Saturday, May 22, 2010

Tommy D, the boy as pretty as the girl next door

Del and Issan in Santa Fe

I can't let these pictures Of Issan and some of his friends sit on my computer's hard drive out of sight. They were, I think, a gift from Del Carlson to the Hartford Street Zen Center. Jeff Thomas scanned them and sent me digital copies. I found a few others in various and sundry places.

This is the earliest photo of Issan I found. I'd recognize that face anywhere.

He shaved his head.

He wore a dress and did his hair.

He was never afraid to share the spotlight.

Issan and James
Shunko Jamvold, Del Carlson, Angelique Farrow, Steve Allen, Issan Dorey

To read more reflections about the life of Issan, see some photographs, read his dharma talks, go to my Record of Issan page.

The Xavier I left on the cutting room floor

I confess: I became obsessed with Xavier. I collected more images than I felt I could use for my blog posts about him. For some I would have had to explore a much wider context than I intended; some had no attribution; and some I just didn’t know how to handle.

However, because of the interest among the Compañeros y compañeras, a group of former Jesuits, their wives and partners, to which I belong, I’ve created this page from what wound up on the cutting room floor.

The body of the saint.

I can only guess the purpose of this contraption —
perhaps it shelters the glass coffin in its procession from Bom Jesu to Se Cathedral.

Garry tells me this is the coffin that carried Xavier's body from Malacca back to Goa.

His right arm was detached in 1615 by order of Caludio Acquaviva, then the General of the Jesuits. Some men on the Companions list actually came into physical contact with the relic while they were in the Society. “The lore around it was how many Asians he had baptized with that arm.” –Gene Bianchi

“I consider it one of the most beautiful churches I have seen in Goa. Built in 1873, the shrine of the Nossa Senhora Mae de Deus was brought over from the ruins of the convent of Mae de Deus in Old Goa to Saligaon. Saligaon, sal means “wooded,” gaon means “village,” which translates to “village in forest,” is some 14 km’s away from Panjim, the capital of Goa.” —Anurag Jain, photographer

One of the extraordinary events, or tales, surrounding his travels. Artist not identified.

By whom? Possibly Br. Andrea Pozo, S.J.

San Bac: If you have any doubt about that Xavier was a saint of the Spanish-Portuguese, visit San Bac outside Tucson, geographically half a world and culturally light years away from Goa. I might have to build a case that the cultural artifacts of the missions signify more than simply artistic taste, but the evidence here is so astounding that I rest my case.

San Xavier del Bac Mission was founded by Father Eusebio Kino, S.J. in 1692. The pictures are of the newly restored sacred art in the old church, which was completed in 1797 after 15 years of construction, making it one of the oldest existent structures from the 17th century in the New World. I visited San Bac several times when my parents were living south of Tucson, and it is an extraordinary place.

The late Fr. Charlie W. Polzer, S.J., a friend of many of the Compas, wrote extensively on Kino. His last book was the 1987, Kino Guide II: A Life of Eusebio Francisco Kino, S.J., Arizona's First Pioneer and I Guide to His Missions & Monuments. Morgan also wrote a tribute to Charlie in Meanderings.

And finally, sometimes art just leaves you speechless! Even given the distance of time and place, cultural differences, what could have been going on in the mind of the artist in this pose? Samba, or, perhaps, the Bosa Nova. Not a bad idea, really, but not something that immediately pops into my mind when thinking about Xavier.

The Meanderings of Francis Xavier

For my friends Garry Demarest and Tom Marshall, travelers and seekers

"Where to start is the problem, because nothing begins where it begins and nothing's over when it's over, and everything needs a preface: a postscript, a chart of simultaneous events. History is a construct....." Margaret Atwood, The Robber Bride

My friend Garry Demarest was in Goa a few weeks ago, and I suggested that he and his camera seek out the Basilica of Good Jesus, the final resting place of Francis Xavier.

April 7th was the 504th anniversary of Xavier’s birth, and though neither Garry nor I were aware of any celebrations, if he had arrived just a few weeks earlier, he could have seen the mummified body of the saint carried in procession from Bom Jesu to the Cathedral across the street for veneration.

