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I have wanted to paint the desert and I haven't known how . . . So I brought home the bleached bones as my symbols of the desert. To me they are as beautiful as anything I know. To me they are strangely more living than animals walking around . . . The bones seem to cut sharply to something that is keenly alive on the desert even tho' it is vast and empty and untouchable -- and knows no kindness with all its beauty.

Georgia O'Keefe

the painting "Deer Horns"


To convey a symbolic understanding of something vast, empty and untouchable, the quest into the realm of the unknown through the media of visions and sounds, painting and words. I touch these untenable vistas through various spiritual practices as well as continuous awe-filled interaction with nature and am pursued with the passion to translate the experience. Passion for life, passion to find out who I am. The creation story; painting, poetry, dance, rituals, chanting and music-- ways of making an offering back, completing the circle of energy so that growth and the renewal process may continue to unfold unceasingly for the benefit of all. Taking the name compassion it is an act of reverence and gratitude to that which sustains and embodies me, revealing its true nature through the kindness of all forms of life, our interdependence and interconnection. Since childhood I have reveled in deep communion with nature which bore the fruit of a deep intrinsic, though abstract, understanding of principles that underlie the ultimate nature of reality, themes that I explore in these paintings. It is only in the last few years that I have engaged experientially and intellectually with the teachings of the Buddha, slowly weaving an infinite tapestry mind of such beauty, the warp--my revelations in nature, the woof--the Four Noble Truths, the Eight-fold Path and a lineage of practitioners who sought truth. All of these brightly colored threads are apparent in the process of translating the visual experience of my paintings into words.

I have come to realize again that the inspiration, the creative process, the source for the images is a multifaceted jewel, that refracts light in many directions creating a continuous movie flow of distractions and illusions that veil the true substance and color of the gem. It can become a complex process to penetrate the layers of conditioning and armor that protect this tool of wisdom and understanding. The source for the images and words, our artistic inheritance evolves through many layers of our own unique perception and distortion before it flows from brush or pen. In Buddhist philosophy this is talked about in terms of the aggregates (called "dharmas" in Sanskrit)..

A commentary on the Heart Sutra reveals some insights on the aggregates.

"Form is empty; the first profundity is the emptiness of inherent existence of phenomena. It is a call of profundity because emptiness is a profound topic that is difficult to realize and because the realization of emptiness leads to the profound attainment of complete liberation from all suffering. It is called the profundity of the ultimate because emptiness is the ultimate nature of phenomena. Avalokiteshvara's words `form is empty' reveal the ultimate nature of form and thus reveal the first profundity of form. `Form', here, refers to the aggregate of form, which is one of the five aggregates: 1) form 2) feeling 3) discrimination 4) compositional factors 5) consciousness. In general, the five aggregates include all impermanent phenomena . . . those of a person include the particular impermanent phenomena that constitute a person . . . Although objects that are included in the aggregate of form appear to exist inherently in this way, in reality they totally lack inherent existence. The way in which these objects actually exist is quite different from the way in which they appear to exist."(1)

These finalize the experience of the solid "I" which creates fear, boundaries and the feelings of separation or isolation from the rest of creation, as well as isolation from the "self as pure infinite potential,"(2) the creative void. Art embodies truth, the truth of emptiness birthing form, the truth of that form reflecting emptiness. It is an ultimate gift to the artist who reaches so deeply for authenticity, and to the viewer who reaches out to embrace it with his senses.

I am constantly amazed at the contortionist dance we do to hide the truth of things from our conscious mind. Our deceptions are limitless and we need to be constantly creating new ways to excavate the ancient ancestress temple from the innumerable grains of sand that bury Her. When the shovels of my interior task force become words, a totally unfamiliar avenue of expression, my expert archeologist mind asleep with habit and familiarity become an ever-curious and courageous beginners mind. I literally stumbled into the secret passageway that led to the center of the maze. The creative process once more became comforting, healing, natural, a deep communion with that which nourishes and restores health. I say naturally because there is an obvious creative energy in life that seeks to create itself everywhere, tiny tender sprouts growing out of stone and cement. As a teacher of mine, Vernice Solimar, said, "Get in touch with that process to find out what it is, sit with a plant. Creating is fun. Godesss must be in constant bliss creating over and over again unceasingly." I refer to the Goddess throughout these writings and paintings that chronicle a continuous dance with Her beloved presence in my life. My perception of the divine has been that of the feminine principle complete within Herself, continually and joyously birthing form, nurturing its development and receiving it back into Herself in death. I expound on this theme in one way or another in each piece, but perhaps most thoroughly in the last one `Hawkwoman'. A creation myth of the Goddess I've recently encountered and become very fond of is in Starhawk's' Spiral Dance, a story of the creative void.

