The End Papers

When one knows nothing about a topic, it is not necessarily a bad idea to jump in head first – as long as one is willing to put up with all the mistakes one is invariably going to make. In my case all the things that I could do wrong I have done wrong. The process of putting this rather large format book together has been a process of screw it up and fix it.

My Iaido teacher, sensei Ken Manecker, always talked about the importance of the beginner’s mind: One can only learn when one is in the embrace of the beginner’s mind. I wonder if, as in zen, the practise is not so much getting to the point that one does things perfectly, but rather one gets faster and faster at figuring out solutions to the problem of the mistake at hand.

The book is now sewn and glued. Next I will finish the spine and make the case.

The picture above is of the end papers, done with acrylic paint, that keep sticking together whenever I put the book into a press. Then I repair the paper. Why can’t I remember to put waxed paper between the pages? The solution: I thought to write a reminder on each press: “Wax Paper”. I wonder if I will pay any attention.

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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

Robes and Rituals

Taking a deep breath before I plunge into the third of the Eightfold Path (thereby avoiding for at least another day the terrifying implications that Right Speech has for me), I want to say a few things about a posting on my friend Daishin’s blog yesterday. He seemed to be chaffing in his metaphorical robes. Why do we wear these things, he asks? Why is zen so full of seemingly unnecessary, incomprehensible ritual?

The short answer is that rituals can give you deep insight if you enter into them in the right way. The danger with ritual is simply that we might, through misunderstanding, rebel against or get attached to the ritual and therefor miss the message. One extreme take on ritual was given by Carlos Casteneda. He suggested that we might try putting a silly hat on our head everyday and rolling an egg across the floor with our nose. Try it for a while. See what it tells you about yourself. I practised Iaido for thirteen years. I primarily studied ten, one minute katas. Over and over again.

While practising, iaidoka wear elaborate costumes, robes not very different from the robes worn by monks in zen monasteries. There were ritual ways of folding and wearing the various parts of the robes, but teh meaning of few of these rituals were ever spelled out to the newbie unless the various pieces of clothing were directly implicated in the kata. The way one was being urged to treat one’s clothing was usually illustrated by example – or sometimes by comments delivered with great sarcasm by senior students.

We often practised our Iai in school gyms. Such temporary dojos have limited changing facilities and we generally all changed into our gear to one side of the gym. When I first started practising, I would haphazardly throw my street clothes into a pile on the floor. After a while I started treating my street clothes with the same respect I was being taught to treat my hakama. This was illustrated by neatly folding the clothes into a pile, with larger items underneath to carry the smaller items on top.

In Iaido one practises in ways that can hurt or, potentially, kill the inattentive. Swords vary from wooden, to dull, to sharp enough to cut through a body. All types of swords can do damage to the unwary. As we all practised in the same room, it was worth your life if you failed to pay attention to where everyone else in the room was located and what they were doing. No one casually strolled across the gym. No one drew their sword without caution. Occasionally someone cut their own thumb to the bone. At least one rib was broken. But in all cases, anyone who practised for any while developed a greater respect for the way they handled the facilities, their clothing and each other – at least they did so in a formal manner while in the dojo.

Our sensei, Ken Maneker , always admonished us to bring our Iaido training, or rather whatever understanding we had gained from it, out into the world, into our lives. Iaido was not to be understood as a good way to win fights. We don’t carry swords around at this time in history. Iaido was all about developing awareness. The ritual aspects of the art were to teach us to see what really is, to inspire us to try to understand where we fit in the great dance of reality. Unless we bring our training into the day to day world, the training is for nothing. In the ten bulls, after achieving awakening, one returned to the market place.

There is a danger in a religion’s robes, rituals and skills. They can get in the way of understanding if they become the desired thing, a symbol for some holiness that exists only outside of our self. But equally, the clothes we wear everyday are dangerous in that they are our everyday robes, whether dictated by the rituals of fashion or by what we find in the thrift stores. Do we identify with our fashion statement? Are we attached? Do we let our attire, or our skill set, stand in for what we really feel about what is going on inside? What other personal rituals do we make up for ourselves. What purpose do they serve for us? How do we feel when we engage them? I just watched a DVD where in one character, after dinner without fail, for thirty five years, said, “That was tasty, dear.” To the couple this small ritualistic message stood in for an expression of love and appreciation.

Robes are like experimental apparatus designed to reveal truths for those who observe carefully. If we object to Japanese, Korean, Indian, Chinese, or Tibetan rituals because they seem meaningless to us, then we can invent new ones – if we want. We just have to be careful we don’t get caught up in them as ultimate truths, whether in adoration or rejection.
photo of Sensei Ken Maneker practising iaido