A Pilgrimage to India

Two days after the farm closes, on October 9, I leave for India.

                                                * * *

On August 30, 2017, I was at my desk when I got an email from my Zen teacher, Shugen Roshi.  He wrote,                                          

 “I hope you’re all doing well and have had a nice summer. We have a student in New Zealand, John Tosan McKinnon, who has been leading small groups on pilgrimages to significant Buddhist sites in India and Nepal for many years.”

I read on. Shugen and Tosan were planning a trip for October of 2018. Shugen was inviting members of the sangha, the community of practitioners, to participate. My heart leapt—India!  Over the years, I have planned several trips to India and Nepal, but for one reason and another, none ever materialized. I looked at the dates—October 9 to 29, 2018. I looked at the calendar for 2018, the day after Columbus Day, the day we close the farm. I could do it. I looked over at Blase who was at his desk, also answering emails.  

 I said, “You won’t believe it, there is a trip to India through Zen Mountain Monastery.”

He heard my excitement.

“Would I also go?” he asked.

I could feel his awkwardness, though he has always been supportive of my Zen practice.

“No, it is only for sangha members.”

Then I asked directly, “Would you support me to go to India on this trip?”

 “If it is really important to you,” he said.

“It is.”

Ever since I lived in Japan, I dreamt of walking one of the Buddhist pilgrimage trails. In Japan, the most famous one goes 750 miles around the island of Shikoku. Pilgrims stop at each of the eighty-eight temples to say prayers; to walk the whole circuit takes at least two months. Today, people use buses, bicycles, taxis, and often choose to visit a select number of temples or spread their visit over several years. While researching the Shikoku pilgrimage, I stumbled upon the book The Ox Herding Series, the Buddhist Stages on the Path to Enlightenment, a slender volume of ink drawings, poems, and commentary. The Ox Herding series originated in China in the 12th century, the creation of a Zen master to help his students understand the spiritual journey they were undertaking.

Using the metaphor of the ox, a most valuable possession in ancient China, the journey begins when a young man, whip and tether in hand, heads off into the mountains to find his lost ox. He can’t come home without it. It’s his family’s livelihood: the ox plows the fields, and its manure heats his home. After much searching, the young man sees ox tracks and knows he’s heading in the right direction. He continues on through the steep and winding mountain paths, and he is rewarded with the sight of it. But this moment of recognition is short-lived, for the ox quickly disappears. The young man doesn’t give up, and with single-minded perseverance he finally catches the ox with his rope. Then the struggle really begins. Pushing and pulling, he must tame the ox until they can walk together with ease. Only then are they on the way home.

 IV Catching the Ox (Female version) Sculpture: LH Photo:Joe Ofria

IV Catching the Ox (Female version) Sculpture: LH Photo:Joe Ofria

I looked up the author of the ox-herding book and discovered he was John Daido Loori, Abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery in Mount Tremper, New York. The monastery website featured a one-week retreat, Wilderness, Art, and Zen, a camping trip on Raquette Lake in the Adirondacks. Here was a retreat devoted to three things I loved. It certainly sounded simpler than the logistics necessary for even an abbreviated Shikoku pilgrimage. I called Zen Mountain Monastery.

 “I’m calling to sign up for the Wilderness Retreat.”

“Have you been to the monastery before?” a female voice asked.

“No, I just found the retreat listed on your website.”

“Hmm, then you haven’t attended our Introduction to Zen Training workshop?”

“No.”

“Sorry,” the efficient voice replied. “You have to first attend that weekend workshop before you can go on the Wilderness Retreat. The next one is filled, but you can sign up for the July weekend.”

“I can’t do the July weekend,” I said.

“Well,” she continued, “we offer the wilderness retreat every year.”

 “Isn’t there some way I can go without doing the introductory retreat?”

“No, there isn’t.”

“Are you sure?”

Finally, the voice said, “There’s nothing I can do, but you can talk with a teacher. Call back in ten days and ask for Shugen.”

I hung up the phone and wrote Shugen a letter and included a booklet of my sculpture, A Circus Comes to Fruitlands. The sculptures represented circus acts, a Juggler, a Clown, a Tightrope Walker, all made from old agricultural tools. I wanted to do everything I could to convince him to let me go on this trip. Ten days passed and I called Zen Mountain Monastery.

