Tuesday, October 20, 2009
At the End of My Pencil
In August I committed myself to participate in the fall Ango as a member of the sangha at the Zen Center of New York City. Here is how they describe what an Ango is:
Ango (literally "peaceful dwelling") is a traditional intensive training period common to virtually all schools of Buddhism. Ango traces its history to the time of Shakyamuni Buddha and the early sangha. Each year, as the monsoon rains began and the monastics’ usual custom of wandering through the countryside was not possible, the sangha would gather together to practice intensively. This enabled them to deepen their practice and polish their understanding through the indispensable teachings of the Three Treasures—Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.
The Mountains and Rivers Order (of which ZCNYC is part) has developed a very holistic approach to Ango that encourages a deeper practice for the lay community without diluting the original intention of this time period. One commits to adding one period of sitting zazen each day, begins to memorize a new piece of the liturgy, takes up a daily work practice - just five minutes of conscious attention to a daily routine, takes up a body practice and participates in the assigned art practice, the theme of which is determined by the abbot of the monastery.
Although I knew that I had an extremely busy three months ahead, I committed myself to participate because I imagined each of the practices acting like shoring posts holding up and making steady my shaky ability to accomplish all that I had agreed to do. I wish I could say that it has worked out that way but I have often had to compromise - the demands of three weeks on the road (and four people to a room) were sometimes too much.
I keep telling myself that it is just my first one and they won't always be happening at such a busy time, which is all true. But even in my compromised state, I have felt some changes to my practice that can only happen when you ramp it up a bit.
The art practice for this Ango is centered around a quote from Dogen that speaks to intimate language and "not understanding". To explore these ideas, which I am deliberately being vague about, we have had to work with one object (or idea) each day sticking with one medium and discipline. The purpose is to quickly get bored and begin to move beyond our understanding, or rather, what we think we understand.
I have found this surprisingly difficult. First because we have to choose our medium and stick with it, a minimal approach that goes against my way of working very sharply. Then I have discovered that I have a lot of baggage about being "an artist" that clogs up my ability to see something in a straight forward way. And thirdly, I have grown to hate my object and the medium I chose, which I guess is also the point but it kind of sucks. I suspect this is where I am supposed to be but I have been really feeling grumpy about it. I mean, this part was supposed to be the easy part of the practice.
Then, this morning, I came across this essay by British painter, Bridget Riley. She explains everything so clearly that I feel quite re-inspired.