And on the other hand...

Click here for The Yin Side where the other half of me holds forth!

Friday, December 30, 2011

My Tao

(Another offering for Rambling Taoists, you can read it here first.)

I've been contemplating a New Year's resolution, to go eremetic, to stop ruminating, to stop reading,  to stop Facebooking, YouTube-ing, blogging, forum-ing, basically, turning inward to paint and make music, drink tea (and a little Nigori ) and contemplate clouds and rainbows from my lanai, with some qigong and meditation thrown in at appropriate times.  A basic quiet lay-Taoist lifestyle.  I was even ready to ask Trey to take me off the masthead here, saying "So long and thanks for all the fish."

Part of this is due to too much participation, too much red dust and noise, even though much of it has been Tao-talk-related.  Pose a simple question, raise a simple point, and you get arguments, sanctimony, tutelage and weird flavors of Tao (Advaita Tao, Zen Tao, socio-political Tao, quantum physics Tao, self-transformation Tao, self-negation Tao, TCM Tao, environmental, cultural , esoteric, orthodox, hippie, new-age goes on and on.)  In just the past week, not just on The Rambling Taoists, but in other forums, there have been deep and sometimes disturbing discussions and postings --some of which leave me feeling like I'm the receptionist in the waiting room of a mental health clinic-- about guilt, free will, karma, text translation and exegesis, authenticity of practice, Chinese vs. western, ancient vs. modern, Lao Tzu vs. Jesus.)  All of which suggests to me that the real truth in Taoism is the contradiction and paradoxes it allows.  So many Taoisms, so many Taoists.  (But just one Tao.)

Particularly perturbing to me is a notion expressed by Ta-Wan,  that  "We are little else than a sensitive spot in the universe."  Even if this is the case -- which I'm not sure it is -- why would you want to believe it? Why would you want to act as if that is true?   That we are no more than trigger hairs on a Venus fly trap, the responsive leaves of a mimosa tree?  This is a genuine question, not rhetorical astonishment. Even with quoting the masters (who are in fact, just some guys, like us, with something probably lost in translation), or with reference to direct experience (to which another cannot be a party), I cannot sign on that dotted line; it leaves too much out. 

We are more than amoeba…we are self-aware energy beings.
We are particle and wave.
We are matter and energy.
We are here, in space.
We are now, in eternity.
We are body, mind, and spirit.
We are human beings, feet on earth, head in heaven.
We are sentient and knowing.
We are cause and effect.
We think and feel.
We are the freedom in a deterministic universe.
We are poems that “be”  and stories that “mean.”
We are science and religion.
We are technology and art.
We are certain in our uncertainty; uncertain in our certainty.
We are born and die against our will, but while living, we exercise and express will.
This I believe, and this I act.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Yet Another Morning After

All that frenzy--which in my case was not really very frenetic--behind:  I am left to contemplate the curious stocking stuffers, red and green, that my personal Santa left.

The green tea mints I can understand, but I am a little leery of Fois Gras bubble gum, featuring "artificial liver flavor."  I would probably, to the dismay of pretty much everyone I know, savor a bit of real fois gras, but bubble gum?

More delightful is the BIG gift, a very nice electronic keyboard, way more than a piano, something I haven't had intimate access to for nearly 30 years.  When we embarked on this journey to the tropics, like missionaries, we left behind a junky old upright, probably a church basement castaway, that I enjoyed when we lived in the country and no one could hear me play. I used to tune it myself. (Frequently, in the way you might cut your own hair, a constant touching up.)  I have a tuning hammer, a very lovely crafted tool for which I now have absolutely no use. The upright was pretty much the same piece of furniture I grew up with, a player piano with the player guts removed and which my mother painted white in some fit of purity.  At some point in my disastrous childhood piano lesson trajectory, the piano, which I think was my grandmother's, was moved to the basement where I played/practiced so no one could hear me.  I was a terrible pianist.  I liked the playing part, but the practice baffled me.

When I left home and my basement piano, I went through a self-taught ukelele and guitar phase. My college roommate sat on my uke, (perhaps a foreshadowing of my destiny in Hawaii)  and no longer could I play All My Loving, all cute and Paul McCartney, like a primitive and talentless Jake Shimabukuro.  The guitar saw me through a few more folky/hippie years, but really, my first love was the piano.  I had a teacher whose name actually was Ludwig, who allowed us access to his fabulous upright Steinway; I imagined if I had THAT piano at home, instead of the lobotomized player, I would have been more accomplished.  Today I am distressed now that I cannot find my copy of Sonata Pathetique, the most advanced I ever got under Ludwig's tutelage and vague sexual abuse. (The old shaggy white-haired German liked to stroke our backs as we worked through the Sonatas.)  Not that I played it very well. (Although I just found that I can download the score; it looks really scary.  I need to practice.)  Then the old country upright saw me through a free phase, where I discovered that I didn't have to play what was written, I could play what I wanted.  No practice, no sticky stars on the pages of my piano lesson books, I could just play.  It was liberating. (But I sorta missed Ludwig.)

So now, the electronic keyboard.  What I locate for music are my old Methodist and Episcopal Hymnals from 1939 and 1940:  Christmas music to break in the keyboard.  Not just a piano. An organ setting!  A strings setting!  A guitar setting!  Automatic salsa rhythm! What fun!  Like any number of great R&B legends, I start with that good old gospel music. (Although some of it is Handel and Bach.)  I have three volumes of Hours with the Masters (which my friend and I called "Hours with the Monsters") stored somewhere...most of which is dreadful except for the notation for Fur Elise.  It is possible that the Wizard has discarded them somewhere (he finds Mozart too "tinkly" and Beethoven too...piano teacher-ish. Ah, how I miss Herr Ludwig.).   The Wizard urges me to play themes from Scheherazade, for which I can find some beginner-accessible sheet music.  And it is lovely.

So far, though, I am only performing with the earphones, not quite ready to inflict my unpracticed fingering (including my permanently dislocated left pinky) on a listener other than myself.  Still, to me, it sounds pretty good.   I am much less concerned with playing the RIGHT written notes....just notes that sound pretty and expressive.  It's a little like my Chinese painting.  It's all about the doing, not the done.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Really Reliable, Really Ripe

Just days ago, this bud was like a green grain of rice stuck on the end of the leaf.  I can feel the energy gathering to bring it to blossom. 

