Monkey King of the World

If you’ve chanced upon the Plum Village Facebook page in the past few weeks, you may have noticed that mindfulness has a new face. I’ll save you the trouble of going to look:

His name is Ngo Khong, or Realization of Emptiness, otherwise known as the legendary Monkey King. His feats in this and prior lives are too numerable to mention, so I’ll just throw in a little quote from wikipedia:

Sun Wukong (Ngo Khong) possesses immense strength; he is able to lift his 17,550 lb staff with ease. He is also extremely fast, able to travel 13,468 mi in one somersault. (Note that this is more than half way around the world).

Note also, that this beast’s go-to mode of travel is by somersault.

Last week he was charged with a Journey to the Northeast, whereby we were to take some monks to the airport and then pick some different monks up from a much later flight. I agreed to accompany him for spiritual support, and created a detailed schedule for the dead time between the two flights. We were to wander on foot around Bordeaux, performing spiritual wonders and converting the land to the way of the Buddhadharma. Of course fate had something else in store.

After a successful 5am drop-off at the airport, a great whirlwind swept up our van and placed it in the quiet beach-side village of Cap Ferret. As the sun rose, Ngo Khong peacefully composed a new plan to fulfill our mandate of bringing the light of awakening into the world.

One contemplative nap later, all was decided. We would build a great temple on this very spot, and when the local people saw the radiance and splendor, they would come and learn the Dharma. Ngo Khong somersaulted to some place in the world rich with the finest of building materials, and with his supersimian strength somersaulted back with a tarp and some bamboo. After a few false starts, our temple was erected.

What followed literally defies description, so I won’t even try to tell you about the great feats that took place in the refreshing lotus-blossom shade of that tarp. I can give you a hint and say that our practice of eliminating worldly desires was so successful that we almost arrived on time to pick up our monastic brothers in Bordeaux.

Here are a couple of watercolor sketches that came out of the day, some land art from Ngo Khong and a picture of some of the bunkers left over on the beach from WWII. Take care everyone.

Land art

 

Little Known Facts

I’d like to share some spiritual insights I had from a recent trip to the Louvre. First of all, if you’ve never been to the Louvre, you need to know that it’s huge. Ridiculously huge. And having visited before and made myself sick trying to take it all in, this time I limited myself to a single wing: Greek Old Stuff.

I saw an ad for the self-guided tour as I passed the welcome desk, and thought, why not? You get headphones, and an interactive tour-guide on a rented… Nintendo DS? Alas! Have the evils of worldly entertainment invaded even that sacred houses of art? Driven by my fear of eternal damnation, I gave the rental booth a wide berth and decided that I’d be giving myself true self-guided tour.

The amazing thing about ancient art is that it’s one of the only ways we can get in touch with our distant ancestors. What were they like? And more importantly, how did they look? These relics are our only hints. Starting about six to eight thousand years ago, we can see from these representations that mankind was still in a primitive stage, before the development of arms, legs, and heads. My sketchy understanding of evolution leads me to conject that the direct ancestor of these early Greek men was either a worm or a violin.

Next up, a couple thousand years more recent, we see the first primitive arms and legs developing. The head comes onto the scene, but without the facial features, which follow shortly thereafter beginning with the nose. How did the ancient Greek tell friend from foe? By sense of smell, apparently.

A little bit later, man starts to develop some muscle forms on the body, moving slowly towards the evolutionary pinnacle attained by the body-builders of today. I think we can safely assume that these guys originally had heads, and that they were removed to protect the anonymity of the models.

And finally, the human being comes into her own as the beautiful Venus de Milo, who is perfectly developed in physical form, yet still demonstrates the relative simplicity of the ancient Greek, who was still at pains to fully dress herself.

To give her a little bit of credit, she did get halfway there. Fully clothed humans probably didn’t evolve until sometime in the past couple of hundred years.

And finally I’d like to give a shout out to Apollo, who after vanquishing a serpent, took the first selfie in history some 2500 years ago. And also to this random guy, who last week took the 500,000th selfie in history in front of this statue of Apollo.

I thought, this is too much. I have to get this once-in-a-lifetime photo. Not so. If you stand next to this statue of Apollo for fifteen minutes, you’ll have a dozen chances to take the same photo. Oh and by way of apology to art people, this is actually a renaissance statue. Forgive me.

