Evolution of a Buddha: Day 5

Features, personality, mood — all grow out of the time spent shifting an eyebrow slightly up here, slightly down there. Equanimity is the basis. Centeredness, and strength, a prerequisite. That extra block of clay at the top? Why, let it be as it is, a crown of sorts. A glory of clay.

Weather has taken the central role in this second phase of Buddha un-making, and it seems that we’re in for a stretch of sunny, windy fall days, with temperatures reaching down near to freezing at night. There was slightly more pooling of liquid clay at the base today, and a few more pine needles glued to the surface. And then there was Maurice, my daughter’s curious dog, that came dangerously close to stepping on it and collapsing the figure all at once. At first, I told my daughter, “We’ll let Maurice do whatever he wants to do; my goal here is not to protect this sculpture, but rather to let it go the way it goes.”

And yet, a moment later I couldn’t help but usher the playful dog to another direction. “Maurice! Over here!”

Evolution of a Buddha: Day 4

According to the snippets of history that have come down to us about the life of Buddha, as he neared the end of his life he asked that there be no images made of his face and body. The implication being that these images (like words) would not only be a poor substitute for the living teaching, but would also lead to confusion and error in one’s practice.

And yet, the iconography appeared. And I’ve joined the ranks of presumptuous well-meaning artisans that have appeared ever since. Even now, having made hundreds and hundred of Buddha sculptures — in the image of men and women, old and young, reflecting all sorts of ethnicities — I am a little ambivalent about what I do. Perhaps I would have been better off with just that initial lump of clay. Maybe that would have been a more authentic representation….

Today, day 4 of the Buddha being out in the elements, I celebrated seeing how the elements of nature have distributed themselves and spread their “thusness” around. Pine needles have landed on various parts of the body of Buddha. And Buddha’s body has (with the help of yesterday’s rain) spread itself beyond the stone slab for the first time, bequeathing the nearby leaves with a sheen of gray. Already! A commingling of being begins.

Evolution of a Buddha – Day 3


An ecology of creative endeavor

Hammer to clay. Vital force to emotional insecurities and doubts. A bag of overly dry clay. A few free minutes. Add play, and voila, a buddha is being made.


Day 3 of being out of the elements, I see an ecology of creative dissolution. Boldly shaped angles softened by rain. Corners rounding under the weight of water. The thumbs, once so precise in their form, become the first features to dissolve.

Evolution of a Buddha – Day 2

2nd day of making…

This hammering of clay quickly became too much fun. The folded knees developed in a matter of minutes. And then I focused on the center, that area just below the bellybutton, compressing clay in the middle (roughly!). As I hammered away, I could hear my first Zen Master, Seung Sahn, shouting in my ear, “You must keep a strong center! Believe in yourself 100%!” At every blow of hammer meeting clay, I could feel my own center galvanizing, growing warm with energy and playful joy.

Day 2 of letting go…

The first day, when I set the Buddha outside amidst the fallen maple leaves, it was clear and sunny. But the second day it rained continuously (as it does for months on end here in the Pacific Northwest). I found myself obsessed with looking out the window at the weather, the sculpture. Several times during the day I put on my raincoat and went out to inspect. How was it doing? How long would it last before the Buddha was a pool of mud? A day? A month?

For some reason, I was delighted by the rain. Already, it was changing! A thin glossy film of slurry covered the surface. The first traces of dissolved clay pooled on the slate surface.

Evolution of a Buddha – Day 1

clay on rock — same thing, at different point on the time continuum

Recently I’d led a Buddha-making workshop at a nearby Zen Center, and as I’ve done in the past, I suggested that the makers might consider not firing their Buddha figures. Why not place the finished Buddhas outside and watch them change over time? Wouldn’t that be an interesting exercise in observing change, along with our attachment to our efforts?

I’ve made this suggestion at every workshop that I’ve led, and to this date, I don’t think anyone has ever taken me up on the offer.

So it occurred to me that I should take it on myself. How liberating. Something new….

I had a fairly large amount of clay that had gotten too stiff to throw and shape easily. I’d use that. How to shape? Nearby, on my studio bench, a mallet caught my eye. Then there was that stacked pile of slate that I’d received years and years ago that had never found its purpose.

We began. And by we, I mean the clay and I. We’d been working together for so long, over 40 years, and I couldn’t possibly talk about making anything from the vantage point of myself alone. And are we not, if you were to stretch out time to its farthest imaginable extent, the same material?

Celebrate the Imaginaries!

What’s statuary combined with luminaries? Imaginaries, naturally. Whatever our faith, orientation, politics, the people who lead and inspire us are, bottom line, still people. It’s inevitable that we might imagine them to live at a “higher” level, but this would be a dangerous, even destructive course to take. So why not call them imaginaries? Calling a spade a spade, we can still love and cherish them, and be just as inspired!

What A Bright Day It Is Today

What we see when we encounter and interact with the world around us depends so much on the weather we’re navigating inside. Have you ever noticed that face in the crowd, that one face in a dusty, busy, chaotic city interchange, that is as bright as this one? At once, just seeing that kind of face, you feel a bit of that brightness transmitted directly to you! Ah.

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How to Save the Cat

African Buddha in Green Raku Robe

With elections coming up, how might we navigate our engagement with politics from a meditation practice point of view? Interestingly enough, we already have a roadmap for this in a famous kong-an?Nan-ch?uan Kills a Cat. It begins as follows:

The monks of the eastern and western halls were disputing about a cat. Master Nan-Ch?uan, holding up the cat, said, ?Please, give me one word and I will save this cat. If you cannot, I will kill it.?

There is another segment to this story, but first, there is this critical matter, ?How can you respond to Nan-ch?uan and save the cat??

A couple of pointers (for the kong-an, and for how to find our way in contentious times): 1) if you do nothing, that is in itself a choice of action and as Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor and writer, points out, ?Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.? In other words, if you do nothing, you are demonstrating an attachment to emptiness; you are evading your duty and the cat gets killed. 2) If you just join in the bitter fray, heaping slogans and slurs on top of everyone else?s, you are attached to name and form, and the cat gets killed. So what is to be done? It might be helpful to consider that the cat is a metaphor for our family, our neighborhood, our community, our country, and our planet–all of which are in our life’s blood. In other words, this is a kong-an about love, compassion and wisdom.

As Zen practitioners, we start with a before-thinking mind. Practice clarity. Keen focus and spacious awareness will help us to see, listen and understand the situation. What is going on, really? And what is obfuscation, dualistic thinking and distraction? If our minds are clear, then we can see clearly, and act with wisdom.

I?hope all of us will handle language will care in these times. Emotions can get heated, but we don?t have to inflame them further by harmful speech or action. May we, each one of us, practice exercising a fitting response, moment by moment, as suits the situation and our own unique relationship to it. May we, each one of us, save the cat!