BG 212: Redesigning Zen

Episode Description:

We’re joined this week by Soto Zen teacher Zenkai Taiun Elliston. Along with the being the abbot of the Atlanta Soto Zen Center, Taiun is also a long-time professional designer, having trained and taught modern design. We ask him to share his perspective on the interplay and parallels between the two fields, which brings about a very interesting conversation about the aesthetic of simplicity, the importance of sensory engagement, and the nature of the medium we are exploring, whether it’s a physical medium, as in design, or the medium of consciousness itself, as in Zen.

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Vincent: Hello, Buddhist Geeks. This is Vincent Horn and I’m joined today by a special guest coming directly from Atlanta Zenkai Taiun Elliston. Zenkai Taiun Elliston is a Roshi in the Zen tradition. He’s the founder and guiding teacher of the silent thunder order. By the way I love that name Roshi, its super provocative.

Taiun: We like it too.

Vincent: Nice. You were mentioning before the interview started that the genesis of that name had something to do with a Zen teaching?

Taiun: It’s a term “mokurai” that my teacher, Matsuoka-Roshi used a lot. It has to do in a way with the resolution opposites. He explained that it meant stillness is great action or thunder is silence, silence is thunder, thunder in silence, stillness in motion and so forth. So it’s kind of a fundamental non-duo term if you will mokurai.

Vincent: Beautiful and then you’re also the Abbot and guiding teacher of the Atlanta Soto Zen Center which I presume is in the heart of Atlanta somewhere?

Taiun: Yes it’s just to the northeast of downtown and it was founded in 1977 that is we incorporated in 1977 so we passed our 30th anniversary a few years ago.

Vincent: Part of the reason that we wanted to speak with you on Buddhist Geeks today is not just because of your rich Zen background but also because you have a deep and rich background in the field of design and art. I understand that you taught design and art at the university level in Chicago some time ago and I wondered if you could maybe start off by sharing a little bit about how you got into design and then also how you got into Zen.

Taiun: Backwards of course like most things we do in life, backed into it. My brother was a child prodigy in music playing piano so I taught myself to draw at a very early age, couldn’t compete musically but I would get attention by being able to draw and show people things. So I copied Disney characters and things like that, I trained myself to draw. I had an art scholarship offer to U of I at Urbana and found out somehow about ID and IIT at the Institute of Design so called New Bauhaus in Chicago at the Illinois Institute of Technology. We didn’t have Google or computers in those days so it’s kind of mysterious how this all came about but I ended up instead of going to Urbana I went to Chicago to the Institute of Design pretty much on full scholarship and loans and so forth, my family didn’t have money to send us to school. I thought of course that I was going there to become a painter, become an artist and as it turned out of course it was more industrial design oriented. So during that period of time my focus shifted from what I thought I was doing to what they were actually offering, I became trained really as a designer instead of an artist. So again I got into it kind of backwards. During my tenure there I started doing graduate work as well; I did my Master of Science as well at IIT at the Institute of Design. I was hired by a former teacher to start teaching at the University of Illinois in Chicago circle. While I was doing my graduate work in design I was teaching freshman and sophomores and people like that coming into a design/art environment. So I had to clarify this for myself very quickly, very early in my so-called career in order to be able to teach it.

At the same time I was recruited by the Art Institute of Chicago to being teaching there so I taught in both of those schools of art and design before moving to Atlanta in 1970. The way it came about that I backed into Zen is a friend of my brother who had become a very well-known jazz musician by that time in Chicago was attending the Zen Center and he mentioned that to me, that he was doing Zen these days. So I said that’s interesting and I went with him that weekend and met Matsuoka-Roshi at the Chicago Zen Buddhist Temple which if you’re familiar with Chicago was on Halstead just south of Fullerton. That first year I became his disciple. It was a time in my life when I needed something like that; I was teaching full-time and had a young family and all of the issues and problems that arise with that. I see myself doing things backwards quite a lot as I backed into the design field as well as actually backing into Zen but I don’t regret either of them.

