Painted Rice-Cakes

2 January 2016

“Shakyamuni Awakening in the Midst of a Landscape”

In this Awakening,
layers of snow lie spread
over green hills.
On scroll after scroll,
the world is revealed.

—Dōgen (Dōgen Eihei, 1200-1253)
quoting a poem brushed on a scroll painting
by “an old buddha,” in his essay “Painted Rice-Cake”

Yesterday, on New Year’s Day, I was sent an email with a poem by one of my favourite historical Japanese Zen Buddhist poet-painter hermit-monks, Ryōkan (Ryōkan Taigu, 1758–1831):

PREPARING FOR THE NEW YEAR’S DAY

People make
elaborate offerings to the Buddha.
In my hut
I dedicate
a painted rice cake.

—Ryōkan
Sky Above, Great Wind: The Life and Poetry of Zen Master Ryokan
translated by Kazuaki Tanahashi
Shambhala, Boston, 2013

This poem fit in well with my own solitary New Year’s celebration. I actually ate rice-cake on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day!

By “a painted rice-cake” is meant (on the surface level, at least) a painting of a rice-cake — not an edible rice-cake that’s been decorated with paint, like icing or food-coloring! The image referenced is that of a rice-cake as the subject or motif depicted in a scroll-painting brushed in ink on mounted silk or rice-paper.

Of course a painting of anything is also an actual thing and an actual thing is a kind of image or symbolic representation of itself, in the sense of that thing’s essential, archetypal, or platonic “ideal form.” For instance, a single actual wooden chair is representative of “Chair” or “chairness” as an essential unmanifested “form” or abstract concept. But an abstract concept of something, such as “chair” or “chairness” or “rice-cake” or rice-cakeness,” is also a specific “thing.” A concept is “real,” at its own level. We can’t say a painted rice-cake (a rice-cake depicted in a painting) is not an actual thing. It may not be of any edible value, but it may be worth many an edible rice-cake by another scale of value. And after all, this world, this life of ours, it could be said, is like one unrolling/rolling scroll painting….

According to the ancient Indian Vedic / Hindu calendric custom, the particular holy day that this year falls on January 2 is one of several days this month for observing fasting and related, particular spiritual practices for purifying mind & body and producing certain specific beneficial effects in one’s life. It is believed that one who sincerely and carefully observes the fast and associated practices on this day of the year will gain greater  freedom from trouble related to debts, loans and property disputes, as well as gaining greater inner and outer purity.

Today is just one of thirteen such days on the Vedic calendar falling in January this year, on each of which fasting is traditionally observed for general personal spiritual advancement, and for specific benefits unique to each occasion. In the ancient Vedic calendar system, there are many such days throughout the year on which it is recommended to fast and practice precise methods to produce particular effects in life which unite inner development of consciousness and outer achievement of health, security, comfort, meaningfulness, creativity, happiness, usefulness to one’s community, etc. The Vedic vision has always been one of dynamic wholeness of life — of harmonious unity of inner and outer spheres of life. Some days fasting is recommended, other days are designated for feasting, or other specific sorts of meals.

In the modern West, and even much of the rest of the world today, the value of fasting as a spiritual and even a physical health benefit is pretty much utterly forgotten or seems foreign and strange. But going without food for just one day, or even going without our usual (generally unnecessary) over-indulgent amount of eating for one day, or even for half of one day — can promote tremendous health benefits. Half-day or day-long fasts undertaken on a regular basis are actually much more effective than long-term fasts or, in most cases, from special attempts at food-restricting (weight-loss-intending) diets. After all, special weight-loss-intentional restrictive diets are really a kind of prolonged partial fasting. Of course, if one’s diet is contributing to unhealthy excess weight, then long-term or permanent modification or re-orientation of diet may be necessary, even urgent.

In Vedic culture, it is quite common that on fasting days some persons will only avoid eating grains, or will eat only fruits, or drink juice but take no solid foods. During long retreats with Maharishi, he often invited us to practice adopting a routine of having one day of week for taking only fresh fruit juice. In Vedic tradition, Thursday is the day dedicated to honouring one’s teachers, especially one’s personal spiritual master-teacher or guru. Maharishi recommended observing a fresh fruit juice-only diet every Thursday, whenever it is harmoniously possible. With so many days during the Vedic calendar year designated as significant for accruing specific results from fasting — some, but not all of which days fall on Thursday, — the idea of fasting also on all other Thursdays may seem overwhelming (or just redundant). Nonetheless, having a regular schedule of reducing and purifying one’s diet at least one day every week is extremely beneficial.

However, one must be careful, of course, and if one has specific health conditions closely related to diet, then even a once-a-week day-long juice fast may need to be approached gradually. At least thinking about these things and dedicating at least one day a week to placing extra attention on one’s mental and physical well-being, and making aspirations to consciously grow toward increasingly greater wholeness of life, — such a weekly practice can produce much benefit to oneself and to others.

From Sky Above, Great Wind:

“Ryokan (1758-1831) is, along with Dogen and Hakuin, one of the three giants of Zen in Japan. But unlike his two renowned colleagues, Ryokan was a societal dropout, living mostly as a hermit and a beggar. He was never head of a monastery or temple. He liked playing with children. He had no dharma heir. Even so, people recognized the depth of his realization, and he was sought out by people of all walks of life for the teaching to be experienced in just being around him. His poetry and art were wildly popular even in his lifetime. He is now regarded as one of the greatest poets of the Edo Period, along with Basho, Buson, and Issa. He was also a master artist-calligrapher with a very distinctive style, due mostly to his unique and irrepressible spirit, but also because he was so poor he didn’t usually have materials: his distinctive thin line was due to the fact that he often used twigs rather than the brushes he couldn’t afford. He was said to practice his brushwork with his fingers in the air when he didn’t have any paper. There are hilarious stories about how people tried to trick him into doing art for them, and about how he frustrated their attempts. As an old man, he fell in love with a young Zen nun who also became his student. His affection for her colors the mature poems of his late period. This collection contains more than 140 of Ryokan’s poems, with selections of his art, and of the very funny anecdotes about him.

“Kazuaki Tanahashi, a Japanese-trained calligrapher, is the pioneer of the genre of “one stroke painting” as well as the creator of multicolor enso (Zen circles). His brushwork has been shown in solo exhibitions in galleries, museums, and universities all over the world. Tanahashi has edited several books of Dogen’s writings and is also the author of Brush Mind.

 

Vedic fasting days:  January 2016
Ashtami  Saturday  02 January, 2016
Ekadasi  Tuesday  05 January, 2016
Pradosham  Thursday  07 January, 2016
Sivarathri  Friday  08 January, 2016
Amaavasai  Saturday  09 January, 2016
Chadhurthi  Wednesday  13 January, 2016
Sashti  Friday  15 January, 2016
Ashtami  Sunday  17 January, 2016
Krithigai  Tuesday  19 January, 2016
Ekadasi Wednesday  20 January, 2016
Pradosham  Thursday  21 January, 2016
Pournami  Saturday  23 January, 2016
Sankatahara Chadhurthi Wednesday
27 January, 2016

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