October 30, 2007

Dharmic Architecture 2: Meaning & Phenomena

Thanks to those of you who gave me food for thought on “Dharmic Architecture.” As TK pointed out, since as Buddhists we are supposed to stop searching for the meaning behind phenomena (which too often simply means assigning our own meaning to them) and accept the world as it truly is, perhaps architecture should follow this dictate. Architecture, as phenomena, should not attempt to have meaning beyond the physical embodiment of functional requirements.

There are some architects who have attempted to do just that, starting with the International Style in Europe in the 1920’s & 1930’s and later with Modernism in America after World War II. However, as one architectural critic and theorist observed, as soon as their “meaningless” architecture was created, it naturally acquired (or was ascribed) a meaning and began to stand for something beyond itself. This something would later be called “functionalism,” a conceptual theory whole unto itself.

The question is then, did even functionalist architecture acquire a meaning by its own nature (perhaps simply as a work of human hands) or the attribution of meaning to it simply a symptom of the samsaric condition Buddhism implores us to overcome?

On another route of inquiry, is it helpful for use to categorize architecture (or other products of human culture) among the “phenomena” which need have no meaning? Or is this “phenomena” solely the natural world, change, time, and those similar elements beyond significant human control? (Leaving aside the question of our ability to control anything at all, for the moment.) If architecture is included, then so must be other products of human creation, such as the written word, which operates solely on meaning. If we do not look for the meaning behind the ink printed on paper, then we see only ink and paper, and possibly shapes and lines, but not a soliloquy by Shakespeare. That would be a tragedy.

I am suddenly reminded of a moment in the move Short Circuit during which they are trying to determine if the robot Number Five is “alive,” or sentient. They try the inkblot test and Number Five dutifully describes both the chemical composition of the paper and the coffee which was spilled on it, but then…after a suitably dramatic pause…calls it a butterfly, a flower, a bird.

So, the question remains, should architecture communicate? Should it try to mean something beyond sticks and bricks. A professor of mine recently pointed out the similarities between the words “edifice” and “edify.” It sheds light on a rather interesting position. If my goal is to “help people” perhaps that goal can be best served by teaching – not in the traditional sense of a teacher in a classroom, but in the more subversive realm of teaching through subtle suggestion, example, and bringing to light. In order to teach, one must communicate. (Even teaching purely by acting as an example communicates some meaning.)

The Buddha did not teach by refusing to communicate.

October 27, 2007

Questions without Answers

There was a man who sat beside me on the plane from Minneapolis to Omaha. He was a nice enough gentleman and not terribly intrusive, though obviously bored. His sole carry on piece of luggage was a ukulele in a brown felt bag and a tiny little book in his jacket pocket about fatherhood. He chatted with me to pass the time. I learned he lived in a small town in Iowa not far from Omaha, he had a son and daughter, both unwed and living in Georgia, and he belonged to The Navigators a Christian campus ministry. He learned I was a student at the University of Nebraska - Lincoln, on my way home from a conference, and also unwed. This was unfortunate, in his mind.

He asked if it was my first year in college and I had to laugh. "So far from it," I told him, "it's no longer funny." When he realized I was 27, he noted there was no wedding band on my finger. We talked about many things, but always came back to marriage. He teasingly tried to set me up with his son, who appeared to be searching for a smart, attractive woman, who made at least as much money as he did. The man assumed that when I said marriage was not on the top of my priority list, career must naturally takes its place. I laughed again and told him I would probably be one of the poorest architects ever, the kind who works for clients who can't really afford professional fees and will probably pay in potatoes.

The poor man looked even more puzzled. Truth to tell, I understood his quandary since it was something I have often faced myself. I explained to him that architecture is what I'm good at, it's what I do best, but not my ultimate goal in life. My goal is to help people and I feel that architecture is the means by which I can be of the most use. I had never explained that to anyone before. Saying it felt good.

I think he doubted me, doubted that anyone could exist whose ultimate goal was simply to "help people" in whatever way they felt they could best do so. I'm sure he saw me as a hopeless naive optimistic child. I suppose I am. I often set idealistic goals, because in striving for that ideal, even if I fall short, at least I might come close.