Vincent: You know Matsuoka-Roshi is someone that I hadn’t heard of before I spoke with you; I was wondering if you could share a little bit about his history and kind of where he comes from and his background and his stuff.

Taiun: Yeah briefly, he came over in 1939, he was interred during the war according to the story, and he didn’t talk much about his personal biography. He never became famous like some of the people who came over later like Suzuki-Roshi and others but he was a student of the diset Suzuki at Columbia. I think it was in the 50’s that he set up the Zen Center in Chicago and then I met him there in the 60’s. Of course your first impression of somebody is never what you expect but especially when you’re expecting a Zen Master. He just seemed such an accessible, approachable person who had a great sense of humor, very warm and friendly and he told me the one time he said you must become a priest not for yourself but so that others will listen to you. He said we live in a credential society and if you don’t have credentials they won’t listen. I said okay and he performed what he called discipleship and that was the ten precepts, for other people for most people he would perform the five precepts first, what we call Jukai or initiation. In my case they were combined into the first ceremony. So I began training with him, he was not very formal in his approach to the Sotoshu sect in Japan. In fact he like many of the early teachers coming over here had some issues you might say with the size and scale of the institution that it had become in Japan. So he did not register all of our ceremonies and things of that nature, he did them on a very informal basis understanding correctly that we were starting a new beginning for Zen here in America. He always said this would be the rebirth of Zen here in America. So later on after he died I underwent some formal ceremonies to kind of get right with God you might say, assure that our credentials are unquestionable and fortunately Shohaku Okumura-Roshi agreed to do my transmission ceremony after I practiced with him and Barbara Kohn of the Austin Zen Center or some time. So they kind of helped bring our lineage into alignment with the larger traditions of the American Soto and Buddhist Association.

Vincent: Interesting. I know that since you’ve been teaching I guess since the early 80’s I’m sure that your design work has impacted your thoughts on how best to teach Zen or communicate Zen and that’s something we wanted to go into with you and explore because this is a conversation that doesn’t happen so often given that most people aren’t trained designers. So I was wondering if you could share a little bit about your thoughts on design thinking, art, how this unique way of looking at the world could impact the development of Zen practice or how you’ve seen it impact.

Taiun: Sure, I think that’s a very fertile area to discuss. I became both a 2 and 3 dimensional designer while doing a lot of retail stores and exhibits and trade shows and things of that nature as well as graphic design. When I retired from design I was pursuing really national accounts. There came a point at which I had a choice in my early 60’s of either going after more national accounts or to in a sense retire from that into full-time Zen and that’s the point at which I made the transition and decided to devote the rest of my life to full-time Zen practice.

I think to get at the question you’re asking the way the two inter relate I see many parallels. In a way we all reinvent Zen and in a way we all reinvent design. Every designer comes up with basically new approaches, it’s almost like any other profession where in the beginning you need to have the flexibility of mind to imitate the teacher and eventually you need to develop the flexibility of mind to innovate. In the case of Zen for instance I am not Matsuoka-Roshi and my students are certainly not me. So the way he practiced and taught by his example doesn’t always work for me so I’ve had to see ways of reinventing what we call skillful means or the expedient means to help others. So we see Zen as the lay practice you might say religion or spiritual practice of the future. Its design for lay people, there are monastic versions of it but in our culture Matsuoka-Roshi seemed to see that this again was going to be the rebirth of Zen but primarily through lay practice. So the design element comes into in that we are designing Zen in a sense. Now a lot of people would like to throw out—said they would like to Americanize it, westernize it, and throw out all the Japanese and Chinese stuff. That’s a little bit like throwing the baby out with the bath water; it’s very difficult to do. Anything you remove is replaced by something else which may not be as functional.

But nonetheless this is a process and both design and Zen are very heavily based on process. So we’re now undergoing, like it or not, the first 50 to 100 years of Zen in this culture the redesign of Zen and we’re designing the program as to how people can practice this and maintain a household and a job and keep a car running, keep a house from falling down and so forth. And the packing of Zen so that when it’s communicated to new people it’s understandable but it doesn’t lose its essential strength. So one way you can think of it is Soto Zen is a great brand, it goes back hundreds and hundreds of years. In both design and Zen the focus is on practice and sensory learning.

