Zen and the art of Impatience

I started making books because I was comissioned to do a book of abstract drawings/mixed media. The books that were commmerically available contained paper that was too thin to allow washes, so I opted to research bookbinnding and fell in love. So here is where the zen comes in – as a tool to allow me to continue to make the drawings (60 [+,-] on 9.75″ x 12.75 paper — ideally to sewn into signatures) when I want to fall into my new obsession and spend all my time there. But the commission comes first, and only then do I get to do anymore bookbinding. Ah, the anguish. All my life I’ve had a problem with impulse control. My impusle is to experiment wildly with bookbinding but my need and promise is to make a hand-made art book. I draw and wait for all things to pass. I don’t need to be impatient. In fact, impatience is best served by breathing and focusing on the art. I’ll post one of the draswings as soon as I decide that one is finished.


Phase 2

Second attempt. Still with the handicap of not having appropriate material. I am using 13 oz duck canvas. The coloured bits are 13 oz. painted with acrylic by the age-honoured method of using a scrap piece for a paint brush rag. My first book was signature sewn. This second book is fan glued (attempted a quarter-joint but the book was too thin and the canvas too thick). The glue on the first book was ordinary carpenter’s glue. I did a test on glues and the carpenter’s PVA glue became very brittle in a dried blob, where as the bookbinding PVA stayed flexible. Today I used acrylic medium to cover some paper. The idea is to paint my endpapers before putting them on the next case.

Zen and the Art of Bookbinding

(click image for larger picture)

For the last few days (3-4-5?) I’ve been researching Bookbinding (youtube, Gutenberg Project. And now I’ve made my very first bound book, blank. I had to use what ever was laying round the house as I have none of the specialized tools or materials. But using ordinary paper and canvas from my painting, including an old paint rag, I cobbled together the book in the photos. Now I feel like I can go ahead and make a few more in preparation for a commission, 40 – 60 pages of abstract drawings. The reason that I needed to make my own book is that most books that are blank are not suitable for art. They are mostly used and intended for writing. Thanks for your attention to my joy at doing.


I was just at a zen gathering that was meant to talk to the problem of practising without a teacher. We all sat in silent meditation as we waited for the teacher, a well-known monk, to arrive. He never arrived. After ascertaining that he wasn’t lost to the world, we all carried on. I to run for my ferry, and the others for whatever they would do.

In an email exchange M_ said she was surprised she wasn’t disappointed by the teacher’s no-show.

I loved the irony of the situation: no teacher to talk about what to do when one doesn’t have a teacher.

And then just the other day I found a modern-day, technocratic solution to the problem at issue. Please note that I do not recommend the product, I didn’t pay $2.49 for it (nor will I), nor am I getting paid anything by the company to do any advertizing. But I do like the irony of it (I guess this is my day for ironies): plugging ear buds into your head and listening to Buddhist inspirationals so you can ignore what ever reality is directly in front of your eyes.

Here is the link to the Buddhify app.

Scientific Buddhism

Religions can be used to form a dogma of belief for a community of followers. On the benefit side, a religious dogma would be a listing of a set of activities that, if practised, would lead one to spiritual benefit. On the down side, dogma can become a means whereby one group of people oppress others. Buddhism, as a religion, has for the most part been a religion of the former type, allowing the development of communities of people who work together and support each other in their spiritual quest. But even in this positive light, Buddhism as a religion can have a negative side. A sanga can form that supports our attachment to the difficulties we have in struggling with our own psychologies. On example: lots of us get caught up in complaining about the difficulties we experience. Our sanga members treat us kindly, hug us nicely, and listen. We suffer. And while we get support in our suffering, nothing changes; we continue suffering. On the other hand, I remember one spiritual teacher who fought this tendency very nicely. After a weekend meditation, he asked all those present to put up their hand if they had experienced physical pain during the sits. Everyone put up their hand. The teacher’s only comment was, “Good. Now no one needs mention pain again.”

