Tag Archives: Buddhism

Japanese zen art – just go away

Japanese zen spiral -- it's a cartoon about meditation. It looks like a monk and a spiral, and note that both ends point inward.

Japanese zen spiral — it’s a cartoon about meditation. It looks like a monk and a spiral, and note that both ends point inward. Cute.

The purpose of art is not generally to show the world as it is, but to show a new, better way to look at the world. As such, my take on Japanese zen art, is that it is a very cool, fun way to say “just go away.” What follows are some nice (to my eyes) examples, with my commentary.

As with most Japanese art, the zen art looks simpler and more free-form than western religious art. In a sense that is true: there are far fewer lines, but the paintings take as long to make, to a good estimate, since they only appear to have been made with casual ease: flicks of the wrist and waves of the hand. In actuality the artist had a vision of what he wanted, and then made free-hand waving copy after copy until he had some correct, free-looking ones ready for delivery. Because of this, you can look for a meaning in every wiggle — something that you would not do with US free-form abstracts, or with religious paintings of the 1600s. Take daVinci’s last supper — the grand layout is clearly planned and meaningful, the details of the wrinkles, not really. With these, though, no detail is accidental, and the non-accidental sense, as I see it, is “just go away.”

Buddhist Master. I can imagine this work is effective at keeping guests from over-staying their welcome.

Buddhist Master. Art like this keeps away guests.

Take the spiral at left. It’s sort of cool, and claims to be an allusion to meditation. Mystic, no? As I look carefully a the spiral, the first remarkable thing I see is that it circles in on itself at both ends. At a simple level, I think that’s an allusion to the inward nature of meditation, but note that, at the top end of the coil there’s a wiggle that looks like a face. I take that to be a monk’s face, looking away. The geometry of the coil then suggests the legs and thighs of the rest of the monk (sitting?). If that’s the image (and I think it is) the fact that the monk is facing away from you, leaving you behind suggests to me that the owner has no desire to have you join him. I see nothing in this that would cause another person to want to meditate either. There is nothing attractively persuasive as in western religious art. Here’s an essay I wrote on meditation.

Perhaps it’s just me, but I also imagine these artists living on an industrial treadmill, making painting after painting in his shop and throwing most away because, for example, the monk’s back extended past the paper. Western expressionism also sometimes puts many paintings on a single canvas, but the hidden image stays, at least in a sort-of half shadow. And the wiggles strive to be less learned, even if the faces of some western religious art is distant –even more distant often. At right, above, you’ll find another popular zen-art approach. It shows a zen master in nearly full face. As with most zen art, the master (Buddha or a disciple) looks calm -ish with a sense of the put-upon, as if he were Christ carrying the cross of you being there. Perhaps the intent was to make you go off and meditate, or to see society as worthless, but I think the more-likely message in the master’s look is “why me Lord.” The master looks like he isn’t unhappy with life, just unhappy with you being there. I imagine that this work was placed in a noble’s living room or study for the same reason that many American today put up a picture of Yosemite Sam, sometimes (for those who don’t get art) “Keep Out! This means you.”

A monkey looks at the moon in a well. Don't touch, the moon seems to say.

A monkey looks at the moon in a well. Don’t touch, the moon seems to say.

As with the Warner-bros. classic, there is a flowing look to the brushwork, but a fair amount of detail. As with the Warner Bros. cartoon, the casual lines seem to serve the purpose of keeping the viewer from taking offense at the message. Sort of like, “Don’t go away mad, just go away.” Cool, but I also like Western cartooning.

As one last example, at left you’ll see a painting illustrating a zen parable. in this case it’s the parable of the monkey’s and the image of the moon. Shown is the moon’s reflection in the water of a well — moon is that big round face. A monkey is about to touch the moon-image, and as we can expect, when the monkey touches the image, it disappears. There are several understandings to be gained from this, e.g. that all is illusion (similar to Plato and his cave), or suggesting that it is better to look at life than to interact with it. Which is the main meaning? In this picture, my sense is that the moon seems put-upon, and afraid. Thus, the lesson I take from the picture is one of inaction: “don’t touch the reflection.” Once again, the choice to depict a frightened moon rather than an impassive one, seems to be the painter’s way of saying “please go away.” Very cool image, but as messages go, that’s the one I see in most Japanese zen art.

Robert Buxbaum, August 17, 2017. I’ve also written on surreal art (I like it a lot, and find it ‘funny’) and on Dada, and conceptual (I like it too, playfully meaningful, IMHO). If you like zen jokes (and who doesn’t) here’s a story of the Buddhist and the hot-dog vendor, and how many zen Buddhists does it take to change a lightbulb? Four. See why.