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Morning After

Beginning to inhale, the Winter Solstice moment has passed. Yang is rising.  I was restless all day yesterday, maybe too much yin. Couldn't work in my office because some ADA-required modification to the building is underway and it is unsafe to walk through the corridor.  How ironic.  I should have taken the free time to do some shopping, but that was just too dreary and depressing.  

At home, after monitoring business email, I succeeded in a technological challenge. I managed to hack the settings of my new alleged all-region DVD player which came ready to read only U.S. region DVDs.  But I watch and acquire a lot of Asian media.  How to correct this is not documented in the manual or officially on-line.   But, you can find anything on the Internet,  and in less than a minute, I discovered instructions on how to accomplish this.  Well, five different methods for the Coby 514; eventually one of them worked.  I am so proud of myself (and grateful to the video geeks who posted the information).  This should probably be a topic for the yin Tao 61, but the activity seemed so yang.  I will not review here the truly awful movie that I used to test the modified region setting.  (How can Andy Lau stoop so low?)

My old Christmas cactus is clearly ready to bloom, the miracle that re-occurs without my intervention, despite my neglect.  I would post a photo of the delicate new buds, but my camera connector is in my office.  I am disabled.

The kolea are busy in the yard and patrolling the street looking confident and at home.   They are not concerned with the discussions I have been over-preoccupied with on several Taoist forums; they are simply Tao manifest.  I watch them the way Zhang San Feng observed the snake and crane.  How can I be more like them, and the cactus, and my cats?

And we honored properly, our solstice wedding anniversary, a true celebration of yin and yang.  Our favorite table, at our favorite neighborhood restaurant, a crisp Bombay martini,  a table-side-constructed Caesar salad, a perfect glass of Cabernet, osso buco, shrimp and scallops, linguine, zabaglione.  But the restaurant was very busy, very crowded, very noisy, waiters were rushed. And the inevitable heartburn at 3 a.m.

But today, the morning after, all is well.  Except I still must go to shop, plunge into the Christmas frenzy.  Why didn't I do more on-line?  If only it was as easy and natural as the kolea snagging bugs in the grass.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Head in the Heavens, Feet on the Earth

(Another post I expect to offer to Rambling Taoists, but you can read it here first.)

I've been thinking, yes, about a little remark Ta-Wan made earlier:

"I live life as it appears to be and I die. My life is full as no time was spent attempting to know what can't be known. I live. I don't think about living."

Which on the surface seems to be very Taoist, very spontaneous and in the moment.  I feel this way whenever I enjoy a maitai under the big banyan tree on the beach in Waikiki, gazing at Diamond Head, watching the surf, hearing the joy of children and laughter of lovers on the sand.  This is about as close to Paradise as I can imagine, but I don't get there as often as I would like.  (Getting to Waikiki is a nuisance.  I can do maitais on my own lanai.)

But in the context of our talk of "philosophical" Taoism, I wonder...philosophy is about asking questions (with no expectation of answers), but still the asking of questions, pondering arguments, seems like a worthwhile pursuit to me.  Or maybe I'm too Socratic.  My feet are on the ground, but my head is in the clouds.

Years ago, maybe 1967, I asked a friend, "Why are you experimenting with all these drugs?"  Experimenting was the term of the time; now people just "do" them, I guess.  Experimentation appealed to me.  It suggested research, discovery and proof. Hypotheses and their testing.  But his answer to my question was, perhaps the most honest thing anyone's ever said to me, "Because it's fun."

And now, I find, decades on, the drugs and alcohol are no longer fun, and if anything they were just fiddling with the fine tuning of the so-called cognitive shen--the sense faculties.  A useful exercise, but it's no wonder we talk about burn-out and flashbacks and distortion.  Like a little kid with a remote and a screwdriver, fool around with the controls too much and you may break the set. And in this case, you can't go to Best Buy and get a replacement.

But I'm not really talking about psychoactive substances here: I'm talking about thinking.  It's fun to think about living, doing logical exercises to test hypotheses about the meaning of life, causality, God, memory, consciousness.  Not expecting answers.  Just filling in some blanks, considering new possibilities.  One is never done.  You don't burn out from thinking. I think.

Which brings me to the real purpose of this post.  Trey asked us if we might suggest ideas for holiday giving, for those inclined to do so in spite of  materialism, the economy and the competitive shopping season, (an issue I leave to others to debate). As a big proponent of lifelong learning and thinking, I direct attention to The Great Courses, products of The Teaching Company.  I am in no way a rep for the organization, although I've certainly earned some frequent thinker miles on my account.  No matter what a person is interested in, there's a top quality lecture series just for them.  "Them" is probably a demographic of reasonably affluent, already well educated people who have been out of school for a long time and who might want to revisit that course, or pick up one that was never offered in their major. Anyone who is a commuter and a thinker, an explorer, would appreciate these on long freeway drives.  I don't like audio books, but lectures are meant to be listened to.  No need to spend the money for DVDs; the audio CDs are compelling, and you can always look up any visuals later on the web.  One caveat: don't spend the "full price"...eventually, everything goes on sale.

And if you don't want to spend that much money, here are some other ideas:  I often give Deng Ming-Dao's 365 Dao as a gift that can keep on giving, year after year, even. (To me, since 1992.)  But this year, a special recommendation: former NPR reporter Eric Weiner's Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine, just out, about the author's exploration of several faith traditions, seeking something he can use.  I think it might appeal to readers of this blog. A self-described gastronomical Jew, he visits Sufis, Buddhists, Taoists, Franciscans, Kabbalahists, Wiccans, Shamanists and Raelians. It's funny, it's serious, it is even more entertaining and thought-provoking than his previous Geography of Bliss.  The fact that I have a minor speaking part in Chapter 5 might be enough to intrigue you.

So those are the under $100, and under $20 categories. If you don't want to spend money, give something from your hand, your  heart or your head.  Homemade jam. Knit a bookmark.  I'm making little brush paintings.

I think it's good to give.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Bei Luotuo!

