama, or story line, nor is the dance choreographed to the music. Each element—dance, music, visual lighting, etc., and set design—is separately created and put together for my work prior to performance.

Merce's ideas involved independence of art forms and a creation that is not ego driven. He chose to focus instead on the purity and simplicity of time and space and movement and rhythm. This allows the life that is the dance and the dancer. He said that when the dancer dances, it is all there and we do not look at steps.

Merce himself had an animal magnetism that was palpable. I also felt that kind of electric energy in a very subtle way from my Zen teachers, Maezumi Roshi and Prabhasa Dharma Roshi, both of whom were also artists—calligraphers.

Further information on Sumi Komo and Zen Dance is available at her website: www.alexandermovingarts.com

More on Sumi (Komo) Ryoko

Sumi Ryoko writes,

I have been dancing all my life. I went to Sarah Lawrence College, where I majored in dance and philosophy, and although my philosophy teacher asked me to stay on and be his graduate assistant and get an M.A. in philosophy, I decided to go to New York City to dance.

There I trained and danced with Merce Cunningham (and John Cage—his partner personally and professionally). Together they changed the whole face of modern dance. They were intimately influenced by studying Zen with D.T. Suzuki. Merce became interested in taking personality and narrative out of dance. He used chance methods and other ways to develop choreography that had more possibilities and openness to the moment than perhaps his own ego could see.

My experience in my dance work with them led me to Zen practice. I danced in New York professionally, and then a severe accident led me back to school to get an M.A. in Dance and start practicing Zen intensively, starting in 1976. Maezumi Roshi and Prabhasa Dharma Roshi both encouraged me to develop a Zen Dance.

Maezumi Roshi gave me a practice to bring Zen and dance together like bringing two hands together in gassho. He asked me to create 33 pieces for each of the different manifestations of Kuan Yin/Kanzeon. I have been creating Zen dance for several decades now.

I do workshops on dance and meditative movement in New York, Colorado, and Texas, and have taught at Naropa University and CU in Colorado, as well as at the University of Oregon while I was getting my MA. I taught in London and also had my company there. Most recently, I have taught at Radford University and James Madison University in Virgnia.

My dance company is called Komo Danceworks, and its mission is to bring Zen and dance and meditative movement practices into manifestation through performance, practice, and ritual. I have established the Zen Shinji Centre here in Austin. It is home to the creation of work that I take all over the country.

On October 24th, in Liverpool, England, I will receive lay transmission from my Zen teacher, Abbot of the Yokoji Mountain Center in California, Charles Tenshin Fletcher, Roshi. He has authorized me to teach these practices of meditation, movement, and the mindfulness-based arts of dance and Tai Chi Chuan and Chi Kung. My studio/Zendo is affiliated with Yokoji Mountain Centre (Zen Mountain Center).

Just This asked Sumi questions about her experience in Zen Dance.

JT: Were there other ways Merce Cunningham was influenced by Zen and passed the influence on?

SR: Merce (and John Cage) changed the whole fabric of dance, not only through Merce’s choreographic methods but also by altering the way people viewed art. Merce did not use narrative or story line and instead let the dancers dance and the piece be whatever the viewer saw it to be. The artists—dancer-choreographer, musician, lighting, set—all were separate and equal.

The coming together was bringing different forms into co-existence in time and space. This was very revolutionary and demanded an awakeness in dancer and viewer.

JT: How has doing this kind of dance (and the process of creating it) changed you?

SR: Every time I go into the studio to move and create, I attempt to be awake in the moment to what is and be present...to possibility. Sometimes I may start with chanting a sutra and moving, sometimes in silence.

JT: Has your understanding and approach changed over the years?

SR: I am always experimenting and most recently, in the last year, I have been blessed with the opportunity to work with Deborah Hay, who offers an outside eye and keeps me honest and clear. The lack of pretense and personality in performance is one of the things I am looking for.

JT: What makes Zen dance different than other kinds of Zen? what is its heart?

SR: In most of our practice of Zen, we have the formality of zendo and prescribed rituals and chants. I started with Zen moving, which takes Zen off the cushion into movement and awakened practice. I also believe, from my own experience, that there is a diamond body of light that is awakened from our practice...and that can be brought out through Zen dance and the space of the heart. It is bringing forth from the kikai point to the heart-mind energy of Shin. This can allow us a space from living only in the intellectual, sometimes rigid world of Japanese Zen.

JT: How do we find the feminine face of Buddhist practice?

SR: It is possible that the grace and power of moving Zen and Zen dance can bring flow, grace, clarity, and an energy of emptiness to our practice. Both Maezumi Roshi and Prabhasa Dharma Roshi saw that the way for me is creative energy through dream and dance and bare attention movement. Perhaps like tea or archery, Zen Dance can be another Way of practice.

Marianne Mitchell on Merce Cunningham

Moving is a mysterious thing. Most of what we do with our bodies and what our bodies do to us is invisible, at least to the person doing the moving. Sometimes we can identify what emotions cause us to move in a particular way, the more obvious the better — running with fear away from some impending harm, running towards someone with love. And then there are all the particular forms our bodies learn as they perform tasks — mundane tasks as we take care of our lives, ecstatic forms as we enjoy ourselves. We can be sure, though, that the mind is initiating the movement, this kinetic energy.

This might be an arcane subject to many, but for some it is the sole object of their lives, as it was for Merce Cunningham. Using your body to make space visible, you would have to be a dancer, a mathematician, an explorer, a mapmaker, and then you'd stand a chance at being successful if you were incessant in your practice. As Merce said, ”dance is not for unsteady souls.“

Setting apart dance from music, from costume, from backdrop sets, Merce relied on movement only to trigger more movement and more movement. Other arts that would enter later could almost be a separate story. One thing they were not was a support for initiating movement. By keeping the elements in the dance separate, he had a better chance of immersing himself in only the movement.

In a science story I once read, the author asked a mathematician if he could define space. His answer was to experience a Merce Cunningham dance. As someone who studied with Merce, that was my experience as well. In the particular way Merce had of creating dances, he made space visible, not just the lines of the body making the movement. Now that's mysterious.

