Showing posts with label zen buddhism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label zen buddhism. Show all posts

3.15.2012

Tales and Their Tellers 12: Jon J. Muth's Stillwater Trilogy

Hello, please visit The Critical Masses to read my new column about Jon J. Muth's trilogy of Zen Panda stories.


“My work in children’s books really grew out of a desire to explore what I was feeling as a new father,” he writes. “At the time, I was working in comics — a natural forum for expressions of angst and questioning one’s place in the universe. With the births of my children, there was a kind of seismic shift in where my work seemed appropriate — it became important to say other things about the world.”

10.05.2011

One Hand Clapping: Zen Stories for All Ages (1995)


Illustrated by Junko Morimoto

It’s terribly dated to quote an episode of Seinfeld, but lest we forget the episode in which Jerry’s dentist converts to Judaism ‘for the jokes.’ I find myself in a similar dilemma when presented with these wonderful picture books, the need to convert to Buddhism. For the stories.

Unlike the Biblical stories I've reviewed in the past, there is no pretense of these having been actual events. Thus, no need to leave my brain at the title page. Also, I do not need to be in the constant act of apology for an angry, jealous Supreme Being. Instead, I found myself doing just what Manuela Soares speaks of in his Editor's Note at the beginning:

"...these stories are meant to evoke questions, to elicit wonder and amusement, and encourage contemplation."

One Hand Clapping is a small anthology of stories, some only a few paragraphs in length, some several pages. It is no simple task to codify what makes up a Zen story. Page by page, I found myself surprised at what I found next. There are the classic Zen tales in here, that is, what you might imagine when you think of Zen. For example, The Sound of a Single Hand. (In the depths of the innermost self, more remote than the farthest mountain, and closet than close, lies the secret house of the sound of one hand. Enter!) That sounds pretty Zen, no?

But several of the stories are actually funny, and seemed patterned after jokes, with a setup, a reveal and a punch line. Like the Lion and the Tiger, which ends with the presumed lion seemingly about to kill the poor man dressed in the tiger outfit, but who instead whispers, “Not to worry. I’m the same as you.”
Ikkyu’s Poison almost seems patterned after a classic trickster tale, in which a clever child outwits his master. It is a funny, clever story, but it made me wonder, what is being taught? Should we not be looking to the Zen Master for wisdom? Instead, the story extols the child and his cleverness to get around the master’s rules.
In my last review, I looked at The Three Questions by Jon J. Muth. I was very pleased to find the same story contained within this collection as well, although with a slightly different title: The Three Answers.

This version seems more of a classic retelling. It is not a child and his talking animal friends to whom we are introduced, but rather, an emperor and a hermit. There are also no wounded panda bears, but rather a wounded soldier with a specific vendetta.

“During the last war you killed my brother and took away my lands,” says the soldier. “So I swore vengeance and vowed to kill you.”

This version definitely ups the stakes, and speaks a further truth about forgiveness.

Last time, I posed the questions the narrator asks, but I did not reveal the answers. This time I thought I would not give the questions, but instead list the hermit’s answers:

The present moment is the only moment.
The most important person is always the person you are with.
And the most important pursuit is making the person standing at your side happy.

That is not to say there are no anthropomorphic animals here. In The Fish in the Sea, two fish are trying to unravel the great mystery: What is the sea? In fact, Rafe Martin gives a nice insight into this anthropomorphic practice in his introduction:

"In folktales and fairy tales ravens, bees and ants talk, clods of earth, raindrops, pebbles, and trees converse freely. We might discover that during the depths of the night the stars can answer the flowing streams. In such folk stories the universe itself is revealed to be one great ongoing conversation in which everyone and everything participates equally."

I'm going to remember that the next time I watch an old Disney cartoon with my son.

The story which for me spoke most directly, was Mountains and Rivers.

“Before I grasped Zen,” says an old woman to her grandson, “the mountains were only mountains and the rivers were only rivers. When I got into Zen, the mountains were no longer mountains and the rivers were no longer rivers. But when I understood  Zen, the mountains were mountains and the rivers were rivers.”

This made perfect sense to me – I think – but the child doesn’t seem interested. “The river’s right here and it’s a hot day,” he says. “Can’t we go swimming?”

“Of course! Just jump right in!”

This will have to serve as the conclusion of my series of Zen Picture Books. To see all of the books I’ve reviewed in this category, please click here.

It’s a topic I went to explore further - I didn't even get to any of the picture books about the life of the Buddha himself - but for now, my favorite holiday is quickly approaching! Stay tuned!

9.26.2011

The Three Questions (2002)

Written and Illustrated by Jon J. Muth

Based on a story by Leo Tolstoy

Watercolor
Text set in Hoefler Requiem Fire

Scholastic Press

This book is next because I'm following the watercolor trail left by Jon Muth, and it seems to me a perfect extension of his Zen... series - thematically and certainly artistically. However, I wasn't certain if it constituted a Buddhist story or not. After all, the byline reads, "Based on a story by Leo Tolstoy."

