Liberation and Bread Baking

ww and millet, score the top and pop into the oven

The very first post on this blog was just short of four months ago in April. It concerned the four Bodhisattva vows. Since then I have done an initial survey of the Bodhisattva vows, the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. Now I am starting at the beginning again and bring the ideas contained in these fundamental Buddhist texts to bear on my daily life. Right now my daily life consists primarily of making objects of art and baking bread. In art I am not exactly a beginner; but in bread baking I really am, least ways in terms of sourdough and steamed-oven baking using baking stones. My Iaido teacher always insisted on the cultivation of the beginner’s mind. So, today I will attempt to talk about my latest bread making experiences from the point of view of beginner’s mind and the first line of the Bodhisattva vows.

Beings are numberless I vow to liberate them.

I received a sourdough starter from my friend, Peter. I don’t know the starter’s provenance (was it started from the wild, or from a bought innoculant, or with the help of commercial yeast?), but my bread doesn’t seem to want to become sour for me. I suspect that to get a starter that is as sour as I want, I might have to start from the beginning, not that I am trying to insult Peter’s starter, but starters, as I surmise from internet research, do not travel well from one flour-environment to another. Yeasts get themselves sorted out for particular micro environments and have to adjust, evolve, to fit into new ones. It is also possible, after years of my store-bought bakers yeast bread baking and wine and beer home brewing, that these blander yeasts have leapt the fence so to speak and caused the yeast in my garden to become creamy and uniform instead of sour. And my bread now does taste sort of creamy, rather than sour. In which case even starting from scratch any new starter I might begin, using my own local yeast, will not produce that desired sour taste. On the other hand, maybe I just don’t yet know what I am doing.

What to do? What to do?

All the numberless yeasty beings floating around in the atmosphere, coating the apples on the trees, the grapes on the vines, or just floating in the air, waiting for a suitably wet environment and enough starches and sugars to act as a delectable food source to encourage their reproductive exuberance. Maybe I should just continue baking bread with the yeast I have and not worry (definitely do not worry) about how sour, or not, my bread might be. I will make the best bread I can.

Beginner’s luck for me began with a recipe for a sourdough sweet potato bread with pumpkin seeds. Everyone raved. However…. although the bread was a delight, after paying full attention to some basic critical benchmarks (as gleaned from the sourdough internet community) I must say that I screwed up the crust by not making it smooth enough and scoring it properly before baking, and what is it with all my bread that I never get that looked for large, holey crumb. I get a cake-like crumb. So what does the beginner’s mind do? Make more loaves of bread, of course, content in the realization that I may never solve the crumb problem but glad the bread tastes great. I feed it to who ever is around and thereby liberate them from the pangs of hunger.

Question of the day: quite often I have heard people say that they are on a yeast free diet and so only eat bread made with sourdough. Sour dough is, of course, yeast. So do I say anything to liberate these deluded people from their ignorance of the nature of sourdough, or do I leave them alone and let them get on with the delightful pleasure of eating yeasted bread by any other name.

For now I will go check on my loaves and maybe pop them in the oven.


Right Mindfullness

sweet tomatoes

Again from Wikipedia.

“Here, practitioners should constantly keep their minds alert to phenomena that affect the body and mind.”

How simple can this be? Oh ya, real simple. So simple that it’s hard to notice that you ever do it. Paying constant and complete attention? Giving full awareness to all the phenomena of mind and body? When do we do that? In this culture we’re trained to pay attention to TV. To money. To who won the World Series, World Cup, Stanley Cup, Miss Universe Contest. The latest traffic accident or robbery. And are all those beautiful people going to make it out of the jungle without throwing up because they have to eat grubs? Oh, the anxiety, the excitement, the suspense! What might happen?!

Right Mindfulness is noticing what is happening to oneself right now. We each do this some time during the day, but we don’t necessarily notice we are doing it. The first step is to pay attention to yourself so you notice those times when you are awake noticing the simple fact of your existence, noticing those times when there is nothing happening in your head beyond simple engagement in what you are doing.