Merce died July 26, 2009. You can see excerpts from his dance pieces on http://youtube.com.

bowing to merce, marianne mitchell

Upon a Time

Once Upon a Time...


What's that, you ask?
"What is a TIME?"


Is a TIME a flat, smooth thing
that you have put your cup upon?


Is a TIME a slithery thing
that you would never step upon?


Is a TIME a smooshy thing
that you can rest your head upon?


Is a TIME a shining thing
that every night, you wish upon?


Is a TIME a spiraling thing
that you may climb upon?


Is a TIME a speeding thing
that you will ride upon?


TIMES are smooth, slithery, smooshy,
shining, spiraling, speeding things.


TIMES are whatever you need them to be,
And you have all of them you need.

So as I was saying,
"Once upon a TIME..."

—Poem by Martha Burgin, Drawings by Kim Mosley (http://kimmosley.com/blog)

Glen Snyder Photographs


Leaping Monkey, Xanjiajie National Forest, Hunan, China


Shinkansen Approaching Hiroshima


Jonesboro Cotton Field

Discovering Emptiness in a Spinning Top



When I looked at th-
e spinning top the w-
ords became concent-
ric circles.

The Wednesday night reading group has been reading Nagarjuna's The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way for a while now. We are just getting into the best part. And it is no more difficult than figuring out a child's top that you spin with your forefinger and thumb. Here's why:

Last night we talked about how emptiness is not the same as believing in nothing (nihilism). And that emptiness means “no abiding self,” or in the case of a child's top (which wasn't mentioned), no essence.

Barbara was quick to say that hearing these ideas and practicing with them are very different. So today I went to the Blanton Art Museum and the Ramsen center to practice (shirking my volunteer duties to AZC).

First I ate in the Blanton's new cafeteria. I don't like to see art with my stomach growling. Then to the museum store where I found a child's top. It had words printed on a flat round disk. I spun it and voila, the words turned into concentric circles. That proved it, I thought. In one spin I saw how foolish both Nagarjuna and Barbara were. It was obvious that the essence was the top standing still (with words), and when moving, is just appeared different (with concentric circles). I was satisfied that my mission was accomplished, and left the store (at $3.26, I though it was too expensive to buy the top that had disproved emptiness).

Walking out to the street, I started thinking about a hypothetical top that is attached to an electric motor. The normal state (essence) of that top would be the concentric circles, and seeing the words would be just an abnormal view of the top. But suppose that one day the motor dies and the top comes to a stop. Then has its essence changed (a contradiction for if essence changes then it is not essence)? Then my mind went to the earth, which spins and rotates as if there was no tomorrow. What is the essence of that (a spherical object in motion?). I started to doubt the validity of my “there is an essence” argument.

A minute later, as I went outside, I saw an old truck with scratches, dents and faded paint. So what was this truck's essence, it if had one? Was it the way it was yesterday, the way it is now, or the way it will be tomorrow? Suddenly essence disappeared and Nagarjuna (and Barbara) made more sense.

Nagarjuna wrote,
For him to whom emptiness is clear,
Everything becomes clear.
For him to whom emptiness is not clear,
Nothing becomes clear.
—Kim Mosley (http://kimmosley.com/blog)

Language and Words

Introduction

by Seirin Barbara Kohn

In the beginning was the word. What word? In the beginning of humans becoming humans they created concepts expressed in language, i.e. Words. These words have developed into complexities beyond even the Buddha's expectation. We use words to describe the indescribable. We use words to love and to hate. The old saying, "sticks and stones can break my bones but names can never hurt me," shows a deep misunderstanding of what human suffering is all about. Words bruise the psyche and they soothe the psychic beasts and demons. What we think, how we name, our descriptions and actions all contribute to the wondrous and awesome experience of being people. In this copy of Just This, our topic is language/words. We asked folks to use words to speak of words or to paint a picture leaving the words to the viewer. Please join us in the remarkable creative possibilities of our language instinct.

— Seirin Barbara Kohn is the head teacher of the Austin Zen Center, and currently on sabbatical.

Dogfight Sutra

by Brandon Lamson

The Diamond Sutra begins,
                                               After begging for food in the city
and eating his meal of rice,
the Bhagavan put his robe and bowl away, washed his feet, and sat down.

During his morning rounds sparrows dove from dusty trees
and stole grains of rice from the bowl he held steady for them,

so the seamstress who ladled the rice into his bowl
was feeding the birds who woke her at sunrise, singing
on a branch outside her window.

                                            Be without a self, without a being, without a life,
without a soul.
                          Wearing his patched robe, the shifting tapestry of selves

frayed like a cloak of leaves, burnt oranges and yellows
scored with holes
                              or rags mended and worn continuously until they stiffen

and their colors blend.

In Baltimore, tribes gather on street corners at dusk
sharing tins of food with mongrels
they’ve saved from sodium pentothal and dogfights.

Devin crashing my place with his gutter punk friends,
stinking of leather, greasy studs and Mohawks
                                                                           sheened

to a high gloss, rooster combs melting in the heat
as we listened to Vic Chestnutt’s “Drunk”,
                                                                 the paraplegic singer growling.

Years later in D.C. I worked in a furniture store
assembling wrought iron chairs and huge marble tables,
their surfaces shot through with veins of green and black,
like a meteorologist’s chart predicting ceaseless downpour.

During lunch I walked to the stoop on the corner
                                                             where Floyd and his crew hung out,
Floyd smiling as he did the first day
he asked me for change then offered me a drink.

The seams in his face cracked open,
                                                          a Yoruban mask studded with nails
to let the spirits out,
red bandanna tied around his dreads now darkened to rust.

I sat with them as we passed around a forty bottle
                                                                            and drank cold malt liquor,
observing suits gliding by
                                              several feet in front of their coffins.


