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Painted Flowers

Updated: Sep 3, 2023

What’s real?

Roshi Bernie Glassman takes up this question in the “Prologue” to his book, Instructions to the Cook. Zen people love to say that the finger pointing at the moon is not the moon. Bernie would add, though, that the finger pointing at the moon is also real.

In the context of his book, Bernie preferred the image of painted cakes. Dogen had used the image of painted cakes, and painted cakes fit better with Bernie’s cooking metaphor (also taken from Dogen) and perhaps not coincidentally with Bernie’s signature social venture accomplishment — the creation of the Greyston Bakery which would become the economic engine for his other social action projects, ranging from housing and daycare for the homeless to a hospice for people living AIDS.` I understand what they are talking about — get it in my head well enough to participate in a conversation — but I don’t really get the painted cakes metaphor in my gut.

I am sitting on our front stoop as the sun sets, enjoying the summer flowers, thinking of Bernie’s “Prologue.” Painted flowers, I get — head, gut, bones, marrow. I look at our garden. These flowers are real. I think of Monet’s “Waterlilies” and Van Gogh’s “Irises.” There is no question. They are real.

I have been to Monet’s Garden in Givenchy. I have seen the actual lilies pictured in Monet’s painting or at least their direct descendants. They are real. The garden is beautiful.

I have seen Monet’s painting at the Museum of Modern Art, first saw it holding my father’s hand. It is stunning. I am stunned still, every time I walk into that room. It is real too. The painting is real, and the garden is real. I was moved by the garden too, but mostly as a reminder of the painting. I stood on the bridge over the pond, a bridge which I had seen so many times in New York, in Monet’s vision. It was beautiful in the garden. I could imagine that I was seeing what Monet had seen. But I am more moved by the paintings. I was more moved by Monet’s experience of the water lilies than I was by the experience of the water lilies themselves. In that moment at Givenchy, what moved me most was re-experiencing Monet.

Walking, as I frequently do in Clove Lake Park, in certain early morning or late afternoon light, the water through the trees along the path, the pattern of yellow-white and blue-green, takes me back to Monet’s Bain à la Grenouillère which hung on my dorm room wall for four years, a poster of course. It was through Monet’s eyes that I learned to see the “actual” colors of the water. Actual? Who knows. It was through Monet’s eyes that I learned to see the colors of the water as I see them now.

This spring and summer there has been an exhibition, Van Gogh’s Cypresses at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art. I had been to the show four times, three times before we took a wonderful family vacation trip to Europe to celebrate Dee’s retirement and Morrigan’s 25th birthday, a once-in-a-lifetime river cruise from Budapest to Amsterdam.

I loved the early mornings when we were still “at sea” before breakfast, meditating on our deck, writing my morning pages, and inwardly reaching out to every cypress. I have been to Europe before. I have been to South of France. Looking at Van Gogh’s paintings at the Met, I recalled a row of cypresses along a French country road which I hadn’t remembered until Van Gogh reminded me.

Perhaps at this moment in my life, I am most intrigued by Van Gogh’s coming back again and again over a period of months to the cypress trees. I know why Van Gogh said he did this. You can read his explanation on the wall of the Met. It’s part of the exhibit. He felt he hadn’t been able to get onto canvas what he saw, so he kept at it. That makes an interesting story of persistence.

But that is not the story that interests me.

I see a different story.

So many of these paintings are wonderful. “Starry Night” is undoubtedly the most famous, but others touch me more deeply.

Maybe the final “Cypress” gets closest to satisfying Van Gogh. So why exhibit them all? To see the progression? There’s another story there. It be called the “the growth (or evolution) of an artist.” But that is not the story that interests me either.

Here’s the story which is grabbing me.

While they may have been painted in some sequence, they can all be seen, if one doesn’t dawdle too long and if the museum is not too crowded, in a little more than an hour. Take them all in. Experience them all at once. They are inexhaustible.

The show is closing. I could keep going back again and again. Maybe I will, at least once before it closes. Maybe this time I will walk the show from exit to entrance. Will that be a different experience?

I became aware of myself as a storyteller a few years ago. For a while, I felt guilty when I heard myself telling stories at work. Was I taking up too much space? Was I getting senile? In my first awareness, I would often ask, “Have I told you this story before?” I didn’t want to be repeating myself.

Sometimes, I was talking to an “audience” which had never heard this story. But sometimes there was someone at the table who said, “I love that story.”


My father was a storyteller. I loved his stories, and I would beg for my favorites. Some of them, like “Kenneth and the Fire Engine,” were told many times.

Recently, we were out to dinner with some family friends, and I was telling a story. I misswallowed, one of the hazards of eating and storytelling at the same time. I was coughing. Morrigan jumped in, “I can finish the story,” and she did.

She’d heard the story many times and told it well, not exactly the way I would have told it, but a good story. Morrigan is quite the storyteller herself.

Sometimes Dee tells my stories. Sometimes mid-story, she’ll pause, turn to me, “Do you want to tell it?”

“No, you tell it. I love to hear you tell it.”

Telling and retelling stories. That’s what storytellers do, their own stories, and stories which they have heard from others. I am never telling the same story exactly. Each telling is, itself, happening for the first time. As Van Gogh saw, at each seeing, at each painting, the wind is different, the light is different, different people are in the park. It’s a different tree, a cypress but a different cypress. And Van Gogh is not the same person he was the last time he approached this tree.

In Bernie’s version of the First Great Bodhisattva Vow, “Creations are numberless, I vow to free them.” The more usual translation, “Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to save them,” seems easier to understand. Bernie wants to be much more inclusive. All creations: God’s creations and Van Gogh’s creations. And, presumably, my creations. That’s the vow which I have been chanting now for 30 years without beginning until recently to appreciate it. When I tell a story I have told before, am I telling the same story? Am I repeating myself? Glenn Gould recorded Bach’s Goldberg Variations twice, in 1955 and again in 1981. They are very different. Both are wonderful. Was he repeating himself?

At Van Gogh’s Cypresses, it’s obvious. He was not repeating himself. Even when he takes a second stab at a scene which he has painted days before, working in the fields with a portable easel. He “repaints” the same scene a few days later in the studio. Obviously, the same scene, another version. According to the writing on the wall, Van Gogh preferred the studio version. I love them both. Maybe I’m a little partial to the first, painted en plein air. But what I love the most is seeing them hanging side by side, two different versions of the same story. And I am moved to read the note on the wall: this is the first time since 1901 that these paintings have been exhibited side by side.

The water lilies at Givenchy and the water lilies at MOMA are both real.

The cypress trees seen from the Danube are real.

The cypress trees hanging at the Met are real.

But don’t get silly on me.

The cypress trees at the Met and the Cypress trees of Austria are not the same.

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Ah, now that Painted Flowers piece is a great story, Roshi Ken. That is a true story! Mark

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