And on the other hand...

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

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!