In my case I pay full attention to my existence when I paint and when I garden. Then the only thing going on is the brush against the board or the water pouring over the soil under the tomato plants. The feel of cold as the water splashes my hand as I weed. The green smell as I pick off new growth so the tomato plants won’t grow too big. The snap of picking peas for dinner. The tight hobbling sensation in the small of the back when I get up from a crouch. Bending the upper back backward to relieve the old tendons. Failing at the task of mindful attention every once in a while when I notice how many raspberries are half eaten by the d#@m robins, or worse, when a berry has only been slashed at with a beak. The robins sit on the berry canes and break them with their weight. Whenever I walk out into the garden, those wing-rats give a cry of warning and fly off. As far as they are concerned, I’m the one stealing their food.

But how to take the mindfulness I get while engaged in the small activities in the garden, or at my easel, into my day to day life? There are all sorts of techniques. By now, for old fart me, it is simply a matter of remembering to do so. And I have to remind myself to do it a lot. The hardest times are when I get stressed out, like immediately after the opening reception for my show. That night, about 3:00 pm, my mind just would not stop. Monkey mind, jabbering away. This and that. Who said what and why. Old patterns in my mind reawakened, stimulated by the strange energy of exhaustion. Not one thought important because I didn’t need to make any of it important. But nothing I could do in the situation except just watch the thoughts go by. Sleepless. Here I am awake, I thought. Trying to be awake to being awake.

Here’s a technique I learned in my twenties: in a whisper recite the phrase, “This is what I’m doing now.” Say it over and over. All day long. Quietly, but out loud. Then, the next day, repeat the phrase all day long to yourself, in your mind. After a week or so of remembering to keep saying the phrase, it sinks into your subconscious mind and becomes the observer, watching what you are doing, noticing what you are thinking. Then whenever you notice you are not paying attention to the things right there in front of you, or the things inside you, start saying the phrase to start the observer up again. It’s pretty hard to get distracted when you are reciting a phrase, or counting your breath, or fixing on a mandala or candle (on the other hand it’s pretty hard to focus on a candle or the breath etc)….

And after you get good at bringing your mind back to the phrase, the candle, the mantra, the breath, then the next trick to master is to take your developed, practised focus and generalize it so that it encompasses whatever is happening to oneself at every moment, day to day, so that you become totally aware and awake to the infinite world of your own experience. Right Mindfulness, Right Now.

May you be blessed with a day full of awareness.

The source for above image

Right Effort for Artists.

This blog was inspired by a conversation I had the other day with an artist who complained bitterly about the difficulty of doing art, that all sorts of things got in the way.

Again from Wikipedia, re Right Effort: “The practitioner should … [persist] in giving rise to what would be good and useful to themselves and others in their thoughts, words, and deeds, without a thought for the difficulty or weariness involved.”

So, you’ve chosen the pursuit of Art for your Right Livelihood. Art doesn’t harm anyone and its usefulness is to inspire, inform and enlighten (in a spiritual and emotional manner). It helps you and me along the path. In my case, Right livelihood is painting pictures (and sometimes sculpting). When I was fifty-five years old I figured out how to paint in terms of Right Effort. Halleluiah!

I know a lot of painters, writers, musicians, potters, actors. A problem common to a lot of them, is the ease with which they can be distracted from, or interrupted by, or lack the energy to actually do the work necessary to produce works. According to the Eightfold Path: Right Effort, the only way to produce work is to ignore all the things that prevent you from doing the work and then just doing of it. Of course it helps a lot if you can figure out why you let yourself be distracted. Previous to the age of fifty-five I had too much self-doubt (the other side of the coin is too much ego). Now I know that my value or worth as a painter cannot really be determined by me or by any outside agency. All I know is that if I don’t do any painting there is definitely no worth to the paintings. And, the more I paint the more I might learn about painting.

In order to live in a monastery you have to give up your right to decide what you will do next. You hand the decision over to someone else. Once having made the blanket decision to subsume yourself in the monastic routine, you are forced by that decision to produce. You work at the job assigned to you. You get exhausted. You fall asleep late. You get up early. If you don’t follow the routine then there is not much reason to be there. This is not much different than doing a job of work for a company. You do the work someone else requires of you or you lose your job.

We can get pretty comfortable working at a job, but we have a hard time working at what we think is important to our self. Why are we able to do the work at a job but find it hard, or impossible, to engage the work attendant to our creativity? Why can’t we treat our creativity as if it were simply our job? Safe to say that the most productive and famous painters, dancers, musicians, potters did not wait around for inspiration or energy or time free from distractions and interruptions. They all made their particular creativity their work and proceeded to work at it as if it were work.

