The Contest

Check out Ellen Sandbeck's papercuts of the Buddha on the Facebook page "A Buddha A Day." Choose your favorite image, then send a wonderful piece of your writing, one page or less, on any topic, to You may win the original papercut of your choice!

Winning entries will be posted on this page.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Another winning entry from James Noah


Obaa-chan, your childless carriage pushed with a back bowed by a meager war diet and the weight of a post-industrial society that has moved from feudal to digital in your lifetime. Where have your children gone?
Was it a .50 caliber round through the chest on Mindanao? His youthful, pensive face staring back through the smoke of your prayer incense. Or perhaps it was a Bullet-Train out of town when she could no longer stand the smell of the farm?
Where have your children gone?
Maybe off to the Juku, or the sex club? Your knowing, patient hands still cooking meals for a generation no longer interested in waving the Rising Sun, dusting off pictures of the Emperor, or toasting victories in Canton.
Obaa-chan, I know you were once young, but do your grandchildren know that you had hair as shining and skin as soft and fair as any who now peddle their flesh in Ginza on a cell phone? Do they know that the takuwan pickles in their bento are from a recipe you learned as a girl at a time when you weren't allowed to speak in the presence of your father without permission?
Do they know you are day-care to a generation, and rain-swept, roadside grime and mud labor to a nation?
I know, but I could never have endured as you have through wars, famine, and now isolation. I know, because you once showed me your picture as a young girl in monpei, bidding your brother farewell at the train station. So handsome in his uniform; you bowed stoically as he headed to his grave in the Pacific.

But I will not bother you now for a story. You are too busy knocking the snow off rows of long, white radishes drying in the winter sun and setting up an offering of rice for your brother's long awaited return.

*When I first visited Japan almost 35 years ago, I often saw Obaa-chans (grandmothers) in the Japanese countryside with terribly bowed backs. Purportedly caused by a calcium poor war diet and long hours stooped rice fields. They would often be pushing a cart that looked something like a cross between a baby carriage and a shopping cart. It struck me that this nation would truly have been lost after the war had it not been for these stout, resolute women.

James Noah

Winning entry from James Noah

To the Green Sea

Author's note:
When I have written about my experiences as a Zen monk in Japan, I often receive feedback that my stories are not very Zen-like, or filled with soul-searching philosophy. I would agree, but I am not really sure what is meant by Zen-like.  So I gently tell them, “If you want reflective meditations on peace and harmony, don't go to Japan for Zen training.  If you want to know what one day was like?  Read below.” I'm not saying this is the only way, I'm just telling you how it was.
'nuff said?

It was one of the coldest and snowiest winters that anyone could remember. Even the old monks who came by on occasion remarked that it reminded them of the meager days after the war when the monasteries were one of the only places with food and young men became monks out of necessity. Those winters were cold they said. Blankets were scarce and discipline severe. I knew they were right. I counted seventy-five hand written names above the worn wooden shoe box in the entry hall.  Almost three times the number of training monks on hand now. It would have been hard to feed that crew on donated rice and roots pulled from under the snow.
It was my second winter at the training temple in the quiet port town of Onishi. January was the month of kangyo, the winter training. Regardless of weather we would march ten to fifteen kilometers through the nearby villages each day to collect alms in support of the temple. Normally we would take the same course in and around the town, but once each season we would walk through town, cross the river, and visit the remote fishing village of Nishimura. No one minded going out there in summer, but the winter trip was hard, and we would be exposed to a piercing, biting wind most of the way.
On the morning of the march into Nishimura, I woke to the coldest day so far that winter. I slept next to an old, ill-fitting window and the wind in the night had blown the snow in through the cracks to form small drifts on the top of my blankets and across the floor. Yet I'd learned that a few degrees below freezing were better than above for marching because the slush on the road would freeze hard keeping our feet dry a bit longer. Feet and hands suffered the worse.