I have more or less confirmed from two completely independent sources, a Chinese friend in Hawaii, and a Norwegian teacher of Cantonese in Hong Kong, that "Bei luotuo" could mean "prepare the camel," in the same sense that the Chinese protagonists in the dramas I like to watch often order their servants, "Bei ma!" (Prepare the horse.)  And don't I want to. 

This is from a festival in Inner Mongolia, which is just where I want to escape to from a Hawaii winter!  All that Butterfly Living....

Monday, November 28, 2011

Butterfly Living

In the planning stages it was a dream.  Then we lived it. Now it seems like a dream again. If pictures are worth 1,000 words, here's something like 14K on our Thanksgiving holiday on Maui.
Our rental, The Hendrix House, secluded in the woods, was a former barn, nicely renovated by new owners.
Our yin-yang front yard; in 1970 Jimi Hendrix performed in the field just beyond the horses. You can see the surf line, from our altitude of  about 2,500 feet.  Still when you live at sea level, that's way up.  We call it "upcountry." (Haleakala, the mountain volcano the slopes of which we were on , is about 10,000 feet at its highest point.)

Like we needed to be told to slow down!

Blooming aloe in eucalyptus forest.

Walk on a country road.

Blooming protea, a Maui speciality, just off the road above.

Neighborly goat.

More neighbors.

A horse Thanksgiving.

Not a dream

Safe in the butterfly barn.

The Butterfly House

Lilikoi -- passion fruit--in bloom at the gate to the Hendrix House.

Pine and bamboo--Chinese symbol of winter. It was cold and windy up country, with gusts to 66 mph reported.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Butterfly Dreaming

The sun has entered Sagittarius, my own birth sign, causing me to feel a little like a butterfly emerging, moving toward the solstice, yet a month away.  It has become a truism for me that from, say, Labor Day, the season is one big wild roller coaster ride of thinking and effort, and this year, no different.  Travel (albeit both business and pleasure), home maintenance, health adjustments, office work...I need a little holiday, like maybe on a butterfly farm.

Which is exactly where I'm flying off to tomorrow for the Thanksgiving holiday.  The Rainbow Bridge House is somewhat famous, like a Maui Big Pink, for having been associated with a Jimi Hendrix event in 1970 when Jimi and countless other counterculture spiritualists and druggies did a concert and some movie production on Maui, just a few months before Jimi's death.  I didn't know this when we made the arrangements to stay at the house, which is co-located on a butterfly farm. And  I didn't know you could farm butterflies, but someone does, for release at weddings and other events, hopefully of a somewhat spiritual nature.  I would be very disturbed to find hordes of monarchs clouding the PowerPoint presentations of a business conference (like I just endured for two weeks on the chilly mainland).

And this all should come as no surprise--every time I do background research on some spiritual personality, musician or poet, it appears that they live on Maui, or one of the other Hawaiian Islands, for at least part of their lives.  Maui has a reputation for attracting spiritual types of all persuasions, from Chinese Taoists to Gaia goddesses, Buddhists, Sikhs, Sufis, and Catholic saints. Ram Dass and W.S. Merton both live on Maui, as did George Harrison. Master Alfred Huang, an expert on the I Ching and a teacher of Taoist philosophy, physical arts and meditation, lives on Maui.  (Hawaii as a whole has been home and host to an inordinate share of celebrities from sports, entertainment, and politics.)

While everyone else is hitting the malls on  Black Friday, or whatever they call it, maybe I will do some holiday shopping of my own.  You can buy butterfly kits!  I have slightly mixed feelings about this but maybe I'm just dreaming.  But I'll know better if I take a tour of the farm.  Wonder what kind of chores you do on a butterfly farm?  Tending the milkweed? 

I don't think the farm will mind that I share one of their beautiful images:

I am looking forward to this weekend.  Please let me know if you feel a disturbance in the force caused by butterflies flexing their wings atop a volcano in Hawaii.  In the meantime, please enjoy this little butterfly dream:

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Un-Selfless in Portland

This probably should have gone with the previous post. Learn to adjust your spirit and then go next door for a manicure.

I bet Alley Pat spun this one more than a few times at WERD:

Of course, if you don't have a self (because the smoke got in your eyes) none of this matters one whit. But you can always check it out:

On the internet no one knows you don't have a self. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Do You Have A Choice?

Another post for The Rambling Taoists---but you can read it here first:

Do You Have A Choice?

There's been an issue raised over the past day or so in posts by Ta-Wan and Scott having to do with decision, choice, and passivity that has sparked my earth-based yin-respond-to-yang impulse to talk about actually living in the red dust. 

In "Yes...But" Scott referred to "the freedom of allowing ourselves to be carried along by things," wondering if Zhuangzi was really suggesting that we be so utterly passive. And Ta-Wan in "Have You Ever Done a Thing?" suggests that we never really make decisions or choices because we aren't selves to make them in any case.

Though my behavior is certainly influenced by how I apprehend the esoteric aspects of Tao (being and non-being, yin and yang, change and material impermanence, etc.), I posed the question to Ta-Wan (but perhaps I should have used the pronoun "one" instead of "you"), "If you really believe this no-self-ness, really act like this, how do you live? Do you take responsibility for your actions, no pleasure in your daily affairs? How can you be employed? How can you raise a child? Love a friend?" And much as I like to meditate on where I was before I was born, I also must contemplate who pays my taxes.

Indeed, the sun and moon do their dance, the tides ebb and flow, the seasons change, trees flower and shed their leaves, the oxygen and hydrologic cycles keep us and our environment vital. As "Taoists" we recognize and honor these things (and as a female, I am perhaps more sensitive to these things than some men). They occur quite apart from our intervention (hopefully, will continue in spite of our intervention). But still, Taoists (at least those of us who have not achieved immortality) are humans affected by ever-changing material circumstances. Through training and deep understanding, we can become well-equipped to respond to situations--make choices-- that do not impede the flow, finding paths of least resistance and conserving energy. (The Tao of Electrical Engineering?) Practices like martial arts and Chinese painting, even qigong, are not passive and involve skill and choice/response. I make that painting; indeed it is impermanent (although looking at Tang brushwork on silk gives one pause in that regard.) I am loathe to destroy it as Tibetan Buddhist monks cast away their sand mandalas, though I understand why they do that. I am also loathe to paint interminable enso's, though I understand that too. (Bamboo and mountains are more interesting and convey complex messages.)

