透明観 tōmeikan – photography project

透 – tō – to be transparent, leave gap, hold light
明 – mei – bright/ illumination
観 – kan observation meditation; perceive

transparent and moving, perceiving interpenetrating and making space, like the bird shape of Kannon 観音 soaring, seeing and feeling

My series of abstracted photographs has been expanding in the last couple of years and I have been rethinking their scope, and combining with the meditative activities I do. 透明観 – toumeikan – is my new title for the project.

These are three recent photographs taken at Traprain.

Breathing spaces and balance – Japanese & Chinese seal engraving

It was great to have the time to work on 篆刻 tenkoku seal engraving for hansetsu sized calligraphy paper. These hakubun and shubun white and red letter 印 stamps have a face of 2cm square.

After designing the two stamps with a combination of my surname, calligraphy and zen name, and painting on the kanji (in the tensho style) onto the stones which takes care and a steady hand at times, I then spent a while into the deep dark night enjoying the carving.

Twisting branches, fading spaces – sumi-e ink painting

I worked outside in the North of Glasgow with my friend artist Margaret Kerr, painting in my large sketchbook a 水墨画 suibokuga ink painting (style is also called sumi-e) of silver birch trees.

It was comfy kneeling on my picnic mat with my suzuri inkwell and bowls and fude brushes all laid out, and very peaceful with Margaret and the chirping small birds 😊 and great to experiment with some of the suibokuga techniques which use very different methods of using brushes such as holding the fude brushes, adding sumi ink in certain ways, and the numerous types of strokes.

Deciding where to stamp the ink painting of the trees fading into the forest 🌳 was fun, being careful though not to cut off the flow of movement in the artwork though✨


Carving seals and stamping onto calligraphy and artwork

Here is an example of stamped calligraphy (this is kokotsubun shell and bone style). You can stamp on your shodo calligraphy, artwork, poetry or sutra copying, or anything else you fancy 😊

This example is of stamped artwork by Blair was inspired by the dynamic skyline of Tokyo, using Japanese gansai pigments.

To join our stamp making online by zoom, you only need pencil and paper to get started. Enjoy and practice working with traditional tenkoku 篆刻 materials or the simpler keshigomu eraser to carve your very own hanko はんこ stamp.

In this video Blair has fun stamping a few papers, using the L shape to guide the alignment of stamps for shodo (very handy!), whilst going for a more squinty off angle approach on the artwork, and stamping in the middle of an enso circle.

Stamping is such fun, the physical pressing down and moment of suspense to see the stamp impression. After first designing the 印 – such as name or artist name, then carving or cutting into stone or eraser. It is enjoyable to work on each part of the process.

Blair is carving his zen name, using the insho clamp and into cutter. He can help you translate and choose suitable katakana Japanese or Chinese characters for your own name 😊

This picture is of some reisho 隷書 calligraphy Blair was stamping a few days ago✨

Please have a look at upcoming Tenkoku event.

Vista painting and punky rocks at Traprain Law

It was peaceful working with artist Margaret Kerr (please have a look at her beautiful and mesmerizing work: @megkerr245 on Instagram) in East Lothian – Margaret kindly invited me over to collaborate, she been practicing a deep creative exploration of Traprain Law and its environment and past.

The atmosphere, open spaces and vistas as well as the jaggy mossy rocks struck me at the top of the bumpy hill.

I spent some time working on photography I’ll post up later with the Toumeikan title) around the rocks with my hefty Nikon SLR, and sketched freely with art brushes the rocky metamorphic punky shapes and colours, and then looking further out to the opening vista south towards the rolling hills and moors.

Meditatively stitching a zen robe

Having been born to meet the spread of this Dharma, if we cover our body with the kasaya only once, receiving it and retaining it for just a ksana or a muhurta, that experience will surely serve as a talisman to protect us in the realization of the supreme state of bodhi.

Dogen Zenji, Kesa Kudoku chapter of Shobogenzo (Nishijima/Cross translation)

Some of us from Glasgow Zen Group recently began meeting monthly on Zoom to practice our zen sewing. Our small friendly group started on Sunday afternoon, with two sewing periods. These were interspersed with time in the middle for the Takkesage Robe verse chant, a brief chat about Master Dogen’s Kesa Kudoku (Merit of the Kasaya/ Okesa) and a break for a cuppa.

The sewing periods are peaceful times of practice where we can carefully attend to whatever task we are working on, and still ask for help when we need it. Michael Tait and Margaret Kerr were on hand to give detailed advice, with Margaret expertly guiding us in the warp and weft of the fabric 🙂

Most of us are just beginning our sewing projects, either a rakusu (5 row robe worn over the neck), or seven row okesa (worn over the shoulder) and also zagu sitting mat which is often used for prostrations. Some of us have sewn okesa before whilst others including myself have sewn a rakusu or two but are now preparing for the okesa. And some of us are at the exciting stage of getting ready to sew their first rakusu, with the plan to receive Jukaie precepts after completing their sewing.

Each stitch, each moment of sincere, committed action, one cause in many from which the completed okesa emerges. It can be said that the work of sewing the okesa is never finished. The stitches of the okesa are the actions of our Buddhist life, dedicated to all beings. At the end of that life, the okesa of a lifetime of actions are unfolded and spread out.

Michael Kendo Tait

We have been enjoying chatting online (using Slack) about fabrics and stitching and what equipment is best to use, but it was really nice to have some time together to help each other and discuss in more details about the practice. It is a friendly and easygoing group with practitioners from Glasgow and other places further afield – wherever you are you are welcome to join us 🙂

Please read more on the Okesa Sewing Group page.

In reisho calligraphy – the movement and light of the seasons

I worked from Suenaga 末永 Sensei’s reisho 隷書 style of a peaceful and joyful poem by 6th C Chinese poet 陸瓊 (りく けい)Rikukei:


spring wind autumn moon always pleasing

It was very likeable too brushing this on the large hansetsu size paper, lots of fun with a long tip fude. Some of the kanji characters are very different from kaisho and gyosho.

Contrast between kaisho and gyosho on left, with reisho on right

Although summer, it was stormy, changeable and energetic outside – much more like Autumn!

Kusen 255 collaboration with John Fraser

Kusen 255 collaboration ‘inter’ by Blair Thomson

Dragons see palaces

(heavy rain is falling)

In the Mountains and Waters Sutra, Dogen says that when human beings see water, fish and dragons see palaces. He doesn’t say that the fish and dragons are mistaken. He also says that although human beings see mountains as still, they are always walking.

Within this ocean, are there palaces, or not? Within this mountain, is there movement, or not?

This being moment is completely manifested, like a mountain. It isn’t dependent on past and future. This being moment is completely liberated within interconnectedness. It flows in all directions, like the ocean: from past to future, from future to past, from present to present. This manifestation and liberation is our life.

More zen articles at Kusen & Notes from John