 “I’d like to go on the Wilderness Retreat,” I said.

“You can’t go on the Wilderness Retreat without attending the Introduction to Zen Training,” he replied.

“Isn’t there some way?”

“No.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

I said, “I trained in the Noh Theater in Japan for two years. I know a little about Zen.”

“Zen isn’t the issue.”

I was trying to figure out what was his red flag. I thought maybe he was afraid I would want to go home halfway through the trip.

“I love the wilderness,” I said. “I’ve climbed all of the four-thousand-footers in the White Mountains, I’ve summited Mt. Rainier, climbed in the Tetons, and backpacked through Peru.”

  Gathering Wood near Mollepata, Peru  Photo:LH

Gathering Wood near Mollepata, Peru Photo:LH

There was a pause. Then he quietly said, “All right.”

“Thank you!” I said.

He added, referring to my sculpture, “By the way, I like your stuff.”

I went on the retreat, eventually attended the Introduction to Zen Training, and have been practicing at Zen Mountain Monastery since 2004.

This pilgrimage to India will take us back to the roots, to where Buddhism originated. We will follow the Buddha’s life from birth, home-leaving, his wandering as an ascetic, to his enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, and visit places where he taught for the next forty years. As a young man, Siddhartha led an protected princely life. But once he encountered the reality of human suffering, once he saw the pain of people with severe illness, the infirmities of old age, and facing with fear their approaching death, his own life became meaningless. He no longer found any satisfaction living in the palace, even with all the wealth and power of his position, even with a lovely wife and young son. 

I imagine it was difficult for Siddhartha to leave his family; I know how difficult it is for me to leave for only three weeks! But he was determined to understand why we are put here on this earth. What is the cause of so much suffering? And can we ever be free from it?  

Every pilgrim makes a journey for their own reasons. Some to seek an answer to a question, others want to express their gratitude for the teachings or atone for wrongdoings, still others to honor a loved one. Shugen Roshi urged us to reflect on what this trip means to us personally as we prepare to connect with the Buddha, the teachings, as well as the ancestors. He has suggested readings and teachings to help us set our aspirations for the trip. 

Preparing for this trip has made me reflect back almost forty years when I first went to Japan to study Noh Theater and lived in a temple in Kyoto. In my one-tatami mat room, I listened to the monks’ deep chanting each morning and evening. I think what propelled me to go on that first ‘wilderness’ trip and gain access to the Buddha’s teachings. As I look back over the last twenty years I recognize the steep trails, the vistas that opened, and the rocky descents of my journey. I can remember meeting my first husband in Japan, my move to Old Frog Pond Farm after our divorce, the decision to bring back the old apple orchard, a new relationship with Blase, a long year of breast cancer treatments, and our marriage three years ago when my son, Nick, spoke so sweetly about Blase’s care during that challenging time. Through all of this, there has always been Art—creating the solid trail I walk on, and my Zen teachers and sangha helping me keep mind and heart centered on what really matters. 

  Stone Heart  Photo:LH

Stone Heart Photo:LH

I’m excited to be traveling with Shugen Roshi, Hojin Sensei, whom I met on that first wilderness trip, and thirteen other sangha members, eight from New Zealand. I’m grateful to Blase for taking care of the farm. Sharing this event in my life with you feels like another part of the preparation. Many of you have followed my questions about how Blase and I will continue to cultivate the farm in ways that serve and grow our community, encourage the arts, while also being good stewards of the land. I will undoubtedly carry these questions with me, but unconsciously—for I will purposely let them go. John Daido Loori Roshi, author of the Ox Herding book, said we must empty the backpack we carry. We must empty our minds of all of our conditioned ideas. Otherwise, there is no room for anything new. He was referring to coming into Zen training, but really it applies to beginning everything—a painting, a pilgrimage as well as each new day.

I am grateful for so many people in my life that have helped me to be right here where I am and look forward to sharing more with you when I return. We are all connected, all living on this one fragile planet earth. Walk softly.