In the Author's Note (and I love that he always includes an Author's Note), Muth writes that he first heard the tale from Thich Nhat Hanh. As I am currently reading Hanh's Living Buddha, Living Christ, that was good enough for me.

Not that I'm a stickler for such definitions. A story is a story, after all. But I am trying to remain on-theme.

Coincidentally, I found another version of the same story in Rafe Martin's collection, One Hand Clapping: Zen Stories for All Ages. That sealed the deal.

The eponymous three questions are these:

When is the best time to do things?
Who is the most important one?
What is the right thing to do?


In this version of the story, they are formulated and pondered by a young Kite-wielding protagonist named Nikolai. He shares an early morning beach-stroll with his talking dog, Pushkin, a monkey and a heron. They are all themselves philosophers, and very ready with their own answers.

If that sounds like an absurd premise for a story, then that is the beauty of Muth’s watercolors. I’ve read this story about a dozen times now, and it did not occur to me until just now, writing it out, how patently absurd it seems, these three mismatched talking animals, sharing a kite and deep- if not unwieldy – philosophical eschewment. But it's all crafted so perfectly that it seems no more absurd than a giant Panda bear taking up residence in a suburban neighborhood. It just is what it is. A story is a story, after all.

"To know the best time to do things, one must plan in advance," says Sonia the heron.

"You will know when to do things if you pay close attention," answers Gogol the monkey.

Pushkin the dog offers this: "You can’t pay attention to everything yourself. You need a pack to keep watch and help you decide when to do things."

Though well-meant, these answers do little to satiate the ponderance of poor Nikolai, who then asks the second of the three questions. Who is the most important one? His animal friends are eager to offer their advice:

"Those who are closest to heaven."

"Those who know how to heal the sick."

"Those who make the rules."

There is most assuredly a classic fairy-tale structure at work, with the number three being so integral. Three questions asked and three answers for each question.

When it comes for the next series of answers, I felt resigned, as though I were already one step ahead of the game.

What is the right thing to do?

"Flying!"

"Having fun all the time!"

"Fighting!"

Then the story takes a drastic turn. We suddenly leave the familiarity of the classic story-form, as Nikolai goes on a quest to find Leo the wise turtle, and to pose to him the three questions which haunt him so. With nary a hello, he shouts to the turtle,“When is the best time to do things? Who is the most important one? What is the right thing to do?”

With Muth’s watercolors, it has all the tenor of an epic quest though the wilds of the world, a trip to the wise man on top of the mountain, though still with his red kite in hand. Instead of an answer, the old turtle instead resumes his gardening. Then the sky darkens and there is a sudden rain storm, a cry for help. Nikolai runs off through the wind-swept panorama.

We are now in a very different sort of story. It’s hard to say where this is all going, and I found myself reading with quickened pace, resignation absent.

Nikolai’s quest will take him deep into the darkened woods, rescuing not only a mother, but her young child as well, who lay helpless beneath fallen branches, scared and alone. They are both brought to Leo’s dwelling, and nursed back to health.

Within these actions lie the answers to Nikolai’s three questions. I would hate to ruin the final reveal, but I’ll just say that they are answers which are at once immutable and transitory. They lift young Nikolai with their simple profundity, and he leaves Leo’s mountaintop promontory in the company of his good friends.

“For these are the answers to what is most important in the world," says Leo the Wise. The final page reads: "That is why we are here."

For more stories on Zen Buddhism, click here!

9.19.2011

Zen Ghosts (2010)

Written and Illustrated by Jon J. Muth
Watercolor and Ink
17-point Monotype Fournier
Scholastic Press

This is the third - and so far, the last - book in Muth's Zen... series. I suppose that makes it a trilogy, but I hope to be wrong. This is by far my favorite entry, and might be a contender for my favorite picture book ever. It combines my new found interest with Zen Buddhism with what is clearly the greatest holiday of all time - Halloween. (For proof of my Halloween-love, please take a moment to read my Tales and Their Tellers column from last year.)

I really feel like he has captured Halloween perfectly, I've never seen it rendered so sensually. The familiar tropes are represented - trick-or-treating, Jack o' Lanterns, costumes - but it does not rely on those tropes in order to tell the story. The story lies elsewhere.

We begin in the bright, midday sunshine, gorgeous, vibrant fall foliage, and the exclamation: "Michael! There's a ghost outside!"

But it's no ghost, it's only Stillwater, standing as a lumbering, silent supernatural apparition.

The children are preparing for the evening's festivities, making costumes and last minute changes. Michael cannot choose between an owl or a pirate, leading Stillwater to propose, "Perhaps you will be an Owl-Pirate."