My meditation practice has contributed deeply to my writing practice, as both are ways for me to dwell in a stillness that is both generative and a source of renewal. These stillpoints, whether anchored in the emptiness of the blank page or in the canvas of the mind, enable me to engage the contemplative arts as other-expression rather than self-expression. The qualities of patience, compassion, and non-judgement that they cultivate help me to temporarily escape the boundaries of ego and the limited self. As I am about to take the bodhisaatva vows, the intention to dedicate my actions to the liberation of all beings underscores my creative work which explores the connective tissues that bind us to each other and the world, the passionate language of thought and feeling that enlivens our experience. Speaking of the dark, soulful quality he called duende, the poet Federico Garcia Lorca said it is "drawn to where forms fuse themselves into a longing greater than their visible expression." For me, writing and meditation are forms that point to an essence of luminous clarity that is invisible, unfathomable, and infinitely generous.

— Brandon Lamson, a Zen practitioner at the Houston Zen Center, is also a poet and graduate student in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Houston.

Languages at the Austin Zen Center

by Mark Bykoski

The Soto Zen Buddhist tradition practiced at the Austin Zen Center could be said to come to us from Japan by way of San Francisco. Its more distant origins, however, are fairly complex. To describe its roots chronologically, Buddhism began in India, spread to central Asia, and then to Tibet and China. When Buddhism met with the native Daoist tradition in China, there developed a school known as Chan (, from the Sanskrit dhyana, meditation). As Chan spread, it became known as Son in Korea and as Zen in Japan.

As Buddhism spread geographically, it developed different modes of expression in the various cultures where it found a home. Texts traveled and were translated from one language to another. New texts were composed, drawing from the multilinguistic background of the tradition. This process began as Buddhism first started to spread through different regions of India, and it continues in our own culture today.

Here at the Austin Zen Center, we encounter texts and terminology from languages such as Pali, Sanskrit, Chinese and Japanese. This material comes to us through various layers of translation and transliteration, making for a linguistically complex body of scripture and lore.

The earliest extant Buddhist writings are in Pali, a language of ancient India. Pali belongs to the Indo-European family of languages and is distantly related to English and to most of the other languages of Europe. The refuges are often chanted in Pali during retreats at AZC, at the end of the day:"Buddham saranam gacchami... Dhammam... Sangham...." (I take refuge in the Awakened One... in the Teaching... in the Community....). Pali texts may also be encountered in classes at AZC. Sometimes it may be confusing to run across Pali words that correspond to Sanskrit words that we are more familiar with. A few examples:

Pali Sanskrit English
dhamma dharma teaching; element of experience
nibbana nirvana "extinction," leaving cycle of birth and death
bhikkhu bhiksu (or bhikshu) monk
arahant arhat "worthy," one who has extinguished passions
anatta anatman no self
paticca-samuppada pratitya-samutpada dependant co-arising
magga marga path
sutta sutra "thread," a talk given by the Buddha
khanda skandha "heap," aggregate, element of sensory experience

The later Mahayana ("Great Vehicle") tradition that developed in northern India generally used the Sanskrit language (a close relative of Pali) in writing. While Pali was one of a number of regional languages, Sanskrit had for centuries been the main literary language of India. It is Mahayana, with its Sanskrit literature that eventually spread to China and Japan. In addition to the words mentioned above, Sanskrit terms encountered at AZC include, bodhisattva ("enlightening being", one dedicated to the liberation of others), prajna-paramita (perfection of wisdom), and dana (generosity).

Buddhism started to make its way into China in the first century of the Common Era. Most of the many terms of Chinese origin used at AZC are known to us by their Japanese pronunciation. Occasionally we run into words in their Chinese form (transliterated into our alphabet), particularly Daoist philosophical terms such as dao (,"the way"), and wuwei (無爲, "without doing", effortless action). One text that is chanted in English at AZC is known to us by its Chinese title, Xinxinming (信心銘, Trust in Mind Inscription).

The Chan/Zen teaching stories known as koans ( , Chinese: gong'an,"public case") were mostly written in China in the tenth to thirteenth centuries (based on anecdotes reputed to go as far back as the fifth century). They are sometimes studied at AZC in English translation.

The earliest translators attempting to find Chinese equivalents for Buddhist Sanskrit terminology tended to use terms from Chinese philosophy, such as dao (,"the way") for dharma. Later translators moved away from that approach. The word that was eventually settled on as the standard translation of dharma is fa (, Japanese: ho), which originally means"law" or"method". In Chinese Buddhist contexts, however, it may be used much the way dharma is used in Sanskrit: to refer to the Buddhist teachings, or to mean"element of experience" or"phenomenon." Translating that term from Chinese (or Japanese) into English, we usually render it using the original Sanskrit word dharma, transliterated into our Roman alphabet. The Chinese also chose to transliterate the sounds of some Sanskrit terms, rather than translate them according to their meaning (for example, niepan for nirvana). The Chinese Buddhist lexicon eventually settled into a combination of translation and transliteration for terms derived from Sanskrit. When Buddhism made its way into Japan, the Japanese generally used the Chinese terminology.

The Japanese did not write their language until they had come into contact with the Chinese. Chinese and Japanese are very different languages, and when the Japanese began to use the Chinese writing system around the fourth century of the Common Era, they did not initially write their own language, but rather learned to write in the Chinese language of the time. The Chinese written characters are called Kanji in Japanese. At some point the Japanese began using certain Kanji for their sound rather than their meaning, to represent syllables of the Japanese language. That system is known as Manyogana. Eventually, in order to make the characters used for their sound distinct from those used for their meaning, the Manyogana characters were stylized to form two different sets of phonetic characters, Hiragana and Katakana. Kanji continued to be used for their meaning, but were now supplemented by Hiragana and/or Katakana to represent all of the grammatical endings and particles that had no equivalent in the Chinese writing system. Modern Japanese usually uses Hiragana for grammatical elements, and Katakana for newer foreign words or for emphasis.

