The Zen of Beauty


This post is based on a talk first given at Hartford Street Zen Center on June 2 of this year and then revised for Stone Creek Zen Center on August 26. This is the first time I’ve given substantially the same talk twice. Usually I’d find it boring (and lazy) to do so, but this particular topic has held onto me, refusing to let me go until I do it as much justice as I presently can. As I grapple further with it, other incarnations may arise, though I won’t subject the same audiences to them. But through their questions, both sanghas contributed to the refining of this talk, and I thank them. Also my thanks to Akihiko Masuda, who asked me to address this topic four years ago. My deepest apologies for the belated response.


Seven nights ago I had a strange dream. I was supposed to give a talk at Dogen’s temple in Japan, Eiheiji, but I lost track of time chatting with the female priests there (this was a dream, remember). I was also having trouble getting my head properly shaved before the talk – somehow I had only shaved half of it, so I had a Mohawk look, and I was frantically rummaging around the women’s bathroom for a razor to finish the job.

But all I could find in the cupboards were ancient-looking carved stones, and I wondered if that’s what women priests in Japan had to use to shave their heads. I was trying to imagine scouring the hair off my head with a stone when I realized I’d completely missed the time for my talk. But then I consoled myself that I was going to give another talk at Stone Creek in a week, and I liked that place better anyway.

A few years ago, someone asked me to write a book chapter about zen and beauty, and what it means to live a beautiful life. I agreed, and shortly afterward was diagnosed with Lyme disease, a poorly understood illness that has been met mostly with ignorance and denial by the medical establishment.

I got sicker and sicker, and I couldn’t write this essay about how to live a beautiful life because I had lost my ability to find beauty in life; I was struggling so hard just to keep living. For me, this felt like a tremendous failure of my imagination and my zen practice.

I’ve always believed that whether or not we paint, play music, or dance, we’re each the artist of our own life. Although we often experience life’s events as random, all things have causes and effects, and even when we’re not trying to make a design, patterns are created. The question is, are we choosing these patterns, or are they determining us? Art or karma? A liberated imagination or compulsive repetition?

The circumstances of our lives often feel beyond our control, because they are. But this is where the art comes in: every medium has its potentials and limits. It’s these idiosyncrasies that make creativity meaningful. Creativity is not making something out of nothing – that would be magic. Creativity is making something from a given set of conditions and materials.

Certain kinds of art seem to freeze moments in time, like photography, painting, or writing, while other forms, such as music, dance, and life, collaborate with time as a co-creator. According to this distinction, sculpture would be considered a static art form. But one of my favorite artists, Andy Goldsworthy, transcends this classification by creating sculptures in nature, using materials at hand. For instance, he painstakingly assembles huge arches of ice or stone, and sews together streamers of rainbow-colored leaves with thorns. He lies on pavement before a rain and gets up soaked, leaving a dry silhouette behind, until the raindrops finally erase it.

Goldsworthy begins with a vision of what he wants to make, and then his vision meets the conditions of the day – its light, temperature, wind, and rain, and he collaborates with these elements, with time and change. His ice arches are as beautiful when melting as when standing strong, and perhaps most beautiful of all when the tide comes in and the waves begin slowly to carry them away.

Goldsworthy says of his art, “Perfection in every work is not the aim. I prefer works that are fashioned by the compromises forced on me by nature, whether it be an incoming tide, the end of the day, thawing snow, shriveling leaves, or the deadline of my own lifetime.” What he calls “the compromises forced on us by nature” could also be called our lives.

We’re given particular bodies and minds, talents and shortcomings, families and environments, and challenged to make something of them, ideally something meaningful and beautiful. We do this through a lifetime’s accumulation of choices — choices about how to spend our time and energy, what to think about, and which stories to tell ourselves and each other about the world.

The children’s author Mo Willems wrote a book called Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs. He said the moral of this tale is that if you find yourself in the wrong story, you can leave. Who among us hasn’t found ourselves in the middle of what we’re sure is the wholly wrong story and desperately wanted out? In fact, we can’t leave suffering, sickness, aging, or death, but we can change the stories we tell ourselves about them. And those stories in turn change our experiences of the events themselves.

Stories get a bad rap in zen, but I don’t think we can live without them. Of course, as a writer, it’s convenient for me to think so. But I believe we’re all story-making animals – our brains churn them out, even when we’re sitting zazen and nothing is actually happening.

