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

Shakyo – bringing the Sutra to life with each brush stroke and pen mark

延命十句観音経 Boundless Life Ten Phrase Kannon Sutra traced by Shogen Blair

Our first online Shakyo 写経 practice event saw us come together from Scotland, and elsewhere such as the rest of the UK and Canada, forming a lovely group of sutra tracing and copying practitioners. This was a joint event I led for the D+P Studio and Glasgow Zen Group.

Beginning with an introduction about the history of shakyo and the development of it from Tang dynasty China to modern day Japan, with descriptions of experiences and process in Japanese Buddhist temples such as Zen and Hossou schools, and then we discussed the meditative as well as practical techniques, demos and tips to prepare us.

Lovely picture of Sutra tracing by participant Alan Buchan, Glasgow Zen group

We also talked about the Boundless Life Ten Phrase Kannon Sutra 延命十句観音経 and its connections to other sutras, looked at particular kanji characters and phrases, and how the sutra has been popular and cherished over the centuries as one that aids wellbeing in times of sickness or difficulty.

After our tea, we lit the incense, rang the bell, chanted and began quietly tracing or copying, working from the short but meaningful and energetic sutra, assisted by worksheets with the kanji and meanings. Some people simply used pens with plain paper whilst others had brush pens or shakyo brush with suzuri inkwell and Japanese paper. It was great to see the the sutras of everyone, here are some examples.

Boundless Life Ten Phrase Kannon Sutra written by Shogen Blair
Really nice tracing by LN with wish in the middle
A comfortable and peaceful setup by LN
Alan’s set up with Japanese paper, sutra underneath, worksheet, bunchin paper weight, suzuri, solid ink and fude brush

Find out more about Sutra tracing practice at Glasgow Zen Group.

See Shogen’s past Shakyo Sutra tracing events such as at KSD in Glasgow.

Zen group member Alan Buchan’s fast forward shakyo 🙂

Walking and chanting the Lotus Sutra Odaimoku

Shogen walking whilst chanting the Odaimoku お題目 Namumyouhourengekyou 南無妙法蓮華経 in a tranquil area in Scotland with birdsong.

The Odaimoku お題目 chant – repeating the title of the Lotus Sutra Namumyohourengekyou 南無妙法蓮華経 – is principally associated with the Nichiren-shu school but was originally part of a Tendai chant, the school in which Dogen Zenji grew up with.

Here I am walking in a quiet Glasgow park whilst chanting, at a fairly slow pace so I’m not too much out of breath! We have been chanting it in our Zen Group Chanting Group recently online which Blair co-runs.

Walking chanting the Boundless Life Ten Line Kannon Sutra

Enmei Jukku Kannon Gyo 延命十句観音経 – Boundless Life Ten Line Kannon Sutra. Shogen practicing chanting whilst walking in a peaceful spot near Glasgow in Scotland.

The Boundless Life Ten Line Kannon Sutra is chanted at various times such as by monks at Takuhatsu ritual begging while they walk in all weathers. It has a lot of energy and you can try it walking, or even running slowly!

Visit the Zen Group Chanting Group pageBlair co-runs this group.

Tracing the heart of the Heart Sutra – Tokyo 2019

Towards the end of the year as the dry leaves rustled across the pavements, Blair practiced Shakyo Sutra tracing at temples in Tokyo, working mainly from Genjo’s version of the Hannya Shingyo – Heart of the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra.

You can see the hanging scroll of Genjo / Xuanzang in the Soto Zen shakyo hall, he is beautifully pictured sitting and beginning work.

Macha tea and a snack are given to practitioners at certain temples, a lovely way to settle, connect with your senses, as well as give some much appreciated energy. There are different sutras and versions of each that can be traced or copied in the temples.


Painting on paper with artbrushes of suffused shapes

After zazen when we chant the Heart Sutra we are chanting the short condensed version – heart/essence – of the massively longer Great Real Wisdom Perfection Sutras (an early Mahayana work begun around the 1st Century). The Japanese title is Maka hannya haramita shin gyo. What we chant is the most common version chanted in China and Japan, translated by Xuanzang (Jp: Genjo) into 260 Chinese characters.

The first lines in our chant copy is an introduction to the sutra and expresses our zazen practice.

In the title –

Maka is vast or great. Hannya is prajna or intuition or wisdom, beyond what can be intellectually discriminated (the sutra is about this, encourages us to investigate the way things really are, to explore our experience and existence), haramita is paramita or perfection, shin is heart-mind but in this case essence, gyo is sutra, which as a kanji character expresses spaciousness (eg can also mean longitude).

The start of the Hannya Shingyo –

Kanjizai bosatsu – Kannon/ Guanyin/ Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva – gyo jin hannya ha ra mitta ji – through (or going/ impulse) the deep prajna paramita practice time – sho ken go on kai ku – sees with illumination the five skandhas empty – dou issai ku yaku – with a single cut saves beings from pain/ suffering.

So zazen practice is dwelling profoundly in and dynamically enacting prajna.