Do animals experience samsara?

“Art is solving problems that cannot be formulated before they have been solved. The shaping of the question is part of the answer.”  Piet Hein

Today during a visit to the Art Gallery of Victoria, I was captivated by Nicholas Vandergugten’s work “What Comes First,” a series of four monitors showing nine looping films of artists’ hands as they worked. The film focuses on process, not product, calling attention to the practice of creation—the incomplete, the unpolished, the fits and starts. We see artists’ hands doing and pausing and making. Hands turn the pages of an art bullet journal, hands etch and paint, hands turn over found objects: bones and feathers. Hands rest on the paint-flecked table as if considering their next move. Here, I document the process/progress of making eight pennants in a similar spirit.

In the last several days, I finished “loss,” then “fame.” Three pennants are complete. I enjoyed creating “fame.” The steps leading up to it included an hour wandering through Fabricland, searching for deer-themed fabric. To my surprise, there was a lot to choose from.

Yet soon discomfort seeped in. Not about the materials themselves, but about the concept. When I created the first pennant, “gain,” I arbitrarily used a tiny deer puppet that I had hanging around my studio. It was part of a set of knitted finger puppets I gave IMG_0546to a little girl, but somehow the deer got away from the set and I ended up with it. It seemed a perfect way to make the abstract concrete: to have someone or something experiencing gain. So my deer was soon cosseted by silks and feathers, zipped into a cocoon of wealth. A narrative emerged: Rainer the reindeer enjoys his gains, not realizing he’ll soon experience loss.

Unwittingly, I had committed myself to a story about a deer, a narrative that  would need to continue through all of the eight worldly winds to maintain coherence. For loss, I represented the biggest loss—death—inside of an empty purse. Fame was fun and whimsical—deer of the year.

But a problem emerged. Animals do not experience the eight worldly winds in the same way humans do. Perhaps they feel pleasure and pain, but can they be famous amongst themselves? Or can a deer be disreputable according to other deer? What about praise and blame—do animals feel these? I doubt it. (Buddhist texts depict those in the animal realm as driven by impulse and instinct, and thus living a life of mostly suffering.)

In using an animal to represent how humans experience samsara, I unintentionally introduced irony. Now I had the problem of how to show Rainer experiencing the eight worldly winds without being too cute in my anthropomorphism (for example, replicating a Disney version of Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer). Could Rainer stand in for human experience and at the same time retain his essential deerness?

I seemed to be throwing the heaviness of human subjectivity over the antlers of a proud autonomous deer. Oh dear… there I go again. “Proud” is the inevitable human perspective—I cannot escape it.  When I think of disrepute I conjure up Rudolph’s red nose. When I think of a famous deer, the mythical white stag comes to mind. As soon as I, human subject, try to imagine deer subjectivity, I colour deer as object.

I remembered a poem I wrote about meeting a stag.* Inevitably self-referential, the speaker soon slips from confrontation with an alien creature into being Susan in Narnia. The stag becomes C.S. Lewis’s literary creation. How to stay in a space that respects difference?

But then again, I am not sure it really matters. Ultimately, continuing to work on a series is to have faith that everything will hang together eventually and that there is some kind of value–if not in the product, then in the process. As I work on the next five pennants, I will continually reshape the question of how to show a deer stuck in samsara and probably wish I’d never started it.

The Stag
(for Elizabeth Bishop)

I faced a stag
in the darkening light,
felt his animal breath
warm, familiar
looked into his glassy
dispassionate eye
felt  a whoosh of joy
to share the earth.

There was a moment of
recognition. How did
you raise forty points
on urban marigolds?
I wanted to ask, and wanted
him to answer, plunging us from
Oak Bay to Narnia.

I could be Susan,
Archeress,
Surefooted older sister,
gentle, strong,
doubtful at first, but
then devoted to Aslan.

Stag, turn white and take me there,
let me blow danger with my
magic horn before I get
beguiled by the material world.

But suddenly
mind flings back to body,
yours— pivot of bone branches,
smooth quivering hide,
and mine—sagging on two legs
in this sad outlandish standoff.

*This is a modified version of the original poem published in my book Birth of the Uncool

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Suffering?

 

 

 

Eight Worldly Winds Project

 “We take what is transitory – money, fame, power, relationship – to be real and base our lives on achieving what cannot last – happiness, wealth, fame, and respect. When we base life on what can be taken from us, we give power over our lives to anyone who can take it away. We become dependent on others and on society for a sense of well-being.”

