We don’t sit on the cushion all the time. We walk kinhin. We wash dishes and work in the garden. We practice sitting still, and we practice moving.

We may celebrate that movement with images that show our spiraling, flying, falling. A train’s surge thrusts us back in our seats, a rider moves in concert with her horse, a top spins. Our hand and arm may circle the brush without thought to make an image of movement around stillness. We move our bodies through space and time, attending to an inner prompting, making our movement sacred.

This month’s issue speaks of movement, how our attention to it brings us alive. —Sarah Webb

Sandy Lowder on Making Art


JT: Looking at your ensos made me think how art comes out of the same empty place as the center of the enso and the same place of spontaneous energy as the motion that makes the circle. You may think of it a different way.

SL: This is somewhat accurate…but the spontaneous part is often difficult to “make” happen. It takes so much constant effort and practice (sort of like sitting zazen...) and then there might be an opening for the spontaneous part to happen.

DANCER, 56"H x 35"W

JT: When you draw an enso, what happens in you? Does anything like that happen for you in your practice, your ceremony, your zazen?

SL: Making the enso takes preparation, like warming up before a run, stretching before zazen, letting go of outside input, stilling struggle and “effort.” Certainly it is not as spontaneous as I might wish. Again, it seems much like sitting zazen—but the most significant thing to me, is that when things are really going the best, the activity of doing or making any of these things is the same as BEING these actions. Barbara has reminded me that making art is my practice, it is my zen practice.


JT: Is there a place of emptiness or silence in your creating?

SL: Yes. But first of all, there is the hard work and training. Then, if you live through the groundwork and just keep on going, you might get to kind of pull up some unknown part. Not so sure how to describe it, but I love how the painter Nell Blaine described the process. She really puts her finger on it this way: “I felt that I had made contact with something in myself–something like a physical force that would come out through my fingertips.” She says she read about how painting is like a spider’s web. It comes out of the body of the artist, is pulled out of the body. Then she says “from that point, I felt I could judge whether it was true or contrived, synthetic or really felt. You know when your whole person is coming together to do this act. You learn to make it come—how to spring open the door.” That seems to me to sum up a lot of the real struggle in making art: to learn how to spring open the door; over and over and over again, or you stop making art. It can happen, after lots of failure and effort that just feels wasted (though, I guess I do know that the “wasted effort” is really not wasted, the failures are necessary for growth and development. It is pretty hard to live with though!)


JT: Do ideas and images arise in your sitting or in sesshin?

SL: Not that I have ever noticed. But sitting seems to helps clear space somehow.


JT: Why do you practice Zen? Why do you create art? Are there differences when you answer those questions?

SL: I actually don’t know why I do either of these things. Maybe it is the recognition that both processes felt like “home,” like there was no more right place for me to be.


JT: Do you feel that some of your art is somehow more Buddhist than other things you create, or is it all one thing?

SL: No, I think that it is all the same regardless of whether there is any particular “Buddhist” imagery or subject matter or intent. I do not really think that there is a difference.


JT: Does your practice, or some aspect of your practice, like sesshin, free you to create more readily, or has your practice ever blocked you?

SL: I really can’t say that zen practice has helped the practice of Art.... Maybe it has freed me up from needing to have any “intent” or message for art. I’ll think about that. But for a while, sitting seemed to take the place of making art, and I really hated that. Now I usually only sit at home a little. As for art, I just do it. It succeeds or it fails or it does both at the same time. It just is whatever it is. Like zazen. Maybe they are the same thing, they only look a little different on the outside.


JT: I'm wanting to ask if when you create in response to an object, there is some kind of unity in you and the object, but the words are not quite coming to describe that.