West’s Batman vs Zen Batmen

“Holy kleenex Batman, it was right under our noses and we blew it.” I came of age with Adam West’s Batman on TV and a relatively sane Batman in the comic books. Batman was a sort of urban cowboy: a loner, but law-abiding, honest, and polite – both to the police and to the ordinary citizen. He was good, and he was “nice.” As with future Batmen, no one died, at least not from the Batman.


More recent Batmen have been not nice, and arguably not good either. They are above the law, trained in eastern monasteries by dark masters of kung fu, with a morality no one quite understands. One could say, quite literally, “He was a dark and stormy knight.”

Well, a few days ago, I found the item at left for sale on e-Bay, a plastic Batman-Buddha, and I started wondering about the meditations that produced Batman, and that Batman expounds on life and crime. It wasn’t pretty. They are not pretty. A quick check from the movie versions suggest the Zen Batman is pretty messed up, something that psychologists have noted.

Here’s a quote from the goofy, Adam West Batman of the 1960s: “Underneath this garb, we’re perfectly ordinary Americans.” Believing yourself to be normal helps improve sanity, and helps you relate to others. Calling yourself an American implies you keep American laws. Here’s another quote: “A reporter’s lot is not easy, making exciting stories out of plain, average, ordinary people like Robin and me.” It’s nice to see that the Adam West Batman feels for the other peoples’ problems, respects their professions, and does not profess to be better than they. By contrast, when a more recent Batman is asked: “What gives you the right? What’s the difference between you and me?” The Dark Knight responds, “I’m not wearing hockey pads.” This is a might-is-right approach, suggesting he’s above the law. The problem: a self-appointed vigilante is a criminal.

Here are some more quotes of the recent, eastern Batmen:
“Sometimes it’s only madness that makes us what we are.”
“That mask — it’s not to hide who I am, but to create what I am.”
“I won’t kill you, but I don’t have to save you.”

These quote are at least as messed up as the hockey pad quote above. It sometimes seems the Joker is the more sane of the two. For example, when Batman explains why he doesn’t kill: “If you kill a killer, the number of killers remains the same.” To which Joker replies: “Unless you kill more than one… but whatever you say, Batsy.”

Not a classic Batmobile, but I like the concept.

Not a classic Batmobile, but I like the concept; if that’s not Adam West, if could be.

The dark, depressive Batmen tend to leave Gotham City in shambles after every intervention, with piles of dead. West’s Batman left the city clean and whole. Given the damage, you wonder why the police call Batman or let him on the streets. Unlike West, the current Batmen never works with the police, quite. And to the extent that Robin appears at all, his relationship with Batman is more frenemy than friend or ward. Batgirl (mostly absent) has changed too. The original Batgirl, if you don’t recall, was Barbara Gordon, Commissioner Gordon’s daughter. She was a positive, female role model, with a supportive, non-sexist parent in Commissioner Gordon (an early version of Kim Possible’s dad). The current Batgirl appears only once, and is presented as the butler’s daughter. Until her appearance that day, you never see her at Wayne Manor, nor did she know quite what her dad was up to.

Here are some West Batman / Robin interactions showing an interest in Robin’s education and well-being:

“Haven’t you noticed how we always escape the vicious ensnarements of our enemies?” Robin: “Yeah, because we’re smarter than they are!”  “I like to think it’s because our hearts are pure.”

“Better put 5 cents in the meter.” Robin: “No policeman’s going to give the Batmobile a ticket.”
“This money goes to building better roads. We all must do our part.”

Robin: “You can’t get away from Batman that easy!” “Easily.” Robin: “Easily.”
“Good grammar is essential, Robin.” Robin: “Thank you.” “You’re welcome.”

Robin/Dick:”What’s so important about Chopin?” “All music is important, Dick. It’s the universal language. One of our best hopes for the eventual realization of the brotherhood of man.” Dick: “Gosh Bruce, yes, you’re right. I’ll practice harder from now on.”

“That’s one trouble with dual identities, Robin. Dual responsibilities.”

“Even crime fighters must eat. And especially you. You’re a growing boy and you need your nutrition.”

“What took you so long, Batgirl?” Batgirl: “Rush hour traffic, plus all the lights were against me. And you wouldn’t want me to speed, would you?” Robin: “Your good driving habits almost cost us our lives!” Batman: “Rules are rules, Robin. But you do have a point.”

