Expressing the Sacred

We are delighted to offer this guest post by Amy Kisei Costenbader. Kisei is an ordained Zen priest who currently lives and practices at Great Vow Zen Monastery, where she has resided since 2010. She also teaches meditation at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.

Respect, Stewart says, is accepting what arises and going with it, not arguing with what shows up. Seeing everything as having a place, as sacred.

From a Zen perspective, the awakened heart sees all things as having the same essence—buddha nature. Everything is sacred in its unique and momentary quivering expression through our senses. Zen koans test our understanding of this truth and push us into the heart of its manifestation. Koans give us a way to grapple with the content of our life: How do we live each moment as sacred? Where do we contract, pull away, separate?

The koans say, “So you know the view, everything is sacred—without separating, without explaining, without conceptualizing, show me a bird shitting.” If the body tenses or the mind hardens at the mere thought of this seemingly crude demonstration, it shows that we are stuck. This is the purpose of the koan: to throw us back into our fixed beliefs, our conditioned ideas, our habitual way of splitting the world in two, into yes/no, me/not me, sacred/profane, good/bad, like/dislike. Koans help us reconcile the oneness of all things, the sanctity of experience even in the midst of its sometimes challenging expression.

The painting process functions like a good koan. As we learn to dance the dynamic freedom of not-knowing—with the vivid emergence of colors, shapes and forms—we discover that our mind is spring-loaded, determined to have opinions and judgments.

Kisei working on a process painting at Great Vow Zen Center.

When you tune into this dynamic, there is immediacy in the process. A stroke is made, a form begins to take shape, the body tightens, the mind says no. At first, I would run to find Stewart. “I think I’m finished,” I would say, my body and mind shouting, “Get this painting away from me, this isn’t how it is supposed to be happening!”

He would ask me questions. My answers, coming from aversion, were predictable and false. I knew I had to keep painting, to feel the discomfort, to reconcile my fear with the accepting embrace of my true heart.

The process unfolded slowly—waves of discomfort ebbing and intensifying, the mind’s judgments sometimes screaming at the top of their lungs. Despite these winds of physical and mental tension, I continued to paint. And then it happened: I was painting what felt like evil, demonic faces, one after another in a claustrophobic lump. Suddenly, a deep well of compassion opened in my heart. I looked at the face I was painting and saw an ordinary human face, neither entirely evil nor truly good, but containing elements of both. Then I looked at the other faces and saw that not a single one was characteristically evil. They were expressing so many things: confusion, boredom, blankness, frustration, anger—but in each there was a glimmer of light, of recognition, of humanness. In other words, each one, I came to realize, was an expression of the sacred.

Stewart Cubley and Amy Kisei Costenbxder talking in front of a process painting.

More Information

To further explore the potential of the creative process, listen and subscribe to Stewart’s podcast series. You may wish to begin with the episode, You Are Not Your Painting! which investigates our natural tendency to get attached to what's going on in our painting, whether we like it or not.

To find out about opportunities to participate in The Painting Experience, see our list of upcoming process painting workshops and retreats.

To read more about process painting and zen practice, read Kisei's article on Manifesting this Sacred Life: Stewart Cubley's Principles of Creative Process.

To learn more about the Great Vow Zen Monastery, visit the website of the Zen Community of Oregon.

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