Such stories are tremendously powerful. They can give us enthusiasm and inspiration, or tangle us in beliefs, accurate or not, that sap our vitality and will. Of course, we’re free to re-imagine our stories at any time.

The best use we can make of our stories is to reality-check them, exercise our creativity and discipline to imagine alternatives to our habitual re-runs, and hold our chosen versions lightly, open to the possibility that we might have things all wrong.

For example, I could say, “I’ve had a hard time the past four years, being sick and not knowing what to do to get better, undergoing painful and invasive procedures, and constantly fighting our for-profit medical-industrial complex, its indifference and carelessness.” This story is accurate. But when I fuel it with my energy, my thoughts, I feel more exhausted and defeated.

Alternatively, I could tell myself, “Over the last four years, I’ve fought terrifying battles with more or less grace, and a relentless perseverance I wouldn’t have imagined myself capable of. Obviously I’ve prevailed to some extent, because I’m still here. Maybe I’m stronger than I thought.” This is an equally plausible story, but with a more salutary influence on my ability to cope with my present life.

According to current understanding of the neuroplasticity of our brains and the connections between our brains and other bodily systems, the stories we tell ourselves affect us not only emotionally but also physiologically. Through elegant and complex mechanisms just beginning to be elucidated, our thoughts and emotions continually re-create our brains and bodies.

The underappreciated power of stories derives partly from the spiraling nature of time. We know that the past influences – literally, flows into – the future. But present and future also flow back to transform the past. History and memories are revised continually in light of fresh insights and continuously unfolding events.

We have one experience in a moment, and then we have different interpretations and experiences of it afterward, depending on what happens next. Miles Davis said, “If you hit a wrong note, it’s the next note you play that determines whether that note was good or bad.” Life, like jazz, is improvisation.

Which means that our lives are completely redeemable in each moment, depending what we do now, and what we do after. So the meaning of our lives never lies “out there,” as an objective truth waiting to be discovered; it’s something each of us creates for ourselves. As photographer Wright Morris observes, “The final act of coherence is an imaginative act, and the person who created the parts must create the whole into which they fit.”

A capable artist should be able to make art out of anything, right? Just as we must live our lives through the causes and conditions we’re given. Our practice is making something out of this body and mind. And if we cannot make meaning from this moment, that’s not a fault of the moment, but a limitation in our perspective.

This is one of the most demanding and beautiful aspects of art and spiritual practice — that there are no excuses. The hindrances are the path. I was very moved by a story from an HIV-positive practitioner: his teacher told him, “You’ve been given a really rough road, there’s no doubt about it. But this is your road. What are you going to do with it?”

Tolstoy wrote, “The aim of an artist [and I would add, a spiritual practitioner] is not to solve a problem irrefutably, but to make people love life, in all its countless, inexhaustible manifestations.” To me this is the essence of the bodhisattva vow – to love samsara into nirvana.

We’re taught the image of the bodhisattva helping people across the river separating samsara from nirvana. Yet these two shores are one land, as Dogen tells us over and over again: each thing is everything. Practice is enlightenment. Delusion and enlightenment are interdependent, sewn together to make Buddha’s robe. Samsara and nirvana suffuse each other. Our difficulty is perceiving them within each other, in seeing the whole. When we’re in samsara, nirvana feels as if it doesn’t exist. And in nirvana, samsara doesn’t matter. Sickness and health, life and death, so many things feel like this to us.

So the bodhisattva’s first task is a leap of imagination — conceiving the other shore from where we stand now, and not only finding the oneness in the two, the unity of difference and sameness, of form and emptiness, but being this oneness, manifesting the equality of all things as a reminder and inspiration.

Activist and writer Rebecca Solnit comments that while “kindness, compassion, [and] generosity are often talked about as though they’re purely emotional virtues, they are also and maybe first of all imaginative ones.”

So here’s my definition of enlightenment: acting in harmony with all things. Seeing the world whole, living it whole, and loving it whole. Which means we have to love it as it is, and love ourselves as we are, while at the same time working for better from the world and ourselves, burnishing the jewels of Indra’s net.

Dogen wrote a poem that begins: “Polishing the moon, cultivating clouds.” I love these metaphors for our practice. We polish something that is already so bright, the life force that animates all things. We polish it not for itself, but for us, so that through our practice of polishing, we reveal its brightness to ourselves. Polishing doesn’t change the nature of life; it changes how we perceive it. Our effort makes visible what has always been there, what has never been lacking.

