Sunday, December 18, 2005

Zen Quilting: Why I Love Indiana

Quilting (a mandala-making art), done classically, as the Amish do it and as it is done by great non-Amish quilters is perhaps the essense of zen in America. Poor quilting shows individual expression, the opposite of zen. Like Samurai swordsmanship, zen quilting is work done in the creative unconscious (D.T. Suzuki’s expression). The conditions of “emptiness” and “nothingness” as zen has come to be understood suggests nihilism to the Westerner and makes extroverts and existentialists feel that they should be doing something (productive). But it is not nihilism. To the Japanese practitioner, emptiness is the gateway to the world of the Great Self, indigenous deities, multiple levels of consciousness, space/time convergences and the Tao, the “Way of the Force." “. . . the Emptiness,” writes Suzuki, “which is conceptually liable to be mistaken for sheer nothingness is in fact the reservoir . . . of infinite possibilities.” That perfectly describes the quiet vision of this quilt. To the Westerner, it is only blank, or worse. The Japanese Zen monk Suzuki taught a spate at Columbia and zen became a fashion among the beatnik poets and pranksters in the 1950s. Later, he was blamed for misunderstandings which his work aroused in the West. But if he is to be blamed for anything, says his colleague, scholar Edward Conze, it is an insufficient awareness of the aridity of the desert into which he had transplanted his lovely azalea tree. “For what he unsuspectingly did was to feed an Eastern form of spirituality into a predominantly ex-Protestant environment which, having lost touch with spiritual tradition, gravitated inevitably toward a self-assertive nihilism,” writes Conze in his introduction to Suzuki’s book, On Indian Mahayana Buddhism. This Amish quilt from Indiana is an American original. It is interesting that the Amish disappeared in Germany from whence they came. But they continue to flourish in America. I visit occationally to buy sheep. Worth noting that they flourish in our center: at the line across the states which divides North From South, in Pennsylvania and Ohio particularly, and in Indiana, which now divides East and West. The center of the Four Corners, North, South, East and West; the American Vortex.

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