July 2006

On Friday, my friend Chloe and I drove to the Ikea store in Stoughton, MA, and all I got is this lousy picture.

Okay, that’s not entirely true. I did come home with the usual odd assortment of things I didn’t know I needed until I’d Ikea’d them. Whereas Chloe walked into the store with a short list of housewares she was officially looking for, I did the most dangerous thing possible: I walked into Ikea not looking for anything in particular, which means I could have bought anything at all.

Impulse purchases notwithstanding, the only photo I shot at Ikea was this image of the hallway to the men’s and women’s restrooms, which entranced me with its larger-than-life, sliced-in-half His & Her symbols. I’d intended to go hog-wild shooting funky housewares and other Ikea delights, even having brought my old camera for Chloe to try out. But soon after I’d snapped this His & Her shot, the store greeter informed me that there is No Photography Allowed in the Stoughton store. Do you think the racy images I shot in the Houston store in 2005 have anything to do with Stoughton’s present photography ban?

Perhaps it’s best that I couldn’t photograph to my heart’s content inside Ikea. Before shopping for housewares, Chloe and I had stopped in Brookline, MA to visit the very first east coast location for this famous sex shop. (If you’re wondering what two women were doing in store that stocks vibrators and the like, you’ll have to keep wondering: if you don’t ask, I promise not to tell. Although there’s nothing that screams “lesbian” like two women driving a Subaru through Massachusetts to shop for sex toys and housewares, Chloe and I are just like Oprah and Gayle: we’re here, we’re not queer, get used to it.)

The alarming garden gnome I photographed in Houston last year certainly looked like a sex toy…but you have no idea how many housewares look erotically suggestive until you shop an Ikea after having perused a sex shop. That Ikea photo ban means I won’t regale you with images of nearly-naughty bottle brushes, shoe-horns, and kitchen timers. Instead, I’ll share a shot of my brand new chopsticks with their curiously textured tips. Rather than being ribbed for her pleasure, perhaps these Ikea items are dotted for her delight?

Main Dharma room altar

On Saturday, I drove to Rhode Island to attend a Buddhist precepts ceremony and subsequent festivities at the Providence Zen Center. As I’ve noted here before, going to PZC always feels like a spiritual homecoming. Although I’ve never lived at PZC, I’ve spent enough time there on retreat and attending ceremonies that there’s something decidedly familiar about its buildings, grounds, and familiar faces.

And then there are the Gold Guys.

Providence Zen Center has not one but four gold Buddha statues: the largest in the main Dharma room, a second in the smaller upstairs Dharma room, a third in the octagonal peace pagoda, and the fourth in the Diamond Hill Zen Monastery up the hill from the Zen Center. (These pictures show the main Dharma room Buddha as well as the one in the monastery: I didn’t photograph the Buddhas in the upstairs Dharma room and peace pagoda during this weekend’s visit.) As I’ve noted in a previous post on Buddhist iconography, newcomers to the Providence Zen Center who come from a Judeo-Christian background are often uncomfortable with big gold statues that look like idols. Speaking from my own Catholic-turned-evangelical-gone-Buddhist perspective, though, I’ve grown inexplicably fond of the Gold Guys.

Main Dharma room buddha

PZC’s gold Buddhas aren’t gods or idols: truth be told, they’re actually hollow. But like a familiar doll or stuffed animal, these Buddha statues do seem to carry an aura of personality, as if they are looking down and watching the various goings-on happening in their midst.

During Saturday’s welcome ceremony for new Dharma teachers in training, Zen Master Soeng Hyang admired the newly re-gilt upstairs Dharma room Buddha, trying to remember how long she’d sat with him. Now that Zen Master Seung Sahn is gone, the Gold Guy who now sits in PZC’s upstairs Dharma room is one tangible link to the Gray Guy who founded the Providence Zen Center and the international network of Zen Centers and practice groups affiliated with it. Zen Master Gray Guy is dead and gone, but the Gold Guys he brought over from Korea–and the human men and women who sit with them–still carry on.