Ken McLeod, Wake Up to Your Life, 92

The first time I came across Buddhism’s concept of the eight worldly winds (also called worldly concerns or dharmas), I was startled by its simple truth. The eight worldly winds come in four opposing pairs: gain vs. loss; happiness vs. suffering; praise vs. blame; and good reputation vs. bad reputation.[1] Buddhism teaches that our endless oscillation between these coupled states keeps us tossing in the storm of samsara. I immediately recognized myself: I live my life hoping for and clinging to the “positive” states of gain, happiness, praise, and good reputation while fearing and avoiding their “negative” counterparts: loss, suffering, blame, and bad reputation. The eight worldly winds give us a bird’s eye view of human suffering—we are flags tossed helplessly by those winds, whipping from elation to despair, trying desperately to stay on the left side of the flagpole (gain/happiness/praise/good reputation). Trying to make those impermanent states last.

The antidote to the eight winds is not to rise above the weather like the bird that has the view, but rather to identify with the still center, the flagpole. Remain equanimous. Feel and accept sadness, pain, and loss—don’t rush it or try to flee from under its dark shadow. Sit there until the shadow passes. And when delight and happiness come, embrace those too, revel in them, but know they are impermanent. Gain feels good, but loss is inevitable, so why expect continuous gain? You may pride yourself on your good reputation, but you have no control over what people say about you. Good can turn to bad as quickly as the wind changes direction. Praise and approval feed you, but again, praise will evaporate and you’ll feel blamed and shamed for something soon. These teachings make visceral sense to me; I feel the truth of them in my bones. The pivot point of hope/fear drives our responses. When we live in hope for the “good” stuff and in fear for the “bad” stuff, we are caught blindly in samsara, and we do not experience life as it is.

I have come back to this teaching so often that I decided a few months ago to start a sewing project based on the eight worldly winds. By sewing the concept I might drive it even more deeply into my consciousness; by exploring what these states would look and feel like if they were fabric flags, I might find out more about myself while sharing this profound teaching with others.

I also decided I would document the project as it progresses, which feels risky to me. But another teaching (this one specifically from Shambhala—Chögyam Trungpa’s Sacred Path of the Warrior), is that is we really want to experience all the rawness and intensity of life, we must emerge from our cocoons, the thick ego-wrappings of habituated behaviour that keep us muffled and safe. To document a project-in-progress feels vulnerable—what if I fail? (loss/suffering). What if nobody is interested? (insignificance/bad reputation). What if people think it’s stupid? (blame/bad rep). And then there is the other concern—what if revealing artistic ideas before they are fully hatched drains them of their energy? (suffering/loss). Those questions don’t need answers. Let me simply begin.

In brief, I decided to sew eight pennants or vertical flags representing the eight winds. First, I thought I’d do four with front and back representing the pairs. That seemed to truly show their oppositional nature, but if I ever want to display the pennants, viewers would have to walk around them and may not be practical, depending on the exhibit space. I struggled a bit over the size of the pennants and the design. I did a mock-up of good reputation, but decided it was too small and I’d like the words to be consistently displayed horizontally across the top of each pennant. In my mind’s eye, I could see the eight finished pennants strung up on a clothesline with wooden clothes pegs, four pairs tossing in the breeze from an electric fan nearby.

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Prototype

I had to choose the translations of the word pairs that worked for me—particularly happiness/pleasure and suffering/pain. Happiness and suffering seem more capacious than pleasure/pain, so I’ll go with those. And as for good reputation/ bad reputation, translators seem to prefer words like fame/disgrace or fame/insignificance, but while insignificance is ubiquitous, fame is not widely applicable. How many of us experience fame? Good and bad rep are states we all struggle with.

I made a lot of sketches and a plan. We’ll see how it goes. I am going to begin with gain because I have so many ideas about it. I’ll post along the way. Mostly my inner critic keeps poking me saying, but is this meaningful work? Does this matter? Well, it matters to me. So, I choose to ignore her.

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Doodling and planning

If you are interested in knowing more about the eight worldly winds, I’ve provided links to three good sources: the first is a brief description of the concerns by Judy Lief; the second is a series of videos by Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo; and the third is a compilation of quotations on the worldly concerns by Pema Chodron (go to page 40-41):

https://www.lionsroar.com/buddhism-by-the-numbers-the-eight-worldly-concerns/

https://tricycle.org/dharmatalks/eight-worldly-concerns/

https://pemachodronfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/The-Essential-Pema-Study-Guide.pdf   (pages 40-41)

[1] The source is verse 29 of Nagarjuna’s Letter to a Friend.  There are various translations of the pairs from their original: a variation of happiness/suffering is pleasure/pain and variations on good reputation/ bad reputation are fame/insignificance, ill-repute, censure, or disgrace.