Follow the truth of the way.
Reflect upon it.
Make it your own.
Live it.
It will always sustain you.
from the Dhammapada tr. by Thomas Byrom

 

Scrap Wrenn

Artist Scrap Wrenn and her partner, Jo, arrived at the farm in time for a late dinner on Tuesday in a U-Haul truck from upstate New York. I was introduced to Scrap at Zen Mountain Monastery, where I am known by my Buddhist name, Shinji. I wrote to her shortly after our introduction,

            Hi Scrap,
We have an outdoor sculpture exhibit at the farm every fall . . . I know you are about to move into the monastery, but just thought I’d ask if you had a piece you might install here.
You can see the prior year’s work at oldfrogpondfarm.com under the tab for art.

Loved your stormy Instagram post!
               Shinji

Scrap posts on Instagram almost every day. Some posts become images she includes in large photographic collages of people and place—magnificent landscapes with hundreds of photographic moments in which we immerse ourselves and journey through. Scrap’s visual language is quick-moving and incantatory. It is like listening to a medieval chant where the polyphony of different voices weaves a tapestry of individual melodies as well as harmonizing together. We engage with the leaps and turnings as questions about the nature of reality and meanings seep into our consciousness. She recently installed an exhibit of these photo collages at the John Davis Gallery in Hudson, New York. 

 John Davis Gallery, Hudson, New York, (Scrap Wrenn far left)

John Davis Gallery, Hudson, New York, (Scrap Wrenn far left)

Scrap is also a sculptor. Inside the large U-haul truck were four identical heavy metal objects, fabricated initially for an installation on Randall’s Island, New York City. On Scrap’s website she explains  Awakening Asylum was designed to commemorate both the General Slocum Steamship disaster (June 15, 1904) and Randall’s Island, an “Asylum” in the past for inebriates and the mentally ill.  

The location of the sculpture commemorated the ship’s Hell Gate waterway passage where it is thought that the steamship fire likely began. Due to faulty unregulated flotation devices and poor crew response times, over a thousand people perished in the Northern East River on their way to a Lutheran picnic excursion on the sound in Queens.

   Awakening Asylum  , Scrap Wrenn 

Awakening Asylum, Scrap Wrenn 

This installation has castings of flotation devices, wood beams suggestive of the old ship, and a collage in the center of the spiraling metal: it is complex and multi-layered. Scrap would be bringing to the farm only the fabricated metal now in four pieces. Sculptors often take apart old sculpture and reuse its materials. I like to re-purpose parts from sculptures in storage, drawn to pieces that I may not have finished my conversation with. Scrap had sent me photos of these four large elements early on. They made me think 'wings' or 'fins'. Though I had no idea what she would do with them, I trusted in the integrity of her artistic vision.

 Scrap (left) and Jo.

Scrap (left) and Jo.

On Wednesday morning, Scrap and Jo unloaded the U-Haul, loaded Blase's pick-up, and we drove around the pond to their site. That’s where I left them—with a digging bar and shovels, on a hot day. They worked till the Japanese bells sounded for lunch. Dirty, hot, and with two ‘wings’ installed, they went back to work with Holly Ciganiewicz, one of our farmers, and completed the installation just before five o’clock, when we planned to take a swim in Bear Hill Pond.

The working title is Ground Space. These four forms, dug deep into the earth, each rise like a whale’s dorsal fin and transform the space. When you walk among them, around them, or stand in the center, a curious energy also rises and surrounds you, as if walking in a biosphere. But I won’t say anymore. You have to experience it for yourself. Scrap Wrenn is one of the thirty-seven artists whose work will be on exhibit at the farm for our annual outdoor sculpture walk.

Around the Pond and through the Woods opens on Friday, September 7 and will be open to the public on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, 11—5 pm through October 7. If those times don't work for you, we can make other arrangements for your visit. For information about the exhibit and other fall events at the farm check out our website. I’m excited to share this year’s exhibit with you.

Off-the-Wall Comments from an Ignorant Farmer

Hugh Williams is an orchardist I admire. When I read his email reply to my recent blog about our difficulties with the apple crop, I knew I wanted to share some of his insights. I wrote to ask if I could quote him. “Of course you can use my name. More off-the-wall comments from an ignorant farmer!” was his reply.