Dharma room Buddha

Although the Gold Guys are just statues, if you spend enough time with even an insentient object, you get a feel for the personality of the thing. If we attribute familiar personalities to our cars, boats, and other everyday objects, why wouldn’t we grow fond of the accoutrements of our spiritual practice, especially if they have human forms and faces? Given the long hours on retreat I’ve spent cross-legged and achey, cross-legged and sleepy, cross-legged and scatter-brained, or just cross-legged and cross, it’s comforting to think someone in the room is cross-legged and comfortable, even if he’s really a hollow man with gilt that’s only skin deep.

In my years of teaching college composition classes, I’ve read many essays by homesick freshmen describing the places and objects that mean “home.” After reading piles of papers describing the almost magical aura of places like Grandma and Grandpa’s house, I’ve come to believe that the tendency to make icons out of everyday objects is an essential part of human nature. Children are creatures of habit, so they rely heavily on those simple rituals that remind them they are loved and cherished. The lesson of Grandma’s bottomless cookie jar or Grandpa’s magically replenishing candy dish is that there’s one place where you’re always loved, even when you’ve been naughty or Mom says you’ve already had enough sweets.

Dharma room altar

Although it might seem absurd to say that PZC’s Gold Guys feel almost grandfatherly to me, I do think these ritual objects carry the same sort of iconic power that Grandma and Grandpa’s house wields in the hearts of so many of my college freshmen. Just as Grandma and Grandpa will always (or so we hope) have cookies, candy, and other treats set aside whenever cherished children come to visit, Providence Zen Center feels like home to me in part because I know the Gold Guys will always be there. No matter how many times I nod off while meditating, slip and slouch in my meditation posture, or fall off the practice bandwagon entirely, I know the Gold Guys continue to practice unmoved and unmoving. No matter how many times my attention wanders and I find myself doing anything but meditation practice, I know the Zen Center with its Gold Guys will be there when my attention and intention return.

The Providence Zen Center just paid a hefty chunk o’ change to give their Gold Guys a makeover, commissioning master gilders to re-cover their hollow forms with gold leaf. So even though Buddha’s been sitting a long time, he’s looking fabulous these days with a fresh application of ruby-red lip paint and spring-green eyebrow and moustache appliques:

Dharma room Buddha

Precepts ceremony

Although to non-Buddhists it might seem silly to spend good money fixing up a statue that’s not much more than a glorified doll, the real value of a bright and shiny Buddha becomes clear during a picture-perfect precepts ceremony when rows of Gray Ones assemble beneath the Gold Guy. Providence Zen Center isn’t about a place or even the objects assembled there: it’s about the people who congregate in their midst. Just as the magic of Grandma and Grandpa’s house is really about Grandma and Grandpa, their hollow house being of secondary importance, the iconic power of a place like Providence Zen Center is only indirectly reliant upon liturgical accoutrements. Gold Buddhas are wonderful, but flesh-and-blood practitioners are even better, their beauties being far more than gold-leaf deep.

For this reason, my favorite image of this weekend’s Gold Guys is one in which a smiling statue seems to be leaning to listen as Zen Masters Wu Kwang and Dae Kwang give congratulatory speeches to new preceptors: a trio of smiling Buddhas, one of them gold-skinned and hollow and the other two gray-clad and whole.

Smiling Buddhas

Reflective self-portrait

In the spirit of This is Spinal Tap, this self-portrait goes to eleven. It’s been nearly a month since I posted my tenth and final submission for the self-portrait marathon…but after dining with other Progressive Faith Blog Con participants earlier this month, I snapped this eleventh self-portrait in the Art Deco chrome that covers the exterior of the Tick Tock Diner in Clifton, NJ.

I’d hoped to capture eleven reflected images of my own head: a wry response to Dave’s post about the eleven heads of Kuan Yin, the Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion who is known as Kwan Seum Bosal in Korean. Instead of capturing the eleven heads of my True Compassionate Nature, though, I photographed only three and a half. I guess when it comes to compassion, my True Self doesn’t go anywhere near eleven, which explains why no Buddhists in Korea or elsewhere will be venerating my image anytime soon.

I don’t know whether good fences make good neighbors…but I’m beginning to realize that having a new camera makes you particularly interested in getting up-close and personal with the critters who share your neighborhood.

