道场 Dào·Chǎng

Notes of a lifelong learner and perpetual beginner on martial arts, mindfulness, Chinese calligraphy…and many, many cups of tea.


The Great Wave

This weekend I framed and hung my copy of Katsushika Hokusai’s “Under the Great Wave Off Kanagawa”. I could sit and look at this print for a long time. I think sometimes life is like this…sometimes you are in the boat…and maybe sometimes, you are the Great Wave.



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Unusual always happens within the usual!

Yesterday, I accidentally said something wise. Someone warned me that this would start happening.

Someone asked me what I was doing for the weekend. I replied, “Run, cook, gongfu, shufa…the usual.” When they asked, “Are you gonna sprinkle any unusual?” I replied “First I must have the usual, only then is unusual possible. Unusual always happens within the usual.”

Think about it….to catch the magical fish someday…the fisherman must first row out in the morning.


(Wu Zhen, 14th cent.)

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Quality not quantity is the true way of mastery!

In my gongfu (kung fu) class at Oakdale Wing Chun Club today, teacher David Wong took a few minutes to make some observations about greed. He explained that in learning gongfu, sometimes students get into a mental trap of wanting to learn more and more techniques, without really taking the time to become competent with techniques they have initially learned, and having a feel for the depth and efficacy of those basic techniques. Sifu Wong said, “They always ask for more. ‘Show me more! Teach me a few more movements!’ They do not work with what they have.” In the end, the mental greed actually becomes an obstacle to mental clarity and reading. The alternative is patience, and a feeling for what is sufficient to learn and work on for now.

Greed is traditionally understood in Buddhism as one of the “three poisons” that derail the pursuit of enlightenment. The other two are ignorance and anger. I am convinced that fear and ego have a relationship with the three poisons, maybe in a chicken and egg kind of way. For myself, this means that the key to removing greed as an obstacle to learning, is to drop self-centered thinking and adopt an attitude of humility, letting the teacher run things and trusting the teacher instead of asserting my ego and trying to run my own show. One of the interesting things that spins out of having humility, is the openness to learn something at all times and from anyone, regardless of their level of experience or mastery. Coincidentally I read a story today that relates to this point:

Because Master Dempei of the Shamisen (three-stringed instrument) was always listening attentively to other players his pupil asked him, “Why, Master do you listen so eagerly to such boring  paying?”, to which the Master replied, “With such an attitude you cannot make any progress. However bad the player, there are aleays a few good parts that other players do not have. It should be interesting to listen to them.” (from Immovable Wisdom:  The Teachings of Takuan Soho, by Noboku Hirose)

As far as fear, the other thing I do is track down any fear I may have concerning my own rate of learning and mastery, publicly displayed or held within my own mind. To sever the fear, I find it helpful to remember that I got into studying gongfu or shufa in order to get away from frantic thinking and behavior. Therefore greedy behavior defeats the point of my own intentions at the start! I actually enjoy the feeling of relaxation that comes over me in setting aside frantic thought or what Chinese Buddhist monk Tsung Tsai called “hurry worry” in George Crane’s Bones of the Master. Then it becomes clear to me, and is only confirmed when I look at the people who I consider as having mastery, that the path of progress never lies in the accumulation of techniques or anything else, but rather in the quality of even what few things are known, performed and lived. I think there is a very big and important difference between the life of quantity and the life of quality.


“Be happy without cause and make the best of what you have!”

~ Wang Foudeng (gongfu master), quoted in the Bubishi


Hotei Admiring the Moon


Shufa & Shan Shui Class #3

A few days ago I had my third shufa (Chinese calligraphy) and  shan shui (landscape painting) class with Bob Schmitt at Laughing Waters Studio (Minneapolis, MN). On the way to class I was running late and became increasingly frustrated and tense about it. Then, in one of those occasional and all too brief moments of clarity that I get once in a while, it occurred to me that I was taking this class in order to be more adaptive and relaxed, and getting all bent out of shape about running late was totally defeating the reason I took up shufa and shan shui to start with! I decided that if I was going to get frustrated and tense, I should either quit the class and save my money, or dump the tension and frustration and save my life. I chose the latter.

Dragons have been making their appearances in my life lately (e.g. see my previous post “Shufa & Shan Shui Class #2“). Coincidentally but no less meaningfully — I am old enough to know there are no meaningless coincidences — the assignment for the day included methods for painting dragons. Bob Schmitt’s guidance was relaxed and insightful as usual, and I am happy with the way my own attempt at a dragon turned out for me.

Callig Dragon

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Shufa & Shan Shui Class #2

Today I had my second shufa (Chinese calligraphy) and shan shui (landscape painting) class with Bob Schmitt at Laughing Waters Studio. In this session, I worked on joined character strokes, and the simple pine tree. I am not working on dragons yet, but I recently read this compelling story about the creative process, that I want to share:

Kanō Tan’yu [1602-1674] was one of the most famous painters in Japan, and, indeed, was appointed chief of the artists employed by the shogun. Once he was asked by the abbot of the Myoshinji in Kyoto to paint a dragon on the ceiling of the meditation hall. Tan’yu assured the abbot that this would be an easy job; he had painted countless dragons in his career. As they talked and drank tea, however, the abbot said, “But I want a painting of a real dragon. Have you ever seen a real one?” Tan’yu confessed that he hadn’t, and was astonished to hear the abbot then say that there were quite a few right there at the temple. “Come here to meditate,” the abbot instructed him. “You’ll see one after a while.”

Tan’yu agreed and, regardless of his busy schedule, came to meditate at the temple every day. Finally, after three years, he jumped up from the meditation cushion and ran to the abbot. “I saw one! I saw a real dragon today,” he exclaimed. The abbot just looked at him and asked, “What did it say?”

Tan’yu returned quietly to his meditation cushion and continued with concentrated effort. After another three years, he was able to execute one of the most celbrated paintings of a dragon in the Far East.
~ from “The One Tast of Truth” by William Scott Wilson

ceiling dragon Tan'yu

(painting by Kanō Tan’yu on the ceiling of Myoshinji Temple, Kyoto, Japan)