I began this series of illustrations in January 1980 at Chithurst Monastery. At that time I did not conceive of there being a series and Chithurst was hardly a monastery. What sustains the spiritual life is that it becomes independent of one’s own volition; it has a life of its own that one comes to recognize and serve. So taking things as they came and adapting accordingly, after four and a half years, Chithurst was a firmly established monastery, and there was a series of paintings. I was able to present them with gratitude to my teacher, Venerable Ajahn Sumedho, on the occasion of his 50th birthday.
In the winter of 1979–80, we had just started on the work at Chithurst. A lot of it was manual labor—the reconstruction of a near-derelict house. Partly in response to the amount of physical and outgoing energy that was needed, some of the monks expressed an interest in developing our limited range of devotional and reflective chants. The Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta was a natural choice—a medium-length, steadily-intoned chant that expounds the heart of the Buddha’s teaching. It was ideal for both tranquillity and reflection, and could help to bring the whole community together in a devotional form. A few of us began to learn it from the Royal Thai Chanting Book, but it occurred to me that the Sutta could be written out in a way that would make it easier to read (!) and this would be a way of expressing gratitude to the traditions and to Ajahn Sumedho, my teacher. My penchant for graphic and verbal images had drawn a certain amount of artist’s material my way—notably, a calligraphy pen with which I proceeded to write out the Sutta. With some memories of Celtic Gospels (such as the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Book of Kells), I used a variation on half uncial script and added a few illuminations to the capitals. People were pleased and wanted to print copies of the work so I thought I’d better do it again, but more properly this time, with perhaps a full-page illumination of the opening paragraph….
I had a draftsman’s pen then, and a few colored inks. I found some paper in a drawer in the office. After I had completed the first paragraph, an idea for a design for the second popped up. This went on for four and a half years, punctuated by monastic retreats, long work projects and sojourns in two branch monasteries. At times, the work would rest for a month or two. At best, I could only pursue it in whatever spare time arose—at night or on Observance Day.¹ It felt right that way: just to use what time became available rather than to seek out time and make an obsession out of creation. This space gave my eyes and hands time to learn and my mind time to digest ideas and allow images to gather and merge. Most helpful of all for the creative act, I could contemplate the perception of “having to get this finished,” and the dispassion to let each painting be unsatisfactory without making a problem out of it.
Every one of these paintings gave me an example of the Buddha’s teaching in practice. “Birth is suffering”—the anxious moments with a blank sheet of paper, making pencil marks, trying to get an image to settle into the space and find balance thematically and graphically with the text. “Aging is suffering”—the struggle and concern to make it turn out right, coupled with the awareness that it was obeying unseen laws of its own. “Death is suffering”—the finished product, lettering uneven, coloring dull, forms murky and distorted … Well … let it be. I don’t remember really finishing any of them; rather, I just came to realize that there was no point in tinkering any more with each one. Misshapen as they were, they were good enough. Those that stand now were mostly first drafts. There were two retakes and one abortion. Most of them earned the right to live, through sheer persistence. I wanted to be able to present them on a suitable occasion; furthermore, I knew I would be going to help establish Amaravati Buddhist Monastery which would require all my energies. I finished the last one the night before Ajahn Sumedho’s birthday. That was the right time to finish.
Every one of these paintings is a manifestation of the joy of the Dhamma—for myself anyway. This is why they are good enough. All of these images arose—I created none of them. Some came in meditation, some from memories, some from art works, mandalas and thangkas in the monastery. In the earlier pen and ink drawings, it was mainly images that arose—lines and shapes and quasi-caricatures. The later illustrations are paintings in which the color or a combination of colors arose first—particularly in the section on the deva loka. This change of emphasis reflects a change over the years in my attitude towards spirituality. Things seemed to have definite existence in my early years as a bhikkhu; and my attitudes were more hard and fast, with clear-cut edges. Time and experience seem to have worn out that conceptual certainty; my mind came to feel out experiences and things rather than define them. And a subtle sense of joy and wonder at the mystery of things and their indefinable essence permeated my perception. The borders to the paintings opened up and disappeared, only to reappear as linear movements that support and attend to space rather than restrict it. Sometimes I would just paint a swash of color on the paper and enjoy it—or the feeling of the brush, the magic of the perception then changing as a color suffused a space.
The co-operation and interest of other people were important aspects of the value of these paintings to me. I used what people chose to give me freely. Each painting embodies this virtue of generosity (dana). George Sharp, the Chairman of the monastery’s Trust, himself a professional illustrator, gave me a set of colored inks. So I used those. Some poster paint came my way, so I used that; a Thai classical artist gave me some tempera; my mother gave me some acrylics; a bhikkhu friend, some oils; another Dhamma friend not only gave me numerous fine sable brushes, but also made photographic reproductions of the series and a set of color transparencies for exhibition purposes. Another Dhamma friend gave me some watercolor paper, while another mounted and heat-sealed the completed works. Seeking nothing can make one’s life immensely rich. That people should take part in this way, and actually appreciate the paintings, is for me an honor; the joy of the spirit that sustained the work overshadows the imperfections of the craft.
Being asked to write a commentary on the illuminations, however, presented its own problems owing to the responsibilities of establishing and maintaining Amaravati Buddhist Monastery. A year after the first request (1985), I wrote the above remarks. Then six years fluttered by, with the illustrations hanging on the wall of Amaravati’s meeting hall. As the hall was redecorated at the beginning of 1991, the series was removed and put in store. This movement into retreat seems to have caused a stir in the realm of those who delight in creation. Within three months, a letter came from the Sanghapala group in California, who were looking to set up a small Buddhist monastery there as a branch of Amaravati. They were interested in having the illustrations published with a commentary for when the monastery was projected to open.
I asked Ajahn Sumedho for a month’s “sabbatical” to write the commentary, incarcerated myself in a room with a shrine and a word-processor, and eventually emerged somewhat dazed with a manuscript. A few interested monks and nuns got down to reading and tidying up the draft, pinning some of my drifting thought processes into literary form and doing what they could to polish the style without making the work appear as an abstract and authoritative statement on the Dhamma. There is enough of that conceit in religious teaching and in human pronouncements in general. Rather than a proclamation of enlightened wisdom, this is a record of some thoughts I have had through years of practice. May it encourage others to develop their own insights, and thus be for the welfare of many.
Chithurst Buddhist Monastery,
- Buddhist Sabbath Days occurring every couple of weeks, during which the community often practices meditation through the night. [return to text]