If you think that hard persistent effort makes creativity too much like grunt work, lacking in inspiration, I pray that one day you will find that everything in the day to day is inspirational, if you only have eyes to see. Inspiration is something you work at, that you prepare yourself for, that you find in the work itself. Enjoy the grunt work. Remain aware while doing it, awake to the possibility inherent in every moment. Exhaust yourself. Fall down. Pick yourself up. Get lost. Laugh. Refuse to let the idea of hard work fill you with doubt or self loathing. Waiting around for inspiration is merely another way to get distracted, to procrastinate. What can be more inspirational than the mystery of life itself? Engage with it, with work, right now, day after day, no matter if the energy required seems unattainable. Just start. The path is endless. No time to waste.

I guess this post is because I wished I could have said these things to the artist who complained the other day. But I couldn’t do so because that particular artist wouldn’t have been able to hear, being too deep into the pain. All I could do was listen and say that I heard.

the above image can be seen on my website.

Concentrate. Concentrate.

everybody party!

The Eightfold Path is divided into three main divisions: Wisdom, Ethical Conduct and Concentration. Concentration is further divided into Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration (interesting how concentration is stacked inside concentration, but maybe that is what concentration is).

One thing has always intrigued me as I looked at the various parts of the Eightfold Path; no matter what part I was concentrating on (there is that word again), all the other parts hover around like ghosts giving advice. If I was focusing on Right Speech, Right View was there as a prerequisite before speech could be formulated. If I was focusing on Right Livelihood, then Right Intention spoke up. In effect, all the parts of the Eightfold Path concern one thing and one thing only. All eight parts are merely various points of view, angles from which one can look at the central problem — the central problem being: how does one become aware, how does one achieve awakening? Notice that the word awakening is not merely a noun; it is more usefully a verb. Awakening becomes a continuous practice.

An illustration: Just last weekend I had an opening for a show of my latest paintings. I had sent out 1000 postcards that invited people to come to the reception. I understand that just because I sent out what in effect was an advertisement, there was no requirement for anyone to come. Many people subsequently came up to me and told me how wonderful my post card was and that they were sure to come to the opening because they did not want to miss it, being curious about what I was doing now. I did not solicit this response. On the other hand, many people said nothing about the postcard or the show or the reception.

The afternoon of the reception: most of the people (90%) who had said they were definitely going to come did not do so. But lots of other people came: people I did not really know and good friends. After the reception I started thinking about the people who did not come and who said they would. I got terribly upset. Hurt. Nobody loved me.

It took me until the middle of the next day to work out why I had stumbled into this suffering. Only then could I let it go. More exactly, as soon as I figured out why I had become upset, the feeling dispersed with no further effort on my part. This is the power of Right View.

What does Right View have to do with this event that caused me so much (relatively short lived) agony? We might think that the Eightfold Path is some large overwhelming process that leads to a state of perfect attainment. But it isn’t really. The Eightfold Path is like a map pointing out a continuous and continual process. Sometimes on the Path you do some work. Sometimes you have conversations. Sometimes the going gets tough and you have to act in extreme ways. But all is the path. I’ve learned this about the Eightfold Path by focusing, by concentrating my attention, while doing this blog. While I studied Right View, I saw everything that happened through the lens of Right View. While I studied Right Speech, I saw everything that I said or others said through the lens of Right Speech. But after a while the lens of Right Speech (or what ever) became indistinguishable from all the other lens of the Eightfold Path. When you speak, you are acting. When you act, you do so from a specific view of reality. Etc. Etc.

A few weeks ago I had an interesting conversation with Lama Mark Webber. He mentioned studying microscopic creatures as a meditation device in order to develop both a larger view of our real place in the order of things and an understanding of the necessary interactive relationship that allows all creatures to exist. For my part I said I liked to look up into the night sky to give scale to my being. Small. Very small. More (than I have room for) can be said about the benefits of looking at the small and looking at the big, of looking outwardly and of looking inwardly. Right View, like the other parts of the Eightfold Path, can be looked at from two points of view. We can cultivate the large view or we can take the small view. Sometimes one takes the small view by looking at oneself.

