CLOUDS &

WATER

FLOWING


Part Two:

Contemplative Art


An interview with Andō,

Zen poet & guide




Andō is an artist and poet who has not only undergone in-depth training in Zen but spent many years living as a lay Zen forest monk in deep retreat. As an artist and poet, her poems express certain themes such as silence, stillness, working with heart-mind, and the human connection to nature. In addition to writing, editing, and designing a series of poetry collections, and actively developing poetry courses for a poetry community, Andō is writing a haiku memoir inspired by her forest years entitled, The Forest: A Haiku Memoir. More information about Andō's creative work will appear at the end of this interview, with links.

INTRODUCTION


In the first part of our interview, Clouds & Water Flowing - Part One: Zen Training, Sister Andō shares with us an account of the Zen lineages she has studied in, the Zen lineages she carries, the teachers that have helped her to deepen her practice, and other experiences she has had in contemplative training. In Part Two, we turn our attention to Andō's art life.

H: Hawk of the Pines / Frank LaRue Owen

A: Andō

H: Not every practitioner of Zen takes up the Zen arts, or an artistic life in general. Did your visual artistry and poetry grow out of your Zen practice, or did Zen practice grow out of an already established life path of an artist?


A: I first wrote poetry as a child. I carried a little cahier with me, to note down poems of the land and sea. I remember some treasured moments with that notebook, but the treasure was always nature, the wilds, the landscape.


Later, for five years at art school, I was often in trouble with the fine art faculty, for the central nature of my work being the written work, mostly poetry. I didn’t see the separation between poetry and fine art, but I was advised that I should have applied for a literary degree if I wanted to be a poet. I explained that I wasn’t a writer, or a poet, but an artist. For me, at that time in my life, “artist” was the closest I could get to a definition of one who was free, unbound by society, and its rules.


I opted for the ‘Alternative studies department,’ which pretty much had only one rule – “anything goes”. We were creating music, sound art, performance art, installations, video, photography, but very much in the vein of conceptual art. They were magical times.


I took it a step further by refusing to work in the studio of the department, asking for space in the painting studio, despite not being a painter. I proceeded to create installations there. One in particular caught the attention of the sculpture department, who showed up to do a group critique with me. In other words, I was an alternative studies student, working in a painting studio, being critiqued by the sculpture department. There was something unique going on.


That installation was interesting. It was like a memory of the past intertwined with a vision of the future. A temple. A tea house. Most definitely Japanese-influenced. I knew nothing of Zen at that time, but that was about to change when my year tutor recommended I read Zen Flesh, Zen Bones after he asked what I knew of Zen, and I answered “nothing at all!”


That’s still my best answer!


Words started to appear in my work shortly after. Poems and small gift-like handmade artist publications that I would create and give away. I’m pretty sure there was a time when my poetry drove everyone mad. I couldn’t help myself. I was told this was art school, not literature school, but I couldn’t change the trajectory I was on.


The poetry went underground for some years then, arose during the time I was sick for seven years. It helped keep me sane during that time. Haiku was what I began to write, and I also painted, as I got better and had the strength to sit up enough to paint. I was inspired by the paintings of Fabienne Verdier, and got hold of a copy of her book In Love With the Way, which was a collaboration of works inspired by Chinese poets of the Tang Dynasty. The words caught my attention. Some lines in that book continue to catch me in that way. Like sabres of mist and clouds, they cut to the root.


I have taken that little book everywhere I go ever since. I never travel without it. It’s a funny thing, a love affair. I sometimes wonder about myself living up in those high, misted peaks, the rain dripping down, gathering herbs, sitting under the moon, conjuring up enlightenment poems. I wonder, I have already done these things, this lifetime, previous lifetimes, seeing the joke of the idea we have “a lifetime” or “a series of lifetimes”. All quite ridiculous.


One brilliant line in that book is “Shh, don’t wake the sky people.” I don’t know what it is, but the feeling is that I’m one of the sky people. I can’t explain.


Could I answer these questions without words?

to those who come asking questions

don’t listen to the words

hear the silence

listen to the pause

this is the answer

to all questions

H: For those of us who work closely with Zen and the arts, we are inheritors of a rich nomenclature of philosophical and aesthetic terms. Some of these terms, such as wabi-sabi (acceptance of transience and imperfection), have become more well-known and have begun to capture the Western imagination. Other terms, like fuga ('life elegance' - described by Basho as “being a companion of the seasons”) are less well-known. In your own practice, are there particular aesthetic or spiritual concepts that are your primary anchor points of practice or creative expression?