"Alone, awesome, complete within Herself, the Goddess, She whose name cannot be spoken, floated in the abyss of the outer darkness, before the beginning of all things. And as She looked into the curved mirror of black space, She saw by her own light her radiant reflection, and fell in love with it. She drew it forth by the power that was in Her and made love to Herself, and called Her "Miria, the Wonderful."

"Their ecstasy burst forth in the single song of all that is, was, or ever shall be, and with song came motion, waves that poured outward and became all the spheres and circles of the worlds. The Goddess became filled with love, swollen with love, and She gave birth to a rain of bright spirits that filled the worlds and became all beings."

"But in that great movement Miria was swept away, and as She moved out from the Goddess She became more masculine. First She became the Blue God, the gentle laughing God of love. Then She became the Green One vine-covered, rooted in the earth, the spirit of all growing things. At last She became the Horned God, the Hunter whose face is the ruddy sun and yet dark as Death. But always desire draws him back toward the Goddess, so that He circles Her eternally, seeking to return in love."(3)

The original theme of this writing project was "Mother Goddess: A Transformative Journey Through the Womb of Creativity." The journey itself evolved during six years of internal and external research; a year of traveling in Asia, the death of my artist-husband, a grief retreat at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center under the direction of two women teachers (Yvonne Rand and Wendy Johnson), a life-changing plunge into the depths of Tibetan Buddhism Tantra with my teacher Tara Rinpoche, a re-entry into the world with my husband-teacher, Buddhist psychologist David, and constant creative endeavor taking many forms-- gardening, flower arranging, painting, writing and now ritual theater. The effect of these numerous causes was a shift of interest away from total concentration on the feminine towards integration of the masculine and feminine principles, the union of the bliss and the void on all levels of my being. It was apparent that this integration process and holistic orientation needed to happen in the cultural, spiritual outer-world for the survival of the planet; it was more slowly revealed to me as an internal dichotomy as well and finally the profound proposal of an inconceivable ultimate reality of non-duality or truth in the teachings of the Buddha. My exploration of the Goddess religions in the East and West birthed a part of me that had died generations ago, a heritage of power, creativity, sexuality and spiritual communion with Nature, my womb. This re-awakening was powerful, but left me wanting -- it did not fill my need to understand the intrinsic nature of suffering. Eve's plight in the garden, as described in my writing on "Aphrodite-Eve", created a western world view that had left me cold and barren. In Spiral Dance, a book on modern Goddess worship from a western perspective, Starhawk effectively dodges the issue, putting her view on life atop a pedestal of `wonder', ignoring the upraised arms of those who suffer below. They fall into the realm of Buddhists and she enforces this criticism by quoting -- "the First Truth of Buddhism, that All life is Suffering."(4) She does not refer to the Second, Third and Fourth Truths that reveal the `cause': Suffering comes from grasping desires, the `medicine'; Grasping can be let go of and the `cure': the eight-fold path leads to the liberation from grasping, Nirvana. This path and its systematic approach in teaching techniques that reveal Right Views, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Conduct, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Meditation provided me with skillful means to approach the paradox of my life. I experience the wonder almost simultaneously with the suffering at times, a theme explored extensively in the writing `Heart Sutra' which evolved from my first intimate experience with death, watching the breaths final exodus from the body of a loved one. Wonder is one of my favorite words and it weaves its reverence for all forms of life and each moment of directly perceiving them. A system of thought and practices in Buddhism on Dependent Origination(5) again teaches method for those of us who get it directly through spontaneous interaction with the glories of Nature but have a little more difficulty finding it during our commute hour or at work.