"God has a plan for you," he told me.

"So people say," I replied.

Yet something about the encounter puzzles me still. I find myself going over it in my head. Is my "career" simply number two on my list, or is it actually that my "career" is helping people. In that case, am I a career woman? I simply don't wish to acknowledge it because of the negative connotation?

And for that matter, why are there negative connotations associated with "career woman?" I even find them in my own mind from time to time, despite the fact that I've rarely known a woman who wasn't. Yet there remains this stigma of a cold, hard person who "neglects" her family, husband, and children, or else ends up alone, a bitter, old crone - angry that the world punished her for choosing her career over her family, or that she chose to even dare to try to have both. It bothers me to be associated with this stigma.

So instead, I choose a different route - claiming to value neither career nor family above all else. Is it truly a different path, or am I just splitting hairs?

"Haven't you ever been twitterpated over somebody?" he asked.

I just shrugged.

October 25, 2007


Travel is not so wearing because of the distances travelled. Modern convenience has seen to that. As if boats and trains and airplanes weren’t enough we have escalators and elevators and moving walkways, trams and busses, subways and skyways. And just to mitigate any possible inconvenience these marvels have left behind, we have checked baggage, espresso bars, sports on big screen televisions, and newsstands galore liberally dotting all those many places people pass through. Yet the fact remains, we hate travel.

But we love our cars. We build roads twelve lanes wide (one way) and then fill them with so many vehicles that even these so-called expressways slow to a crawl. We drive for hours each day just for the joy of suburban life and urban paychecks which we squander on shiny plastic, patent leather, gasoline, and anti-lock brakes, but complain that the new subway line costs too much of our precious tax dollars.

I fear I have gotten rather far afield. These dichotomies were on my mind as I traveled to and from Toronto this past weekend. The conclusions I came to revolved around our feeling of control. For the second time this year, I sat behind the wheel of my car and I felt good. I felt free. For this short space of time I felt entirely in control of my life, as if my actions alone could determine the outcome.

That is an illusion of course. I’m not alone on the road and I’m sure other drivers have their own ideas, for better or for worse. Not to mention all the labor of all the hands who got me to that point. I have no idea whether or not the factory quality control checker counted all the screws, if the mechanic doing the tire rotation tightened all the nuts, if the road crew doing construction on the new bridge swept it clear of sharp metal objects before opening it, or when that squirrel will decide to make a run for it. But I feel in control, and it feels good.

It feels even better after an entire weekend feeling like I am (and I literally am) placing my life in the hands of strangers. Letting them get me from place to place safely, on time, and with all of my belongings. It made me wonder after a day of travel why I could possibly be so tired when all I had done was sit, in a car, in an airport, on a plane, in another airport, on another plane, and finally another car. Not for very long either. It took less than six hours to get me from Toronto to Omaha, and only a bit over two was spend actually in the air. But the anxiety of placing so much trust on so many people and feeling so absolutely without control for those six short hours, makes it wearing.

So when I finally slid back behind the wheel of my car, I didn’t resent the final hour of my journey home. I think perhaps that is why people seem so prone to road rage. Why even my sweet, bubbly friend Noreen cusses like a sailor behind the wheel. When that much loved and longed for feeling of control is revealed for an illusion, it is a bitter thing.

We American’s love our cars. “Land of the Free” etc. etc. “Manifest Destiny” and all of that.

If I really had that much control, I think I’d be more inclined to manifest chocolate cake.

October 17, 2007


My drawings need to express the nature of the space. I need a really killer section, in which the nature of the space is described and all the details worked out and working together to reinforce the message of the building. Section A-A is probably the correct slice necessary for this, but as drawn for the Phase II critique, it is lacking. It does not adequately describe the nature of the space I can visualize in my mind. I need to determine how the space and the details, specifically the column, wall, and truss/rafter system, can work together. I need to examine all the options and iterations and determine the best possible system.

[BUT….] My mind screams. And it doesn’t matter. All my ‘buts’ sound like objections; a knee jerk defensive response. BUT – I’ve ALREADY considered! I didn’t choose the form randomly. If it is not working – tell me it’s not working – tell me how it could work better – don’t just tell me to consider it because I’ve already done that.

I am so frustrated. The critique with the outside reviewers yesterday went well. I understood their points. I thought maybe I’m finally getting better in critique; maybe I’m finally open enough and mature enough. Now she asks questions I don’t understand. I have two options – I can say “I don’t understand” or I can try to answer. Saying “I don’t understand” only works if it doesn’t become a mantra. After the sixth repetition it starts to lose its effectiveness. If after the sixth time we still fail to communicate it is unlikely we will be able to. But I can’t just drop it. We’re not trying to decide what to have for dinner tonight. She’s my teacher and she’s trying to teach me something and if I’m not learning it, giving up is not an option.

So I try to answer, but from my answer it’s obvious I don’t understand the question. Then we’re back to the same thing. She gets frustrated because it’s not as obvious that I simply don’t understand and after a while seems more like I’m not listening or I don’t care – that I’ve already made up my mind and am just trying to defend my position.

And the more I try to explain why I chose this option and why this other option won’t work – the more that seems to be the case. I’m not trying to defend my choice. I’m trying to explain what I’ve already considered. When she tells me to consider the options after I present her with the option I’ve designed it sounds like my design isn’t working, but why isn’t it working?

I start out with curiosity, a kind of interested quizzical thought. Why is that? Why would she say that? What does she mean? But I’m not used to not getting it. I’m the one who always understands, who picks the new software in half the time, masters that new math equation on the first run through, catches the philosophical argument like an easy fly ball. When my curiosity isn’t satisfied right away, frustration rises. It’s worse now.

Lurking behind that curiosity is already the suspicion, the habitual fear, “I’m not going to get this, am I? This is gonna be another bad critique, isn’t it?” So I tell myself “Breath, Monica, stay open, don’t shut down. Choose to make this the good critique. And it ends with that screaming in my head.

[BUT…] “Is she right that I’m just being defensive? BUT I really DON’T understand! Do I not understand because I’m going in with a closed mind, because I’m not allowing myself to understand? Why would I sabotage myself like that? Am I so used to having the right answer that I allow myself to become this frustrated rather than admit I’m wrong? BUT I admit I’m wrong a lot. I work with that. I’ve gotten used to it. Haven’t I? Didn’t I just finish pointed out that I didn’t know how to handle the wall detail? Why didn’t she latch onto that, where I need help, instead of the column which I’ve already figured out? Have I really figured it out, or did she latch on to it because it’s not working? BUT she didn’t ever say it wasn’t working. She didn’t say why it wasn’t working or how it could be better. BUT the questions didn’t sound rhetorical, so was I supposed to have an answer?”

[BUT…] It doesn’t matter. “But” won’t help me move ahead. “But” doesn’t solve anything. BUT what else am I supposed to do? A friend has the tagline on his email "The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes." -- Marcel Proust. I need new eyes.

I’ll look at it again tomorrow.

I See the Rain

The roses hang their heads, giving thanks for rain. The thunder rolls, a reminder you are small. I walk, jumping puddles. Socks don’t dry to quick as feet. I think of those I have not heard from lately. I am safe and warm in my long black raincoat. They should make raincoats in bright colors. The grey day is enough without the dark shadows moving through it. My bright blue scarf shows. Rain makes me think of other things, other days, places far away – of London and Oxford, the mountains and the rolling grasslands, the small towns with brick-front shops on main street where “progress” has seldom ventured.

Rain shows me things unseen. It makes me long for good friends and steaming mugs. It makes me dream of days to come and of days long gone. That is why they say rainy days are sad days. As we long for that which is not while trying to go about with that which is. Life does not stop for the rain. Businesses and schools do not close so the people can gather in the coffee shops and living rooms and share with each other their dreams and memories or catch up with old friends. People still hurry when all the time they feel the urge to slow, to wait, to watch the rain.

I think about the things unseen and wish I were elsewhere, but where would that be? For in truth, I love the rain. I love the rain for the things it shows me and the feelings it brings me and would be nowhere else if it meant to be without them. I love the rain for its softness and its ferocity. I love it for the life it brings and for the moment when my mind turns inward and I see myself washed clean; I see the world washed clean for just that moment before the sunlight returns to dazzle my eyes.

I see poetry in the rain.

October 16, 2007

Stuff (Intentional Living Update)

In the spirit of intentional living (and the frustration of my overcrowded little apartment – that 500 square feet was so spacious when I moved in!!) I have finally begun what I’m sure will be the long process of divesting myself of unnecessary stuff. I joined my local Freecycle group (www.freecycle.org) and offered two dressers, two ottomans, a later filing cabinet, and a mini fridge/freezer. In a separate offer I have begun clearing out my bookshelves starting with my two Time Life series. I also started boxing up other books which may go to my local used bookstore or Good Will.

Once these items are removed and I have some space to breath in, it will be time to tackle The Closet. Not my little clothes closet which I weeded through on a regular basis, but my big walk in closet (truly the saving grace in an apartment my size). I know I have all sorts of things which got stashed in there when I moved in and have not seen the light of day since. Downsizing from a 2500 square foot house to a one bedroom apartment was quite an adventure.

To be honest, I am actually acquiring some items as well. In two weeks my parents are going up to move my 84 year old grandmother into assisted living (long overdue). Grandma would apparently like me to have her china hutch. I don’t even remember what it looks like, but I said I would take it just to get it off her hands, and because it makes her feel good to be able to give things to her grandchildren. If I don’t like it or can’t use it, it’ll be freecycled as well. My parents have also donated smaller dresser a badly painted (red) tall thin bookcase which they no longer want (and probably never needed). Even with that I’m at a net loss (or free from depending how you look at it) of four pieces of furniture.

Then I shall drag out those plastic bins from under my bed and start going through my “project supplies” things I acquired during second year studio and never dared to throw away just in case I might need scraps of orange matteboard and brown chipboard, various lengths and thicknesses of wire, decorative papers, and a bazillion little pieces of basswood. Thankfully, the graduate studio professors do not seem to be as hung up on physical models as the undergraduate teachers are and are perfectly happy with all things digital. (A day I have long awaited!)

SO – that is the plan; now let’s see if I can follow through.

No Impact Man

No Impact Man is a blog I just found thanks to the Owl Monkey blog. I haven't explored it all yet, but it seems very cool and slightly intimidating. What do you mean no toilets?

I keep thinking to myself, I couldn't do that, or could I?

October 15, 2007

Dharmic Architecture

My mind has not been on the Dharma lately. Or so it seems. I have not been reading or meditating. The latest issue of The Shambhala Sun is still unopened in its plastic. I have not been attending sangha gatherings. I find my writings rambling, wandering on about this and that, but not in their usual way. I have no new philosophic insights into emptiness or the nature of mind to share, just the daily business of living.

Yet I feel that my practice is very rich at the moment, full of opportunities and learning. I am weaving together the threads of my life into a holistic whole which seems to give me greater strength. I am gaining an experiential understanding of the value of diligence and Right Effort. Despite all I have to do, I remain grounded in patience and compassion, and that (for the most part) prevents me from feeling overwhelmed (for most of the time).

My work has seen principles put into practice and applied at every opportunity. When I say “my work” I do not refer to the jobs for which I get paid, but my architectural design, that which I will make my life’s work. Always I have been interested in what buildings say. To me, buildings have always had a kind of life and presence of their own, and, like the people who build them, they always seek to communicate. When I design, it is with this in mind and what I want my buildings to say is both Dharmic and universal.

My current design works with interdependence and how that might be conveyed. Venturi would just post a sign with four foot tall letters stating “ALL THINGS ARE INTERDEPENDENT” on the outside of a Wal-Mart style box and call it good. I prefer the poetics of form and function to do my work for me, conveying the message no less loudly, but so much more effectively. I seek a building which demonstrates interdependence through the manner in which it functions in relation to the environment it occupies and the user it shelters.

While I struggle with this purpose in design studio, I seek ways to understand it in my architecture theory class, where I am writing my term paper on Architectural Communication. The theories are already there, but they have gathered dust since they were penned in the 1960’s and 1970’s when post-modern architects resorted to kiche and pastiche to convey meaning (slapping Doric columns on a fa├žade to say “government” and other such cultural references).

I am more interested in how a building can communicate universally. Would a non-Buddhist, non-Westerner understand the message? Maybe. They might see how the water is collected and channeled to promote the growth of vegetables and flowers while all around has turned gold in the hot, dry climate of a Colorado summer. They might see how the rising rammed earth walls carry the solidity of the granite ridges ringing the valley and shelter the occupants from the northwest wind of a Colorado winter. They might see how the interior columns rise and branch like the trees from which they came, and how all of this comes together to make a warm, inviting, sheltering, and homey. They might.

But would they say to themselves “Ah ha! All things are interdependent!”? Probably not, but the exact words are no so important as the feeling itself.

Sometimes I see buildings which seem sad, almost depressed and I think that perhaps they had something to say once and never did get the chance. The designer didn’t quite express it right, or the budget got cut during construction. I see regret in those buildings. Sometimes I see buildings without souls, which never had anything to say in the first place, like big box stores and bad 1970’s apartment blocks. But often enough to give me hope, I see buildings which are happy, shouting out their message, or standing with quiet dignity because they know they don’t have to shout to be heard. These are well designed buildings. If you asked me what the message was, I might not be able to say exactly, for words do not speak the same language as brick, wood, space, and light. But I would know there was one and I would know what it was.

So now I go into my mid-semester critique to find out if my buildings is saying what I hope it is. I know that my buildings will always speak (if I built them well) and I know that the message will forever be informed my those things I value most – by the Dharma.

When a Dharmic Building speaks, does it say nothing?

October 13, 2007

Updates - Intentional Living & More

The other day as I returned home, my bicycle wheels crunching through the gravel parking lot behind my building, I spied a bunny by the bicycle rack. It was only of those tiny, just barely out of the nest bunnies. The ones you can hold in the palm of your had and still have room for two more. Needless to say my heart melted like mush.

"This is why I don't eat meat," I thought to myself. "All meat is cute when it's a baby."

Since returning to Nebraska I have very successfully returned to my vegetarian habits. I was worried about that a bit, but it doesn't seem to have been a problem. I have also discovered a successful strategy for reigning myself in at the store. Rather than trying to do arithmatic in my head and limit the cost of my purchases, I have instead limited their number. No more than ten things seems to ensure I consistenly come in under budget. I still eat out a couple times a week, just picking up something to go at the Union or snack shop, but that seems unavoidable.

I switched from the standard monthly cell phone to a pay as you go phone, which seems to be working out quite well. All of my other bills debit automatically from my checking account and I wrote my check for the home owner's association dues for the entire semester in August. All in all, I find myself much less stressed about money, despite the fact that I don't have any. I don't have to worry about trying to make choices anymore, because I've effectively eliminated them all.

The first major review for the Shambhala Kitchen & Dining Hall project is on Monday. I am satisfied with the progress of my design, though I know their are many more details to work out, they are just that - details. They are integral to the successful expression of my goals, but I feel that I am unlikely to be forced back to a square one redesign like some of my classmates already have been (more than once, in some cases). I may loose some sleep this weekend completing the necessary production work, but the major design decisions are well in hand. I'll post the images on my Castles in the Sky blog next week.

We did a test run of my ACSA presentation on Friday, before the actuall conference next weekend. Only a few minutes long and a couple of things to fix. I was thrilled that Sandi, my prior boss, came and glad to have her feedback. She treated me to lunch after. She has decided that we "mentor each other in the spaces between our own realities." I like that. (Sandi is a PhD in Human Sciences, speciallizing in leadership and personality.)

Despite the fact that I whine about being so busy, I feel very fulfilled. I've always shaken my head at those work-aholic busy bodies. Now I think I'm becoming one.

It's not so bad.

October 04, 2007

Antidote of Compassion

In Buddhism we often speak of afflictions and antidotes. Afflictions are harmful emotions, negative mental states, and their affiliated damaging actions. Antidotes are the corresponding mental states which can help to first prevent damaging actions and then help us deal with strong emotions in a constructive manner. Anger is an affliction whose antidote is patience. It seems compassion is the antidote for an affliction I shall name downtrodden-ism.

Yesterday I was feeling downtrodden, demoralized, and depressed by my own unmanageable life and by my own neurotic tendency to make it unmanageable. Then I read In Limine and was reminded “[Shantideva] urges us to see the problems and challenges before us not as problems of how to find or preserve a good for ourselves and for those with whom we identify, but rather how to heal the entirety of problem, a perspective that cares as deeply for those causing us pain as for those feeling the pain, that values one’s own pain neither less nor more than any other’s.”

For whatever reason, I felt immediately better. And, of course, I giggled, not with my normal sardonic amusement but in lighthearted joy. After all, what could be better when you are feeling overwhelmed by your own life than a reminder that you once made a vow to save all sentient beings, in between term papers and team projects.

In any case, it sure brought about a shift in perspective. It raised my view from the dusty path I was just barely plodding along to the majestic mountains I was aiming for in the distance. My pace immediately improved.

A few weeks ago, when I was feeling bad, I lay alone in pain. At first I sought only to distract myself, then I remembered the teachings. I generated loving kindness for all those people affected by physical pain and illness, old age and infirmity. I felt immediately better. My mind state shifted until I was better able to bear my pain and in a few moments the pain itself began to subside (though that may be attributable to the aspirin).

So I remember Shantideva’s instructions in The Way of the Bodhisattva and I will strive, “So long as space endures/As long as there are beings to be found/May I continue likewise to remain/To drive away the sorrows of the world.”

October 03, 2007

Busy Lazy

So, life is busy, always busy. And Monica is a masochist. I admitted it long ago. I usually restrain myself to my own personal brand of mental masochism: taking the most difficult classes, hardest majors, most complex subjects. Of course, when I have taken it into the physical realm, such as with fencing and now riding, it also tends to be the most difficult thing I can find for myself, though rarely actually painful. (Except in the case of Pilates, which I love!) And when it comes to my schedule, I invariably manage to make it hard on myself no matter what intentions I start out the semester with.

Thirteen credit hours turns into sixteen. One job into three. A student organization officer slot and a single committee spot just weren’t enough to neglect so I added a seat in the student senate. Special projects bloom all over: the presentation for the conference in Ontario, ideas for starting a Buddhist Campus Coalition, studying Pema Chodron’s teachings on The Way of The Bodhisattva in No Time To Loose, working on that youth leadership paper. The dishes and the laundry and the chores pile up, but not so deep as to be unmanageable. Yet.

But what lurks behind all that purposeful over-scheduling is a fear, a nagging self-doubt, and long seated recrimination. Really, I’m just lazy, and I know it. If I don’t make commitments, I’ll just while away my time reading science fiction novels and watching television. I have to have the commitments to other people, because I’m perfectly capable of breaking commitments to myself. This is the “busy lazy” that Buddhist teachers speak about. I am so guilty of it, but the secret is that I view it as the lesser of two evils, the greater being pure laziness – that lay on the couch all day, eat potato chips, ramen, and cereal, and don’t leave the house, don’t do chores, just don’t do. The way it is so easy to lose myself in a series of novels or a new TV show on DVD, where I can literally spend a week in a fantasy world, sometimes it appalls me. The way I revel in the emotional highs and lows of fictional characters, the suffering and sacrifice and bravery, draws me into almost any story, even the half lame ones. So I stay busy.

In Sakyong Mipham’s book Turning the Mind into an Ally, the two chapters which resonated with me the most were on Laziness and Boredome. I understand that one of the Eightfold Path is Right Diligence/Effort. I seek that in this hectic schedule which I set up for myself, even as I bemoan never getting home before the sun sets and stocking up on Slim Fast because I know I simply won’t have time to eat during the week.

It is a strange compulsion and with each passing semester, each attempt to make it better, I think it gets just a little bit worse. I become busier, even when opportunities abound to do otherwise. I didn’t have to take that seat in the student government (but it had never come available before and may not again). I didn’t have to pick up that extra class (but the Planning Department wanted me to use the fellowship they were so kind enough to award me). If I hadn’t, I might not have needed the third job I’m not seeking (but all the options at least sound interesting). I don’t have to work on the youth leadership paper now (but Sandi has time this semester and it would be so cool to get it published). I don’t have to… (but…).

Good think I love irony and cynical humor, for I shall never cease to be amused with myself.