But what if Buddha had been alive today; would he want to form a religion? Looking at what he said ~2600 years ago, I would say that what he brought to the world was essentially a scientific theory, not a religion. Science is a neutral device that lets us look at things analytically. Scientists think up theories, and then they develop methodologies to test the theories. After a theory is proven useful, then a technology is developed to exploit the knowledge that was revealed in the scientific experiment.

Buddhism’s major focus is the eradication of suffering; Buddhism as a science is the idea that there is a systematic way of doing the same. Many people react negatively to the idea that Buddhism could be approached scientifically. And there are two major difficulties in pursuing Buddhism as science: 1) it is hard to be aware of ones moment to moment suffering, and of ones moment to moment, suffer-inducing thoughts; 2) we are fragile beasts that suffer fear of extinction, and as our minds are naturally wired in such a way that we identify ourselves with—we believe ourselves to be—our suffering, we naturally fear to give it up: without our suffering, who would we be?

The first of Buddha’s four major scientific statements is that all is suffering. This statement is translated in various ways, but I think that the simple translation, ‘suffering exits’ is perfectly good to work with. This is a scientific statement because it is a simple observation. Buddha’s second main statement posits that suffering is caused by attachment to desires. This is a hypothesis which can be tested by experimentation: a simple survey could be devised by social scientists to check on the nature of any particular example of suffering (as opposed to pain), and this survey could help in determining the cause of that suffering. In my own experience, I have found that every instance of my suffering (as opposed to pain) was caused by attachment to some desire I had. The self analysis was hard and took a lot of work. And I am still being surprised by the up-welling of suffering.

Buddha’s third statement concluded that suffering can be alleviated by removing attachments to desires. Having made this scientific conclusion, Buddha then described a course of action, a technology that if followed would bring an end to ones suffering. This technology is found in the Eight Fold Path.

In science if you repeat an traditional experiment you get the expected result. If you use a developed technology, you get the expected result, as long as the machine is not broken. We are the machine, our brains are the software that makes the machine perform wonderfully—or makes it suffer.

But the Eight Fold Path is not merely a technology that gives a recipe for action, it also reveals the major causes of suffering. Where Buddha prescribes Right Thinking, he can be read to mean that incorrect thinking is the cause of one type of suffering. This holds true for all Eight elements.

If Buddhism is a religion then the Eight Fold Path is something to aspire to, attainable only through hard work, allusive insight, and the help of innumerable friends. One is not expected to succeed, one only hopes to succeed.

If Buddhism is a science, then Buddhism is a machine, like a car, that should diligently take one to the destination: the destination is a state of non-attachment and non-suffering. The technology is laid out in the Eight Fold Path. It is as simple as this: if one is thinking bad thoughts about another person, thoughts that if they became manifest would cause that person suffering, then one would do well to think something completely different, something that is positive, that would cause no one suffering. Go play the piano, take a walk. This process, of becoming aware of ones thoughts and then changing their nature by abandoning them and doing something else, will rewire ones brain, recalibrate ones machine into a more and more enlightened state. It is something that one can do safely at home alone.

Luckily, the religion of Buddhism has brought us one extremely well-honed and useful scientific exercise that can help us pay attention to, and to become aware of our moment to moment attachments and desires, and thereby point to the thoughts that give rise to our suffering. This honourable practice is meditation. The scientific companion to the cultivation of awareness through meditation is that when a suffering-causing thought or pattern is identified, then one can take the technology of the Eight Fold Path, think and act in a different way than one usually does, and thereby rewire our beings. All we have to do is have faith in the machine and use it.

It’s as easy as learning to be a software wizard on the computer. Re-hack your brain. One day I might complete the job on my own head.