SL: Yes, I think I know what you are asking...and when I am painting or drawing, if things are really going well, there is unity with the subject matter, the process, the media, the materials, and my own awareness or lack of conscious awareness. And then it is like the description from Nell Blaine—a physical force, a spider’s web is coming out from the fingertips. Then, it feels triumphant! Like there was no conscious control over the process, it is just pulled out of necessity, naturally—like a spider spinning its web. I made a series of drawings dealing with movement on a 2-dimensional surface, horses and riders and dancers: the push and pull of stillness and movement. Again, like when we are sitting. We sit on those cushions, not moving (well, trying not to move.) But all the time we really are moving: we are breathing, hearts are beating, blood is flowing throughout our bodies, we shift a little, stretch our shoulders, wiggle toes, stomach grumbles, we blink, on and on…. We are “sitting still,” but not really, because our living bodies are in constant movement with the universe. It was so interesting to me, to find a vehicle to explore movement/stillness. These drawings get to that point more than most others, I think. Many years ago, I used to take dance classes and I used to ride horses with my daughters. And the process and activity of making those drawings was sort of like awakening a sleeping cellular memory of those movements living in my body again.

UNTITLED, 40"H x 26"W

Visit Sandy’s website:

Joan Son on her Art

Joan Son is a member of the Houston Zen Center. She writes,

I like to say, “I am an artist, working in the medium of paper based in the discipline of origami.” Truly an afternoon of repetitive folding is something like a meditation and an honest time to settle down and get closer to center.

In my art, I look for harmony, balance, for that stream of clear thought that grounds me and connects me to a greater flow. It reveals itself to me through repetitive images that appear like a visual pulse, calming me and aligning me with my own heartbeat. My work now is about making visual the pulse I see in the paper and feel in my core. With recent large-scale installations, I've have the opportunity to explore that pulse in a more expansive way. That I find magic in the manipulation of paper, that others might glimpse the Source through my eyes—that is my wish, my pleasure and my plan.

I reluctantly include my web much has changed!

I leave you with a recent image...from my front porch. This installation of butterflies lasted through hurricane IKE the month before the photo was taken. Some say they are my protectors, others claim it shows the power of art. –Joan Son

Sumi Komo on Zen Dance

A portion of Sumi Komo’s  Weaving and Casting performance is available here. Sumi’s Dharma name is Sumi Ryoko. She writes,

Over the years I have developed a dance form that utilizes ritual, meditation, and mindful movement, wherein the dancer dances, rather than the emotional drama of the ego. This kind of dance is quite influenced by my work with Merce Cunningham. There is a moment-by-moment presence, rather than reliance on narrative, drama, or story line, nor is the dance choreographed to the music. Each element—dance, music, visual lighting, etc., and set design—is separately created and put together for my work prior to performance.

Merce's ideas involved independence of art forms and a creation that is not ego driven. He chose to focus instead on the purity and simplicity of time and space and movement and rhythm. This allows the life that is the dance and the dancer. He said that when the dancer dances, it is all there and we do not look at steps.

Merce himself had an animal magnetism that was palpable. I also felt that kind of electric energy in a very subtle way from my Zen teachers, Maezumi Roshi and Prabhasa Dharma Roshi, both of whom were also artists—calligraphers.

Further information on Sumi Komo and Zen Dance is available at her website:

More on Sumi (Komo) Ryoko

Sumi Ryoko writes,

I have been dancing all my life. I went to Sarah Lawrence College, where I majored in dance and philosophy, and although my philosophy teacher asked me to stay on and be his graduate assistant and get an M.A. in philosophy, I decided to go to New York City to dance.

There I trained and danced with Merce Cunningham (and John Cage—his partner personally and professionally). Together they changed the whole face of modern dance. They were intimately influenced by studying Zen with D.T. Suzuki. Merce became interested in taking personality and narrative out of dance. He used chance methods and other ways to develop choreography that had more possibilities and openness to the moment than perhaps his own ego could see.

My experience in my dance work with them led me to Zen practice. I danced in New York professionally, and then a severe accident led me back to school to get an M.A. in Dance and start practicing Zen intensively, starting in 1976. Maezumi Roshi and Prabhasa Dharma Roshi both encouraged me to develop a Zen Dance.