I didn't decide that a dead car battery and a failed waterheater would manifest on the same busy day...requiring the assistance of mechanics and plumbers and mechanics...although it certainly can be argued that intervention through preventive maintenance might have avoided these things. (And getting TAO 61 started was perplexing until we detected a failure of the jumper cables!) I respond to these things with Tao-inspired patience...and decision-making. I dare say the Confucian lost his temper with the fascist condo manager who insisted that our lack of water was not an emergency. Better him than me. I might have pointed out with some rage the manager's ongoing poorly worded "warnings" about delays in a building painting project that has caused much disorder in my personal life. I try to avoid the tendency of the characters in the Asian dramas I enjoy, to sweep things off desks, overturn tables, when they are angry and frustrated. Bad anger management. But this IS life. Sometimes it is disordered. It is likely a yin to yang shift going on. As there is always chaos between dynasties.

Modern humans manage things. Life in a Taoist community, attending to nothing but the condition of one's body and spirit, climbing temple steps to meditate, eating vegetarian food, wandering like a cloud in the mountains, is lovely. I experiment with it from time to time in China. It sustains and heals me. But I always return to everyday life, making a living, engaging with loved ones and friends, trying to live a low-impact lifestyle. Tao is there, it informs my decisions.

The decision before me at this moment? Post or not to post?

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Brush Lessons

Another post for Rambling Taoists...but you can read it here first:

Brush Lessons
There’s a lot of discussion here at RT about self and no-self, reality and non-being, socialism and capitalism, I think sometimes a lot of yammering, but none of it compares with my relationship with my wolf brush.

I have sometimes talked about the necessity of practice, the actual doing of something, just you and the something, to understand Tao: qigong, meditation, study of classics. But my newest teacher has a bamboo handle and is so flexible and responsive to the moment, I have come to see painting as a kind of energy practice and a teaching of how to regard the world.  Of course, this is nothing new: the Chinese painting masters have always been driven by Tao in their compositions and subjects.  Painting as an activity is a two-way street.  I actually look at things differently, and the attempt to “capture” the energy is a humbling lesson. This may be why Matteo Ricci, the great Jesuit who loved China and was beloved by the Chinese, never quite “got it.”  As a painter he was still trapped in a Western vision of the world, unlike Castiglione, another Jesuit who is considered to be a great Chinese painter.

I have been blessed to study with a wonderful woman, my age, trained in classical techniques in Fujian and Taiwan, and who has “transmitted” some sort of energy to her students.  She’s a Christian, is learning English through Bible study (as I learn Chinese through Tao Te Ching study), wears a delicate golden cross at her throat, but says her mother was “a Buddha.” (At my throat is an ancient faience Egyptian wadjet eye, which has nothing really to do with Tao…or does it?) She is a taijiquan practitioner and freely refers to and demonstrates the qi required in painting. 

Two years ago, when I was obsessed with landscapes but not her bird and flower emphasis, she said, “Maybe in two years you paint a flower.” While landscapes are still my preferred subject, lately I have been enjoying the Four Gentlemen and doing roses, peonies, and fuschia. With the coming of autumn I’ve been painting a lot of chrysanthemums.  She is so prescient.  Once I presented three versions of something for her review.  “Ah, this one is best,” she said. “You did it first?”  She was right.  Spontaneity is a key element in Chinese painting of the xieyi type.

I was just doing an inventory of my paint and brushes.  I have acquired lots of tubes of Western, Japanese, and Chinese watercolor, including the strange pricey pans of bright kawaii Japanese color (from my Korean teacher). I told the Wizard, “If you see me drooling over some paint box, please to remind me that I need no more paint.”  In fact all you really need is a good indigo, a good yellow, some sort of red, black ink and white gouache; everything derives from those, a sort of yin-yang melding of CMYK and RGB.  Although that sounds so PhotoShop, which is completely antithetical to what goes on with the brush, the ink and water, and the paper; there is nothing spontaneous about bit-fiddling. And generally, you can't modify anything after the brush meets the paper.

And I have a lot of wonderful brushes, but there are really only several I use consistently.  A couple of wolf brushes, a couple of fine-line brushes, and a nice stiff shan ma (mountain horse) brush. This all suggests that the real key to painting, and probably any other thing you want to do, is about skill in using simple tools with well-taught and well-practiced technique.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Haircut Moon

Once again renewed by a close haircut (which suggests more Buddhist tendencies* than Taoist**) and pivoting of the dark/new moon, I am feeling yang energy rising like the bubbles in champagne.  (Perhaps that "falling" thing that Guinness does is yin energy?)

Yesterday in a neighborhood where I rarely do business or shopping, on a sunny, balmy morning, after a hurried necessary bank deposit, I stopped in at a shop I never noticed before.  All banks are pretty much the same, and so too perhaps, all shops offering "Himalayan Treasures."  Just a quick poke-about to see what was on offer, I picked up some incense and a random CD, not knowing if it would be chanting or Nepali jazz. It turns out to be pretty good, manufactured and marketed by the Kathmandu Music Center. 

The music, new-agey jazzy with tablas and sitars and flutes and western guitars, highlighted a very peaceful and positive feeling I haven't had in the middle of an ordinary workday for a while; satisfied, happy, and complete, I am liking my job.

For which I today needed to remake some travel arrangements to add on a week of mainland visits...a whirlwind to Atlanta and Washington for some training and project planning.  The two weeks will culminate over Veterans Day with another quick stop to visit my son in Portland, Ore., where there is another Himalayan shop with a big brass bowl that has been singing my name to my heart since last I visited.  I didn't want to bring a huge singing bowl back with me on a plane, and now I find some very nice similar bowls on King Street, right here in Pacific Ocean City.  Is it appropriate to ask for a Tibetan singing bowl for Christmas?