The Japanese not only imported Chinese characters, but a great many Chinese words as well, especially technical terms relating to government, philosophy, religion and the arts. The Japanese pronounced these loan words according to the Chinese pronunciation at the time, adapted to the sound system of Japanese. This is why some Japanese words sound similar to their Chinese equivalents, while other words bear no resemblance. Kanji were used not only to write loan words from Chinese, but also to write native Japanese words according to their meaning. Consequently many Kanji have at least two pronunciations in Japanese. The pronunciation derived from Chinese, used for loan words from Chinese is called On-yomi. The pronunciation for native Japanese words is called Kun-yomi. For example, the character meaning"heart" (心, pronounced xin in modern Chinese) has the On pronunciation shin in loan words such as Shin Gyo (心經, Heart Sutra), but it also can be used to write the native Japanese word for"heart," kokoro, (its Kun pronunciation).

Most of the Japanese technical terms used at AZC are loan words from Chinese pronounced according to On-yomi. (Examples: zendo, zafu, han, kinhin, chiden, mokugyo, tenzo, doshi, shuso, oryoki, shikantaza, dokusan)

The Japanese imported words from Chinese during more than one historical period, with the result that some Kanji have more than one On pronunciation. For example, we pronounce the transcription of Maha Prajnaparamita as"Maka Hannya-haramitta" in the Heart Sutra, but as"Moko Hoja-horomi" in the"Jiho sanshi" chant (the latter appears to be closer to the modern Mandarin pronunciation, Mohe Boreboluomiduo).

Rather than translate the Chinese Buddhist texts into Japanese, the Japanese monks generally chanted and studied the Chinese texts, using Japanese pronunciation. This Chinese language chanted in Japanese is sometimes referred to as"Sino-Japanese." The Maka Hannya-haramitta Shin Gyo, Enmei Jukku Kannon Gyo and the Robe Chant are examples that are chanted at AZC.

In cases where the sound of the original language was believed to have special power, the Chinese chose to transliterate rather than translate certain Sanskrit texts. An example chanted at AZC is Daihi Shin Dharani, a text originally written in Sanskrit, transliterated according to ancient Chinese pronunciation into Chinese characters, and now chanted using Sino-Japanese pronunciation (the end result of that convoluted history does not sound much like Sanskrit).

Some texts chanted or studied at AZC were originally written in Japanese. Sandokai is an example that is chanted in Japanese. The difference from the Sino-Japanese language is readily apparent.

Eihei Dogen, the thirteenth century Japanese Zen ancestor who traveled and practiced extensively in China, and who founded Soto Zen in Japan, wrote in both Chinese and Japanese. His works, some which are characterized by inventive wordplay, are chanted and studied at AZC in English translation.

— Mark Bykoski is a member of the Austin Zen Center. He studied Chinese at the University of Maryland and has traveled to China.

"Zhaozhou's Dog" from the Wumenguan


by Mark Bykoski

The Chinese text is given in the top row. Below that is the modern Mandarin pronunciation spelled in the Pinyin system, and then the English meaning of each word.

Zhào
name of an ancient state in China
Zhōu
state, region
gŏu
dog

[suffix for nouns]
趙州- name of a Zen ancestor; Japanese pronunciation: Joshu 狗子 - dog

Zhaozhou's Dog

趙州 和尚、 問、
Zhào Zhōu héshang
master, monk
yīn
because, reason
sēng
monk (from sangha)
wèn
ask

As for Master Zhaozhou, because a monk asked,

狗子 無。
gŏuzi
dog
hái
even, also
yŏu
have

Buddha
xìng
nature
yě [word separating clauses], also
not have, (Japanese pronunciation: mu)

"Does even a dog have Buddha nature, or not?"

云、 無。
Zhōu yún
say

not have

Zhaozhou said, "It does not."

"Zhaozhou's Dog" is the first koan in the Wumenguan (Japanese: Mumonkan; often translated as the Gateless Gate or Gateless Barrier; or to put it more architecturally, the Gateless Gatehouse), a collection of koans with commentaries written in China in the thirteenth century of the Common Era by Wumen Huikai (Japanese: Mumon Ekai). A koan (Chinese: gong'an, "public case") is a story that is used in the Zen Buddhist tradition to teach insights not readily conveyed in discursive language. Often they involve a dialogue between student and teacher, as in this example. The teacher featured in this koan is Zhaozhou Congshen (Japanese: Joshu Jushin), who lived in China in the ninth century.

A rather literal translation of the koan is offered above, even though it may be awkward English, in order to point out a few features of the Chinese text not reflected in most translations. The following comments are concerned mostly with the surface meaning of the language, rather than the deeper significance of the koan. The surface meaning is only a starting point for the study of a text such as this, but it may be helpful to devote some attention to the starting point.

After the title, the koan begins with Zhaozhou Heshang (Japanese pronunciation: Joshu Osho), "Master Zhaozhou." The grammatical construction here would appear to be topic-comment, with "Master Zhaozhou" as the topic ("As for Master Zhaozhou…"), and the rest of the koan as the comment.

The next word, yin ("because") is usually not translated in English versions of this koan. It may serve the purpose of pointing out that Zhaozhou's statement concerning the dog and Buddha nature are made in the context of the monk asking the question. Zhaozhou did not go before the assembly of monks at his temple and suddenly announce to everyone that dogs do not have Buddha nature. Rather, he responded to a monk's question on a specific occasion. The "because" may be there lest we misinterpret Zhaozhou's answer as a general statement about dogs and Buddha nature.

The version of this koan that appears in another koan collection, the Book of Serenity, does not include the "because." Also, it does not use the topic-comment construction, but rather subject-verb-object ("A monk asked Master Zhaozhou...."). In that version, Zhaozhou is asked the same question by two different monks, and he gives each monk a different answer. His answers are apparently contradictory, so that author did not need to emphasize that his statements are to be taken within their contexts.

The monk's question includes two important Chinese words, you ("to have," "there is") and wu ("not to have," "there is not"). When used as verbs in conjunction with an explicit subject (in this instance, "dog"), you and wu mean "have" and "not have." When used as verbs without a subject, they can mean "there is" and "there is not." However, when used without an explicit subject in a context where a previously mentioned subject is implied, they can still mean "have" and "not have." Zhaozhou's answer is an example of that last scenario, because it is an answer to a question, echoing the verb from the question. In that context, the subject from the question is implied.