The result of this shift in focus toward wholeness resulted in a new philosophical recipe. Here both Buddhism and Goddess reverence are ingredients of exploration as well as a little Sufi ecstatic poetry, a watery dash of Taoism, a cup of Gaia, a tablespoon of Hindu myths, a cosmic Zen egg, a teaspoon of Hopi salt, Confucianist garden herbs, Findhorn fairy sprinkles whipped together with Robert Bly's masculine energy blender, cooked with Christian love and enjoyed with Jewish zeal for life. I pray over it and hope the offering will be interesting rather than confusing to the palette. In deference to my root deity, Arya Tara, the Goddess of Compassion in Tibetan Buddhism, I am reminded to add that the feminine principle is not deleted from Buddhism. A beautiful example of this is given by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso in his commentary on the Heart Sutra.(6)

"This sutra is given the name `Mother' because the perfection of wisdom that reveals itself is often called `Mother'. In general, both emptiness and the mind understanding emptiness are referred to as `Mother' because superior beings are born from them. A superior being (Sanskrit - arya) is a person who has directly perceived emptiness, the ultimate nature of reality."(7)

This current project of translating my visions (paintings) into words (prose poetry?) began with the intention to heal an age-old wounding separation of my own mind; the elite-misunderstood-anti-intellectual-artist-heroine isolated from society and her disparate lover, the story-teller who uses words and intellect to elucidate amorphous mind and reconnect with the human race. (Flowers, trees, plants, animals, birds were always easy to talk to!) It seemed that the only way to reconcile my Goddess-consciousness and perception of interconnection with a devastating lack of it manifesting its reality through people in everyday life. This disconnection I perceived as an inability to communicate meaningfully with a God-consciousness, intellectual, me-first oriented society and culture. The themes that emerged as I wrote about each painting led me to an understanding that these ideals were just one small facet of the jewel. I had actually linked into the deepest, most pervasive intention of my spiritual commitment to life; for the benefit of all beings to unceasingly and courageously seek the truth. Building the bridge of creativity over and over again, continually finding ways to communicate the conventional truth as varied, multi-dimensional and complex as Her human expressions are numerous and as simple and pure as the all-encompassing wholeness of Her body. The Bodhisattva vow took on new meaning as it repeatedly does, and I'm reminded that growth is continual, an infinite mala (rosary) of moments refracted over and over again through time and space. My thesis advisor Gail Sher told me to write about "What I didn't know yet," and the thought of it shoved me through the door into endless space without even wings to support me. What an idea, can it be, how can I do that? It reminded me that painting was also a doorway of equal proportions and magnitude, (a theme explored in Moon Mother Watching Over the Birth of Spirit, Dharma Wheel, Turn to the Light, and Mother Goddess: Chalice of Life and Death), but that I had become cautious and timid, exploring the reflection of the jewel's radiance without penetrating its hidden depth of color and luminosity. In light of this awakening to the authentic source of intention and concern in my creative endeavors, it is not surprising that I would find innumerable compatriots from various traditions and occupations exploring these ideals with rich diversity and unique understanding -- such as Georgia O'Keefe at the beginning of this article.

Adrienne Rich comments on this search for truth with deafening clarity and frankness in Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying:

-- The liar leads an existence of unutterable loneliness.

-- The liar is afraid.

-- But we are all afraid; without fear we become manic, hubristic, self-destructive. What is this particular fear that possesses the liar?

-- She is afraid that her own truths are not good enough.

-- She is afraid not so much of prison guards or bosses, but of something unnamed within her.

-- The liar fears the void.

-- The void is not something created by the patriarchy, or racism, or capitalism. It will not fade away with any of them. It is part of every woman.

-- "The dark core" Virginia Woolf named it, writing of her mother.

-- The dark core. It is beyond personality; beyond who loves us or hates us.

-- We begin out of the void, out of darkness and emptiness. It is part of the cycle understood by the old pagan religions [and Buddhism] that materialism denies. Out of death, rebirth; out of nothing, something.

-- The void is the creatrix, the matrix. It is not mere hollowness and anarchy. But in women it has been identified with lovelessness, barrenness, sterility. We have been urged to fill our "emptiness" with children. We are not supposed to go down into the darkness of the core.

-- Yet, if we can risk it, the something born of that nothing is our truth.