Veneration was also part of my request: I was asking Garry to help me complete a spiritual journey by paying respects to Xavier with his fine eye and camera. My experience of spiritual journeys is that they contain precious few endings, and many beginnings. In fact the journey seems like countless beginnings with a common thread. But I had intended my request, and my desire to complete my following Xavier in much the same spirit as I understand Ignatius’s making his confession to a friend before the Battle of Pamplona when no priest was at hand—the first step of his new life after soldiering.

I wanted to end my tracking of the meandering Xavier, but truthfully, I also wanted to be done with Xavier. His adventurous spirit was heroic—you have to admire that. He traveled to the edges of the known world over treacherous waters in vessels were like leaky rowboats compared with what modern mariners sail, and reportedly the man never acquired a sailor’s belly. On the other hand, he made me uncomfortable. His concern for all men and women, when that seemed fully present, was generous and loving, but reading from his own words, he seemed to trip up on a rigid, dogmatic understanding of the world.

Saints are human beings, and, in my view, some of the men and women whose lives Christians are told to admire and imitate also possessed, or were possessed by, some habits of mind that make the world less bright and friendly. Xavier seemed dogmatic, judgmental, and stubborn, always ready to pick a fight. He was also reckless. If just his own life were in jeopardy, I might be able to attribute it to his quirky behavior. However if you read carefully, he also put others in harm’s way. The ethos aboard a Portuguese man of war certainly encouraged bravado in the face of danger, but it seems to have fed a kind of fanaticism in the man. And although he was a guest in Japan, and didn’t know the language and customs, it is clear that he tried to stir up ill will towards Buddhist monks for what he perceived as sexual abuse of minors. He intention was to topple their authority as well as to present the teaching of Jesus. I make no secret that I would favor that outcome in the current scandal of abuse that has rocked the church. Perhaps Xavier forces me to look into a mirror and see the viscous side of my own attitudes.

The reconstructed map of Xavier’s voyages look like meandering, but they were certainly purpose driven, as was he. Francis left Lisbon in 1541 and for the next 11 years traveled many thousands of miles, from Goa to Japan with stops in Sri Lanka, Malacca, the Moluccans. He established missions that were to be staffed by the many Jesuits who followed him. On December 2, 1552, two years after he left Japan, he died on the Island of Changchuen while waiting to gain entrance into the Celestial Empire. His body was dipped in quick lime and returned to Goa 15 months later.

In spite of my personal aversion to parts of Xavier’s personality, I still admire his courage and dedication. As a small tribute to his explorations, I’ve assembled the following images. I’ve supplemented Garry’s shots with others that I found on the Internet. My only criterion was that I found the images interesting or beautiful. Credits for the photos appear if they were available.

The Beginnings of my own Journey

I began reading about Xavier more than 8 years ago when Tom Marshall gave me the 4th volume of Schurhammer’s Francis Xavier: His Life, His Times. I had wanted to read Xavier’s letters to Ignatius from Japan, especially several in which he describes his meeting with the Zen adept “Ninxit,” his transliteration for Ninjitsu, the abbot of the Zen Temple, Kinryu-zan Fukushoji. This was the first encounter between Zen and Christianity. The year was 1549, soon after Xavier landed at Kagoshima on Kyushu, the southernmost island of Japan.

I attempted to reconstruct the meeting between Xavier and Ninxit in Buddha S.J. There were some hints that he formed quite a wonderful friendship with Ninjitsu that was not entirely driven by his missionary zeal. Apparently Xavier broke off his relationship when he could not convert Ninjitsu and pushed further north.

Xavier’s letters to Ignatius are the only record of this encounter. Xavier was writing to his friend and mentor, but he narrated with a kind of the formality that I didn’t expect, although my understanding of writing letters conventions 440 years ago is entirely best guesses. Xavier may have taken a very dogmatic tone because intermediaries might read them, or they were what Rome and Portugal wanted to read, or they may have just reflected the rigid side of his personality. He also brought only the most rudimentary linguistic skills to encounter, and seems in no way prepared for the kind of conversation that he tried to have. He was aware of his handicap and, in his letters, recommended thorough linguistic training for the Jesuits who will follow him.

[Signature of St. Francis Xavier taken from a letter to the King John III of Portugal, dated May 16, 1546. The letter itself is in the collection of the 26 Martyrs Museum, Nagasaki, Japan. Go to their catalogue for further inspection. I have not reproduced the entire letter as requested. I am also conscious that the Museum may not be entirely comfortable with my portrayal of Xavier.]

The story with a larger series of images continues at “A saint for the East or the Portuguese expansion into the East?

Francis Xavier: His Life, His Times, Vol. 4: Japan and China, 1549-1552
, Georg Schurhammer, Jesuit Historical Institute, 1973
St. Francis Xavier, J. M. Langlois-Berthelot, Jean-Marc Montguerre [pseud.] Trans. Ruth Murdoch, Doubleday, 1963.

Friday, May 21, 2010

A saint for the East or the Portuguese expansion into the East?

After many years of Jesuit training, I took as a matter of faith that Francis Xavier was the first multi-cultural saint, having spent 11 of his 46 short years in the East. Nothing could be farther from the truth. His mission was closely tied to the Portuguese colonization of India, begun in 1498 by Vasco da Gama. Xavier arrived in Goa on May 6th 1542 along with Portuguese explorers, seamen, soldiers, and merchants—the first or second wave of occupiers. As Jesuit he vowed to spread the gospel of Jesus, but he was fully aligned with the European/Portuguese plans to dominate the East which creates a messy picture.

The history of any revolution or period of innovation is hard to read. I am skeptical of any authorized version, particularly a story of the human and divine interacting. Though the Roman church and the Jesuits insist that Jesus came to save all humankind regardless of race, or language, or tradition, when I look at the cultural artifacts of Xavier's mission, the architecture and iconography, I see a different story.

Portuguese governance of the territories they occupied in India lasted from 1505 through 1947. After Ghandi these scattered costal enclaves, known as Portuguese India, or Goa in popular parlance, began to be taken over by India. The pace accelerated in 1954, when peaceful Satyagrahis attempts at forcing the Portuguese to leave were brutally suppressed.

This is a postcard commemorating the Saint issued by Portuguese India in 1946, a year before Indian independence.

The following images are presented as evidence that Xavier was, and is still, a very European saint. The photographs are of Bom Jesu, 1695 C.E., and the Se Cathedral in Old Goa. (Photography by Garry Demarest.)

Xavier’s casket in the Basilica of Bom Jesu.


The nave of the Basilica of Bom Jesu

Close-up of the main altar in Bom Jesu


Another altar in Bom Jesu

Se Cathedral, Old Goa.

The nave of Se Cathedral.

Xavier is still part of the life of many Indian Christians, many generations removed from his appearance in Goa more than 450 years ago.

This is an older church in Old Goa that predates the current Basilica of 1695.

Roman Catholicism didn't completely conquer the hearts and minds of the local peoples. It is still India. Christianity can never be more than a competing cult.

The Creation of a European Saint in Baroque Art

Nicolas Poussin (1595-1664)
The Miracle of Saint Francis Xavier

Saint Francis Xavier by Andrea Pozo (1642-1709), lay brother of the Society of Jesus, 1701, Oil on canvas, Kiscelli Museum, Budapest.

Peter Paul Rubens 1617/1618

This monumental painting was displayed alternately with The Miracles of St. Ignatius of Loyola on the high altar of Antwerp's Jesuit Church.

St. Francis Xavier stands preaching to a crowd of people. Some of the miracles he performed as part of his missionary activity in Asia are vividly depicted, both as a testimony to the Counter-Reformation and as preparation for the beatification of St. Francis Xavier in 1619. A man is summoned back from the dead, the blind and lame are healed, and in the temple an idol is falling, broken, to the ground.

Depiction of one of the miracles of Francis Xavier.

André Reinoso, The Miracle of Saint Francis Xavier (1619)
at the Santa Casa de Misericórdia de Lisboa / Museu de São Roque, Lisbon, Portugal

Images from Japanese Art

Traditional screens. Images of the great Portuguese trading ships. Jesuits, or priests, are among the passengers.

And finally some of the sweeter images of Xavier. Although my analysis has been to portray Xavier as a very European figure, that is not to say that his influence was entirely negative. (The tonsure on Xavier might indicate that he has been incorrectly identified with one of the Franciscans who followed the Jesuits in Japan).

Thursday, May 6, 2010

An Afternoon with Chiura Obata and generations of Amish mystics

Yesterday I ran into an old friend, Chiura Obata—even though I never met him, I feel that I know him through his work—and I stumbled into the works of some extraordinary Amish women and girls who made useful, and astonishing, household goods to keep themselves and their families warm. I am going to try to describe an experience that opened my eyes to the world in a way that I didn’t expect.

In the late afternoon, I headed to free Tuesdays at the De Young in Golden Gate Park. I had just intended to distract myself, to drift around and see what was up that I haven’t seen recently. Sometimes I direct myself around a museum as if I were my own docent, and sometimes, I just stand in awe. Both these persons were present; I hope you can distinguish their voices.

I walked up the wide stairs at the south end of the building and headed straight back towards the fabric gallery where 48 Amish quilts made between 1880 and 1940 were on display. I was curious. Of course I’ve seen the coffee table books that portray these artifacts as folksy Americana, women’s craftwork, unique and colorful.

Attendant 5, Bryce Marden
One look at the real work destroyed my folksy preconceptions forever. Escher’s disoriented perspective where front and back trade places are essential components without caricatured beetles crawling over them. Georgia O’Keefe’s sensuous lines are stitched in patterns across solid blocks of color. Keith Haring’s strictly drawn, geometrically arranged figures lay flat until the lines start to dance. Then the patchwork itself danced. These women understood geometric shapes and what happens as the background changes color decades before Josef Albers began his investigations. Jasper Johns had artistic grandmothers, dozens, maybe hundreds. Bryce Marden’s simple elegant repeated loops create the same visual magic that these women did as they set circles on the rectangular fabrics that protected their sleeping children.

Was it the practice of keeping it simple, or community, or cooperation that laid the foundation for what I saw, or is there a magic elixir in the water in Amish country? These artists, women and girls, were absolute masters of every discipline they used, design, color, geometry, and sewing. I walked around stunned. I lost track of time. These visionaries and mystics took whatever was at hand, used the careful, precise skills handed down to them by their mothers and created masterpieces. I wondered if they saw their work as being astonishing in the way that I saw it. Actually I suspect that they did, but it was also ordinary fare in their communities.

I will not do these artifacts a disservice by pasting up a catalogue of Internet images, no matter how beautiful, precise or detailed. One will have to give a taste. I have shown a "Shadow Pattern" design. When you see them, be in their presence, you can almost feel the hands and eyes and souls of these extraordinary, mostly anonymous artists.

Setting Sun, Sacramento Valley
The fabric gallery and the wall where Chiura Obata’s Lake Basin in the High Sierra hangs are only a few yards apart. I have been a fan of the Issei Japanese American Obata (1885-1975) since I saw his hanging scroll, Setting Sun, Sacramento Valley, during the closing exhibit at the old De Young back in 2000.

How Lake Basin became a koan* that unlocked something inside me may sound disjointed—moving from quilts to a painting on silk—but it didn’t feel that way to me at all. It seemed as natural as stepping into a bath.

[*koan is the Japanese word for a particular type of story telling used by old Chinese and Japanese Zen meditation teachers to help a student unlock and experience some aspect of the Buddha's teaching--and make it their own. Sometimes they contain what might be more appropriately called riddles or puzzles, but these are not just linguistic. There hold much more than what meets the eye.]

I had briefly glanced at Lake Basin before I went into the quilt exhibit. When I finally began my leave taking of the quilts with a promise to visit again before they returned to the care of Faith and Steven Brown, I walked back through the gallery's dark narrow passageway, turned right and stopped in front of Obata’s subtle brushwork. No, the colors and shapes stopped me.

