Illustrating the Lojong—Slogans of Atisha

· Articles & Essays, Creative Expression, Zen Training

By Eliza Nappi

Former ZMM resident and MRO student Eliza is an artist who, during the Fall Ango 2023 art practice, combined two of her favorite things: illustration and “Inktober” She writes:

First started in 2009 by Jake Parker, Inktober is a set of daily prompts that challenge artists. Ink is the traditional medium used, but among the thousands of artists around the world who participate and share their works each year, some use different mediums too. This ango I thought, “Is it possible to also incorporate the Slogans of Atisha into each day?” And with enough effort, it was!

Day 1: Dream—Slogan #2: Regard all dharmas as dreams

This particular window in the zendo of the Monastery always has me imagining the Windfish’s egg on top of the mountain (a dream-related reference to one of my favorite Zelda games). And sometimes, being here is dreamlike enough as it is. I find that in trying to see these ethereal qualities in everyday life, my head literally doesn’t hurt so much. 

Day 2: Spiders—Slogan #13: Be grateful to everyone

It’s easy to practice gratitude for what’s positive, and takes a bit more effort to do so for the conventionally “negative”. For example, I can get a bit startled by the spiders in our living space. Ultimately however, I’m glad they’re our roommates because without them, there would probably be more bugs. They’re also not venomous, so that helps.

Day 8: Toad—Slogan #20: Of the 2 witnesses, hold the principal one

This was inspired by a big red American Toad that used to visit the Sangha house back in 2017. We dubbed him Toadhidharma Gamabunta, and I’ve been itching to draw this idea for years. Logically, I had to draw him in a cave just like his namesake, practicing solitude an looking inward for guidance.

Day 10: Fortune—Slogan #7: Sending and taking should be practiced alternately. These two should ride the breath.

Described here is the Tibetan Buddhist practice of Tonglen. Since I’ve lived through a number of occasions where giving my best effort for someone actually made me more of a target as an emotional punching bag, I thought tonglen would be a difficult practice. Yet, my body feels lighter after doing it. Being locked in a mind state of “I need I need I need (or else I won’t succeed)” can feel disempowering, like a sad scramble for control; perhaps that’s why doing the opposite can help relax the grip of that fear. 

Day 17: Demon—Slogan #37: Don’t make gods into demons

Don’t abuse the teachings for your own self-gain. Here is a Fu dog, also known as a guardian lion, shishi in Chinese, or komainu in Japanese. The off-screen demon is her prey, although she is just as ferocious as one. Drawing this helped burn off the residual ickiness I felt from memories brought up by this slogan, rekindling a desire to see my surroundings clearly and have my presence be felt, rather than hide away from discomfort.

Day 18: Saddle—Slogan #12: Drive all blames into one.

“Blame” is a tricky word, and can be difficult to work with. This practice gives me a very different feeling from being habitually self-blaming, which Judy Lief warns us to distinguish this from. It feels more like a vehicle to carry me forward rather than a force that paralyzes until I pick the “right” answer. Where to drive it then? 

Fun fact: Mario can turn into a Jizo statue in a couple of games. This ability makes him invincible for a few seconds, allowing enemies to safely walk past him. So here’s his trusty steed Yoshi bringing around the bodhisattva. 

Day 20: Frost—Slogan #4: Self-liberate even the antidote

I have a tendency to expect my knowledge to stay frozen in time, forgetting that a lot of details can change between then and now. A snake felt appropriate here because the teachings have been described as “dangerous if you don’t know how to handle them properly”, and I wanted it to look all loopy & unbalanced. When I think I’ve gotten the answer, I have to remind myself to see how that pans out over the week before getting too excited.

On Instagram you can pick out music for all posts, which allows me to add another layer of interpretation. The song I set this prompt to is based on the Japanese children’s song “Kagome Kagome”. In the game it’s sung along to, one kid gets “trapped” in a circle.