Maezumi Roshi gave me a practice to bring Zen and dance together like bringing two hands together in gassho. He asked me to create 33 pieces for each of the different manifestations of Kuan Yin/Kanzeon. I have been creating Zen dance for several decades now.

I do workshops on dance and meditative movement in New York, Colorado, and Texas, and have taught at Naropa University and CU in Colorado, as well as at the University of Oregon while I was getting my MA. I taught in London and also had my company there. Most recently, I have taught at Radford University and James Madison University in Virgnia.

My dance company is called Komo Danceworks, and its mission is to bring Zen and dance and meditative movement practices into manifestation through performance, practice, and ritual. I have established the Zen Shinji Centre here in Austin. It is home to the creation of work that I take all over the country.

On October 24th, in Liverpool, England, I will receive lay transmission from my Zen teacher, Abbot of the Yokoji Mountain Center in California, Charles Tenshin Fletcher, Roshi. He has authorized me to teach these practices of meditation, movement, and the mindfulness-based arts of dance and Tai Chi Chuan and Chi Kung. My studio/Zendo is affiliated with Yokoji Mountain Centre (Zen Mountain Center).

Just This asked Sumi questions about her experience in Zen Dance.

JT: Were there other ways Merce Cunningham was influenced by Zen and passed the influence on?

SR: Merce (and John Cage) changed the whole fabric of dance, not only through Merce’s choreographic methods but also by altering the way people viewed art. Merce did not use narrative or story line and instead let the dancers dance and the piece be whatever the viewer saw it to be. The artists—dancer-choreographer, musician, lighting, set—all were separate and equal.

The coming together was bringing different forms into co-existence in time and space. This was very revolutionary and demanded an awakeness in dancer and viewer.

JT: How has doing this kind of dance (and the process of creating it) changed you?

SR: Every time I go into the studio to move and create, I attempt to be awake in the moment to what is and be possibility. Sometimes I may start with chanting a sutra and moving, sometimes in silence.

JT: Has your understanding and approach changed over the years?

SR: I am always experimenting and most recently, in the last year, I have been blessed with the opportunity to work with Deborah Hay, who offers an outside eye and keeps me honest and clear. The lack of pretense and personality in performance is one of the things I am looking for.

JT: What makes Zen dance different than other kinds of Zen? what is its heart?

SR: In most of our practice of Zen, we have the formality of zendo and prescribed rituals and chants. I started with Zen moving, which takes Zen off the cushion into movement and awakened practice. I also believe, from my own experience, that there is a diamond body of light that is awakened from our practice...and that can be brought out through Zen dance and the space of the heart. It is bringing forth from the kikai point to the heart-mind energy of Shin. This can allow us a space from living only in the intellectual, sometimes rigid world of Japanese Zen.

JT: How do we find the feminine face of Buddhist practice?

SR: It is possible that the grace and power of moving Zen and Zen dance can bring flow, grace, clarity, and an energy of emptiness to our practice. Both Maezumi Roshi and Prabhasa Dharma Roshi saw that the way for me is creative energy through dream and dance and bare attention movement. Perhaps like tea or archery, Zen Dance can be another Way of practice.

Marianne Mitchell on Merce Cunningham

Moving is a mysterious thing. Most of what we do with our bodies and what our bodies do to us is invisible, at least to the person doing the moving. Sometimes we can identify what emotions cause us to move in a particular way, the more obvious the better — running with fear away from some impending harm, running towards someone with love. And then there are all the particular forms our bodies learn as they perform tasks — mundane tasks as we take care of our lives, ecstatic forms as we enjoy ourselves. We can be sure, though, that the mind is initiating the movement, this kinetic energy.

