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.


Right Concentration

bald-faced hornet (but really a wasp)

I have mentioned before how it seems strange that the third subsection of the Eightfold Path, Concentration, had stacked inside it the sub-subsection called Right Concentration. After thinking for a while about this sub-sected subsection, I realized that every part of the Eightfold Path is stacked inside Right Concentration. What I mean is that you can’t do anything useful (in terms of Buddhism) unless you concentrate on the exact thing you are contemplating or doing. If you are going to breathe, concentrate on breath. If you are going to dig in the garden dig in the garden. If you are going to contemplate the idea of Right Action, concentrate on it.

But what is concentration? According to the dreaded Wikipedia, concentration is simply turning your mind to the task, and then turning it to the task yet again — and again. If you are breathing, then constantly turn your mind to awareness of the breath. This is necessary to the start of zazan practice. Zazen practice is nothing so much as constantly turning your attention…

To be silly, concentration is the process of concentrating on concentrating on whatever you are concentrating on. The trick in using this technique to further oneself along the path to the ninth and tenth part of the eightfold path (ten parts to the Eightfold Path? who knew?) is that one must remove all objects of thought that are counter to Buddhistic ideas: always limit harm to oneself and others, remove dualist thoughts, refrain from judging, banish biases and prejudices, etc., etc. This is necessary as these types of thought prevent one from seeing what really is. When studying any of the eight parts of the Eightfold Path one has to concentrate, to constantly turn ones mind back to the item of study. The result of all this concentration? Attaining #9, Superior Right Knowledge and #10, Superior Right Liberation. But attainment is complex in the doing because concentration requires you to be cognizant of all eight parts of the path all the time.

When I am digging in the garden I have to consciously try to develop the Right View. And here I do not mean merely the politically correct view. I mean being conscious of every effect that I am having in the garden. When I put bird netting on the cherry tree, the robins had a harder time finding food — until they discovered the raspberries. When I rip out the kale plants because they have gone to seed, I have to know that I am preventing the kale plants from continuing into newer generations. And if you discount a plant’s desire for life and progeny, then consider the effect on the world you have when digging with a shovel. How many worms do I kill? How many worms and bugs do I expose to the ravening appetites of birds? The right view is inescapably that I live and die by helping and by killing. Doing no harm is impossible. All I can to do is minimize the harm I do — and I can only do that by being aware of my harmful actions, concentrating on them (so I can understand them), fessing up, and then trying to limit the harm — and that is a good definition for Right Intention.

Inextricably interwoven with the fabric of life as I am, as I strive for right intention while I work in the garden, I sometimes talk to the birds, the plants, the bugs. I don’t want to get all mystical and magical here, but I want to tell you about the long conversation I had with the wasps in the garden. Big black and white striped things, about the size of the first joint of my baby finger, and I’ve got large hands. Makes your arm swell up, from the finger tips to the shoulder, just thinking about getting stung. In the spring their nest was the size of a quarter, hanging in the lilac tree right over the compost heap. I’d stand there and talk to them as they buzzed me. Talked about how we are all in it together, that our needs did not interfere with each other, that there was plenty of room for both of us, and weren’t they pretty wasps (once you get over the terror of stings). That was in the spring last year. By mid summer the nest was larger than a football, about eighteen inches long (that’s about 40 centimeters for those initiated in scientific reckoning). There were so many wasps that going out to the compost heap was like running across a twelve lane highway at rush hour. Every once and a while one would crash right into me, bounce off. Never got stung once. I’m not saying that talking to the wasps made the wasps tolerate me, that some special bond was formed (don’t need one beyond that which is already there). What I am saying is that talking, right speech, made me not afraid of the wasps. No harm in that. And I did not have to destroy the nest for prevention of stings that never happened. This year the wasps went elsewhere, probably not wanting to be around me anymore. And that is a good definition of Right Action.

Concentrating on right livelihood while in the garden, is noticing the effort it takes to grow things, noticing how much you need to know about general gardening practices, and noticing the things you need to know about your garden’s micro environment. And what is the right view about gardening in general, about gardeners and farmers? Acknowledging our absolute dependency on growers of food! We are willing to give hockey players millions of bucks to play a game while knowing that if hockey disappeared we wouldn’t die of it. But if farmers all refused to grow food? Can you grow enough to feed yourself? How much do the pickers of that necessary indulgence, coffee, get paid? What is right effort if not trying to understand what is really going on and trying to act so that things (oneself) are brought into line with actuality? Keep that thought in your right mind by constantly concentrating, turning your attention, again and again, to what is right there if front of you right now.
source for picture of


Yesterday on the ferry I said these exact words, “Rich people are all psychopaths. Well, to be polite about it they are all sociopaths.” Ha! Ha! Ha! How funny can a man get? I was sitting with someone who was richer than me and with someone who was poorer than me. What a joke. Self-condemned by my own words. After all, I am richer than some + 90% of the human race. What? Life as an exercise in comparative psychopathology?

My only excuse for saying such an inane thing is that I was so tired that I had momentarily slipped into past brain patterns (way back when I was a callow youth and had read too much Marx) and it wasn’t until I woke up this morning that I remembered I had voiced such an foolish unkindness. This is my attempt to correct that mistake. Why would I not feel compassion for anyone who got rich instead of finding their true nature? Finding one’s true nature is far more important than money or no money. To paraphrase the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, “True nature will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no true nature.” But then I’m not burning any of my money.