A: I may be a heretic in the world of poetry. Zen, too. I don’t follow philosophies. They’ve never interested me. No school sticks with me. It’s why I struggle if I try to form a school because I can’t define what I do. There are people out there who want me to found a school of poetry, but I can’t teach them a thing! I don’t know anything about poetry. Nor do I know anything about Zen. I can barely remember the four noble truths. I know there are the six this and the eight that, and maybe ten of the others, but I don’t know what they are. My memory has no capacity for such things. So, there’s been only one singular path I’ve been able to follow. My own. The untrodden path. Unmapped, yet loving and friendly. I wonder if that means I am wandering like a rhinoceros, to paraphrase one of your favorite sutras.

Can I tell you a secret? I’m not a poet. I pretend to be.

Some years ago, when I was posting a lot of my earlier material on Facebook, a friend (now a patron), kept referring to it as “poetry.” My poetry. She referred to me, therefore, as a “poet.” I never bought the terms, but I did adopt them. ‘A good cover,’ I thought; one that will pacify the ones who come delving deeply, looking for explanations, answers and definitions. But, I’m not a poet. I’m not even a Zen woman. No description matches me. Nothing will fit. These terms are just the nearest approximation I have come across.

So, I’m a charlatan. [Laughs out loud.]


H: Duly noted, and understood! That said, it is clear you draw inspiration from as stream of sources, and the life example and poetic expression of various types of poets and spiritual figures in history, much as Ryokan Daigu (1758-1831) drew inspiration from Hanshan (9th-century), and Basho (1644-1694) drew inspiration from Saigyo (1118-1190). Among the vast array of contemplative artisans who precede us, who feels like your “etheric teacher", your creative mentor?


A: If there is a singular teacher in this realm for me, it must be Basho. If I were to propose my whole poetic lineage, it would be Saigyo, Basho, Chyo-ni, Ikkyu, Issa, Santoka, the wanderers. I’m also very struck by the haiku of Zen Master Soen Nakagawa. The Chinese poets came later, Ryokan too. Now, I find myself walking in their mists and mountains, lost in their forests, too.


If I propose the three elements that appear to make me up, they are Dogen, for the love of Zen and ultimate truth, Baisao, for the love of tea and conversation, Basho, for the poetry. But, actually, the bottom line is my lineage is that of mountains and rivers, forests and trees, wind and the moon, all wild things, life itself. Is there a better teacher? A higher one? I haven’t found one yet.


H: Indeed! Speaking of nature, I know that we both share a great love of the Tao-influenced, nature-honoring Ch’an poetry that flows forward through time from the mountains of China. The carefree, easy-going way of idleness in mountains and forests feels like second-nature to me. There is another feature of some of these figures I find quite compelling and of particular relevance today, and that is how many of them felt at odds with the cultural life and political strife around them. Whether government corruption, war, or religious fundamentalism, some of these poet-ancestors’ response to these conditions was to draw even farther to the edge of things, while others took up the mantle of activist-poets. In what ways do you feel this poetic tradition is relevant to our own times?


A: I believe there is a lot of potential for it. To be defined as a contemporary poet, means to live in the here and now, to write in the here and now, to address and report on the here and now.


H:: I’m curious about daily rhythms when it comes to your way of Zen and poetic practice. Do you have a particular flow or set schedule when it comes to the heart-mind practice of zazen/shikantaza/silent illumination, working with landscape and nature, and contemplative poetic expression?


A: I wake, I sleep, between these two, life flows. 24/7 is my meditation. Awake or asleep, silent or speaking, still or moving. I have beautiful contemplative practices, too. Some mornings I hold a chanoyu (Japanese Tea Ceremony with matcha tea), cleaning the space, picking a flower. Other days I offer leaf tea and incense. Another time, I may rake leaves from under the trees, or sweep the path. Daily, I clean the surfaces in the kitchen. Queueing for bread at the bakers. Choosing fruit at a street market. Sitting in meetings. Answering questions for interviews.


For many years, since 1982, I meditate; daily since around 2000. Hours on end. Zazenkais (1 day sits). Sesshin (7 day sits). Rohatsu (night sitting in celebration of Buddha’s Enlightenment day). Mountain sitting. Night sitting. River sitting. Sitting under trees. Sometimes it seems like I must have tried every meditation posture, every possible technique, every duration, every location possible. At some point, I didn’t give up; I just discovered that all meditation practice was occurring inside meditation. Meditation isn’t a practice at all; it’s connection with the source. We’re never disconnected. We just get a little (or a lot) distracted.