The method they taught at the Institute of Design was so-called New Bauhaus, the Bauhaus from Weimar Germany, people like Walter Gropius and Paul Klee, other people who were driven out of Germany by the Nazis. One of them Moholy-Nagy, came to Chicago and founded a design institute on the north side which later merged with IIT so that was the so-called New Bauhaus. Them emphasis in the Bauhaus foundation, the first year that you go through is on sensory learning, you just work with lots of tools and materials to no particular end, not building birdhouses or anything of that nature but working with wood, glass, metal, plastic, plaster, casting processes, welding, all different kinds of forming and joining processes. The task of the foundation teacher was to take where you were and in a sense take it away from you, break it down. They reduce the process of so-called drawing on a simple marking like found objects like a big rag dip it in ink and mark with that and so forth. All kinds of very sensory emersion types of techniques are used to help break down your preconceptions of what this is about so that they could begin rebuilding on a stronger foundation. So part of what happens then is what is familiar to you like your signature, a familiar mark that you make by going through these kinds of exercises becomes very strange; you begin to see it very differently.

So this is the way that creativity is approached, a way of getting you to rely more on your intuitive mind. So I found that entering into Zen, when we started practicing Zen that it was very similar. That is you’d sit very still for very long periods of time. So what naturally has to happen is your familiar sensory world begins to break down, people begin to see light and color in the blank wall and hear different sounds than they’re used to hearing and feel different sensations and so forth. So I found a very strong parallel when I first starting practicing Zen to this Bauhaus method of emersion in medium. In Zen the medium is consciousness itself.

Vincent: What other types of parallels or what other types of things have you see cross-fertilize between those two?

Taiun: Well one of the things that I think you asked was about how Zen could impact the field of design.

Vincent: Yeah kind of both ways.

Taiun: My view of Zen is it can impact every field; medicine, it can impact education, on and on and on, I see no limit to it. But in terms of design, art, music, the plastic in performing arts, dance and so forth and martial arts of course, Zen I think you could say is the heart of creativity. It might seem that there is nothing more stupid than just sitting still doing nothing but simplicity is the highest value in the Zen aesthetic as well as the design or art aesthetic. Simplicity is the highest value, but it’s the most difficult to obtain. So in design for instance we are introduced to this idea in classics of simplicity such as the bobby pin that are ubiquitous and so worked for so long nobody even remembers who designed them. So if you look up at Zazen sitting in Zen meditation and what it actually is it’s the simplest possible reduction of method to a simple sitting posture, paying attention to the breath and paying attention to attention itself. So it can not be reduced any further, even the zafu, this round cushion that we sit on is very difficult to improve upon from a design perspective. Very difficult to make any change in the zafu which we think is a Chinese design centuries and centuries old.

Now Zen meditation is like design in that it is immersion process so that in design or art painting in sumi ink or even oil painting, water color, that kind of dialog ensues between the consciousness of the artist and the medium itself. You can not make a medium do things that it will not do, can not do physically. So we have what are called forgiving medium and unforgiving medium, water color is said to be a very unforgiving medium. Painting sumi ink on silk which we do to paint our formal certificates on huge pieces of silk about five feet long and a foot and a half wide, a very tiny brush and painting continuous read bloodline. If you stop or go back over the line it immediately bleeds into the silk so they’re very, very unforgiving. So Zen meditation is a medium you might say or a technique to approach the medium of consciousness itself. Your consciousness may be a very unforgiving medium, other people may be more flexible but when you begin to sit in Zen meditation you find it is different from the other forms of meditation. In fact it’s not technically actually a meditation. The reason for that is because it becomes objectless and at the greatest depth of artistic creativity it also becomes subject less, objectless, the individual becomes merged with the medium. So there’s no conflict, there’s no resistance, this is by the way the holy grail of jazz which I learned from my brother and my father had a jazz band in the 40’s, that when the musician gets to the point that everything he can hear and Charlie Parker is the person who’s always pointed to for this, everything he hears comes through the instrument with no resistance.