Hugh and his wife, Hannah Ball, and their two children grow fruits and vegetables and raise a small herd of cows at Threshold Farm in Duchess County, New York. Everything they do is touched by the biodynamic practices first introduced to the world in the early 1900s by the philosopher-farmer, Rudolph Steiner. Hugh started farming on his family’s farm in Australia in the early 1960s. He has learned through careful observation what his plants and animals need to flourish. 

   Cows in Bhutan   ( Possibly the world's first organic country within the decade) Photo:LH

Cows in Bhutan ( Possibly the world's first organic country within the decade) Photo:LH

I first met Hugh at the annual Holistic Apple Growers meeting in western Massachusetts. At the beginning of each meeting, Michael Phillips, the organizer and champion of holistic apple growing, greets everyone and suggests we go around the room and introduce our orchards. The first year I attended, Bill McKintley from Potsdam, New York, then the owner but now retired, of St. Lawrence Nurseries, began. John Bunker, who runs Fedco trees in Maine spoke next. John lives in Palermo, Maine, and is passionate about Maine’s heirloom varieties. Brian Caldwell, a grower in New York, is an organic vegetable researcher at Cornell University. He has two small orchards near his home. I was intimidated when my turn approached.

“I recently moved to a farm with an abandoned apple orchard,” I said, “and I am trying to bring it back, using only organic materials. But I’m a sculptor, and I don’t know anything about apples. “

Everyone was polite; no one hinted I might be getting in over my head.

“How many trees do you have?” asked a handsome man with an Australian accent. That was Hugh Williams. When it was Hugh’s turn to speak, I remember he said he had been growing apples for forty years, and added coyly, “I’m waiting for the day I can be rid of my sprayer.”  I wrote that down.

Over the last decade, Hugh has attended every apple growers meeting. Hugh always brings something original to our gatherings, a new enthusiasm, some relationship he hadn’t noticed before, an insight as to how a plant or animal grows. His cows are grass fed, and the calves run with the herd. An interviewer wrote, “We even saw Hugh milking from one side of a cow while a calf was nursing from the other side.” 

Hugh knows about challenges. He and his family live solely off the profit from their farm. In a bad year, they have to be creative. Hugh wrote, “We have a very poor apple crop too, except on a few varieties. Enough for our fruit share members, and we have great plums, peaches and pears so we'll eke our way through another year.”

I had written that our crop failure was in part due to biennial production because we don’t thin the fruit from the mature trees. Hugh answered, “For us it was mostly poor pollination. There were no insects, even on the dandelions!” Hugh and Hannah think it's a “global phenomenon” and referred to a “thinning” of the insects. Hugh reminded me that when you stop at a gas station today, there is no longer the need to clean your windshield. It used to be de rigeur, so many squashed insects stuck to the glass. Where did these bugs go? I never clean my windshield anymore.

I think of the avalanche of toxic chemicals we have been releasing onto our planet every day since the end of World War II. The companies that made nerve gas and other toxic materials needed to change their product line in order to continue operating. Someone had the brilliant idea to manufacture chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers for the farmer. The corporate world is concerned with the bottom line. Inside brick and steel buildings, workers lose all connection to the natural world, to the subtlety of light, to beauty, to the richness of the insect, plant, and animal worlds, to the future of our children. 

   Two Girls in the Market  , Bhutan   Photo:LH

Two Girls in the Market, Bhutan   Photo:LH

There is an article in the July 25, 2014 issue of Science, Defaunation in the Anthropocene. Defaunation is a new word used to describe not only the disappearance of a species but the decline in numbers. Farmers like Hugh and Hannah Williams don’t need scientific studies. 

Hugh ended his note saying,

It raises the question of what actually is the function or purpose of agriculture, which certainly is not inherently tied to money, nor perhaps even to cropping! Our spiritual purpose becomes ever closer and more concrete. While yes, our farm is a temple precinct, we cannot avoid the conclusion it is also the very sensitive canary in the coal mine.

Hugh’s spirituality infuses his farm and all who know him, providing deep sustenance to all creatures. He shares his ideas easily, even when they are counter to how much of the world thinks. I admire Hugh because he cultivates the physical demands of being a farmer—the hard work, the selling, the making a living—all with dexterity and wit, and he attends equally to the spiritual, with passion and reverence. Perhaps he would say, these two realms are connected, or are in fact, one and the same. Maybe, that is why his farm is named Threshold, a place of connection between inner and outer, earth and sky, the physical and the spiritual, the material and the ethereal.