There’s nothing more curious than a peeping tom-kitten, so this was the sight that greeted me this morning when, over breakfast, Reggie started whining and wagging, excited that someone outside was taunting him. Usually it’s neighborhood squirrels that bother him thusly, but this morning it was my upstairs neighbor’s kitten peeking down from the roof of my screened back porch. Hello, kitty: do you want to have your picture taken?

Although I’ve recently announced a desire to move away from photo-laden “postcard” style blog entries, now that I have a new camera to play with, all previous promises are officially forgotten. Who wouldn’t want to share pictures from a day when a simple dog-walk resulted in a handful of zoological photo-ops?

I haven’t yet used my nifty new 6x optical zoom to spy on my human neighbors, but I have used it to check out a scruffy-looking downy woodpecker who was exploring the dead tree outside my office window earlier this afternoon. Hello, neighbor!

    If that last picture looks a bit blurry and distorted, that’s because my office window has a very thick and dirty pane of glass. If only I could find a Good Neighbor who does windows!

Today’s mostly sunny morning marks another New Moon…and another new beginning on 100 Days.

Billing itself as a “place to meditate,” 100 Days is a blog with no posts, only comments. It’s a site where a dozen-some meditators from various traditions make a shared commitment to dedicate 100 days (long enough, we hope, to instill a habit) to meditation practice. Although you don’t have to wait until Day 1 to join the 100 Days community, today’s Day 1 is the perfect time to begin: new moon, new day, new resolve.

One of my favorite posts on my still-on-hiatus practice blog is the one where I quote a line I learned from a Zen-practicing Christian monk: “Now I begin, Lord, now I begin.” As I remarked in that post, this attitude of “now I begin” offers a welcome-mat to beginners as well as a note of “all’s forgiven” to folks who have fallen off the practice wagon:

    Yesterday’s successes and failures are irrelevant: Now I begin, regardless of the past. In Zen, we have a saying: “Fall down six times, get up seven.” This means it doesn’t matter how many times you fail or fall; all that matters is that you always get up. Regardless of what you did or didn’t do yesterday, today is a fresh start: a new moment, a clean page. Now I begin and begin and begin again: moment by moment, now and again, tomorrow and forever more.

Have you ever wanted to try meditation, or have you ever tried to start meditation and then given up? That past experience or lack thereof is no hindrance to Beginning Again, today. If you don’t know how to meditate but are curious to learn, read this brief intro; if you’re ready to begin Day 1 of the rest of your meditation life, click over to 100 Days and join the crowd. You’d be surprised at how many practitioners, long-time and newbie alike, are Beginning Again with you.

Today’s task was to experiment with the macro setting on my new camera. Although plenty of bees, wasps, and flies were pollinating various July blossoms this afternoon, none of them stood as still as this pale green cricket, which all but posed for my camera. (Click on either of today’s images for an enlarged version.)

Bindweed is an invasive weed, crickets are entirely common, and Reggie was nonplussed when I stopped, tugging his leash, to take more pictures of boring plants. Being colorblind as all dogs are, Reggie probably didn’t notice the tiny creature hiding inside one of several open bindweed blossoms we passed on today’s walk; being hurried and harried as most people are, I’m surprised I noticed. It’s not easy being green, for even when you display yourself alluringly within a snow-white bindweed, the rest of the world, dog-like, tends to pass you by, unaware.

Blurry barred owl

If you read Leslee’s blog, you know that today she followed my lead in buying a new camera. “That’s funny,” you might have thought. “Why would Lorianne buy a new digital camera when her old camera is still perfectly functional?”

Well, the crappy pictures at right and below explain why I’ve recently been coveting the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LZ3S that Gary bought right before I visited him in June. Earlier this month, not long after I returned to New Hampshire from Ohio, I saw not one but two barred owls at close range while walking Reggie up Beech Hill on laundry day. (The owl at right is a fledgling, and the owl below is a protective parent that hooted from a nearby perch as if to say, “Keep your distance, strangers!”)