Sometimes, in ancient philosophical contexts, you and wu are construed as nouns meaning "being" and "nonbeing" (or, as the scholar A.C. Graham prefers to translate them, "that which is, something" and "that which is not, nothing"). This koan does not present such a grammatical context.

While most Chinese verbs are negated by placing the word bu (不, "not") before the verb, you is a special case in that it is negated in ancient Chinese by replacing it with wu (rather than "buyou").

Wu can also function as a prefix meaning "without" in compound words.

The monk's question is formed by a positive statement ("Even a dog has Buddha nature") followed by a negation of the verb ("not have"). This is a common grammatical construction for forming questions in Chinese. The question tag does not really need to be translated, but it is rendered here as "or not" to convey the literal sense.

Chinese does not have a single word for "yes" or for "no." The most common and concise way to answer in the positive is to state the verb from the question (in the version of the koan in the Book of Serenity, Zhaozhou's answer to the first monk is "You," meaning "[It] has," which is equivalent to "Yes" in this context). The most common and concise way to answer in the negative is to state the negation of the verb from the question, which is what Zhaozhou does here. His answer, "Wu" (literally "[It] does not have") is equivalent to "No."

Zhaozhou's answer appears to contradict the standard Buddhist doctrine that all sentient beings have Buddha nature. There are many ways this could be interpreted. Some point out that it is misleading to speak of beings as "having" Buddha nature, as if beings and Buddha nature are separate things. Some infer that Zhaozhou is shaking the monk out of his attachment to the literal words of doctrine. It is said that this "no" is intended to disrupt the monk's (and our) habit of conceptual thinking and point to reality beyond.

Some English translations of this koan do not translate Zhaozhou's answer, but render it as "Mu," which is the Japanese pronunciation of wu. This may create the impression that his answer is not translatable, but that is misleading. Zhaozhou was asked a question, and his reply is the most ordinary, straightforward and concise way that one could answer in the negative in that language. In the context of this dialogue, the most straightforward English translation of wu/mu would be "No." For this translation, however, I chose "It does not," to try to reflect that the answer echoed the wording of the question.

Translations that render the answer as "Mu," generally do not include "mu" in the translation of the question, even though it is there in the Chinese text. That may create the impression that the monk asks his question in ordinary language, and then Zhaozhou replies with this strange word mu from out of the blue. Actually, the monk says mu first (in the question tag, "or not"), and Zhaozhou's answer echoes it.

Many people seem to have the impression that mu is a special word whose meaning is to unask a question, or that it means "neither yes nor no." Zhaozhou's intention may perhaps have been to unask the monk's question, but this unasking is not a general meaning of the word wu/mu in the Chinese language in which the koan was written. It is from the koan as a whole and from its context within the history of Chan/Zen and the wider history of Buddhism that one might infer that the question was unasked. When Zhaozhou says, "No," it raises the question, "Why did he say, 'No'?" While Zhaozhou's answer may point beyond the surface sense of his words, nevertheless the surface sense is a negative answer to a specific question, expressed with a very ordinary word.

It may be fair to say, however, that the subsequent use of this particular koan has given rise to the use of mu to unask questions or to convey "neither yes nor no" among some Japanese and English speakers who practice or are interested in Zen.

Some English versions of the koan have Zhaozhou shout "Mu!" but the Chinese text does not indicate the manner of his speech.

Having learned that at least on the surface, wu/mu means "does not have," we might next consider this warning from Wumen's verse on the koan:

As soon as you concern yourself with "have" (you) or "not have" (wu),

You lose your body and lose your life.

From the Dog's Mouth


Q: Does a dog have Buddha nature?
A: Mu

I asked my son whether he had a name for his new son, born (5/16/09, 6:45 am). "No," he said. "How about the Japanese name for 'no,' 'mu,'?" I asked. "No," he said.

See more of Kim Mosley's drawings.

The Finger Pointing at the Moon

by Sarah Webb


Writing a poem, there’s a pause, moving wet leaves to the side in a cup of stones, so it can refill. The words appear out of nowhere. Sometimes I don’t even know what they mean until much later. A poem I plan — or if I seize the meaning and shape it to what I think its end will be — will feel sterile. The meaning must come and I receive. Or I embody. I believe this is the dynamic quality of True Nature. Appearing. Embodying in the poem. Embodying in thoughts, perceptions, memories.

The poem is not gibberish, and it does come through my life and my mind. The words may come out of nowhere, but they use my memories, my words, wrestle with my issues.

So who writes the poem? It is not just me, the personality I identify with. But it is me. Untangling who is the writer and who the hand is impossible. It is like looking up into the white sky to see where the snow flakes come from. Am I going to see into a realm or a being or even a process that brings the words to me? No, but I still am drawn to look.

William Stafford, a poet who has always seemed a teacher to me, once commented, “I'd give up everything I'd written . . . for a new writing experience.” Writing is not about the poem, with its beauty or insight. It’s about the process of writing the poem, letting the words be given, following them. Time disappears. An image comes, the words to describe it come.

In Taoism and Buddhism there has been a traditional distinction between live words and dead words. Live words are sometimes described as turning words, words that help the mind open. That might mean a koan or a teaching story or a teacher’s instruction. I would say it also might be a poem.

A poem can arouse the unnameable. Writing a poem may arouse it through the process of opening to the words that come from their white sky. Reading a poem, too, may take you to an unsayable space. Evoking the un-nameable is not the only function of poetry, but it is one of them.

Mary Oliver is a poet who often evokes what cannot be said. In one of her poems, “The Humpbacks,” she uses a phrase to push the reader into the wordless. The poem starts

There is, all around us,
this country
of original fire.
You know what I mean.
The sky, after all, stops at nothing, so something
has to be holding
our bodies
in its rich and timeless stables or else
we would fly away.