After my inspiring day, I made a couple little sketches in watercolor and gouache.

Save

Looking Up

JPEG_IMG_6973 It’s quiet in Upper Hamlet. We’re done with retreats for the season, and settling down for some institutionalized laziness. Here are some things I saw in the sky:

JPEG_IMG_6975JPEG_IMG_6976Does mist count as being in the sky? Just a beautiful, misty morning.

JPEG_IMG_6820Ugh. This thing. I suppose it isn’t long now until the buzz of drones becomes a daily thing. Yet I couldn’t help wanting to shoot this thing out of the sky as it hovered over our Dharma sharing group. God save me from my violent thoughts.

JPEG_IMG_6889Can you see what this is? This thing stopped me in my tracks. Pretty standard Vietnamese homemade kite setup: kite, string, plastic bottle. I guess the kite got away from someone. Luckily the bottle got stuck in the ancient pear tree in front of the monastic residence. And then they left it there. I was wandering home at 10pm or so and saw this thing dancing up in the night sky. Nothing like a kite to make you feel like a kid again.

Take care everyone.

Art History Month Part 3

Ok let’s have a whirlwind tour of my last complete sketchbook and be done with this painful business. I started this one in December and finished it in May. These first sketches are from our Christmas performance evening. Phap Dan said that they look like people from the French Old Regime. Occasionally I throw some color into the mix, even though color is confusing and terrifying.

 

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I was pretty much melting down all Winter Retreat. It’s usually the most stressful and foreign-feeling time for me here, and I was heaping on all kinds of other unnecessary negativity to spice things up a little. I’ve learned to grab some time alone with drawing… even if I’m with people, to open up a little space. It’s not the same as sitting meditation, but it gives me something productive to do with all my energy.

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Ok I’ll just let the rest speak for themselves.

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Art History Month Part 2

I discovered that my sketchbooks are like weird journals. I go to look at the drawings, but I always find my emotional history, only legible to to me. It must be the best kind of secret language for a diary, so obscure that even the author doesn’t know what will be kept and retold.

Here’s the obligatory struggle page. Over the course of this sketchbook I discovered a lot more about what it actually means to draw. I’m not going to go all philosophical on you, but understanding is the key. Now I understand the function of a sketchbook differently, and that a good sketchbook should be full of bad drawings, drawings made when the intent wasn’t to make something beautiful, but just to understand what I see.

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2015 was a world-view-shattering year for me. It was a good thing, and a challenge. After our annual retreat season here in Plum Village, I headed home to spend some time with my family. I don’t really like the word burnout, but people keep using it to describe the state I was in. One way or another it was amazing to be with my peoples in Washington and to take some time to reflect. Airports are great places to draw, as are living rooms on family holidays. Oh and don’t be too shocked about the censorship here. There was a phone number written on one of the pages.

Scan-7 Scan-9 Scan-8Got some serious wisdom from spending time with my family and friends, and that got my gears turning about all kinds of things, not the least of which was my mysterious impetus to draw. What do I really want to do? Why do I want to draw all the time? I always thought of it as kind of a distraction, but it’s become increasingly important to me. When I came back to France I had a crazy meltdown in which I decided that making art is not an optional or secondary part of my life, so I’m still trying to figure out what that means for my life path. I try to get out of the monastery a couple of times a week to draw people in the market. There are all kinds of beautiful, interesting people at the open markets here in the Dordogne region. I’ve also taken to drawing during the Dharma talks, which is not exactly ideal practice for a monk. But the people are so still! How can I resist?

Scan-12Here’s a page with a drawing I’m actually pretty happy with. The anatomy and everything are all wonky, but I can feel the love between the mother and baby. Also there’s a little gem here from Pham Hanh, the Dutch monk who has a magical touch for mixing up English idioms. Please excuse the profanity.

Scan-14And just one more farewell image from sketchbook number 2. When I was back home, my new friend Emily somehow convinced me to check out a book called “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up”. The mere existence of a book with such a title suggests one of two things. Either people in this world are very desperate to make a positive change in their lives, or the book is gonna drop some legit wisdom on how to tidy up. The latter turned out to be the case. I’m not going to spoil the ending, but the key is appreciating your things. So in this vein I wrote a little thank-you note to my sketchbook on the last page.

Scan-15Until next time.