This might be an arcane subject to many, but for some it is the sole object of their lives, as it was for Merce Cunningham. Using your body to make space visible, you would have to be a dancer, a mathematician, an explorer, a mapmaker, and then you'd stand a chance at being successful if you were incessant in your practice. As Merce said, ”dance is not for unsteady souls.“

Setting apart dance from music, from costume, from backdrop sets, Merce relied on movement only to trigger more movement and more movement. Other arts that would enter later could almost be a separate story. One thing they were not was a support for initiating movement. By keeping the elements in the dance separate, he had a better chance of immersing himself in only the movement.

In a science story I once read, the author asked a mathematician if he could define space. His answer was to experience a Merce Cunningham dance. As someone who studied with Merce, that was my experience as well. In the particular way Merce had of creating dances, he made space visible, not just the lines of the body making the movement. Now that's mysterious.

Merce died July 26, 2009. You can see excerpts from his dance pieces on

bowing to merce, marianne mitchell

Upon a Time

Once Upon a Time...

What's that, you ask?
"What is a TIME?"

Is a TIME a flat, smooth thing
that you have put your cup upon?

Is a TIME a slithery thing
that you would never step upon?

Is a TIME a smooshy thing
that you can rest your head upon?

Is a TIME a shining thing
that every night, you wish upon?

Is a TIME a spiraling thing
that you may climb upon?

Is a TIME a speeding thing
that you will ride upon?

TIMES are smooth, slithery, smooshy,
shining, spiraling, speeding things.

TIMES are whatever you need them to be,
And you have all of them you need.

So as I was saying,
"Once upon a TIME..."

—Poem by Martha Burgin, Drawings by Kim Mosley (

Glen Snyder Photographs

Leaping Monkey, Xanjiajie National Forest, Hunan, China

Shinkansen Approaching Hiroshima

Jonesboro Cotton Field

Discovering Emptiness in a Spinning Top

When I looked at th-
e spinning top the w-
ords became concent-
ric circles.

The Wednesday night reading group has been reading Nagarjuna's The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way for a while now. We are just getting into the best part. And it is no more difficult than figuring out a child's top that you spin with your forefinger and thumb. Here's why:

Last night we talked about how emptiness is not the same as believing in nothing (nihilism). And that emptiness means “no abiding self,” or in the case of a child's top (which wasn't mentioned), no essence.

Barbara was quick to say that hearing these ideas and practicing with them are very different. So today I went to the Blanton Art Museum and the Ramsen center to practice (shirking my volunteer duties to AZC).

First I ate in the Blanton's new cafeteria. I don't like to see art with my stomach growling. Then to the museum store where I found a child's top. It had words printed on a flat round disk. I spun it and voila, the words turned into concentric circles. That proved it, I thought. In one spin I saw how foolish both Nagarjuna and Barbara were. It was obvious that the essence was the top standing still (with words), and when moving, is just appeared different (with concentric circles). I was satisfied that my mission was accomplished, and left the store (at $3.26, I though it was too expensive to buy the top that had disproved emptiness).

Walking out to the street, I started thinking about a hypothetical top that is attached to an electric motor. The normal state (essence) of that top would be the concentric circles, and seeing the words would be just an abnormal view of the top. But suppose that one day the motor dies and the top comes to a stop. Then has its essence changed (a contradiction for if essence changes then it is not essence)? Then my mind went to the earth, which spins and rotates as if there was no tomorrow. What is the essence of that (a spherical object in motion?). I started to doubt the validity of my “there is an essence” argument.

A minute later, as I went outside, I saw an old truck with scratches, dents and faded paint. So what was this truck's essence, it if had one? Was it the way it was yesterday, the way it is now, or the way it will be tomorrow? Suddenly essence disappeared and Nagarjuna (and Barbara) made more sense.

Nagarjuna wrote,
For him to whom emptiness is clear,
Everything becomes clear.
For him to whom emptiness is not clear,
Nothing becomes clear.
—Kim Mosley (