"There is no such thing!" Karl retorts. "He has to be one thing!"

I swear I've read this story a dozen times now, yet the significance of that line only now came to me, as I sit here writing this.

"He has to be one thing!"

Not so.

And I see now yet another clue to the story's core on the opposing page. It brings me a moment of gratification, as though the entire intent of this blog of mine were worth it, so that I may find these little treasures hidden within Muth's watercolors. As Addy unrolls the long, white fabric, asking, "Do you like my costume?" I can see the blue and purple geometric pattern growing in vibrancy the closer to the edge we get.

They do look like tiny butterflies, do they not? Indeed, two of them seem to magically fly off the fabric and flutter above Stillwater, one blue, one purple.

"After trick-or-treating, meet me by the big stone wall," says Stillwater, bidding them adieu, "And I will take you to the storyteller."

That evening, it is a perfect Halloween night. They sky is a deep blue, autumn leaves are blowing, children cast long shadows. How beautiful Addy looks, kneeling on the old stone with the long fabric of her costume flowing behind her, her blond hair obscuring her face, and I am again reminded of the passing of years within the universe of the story.

Stillwater leads them to his house, holding out spherical, paper lantern to lead the way on such a misty evening. His home, generally so suburban, now takes on the property of a haunted abode, straight from classic Halloween arcana. Inside, he introduces the children to another Giant Panda who looks exactly like Stillwater. In fact, it is Stillwater...Isn't it? The children are confused. The reader of the story is confused. After all, he has to be one thing...

Not so.

This Stillwater-who-is-not-Stillwater sits cross-legged on the floor before burning candles, produces a long, thick brush.

"I am going to draw you a story," he says, and it is with Stillwater's voice with which he speaks.

The story which he tells, Senjo and Her Soul Are Separated, was first written down in the 13th Century by Wu-men Hui-hai in a collection of koans called The Gateless Gate. It is a very, very old story, and Muth does a wonderful job charting the path of its existence - Sensei to Sensei - in a note at the end of Zen Ghosts.

"It's not an abstract, historic event that happened 1,000 years ago," he writes. "It's very much about you and me today."

I won't tell you the story itself - but it is extremely beautiful and eerie and involves ghosts. But which is the ghost? Suffice it to say, when the story is over, only one Stillwater remains, and it is not the Stillwater from the beginning of the tale. There is no explanation given as to this seeming contradiction.

"In Zen Buddhism," Muth writes, "the teacher who gives you a koan is looking to see if you truly have digested the question. And if you have, the answer becomes your own."

For more stories on Zen Buddhism, click here!

9.11.2011

Prayer, by Jon J. Muth. A Buddhist reflection on 9-11?


I found this panting by Jon J. Muth while I was searching for information on him. He is the author/illustrator of the Zen... books I've been going through, starring Stillwater the Giant Panda. I've found his storytelling and his watercolors very moving, but they pale compared to this painting and the words which accompany it.
.
It's entitled Prayer.  Here is the text:
.
i am the son whose mother is lighting a candle beneath a photograph of a new york city firehouse
.
i am the daughter of a man who hijacked a plane in the name of allah
.
i am the palestinian boy whose father was killed by israeli gunfire
.
i am the soldier who shot him
.
i am the jewish girl whose brother was killed by a palestinain while eating pizza in a mall
.
i am the father in america who must protect this great country and this great way of life
.
i am the father in iraq who is watching his children starve
.
i am the daughter who jumped from the burning world trade center holding my friend's hand
.
i am the orphaned afghani boy who lives in a refugee camp
.
i am the woman who led the pre-schoolers away from fire and falling buildings
.
i am the firefighter who saved your wife
.
these are the ten thousand reasons to kiss your parents each day, to kiss your children, to hold dear the one you are with
.
you are the ocean and each of its waves
.
when i reach out to touch your face i touch my own

9.06.2011

Zen Ties (2008)

Written and Illustrated by Jon J. Muth

Watercolor and ink

Text set in 17-point Monotype Fournier
Scholastic Press

Three years have passed since Stillwater's last outing, both within the story and without. I'm a big fan of fictional characters who age naturally, and its a feat seldom attempted within children's picture books (Mo Willems' Knuffle Bunny series notwithstanding). Stillwater is unchanged, so far as we can tell, but the three children - Addy, Michael and Karl - are no longer as young as they once were.

We also meet Koo - Stillwater's nephew - arriving by train as the story opens. So named such that a clever pun can be made exactly once, when he first arrives:

"Hi, Koo!"

I didn't get it the first time either, even after it quickly becomes apparent that Koo can only speak in the ancient form of poetry:

Uncle Stillwater!
summer! I have arrived!
seeing you brings smiles.

Koo is a panda as well, of course, much smaller than Stillwater and wearing a small, red bow tie, in contrast with Stillwater's red neck tie which he sports. Thus, "Zen Ties." Another pun.