My poorer companion proved that he was really rich by telling me about the importance of serving others.

Ah well, not all was a loss yesterday. In the grocery store a young man, juggling too many things to carry, dropped a bag. I bent down to pick up the bag for him. At least I pleased one person that day.

You might want to check out Peter Renner’s two blog posts on a similar topic:

what’s wrong with this picture and whats not right about yesterdays post.

Right Livelihood

On to a topic that is a little lighter than the past few that were inspections of Right Action. But then, Right Action is bound to be heavier than all the other parts of the Eightfold Path in that action is what we do directly each moment of the day. All the rest of the stages of the eightfold path are more mental, more what we have to consider before we act generally. Thinking before acting is not completely irrevocable; doing often is, or at least it is harder to correct the mistakes of doing than to correct the mistakes of thinking.

Right Action = each moment doing no harm. But the long term decisions that make us undertake certain occupations, such as the fact that I worked as a carpenter for so long, fall into the category of Right Livelihood. Right Livelihood is more specific than Right Action and therefore seems lighter as we can take the time to decide what to do. Right action is what one does right now, no time to think. It is equally true, however, that when one is engaged in one’s livelihood, moment by moment, one is also faced with the problem of Right Action.

From a Buddhist point of view, all things, all aspects of one’s life need to be approached from the perspective of doing no harm* and engaging fully with life. The Eightfold Path is merely (wonderfully) a device for looking at the central concern from various angles. Constantly considering the need for Right Livelihood is a way of looking at one’s job from the general point of view of doing no harm and being fully engaged. Constantly being engaged with the problem of Right Action is a way of inspecting all aspects of one’s life (that’s why I said earlier that Right Livelihood was lighter, even though it isn’t really, everything can be light or heavy or not; it’s up to one’s self).

I don’t work as a carpenter any more, but I did so for years. I started when my father refused to sign the paper that would have let me take music in grade ten. We were only allowed one option: either art, music or industrial arts. I wanted music. Dad made me take industrial arts because, “It will always give you something to fall back on.” Well, I was apparently good enough at it to fall back on it for far too long. Worked away with hammer and chisel for about twenty years. I built my own house with my own hands (and with kind help, here and there, from family, friends and from the occasionally hired electrician or dry-waller when I got sick of doing those particular jobs), which proved my father right: industrial arts did do me in good stead. But I was never happy with it and complained about my lot all the time, even as people congratulated me on making beautiful things.

Wikipedia has Right Livelihood meaning don’t do this or that kind of job: selling weapons, making poisons, killing animals, etc. But I don’t want to look at Right Livelihood using negative language. I’d rather look at Right Livelihood using positive language – what is the livelihood that is in you to do? Well, for me it wasn’t really carpentry.

I know now that I wasn’t really complaining for all those years about doing carpentry; I was actually complaining about the fact that I hadn’t figured out what it was that was in me to do. I complained about doing carpentry because somewhere deep inside I knew I was not doing what I really loved – more importantly, I was not yet capable of loving whatever I was doing. It was a great relief, momentarily, when I escaped carpentry by getting a job at the ferries. But then I spent fifteen more years doing another job that never fit my skin very well.

Luckily, when I was forty-five years old, I bought myself a bass guitar, thinking that maybe music was what I needed to do. I learned to play that guitar, not like a pro but good enough to decide to buy a bunch of recorders and learn to play them. Took singing lessons. Not a livelihood by any stretch of the imagination, but I was working towards something. Then one day, five years after buying the bass guitar, I walked into a room full of my friend’s sculptures and that was it. Something clicked. I started pounding away on wood, sculpting. Then five years after buying the guitar, I committed myself to painting full time. No more carpentry jobs. No more ferry job. I had found what I believe is my Right Livelihood. Painting is what I do to make money, but more importantly my right livelihood is my zen practice.

Painting lowers my blood pressure. Talking about painting lowers my blood pressure. I can’t imagine my painting hurting too many people. Painting teaches me to be focused and engaged. How can this be other than Right Livelihood? Although the livelihood proves a pittance, I’m not complaining. Doing the right thing to make money makes whatever money you make riches.

When I paint I naturally fall into the space that I struggle to attain when sitting zazen. Totally focused. Infused with two kinds of awareness. Aware of the point in front of me, and aware of everything that surrounds me: the cars honking miles away on the country road, a ship’s horn sounding out in the strait, the bird alighting on the balcony railing, the breeze blowing through the firs, the sudden movement of the brush on the picture plain.

My Iaido teacher tried to impress upon his students that the meditative awareness attained in practice needed to be taken into one’s day to day life or there was no point in practising. I suppose that is also why we practice sitting: in order to learn a type of focus and awareness — an engagement with moment after moment — that we can take into the daily life. In my case, I try to take the focus, awareness and engagement that I attain while painting into my practice of sitting, and into my practice of day to day life.

Yes, we can avoid livelihoods which cause harm for other sentient beings, but it is also possible to chose livelihoods which increase the wellness of ourselves and others. May we all be blessed by the blossoming of Right Livelihood.

(* what a bag of worms the topic of doing no harm is going to prove to be when I get around to it. How in the name of the universe can one do no harm?)

the above image from my website