Today I’m working on a little commission craving for a friend’s Mother’s Day gift. Last month I did a design called Bijin, meaning “Beautiful Woman/Person” in Japanese. My friend saw it online and thought it would be perfect as a gift for her mother. So I’m spending the evening doing a graphite transfer of the drawing to the linoblock in preparation for carving. While doing so I’ve been watching the Ip Man trilogy. If you’re not familiar with Ip Man, than I’ll just mention one name…Bruce Lee. He was Bruce Lee’s teacher.
Anyhoo, since my childhood I’ve been deeply influenced by East Asian philosophy and aesthetics by way of movies, my mother and her second husband. My mother was an Army brat when she was coming up and spent time in Japan and Korea. So while I was growing up, our cozy little trailer was decorated with keepsakes from her travels. Her second husband was deeply into martial arts and through him I was introduced to meditation and an assortment of Eastern philosophies, most notable Daoism/Taoism by way of “Tao Of Jeet Kune Do” by Bruce Lee, which he had me read. I can’t say that I was any good at meditation back then. More than anything I ended up falling asleep. Nor was I good at the “drop & rolls”, holding kicks and throwing stars that he tried to teach me either. Most of the philosophy was enigmatic, so that was lost on me too but a seed was planted in me that didn’t begin to grow shoots until my late teens when I took an interest in Taijiquan. By that time I had left my comforts of frontier living in Alaska and moved to Michigan to live with my father, to a predominantly African American environment and a predominantly Christian atmosphere of ideology. My Eastern leanings more or less went into “the closet”, springing out every now and then only to be met with side eyed glances or just ignored. I did on two occasions run into individuals claiming I was practicing a form of devil worship. All I have to say to that is that I haven’t sprouted horns or felt compelled to sacrifice any cats or children yet, so I think I’m doing okay. But despite going to church and getting baptized at 23, my heart was still in the East. For years I struggled to impose a system of beliefs and worldview up my spirit that just wasn’t conducive to my way of being. Eventually I quit. I left the church and the religion after the passing of my paternal grandmother, who was the catalyst for my joining in the first place. Since then I’ve studied many spiritual paths and religions, picking up a little bit of this and that, here and there but the one thing that has always remained constant is me having a copy of the Daodejing, the book that forms the basis for the philosophy of Daoism. I don’t say that I’m a Daoist partly because most of the time people don’t know what it is and I don’t feel like having to explain. But also because there’s a thought among Daoists here in the West that a real Daoist never calls herself a Daoist…so if asked I just say I’m a Buddhist. 😋 It’s a nice cover and most people at least know what a Buddhist is. Plus I can recite the Four Noble Truths, I know about the Eightfold Path and the precepts. So I got my bases covered if I get quizzed. Now don’t get me wrong, those years in the church haven’t gone to waste either. I can still quote scripture like it ain’t nothing and relate to my fellow Christians with ease. The beauty of Daoist philosophy is its ease to blend with other philosophies like Buddhism and Christianity and it’s lack of demand for strict loyalty to its own. But my heart lies in the Daodejing which forms the philosophical basis for my approach to life.
The West has come a long way in it’s acceptance of foreign ideologies. I’m glad to see that more people are comfortable and open to Eastern philosophies, especially with Buddhism. And I’m glad to see that more Black people aren’t as apprehensive to things like meditation, Eastern aesthetics and concepts like “enlightenment”. A lot of these aesthetics and concepts seep in to my work, my thoughts and my ideas. When you see this, it’s not me attempting to be exotic, different or even trendy, it’s simply a quiet manifestation of my inner reality of being American, of being Black and being something other than Christian spiritually. (Btw, I don’t walk around in a saffron robe or where a wushu outfit like Leroy from The Last Dragon, my head isn’t shaved and I do eat meat, just in case you’re wondering.)
So as I sit here working on this carving while watching Ip Man 3 (the one with Mike Tyson in it), I feel home again, back to those Sunday afternoons with my mother in the kitchen making homemade bread and me getting my weekly dose of Chinese philosophy watching David Carradine (my he rest in peace) in Kung Fu. For me, that’s getting back to my roots. 🙏😊