Blurry barred owl

These blurry, semi-recognizable shots of two grayish, owl-shaped smudges were the best images I could get with my several-year-old Sony CyberShot. That camera has a 3x optical zoom, which is standard for small, point-and-shoot digicams…but a 3x zoom and a small objective lens are truly inadequate for taking pictures of owls perched in shady trees. (This picture of Mom or Dad Barred Owl is a bit more acceptable, but that’s because a lack of leaf cover gave my Sony enough light to produce a croppable image.)

The entire time I was shooting those unexpected owls on Beech Hill earlier this month, I was inwardly kicking myself. “Damnit, if I had a 6x zoom like Gary’s new camera,” my covetous mind thought, “I’d be able to get some decent shots!” A Truly Serious Photographer would, of course, have a professional-scale SLR camera with detachable zoom lens, tripod, and other fancy bells and whistles specifically designed for taking magazine-quality shots of owls and the like…but I’m not a Truly Serious Photographer. Nope, I’m simply someone who walks my dog up Beech Hill while my clothes take a spin at the laundromat, which isn’t exactly the kind of errand that typically requires full photographic gear.

With my new camera, though, I’ve found a point-and-shoot camera that offers (I hope) the best of both worlds, at least for what I look for in a digicam. Small enough to fit inside my purse, the Lumix LZ3 has a 6x optical zoom that allows me to take a simple flash-free shot of Reggie lounging on my porch on an overcast day…

Reggie relaxing

…and then use that 6x zoom to take an Extreme Doggy Close-up.

Extreme doggy close-up

Oh, if only I’d had this camera when I saw this month’s owls or last summer’s eagle and nesting night herons!

Yours truly

One of the challenging joys of buying a new camera is choosing among the many alluring models. I seriously considered the Canon PowerShot S80 that the photo-fabulous qB uses when she’s not toting her digital SLR…but even the highly recommended Canon has the usual 3x optical zoom. (Pay no attention to digicams that brag about their so-called “digital zoom”: this feature merely crops and blows up the digital image of whatever you’re shooting, so you’ll end up with blurry pictures that resemble the sorry owl photos I showed you above.)

Choosing a camera means deciding what you do and don’t want as well as what you do and don’t need. As a enthusiastic but not very knowledgeable photo-blogger, I’d be entirely mystified by the interchangeable parts of a digital SLR (for you neophytes, that’s a “real” camera with changeable lenses). Since I really do carry my camera everywhere I go, I knew I wanted something purse-sized, and since I sometimes hike or travel where I can’t easily re-charge a battery pack, I wanted a camera that takes regular AA batteries. And since I regularly see lots of birds, animals, and other intriguing sights I’d like to photograph from afar, I knew I wanted something more than a 3x zoom.

Yours truly, zoomed

Given that the Panasonic Lumix LZ3 is one of only a handful of compact point-and-shoot cameras that offers a 6x optical zoom, the decision to buy one was ultimately a no-brainer. My old CyberShot has been a reliable work-horse, but I’ve owned it for nearly three years, and twice this week the LCD viewscreen has gone streaky on start-up: the first sign, I think, that Old Faithful is on her last legs.

Rather than waiting for my digicam to die and then fretting over a replacement, it made sense to be pro-active, especially since I’ve been secretly coveting Gary’s camera for over a month now and the Lumix LZ3 is currently on sale both on Amazon.com and at Circuit City. (The latter has a store here in Keene where I was conveniently able to do the hands-on investigation that ultimately clinched the deal. For less than what I paid for my CyberShot nearly three years ago, I bought this new Panasonic and a free 512MB memory card to boot.)

I’m still learning about the various bells and whistles this new digicam has to offer, so over the next few weeks I’ll be spending some quality time with my user’s manual. In the meantime, though, I’m just itching to see those owls again now that I’m more adequately armed to record the encounter…

    If the colors in the various various zoomed and unzoomed shots taken with my new Lumix look at bit muted, keep in mind I took them flash-free on an overcast day: the worst kind of weather for digital photography. I’m encouraged, though, that those last two reflective shots came clear without a flash: my old CyberShot was notorious for taking blurry indoor shots, so getting a non-fuzzy shot on a gray day is an encouraging sign.