Oliver uses the words “You know what I mean” twice in the poem, and she does it so we will access that realm past words in ourselves. I taught the poem to a class of freshmen once, and asked them, was it true, did they know what she meant? These were not sophisticated, literary students but kids just out of little country towns in Oklahoma, many of them fundamentalist. But more than half of them said they did know what Oliver meant, and when they wrote about it, it was clear they did, that something welled up when they heard those words.

When Oliver pushes the people who read her poem to open to the unnameable by saying “this country of original fire” and “You know what I mean,” she is pushing them into the space the poet occupies when writing a poem. We let something come through that we can’t name but can feel in ourselves, moving us.

— Sarah Webb has been an editor for Just This for the past year and a half. Her poetry is part of her practice.

Words and Letters

by Sarah Webb

A book by the fan on a summer afternoon,
that formed me — lemonade and Swallows and Amazons,
a childhood of summer days and winter nights.

Plato warned us against reading,
such a shock to realize that’s what he meant.
I’ve always loved words,
always been a sucker for the bright, high words,
the story told with dash.
Word-men, that’s who I fall for —
forget to look at the story of their acts.

What do I think about the warnings,
no reliance on words and letters,
there’s not a teacher in all of China,
me, with my poems and my lectures on words and stories?

If I had to say, it’d be this —
anything can be a path, if you make it one.
Sometimes the moon comes right down to the water.

7-4-04

Quote about Poems

Robert Frost told a person who asked him what one of his poems meant, "You want me to say with worse and other language?"

Two Poems

by Thomas Turner/daigu

I live in a vegetarian co-op with fifteen and a half other people. I am most jealous of this half. Her name is Cedar and she is 8 months old. I often ask her, as I tickle her feet and ribs, "what's it like to be the true dharma?" She answers with silent, watchful eyes and the unmistakable pure star-light beam of perception.

I write pomes the way Duschamp placed a urinal in an art gallery. Everything is already here. Occasionally, my mind opens up to take notice. The hand moves, ink is spilled, and words couple, together into groups packs pods...

I prefer the haiku form of five-seven-five. When analyzed, it is emptiness. Nothing is already here; only numbers and syllables. When complete, it is everything. The whole world in stanza. And yet, there is no difference.

This is the true Cedar-pie mind, Suzuki's beginner's mind. All grown up, it is Reb Anderson Roshi's grandmotherly mind. The pure experience mind that always meets the world appropriately. Because it is never separate from it. My own teacher, Doshin Cantor Sensei gently asks, "What is THIS? NOW!?" his voice rising in emphasis. My secret koan fumbles forward, "who knows nothing?"

Haiku are meant to be cherished. They are meant to be forgotten. I often throw them away. Because I am a fool, i believe: the whole world in stanza. This is the same as no pome at all. Make great effort to perceive this.
— daigu 3-18-09

while soundly sleeping
spring exploded like fireworks
on the midnight sky.
— daigu

there was nothing.
and now,
butterflies.
yet all throughout
the silent beat
of orange wings.
— daigu

Word Figure



by Sarah Webb

An Abbreviated History of Zen Verse

by Glen Snyder

During the 5th century B.C.
Ananda would rest in the woodland grove.
The 500 assembled arhat-monks would place
in their midst one vacant seat.
Released from the struggle for personal arhatship,
he would unite with them and joyfully recite in verse
all of the 82,000 dhamma from memory
beginning with the words
Thus I have heard....

During the 6th century
Boddhidharma would step between
the eminent gathering of scholarly scribes
and the luminous jewel throne of Emperor Wu
Empty...no holy.
There is no frost to gather on the clear autumn moon.

During the 7th century
Hui-neng would observe all as void
so closely that his verse would carry him
on a 16-year journey
through mountains of seclusion
carrying the Patriarch's robe closely guarded.
It is neither wind nor banner
but your own mind that flaps.

During the 8th century
Han Shan would leave his cave,
descend the mountain paths
to the monastery to visit his friend Shih-Te
and along the way would paint and carve poems
on bamboo, wood, stones, cliffs, and farmhouse walls.
When ten thousand reasons disappear,
we will finally see who we are.

In the 9th century
Tung-shan Liang-chieh
would present his student
the silver bowl of snow
and the heron in flight,
it's open wings spread
against the full moon
of a cloudless sky
and would explain that the meaning is not
in the words.
White duckweeds, breeze gentle.

In the 13th century
one evening Eihei Dōgen Zenji
would advise the monks
to avoid popular literature and
write down what is thought
in the mind, even though unpolished,
when sharing words of the dharma-gate.
Before his death he would proclaim
the quivering leap that smashes
a thousand worlds.
Hah!

In the 14th century
Shuho Myocho would step from the monastery
and go to live amongst peasants for 20 years
under a bridge outside of Kyoto.
Only a melon and the Emperor's
clever words would lure him out.
Evenings I rest,
mornings I play
with each step a pure breeze rises.

In the 17th century
Matsuo Basho would admire
the cherry blossoms of Ueno
and set out on the long and narrow road.
A frog in the water's sound.

In the 18th century
Sengai would retire from his abbotship
at Shokufuji temple, in order to
attend to brush and ink
buddhas, bodhisattvas, sutras, and short verse.
If only there were a pond around here
for me to jump in
and let him hear the splash!

During the 19th century
Nantembō would cut his dragon-quelling stick
from a nandina bush.
He would wander the countryside
challenging resident priests to
dharma battles and chasing those who lacked
true understanding from their temples.
His bold calligraphy
like the plum tree slow to bear fruit
would not ripen until after age 50.
The dragon cries at dusk
the tiger roars at dawn.

In the mid-20th century
seated beneath a solitary North Carolina
farmland pine in the frost
Kerouac would word the dharma of allrightness
and the essence of reality
forever and forever as it had always been.
For the 50 years that followed
the unpublished notes would rest askance.
The verses of a sihibhuto, cooled.

Towards the end of the 20th century
and near the end of Ginsberg himself
he would see even
the sky the day the night god consciousness
the mind life and death words lovers murderers
spies governments army money secret police starvation
tyrant radio and hell's televised
covered with words.
A sunflower now a locomotive,
a locomotive a sunflower.

