Friday, August 6, 2010

Robert Aitken (1917-2010)

A gentle reminder just how precious this life is.
Robert Aitken was my teacher's teacher. He died yesterday. He had been in poor health for a while. That does not make it any easier for his family and those close to him.

I never met him but through his writings and the stories my teacher told. One story that I remember was that Aitken used to record his talks in a cassette tape recorder. One evening he noticed that the recorder had malfunctioned and failed to record his teisho. Later after everyone when to bed, he stayed up an sat in the zendo re-giving and re-recording his teisho to an empty zendo. The advantage of his dependance on his notes.

This must have been an odd scene to come on. I don't know, but this may have been one of his best Dharma talksr. It points to his dedication to spreading the Dharma in the Western world. He has done so much and now can rest.

We'll have to wait and see what blossoms out of all his hard work. I dedicate the merit of my practice to you, Robert Aitken, Dai Osho.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Zen is Everyday Life

Before taking up Zen, everyday life is just how life is lived. When you start to practice Zen, everyday life becomes a mystery, a thing unto itself. After ‘practicing Zen’ everyday life again is just how life is lived.

During the summer months my practice community is dispersed and we are involved in many family and social activities. I’m looking forward already to the cold, rainy and snowy month when my practice community will come together again.

As reported earlier, I recently spent some time with Barry Gordon, a spoon carver with over 30 year of experience. One thing that I picked up watching Barry was the importance of intentionality. This notion is still coagulating but here is what I've seen so far.

You could depend on the moment or "the wood" to inspire you as you formed the spoon. Stand in front of the bandsaw or the chopping block and start whacking away. I call this the "Michelangelo Subtraction Approach" - start removing wood and seeing what develops. Lately this has started to feel a bit to 'willy-nilly' and this feeling intensified after working with Barry.

Alternatively, you could inject more intentionality.

I've started to make patterns for my spoons. When thinking about what I want to accomplish, the drawing has been very helpful. As an activity unto itself, drawing connects me with my spoon making at times I can not be in the shop. Pattern making has already lead me to see design 'opportunities' I want to avoid using again. Notice the bottom pattern in the picture above. The curve in the handle looks graceful and suited to the size of the spoon. Using the pattern in fresh Red Oak, I now feel that the curve it too 'curvy' and the spoon feels funny 'in the hand'. I'll post a picture when done comparing spoon with pattern.

Another activity that adds intentionally is keeping a file of inspiring photos and clipping from which to draw ideas. My image file contains almost 800 images of spoons scoured from the web that I peruse from time to time, studying the work of others, some positive some as lessons of what not to do.

Sweet 'hand-feel' of a spoon is the ephemeral quality of comfort and connection you get when holding a well crafted spoon. I've held and made spoons that lack this 'hand-feel' or a 'spooniness' quality.

Which are you? A Michelangelo who removes everything that is not the spoon or someone who injects some measure of intentionality into you carving?

The more I practice the more I realize just how little I know about Zen. I'm finding talking about Zen ain't too helpful. Sometimes a lot of what passes for Zen is nothing but critique. Like a movie critic, critiquing life. Counter productive yet the social norm. Acceptably missing the point!

I must confess that I don't know a thing about Zen. I don't know why I practice. I can't remember even why I came to the practice. Maybe it is transient, but I find my desire to hold ideas in my mind weakening even more. I have no idea about Zen and am comforted by that. Weird confession. The practice being so nebulous. To say it is "everything" or "your practice is your practice" is a cop out. I sit. That is about all I can say for sure.

There. -- Your turn.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Wooden Spoons & Zen

This space is making a change.
A couple of weeks ago, I took a spoon makers vacation. I was lucky to spend most of week with one of the best spoon makers in America and a great teacher, Barry Gordon.
IMG_0906 (447x640)
We worked in his shop and talk about design, technique and materials.
Here Barry is pictured roughing out a Buckthorn spoon. He has developed a notion of using the band saw as a carving implement. Barry uses a highly tuning the band saw with a few custom features. He uses special blades with high beam strength and frequently applies a wax lubricant to the blades. He has optimized his dust collection with custom shrouds under the table. He has filled in the miter slot and made a UHDP insert for the throat. A link belt and a custom study base that together all but eliminate any vibration. Extra lighting and a slow steady hand and a “roughed out” spoon is closer to its final shape.
Barry and his wife Barb, were gracious hosts and shared there home and dinner table with me. The conversation was delightful.
Now we’ll have to see if I absorbed anything.
Later in the week Barb, Barry and I drove the 300 miles or so to the American Association of Woodturners national convention in Hartford CT. We had some of the best pizza ever at a little place call Joe’s Pizza just outside Hartford. 
The main reason for the trip to Hartford was to see and meet Norman Stevens the wooden spoon collector and see his “Gathering of Spoons”  (PDF of catalog) exhibition.
Norman Stevens is a retired university librarian who has a long history of collecting and supporting spoon makers. His latest project, the recently renamed “A Gathering of Spoons”, is a collection of spoons by makers mostly but not exclusively from America. It was a real treat the see and hold spoons by Jogge and Wille Sundqvist. See so many spoons by so many makers all in one spot was inspiring. Below is a series of images I took original thinking I’d create a panoramic of the collection but I think it would be better to just publish them and try later to make a panorama.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Human Spirit

We are on page 192. Today's miniature teaches about how "there is always a bigger flea." To make his point, Aitken uses a pair of writers, Robert Louis Stevens and Leo Tolstoy, and a pair of short stories, "The Touchstone" and "How Much Land Does a Man Need?". Having not read either, I can not speak to the merits of his comparison as to which writer was the "bigger flea". 