The beauty attending the action of polishing is important, because beauty helps us love the world, which is the bodhisattva’s calling. But it matters where we find beauty. In Japanese aesthetics, asymmetry is considered more attractive than symmetry. This is unusual, because we humans are naturally drawn to symmetry. It reassures us – it’s predictable and gives us a sense of security, and we don’t care if that security is a delusion.

In living beings, symmetry itself is usually an illusion. Artificial things can be engineered to be perfectly symmetrical, but natural ones are tricky. Most of us have two feet that look the same size, but aren’t. We’re not perfectly anything. So Suzuki Roshi teaches us to find perfection within imperfection, like wabi-sabi.

Author Robyn Lawrence explains this expression beautifully: “Wabi [means] simple, humble by choice, and in tune with nature. Someone who is perfectly herself and never craves to be anything else would be described as wabi. Sabi [translates as] ‘the bloom of time.’ It connotes natural progression. Sabi things carry their years with dignity and grace: for instance, the mottled surface of an oxidized silver bowl, the yielding gray of weathered wood, the elegance of a bare autumn bough.”

Wabi-sabi is what scholar of religion Karen Armstrong might call a “moral aesthetic” – an understanding of beauty that teaches us to live better, more kindly and truthfully. Normally in our culture, we live in denial of the impermanence that we know lurks everywhere. We’re conditioned to believe that old age is ugly, and that it’s morbid to speak of death. This denial costs us dearly, causing us to take for granted our own lives and those of people we love. Where and how we find beauty is not only an aesthetic choice; it’s also a moral one.

In his mind-altering commencement address, “This is Water,” David Foster Wallace noted: “The only thing that’s capital-‘T’ True is that you get to…decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship. Because…in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship…is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.”

In this country, it seems to me that we worship money and youth, in that order. I’m currently editing Shohaku Okumura’s commentary on Dogen’s complete waka poems. Recently I was trying to find a synonym for a word he’d translated as primordial, which didn’t work in context.

I duly consulted my thesaurus and was directed to a list of synonyms for old: wizened, decrepit, failing, rundown. In English we have no words for age as a positive quality. But does impermanence subtract value, or enhance it? In Japan, the answer is clear. Cherry trees bloom unpredictably and fleetingly; their blossoms are delicate and can be dropped by one good rain.

Yet the blooming of these trees is celebrated throughout the country as a kind of sacred rite, observed with picnics under the trees day and night, for as long as the flowers last. People chase the blossoms from south to north, just as they pursue the turning autumn leaves in the opposite direction come fall. Between these pilgrimages is the summer ritual of fireworks, or in Japanese, hanabi, which translates as fire flower.

All these evanescent flashes of beauty are cherished for their impermanence, which, given the nature of our world, makes more sense than stipulating, “I’ll only invest my love in things that will reward my devotion by sticking around forever.” Because the only things that won’t die on us are things that never lived either.

True vitality embraces aging and dying, not as design flaws to be overcome, or masked at any cost, but as inherently valuable links in the chain of life. Living things are partly made of dead things. Death is the means through which life renews itself. I sometimes imagine life as a child playing dress-up, proudly parading one outfit after another, donning and discarding them with equal zeal. But appreciating this endless spectacle can feel impossible when we’re sick, exhausted, or grieving.

I remember Reb Anderson saying he wanted a practice that could take him through blindness, through cancer, through anything that could happen. Which makes sense. A practice we can only do when everything’s going well isn’t very helpful. So where was my unconditional practice when I was sick? Why had it forsaken me, or I it?

Shohaku Okumura once talked about a low point in his life, when he was broken down after years of hard labor building a temple in the woods of western Massachusetts. His body was in such bad shape that he couldn’t sit zazen.

For many years, he had thought he was practicing proper zazen, meaning zazen without any gaining idea, or “good-for-nothing zazen,” in the words of Homeless Kodo. But when Okumura Roshi couldn’t sit, he lost his sense of meaning in life, and then he realized zazen had been his purpose, which meant he hadn’t truly been sitting good-for-nothing zazen after all.