Pain versus Suffering

I know a fellow who had an abscess that made him moan, and groan, and carry on in a pitiful manner. At the dentist he was told in no uncertain terms to stop complaining. The dentist had seen more than one person with a far worse abscess, with half of their face swollen up into an angry red welt, who hardly complained at all. (Technically, the pain of an abscess is caused by pressure being put on the nerve, which then sends out a pain signal to warn of the infection). Years later, this same person was able to fall asleep in a dental chair while undergoing a root canal job. Don’t get me wrong. I can imagine pain so severe that all I’d do is cry and scream. But just last week, I read a news story about a Buddhist monk who lit himself on fire in a protest. He did no complaining while he burned. Not that I am saying that we should all burn ourselves. But isn’t it interesting, the different ways we all respond to pain?

What exactly is pain and what is its relationship to suffering? The other day I heard an advertizement/plea by a cancer research charity. The spokeswoman was speaking about someone who had a severe form of cancer. What she said was, “He suffered the…cancer.”

Odd how English allows one to say things in different ways. Notice that pain is a noun and suffer is a verb. And yet we confuse the two and let them stand in for each other. We say, she suffered a broken arm, rather than, she felt the pain of a broken arm.

In this online dictionary, here, ‘suffer’ is defined as covering everything from pain to loss, from distress to punishment. It also means to appear at a disadvantage. Did the cancer research spokeswoman mean he was a a disadvantage because of the cancer? He undoubtedly was at a disadvantage. But ‘disadvantage’ does not carry the emotional freight of the word ‘suffering’.

The roots of the word ‘suffer’ comes from Latin: “Latin sufferre : … to carry.” She suffered the pain: she carried the pain. At what point did the word start to mean to feel pain?

I like to think that the two concepts should remain separate. Pain is a mental/physical object, and suffering is our reaction to it. I want to define ‘suffering’ as ‘carrying the idea of the pain beyond usefulness’.

The zen story about the two monks going on a journey together: They come across a woman who is having a hard time crossing a swollen stream. One monk picks her up and carries her across. Some while later, the second monk upbraids the first because they have taken vows to avoid women. The first monk replies, “I carried her across the stream. You are still carrying her.”

Buddha said that suffering exists, that it is caused by the attachment to desires. In respect to pain, is it not our desire to be completely free of it? And yet, the reality is that pain happens. You can’t avoid it. But what is pain? If you stick your hand into a candle flame, you get pain. This pain serves a function. It is a signal telling you to take your hand out of the fire. Sometimes, of course, pain can be so persistent there is no way to pull the figurative hand out of the flame. Is the result necessarily suffering?

Buddha said that suffering is caused by attachment. As pain is not caused by attachment, it would be inconsistent for Buddha to say that pain is suffering. Suffering is caused by attachment. Suffering is caused by carrying the import of the event in one’s mind. The second monk in the story above was in no pain, but he was suffering all during his journey because he could not let the event alone. He kept rolling it around in his mind. He kept worrying about the significance of it, about the right and wrong of it. Was he envious that the first monk got to carry the woman and he didn’t? Or, how come the first monk transgressed and didn’t get punished? Or,…. Endless strings of monkey mind.

What is the significance of pain? It is a mere signal. How can it have significance beyond being simply a signal that something is going wrong, and we should do something about it if we can? What if we can’t do anything? Are we attached to the idea that we should be so powerful that we always had the ability to cure each instance of pain, whether it be our own or another’s? Each one of us, in suffering, gives the pain signal, the phenomena of it, extra import. It is when we do this, when we think that life is not fair to cause us so much pain, that we suffer. Pain is unavoidable. Suffering, in the sense with which I am applying it, is (however unconsciously) self-afflicted.

I do a pretty good job of pretending that this sciatica I have shooting down my leg in electric bolts is merely pain. My struggle is in trying not to think that the universe is being unfair to me in giving me this pain. My struggle is to not complain to myself or others. When the pain becomes distracting, I take codeine. I would probably do well if I did more yoga.

What would a life of pain be like if we could see pain merely as pain, as just a sensation, with no significance beyond its message? What would our lives be like if we gave up our attachment to the strange notion that we should live a life that is pain free, that we should live forever, that we should be strong enough to cure all the world’s ills?