Day 21: Chains—Slogan #28: Abandon any hope of fruition

This slogan has directly helped me deal with sensations of artblock lately. I have a tendency to get frustrated if I can’t draw my initial idea the way it looks in my head, or if I can’t think of an idea before starting the piece. Way too much effort can get put into forcing something to work, rather than moving onto another composition. Learning how to accept failure quickly kept the momentum going. I’ll know I’m in a flow when I can ease into adding details, rather than constantly breaking my concentration to overanalyze each move because it “doesn’t feel right”. 

I’m just a balloon getting cut away from my expectations, and will need to keep cutting them away when they habitually form.

Day 24: Shallow—Slogan #58: Don’t be frivolous

I got used to the things I enjoyed being defined as frivolous, and I wound up classifying them as guilty pleasures. Then tried to drown them in the severity of life, but they just kept floating back up. I prefer Judy Lief’s definition of frivolous: “keeping things on the surface level helps you prevent any discovery arising that might rock the boat. It is seemingly more comfortable to float about in the shallows of life than to pursue its depths.” 

That’s what my coping mechanisms were there for: to keep myself from analyzing things too deeply because l didn’t think I had the time or luxury to unpack it all.  

I think if something can inspire you to fully engage with life, through the rough and the rest, it’s anything but shallow. I drew a “shallow” tide pool, but that’s relative since these creatures have what they need, and I was joyfully able to enter the process of creating. 

Day 27: Beast—Slogan #40: Correct all wrongs with one intention.

Warm food soothes all the beasts in me.

Eating oryoki-style used to cause me immense anxiety. I wasn’t the only newbie on my first day, but I did struggle to copy the form more than others. It took a long time for my body to react differently to this form of meditation. I think what helped a lot was that I began to notice how much tastier the food would be, even if it was something as simple as oatmeal or rice with soy sauce. During sesshin, these meals made it easier for me to get back on-track when practice felt particularly difficult.

That difficulty is now more apparent to be a feeling of resistance because of my subconscious desire to feel more focused, like I’m “REALLY” meditating. That clinging causes the most suffering during sits these days than anything else at the moment. 

Day 28: Sparkle—Slogan #59: Don’t expect applause

If you do a little trick and no one’s around to see it, are you still a Good Dog?

I used to think there’ll come a point where I feel like I’ve done enough, but I never arrive. “Just one more ___, and then I’ll be proud”. The mistake I kept making there is looking for self-satisfaction. When I’m truly pleased with a creation, it’s hard to stop working until sleepiness takes over. There’s not even a thought of “good” or “bad” in the mix, or how it would affect others’ perspective of me.

I’m definitely scarred from both success and failure; recognition and lack thereof. Sure, it’s heartening to know if my art is having a positive effect on someone. Nothing inflicts more damage than being my own worst critic, though. I just want to learn how to live without constant burnout.

Day 31: Fire—Slogan #42: Whichever of the two occurs, be patient

I notice that my practice dips most when “drowning” in anxiety & stress. The knee-jerk reaction is that I should be actively thinking about the problem (which turns into paralysis), forgetting that taking some time to sit always helps more than that belief. Applying this practice a few minutes before drawing helped set everything in motion faster than if I looked for ideas externally. 

The “burning” usually happens to me in the middle of zazen and is the most powerful distraction. Part of practice is putting ideas on the shelf until it’s the appropriate time to look at them, but that can feel just impossible when the curiosity and drive to create is super strong. And yet it feels like the compulsion is getting weaker by continuously looking at it and not turning away. 

One feels like the end of hope, the other feels like endless hope. Neither of them are helpful if I let them become all-consuming.

That’s it for this year’s Inktober! This year, Procreate on the iPad was my medium of choice. I’ve selected some of my favorite pieces to share here, and the rest can be found on my Instagram account @indefinitelyeliza. I look forward to providing illustrations for all of the slogans one day.

Eliza Nappi is an MRO Training Student and an extended ZMM resident.

NextSpring Ango 2023 and Summer Training