-- The liar in her terror wants to fill up the void, with anything. Her lies are a denial of her fear; a way of maintaining control.(8)

Filling up the emptiness with anything to avoid facing the truth . . . . A western doctor who straddles the east/west paradigm of medicine and healing by also studying auryvedic medicine and Tibetan Buddhism approached this amorphous dimension of `truth' from a similar, yet diverse, perspective. He was helping me surface from a week-long illness/healing crisis well that I fell into during a retreat in Bodhgaya, India. This intense spiritual retreat and reconnection with my earth roots (that always happens to me in India) was also a bridge between writing the prose on my paintings and this introduction-conclusion. In a fear-filled moment, feeling estranged from my old reality on all levels, he told me that the overwhelming sense of loss I was experiencing in the pit of my stomach after throwing up for three days was literally the emptiness I had been filling with the comfort of food. Now was my chance to learn to feel at ease with that void and really re-learn the needs and sensitivities of my awakening body. He added that it was as much like the emptiness we were daily exploring in our Buddhist practice, a void in which new positive things could be born and old negative patterns and habits dissolved. I thought to myself recently as I returned `home' and began a new painting from that scary place -- `this is the well of my creativity.' It occurs to me that the process was the precursor of a chain of events which led me to grounding the experience in my physical body and the beginning of being with my body, my spiritual practice, my paintings, my relationships, my life with renewed gratitude and devotion. The word wonder slips in again, the inspiration in my work that keeps the energy circle moving. A reminder to me to remain grateful and devoted within the law of impermanence; knowing that when we have what we desire we're unhappy, afraid of losing it, when we don't have what we desire we're unhappy, afraid we'll never have it, that neutrality seems boring rather than peaceful. Anyway, change is imminent and to just be happy we aren't locked in our ice-prison forever, the sun is on the way.

A very powerful metaphor that mirrored the emptiness-quest surfaced in my world religions class under the direction of Vernice Solimar. We were discussing the element in `new age' philosophies that tended to create a facade or veneer, often glitzy to distract one from the essential nature of truth or at most offer a fleeting glimpse of the ecstasy negating the darkness from which this light is born. She suggested that the ideal or vision was placed in front of the quester, and that it actually created a wall of armor through which to perceive the world, creating a sense of separation and distortion, though perhaps understood as truth. She then revealed a beautiful image; "that we walk toward the unknown with our vision, our highest intention behind us, the force that motivates and propels us forward. You'll see from the moment if you're in tune with it or not, and can face others directly from the truth of the moment. You become a beautiful mirror-reflection of the essence." Here is the realm of the roshi, (Zen Master), the enlightened one moving from the clarity and spontaneity of the moment.

This concept empowered me to face the unknown, to look at my paintings and allow them to speak to me. I realized a new intimacy with these works that had been painted over the last ten years. Total emphasis and importance had been placed on the `creation process'. I had overlooked the potential of these images to mirror and reveal the sweet fragrance of my initial intention. At first the writings just didn't ring true, they embellished the paintings with decorative frosting that added glitz but no depth, and actually took away from the images. I was reminded to face the unknown and write what I didn't know yet, and sitting in uneasy audience before paintings that now seemed totally unfamiliar, words started to come. Words that at first seemed so ordinary and uninteresting to my judging mind. Dorothy's from Kansas in a world of Glendas. Yet I often found myself sobbing when I read them through new eyes, something had happened. My favorite word became authentic!

My current involvement with another realm of creativity, contemporary ritual theater, led me to really appreciate the wise words of actor Richard Chamberlain describing his encounter with the creative void:

Chamberlain first tries to make himself a "complete blank" because, he says,

"Creativity is in the present moment; it doesn't come out of words, and it doesn't come out of thoughts and it doesn't come out of memories though all of those things can create a basis or a context for it. But the new idea . . . the new feeling . . . When I go over a script, I'll read the same scene over and over again until, finally, the truth of the character will start leaping out at me. It doesn't come from my mind; it's not that I was real smart and thought it up. It comes from some unknown place, and I think that's what creativity is: it's creating a context and an intention and a focus, and then allowing that magic thing to happen. It's inexplicable, but now that I think about it, the context is necessary; the intention is necessary; the focus of attention is necessary. Then you just kind of let it happen, and hope for the best."(9)

The realm of magic, of wonder, the time-less bliss of the creatress . . . . I see it in the eyes of my husband, David, as he begins to guide his Dharma students into the realm of non-ordinary reality, where they can begin to glimpse the real meaning underlying the sutras or the paradoxical statements of Nagarajuna. Words of wisdom from another time that often seem to make no sense unless the eye has been drawn with magnetic titillation to a world gone beyond, as it can be on the magic carpet language of a guide who's been there and reveled in experiencing: "nagas who come from the undersea Kingdom to listen to the Buddha's teachings, who smear themselves with sandalwood paste so they needn't smell the disgusting aroma of humans."(10) Our present culture conditions us to forget about the world of fairytales, myth and ritual as well as the images that portray them, not realizing that this is our children's inheritance, the gift from our ancestors, the emptiness that births their form. The fluidity of our childhood becomes rigid, again the ice-castle prison.