This is such a delicate balance. We have to make zazen important enough to do it, but if we make it too important, or for the wrong reasons, if we make too much contingent on it, we fall prey to spiritual materialism, which might be the worst kind of materialism, because it undermines the heart of our practice.

For reasons not fully clear to me, I love zazen and have sat monthly sesshins for almost ten years. Yet at my sickest, I couldn’t sit for more than a few minutes; I was in too much pain, physically and emotionally, and zazen made me more aware of it, as it makes us more aware of everything.

I couldn’t write either, because my intention in writing is to inspire and empower, and I was feeling neither myself. It’s relatively easy to write a soaring tale of redemption after the fact, after having come through the maze. But what about while we’re trapped in the middle? What if we never come through?

As a priest I’m by definition a person of faith, so I don’t like to admit that I don’t have faith in much. Needless to say, this is an ongoing koan for me. I do think there are things worth believing in; I just have trouble believing in them all the way, trusting life completely, because we know terrible things happen all the time.

The question is, “Can we make our dharmic courage equal to these things?” We are the ones who get to decide, personally and politically, whether we keep working for stories of victory, or succumb to despair and call ourselves defeated.

In her excellent book about activism called Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit admits: “Everything is flawed, if you want to look at it that way…[but what] has helped me most is this: in Hurricane Katrina, there was bumper-to-bumper boat-trailer traffic…going toward the city the day after the levees broke. None of those people said, ‘I can’t rescue everyone, therefore my efforts are worthless.’ All of them said, ‘I can rescue someone, and that’s so important that I will risk my life and defy the authorities to do it.’”

In transforming suffering, our intention isn’t only to make something of our lives, but also to shape what life makes of us. Who am I becoming by saying these words, taking that action, or thinking my habitual thoughts?

One thing I do believe in is artistic alchemy…turning bitterness into beauty. Mollusks have hard shells because they have soft bodies. When a grain of sand irritates the softness, a mollusk wraps the sand in pearl. I’ve often wondered what this transformation costs the oyster.

When my particular body-mind was suffering most, I couldn’t do much about it. All I did was hold on, and that took everything. Lying in bed, I remembered how Uchiyama Roshi wrote that when you don’t know what to do, waiting is an acceptable substitute for zazen. There are many kinds of waiting – impatient, aggressive, resigned, lazy. Of perhaps the finest kind, T.S. Eliot observed, “The faith and the hope and the love are all in the waiting.”

I also thought often about the origin of the word “heal,” which isn’t to cure, but to make whole, and that wholeness, like enlightenment, is something we are never outside of. It’s a given. Virginia Woolf wrote, “The whole world is a work of art, [and] we are part of [that] work.” We can be suffering and whole, sick and whole, dying and whole. In fact, we can only be whole if we are also all of those things.

Another given is change. This is the dharma, the truth, that we take refuge in. And things did change for me. I’m not cured yet. I hope I will be someday, but I know that I don’t know. We can know only this moment, before it changes into something else. The notes – sweet, bitter, and silent – keep playing. The universal life force keeps changing its clothes. All we can do is let ourselves be one with it, dropping off body and mind into it.

At SFMOMA until October, there’s an exhibit of late paintings by Rene Magritte. Two of the paintings are titled “Kiss.” In one, a bird made of bright blue sky with puffy clouds flies through night. Magritte called this “the bird of sky.” In the other “Kiss,” a bird of starry night flies through a hazy daytime sky. Light kisses dark, bird kisses sky. Magritte remarked, “Wherever our destiny leads us, we are always protected by an element of beauty.” Like the oyster protected by its pearl.

In “Genjokoan,” Dogen reminds us, “When a fish swims, no matter how far it swims, it doesn’t reach the end of the water. When a bird flies, no matter how high it flies, it cannot reach the end of the sky.” In other words, no matter how turbulent or dark the sea or sky, we are never out of our element. We are not in the wrong story. This is the truth we are asked not only to accept, but to embrace.

During my first practice period at Stone Creek, we studied a draft of Okumura Roshi’s book Realizing Genjokoan. In that book he wrote two of my favorite sentences: “When a bird is flying, the sky is also flying…. The entire sky is the wings of the bird.”

We usually translate the Pali word dukkha as dissatisfaction or suffering. But it also means sky. Our practice asks us to remember that suffering, sickness, aging, and death are also the wings of the great bird flying, the wings of the entire sky flying.


Le Baiser (Kiss) — Rene Magritte, 1951