Vincent: That’s fascinating and do you feel like the practice of Zazen can actually support that process in other mediums? I mean it seems to me that’s kind of what you’re saying. That Shikantaza for instance, if one really is practicing Shikantaza then that consciousness can be transferable to these other domains in life.

Taiun: It’s not the purpose obviously but it’s a side effect. Shikantaza just precisely sitting is what is said to me in translation, naturally resistance comes up. We’ll have some pain in the legs, pain in the back then we have physical resistance, that’s one of the first barriers. Once we have been able to sit long enough and patiently enough to overcome the physical resistance we have developed a lot of patience. So naturally that patience comes into our practice with other people, it’s much easier for us to be patient with others, much easier to be patient with a project or a medium that we’re working with because we have developed kind of a fundamental patience with our own impatience on the cushion. So yeah I think it carries over. Many of the greats, classic artisan brush painting and so forth and music in the Orient in particular you read stories that they would always sit in meditation before they would pick up the brush.

Vincent: And you use this really interesting phrase that “consciousness is the medium of Zen.”

Taiun: Yeah if you think about it just as going to design school people come in with a lot of their own opinions that are going to music school or any place else and then they have to be disabused of those misconceptions, you have to be able to relinquish those. In the same way when you sit in Zazen you assume that you already understand your consciousness, you assume that it is what you have been since you were a kid and no mystery here. But what happens is when you sit very still for very long periods of time everything changes. I think it was Krishnamurti who said something like “if you speak it is silent. If you’re silent it speaks. So similarly if you move it is still, if you are still it moves. So what we consider to be seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching and thinking in Zen we begin to find that it’s distorted, it’s incomplete, we don’t really see seeing itself, we don’t hear hearing itself and we don’t feel feeling or sensation itself. We see the objects in our field of vision and we hear the objects in our field of hearing and so forth but there’s another side of it and all you really have to do to experience this is put in some swimming earplugs and sit for a while. You’ll hear this raucous noise that’s going on inside your body which you don’t ordinarily hear. So the mind turns off, there’s a theory of the brain back in the 60’s inspired I think by psychedelic drugs is that the brain is a filter basically, it filters out more information than it lets in. Its function is to filter out. This is evidenced in Buddhism where Shakyamuni Buddha was attributed with saying “the mind imposes a false stillness on reality.”

This is where Sensi mokurai begins to come into play. If you sit still then you begin to see great action. So Zen meditation is different from other meditations in that it involves the eventual transcendence of subject/object and becomes objectless so it’s not truly a meditation, there’s no subject meditating upon an object. In that same transcendence is the transcendence of the duality of mind and body, self and other so it becomes consciousness contemplating consciousness through consciousness. The subject, the predicate, and the object are just one.


Taiun Elliston

Zenkai Taiun Michael Elliston, Roshi received his higher education in Chicago at the Institute of Design, Illinois Institute of Technology (Received B.S. 1964 and M.S. 1970) From 1966 to 1970 he taught art and design at the University of Illinois, Chicago Circle Campus, and at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and enjoyed a successful career in industrial and graphic design serving diverse national accounts.

In 1966 Roshi met Matsuoka Roshi, founder of the Chicago Zen Buddhist Temple. After training under Matsuoka-Roshi, he underwent Lay Ordination (Zaike Tokudo) and was given the dharma name Taiun, meaning “Great Cloud”. He was registered with the Soto Shu in Japan July 13, 1969 (Priesthood Register No. 164); ordained as a Zen Priest March 22, 1970. After which he moved to Atlanta and began offering Zen meditation and in 1977 founded the Atlanta Soto Zen Center. Taiun was presented the title of Osho (“authentic”) on September 20, 1983, and underwent a formal transmission ceremony (Shiho) with Shohaku Okumura Roshi on August 5, 2007.