— Glen Snyder, from the Houston Zen Center, is a poet and translator of Spanish poetry.

No More Words



My
pic-
tures
have 2
many wo-
rds, mak-
ing my
life an

op-
en
bo-
ok.

NO
MO RE
WORDS.

More of Kim Mosley

Construction/Craft
Introduction

Some art reflects and comments on the world. Other art makes the world.

When we create art we participate in a process in which form arises from emptiness. A poem, a pot, a painting comes into being, like snowflakes appearing in the air. The thing was not there before, and now it is. Where did it come from?

All art is part of this process, whether it be the creation of a dance, a portrait, or a weaving, but some kinds of art — craft, installation and construction pieces, in particular — seem especially grounded in the reality of making things. Rumi gave us a poem in which he said we build ourselves like honeycomb. This kind of art does that. It builds our lives — we can step inside it, eat off it, clothe ourselves in it.

The art in today’s blog invites our world into being.

Kim Mosley (http://kimmosley.com/blog)


He was blind & then
he could see but w-
hat did it all mean?

Ayatana


Dwayne Bohuslav, a member of San Antonio Zen Center, created this interactive, movable meditation space titled "Ayatana.” Much of Dwayne’s work involves installation and performance and asks for the creative involvement of the people who interact with the piece.

“Ayatana” was constructed for HCG Gallery in Dallas, TX in response to an invitation to participate in a Group Show titled "Postmodern Primitives — Contemporary Inspiration from Ancient Culture." It was exhibited from May–June, 2008.

More of Dwayne Bohuslav’s work may be seen at www.movingbodies.org



Everything that exists arises in the mind.

When sitting in meditation, we concentrate our mind on the object of our observation — sometimes a physiological phenomenon, sometimes psychological — and we look deeply into that object in order to discover its source and nature.

The “forms” for sitting and bowing have been developed over 2000 years in order to focus one’s mindfulness — paying attention to each act and the feelings that arise in response to it — but not to be a hindrance to trying.

You are invited to enter, if you wish, explore and sit. Just sit. Before entering, please remove your shoes and leave them on the floor outside. Standing, bowing, sitting: focus moment-by-moment on your actions—on the physiological (breathe or toe, earth or wood); on the psychological (feelings or perception); and on the physical forms that arise out of this consciousness.

Whether standing and bowing, sitting on the cushion facing the wall or facing the space, respect the space and the space will respect you.





The Seekers Robe

Joan Son (http://www.inthefold.com/)

The Seekers Robe, created by Joan Son of the Houston Zen Cemter, measures nearly 6.5 ft. tall. Joan constructed it in 2008 using photos she took of the shoes outside the Houston Zen Center.

A Way of Building

Grace Riggan ([email protected])

In my work as an architect I make designs, which I fondly think of as maps. A map delimits a field of conditions. It interprets a given context, and thereby facilitates an intentional path. The face-to-face encounter in shaping material is not separable from the apperception of context. Even if the design process is intentionally curtailed or ignored altogether, a map arises at the instant of a shaping action.

Design, as an engagement in critically shaping a map, is an exercise of awareness, and it is a key to skillful action. For me, this convergence of awareness and action is the mysterious creative force of the co-arising universe.


Apperception of context


The action of design


Emerging context — new form

To understand the “mapping faculty”, it may be useful to begin with an evolutionary perspective. Understanding the elementary behavior pattern leads toward speculation about the higher potential of this faculty.

Responding to a perceived stimulus is perhaps the most basic conscious behavior that an organism can demonstrate. The force of life proliferates through

stimulus perception response, manifesting through evolution in myriad organisms and their structures.


Leaves reaching for sunlight;

Wiggling larvae in waxen hexagonal chambers;

Still egg under downy breast inside bowl of twigs;

Child’s hand blocking sleepy eyes from sunshine;

Scholar passing beneath carved acanthus of stone archway into lofty archives of air conditioned library.
From the rudimentary stimulus-response sequence, behavioral scientists1 believe that a progressive process of mapping facilitates the evolution of life forms. The reflex of holding the hand up to block the sun from the eyes implies a neural “map” that can guide a motor response in the hand to serve the discomfort of the eyeballs in a remote region of the body. This is a compulsive reaction, a cause and effect routine performed before cognition, at a cellular level. The creature that performs such a routine must have an internally mapped sequence, a chain of response following a given pathway inside the organism. Compulsive responses to stimuli can be observed in the simplest microorganisms.

In the animal kingdom the ability to map extends to territory external to the perceiving creature. By comparing behavior patterns of creatures from single cell organisms to large mammals, scientists have identified incremental steps in the progression of mapping abilities: compulsive reactions, goal oriented actions involving simple recognition, and a spectrum of cognitive planning abilities. In each case, a map — an understanding of sequential and/or spatial relationships — facilitates a responsive routine, such as pushing an egg back into a ground nest, or finding food and bringing it to larval nurseries, or moving and arranging logs to form a dam. The routine may create more propitious physical conditions, and thus greater potential for survival and evolution.

The process begins thus:
stimulus — sensory perception — response

successful response creates survival niche

survival niche allows creature to live and procreate

procreation creates possibility for more complex structures to develop,

with more complex sensory perceptions and internal
mapping

mapped responses become behavioral routines

Creating bigger survival niches and potential

Then, there is a leap to

perception of conditions neither internal to the creature, nor in direct sensory contact

the external map creates capacity for still more complex routines

successful responses increase survival niche and evolutionary potential

and the positive feedback loop continues. . . .
The most basic, internal mapping of the cellular creature remains an integral foundation in more complex creatures, supporting the higher capacity of external, cognitive mapping. The resulting survival niches typically relate to nutrition, safety, and procreation. In humans it seems that the cognitive, external map has become integrated into a still higher capacity: what I will call imaginary mapping. Whereas cognition perceives conditions in the sensible, external environment, imagination perceives conditions that may not exist in the sensible environment, internally or externally.