Rocks are so common here in the Granite State, our farmers sometimes say they grow stone.

I never tire of looking at stones; their faces, like those of old people, bear the texture of lived experience. Try as you might, you won’t convince me that stones are inert and lacking sentience. Having heard them dance, I know that stone-souls are just as lively as ours, only slower. When it comes to sitting Zen, stones are the real masters: is it any wonder I learned to meditate from one?

Given my fondness for all things rocky, it’s fortuous I live in stone-studded New Hampshire. Here in the Granite State, we have stone walls, stone bridges, mystery stones, stone faces, and even several haunted and famous tombstones. Here in New Hampshire, it’s natural to feel that stones are your neighbors: reliable companions who are stronger and more taciturn than even the toughest mountain man.

Although I’m not normally one to hug trees, I love the touch of stone. On my home altar, I have a smooth oval stone I claimed from a rocky shore along Lake Huron the same summer I started meditating. Black with a single spot of yellow-brown quartz like the “eye” of a buckeye, this “prayer stone” feels more comfortable in my hand than any mala or rosary. Touching stone is one way I feel grounded, like Buddha touching earth the moment before he was enlightened.

Stones, like people, have dark and alluring crevices; stones more than people keep their best secrets hidden. Just because stones are common doesn’t mean they are known or knowable, for even common things can harbor mysteries if they practice being both still and silent.

New mushroom

One happy result of being both a Buddhist and a nature nut is that both activities hinge on the same behavior. “Pay attention” is both a Zen motto and a sound bit of advice to any armchair naturalist. As Annie Dillard, another nature nut with spiritual proclivities, said in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, the natural world follows the principle of “now you don’t see it; now you do.” If a Buddhist isn’t paying attention, she’ll miss enlightenment; if an amateur naturalist isn’t paying attention, she’ll miss the owls, otters, and other surprises even a settled town like Keene has to offer.

Older mushroom

During this week’s stint of hot, humid weather, I’ve been walking Reggie along the Ashuelot River where he can wade in cool waters. On Tuesday, I snapped the above photo of a tight-capped mushroom sprouting in the shade of a short stump; by yesterday, that same mushroom had grown and opened literally overnight. Today, the flattened cap of this same mushroom had split nearly in two, looking quite the worse for two days’ of wear.

It wouldn’t surprise me if by tomorrow, this mushroom will be gone, eaten by a forest creature, smashed by a careless walker, or shriveled by the summer sun. As a Zen Buddhist, I know the opportunity for awakening can be equally transitory, popping up like a young mushroom, flourishing, and then fading in the spot of an instant. Are you paying attention to the Mushroom of your Mind, or are you letting it turn to Mush in the sleepy shade?

In the aftermath of this weekend’s Progressive Faith Blog Con, I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a spiritual creature. Spending a weekend with 30-some spiritually-minded, politically progressive bloggers was naturally a thought-provoking experience since bloggers tend to be unusually verbal creatures, practiced at explaining and articulating their beliefs and convictions. And yet while I can emphatically assert that I learned a lot this weekend about traditions and practices that were previously unfamiliar to me, what I cherish from the weekend isn’t the brain-brimming knowledge I walked away with but the spiritual embodiment I feel I experienced.

It’s common to see religion as a strictly spiritual thing, something that transpires in our heads and perhaps our hearts but seldom in our bodies, Western philosophy still being saddled with a worldview that sees Mind and Body as being forever separate. As I explained during Saturday morning’s Zen meditation session, though, my spiritual practice sees wisdom as dwelling somewhere lower than either head or heart, down in the fistful of belly that nestles several inches below one’s navel. It’s one thing to think something in your mind or believe it in your heart…it’s another to feel it with certainty from the bottom of your gut. Although there are many issues I know other conference participants and I would disagree on intellectually, it was truly transformative to share a deeply serene space in which our bellies breathed the same air as we inhaled and exhaled in co-mingled communion.

