by Dogo Barry Graham
The only thing that burns in hell is the part of you that won’t let go of your life: your memories, your attachments. They burn them all away, but they’re not punishing you, they’re freeing your soul. If you’re frightened of dying and you’re holding on, you’ll see devils tearing your life away. If you’ve made your peace, then the devils are really angels freeing you from the earth.
by Dogo Barry Graham
Zhaozhou often quoted this saying by Sengcan:
The great way is not difficult
if you just don’t pick and choose
I read a blog post by someone describing a first visit to a Buddhist meditation center. As naturally happens, the writer separated the experience into things she liked and things she didn’t. She liked stillness and silence. She didn’t like chanting. She doesn’t like altars. She didn’t like the ritual aspects. She concluded that if she pursued meditation, she would have to find her own way of doing it, presumably a way that she liked.
I think this is the most common trap we can fall into when beginning a meditative practice, and many of us continue to get stuck in it even after years and decades. For as long as it’s about you, your ideas, your preferences, you’re separate from it. You might as well just head to a bar or turn on the TV.
To get wrapped up in what “I” like or don’t like is to miss the point. The real question is, “Who is this that likes this and doesn’t like that? Who is this that likes stillness and silence but not chanting? Who is this that doesn’t like altars? Who is this that doesn’t like ritual?”
Who is this? What is this?
If you’re human, a number of reactions occur within you when you view a photograph. Of course, the number and magnitude of the reactions depend on the photograph.
Photo Credit: http://instagram.com/beckrocchiphotography
Simply put, I like the photograph above that I just happened to notice someone else “like” on Instagram. At face value, it’s clean and minimal with a cool monochromatic concept. Beyond that, there’s an awesome distance between the foreground and background, which is interesting in such a simple photo. Additionally, waves just happen to be one of my favorite artistic subjects; great combination of aesthetic and metaphorical value. So, most of the reactions I had to this photograph were pleasant.
I couldn’t help but notice, however, a sneaky reaction of jealousy that occurred in the moment of viewing this photo. It didn’t surprise me; I feel it often while admiring great work. And if you’re a little competitive like me, I’d bet you know what I’m talking about.
"Shit. I don’t have any photos that are on that level. This person is better than me. Will I eventually be able to match their ability? What about surpass it? I’ve got to be better than them. I’ve got to win!" In a split second, all of these thoughts, not as concretely, went through my mind.
Luckily, I was able to notice these thoughts. I can’t change the crazy gut reactions I have to art, but at least I can identify the them and choose whether or not to believe them.
As I like to do, I assault thoughts, like the ones I’m discussing, with a series of rapid-fire questions; one question leads to another, almost faster than I can even answer them. I’ll give an example and leave out the answers:
- How can I know this photo / photographer is better than me?
- Is this photo better than my best photo?
- What is my best photo; is it the photo I like the most?
- Is it the photo that got the most likes from others on Instagram?
- What if the best photo I have didn’t get the most likes on Instagram because not as many people saw it in there feed at the time I posted it?
- Is it impossible to know what my best photo is without polling the entire human population?
- What about the quality of reaction my photos give others; should… can that even be measured?
- Is this wave photo the best ocean photo?
- Who has seen all of the ocean photos to judge?
- What if someone likes a photo of my dog more than beckrocchiphotography’s wave photo just because they love dogs and hate waves; does that make my photo better?
I’m delving into these thoughts of mine with a ridiculous amount of detail to prove a point.
There is no objective “best.”
Who is the best photographer? The one who makes the most money? The one with the most followers? The one who’s most unique? The one who can elicit the strongest emotions? Who’s to say?
Where does art even come from? Who might have inspired beckrocchiphotography to take the wave photo? Who gets the credit? How far back can the line of inspiration be traced? Forever?
Broken down to this level, it’s easy to see that it’s a waste of time to take artistic competition too seriously. With that said, I think it’s perfectly fine and healthy to compare yourself to other artists. beckrocchiphotography has about 16 times the amount of followers I do on Instagram (and rightfully so, the “wave photo” kicks ass); they’re obviously doing something right!
But when it comes down to it, beckrocchiphotography was just a person with a camera, who’s entire life’s experience, which they owe to an endless web of others’ life experiences, led up to one moment where they framed a shot and snapped a photo. That’s all any photographer ever does: finds a temporary art wave in an endless, inseparable ocean of creativity.
Kyle Niemier is a photographer, film-maker, writer and Zen student in the Sitting Frog Sangha. See his website
by Dogo Barry Graham
Image: Vince Larue
Master Tozan was sick. A monk said, “Is there anyone who does not get sick?”
Tozan said, “There is.”
The monk said, “Does the one who does not get sick take care of you?”
Tozan said, “I take care of him.”
The monk said, “What happens when you take care of him?”
Tozan said, “Then no one is sick.”
- The Book of Equanimity, Case 94
Who is the one who does not get sick? And how do you, who get sick, take care of him or her? More importantly, when you are not sick, how do those who are sick take care of you? How is the nurse healed by the patient, and what happens to the sickness?
by Dogo Barry Graham
In the west, Zen is more of a cult than a religion or a spiritual practice. Zen sanghas comprised of converts tend to be centered around a charismatic teacher, and I suggest that most, probably all, of the problems that afflict such sanghas are because of this.
It has been suggested that the way to solve this problem is to stop having Zen teachers, and for sanghas to be entirely peer-run. I think this would be even worse, because the most deluded people tend to have the biggest egos, and such people quickly become de facto leaders. In teacherless sanghas, at best the blind lead the blind - and, more often, the blind lead the partially-sighted.
I suggest that the solution is not to have no teachers, but more teachers. I have always encouraged my Zen students to practice with other teachers, and I have some students who don’t identify me as their teacher but as one of their teachers. Those who practice in The Sitting Frog Sangha may view me as their teacher, or Daishin Stephenson Sensei, or both of us, or neither of us, or one or both of us and also teachers in other sanghas. It is about each person’s own practice, their own awakening from the self-centered dream - their own enlightenment.