Practice as Inspiration for Artists
By Denys Candy
Stonehill College, Massachusetts, August 2000
It is some ungodly hour of the morning, the room is already warm — it can’t be time to get up already? In the nether world between sleep and waking, I intone, “Twenty-four brand new hours!”
“Are you awake?” asks my Sangha brother Tony, who’s sharing the room.
“I think so.”
“I wasn’t sure if you were awake or just talking,” he says.
I roll to the edge of the bed and peer out the window into the half-light. Figures walk slowly by the trees and buildings, random streams of people converging — a sight I will recall later in the day as two lines come to me:
The scorched earth is waiting,
There’s a stirring in the trees.
Eventually, I manage to stumble into the procession toward the meditation hall. I slip off my shoes and stepping inside, I smile to the sound of the huge round air-conditioning tubes cranking up.
I’ve come to see Thay again — to be in his presence — to try to wake up a little. Once in a while during his Dharma talk I think I get it — I sort of feel what he is saying, like a smile in my body — impermanence — how beautiful — a ﬂeeting moment — I’m really in it — I’m feeling it! Oops — it’s That’s okay. Thay says don’t worry about all of that. He says something like, “Soak it all in like Dharma Rain.”
Next day, a full verse emerges along with a melody, and after another day there’s a chorus:
People slowly walking, aware of any breeze,
They’re hearing a monk’s message — it’s simple and it’s plain,
Today’s the day we walk in the Dharma Rain.
Happy day today and every day
We dance in the Dharma Rain!
Celebrate the here and now — it’s simple and it’s plain,
Today’s the day we walk in the Dharma Rain.
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, April 2004
Another early morning ﬁnds me walking slowly from the meditation hall to breakfast. It’s my birthday. I sense my mother’s presence and the stirrings of lyrics for another song:
I see the love-light in your eyes,
Your smile is mist upon the pine,
I miss you every single day,
As I continue on my way.
My friends of Laughing Rivers Sangha organize two retreats a year and Dharma teacher Chan Huy (True Radiance) ﬂies in from Canada to support us. Today, connecting is not a theory. My senses can taste my relatives, feel their blood in mine. My body tunes in to a walk with my cousin Ailbe by the California coast — talking of our parents.
The ocean rain’s touch is ﬂeeting,
Wild lilies bloom, kissed by the spray,
Your love is wind upon the bay,
It blows on my continuation day.
At breakfast, people are smiling at me and we are sharing little bows all over the place. Sometimes I think all that smiling and bowing is a bit much, but today it’s ﬁne. I am dropping nicely down, increasingly aware of my feet on the ground and the aromas at the table.
As part of his Dharma talk, Chan Huy tells stories of his family. His kitchen and his wife and daughters come alive to us, while outside the window deer are nuzzling the ground for tasty morsels beyond the pines.
The scent of my parents is on the air. What is love without attachment? I wonder.
Another verse plays in my mind, and here comes the sun!
They shine, they shine,
They shine on our continuation day.
Estes Park, Colorado, August 2005
On my ﬁrst retreat here two years ago, Thay reminded us we were on a “Dharma platform eight thousand feet high.” The Rockies held me entranced and the mountain-solid vistas inspired a rock beat, but I hadn’t brought my guitar. Luckily, the monastics lent me theirs:
I have arrived somehow, I am alive somehow,
I am solid, I am free in the here and now,
Back to my breath I did roam,
I have arrived, I am home.
This time my guitar is with me and the mornings have my dear friend Brother Phap Lai and me in a lullaby state of mind. Fiona, my beloved, a writer, takes in the sun nearby, keeping an eye on us to make sure we don’t succumb to too many clichés in our songwriting. I met Phap Lai in Deer Park Monastery the year before at a retreat for artists. Our shared experience of growing up in the same cultural orbit, me in Ireland and he in England, drew us together, along with our love of music. “What’s a nice Yorkshire lad like you doing in a place like this?” I wanted to know, as soon as I heard his voice.
Now we corral time to work on a song — a melody I’ve been messing with for several months has gotten hold of me. At the evening gathering, Phap Lai and I play together:
Ring that bell, soft sweet sound, ringing clarity.
Claymont Court, West Virginia, October 2006
Fiona and I have come to feel part of the “extended family” that gathers from neighboring states to retreat in the rolling hills with Thay’s niece Anh Huong and her family.
Sometimes I am calm at retreats, other times on the edge of bliss. This time, however, I am emotionally wrought. The practice and the landscape — nearby Antietem and Charlestown evoking the unspeakably bloody battles of the American Civil War — combine to bring forth wisps of submerged sadness. I reach for my guitar and sit alone at the side of the building in the sun. Strumming, I think of the day’s passage — meditation facing a window at dawn, sitting on rocks and feeling paths taken and foregone, managing to stay present, ultimately grateful for all of it:
Dawn is grey upon the new day,
A West Virginia ﬁeld reveals itself
As the sun comes up,
Morning light, sun is on the rocks,
Paused in time is a place for stopping,
A place for resting.
Glory, glory Halleluiah.
What I notice about Buddhist practice as reﬁned by Thay is the careful attention paid to establishing the right environment. What is the most important thing to attend to if we want to live mindfully? “It’s the environment, stupid!” Thay joked at one retreat. Silence, mindful breathing, walking, eating — stopping, calming, resting — together lay the ground for an altered, more satisfying, and more real way of moving in the world. They also lay the ground for artistic practice. Vision and inspiration are as important to the artist as are the skills of a given craft. It is crucial to attend to how we feed our creative environment. “What are you feeding?” Thay asks. “Nothing can exist without food.”
At retreats, the artist in me loves to dive deep. It’s like swimming in the Irish Sea when I was a boy — I duck my head under, frolic, and ﬂoat. Perhaps I should not be surprised at those times when, surrounded by noble silence, a string bean might reveal its true nature, available all along but ﬁnally witnessed, and I am moved by a seemingly distant melody that now arises — asking to be sung.
Denys Candy, True Mountain of Loving Kindness, practices with Laughing Rivers Sangha in Pittsburgh, PA. You can hear his songs on the CD “Dharma Rain,” featuring his band and other Laughing Rivers Sangha members; available from Denys DMCandy@aol.com or Sangha member Patricia Redshaw firstname.lastname@example.org.