Meditation started at five, chanting at six, and rice at seven. At seven forty-five the roll call began with a monk beating a steel plate which hung in the entrance to the temple. We rushed to get ready. The steel plate sounded out in a jagged, steadily rising clang as we assembled on the hardened dirt floor of the Entry Hall. The head monk shouted,
"Everyone going out today must stand at attention to receive the day's instruction and recite the chant." Our nickname for him was The Apache. He would not have looked out of place in a maximum security facility.
It was cold, yet it seemed that the tighter I bound my garments the warmer I felt. One man would pull the chin straps on his kasa so tightly there would be marks on his face for hours. We all had our little ways of keeping warm, but it wouldn't matter for an hour into the march warmth was something months away in a dream. In the Entry Hall we stood at sharp attention, heads up, looking strong. It was easy to look tough now, our feet were dry. The head monk spun towards us and barked,
We marched into Nishimura to a bitter cold wind rolling off the ocean like a giant wave, dashing against the corrugated metal houses and blowing the cold even deeper into our bones. At the moment I thought,
this is what it really is to be cold. Who cared if I couldn't feel anything from the knees down? Someone had to break a trail in the two-foot deep snow drifts. It was so cold I became euphoric. Without gloves in the cold we lost control of the muscles in our hands. It would start slowly with the little finger then move on to the next until the whole hand curled into a weak fist. It was a daily ritual watching men try to straighten out a frozen hand with the still good fingers from the other.
Each year important townsfolk in Nishimura held a formal meal for the monks at a local inn to commemorate our visit. After our morning march through the village we stopped at the appointed place-a spacious, seaside inn with very gracious people. But there would be a price to pay for indulgence in food and wine. The problem was that our frozen feet would swell from the indoor heat and when it came time for the return march, we could no longer get our now wet, stiff tabi socks on without great and painful effort. Some walked the 5 km back to the temple barefoot.
Dinner that night was instant Ramen-if anyone wanted it. Most recovered in their rooms huddled around small hibachi. Some of us sat quietly in the Meditation Hall. I would stuff a thin blanket under my robe to stay warm. Body heat would keep me reasonably comfortable in the still air-and my feet were dry. Not a bad day after all.

© James Noah 2008

Winning entry from Ellie Schoenfeld


The Buddha leans back
and contemplates the dawn,
the way the streaks of pink
fingering the horizon
remind him of stalks of rhubarb
merging with a strawberry sun,
to set the daily fire.

The Buddha leans back
and contemplates rhubarb,
the pink stalks like long fingers
longing for the sweetness
of somebody’s mouth.

The Buddha leans back
and contemplates the wind
as it rustles through
the rhubarb leaves
and makes them wave
like fan dancers,
like prayer flags.

The Buddha leans forward
and begins the ceremony
of lowering the fork to the pie.
He contemplates the colors
which reprise the sunrise.
He raises the fork to his mouth
and wishes all beings could be
so lucky.   He savors
the auspicious sweet. 

Ellie Schoenfeld

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Live and Learn!

I have just begun reading "Gems of Wisdom from the Seventh Dalai Lama," translation and commentary by Glenn H. Mullin.  I was drawn to this book by this sentence in the forward, which was quoted in the book catalogue: "All of the vast and profound teachings of the Buddha, as well as of all earlier Buddhist masters of India and Tibet, are elucidated through similes and metaphors that employ such earthy images as smelly farts, body odor, wild horses, slimy monsters, mindless lunatics and so forth." How could anyone possibly resist such a book?

So far, I have not been disappointed. I have learned that there are six root delusions or afflicted emotions: anger, attachment, instinctual behavior, arrogance, jealousy, and complacence. I was very pleased when I read this list, because so far, I seem to be immune to one of these root delusions, jealousy. I have a bit of work to do to root out the other five delusions, however. Complacency may prove to be especially difficult to root out though, now that I have discovered that I am immune to one of the other five delusions.

The introduction to the book includes very short biographies of the first seven Dalai Lamas, and I decided to search for Buddha images from the monasteries that were founded by some of these early Dalai Lamas (the current Dalai Lama is the Fourteenth). When I looked up the monastery at Litang, which was established by the Third Dalai Lama in the mid-sixteenth century, I was astonished to find photos of the giant Buddha carved out of a mountain, which, over the course of this year of doing papercuts of the Buddha, I have already done several times. This 1,300 year old Buddha is 71 meters tall, and is by far the biggest in the world, which makes it very very famous and very frequently photographed, yet I did not recognize the name "Litang." There is a very good reason for this. This mountain of a Buddha, according to the official Chinese map, sits in western Sichuan Provence, in a town called "Leshan," but according to the Tibetans who have always lived there, they live in the small town of Litang in Kham Provence, Tibet.