If I looked at my reaction to the reception to my show in terms of the large view, I could think that the exercise indicated my dependence on lovers of art. But I already knew that to be true to the degree that it was true; the thought could not alleviate my hurt feelings — which at their most extreme became anger at a few specific people. With further working of the large view, I understood that the feelings I was having didn’t really come from the fact that some people did not come. Lots of people did come. My feelings did not have anything to do with the numbers of people. But that was as far as the large view could take me in the instance. I turned inward for the small view, staring at the small feeling that small me was insisting was large and important. Eventually I remembered something that happened when I was a callow youth.

I’ve spoken elsewhere about my school experience. I still have my report cards. The teachers invariably described me as a popular child with lots of friends. What I have to say about my teachers is that being overworked they had no time to see below the surface. They saw that I entertained my class mates, easily making them laugh. I was a jokester, bent towards wit. What kid in school would not laugh given half the chance? What the teachers did not see was that I was not actually liked (the reasons are not important to list at the moment – something to do with sarcasm and a cutting tongue).

What does this have to do with my art opening? I held a party for my class mates one time. No one came — except for one good friend. How fortunate that I had one good friend. The art opening made me relive how I angry and hurt I had been years ago when no one showed up for my party. It took me a day and a half to figure this out, to attain the Right View of the internal specifics so that the hurt feelings (the feeling that I was not loved) could be seen for an old pattern that did not need to apply. By attaining the right internal view, the hurt feeling immediately fell away.

Awakening is not a state. It is a process. Sometimes we become fully awake to old patterns in our feelings and we no longer have to engage them. They no longer interfere. Sometimes we struggle to overcome old patterns that only occasionally overwhelm us. Sometimes an old pattern sideswipes us and it takes a lot of effort to figure it out, to step out of the painful pattern. As we practice, the length of time it takes to correct these mistakes of Right View and Right etc., become shorter. Bubbles of suffering arise and bubbles burst. The Eightfold Path, sometimes looking outward at the big picture and sometimes looking inward at the personal picture, is a great tool to help us sort out the bubbles, popping them more and more quickly.

Barry Briggs made the following (to me) relevant comment on a post in Wake up and Laugh. “”Someone once asked Zen Master Seung Sahn about what distinguished him from his students. He simply replied, “I correct my mistakes faster than they correct theirs.””

source of the above image


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

Eightfold Path – Right Action – Part 1b

Xylocopa Bee


I’m out in the garden, pulling weeds here, piling mulch there. The wind the night before blew the plastic off my rebar cloche frames. Pining the plastic back with hard to find, big, wooden clothes pegs. The Tomatoes are looking good. The sun is shining — for once. So far I’ve not had to water much because the spring is being cold and wet. The environment Canada weather site promises a week of sun. All these concerns and events are the usual garden things. And I walk around doing the usual gardener things, being aware, paying attention. Oh, ya. Sure.

A white plastic bucket catches my eye. We’re not supposed to have standing water about, providing places for mosquitoes to breed. I walk over to check out the bucket, to make sure there aren’t any mosquito larvae hiding there. The bucket is half full of water. There are a dozen dead bees floating on the surface. Bees, looking for water, landing on the surface and then not being able to get out. Surface tension holds them tight. One bee still moving fitfully. I lift it out and place it on a wooden bench in the sun. Maybe it will make it.

These bees are all solitaries. Living in small family groups. Not hive dwellers. Mates will be missing companionship tonight. All because I neglected to remember that bees can’t make it out of a bucket of water. To water bees you need a board, slanted slightly, and a drip source of water that will form a thin, wet always refreshed film of H20. Some authorities say that a simple piece of wood floating on the surface of your bucket provides enough of a surface for swamped bees to crawl out of the water and make good their escape.

I’ve been in the city for the last three years and I’ve forgotten about the bees difficulty with finding water and their difficulty with getting out of buckets, but I remember that the floating-bit-of-wood trick doesn’t work as an escape route for every kind of bee.

I dump the water out of the bucket.

I don’t know why, with all the rain, the bees are flying into a bucket. But I guess now I’m going to have to figure out some kind of bee watering board. I don’t want to kill any more bees due to my inattention. I go around the garden and dump the water out of all the other buckets. I don’t look to see if there are any mosquito larvae.

source for bee picture above