Sunday, February 03, 2008

The Art of Zen

An old post written a couple of years ago as summer faded into autumn, but perhaps worth repeating for this week's Writers Island prompt: magic

I have a small paper board, square and framed, made of magic stuff. There is a tapered Chinese paintbrush near it and a shallow bowl that holds water. When you dip the brush and pull it slowly over the paper, the lines appear almost black. They gradually fade to grey and then disappear altogether.

It’s called a Zen Board. No matter what you paint there–a mistake or a masterpiece–the lines become paler and vanish. Nothing stays, no matter how unsatisfactory, no matter how perfect.

It’s a concept I struggle with, that of inevitable change. I don’t mind when the flawed pictures I make fade out of existence. In fact, the lines disappear so slowly that often I become impatient. When I create a thing of beauty, however, I am loath to see it recede. I am using the Zen Board to teach myself to let go of both with equal ease.

Nature is appraoching that same space now as one season ends and another begins. Its Zen Board is the foliage. The maple leaves will soon trade their summer green for the brighter hues that last only a short time before fading into nothingness. Sumac will burn briefly scarlet, poplars will flaunt their yellow banners before dropping them to the ground in pale heaps, and the tall meadow grasses will turn golden under the waning sunlight.

As beautiful as summer is, with its warm days and fragrant flowers, its symphony of bird song and cricket chirps and frog chorus it, too, will pass away. Winter will draw new lines, starker ones, and paint the landscape in shades of grey and of deep purple and sable brown. Then, even as we watch, the dark marks made by the winter months will in turn fade and spring will take up the brush to paint the leaves and flowers anew.

If we let it, nature can show us that impermanence is not bad in and of itself. Knowing that something is fleeting can ease an intolerable situation and give us hope of respite. We may yearn for what has gone or wish for more time to savor what we don’t wish to lose but we are also shown that we can treasure the moment. We can look around us and realize that now is the time to appreciate and that now includes the past and the future as well as the present.

Endings teach us about beginnings. Beginnings teach us that all things come to a close. As we cycle in and out of all our life stages, the lines we drew so darkly at first (as though they were permanent self-borders) become hazy, making way for new perspectives, new horizons. We find that our very lives are Zen Boards and the brush strokes that trace our thoughts will fade and be drawn again, over and over.