Sketchbook notes from the drifting spaces

New Year Zen Retreat


Glasgow Zen Group dojo

Glasgow Zen Group kitchen


Over the new year weekend I went to the inaugural Glasgow Zen Group retreat, or sesshin, at Kagyu Samye Dzong in Glasgow’s west end. Every morning up at half past five to start the day with one and a half hours zazen meditation before breakfast during the holiday may not be many people’s idea of fun, but as a zazen practitioner in it for the long run it was right up my street. A great way to start the day! It is so fortunate to have such a positive group and encouraging teacher John Fraser. To get away from the hussle and bussle of everyday routine for even a small number of days and meditate and study zen philosophy is very nourishing and revitalising for my general mindset and approach as an artist. Zazen meditation is not an escape, but actually means facing up to the world so zen practice for me is invaluable in being able to fully experience the world around me, so is a real gift artistically!

I enjoyed sharing in Tenzo responsibilities as chef preparing the main meal of the day at lunchtime. With much appreciated help we cooked chahan type rice dishes, miso soup ( a simple tasty one was with egg and onion) and sides such as tofu with grated ginger and spring onion or Japanese salads. Genmai (brown rice) worked really well in a chahan with wasabi and shoyu (soy sauce) sauce and various veg, and also with asparagus and sweet potato. Other handy ingredients for these dishes to have in your supply at home are mirin, brown rice vinegar, fish dashi stock, katsuobushi grated fish, miso, sake, sesame (to be grated), wakame and konbu seaweeds. There are quite a few bits and pieces but the cooking methods I’ve picked up from my partners family in Japan are generally pretty quick. For me cooking is a pleasure but also a kind of training, not entirely unlike the creative artistic process. One type of action has consequence on the next.

I was kindly recommended Dogen’s Instructions for the Zen Cook (written in Spring 1237 at Kosho-ji, which I visited and made artwork from in 2002/03, ‘for followers of the way in succeeding generations’) with commentary by Kosho Uchiyama Roshi, ‘How to Cook Your Life – from the Zen Kitchen to Enlightenment’, which has been really easy to read and enjoyable so far. Here are some exerpts:

‘Do not get carried away by the sounds of Spring, nor become heavy-hearted upon seeing the colours of fall. View the changes of the seasons as a whole, and weigh the relativeness of light and heavy from a broad perspective… If only we could step back to carefully reflect… our lives would naturally become one with our work. Doing so is the means whereby we turn things even while simultaneously we are being turned by them.’

We studied Komyo (Brightness), and discussed various things including the freeness of Eastern space as opposed to how we imagine space as a ‘Newtonian container’. Light and space are interchangeable as are emptiness and space – and space has a texture, and as I would tell any drawing and painting students, it is not a catalogue of disconnected objects with voids or vacuums in between. When I left the retreat on Tuesday the 3rd January, the city was being hit by hurricane force winds, even the Kagyu Samye Dzong kitchen window and huge pots had been blown over!

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