I’ve already pointed you toward Rev. Bruce Prescott’s excellent definition of “progressive faith”, and over the past day or so I’ve been thinking that I might add an eleventh item to his list. Progressive faith is an embodied faith. Embodied faith believes that paying intellectual lip-service to spiritual ideas isn’t enough; embodied faith insists that believers get their hands dirty in the real world doing the work of compassionate service. Embodied faith recognizes it’s not enough to save souls or enlighten minds if people are still languishing in sickness, poverty, or injustice, and embodied faith recognizes that physical violence in the name of spiritual truth is the most heinous sort of abomination.

Fundamentalism of all stripes (and I speak as one who used to be a literal-minded Bible-thumper myself) is literally an out-of-body experience where believers become so enamored with a purely spiritual truth, they are willing to withstand and even overlook the bodily ills they inflict on others or themselves. How can enforcers of a particular ideology convince ordinary believers to sacrifice bodily comforts or even indulge in physical mortifications? How can clerics and other spiritual authorities convince otherwise able-bodied souls to become suicide bombers or willing participants in unjust wars? The answer, of course, is other-worldly: if you convince believers that this world and its bodies are insignificant and the rewards of spiritual merit are granted in the Hereafter rather than the Here, you can get spiritually-minded folks to commit all sorts of acts that go against what an honest gut would advise. Rather than asking myself what Jesus would do, or Buddha, or any Jewish or Muslim prophet, at any given moment I’d like to ask myself what my belly would have me do, trusting that a grounded body can’t lead me wrong.

Despite the undeniable theological differences between Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity, what I learned from briefly practicing each of these teachings was that we all share both breath and bellies. On Friday night, Rachel encouraged a group of “virtual strangers” to sing and recite words of Jewish worship…and on Saturday afternoon, hours after that same group of no-longer-strangers had chanted strange Buddhist syllables together, Rabbi Arthur Waskow in his panel remarks noted that the Hebrew letters for God’s unutterable name, YHWH, can be spoken only as a sigh: the Breath that inspires and is shared by all living creatures.

Various religious traditions shape this Breath into different words and doctrines, but as long as we conference participants paid close heed to the Breath we shared, our words of difference seemed less important, intellectual argument being a sorry waste of breath. On Saturday night, Islamoyankee led a group of ignorant but willing neophytes in an informal zikr session in which we sat cross-legged on the floor while repeating various sacred phrases. Chanting the undulous syllables of “La illaha illallah” (i.e. “There is no god but God”), I was struck at how the supple melody of this repetitive prayer rolled off my tongue with the same sweetness as the Kwan Seum Bosal chanting I do in my Zen practice. Am I equating the God of Islam with the Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion by saying their chants roll similarly off the tongue, the melody of devotion falling into the same surge and ebb? In my mind I know that God and Kwan Seum are Two, but the breath I use to invoke either name is One: which do you prefer?

In his Saturday night remarks, Islamoyankee quoted the Qur’anic verse that asserts God is as close as one’s own jugular vein; I’d agree and add that God is as close as our very own breath. As Islamoyankee demonstrated the prostrating positions of formal Muslim prayer, I again was struck at how two radically different religions–Islam and Zen Buddhism–nevertheless embody many of the same moves, the bows and prostrations of salat feeling remarkably similar to the bowing I do in my Zen practice. As soon as a Muslim and a Buddhist begin to speak about their respective religious practices, they will utter different words, but what their bodies do is remarkably similar, embodied souls of all sorts relying on the same basic choreography of devotion.

Regardless of our faith or lack thereof, we all walk the same earth and breath the same breath. If we remain rigidly attached to what our brains think and our hearts believe, we’ll never see eye to eye across our ideological differences. But when we return to the breath we share, feeling the rise and fall of our own diaphragm while others around us feel the same, communion no longer feels impossible. Ultimately, we’re all spiritual creatures, but first we’re physical, our immortal souls married to vulnerable flesh. We think ourselves separate, but our gut knows we’re all the same, our bodies the precious containers of a breath and spirit we all share.

    These photos show my fellow conference participants Rachel and Emily mingling with the figures of Street Crossing, a sculpture by George Segal which is now installed on the campus of Montclair State University. How grateful I am for all the individuals whose paths I crossed this weekend!

Next Page »