I also walk in nature whenever I can. The wild expanses, the open landscape, the dense forests, mountain ridges walked for days -- these are the places that light me up. They often inspire, invite, or offer poetry. The walk itself is poetry. The poetry comes at any time, though.


Once, while sitting on a metro in Lisboa, a haiku showed up. Not about the experience there and then, but from somewhere else. I wrote it down. I don’t even remember it now. I would have to search for it. I could write down all sorts of fancy answers here. But, better to say:

Go brew a bowl of roasted oolong

from the water of a mountain stream;

better that than listen to me.

Better to walk on a wild and windy clifftop,

and get your head blown off, than listen to me.

Better to contemplate where the breeze comes from.

Better to meditate on nothing at all, but for the question:

”Who is meditating?”

H: Lately, I have been re-reading two works that promote the idea of solitary living - the Khaggavisana Sutta (a.k.a. The Rhinoceros Sutra) and swordmaster Miyamoto Musashi’s (1584-1645) Dōkkōdō (The Way of Walking Alone).


The Rhinoceros Sutra, with its frequent refrain “Wander alone like a rhinoceros...” advocates the merits of solitary asceticism vs. practicing as householder or monastic. Meanwhile, Musashi (whose Buddhist name was Niten Doraku), puts forth 21 precepts that relate to food, weapons (he was a Zen swordmaster, after all), sensuality, and even spirituality when he says, “Revere Buddha and the gods, but do not rely on them.”


The approach and worldview of these texts will strike most modern people as too extreme. While I do not practice their essence as a city-dweller, undoubtedly there is something powerful about them, especially when considered against the backdrop of a world that seems to have fallen into a perilous state of disharmony, culturally and ecologically.


Are you familiar with these works? What is your own takeaway? Are there other texts or tenets you find guiding your path as solitary practitioner and poet?


A: Since you shared about The Rhinoceros Sutra, it captured my attention immediately, like a brilliant light. I explored it. I recognized it. I recognized my path in it. I recognized it not as guiding me to a solitary life, but to be solitary in my determination, solitary in finding the way, to walk my own path, not to follow, nor to lead. Simply to walk, alone, like a rhinoceros.


I took a peek at the Dōkkōdō. They seem rather beautiful, and no doubt helpful, but 21 precepts is too many for me. It seems I had to find another way in my own life. Not by choice, more by destiny, if I were to believe in that sort of thing.


My memory was affected by my seven-year illness. Whilst many aspects of function returned, areas of memory function did not. It was my longest sesshin ever, those seven years. I am not troubled by the lack of memory. I find it a blessing! So, I can’t always remember the Four Noble Truths,...the 6 this, the 10 that, the 21 the other… Like the Tibetan monk Lam Chung, sometimes I can’t even remember a single line of Dharma. Yet, I hear it in every heartbeat and the breath of the wind. Sometimes when I speak or write poetry, it speaks through me. These aren’t my poems. This is not my Dharma. I belong to it, not the other way around. Everything is Buddha-Mind.

H: I wanted to turn now to your Patreon project, because this is one of the pristine ways you radiate Zen life in the modern day. I have to say this is one of the most unique things I’ve ever seen a poet do. Not only is it a platform through which you are publishing some incredible nature-inspired, heart-mind cultivated, silence-infused Zen poetry, it’s also a way for fans of your writing to serve as patrons of your solitary life. Share a bit about the inspiration for The Unsui on Patreon, and where you feel this unique project is going.


A: I find it quite striking that you say my Patreon is one of the most striking things you’ve seen a poet do. In actuality, I didn’t do it. It was gifted to me by my first patron, you could say. Someone who had come to me for help with some aspects of life, and whom it seems I was able to help. So, bearing in mind that I didn’t come up with the idea, let’s talk about it.


I have lived solely by donation for many years now. Sometimes I have gone without food, water even, and, of course, money and housing. I have lived in shelters, huts and tents, tiny cottages and luxury mansions in this time. All the shades of a life, lived.


The Patreon came at a time when funds were at their lowest, February 2017. I say “lowest.” There was none. Somehow, word got out. Sangha began sending donations, others pushing €20 notes into my pockets. Monks sent PayPal across the oceans, and a friend showed up pressing this Patreon on me, saying I should try it, and that she would build it. I said no. She persisted. I said no. She persisted. I said no. She said “Make this easy. Say yes.” I said yes.


It felt awkward and alien at first, and not a match for me at all. But now, it feeds me. Now, it is growing. It has continued to grow since day one. I discovered there were people out there who supported what I am doing, whatever that is. We can call it poetry, for the sake of naming it. So, it’s been the most incredible, path affirming patronage, both the initial gift of the Patreon, and the showing up of other patrons there.