This writing process led me repeatedly back into my childhood to explore the transition, the rite of passage no longer deemed sacred and natural or supported by ritual. The changes that threw me into a world no longer receptive and nurturing, creating a being who felt like an alien on her home planet. It took years to re-parent myself, finding my parents in mythical mother earth and father sky. Tara Rinpoche emphasizes that in our daily practice of chanting, visualization, mudra, mantra, and prayer that we are opening ourselves to this non-ordinary reality. I am eternally grateful to teachers like Rinpoche and David that make our eyes again shine the awakening child within and hope my paintings are another venue to this world gone beyond.

To this artist, who seems to revel in complexity of image, paintings containing worlds-within-worlds-within-worlds, it was an important and liberating experience in my search for thematic alignment within my works, to discover coherence and universality in addition to the diversity of symbols. A pertinent cultural analogue is the contemporary search within the complexity of Buddhist thought (as well as other major world religions) through oceans of commentaries and translations--for the primary teachings and truth of the Buddha's enlightenment experience. My intuition leans toward accepting the paradox that eventual resolution must include both directions of practice, ultimate diversification folding into infinite one-ness and simplicity. The single brushstroke of Japanese brush painting and the infinite universe's of Tibetan tankas.

My concluding thoughts take me back to the enchanted garden surrounding the stupa at Bodhgaya and the word passion. Passion is the story of the Buddha and reminds me to ask myself the question continually -- "How much time and energy are you willing to put into finding out who you are?" Under the Bodhi tree in that garden I could feel whole-heartedly that the Buddha made it a life-death situation, that the hub of the wheel of Dharma, the center of the Buddhist world, was here and that I would always carry that place in my heart.

Beth Ames Swarz reiterates this message of passionate life in her paintings Celestial Visitations.

"Their real beginning was in 1982." Exhausted and stricken with an illness partly attributable to the hazardous processes she used to make her fine paintings (various minerals, sand and earth were combined with processes of burning and burial to produce her extraordinary Israel Revisited series), Swartz had reached an empty place. "In every philosophical system," she says, "there is a moment where you can't get any further without surrendering. The Cabala calls it `the abyss'. I had reached `the abyss'. But the Chinese also call such moments dangerous opportunities." For Swartz, the abyss provided the necessity and opportunity to travel new roads. "After the fire paintings, it took me a year and a half to do my next painting," she says. "I was being pressured by deadlines [interesting word, `deadlines'], but for me the old processes no longer worked. I had to surrender to this new journey, I had to heal myself; I had no choice. As George Land says, it was `grow or die'."(11)

Interesting word, `dead-lines'. I think a new poem can be born from that one, dream time carries me away.

Alas, Maya Angelou, the black poetess brought me snapping back into the realm of paradox, on a poetic voyage through the smile-masks of her slave ancestors. Her words echoed in my womb, tearing the walls with burning reminders that throughout history whole races of wondrous beings have been saved from extinction by wearing the smile-mask that veils the truth. Heroes and heroines who created their truth moment by moment by hiding it. Who are we? Who am I? It takes great courage to create ourselves anew every moment.


A Paradox

I know you love me better cold

Strange as the pyramids of old


But I am frail, and spent and weak

With surging torrents that bespeak

A living fire.

So, like a veil, my poor disguise

Is draped to save me from your eyes'

Deep challenges.

Fain would I fling this robe aside

And from you, in your bosom hide


Alas! you love me better cold

Like frozen pyramids of old


by Georgia Douglass Johnson (1886-1967)(12)



1. That things are other than they appear is the central realization to keep in mind if one wants to learn about the world around one.

2. Solimar, "J.F.K.U. Syllabus: Buddhism", p.2

3. Starhawk, The Spiral Dance, p.17

4. Ibid., p.27

5. Komito, David, Nagarjuna's "Seventy Stanzas", pp.25, 110-121, 172-178

6. See endnote 8, Part I, "Heart Sutra"

7. Gyatso, Heart of Wisdom, p.5

8. Rich, Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying

9. Morgan, "Richard Chamberlain", Magical Blend, p.48

10. Lecture by David Komito at Zen Center, March 1989

11. Carde, "Beth Ames Swartz; Celestial Visions," Artspace, p.22

12. Bernikow, The World Split Open, p.236

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