In the afterward, Muth writes of the pun, "For me, it's also a gentle reminder that we are all connected and interdependent whether we recognize our neighbor's face or not. It is easy to believe we are each waves and forget we are also the ocean."

I see that sentiment being a breakdown of the Other, and I see destroying that concept as being one of the key intents of Muth's series. In the initial volume, Stillwater was himself the Other. Now that he has been fully integrated into the lives of the neighborhood children - as witnessed by a rousing session and beautiful two-page spread of Jump on Stillwater - the challenge is to integrate yet another Other. In this instance, the elderly Miss Whitaker.

"The Miss Whitaker who lives on our street?"

"That Miss Whitaker? She's really old and she spits when she talks! Every time we walk past her house, she shouts at us."

But Stillwater is  gently unmoved by their protestations. "She isn't feeling well and we must bring her something to eat. Miss Whitaker is a good friend. You will see."

I had thought perhaps that Miss Whitaker would represent another element of suburban Enlightenment, perhaps a former Buddhist teacher herself. But she is presented as an elderly woman living alone in a dirty, bare house, as crotchety as her reputation.

"Why on earth did you bring these children here?"

Stillwater is unfazed as always. "You look well today. We've brought you some nice soup."

I was disappointed that the character of Koo remains silent during the heart of the story, taking a narrative back seat as Mrs. Whitaker and the children each discover the ties which connect them. We last see him standing at the train station platform, hands folded and head bowed before his uncle. Stillwater tells him he can dispose of the paper cup which he has drank from for the entire duration of his visit.

"Nearing my visit's end," replies Koo with perfect pentameter, "summer now tastes of apple tea. I will keep my cup."


For more stories about Zen Buddhism, please click here!

8.27.2011

Zen Shorts (2005)

Written and Illustrated by Jon J. Muth

Watercolor and ink

Text set in 17-point Monotype Fournier

Scholastic Press

Ah, after having spent so much time with sundry plots to kill the Jews and traitors swinging from gallows and all that good stuff which comprises the story of Esther and Purim, how nice to instead take brief residence with a more Eastern ways of looking at things, with the Giant Panda Stillwater, as beautifully rendered by Jon J. Muth.

I was familiar with Muth from his work on the comic book series Moonshadow, and was pleased to see that he had made the transition to picture books. Zen Shorts is clearly a labor of intense love. Muth is not just telling us a story. He has something to say.

It was a happy coincidence that I found this one. Arlo and I had been at the Glenside Farmer's Market just a few weeks ago and listened to a telling of Zen Ties, the next book in this series. Everything about its simple narrative structure and the voice of Stillwater appealed to me, so I knew I had to find this initial volume.

In Zen Shorts, we are introduced to Stillwater, holding aloft a large, red umbrella in the backyard of three children: Addy, Michael and Karl.

"I'm sorry for arriving unannounced," he says. "The wind carried my umbrella all the way from my backyard to your backyard. I thought I would retrieve it before it became a nuisance." He speaks - the text tells us - with a slight panda accent.

It should also be mentioned that we're in the midst of what looks like classic white-picket American suburbia. All of the children are Caucasian. The fact that he is a large, anthropomorphic panda is not called into question.

It is these meetings which form the framing device for which the true meat of the story can be told, the so-called zen "shorts," stories within stories, told by Stillwater as teaching moments with the children.

In "Uncle Ry and the Moon," a robber (raccoon) breaks into an elder Panda's home. The Panda gives all he has to the bewildered robber, then later laments that he could not have given him also "the wonderful moon."

In "The Farmer's Luck," two rabbit farmers examine the meaning of luck, as good fortune brings bad fortune, which in turn brings forth good fortune compounded by more bad fortune.

"A Heavy Load," tells the story of two mice monks as they encounter a very haughty woman resting in a sedan chair, and how they deal with her insults.

"Zen Shorts are short meditations," Muth writes at the end. "Ideas to puzzle over - tools which home our ability to act with intuition. They have no goal, but they often challenge us to re-examine our habits, desires, concepts and fears."

Each story comes from Zen Buddhist and Taoist literature going back many centuries. Muth has repackaged them for a younger audience. I have to say though, for me, these stories are not the highlight of the book. I really enjoy the framing moments more, the watercolor images of the Giant Panda interacting with the children. I noticed he seems to grow and shrink picture to picture. When he first meets the children, he hardly seems imposing, yet when young Karl plays with Stillwater, he becomes large enough to allow the boy to jump and bounce and leap, being a silent listener to Karl's diatribe.

"Your uncle sounds nice," says Addy, after hearing the story of Uncle Ry and the Moon. "I don't think I could have given away my only robe."

"I know how that is," answers Stillwater. "But there's always the moon."

For more books on Zen Buddhism, click here!

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