So Patreon is a place where a community has formed around my work, you could call it a sangha (of Zen poetry), a gathering of those who share the same spirit, seek it, or who simply wish to help feed and shelter me.


I walk this path with great joy. If I am to trust the ultimate truth, the universe, the one, the absolute, life, then I must trust wholeheartedly. I could have surrendered to it, but that wasn’t necessary, because rather, this path came along, and swallowed me whole. I don’t need to stick my head in the tiger’s mouth, when I’m in its belly already. That would be a step too much.


There are a set of clear and simple goals for the Patreon fund now. It began as a digital begging bowl, along with the donation page of my website, which has been around for a few years now, serving me food and water now and then.


The first goal was to raise enough to put food, water and medicines on the table. I have long-term chronic health issues (ME/CFS: myalgic encephalomyelitis and chronic fatigue syndrome), so need to maintain a good diet, and supplementation, with herbs, minerals and other therapies when needed. This goal has been attained, although I may have set the bar a little low, in actual fact, it probably needed to be a little higher to cover health needs.


The second goal is that once I have $500+ coming in, I will be able to begin to set aside a little each month towards buying a vehicle.


The third goal is that once I have $1000+ coming in, I will be able to begin to consider renting a home somewhere. For the first time since 2007. I still aim to wander, travel and make pilgrimage in the wild and holy places of the earth, but this body needs a place to rest when it is weary. Aged 56, with ME/CFS, that is not a luxury but a basic essential. It is also the reason a vehicle is needed.


Later in the goals, I will move into bigger place, where I have not only space to live and work, but also land where I can offer a few small hermitage huts to visiting poets and seekers. I will offer solitary retreat time there, with guidance available from me. I may also offer something similar online, supported solitary retreat.


Another goal is to upgrade a vehicle to create a mobile hermitage / zendo / tea house / poet hut. One that allows me to show up anywhere. Not too big, just a converted van of some kind, made with repurposed natural materials.


Eventually, a tea house at the home/studio/hermitage too. That will complete the circle.


Along the way, what I offer is exclusive access to more than 95% of my poetry, early release of ebooks and printed published books, your name in them on a list of patrons, notes from my notebook, journal entries from my journals, chapters from The Forest, which I hope to really dig into as soon as I’m able to live in a more forested environment again.


I also offer poetry readings and commentaries on Zen and Zen poetry by the masters, and the ancient art of Zen divination, using a couple of my most loved Zen texts, ‘Zen Sand’ and ‘Wind in the Pines’.


Zen, tea, and poetry are my passions. Their principles are at the heart of all my work and activities. So there will be plenty of references to tea too.


In a nutshell, the Patreon project is to enable a community of lovers of the contemplative way of Zen, tea, and poetry, those with a passion for silence, stillness, and the slow life, to gather around my work. This community supports me so I can continue to share my words, and publish them more widely. It supports me to allow my trust in the ability of life to provide for me, to support the expansion and development of my work.


Whether that leads to a life like Basho - roaming, writing, sharing, teaching and resting, then doing it all over again, or, like Dogen, hosting a tiny haiku zendō somewhere in the forested hills, or like Baisao ("the old tea seller"), selling tea by the river, sharing conversation, or that old crazy cloud, Ikkyu, time will tell.


Ultimately, it is what leads to this present life as Andō, and that’s good with me. When I walk or sit with nature, I meet my own heart. Find me on a mountain top, under a tree, on a rock at the foot of a gorge, in the wind in the pines. Meet me there.

For more information about Ando and her poetic work, visit: ando.life


To explore and support Ando’s The Unsui project on Patreon, visit: patreon.com/theunsui


For more information about the traditions and individual expressions of individuals who have taken up hermitage as a spiritual and artistic discipline, from various cultures and traditions, visit: The Hermitary

GLOSSARY


Buddhadharma/Dharma: the teachings of the Buddha


haiku: short, three-line poems with a 5-7-5 syllable structure made popular by Matsuo Basho


householder: a layperson (non-monastic) in Buddhist tradition


sangha: assembly, community of practitioners


satsang: from Sanskrit, "to associate with true people"; sitting as a group with a guru


sesshin: a period of intensive zazen (sitting meditation in Zen tradition)


Unborn (fusho): from the Sanskrit, anutpuda (no origin); a method of seeing into the true nature of existence; the focal teaching of Zen master Bankei Yotaku (1622-1693)