My travel plans conflict with something delightful I found in the mail on the same energetic day: an invitation to the opening of "Masterpieces of Landscape Painting from the Forbidden City," an exhibit at the Honolulu Academy of Arts, where I have studied Chinese painting over the past three years.  Quel dommage, my teacher will probably be there, and I will be some tens of thousands of feet over Cleveland.  Still the exhibit continues through January 8, so after I tire of my Christmas singing bowl, I can be sure to take in the landscapes.  And I can take advantage of the lecture series which includes topics like "How to Read a Chinese Painting," "Confucianism and the Aesthetics of Becoming Consummately Human," (with UH's own sage of the Tao, Roger Ames), "Dong Qichang and the Formation of the Literati Canon" and "Landscape Painting and Garden Design."  Such are the topics I had hoped, in vain, would be part of the current "Oriental Painting" class I am taking right now.

I will also miss the concurrent film series, "Cinematic Treasures from China, ...highlighting the influential, trailblazing films of Chinese, Taiwanese and Chinese-American filmmakers."  But I've not only seen all these films by Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, and Ang Lee, I own them all.

So many good things happen all at the same time.  The only thing I will really miss is a lion dance at the exhibit opening.  I'll have to wait for Chinese New Year for that.  And since at such a late date, I couldn't get a non-smoking room in Atlanta, I will carry with me some "energy" and "wisdom" Himalayan incense to burn there: it is a smoking room after all!

*My own ongoing private Asian film festival is currently featuring a long Chinese series, "The Shaolin Warriors," about Shaolin monks and pirates.  It features Sammo Hung and his adorable son Sammy, as a Shaolin master and a monk.  What I can't figure out is, while Sammy and his warrior mates are properly shaved,  Sammo Shifu sports  a hairdo that looks like my own shoulder length locks circa 1972.  Do Shaolin masters use hot rollers?  In one scene, Sammy and his reluctant monk buddy actually wash the master's hair.

**A Taoist master I met in Wudang last May, when asked what one had to do to be a real Taoist, said: 1) you must know the history of your lineage, the generations; 2) you must have a deep understanding of Tao, and 3) you must grow your hair long, for at least three years, to be natural and to be able to wear the taiji topknot at the bai hui point, where yin and yang meet.  In fact the topknot is twisted in a kind of chignon to create a yin/yang object.  No wonder the Buddhists shave their heads.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Physical Taoism

Here's another essay I have created for The Rambling Taoists.  You can read it there too, where it will likely generate comment.  Or not.

Physical Taoism
On the occasion of Trey’s recent un-birthday, I remarked that he had yet to reach the real milestone, the 60th, which in traditional Taoist, and Asian cosmology generally, is a significant one.  There is a sixty-year cycle based in the wuxing and stem and branch theory.  Before dismissing this as not germane to the “philosophical” thrust of this blog, please note that I consider the philosophical/religious distinction somewhat arbitrary, made by westerners cherry-picking and interpreting the texts and traditions for support of pre-existing socio-political or personality predispositions.  Although there is ritualistic temple-oriented Taoism, the underlying principles of Tao and the cultural and historical milieu in which they developed are one (just as western thought and “practice” is rooted in Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian attitudes).  Although we don’t generally do it, you can make a distinction, I suppose, between “philosophical” Christianity and “religious” Christianity, but really only someone outside or sailing against the tradition is likely to do that.

The 60-year cycle though, to this yin creature, makes sense, and it suggests to me a physical Taoism that is referred to in both the “philosophical” and “religious” realms. Taoists have long been preoccupied with the physical maintenance and condition of the body to be in balance in the world. For women, the physical connection with the universe is for most of our life, a chronic condition. One of my first qigong teachers, a kind and sensitive one-time karate champion, once said, sympathetically, “It’s hard to be a woman.”

In a post comment earlier about tattoos and Barbie dolls (strange, the topics that turn up here) I voiced my concern about the early puberty of girls in westernized culture, even before I read the article (a recurring theme over the past decade) in the most recent issue of Time magazine.  (There is also some concern that boys may be subject to early puberty, but it seems less easy to measure, and I sensed a so-what attitude, “so they ejaculate early, boys will be boys.”)  And, concerning the other side of the coin, in yet another memoir by one of the hip generation of women discovering menopause, Sandra Tsing Lo wrote in the Atlantic that, “all women are different” (from each other, to say nothing of men)…but suggested that maybe the menopause, generally complete by 60, is a returning to the girls we once were.  That is, our reproductive cycling is perhaps the out-of-norm, not the other way around.

It is my observation, from that yin sensitivity to physical cycles, that at this certain age, women, and men too, have the opportunity to return to the personhood we were developing at 12, but which was so rudely interrupted by the biological destiny thrust upon us by the universe (and now, too soon, like an artificial climate change phenomenon). Women who found complete identity in the aspects of this destiny spend their later years in a Joan Collins drive to stay attractive, cling to younger men, or if of the nurturing persuasion, obsess on grandchildren, or become social moms, putting notable noble nurturing energy into community causes.  But some of us may be glad to be rid of that entire identity, still yin, but returning to the wonder of childhood—learning, exploring, creating, and playing with the energy of a 10-year-old, albeit with five decades of acquired wisdom and experience, to use or abandon.

I recently have taken up the paintbrush, a Chinese one, and have been drawing and painting with abandon and fervor, in the way I once did before I “became a woman,” like a girl with her crayons, spending whole rainy afternoons in artistic play.  Had I been encouraged—an interesting word, to be given the courage—I might have pursued this passion through my life, like my teacher and friend who paint like magicians because they’ve been doing it daily for 30 or 40 years. 

I also observe in men similar “return” phenomena. Men who die a week after their retirement or vegetate in the La-z-boy have probably failed to rediscover who they were before they “became” adult and burdened with worldly concerns and red dust.  Those who do, tend to become the pre-adolescents they once were, clever and exploring, or preoccupied with toys and torment.

There is a tradition in certain Taoist sects (and other spiritual traditions too) to retreat after 60, to turn inward to develop that part of ourselves that we lost in the hormonal shift called growing up.  That’s one reason for maintaining health and energy.  It is too bad that today’s children may be experiencing that moment too soon.  I only hope they can live long enough to complete the cycle of return and enjoy the spring of their lives once again.  We who aspire to Tao-based lives often talk about being childlike, returning to that less-carved state of wonder and innocence.  But perhaps only after we achieve a certain age, can we really accomplish that.   

