Friday, March 22, 2013

Was Leonardo da Vinci a Buddhist?

I had this weird idea the other night. I was playing around on the internet, just wasting time, really, reading da Vinci quotes on Goodreads.com. As I read through the list, I was struck by how many of these quotes seemed to be saying pretty much the same kind of thing I read in books and websites on Buddhism. I realized that the Buddha actually lived 2,000 years before da Vinci, so I suppose it is possible that the painter had run across Buddhist doctrine somewhere along the way.

Our view of the world is what forms our thoughts and actions. If we see and understand things as they really are, we are less likely to be disappointed when things don't turn out the way we'd like. Senore da Vinci wrote about his "Principles for the Development of a Complete Mind: Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop your senses - especially learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else." But he also recognized that "There are three classes of people: those who see, those who see when they are shown, those who do not see." We should try to be one who sees because "The noblest pleasure is the joy of understanding."

The Buddha's Right Intention and Right Effort focus on making a commitment to mental and ethical self-improvement. Learning to substitute desire and anger with the intention of goodwill and compassion will make us better humans. Leonardo said, "You will never have a greater or lesser dominion than that over yourself... The height of a man's success is gauged by his self-mastery; the depth of his failure by his self-abandonment... and this law is the expression of eternal justice. He who cannot establish dominion over himself will have no dominion over others." Of course, Leonardo saw the ongoing search for knowledge as a duty. "Iron rusts from disuse; stagnant water loses its purity and in cold weather becomes frozen; even so does inaction sap the vigor of the mind. So we must stretch ourselves to the very limits of human possibility. Anything less is a sin against both God and man."

Da  Vinci speaks against the many who "have made a trade of delusions and false miracles" and also says "Where there is shouting, there is no true knowledge." The Buddhist idea of Right Speech encourages followers to abstain from lies, slander, gossip, and harsh language that hurts others. Rather, the goal should be to help others. Right speech to a painter would also cover his art: "A painter should begin every canvas with a wash of black, because all things in nature are dark except where exposed by the light." He also believed that "Art is the queen of all sciences, communicating knowledge to all the generations of the world."

Buddha's Right Action, what is often referred to today as Lovingkindness, teaches us to be honest and compassionate, respect others, and abstain form taking life. Da Vinci points out that "He who does not oppose evil... commands it to be done." He also said,
"I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must do." And he seemed to be encouraging vegetarianism with "The time will come when men such as I will look upon the murder of animals as they now look on the murder of men." He also said that his body "will not be a tomb for other creatures."

Buddhism teaches that all life is suffering, but that we bring on that suffering ourselves by wanting something that cannot be. Life will always bring unwanted change, illness, and, eventually, death. We can suffer less by accepting that these things will happen and giving up trying to change that. We can't always get what we want, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't have goals. We just have to realize that things may not go as planned. Leonardo encouraged going with the flow: "As you cannot do what you want, want what you can do." He once said, "Life is pretty simple: you do some stuff. Most fails. Some works. You do more of what works. If it works big, others will quickly copy it. Then you do something else. The trick is the doing of something else." 

Consider mindfulness - the idea of devoting 100% of your attention to what you are doing at the present moment. The idea is that our minds are wandering all over the place so much of the time, worrying about what has been or what may be in the future, that we don't even notice what we are really doing as we move through life. The Buddha taught that we should pay careful attention to what is going on in our bodies and all around us so that we don't miss the opportunity to see things as they really are. Leonardo once said that the "average human looks without seeing, listens without hearing, touches without feeling, eats without tasting, moves without physical awareness, inhales without awareness of odor or fragrance, and talks without thinking." It sure sounds to me like he is suggesting that we should be practicing mindfulness.

Finally, a life dedicated to seeing and understanding the world around us, doing what we can to help those less fortunate than ourselves, and sharing love and joy and knowledge, is a life well-lived. Da Vinci may have been having similar thoughts when he said, "Just as a well-filled day brings blessed sleep, so a well-employed life brings a blessed death."