And finally: “I think you should acquire a taste for opera, Robin, as one does for poetry and olives.”

Clearly this Batman takes an interest in Robin’s health and education, and in Batgirl’s. Robin is his ward, after all, rather a foster child, and it’s good to seem him treated as a foster child — admittedly with a foster-father whose profession is a odd.

Perhaps the most normal comment from a non-West Batman is this (it appears in many posters): “It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me.” It’s, more or less, a quote from Karl Jung (famous psychologist) and can serve as a motivator providing pride in one’s art, but job-attachment goes with suicide, e.g. when you lose your job. The far healthier approach is less identification with job; just be proud of doing good and developing virtue. West’s Batman finds Catwoman, a woman with her own moral code, odious, abhorrent, and insegrievious, and says so. The only difference between her and The Joker is the amount of damage done; he should find her insegrievious. Sorry to say, recent, Zen Batmen and Supermen are just as bad. To quote Robin: “Holy strawberries, Batman, we’re in a jam.”

Robert Buxbaum, June 26, 2017. Insegeivious is a made-up word, BTW. If we use it, it could become part of the real vocabulary.

Buddhists, Hindus and dentists joke

At the dentists’ office, Buddhist and Hindu monks don’t need anesthesia to have their teeth worked on. They transcend dental medication.

It’s funny because it’s a 3 word pun, and because there is something magical about the ability of people to conquer pain through meditation.

Focussed meditation can keep you from worry and other pain.

Focused meditation can keep you from worry and some physical pain. As for thugs, that’s more controversial. It’s possible that laughter, or looking at a spot will do as much. Gahan Wilson

The types of meditation, as I understand it, are two which are four. The two are focused and non-focused. focused meditation is supposed to allow you to conquer pain, both physical and spiritual. You concentrate on your breathing, or some other rhythmic action and thought; and whenever you realize that your mind is wandering you bring it back. A popular version is called square breathing: you breath in, hold, breath out, hold, etc. In time there is a sense of calm with the world. In theory, you can transcend dental medication, but I use the normal western practice of Novocaine plus gas. Meditation practitioners claim that directed meditation can also protect you from villains and bring peace in the world; I suspect that’s true, but also suspect that humor, or staring at a spot will do as much. I suspect that Dr Seuss has done wonders for peace in the world.

The second major version of mediation is non-focused; it can bring enlightenment if you use it right. You repeat a mantra slowly and let your mind wander along some general paths. The classic incantatory mantra is OM, and the classic paths include: what am I doing with my life, imagine a stick with one end, what is the sound of a hand clapping. The enlightenment that is supposed to arise is supposed to promote non-violence, charity, and a sense of oneness with the all. In general, I’ve found that letting one’s mind wander is a great way to solve difficult problems and to help one decide whether certain situations are worth being involved with. To the extent I’ve used a mantra, it’s versions of “radiator not leaking, mind leaking,” or “computer solution not unstable, mind unstable.” In the calm of realizing there is a solution, I’ve generally been able to find a solution.

Enlightenment can be as simple as realizing that you're there already or that you shouldn't manage a country that's unlike you and dislikes you.

Enlightenment can be as simple as realizing that you’re there already.

As for the other 2 types of meditation, it depends. To some, it involves rocking to the sound of the one hand clapping (or not). To some, it’s realizing you’re there already, or that you really don’t want to get involved in an Asian war to defend and manage a country that’s completely unlike yours, and that dislikes yours as well, or that it’s OK to use Novocaine and gas when you have your teeth worked on. That’s what they are there for.

Robert E. Buxbaum, May 24, 2014. Some wisdom from the Jewish mystics: Wherever you go, there you are, as for your baggage, who knows? Tea, with the first sip joy, with the second, satisfaction, with the third, Danish.

Zen and the hotdog vendor (a joke)

What did the Zen master ask from the hot dog vendor?

“Can you make me one — with everything?”

The vendor (so the story goes) replied “That will be $1.50.” The Master handed him $10 and the vendor handed him a hot-dog and said, “change comes from within.” (thought you’d like to know).

If you think this is funny, you may also like my previous Zen joke or (for all I know), my recent personal relationship cartoon.

Zen Buddhist Joke

How many Zen Buddhists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

Four: One to screw in the bulb;

One to not screw in the bulb;

One to both screw in the bulb and not screw in the bulb.

And one to neither screw in the bulb, nor not screw in the bulb.

Is funny because Buddhism aims at enlightenment — something that occurs by the simultaneous destruction and non-destruction of the darkness. Ah you got it: I hear one hand clapping.