A while ago I joined a meditation group in Milton Keynes. I chose the Japanese originated ‘Zen’ to learn more about meditation. This is how I met Hilaire. He is leading a group of zen practitioners, and he taught me how to meditate the ‘Japanese way.’
This year he mentioned that he has been looking after this small group for thirty years, sometimes only five to seven people. To honour his enduring devotion, I asked him to sit for a portrait painting. His answer was as you would expect from a Buddhist devotee. He said, for that thirty years, he was not sitting and meditating alone. If I wish to paint him, it has to be with the whole group together.
I admired his righteous answer and happily accepted the challenge. This is how this painting was born.
The challenge wasn’t small nor easy. In Soto Zen the devotees were facing a wall, in two rows, sometimes more. Some people sit on a bench in the kneeling position, some sit on a cushion, and some on a regular chair. In the middle, the space is left empty in front of the altar on which there is a statue of the Buddha surrounded with some items in specific positions. There are some offerings, which have to be a candle, incense, a flower and some water too.
In my composition, I chose the point of view of the wall. I only depicted one wing/row of meditators.
I placed the horizon at the eye level of the Buddha. It represents the level of enlightenment. I used the diagonal line from left to the top right, my main compositional line. I arranged the people so that they are rising in both ways to the level of the horizon with their heads /or minds/, even if they are getting closer or further from the viewer. Although the height of the people is descending as we are getting further, the cushions on the floor suggest a nice rising feeling, parallel with the left bottom, top right diagonal line. Enlightenment is not an achievment nor a goal and is available for everyone in every moment, to keep the mind in a pure state is all what zen meditation is all about and to practice that in everyday life.
The altar with the Buddha receding in the background. The Buddha is almost at the centre-line of the painting as he has a leading part in the ceremony. It has been intentionally left without a face, to represent that anyone can become the Buddha.
My first idea was to place Hilaire the closest to us /the viewer/ as number one, but then I thought he wished to be among the other sitters. So he took place at the second position from the left. He is the one who is ringing the bell, signalling the beginning of the session, as he was the sound of the bell for many people’s minds during those years. The first two gentlemen, Bruce and Hilaire, are wearing the Wagesa or what is called the Buddhist stole. It is a strip of cloth about two feet long and three inches wide. This cloth is symbolic of the full Buddhist robe.
The person who wears it has made a commitment to living a Buddhist life and to keeping the Buddhist precepts.
In Zen, most of the things are very simple and straightforward. Therefore, I tried to maintain this simplicity in the painting too, with a simple floor and walls.
The whole meditation ceremony is equivalent to a ceremony in a Japanese monastery. This group is linked to the Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey, located in Northern England.
The big Goal
Why did I create this painting? The Story is true, but there is another concern too. It isn’t just because I like sushi and admire the Japanese culture. I wished to express a very simple meaning to everybody. That is; the encouragement to seek and find your spiritual path. In life, there are many ups and downs, and most of us, sooner or later, arrive at a point where it feels that there must be something else than chasing pleasures or just suffering. Those moments in your life can be the turning points and the first steps to something greater, to find peace in yourself.
If in a fifty-year-old city like Milton Keynes you can practise Soto Zen meditation for thirty years, thanks to Hilaire, then there is probably an abundant possibility that you will find your own spiritual path – if you look for it. Meanwhile, you are more than welcome to join and try the Japanese way of meditation in England, Milton Keynes.
Links: Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey