Windhover—Where the Mind Can Hover

 

Zen Fountain
Zen Fountain

Over Memorial Day Weekend I visited Windhover, the new spiritual and contemplation center on Stanford University’s campus, a minimalist architectural style suggesting Zen and personal renewal. Windhover takes its name from the series of five giant paintings by the internationally renowned Bay Area figurative artist Nathan Oliveira (1928-2010) who, in turn, named this series after Gerald Manley Hopkins’ poem (1877).

Windhover provides an extraordinarily beautiful and serene venue for quiet reflection exclusively for use by Stanford students, faculty, and staff. If you know someone at Stanford, you can walk into Windhover, a calmly powerful testimony to the necessity for meditation and reflection in daily life. [For the general public, there are docent-led tours every Tuesday at 10:00 am.]

Windhover Contemplation Center
Windhover Contemplation Center

As I approached the landscaped grounds I saw a granite labyrinth, a small Zen stone garden, a small grove of ginkgo trees, and a reflecting pool. Floor-to-ceiling windows suggest a sense of a museum, brilliantly combining art, spirituality, and nature. To the right as I stepped through the front doors, was a room for borrowing a zafu (Zen meditation pillow). The first painting one sees is Big Red, a large abstract oil painting of a kestrel (aka “windhover”) flying in a red sky.  Oliveira’s other paintings include the magnificent Diptych, White Wing and Sun Radiating in either earth tones or sunshine yellow.

Windhover Diptych
Windhover Diptych

Windhover is an elegant and understated refuge in nature, its simple lines an eloquent design for meditative thought.

If you’re visiting campus, you could spend a wonderful day taking the Tuesday morning tour, followed by a walk around the Rodin Sculpture Garden, and then a hike up to the Dish in the Stanford Foothills. If weather proved uncooperative, the Cantor Center for Visual Arts and the Stanford Museum would be time well spent.

Zen Garden
Zen Garden

 

 

Dunhuang–The Caves of A Thousand Buddhas

Two weeks ago I visited the incomparable Mogao Caves at Dunhuang, a UNESCO World Heritage site, located in Gansu province, northwestern China, at the edge of the Gobi and Taklamakan deserts, directly north of Tibet.  These caves remain one of the most well-preserved, splendid sanctuaries of sacred art in the world.

Mogao Caves

From the 3rd century BCE through the 12th century AD, Dunhuang was a prosperous oasis situated at the entrance to the Silk Road, where ancient caravans of Bactrian camels, donkeys, and horses carried cargo for more than 7,000 kilometers from China and Tibet through the Middle East to the Mediterranean.  These merchants became purveyors not only of merchandise but also of ideas – religious, cultural and artistic. By the 4th century AD, the Silk Road had brought Dunhuang both commercial prosperity and a growing Buddhist community of monk-scholars and pilgrims.       

Silk Road watchtower

 

The artifacts (totaling over 45,000 items) include murals, paintings, sculpture and manuscripts, in more than fifteen different scripts and languages.  The history of interreligious relations in Dunhuang is a history of peaceful exchange involving Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Taoism, Manichaeism, Nestorianism, and folk religions.  The early communication was followed, in some cases, by conversion but the region remained one of peaceful co-existence until the nomadic invasion of Islam in the 12th century.

Dunes of Dunhuang

Aurel Stein (1862–1943), a Hungarian-British civil servant working in India, made four perilous expeditions to Central Asia, beginning in 1901, removing thousands of   manuscripts from the ‘Library Cave’ (Cave 17). French, German, Russian, Japanese, and Chinese treasure hunters and explorers also took their toll on the collection.

In graduate school I had translated a third century Buddhist sutra, The Srimaladevi Sutra, a sermon by Sakyamuni about a woman who becomes a Buddha without waiting for rebirth as a man.  I have seen the original Dunhuang manuscript of the Srimaladevi at the British Museum, where many of the manuscripts are now stored.  Seeing the cave where the manuscript was transported by Stein to London was a dream come true!

Buddhist Pilgrim

Accompanied by a specialist from the Dunhuang Research Institute, we were able to see the celebrated “Library Cave” (Cave 17) where the oldest dated printed book was discovered–The Diamond Sutra–about the Buddha’s sermon at Jetavana grove. The Diamond Sutra is now housed at the British Museum. Virtually every cave has at least one image of the Buddha, various dancers, musicians, and Bodhisattvas in heavenly realms embodying a fusion of Chinese, Persian, Tibetan, Indian, and other regional art styles.  The magnificence and grace of the Mogao Caves left me breathless.

The removal by Stein of so much cultural and archaeological material from China has caused anger in China, and there have been calls for the texts and artifacts collected by Stein from Dunhuang that are now in the British Museum and British Library to be repatriated to China. Although the Chinese government has not formally requested their return, in 2003 an official at the Chinese Embassy in London stated that all artifacts should be returned to the ancient grottoes of their origin. Currently, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is funding a visitor center and digital library of art to be completed in 2015, with the intention of preserving the fragile Mogao Caves. The Dunhuang art has been considered China’s Elgin Marbles.

“The Net”–Captured in Each Other’s Minds

I always let my blog followers know about my recent art and fiction publications.  Just two days ago my short story, “The Net”, was published in an online literary journal (www.orionheadless.com). The Buddhist metaphor of the net underpins not only this short story but also my writing, art and philosophy of life. Read the short story in tandem with this post for a fuller back-story to the Buddhist values implied in “The Net”.

The Buddhist concept of perception was front and center in an art class on Color Fundamentals. I learned that human vision is limited in terms of what colors we see.  Color differs from one individual’s vision cells to another person’s.  Yet we all use a language of color.  Moreover, human perception of color may not actually correspond to the color of the object.  We receive and perceive colors based upon our ability to accept certain wavelengths of color.  These colors differ from fish or birds, for example. Or from other people who have color differences (formerly called “color blind”). This is such a Buddhist concept of perception!

My short story,” The Net”, is taken from a classic Hindu tale adapted by the Mahayana Buddhist school in which the god Indra’s net is strung together with crystal jewels reflecting off each other.  In Buddhism this becomes the icon for the philosophical concept of interconnectivity, interdependence, community between and among all sentient beings.  In some of the more philosophical Hua-yen treatises, Indra’s net symbolizes each individual mind reflecting others in continually evolving, fluid patterns.

The Buddhist notion of interdependence implies that all of life is mind-created, illusory as a reality in and of itself (just as color is).  Our world is limited by and dependent upon what our minds want and can see.   By definition, we cannot know anything separate from our own mind and how it is reflected by other minds. I used this profound metaphor for the structure of our reality to create a story about a social net, a circle of women friends who support and reflect each other’s thoughts and feelings. The friends mirror each other and each of them is a jewel intimately connected with all the other jewels in the group. When one jewel changes or shifts slightly, it resonates with the other jewels that reflect it. In my short story it is stories from childhood that the women tell which rebound and reflect off each other.   All the women understand.

The irony and current reaffirmation of connection and community is evidenced by our attraction to the Internet and social networking.  There is even an Internet company in Boulder, Colorado called “Indra’s Net”! The net is all around us and expands to infinity: a meditation on the interplay of each of us as stored and reflected in the minds that surround us. A mesmerizing and elegant concept indeed!