Over the past year, I have seen hundreds of photos of this Buddha, all of them labeled, "Leshan, China."  It was not until I looked specifically for "Litang," that I learned that "Leshan" is actually part of occupied Tibet, and a particularly troublesome part of Tibet, at that. The Tibetan citizens of Litang have put up particularly strong resistance to the Chinese occupation of their land. In 1956, the Chinese People's Liberation Army bombed the Litang Monastery, destroying it, and there was an anti-Chinese riot at the horse racing festival in 2007. It is illegal to possess pictures of the Dalai Lama in Litang, and there is a strong Chinese police and military presence in the town.

Be skeptical of official governmental and/or industrial accounts. Approach all questions from every imaginable direction, and you may find that the object of your inquiry becomes virtually unrecognizable from your new vantage point.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Winning Entry from Daphne Woll Shapiro, Destiny vs Free Will

Destiny vs Free Will
“Your destiny could arrive sooner than you think!” (Source: Anita, the Online Psychic Facebook Application)
My destiny has already arrived.
It came in the form of an all-you-can-eat Pig Feed at the local Portuguese Immigrant Society Social Hall during which I enthusiastically and singlehandedly consumed an obscenely overflowing plate of oink prepared from multiple (and in some cases, unspeakable) pig parts.   I did it one sitting, in the space of less than 30 minutes.  I would have totally gone for seconds, but the buffet line was too long. You’re not looking at a football player here, by the way.  I am 53 years old and weigh 135 pounds.  I tend towards vegetarianism.
That said, if I were to deny the hand of destiny, there would be no other explanation for my behavior at the Pig Feed other than free will. In that case, I have no choice but to take full responsibility for the events of Saturday evening, January 23rd, 2010, starting from the moment I got dressed, withdrew a $20 bill from ATM machine, drove to the Immigrant Society Social Hall and then turned that same $20 bill over to the nice Portuguese lady at the ticket table.
Wait a darn minute here.  No way.  Never.  I’m not that type of person. The only possible reason for what went down at the Portuguese Pig Feed is the intervention of The Master Architect.  I was following His Plan for me down to the last fried pork rind, Preacher.
The baffling part of this entire scenario is that I am Jewish and we are forbidden to eat pork – either by free will or divine design and I know it.  We also don’t have Preachers.  
But I digress.
The extrapolations to this are fascinating and possibly life-altering.  Is the consumption of three cake donuts in quick succession (two with chocolate, one with red and blue sprinkles on a white frosting base) ultimately a guilt free experience after all? What if it was already preordained by larger forces that I should find myself last Tuesday after work in front of the day old bakery shelf at the local supermarket?  Was the fact that I spent Saturday in bed reading back issues of the National Enquirer instead of going to the gym my divine destiny?  More importantly is my tendency towards shameless flirting simply a manifestation of cosmic forces beyond my control?  And believe me, I’m talking about really SHAMELESS flirting. 
I believe it is God’s Plan.  All of it and more. You believe so, too.  After all, what other explanation is there for perfectly rational people such as ourselves going off the rails with such predictable frequency? 
Only destiny explains it.  Problem solved.  Me?  I was just following orders, Sergeant. 
So go ahead and have yourself another pork knuckle or a cake donut or a wild affair. Whatever.  Go for it. Don’t bother fighting the universe.  It will only bite you back.
Daphne Woll Shapiro

Winning Entry from Daphne Woll Shapiro, Menopause


My partner just told me that he read a really good book on menopause and suggested that I read it too. He thought it might be helpful.  I don’t understand why he felt that was necessary, after all, DO I LOOK LIKE I HAVE A PROBLEM? 
I didn’t think so. 
The truth of the matter is that my menopause was actually done and over with years before I met him.   What he thinks is a temporary hormonally induced aberration is actually the real me.  Oh well.  Full disclosure is for amateurs and people who appear on the Oprah show. That’s what I say.
And WHAT’S WRONG WITH OCCASIONALLY YELLING ANYWAY?  It sets up a vibration in the body which purifies and encourages healing. 
Wait a minute.  Never mind.  I was confusing yelling with Yoga chanting.  
But it was very sweet of him to care enough about me and our relationship to actually research the subject.  I will indeed go to the library and check the book out.  It will work perfectly as a giant coaster for my tea when I’m stretched out on the sofa bitching on the phone.

Daphne Woll Shapiro