Things grow and flourish and then go back to their root.” (TTC v. 16 tr. Joseph Hsu.)

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Two-ting My Own Horn

And not my Miata's, soon to achieve twoness (222,222 miles). On invitation from a blog I follow, I posted something rambling about my personal philosophy of Tao, who I am and what it means to me. I copy it here, although you will be able to read it here sometime tomorrow, I think.

  “And,” she said. 
When Trey asked me to consider being a contributor to Rambling Taoists, I first dismissed the notion; though I had contemplated offering myself even before he asked, I perceived my persona as a lurking pesky commenter to be sufficient response to bring a little yin to the yang of the blog, through occasional friendly sparring, like “push minds.” Sometimes I wonder, “Why am I even reading this blog?” and then I once again click the link from my own, where I deal a bit obliquely with the "subject matter" (through the ordinary perplexities of my life, Sinology and China watching, wuxia drama, hot Asian shifus and actors, and Bactrian camels). 

And (despite my seventh-grade English teacher’s admonition to NEVER start a sentence with “and”) I am cursed with that copy editor mentality that honors precision, accuracy, and honesty (and the serial comma) in the written word, all the while regarding it like a martial arts weapon—mightier than the sword to carve out truth and slice up lies, but not as any truth in itself. Do I really want the pressure of performing in another venue? 

And… I am happy and fortunate to have the luxury and time for things that are making my aging brain sparkle: brush painting (lots of Chinese painters take up the brush in later life), sitting in on a class in Chinese thought at the university where I now earn my living, commuting with stimulating Teaching Company lectures, wary participation in another more or less Taoist online activity group, and planning to go back to China some time in 2012 for more study and training. 

And…I have a perspective, not just female/yin, but du certain age, in a particular cultural setting (Hawaii is different—by no means an East-West melting pot, but a place where lunch may include rice with your spaghetti, and where the defense industry is as important as tourism to the vitality of the economy). When I confront the topics that turn up here (self and no-self, war and peace, politics and economics, philosophy and religion, faith and reason, orthodoxy and heresy, sickness and health, work and play, rice and spaghetti), I like to consider the contradictions in a Chinese way, resolving them with “and” rather than “or.” It’s my answer to everything, like Scott’s “yes.” The yin of the taiji is “secondary,” but always overcoming yang, adding something to one to make three, and on and on. Odd numbers are yang; even numbers are yin. Without yin, there is no balance. In this cumulative dynamic, maybe that is why pi, irrational and transcendental, is neither yang nor yin, like Tao, infinitely developing, repeating, manifesting (as far as we know). 

And…to clarify my positions, I am not very interested in the emptiness of Buddhism (except in an academic way and to the extent it has influenced Quanzhen); I feel the philosophical/religious Taoism distinction is somewhat artificial; I am not a social-political activist (I have abandoned idealistic social conscience for a somewhat realpolitik tendency, so perhaps it's just as well); I have deep respect for certain Christian traditions, and I don't have a lot of patience with new-agey posturing. I like the Confucian Temple with its gnarly old cedars in Beijing much more than the smoky Lama Temple across the street (though my true heart is in Wudang). I have a degree in philosophy with a lot of religion and literature credits thrown in. I picked up history and science, later, on my own. I have made my career, now waning, in the communications industry. I am an only child, married for nearly 43 years, have one son (I am respected by the Chinese), but I'm not very family-oriented in terms of my identity, though I probably have done right enough in the filial piety area. 

But…I do think that Laozi and Zhuangzi, all the way to the Quanzhen school, and before and beyond, (incuding the wuxing, the bagua, the Yijing and its hexagrams) describe a superb way, a framework with fabulous metaphors, that explains how the world works and how we can function in it. My engagement with it has made me a more satisfied and, I hope, better, person. 

"Let me think about it," she said, eyeing that water buffalo heading west. 

And then she said “And.”

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Master-Student Cycle

When does a student become a master? When does the master need a student? An apprentice?  A disciple?

I've been having a little crisis of ...something... lately, thinking about teaching and learning.   I have been variously absorbed in my brush painting class, Teaching Company commuting lectures, sitting in on a class about Chinese thought and Taoism, and working on a project that involves mentoring of promising students to help them get doctoral degrees.  A certain studiousness has rubbed off on me as a result of my new job in an academic environment.  There is a library just across the road from my office!

What is the differnce between a master (shifu) and a teacher (laoshi)? All masters and teachers surely have a perspective, but perhaps the really good ones leave their personal perspective somewhat hidden? Or not? (Like the Mormon who did just a really superb job on the "Great Minds of the East" Teaching Company course. This is not to be construed as any kind of comment about Mitt Romney.)  Maybe it depends on the level of students and their needs and desires?  A master should not take on a student that is more advanced, or more correctly said, on a different path?  The student should know how to pick the master that's right for him at the time? At what point do the master and student become colleagues, sharing their own perspectives, supporting each other?  All masters are still students?  What does the master learn from the student?  What is mentoring?  Why am I writing all these thoughts as questions?

In the end, one is always a student, trying to master oneself.

After I once again didn't quite copy my painting teacher's example, but brought the assignment forth according to my own taste and previous training, she said, "You know a lot about Chinese painting.  Maybe you don't need a teacher."

Self-teaching does pay off.  Earlier today a Chinese colleague was telling me about a terrible hit-and-run incident involving a Chinese toddler.  "Where?" I asked. "Oh, I don't know, I can only say it in Chinese," he said. "Try me," I said.  "Foshan, near Guangdong."  "Ah, home of wing chun!"  "You know that?"  Yep.  (I watch, and listen carefully to, a lot of martial arts movies.)  He went on to suggest that perhaps people are better in the countryside. "They still have heart."  Sadly, while looking for these links, I discover the child has died about half an hour ago.

"How to Paint
Lifelike Camel"
I know something about Chinese painting, but not a lot, and I still learn...maybe not the precise lessons on offer, but something that justifies the time spent in the studio (which may be more practice than actual learning).   I have come to understand that my teacher is not quite presenting traditional techniques, and her own style is a modern mix of west and east, and not just China, but Japan (the terminally cute brightly colored part) and Korea (the less Chinese part) too.  I showed her the lesson book (at right) I just got from Shandong, instructions and tips on how to paint camels (loutou). Amazing what you can find on eBay. Since I can't read the tips, presented in Chinese with no helpful subtitles, I was hoping she might demonstrate the brush strokes, the direction, the ink loading.