That is not the point. On the surface, Aitken does a great job of presenting first RLS as a writer who "informs my very life." Strong praise indeed. Then he goes on to introduce LT and note Chekhov's proclamation that LT's short story is "the best short story ever written." Aitken's writing here is masterful. He places these two writer next to each other and imagines there relationship. 

With more reflection, we see that comparison and our desire to know or be the "bigger flea" is a part of the human spirit. If we hold these comparisons lightly, recognizing the ephemeral nature of the sense of separation that allows comparisons, the human spirit can be light. If we put too much energy in comparisons, in who's the bigger flea, then the human spirit becomes needy, heavy, busy with judgments. 

Chose to be light. See the ephemeral nature of separation. Be kind to yourself.

I'd like to point you to Lucy Loomis, a photographer, who has posted to Flickr a set of her visit to Dan Santos' woodworking shop. I don't know either of these people yet their sharing has inspired me. We will see what develops. Here is a link to the set and a sample.

Photo by Lucy Lommis

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Trick or Treat

Today we get a history lesson. "All Souls' Eve" has its origins in ancient Europe. Culture to culture, eventually to England where "good-hearted celebrators dressed as ghouls or ghosts went "a-souling" door to door... to beg food for the poor."

Sadly, yet another communal celebration bastardized by capitalism.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Dad's Indiscretion

Today's miniature is best read in context. Buy the book and read it from the beginning. Once you get to page 190, you'll be caught up with this post.

I have not had any encounters in my life that could have lead to "... children and their innumerable children and their innumerable children and innumerable, innumerable cousins ..." So far I've escaped fatherhood. This is an odd source of pride for me.

For the wood design enthusiast. Elbert Hubbard was the mover behind Roycroft. His implementation of the Arts and Craft ethos lives on today. There is a lot to be learned here including an hour long video produced by PBS.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Patriot

Today I learned a new word, jingoistic. Jingoism is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as "extreme patriotism in the form of aggressive foreign policy".

Robert Aitken is quite the story teller. 

My father was proud of his prowess at scratch off lottery tickets. Winning a few dollars made his day in a way that I never could understand. From time to time he  would ask me to send him scratch off lottery tickets from Idaho because we have different games. He told me once that those who play the Powerball type lotteries were fools easily separated from their money. He hoped to win big by scratching.

He never did.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Mother's Inability

Robert Aitken's mother was a talented and engaged woman who raised two sons. She was troubled in her relationship with her mother.  Aitken confesses, "This karma affected her marriage, and ultimately me, I'm sure, though I lack the insight to say just how."

"I lack the insight to say just how." Thank you roshi for this teaching. The rains don't come and the wind blows hard. I eat my dinner alone. Knowing or not knowing is not the trouble. Want one or the other and the road to hell is paved with questions. 

Sycamore spoons, roughed out and ready for finishing.
carving by Will Simpson
From Spoonery

Listen to an NHPR 2004 recorded interview with ... "Dan Dustin is a wood artisan and spoon maker from Contoocook, New Hampshire. He's been using his own unique method of making wooden spoons for 30 years. He begins by going into the woods, and "finding" the spoons within the branches of trees. He says the trees make the spoons, he just discovers them. His spoons cost as much as $100."

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Impressing Mom and Dad

"They were of the earth, earthy, and were not easily impressed."
With this we see our own limits of expression. What sweeps away our grounding, points out to us where we are moored? Comfortable in a skin of nature, of art, of literature, of technology. What brings us to this 'impressed'? The lightness of 'impressed' sings in the heart of this little boy.

Lunch time walkabout, Honey Bees working the plum blossoms, I left my smile there for you to find.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Grandpa Baker's Failure

Grandpa Baker's Failure", number 170 of 188 from Robert Aitken's book Miniatures of a Zen Master.

About the saddest thing I've ever read. Short and in one paragraph, six sentences, Aitken paints a masterpiece of sadness expressed as Grandfather's marital failure.
"He couldn't attain the measure of human happiness that we all hope for ourselves."
I marvel at Aitken's skill at weaving story.

Like many, I've spent some time recently considering my goals. There are the usual suspects of, reading wider, losing weight by starting an exercise regime, writing regularly, etc. What is different this year is that I've seen a shift away from a list of stated goals. In its place there is a mind map. As it was being developed, it became clear that there are two different modes, traits and projects. Traits to develop or solidify; "focus on health", "focus on relationships", "focus on hyperlocal", and "focus on kindness".  Projects to start, re-start, or grow; spoon making, photography, Python programming, blogging.

There is a bit of disconnect between the traits and the projects.

Attempting to boil all this down to a short phrase has been hard but valuable. Being concise and keeping a short phrase in front may be more successful than the large detailed mind map I've created.

Here is my attempt at creating a short phrase that encompasses the meme or feeling-tone of my new year's goals.

Create growth

Less consumption More production

Use talents to connect

Visualize kindness

Of these "Use talents to connect" seems the closest to what I have in mind for the coming year. Now the work of aligning the projects to this. 

If I was to boil this down even farther, just three words, they'd be 

  1. create
  2. connect
  3. kindness

Any error or confusion created by my commentary on
Miniatures of a Zen Master
is solely a reflection of my own delusion and ignorance.
Any merit generated by this activity is solely the result of
Aitken Roshi's clear teaching and is dedicated to
all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas throughout space and time.