I had just spent perhaps an hour looking at colors and shapes on flat surfaces with no pretense of perspective, yet with incredible depth and dimension. When my eyes took in Obata’s floating blue lake holding up a mountain of ragged black covered with half melted snow, there it was again, the same one-dimensional quality. Lake Basin was born out of an ancient Chinese scroll that spread pieces of craggy cliffs and trees in brushwork up and down the page with trees and scholars sketched in to create an illusion of depth. Actually, when I study old Chinese scrolls, the small miniature roofs seem to act like footnotes—the painter wants to tell you, “See, that one, it’s in the distance.” But Obata didn’t import Buddhist pagodas to the High Sierra. He painted an American landscape as he found it: water, rock and sky, big and bold. But he also painted with great delicacy and restraint. It is almost reverential.

I sat down on the bench that was right there, waiting for the moment. My eyes moved across the surfaces. The lake floated in blue lapis lazuli pigment, completely still except where the tracings of bristle allowed me look down to the lake’s bottom. The sides of its bowl were decorated with green and yellow, new growth. On top, neither behind nor in front, the patched snow softened the dark granite’s sharp edges. The snow seemed to wrap under the mountain's weight and hold it in space; the stylized vertical marks could just as easily have been on the blanket wrapped under a child, stitched in by an Amish craftswoman teaching her daughter to sew.

I sat until the guards began to warn that they would soon close the doors. As I got up I realized that I had been sitting with a visual koan. I say koan because the play of lines and color across the silk revealed that winter holds spring, not in a temporal or sequential way, but as a mother holds her child. I was overwhelmed by the tenderness of Nature. The feeling startled me. It was sudden.

At times in the past, I have held snow on the granite peaks as inhospitable, as terrifying as the tales of Donner Pass, but now another deep understanding was also there, the High Sierra was the Source of the clear bright water that crashes over rocks in Spring making its way towards the Bay. Both points of view are equally true; one does not negate the other. But once I was able to creep inside Obata’s vertical and horizontal lines, his blues and blacks, whites and greens, I found a way to enter the wildness of nature as a friend, with no fear. I don’t know if this understanding will last, but I do know that it was not present before yesterday just as the museum was closing.

The one harsh line I could not cross on Lake Basin is where the mountain touches the sky. I am here on the earth. Both koans and paintings are the works of men, not gods. Words and colors, brushes and pencils, silk and pigments, thoughts and meditation, discourse and dreaming, these are all around us. They are both tools and the stuff we work with.

I am going to conclude with thoughts about humans crafting koans out of their experience, dreams, insight, study and the patient work of meditation. As you scroll down, you will see some of the images that I studied on the Internet. Obata was a professional artist. He painted so he could feed and clothe his wife and children. He did several versions of Lake Basin the High Sierra, a sketch, smaller paintings and wood block prints. I can’t determine the time line for certain. Art curators date the wood blocks and paintings sometime around 1930. The colored pencil sketch is clearly dated 1930. But when I examined the images of each of the works that were available, I am sure that he started the large painting that I'd sat in front of—it is nearly 6' high and 10' feet across—only after he himself had explored the shapes, colors and lines and allowed them to find their own way onto the silk. Perhaps he had a similar friendship with the wild, and felt that same tenderness I experienced Tuesday. I wondered if he kept coming back to his images in the same way that a koan grabs my mind and imagination, becoming more essential with each pass. Perhaps he and his pigment and mineral, brushes and silk shared their experience with me. No, certainly, they did.

Print, Quilt Sale, unknown
Attendant 5, Bryce Marden
Amish Shadow Quilt, Alternate pattern name: Shadows. Maker unknown. Date Unknown. 67" x 63." Nebraska State Historical Society
Setting Sun: Sacramento Valley, CA. 1925. Hanging scroll: mineral pigments (distemper) and gold on silk, 107 1/2 x 69 in.
Lake Basin in the High Sierra, Chiura Obata, cc 1930, painting on silk (69 ½ x 102 ½ inches), made with ink and a brilliant blue lapis lazuli pigment. De Young Museum, San Francisco
Chiura Obata, photograph, UC Berkeley

Here are some images of the various renditions presented without further comment.

Lake Basin in the High Sierra, sketch, 1930,

Lake Basin in the High Sierra, watercolor

Lake Basin in the High Sierra , Tadeo Takamizawa (Printer) color woodcut on paper image: 11 3/8 x 15 5/8 in. (28.9 x 39.7 cm) Smithsonian American Art Museum