If we define the expression of a creature as its fullest manifestation of its potential for life, then we could posit that the ability to map presupposes, or is somehow integral to the expression of the creature. In certain simple creatures, the fully manifested life principle demonstrates a quality not unlike art, as we may observe with the silkworm’s thread or the paper structures of wasps. Many creatures seem to have reached creative fulfillment in their behavioral expression. For example, wasps have been making amazing paper mansions for quite some time, and they do not appear to be inventing categorically different routines.


Retire when the work is done. This is the way of heaven.2

How does the human express its fullest manifestation? What kind of fulfillment could arise from maps of the imagination? With imagination, the map itself may become a sensible manifestation, in the form of language, drawing, and other representational arts. It seems our creative process, our art, maps territory beyond a biological survival niche; a play of consciousness in silk, paper, bricks. The sages say the map is not the territory. The scientists say the mapping capacity opens the way to greater life potential.

We cannot manufacture a strand stronger or finer than the product of a simple worm. The worm seems to be perfected. Perhaps our perfection lies in the capacity to imagine.

You are perfect, therefore you could evolve.3
1-The concepts described are generally taken from James L. Gould and Carol G. Gould, Animal Architects, New York, 2007.
2-Lao-tzu, Tao te ching, translated by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English, New York, 1997. Number 9.
3-Modification to aphorism attributed to Suzuki Roshi – You are perfect; and you could use a little improvement.

Traditional Shoji Screens

Grace Riggan ([email protected])

Grace Riggan, who has shared with us her thoughts on building, is a member of the Austin Zen Center. She and Joshua Bowles design and craft homes and spaces through HomePlace Architecture + Carpentry. Their work can be seen at www.homeplace.biz


Shoji screens have captured my imagination for many years, although I have never visited Japan. It is from films and books that their magical, luminous quality entered my imagination.

There are many shoji screen simulacrums available in the American marketplace, but shoddy construction and cheap materials disabuse us of their pretense. The essential qualities that I wished to create were excellent craftsmanship, smooth and light gliding action, harmonic proportion specific to the room, and the proper effect of light diffusion.

Embarking on the research and practices that would reveal these qualities to me, I was drawn further still into the allure and the simple virtues of these elegant space dividers.


First, I sought out the proper materials and tools to practice traditional Japanese woodworking methods, outside of which the special qualities of shoji seem to vanish. I learned the proper tune and use of Japanese hand planes, hand saws, chisels, marking gauges, and other tools. I learned to make my own gauges and squares for project-specific accuracy and facility. I made my own simple, traditional work stations that allowed for the best posture for careful craftsmanship. In practicing these postures and techniques I began to know what type of wood to seek for various members of the shoji assembly.


I settled on antique, reclaimed cypress for its clear, colorful grain and relative hardness as a “softwood”. For the frame members I used “tank” cypress — large planks (2 ¼"x6 ¾"x11') that had previously been made into cylindrical tanks for pickling. For the panels at the bottom of the screens, called “hipboards”, I selected “sinker” cypress. Sinker cypress lumber comes from logs that sank to the bottom of bayous or rivers when harvested long ago, and has now been reclaimed and milled. This type of cypress has a lovely range of colors in its grain as a result of the uncommonly oxygen-deficient environment underwater.


With a large stack of rough, old lumber in our shop, I took on the challenge of making 2 sets of shoji screens. I determined that I would use a modern table saw for the rough milling. But first, I wanted to understand the unique properties of each piece of lumber. I studied the grain and character by visual examination, with pencil drawings, and by handplaning. Planing the wood acquainted me with its working qualities, and showed me which end was the trunk and which the top of the tree.


Understanding the character of the various pieces and knowing how the tree stood in its lifetime would help me orient the wood within the shoji assembly for the most appropriate and pleasing configuration. This was the first step in working the wood with respect.


The design of the assembly followed traditional rules where possible. The layout and proportions were refined to create the most harmonious proportions for the installation. The rough mill of the lumber — that is, milling the rough lumber to pieces a bit larger than final dimensions — required critical judgment and precise workmanship. Respect for the trees, translated to respect for the lumber that was cut from them, demanded that the wood should not be wasted. I laid out the rough mill to create the proper cuts such that the panels would best reveal the beauty of the grain and character, but also to minimize the left-overs.

With the rough mill complete, the process of selection and layout continued for the individual panels. There were to be 2 sets of 3 panels each. From this point on, stiles, rails, kumiko (the woven lattice pieces), and hipboards were assembled with traditional joinery, cut and chiseled with traditional hand tools. Shoji joinery is quite simple — blind mortise and tenon, and dado joints primarily. Inspired by the writings of Toshio Odate, I tried to create paper thin blind mortises for the greatest strength, and to cultivate the experience of unseen quality.



The kumiko, or lattice pieces, are “woven” to give the panels lateral stability and strength. There are no fasteners in the shoji screens. The wood joinery set in place with homemade rice glue impart the greatest strength and durability. I worked on one set of shoji at a time in an assembly-line fashion, clamping groups of pieces together for layout and cutting. Much of the precision with traditional hand tools can be achieved through good working posture, inner calmness, and unwavering attention. These are qualities that I seek to cultivate in my yoga practice, and these screens would eventually be my constant companion in my yoga space.

Each set of shoji has hundreds of mortises, tenons, and dadoes. The precision of the layout for these joints was essential; they would be matched up only when all of the finished pieces were ready for assembly.



Planing, and the care and sharpening of our planes and chisels, became a daily ritual. After days (or weeks!) of patient, repetitive work, when the pieces for 3 panels received their finish plane, I cooked a big pot of sticky rice and happily partook thereof before mashing the rice glue.

The kumiko were woven together, the rails met stiles, panels slid into slots. It was a rather rapid conclusion after so many hours of preparations. I made 3 panels in each cycle of work.

The installation was another exercise of careful layout, preparation, and final touches.


I built these screens in 2003. With no applied finishes, no hardware, no fasteners, their appearance and function has hardly changed in 6 years, which is a testament to the wisdom of traditional craftsmanship.