"You can do that at home," she said. I don't know whether she meant I should do that only at home, or that I was competent to do it on my own at home.  She glanced sideways at my chrysanthemums, and said, "I am teaching basics here, so they (the undergraduates taking the class for credit) can do their own art."

I am a disciple without a master.  Here are my chrysanthemums, symbols of autumn, longevity, and a life spent in quiet retirement.  I wish.
Chrysanthemums: Autumn Symbol 

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Thursday Painting Class

One for the teacher:
And one for me:
Little Landscape
The magnolia has a seal on it because I "turned it in" as an assignment.  I never would have chosen to paint it myself.  When I finished the floral exercise, I did a quick little ink landscape out of my own head and through my mountain horse brush, but the teacher pretty much ignored it.

I was happy when I got home to find in the mail an album of paintings by Shen Zhou, a Ming Dynasty painter whose work I admire and which I actually copied some of a while back.
My Shen Zhou Copy #1
My Shen Zhou Copy  #2
I was working from a tiny print in a little illustrated volume of the Tao Te Ching, more interesting for the pictures than the translation, unless you really like James Legge's version; I can never decide whether to shelve it with my art books or with my other Tao Te Chings. (Or maybe it's not the source of my models; now that I look at it, I don't see these paintings in it, but there is an awful lot of other nice inspirational art reproduced therein. It would be a very nice gift for a Tao-inclined or Sinophiliac friend.) The Shen Zhou album, direct from Beijing, is a much larger format so I can study the brush strokes more closely. new teacher has admonished me not to copy (a completely proper tradition in learning brush painting)...except when it's her paintings.  The magnolia is based--albeit somewhat loosely--on one of hers.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Mountains are High

...and the emperor is far away.

Another class doing brush work that isn't exactly my style, but trying to work nice with my new teacher, a very kind and serious Korean nun.  Before she arrived in the studio, I was attempting a copy of a painting by Wu Zuoren, a 20th-century Chinese painter, trained in classical western watercolor and oil techniques in Europe in the '20s and '30s, but who returned to traditional Chinese styles.  He is well known for his paintings of camels and yaks, not common objects of (or subjects in?) brush painting, but he was attracted to them after spending time in Mongolia and Xinjiang. I love these. I own two paintings of WZ-style camels -- I assume they are copies.  One is very bad, I bought it on eBay from a seller in Shanghai, I could have done it; but the other, acquired at a silent auction at a local Chinese culture event,  is pretty good.  Perhaps I have a hidden genuine gem in my collection.
Genuine Wu Zuoren or copy? Nimen zhidao ma?
I was about to try to approximate the brush strokes of a couple of Wu Zuoren's eagles flying over an abstract landscape when my teacher arrived.  She didn't smack my fingers with her brush, but she did tell me to put the book away, and not to copy.  (Never mind that copying masters is a traditional Chinese training technique.)  "You can do that at home, but not here.  I want you to develop your own style. No copying."

So, based on her textbook (not the Mustard Seed Garden Manual, or any of the other fine Chinese landscape guides I have), I produced some rocks, below, choosing my own washes, but deferring to her technique for depicting water.

Rocks and Water
She seemed satisfied and then said, "Now paint this."  Copy this?  I wasn't sure what "this" was, apart from some abstract mountains in the background.   There were no brush strokes I could identify to mimic, like in Wu Zuoren's paintings,  and it occurs to me now that it looked more like a Willem de Kooning piece than a traditional brush painting.
Teacher's Landscape
Since she had advised me not to copy, I decided to interpret what I thought I saw in my own way, also with reference to her own textbook.  My piece includes a funny little guy entering from the left, a fisherman developed to cover an unfortunate ink blot left by a careless brush:
My Interpretation
I felt very humble and bad, really, as she occasionally hovered behind me and I was pretty much ignoring everything in her painting.  I turned my finished piece in as a class assignment, and then mentioned to her that I was enjoying a Korean drama, Painter of the Wind, very very loosely based on the lives of the 18th century Korean artists, Kim Hong-do and Shin Yun-bok.  (Regarding this, see Tao 61 Yin post.)

"Ah, Kim Hong-do," she said.  "So you are interested in this have background.  How long have you been studying?"  I told her about my experiences over the past three years with a traditional Chinese bird and flower painter and visiting Chinese museums and studying the history of that tradition.  

Then she photographed me with my interpretation of her painting.  Perhaps I'll turn up on her blog as a troublesome student.
Pesky student.  Wu Zuoren copy? Zhidao ma? Lousy paper!

Thursday, September 29, 2011


Engineering mountains (mountaineering?) in painting heart is in the mountains.  I feel like Slartibartfast making his fjords.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Landscape Mode

Although nothing really compares with the landscape view at the top of my blog, or any of the other several thousand images of China, Florida, Oregon, Hawaii in my digital photo library, it is relaxing to play god with my mountain horse (shan ma) brush and ink.  Several recent images emerged from the brush during my new painting class.  Not what the teacher was really trying to get me to do, but enough already with the plum blossoms and orchids.
Happy Rocks
Misty Bridge
Raining in the Mountain

Sunday, September 18, 2011

White Walls, White Gloves

How lovely it is to read an old book, well, maybe not that old really, but a letter-press first edition of New Yorker commentaries from the 1950s.  Christopher Rand's A Nostalgia for Camels, an interesting Alibris score, has been on my "to-read" pile for months.  Who knows why you pick up a book and it resonates when it does. There are plenty of books that I pick up and then put down because the timing and mood just isn't right.  I want to read them, and I believe I will, but it's just not the moment.  Then, some time later, it's THE book to read.

A Nostalgia for Camels is a collection of some pieces this old China Hand wrote from his observations in Asia from the very late '40s through the '50s.  I am struck halfway through by a piece about architecture in Chandigarh, when Corbusier, a prominent modernist form-follows-function Swiss-French architect of the period, was designing buildings for the capitol of this new city in the Punjab in the '50s.  (One of my readers will appreciate that Corbusier's name was not really Corbusier,  but a nom de plume which, according to Rand, means "The Crow.")