*** Please keep in mind that I don't read much Italian, especially when written in reverse, so I am relying on the translations of others for these quotations.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

I Cannot Live without Books

Thomas Jefferson said this in 1815, and I couldn't agree more. I own lots of books. I used to own many more, but I convinced myself nine years ago that it would be crazy to move them all to Mexico. I agonized over my collection for months, trying to decide which to bring and which to sell or give away. What a mistake! I can't tell you the number of times that I have gone to my shelves looking for a specific book only to realize that I must have gotten rid of it before the move. That is still happening to me nine years later.

I don't own much fiction - only a few favorites. Most fiction, for me, is to read only once, so I've usually relied on libraries for my fiction fix. Or paperbacks.

The books I own are the ones that I go back to over and over again. I have a large collection of Lonely Planet travel books about places I have been and a few about places I want to visit. I keep the used ones because they remind me of my trips and help me remember just which village I was in when ______ happened or the name of that little hotel where I stayed.

I also own quite a bit of travel literature, books about women traveling alone and books about being in different areas of the world. I always tell myself that I should be writing these, but I never seem to get around to it.

I have lots of books about Japan: history, culture, art, textiles, architecture. I have pretty much the same collection for Mexico. These were bought to learn about the countries where I have lived; kept to remember what I knew and loved about that country. (That is present tense for Mexico; with all of its faults, I still love it here.)

I think it is interesting to look at the books people have in their homes; you can tell so much about them. I also have books about health and fitness, gardens and gardening, architecture - I love old Islamic buildings and Arts & Crafts bungalows - and lots of books about art and artists. All of these books are in my living room. I also have a bookshelf in my office with books about writing, lots of art magazines, and more than one shelf of cookbooks. My favorites are the ethnic cookbooks that also have beautiful photos and tell about the traditions of growing, cooking, and eating the local foods.

This love of books is in my genes. My mother and father were always in the middle of one book or another. I can remember going to more than one library for story hour when I was very young. And I passed this love of reading on to my children.

My favorite uncle was a book-binder. I never grew out of the sense of awe I felt when touring the bindery. And he had a wonderful collection of ancient books from all over the world. I always got goose-bumps when I thought about the history contained in that cabinet. I once attended a show of artistic books and bindings at the Portland, Oregon, library. When I mentioned to the docent that my uncle was a book binder, I found out that he was very well-known all over the world. In case you are interested, you can find out about Uncle Mel here.

So that should give you an idea why I am a bibliophile. When I still lived in the states, I used to go to the library quite often. I rarely made it beyond the New Books shelves. I could easily stack up all I was allowed before I had a chance to move on to the regular shelves. And that is why I ended up where I am in Mexico.

I was worried about how I was going to find my regular "book fix". (I can and do read Spanish - probably better than the average Mexican - but it is a chore compared to reading in English.) Then I found out about the Lake Chapala Society in Ajijic with its relatively large library of English-language books. That was pretty much all I needed to decide that this was the place to retire.

A few years ago, I decided that the membership fees had grown to the point where the library was not worth the cost. Then Terry surprised me by buying us both Nooks. At about that same time, my daughter moved away from San Francisco and gave me the access information to her library card there. What a treat to have access to that ebook collection! Unfortunately, it turned out that a Nook, at least my model, holds only about 35 library books. Once they've expired, I can't access them, but I also can't clear them from the Nook very easily.

Then I got my MP3 player. Once I download a book from the library, it stays on the player and is accessible until I delete it. Now I can "read" when I'm walking or mopping the floor or working in my garden. This is definitely the way to go for many books. I don't get to hold the book, turn the pages, smell the ink and the glue in the binding, but I'm also not tied to my desk or favorite reading chair at home.

The problem is - horrors! - the library card expires March 24. I am already suffering withdrawal symptoms. I have about 45 books still waiting to be "read" - fiction, non-fiction, French language books - but I am already dreading the arrival of that date when I will have to cut my umbilical cord to a large American library.

I have heard that the Queens, New York, library has the largest collection of ebooks and audiobooks in the US. And they sell library cards to non-residents for $50 a year. I am working on figuring out how to get one of those cards. I would happily pay that $50 to continue having access to a good library.

I will still buy books on every trip north of the border. But my Lonely Planets now come to me electronically on my iPod Touch. Even the best computer or electronic reader cannot do justice to some of the books I love the most. But I am learning to use the library for most books and save my money for the really good ones that I will enjoy over and over.