A Zen Master with a Yen for Poetry
A while ago I visited Sebastian Rizzon’s studio at the Open Studios event in Somerville, hosted by the great folks at Somerville Arts Council. Rizzon fits the profile of many people I’ve interviewed: eclectic, versatile and innovative. Here is an interview I did with him.
Doug Holder: First of all, what has Somerville been for you as an artist and a poet?
Sebastien Rizzon: Somerville was great! There is a large population of artists and I have felt welcomed by the community since moving here a year ago. There were also multiple opportunities to show my work. Participating in Somerville Open Studios was a fun opportunity to meet the community and network with other artists. I have longer term concerns as Joy Street Studios is about to be redeveloped into biotech offices and there is no formal plan to keep our thriving artist community together. I fear that many artists here will be dispersed to other communities in the area unless Somerville and the developer commit to keeping us here.
DH: You are, among other things, a Zen Master. How did you come to Zen? Has it changed the direction of your life?
RS: I had a career as a structural engineer before studying Zen. While I’ve had high-level success in this area, something seemed to be missing. I had read about Taoism and Buddhism and found myself drawn to the idea of enlightenment, but it still seemed unattainable. I also had a background in martial arts, so a former roommate directed me to the nearby Shim Gum Do (Mind Sword Way) school. It was an art that combined the practice of Zen with swordsmanship and other martial arts. After a few classes, it seemed to fill in the gaps of what was missing in my life, so I ended up moving into the temple after a few months of training.
DH: At one point, you lived at Shim Gwang Sa Temple (Spirit Light Temple) for over 16 years. Tell me about your experience there?
RS: At Shim Gwang Sa (Temple of Spirit Light), I had the unparalleled experience of living and learning directly from the school’s enlightened founding master, Grand Zen Master Chang Sik Kim (deceased last year). Through our daily routines, I learned the traditional Buddhist practices of bowing, chanting, and sitting meditation. What made this experience unique from other Buddhist practices was the use of martial arts choreography as a moving meditation. My teacher challenged us to transform all our actions, from martial arts to all other parts of our lives, into a form of meditation. In this way, all we had to do became a koan, or a question, asking how do you see your mind? or what is your mind like? In Buddhism it is said that to achieve enlightenment you must see your own mind.
In the process of becoming a martial arts master, my time at the temple became part of a larger quest to understand myself, the essence of who I am, and my purpose in life. Ultimately, this led me to write poetry, make art, and create the Zen Art Center as a way to pass on those lessons, ideas, and practice to others.
DH: You have a new book coming out, In the spirit, in which you use poetry to explore Zen practice. Why do you find poetry a good tool for this exploration?
RS: Many Zen concepts transcend words and must be learned through experience. I find poetry to be a great tool to teach these lessons. Poetry gives me the freedom to use images and metaphors to bring the reader to a deeper level of understanding of our existence. By using poetry to explore the realm of the spirit, I hope to illuminate the magnitude of power that resides within each of us.
DH: Your art is full of bright colors and revels in nature. Too often we separate ourselves from nature. How would you reconnect the world to this seminal source?
RS: The teachings of Zen Buddhism are based on dharma, which is the truth of nature or natural truth. The truth is always evolving moment by moment and so it is essential to keep your mind focused on what nature is telling you so that you can react appropriately. By learning to observe nature more discerningly, you better understand how everything works together. My goal is to use colorful imagery and metaphors from nature to make the reader more aware of our interconnectedness. If you can see the various deep connections we share with each other and with the universe, compassion becomes the most logical and rational response. My hope is to make a compelling call for more compassion in the world.
DH: You could say he or she could find “joy” in your Zen Art Center at Joy Street Studios in Somerville. What do you propose there for us researchers?
RS: I use the word art to refer to anything you put your heart into. I am currently working with painters, writers, musicians, potters, scientists and even a software developer. The type of art form can be anything, my own art was initially martial arts and swordsmanship. The idea is to use the teachings of meditation and dharma to understand the mind and then use the various artistic techniques to transform what is in the mind into reality through creativity. I hope to inspire others to develop an art form they enjoy and learn how to apply Zen techniques in practice. Using this process we can understand how the power of the spirit can affect reality through the energy of creation, which is love. The purest expression of love is compassion (or helping others). When we act with compassion, we can bring joy to others, and the smiles on their faces will reflect in our minds.