Corbusier was implementing some interesting human/ecological elements into his design for the High Court building, utilizing poured concrete and gunite.  But Rand also mentions the living quarters of  the laborers who worked on the modern structure.  They were built of cheap brick,"a rich, warm red, rather brownish, and give a substantial look. Often they are set off by trim of white-painted plaster, which adds a smart touch like that of white-walled tires or white gloves."

When was the last time you saw a car with white walls or a woman wearing white gloves (and not on Mad Men)?  Or even a hotel concierge? I grew up in white-walled, white-gloved America.  And I played with Lincoln Logs (as did my son) and American Bricks (which had white lintels for the window construction).  I had a friend who lived in a house that looked like it was built from American Bricks, although my own home was a white-painted, lap-sided "Lincoln Homes" plan, the construction of which was directed by my father who did a lot of the work himself, though he called in specialists to do the plastering of walls, laying of plumbing, and stone masonry for the fireplace and flue.  (The gray slump brick was later whitewashed.)

I read Rand's lovely book, an artifact of pre-digital publishing (not sure it would feel so sweet as a Kindle version) and think of the white walls and white gloves.  Things don't really change.  Now kids play with the more abstract Lego bricks, and white walls have given way to weird wheel rims; naked female hands sport manicures with tiny elaborate artwork, sometimes bejeweled.  The smart touches of the new millennium.

All is change, but nothing really changes, does it?

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Blank Canvas

Washing Away Summer on Maui
Woke up groggy today, probably a side effect of the sense that summer is over, at least the series of events that started last March or April--a moved office, a new job, Beijing, Washington, Portland, and this weekend, Maui.

My reading from 365 Tao today seemed precise and profound:
An ocean of ink in a single drop
Trembling at the tip of my brush
Poised above stark white paper
A universe waits for existence.
"...A painter poises above blank paper. But it is not the painting to come that is as important as that single moment when all things still lie in a state of potential," Deng Ming-dao writes. "Will something ugly or beautiful be created? The stately determination to make something worthy of the materials and the moment is reverence."

There was a lot of potential in my summer, all that travel and new possibilities. With my recent visit to the next island over, I concluded something and now feel on the verge of the next roller coaster that will build up speed until the New Year.

"Only when we tire of our excesses can there be esteem," Deng continues.  That describes how I felt on awakening this morning.

So much potential in a drop of ink. My new painting class is good, but challenging, because the style and techniques seem not as traditional as my previous teacher's. (Well, not strictly true. I was immediately moved to an advanced level; most of the rest of the students are painting grass orchids, and have been for three weeks. Fortunately I have escaped that boring exercise.) It's all rooted in the "oriental" method, but with different (Japanese) paper, different (Japanese) brushes, different (Japanese) colors. The ink is the same, but I cheat: I surreptitiously grind my ink stick in bottled ink, a quick trick I learned from my Chinese teacher. I feel my old teacher's admonitions and instructions. I think she would say what I am doing is ugly. But, she's not there, and I actually kinda liked the image I made last night (regrettably I had to "turn it in" for class, and I failed to photograph the landscape of somewhat garishly colored trees, mountains, and rocks.) The beholder I suppose determines if it is ugly or beautiful; the painter simply creates a universe. Maybe a Japanese universe. Or Korean--my new teacher is a Korean nun. She is quite kind and patient; I don't expect her to smack my fingers with a brush handle.

I realize other students are not necessarily in the class for the same reason I am; they are undergraduates fulfilling some requirement. I am there to paint, and increase my skill and knowledge. I did not expect challenges to my already acquired method. But I find some wisdom in The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting, a classic Chinese text from the 17th century:
"To be without method is deplorable, but to depend entirely on method is worse. ... If you aim to dispense with method, learn method. If you aim at facility, work hard. If you aim for simplicity, master complexity."

And if you didn't think there is Tao in Chinese painting, there it is. 

One of the things that all this painting exercise has done for me, perhaps the real point, is to cause me to look at real things a little differently.  I notice the structure of trees more, the beauty of a flower, the mist on a mountain, a carp in the koi pond.  And at the same time, I look at classic paintings and enter them. They are the original virtual reality. Photos become inspirations for paintings.  Like this fish, a denizen of a koi pond on Maui.
Happy Fish
But I won't paint that fish.  Or even a fish.  The aim is simply to paint fish.
NOTE:  Not sure if this post is going to publish correctly; I have been having a little struggle session with Windows 7, which seems to exxhibit some quirks regarding my habitual blogging method.  Taoists are supposed to cope with change, but not sure that patience with operating systems is what is intended.  Those are methods you do come to depend on; why not, when they work?  One time when I hate change!

Friday, August 26, 2011

Blog as Diary

One of my blog-o-pals has been threatening from time to time to delete her blog and start over, and in this sluggish dog-day period of August I have sometimes had the same urge, though I resist it; it seems vaguely suicidal. And today I'm glad I haven't done it. There's useful information there.

Yesterday I was at my doctor, the one who does lady-health things, and the question "Have you had a colonoscopy?" came up. I have! Why he didn't know puzzled me. But he is part of a different health care system, so the records were not so easily accessible (a whole 'nother issue).

"Within the past two years, maybe three...I think," I assured him. Though I wasn't completely sure myself. "Do I need another?" Fortunately, no, only if they found things previously; otherwise I'm good for 10 years out.

But when was it? I did recall that I wrote about it, over on My Yin Side (a colonoscopy has a yin quality, dark and hidden things) and there is the post: March, 26, 2009. My memory, and my blog, served me well. I suppose I could put it on my calendar for later, if I had a 2019 calendar. Oh wait, I can put it on my online version, which I never use. Or on my phone, which I do; I have it set so that a crowing cock announces upcoming events. Sometimes I wonder why a chicken is "singing" in the office or in my bag, only to realize it's my phone alerting me to something I have tried to forget.

In any case, I would have gladly scheduled another colo-check if necessary; a good friend is coming to O'ahu next month for her own. We could have done it together. A sort of spa day. It would have been fun. Now we'll just have to go shopping.