   Turning a large Prayer Wheel, Bhutan     Photo:LH

Turning a large Prayer Wheel, Bhutan  Photo:LH

Creative Connect

Sheets of rain slice across the pond, while our thirty-eight resident Canada geese poke at their feathers or calmly stare. Human wellbeing often depends on being dry, out of the rain, but in those moments when I enjoy the geese, I also enjoy getting wet.

You might call such a moment being alive, but as an artist I call it being creative. For by creativity I mean the potential to connect with the world outside oneself, whether near to home—the geese in the rain, a field of wildflowers, or far from home—the terror of immigrant children separated from their parents.  

When I experience long periods without this creative energy rising, I don’t feel connected. I fall into an abyss of my own mind, a morass of thinking about myself. Creativity makes me feel connected to the world. We all share this experience; it is inherently human.

The opposite is also true. We can be in the most beautiful place and not appreciate it; we block the beauty from entering our marrow. We can be in the most loving relationship and not allow the love to enter. When we don’t connect, we don't belong. Caught in the rain, we fear our clothing is getting wet or ruined, and we make it a problem. We hurry, frown, hunch up, forget the larger picture.

This longing to be connected with a big 220 amp plug drives my art. Even when I am grieving or burdened, when the world appears deeply troubled and dysfunctional, I try to keep this connective amperage flowing. For I know life will continue to change like wood to ash or leaves to compost, and human creativity is recognizing and living with these transitions and using them. A friend sent me a link to an article about an artist's painting exhibit. The artist, Kelly Thorndike, is an Iraqi vet who was stationed at the horrific Abu Ghraib prison when a bomb went off. In the second before shrapnel hit and seriously wounded him, Thorndike saw a nearby inmate blown to pieces. It’s worth a read. Creative work can help us process events and feelings we store in our minds.

A few nights ago, I was finishing a new sculpture, a mandala of sorts, with a great hollow tree in the center, and small meditating figures surrounding it.

 Sculpture in process leaning on the wall.

Sculpture in process leaning on the wall.

I think the outer work is complete, but I have one part yet to finish. The Buddhas are sitting on wooden dowels, bobbins from an old textile mill in Lowell.

 Sculpture detail, LH

Sculpture detail, LH

They are hollow. I want to place a word, a prayer, a meditation for the world inside each of these wooden tubes. I cut up a watercolor and wrote single words on each one—compassion, wisdom, suffering .  .  .  but then didn’t feel this was exactly right. As I was putting tools away, I noticed a bag of leftover National Geographic maps from making the sculpture, The Teapot Explorer.

I pulled out one, ‘Peoples of the Mideast’, a map of Libya, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran, Turkey, and Afghanistan, with pictures of all the different ethnic groups from these areas—Bedouin, Qashqai, Armenian, Turk, Lur, Kurd among others. In one corner of the map there is a box describing the ethno-linguistic groups titled, An Awesome Human Mosaic. I thought of adding the names of indigenous people inside each bobbin in recognition of the depth of so much human diversity.

 Copyright 1972 National Geographic Society

Copyright 1972 National Geographic Society

Then I opened a second map, ‘Great Migrations’, depicting eighteen migration patterns around the globe—birds, mammals, insects, reptiles, amphibians, crustaceans, micro-organisms, and fish. I traced the Monarch’s multi-generational migration of 4000 miles. I followed the equally miraculous journey of the Loggerhead turtle 9000 miles from beginning to end, back to the very beach where it was born. Each of these creatures as unique as the indigenous people I admire.

I left the studio filled with awe.

Early the next morning on my way to the studio, I stopped to visit the geese. Some of the them were on the dam wetting their feet, others stood in the lawn alongside it. I appreciated  so much life right outside the door. Then I continued to my studio determined to write this blog. I’m not sure the blog is quite finished, and I don’t know how or when I will finish the sculpture, but as I look up from my page, startled at the sound of flapping wings, I see the geese practicing. It's flying-lesson time for the young.