Friday, July 08, 2022

Somerville's Sebastian Rizzon: A Zen Master with a Yen for Poetry


A while back I visited the studio of Sebastian Rizzon during the Open Studios event in Somerville-- organized by the great folks at the Somerville Arts Council. Rizzon fits the profile of many folks I have interviewed: eclectic, multi-talented, and innovative.  Here is an interview I conducted with him.

First of all --how has Somerville been for you as an artist and a poet?

Somerville has been great! It has a large artist population and I’ve felt welcomed by the community since I moved here a year ago. There have also been 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 do have some longer term concerns as Joy Street Studios is set to be redeveloped into biotech offices and there is no formal plan to keep our thriving artist community together. I’m concerned many of the artists here will be dispersed into other communities in the area unless Somerville and the developer are committed to keeping us here.

You are a Zen Master among other things. How did you come to Zen-- did it change the direction of your life?

I had a career as a structural engineer prior to studying Zen. While I experienced a high level success in that field, something seemed to be missing. I had read about Taoism and Buddhism and found myself attracted to the idea of enlightenment, but it still seemed unattainable. I also had a history of martial arts training, so an old housemate directed me to the Shim Gum Do (Mind Sword Way) school nearby. It was an art that combined the practice of Zen with sword and other martial arts. After a few classes it seemed to be filling in the blanks of what was missing in my life, so I ended up moving into the temple after a few months of training.

At one point you were living at Shim Gwang Sa Temple ( Mind Light Temple) for over 16 years. Tell me about your experience there?

At the Shim Gwang Sa (Mind Light Temple), I had the unparalleled experience of living with and learning directly from the enlightened founding master of the school, Great Zen Master Chang Sik Kim (who passed away 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 the martial arts choreography as a moving meditation. My teacher challenged us to turn all of our actions, from the martial arts to every other part of our life, into a form of meditation. In this way, everything that we had to do became a koan, or question, asking how do you see your mind? or what does your mind look like? In Buddhism it is said that to attain 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 writing poetry, making art, and starting the Zen Art Center as a way to convey these lessons, ideas, and the practice to others.

You have a new book coming out " Into the Mind" in which you use poetry to explore Zen practice. Why do you find poetry a good tool for this exploration?

Many of the concepts in Zen transcend words and must be learned through experience. I find poetry is a great tool for teaching these lessons. Poetry gives me the freedom to use imagery and metaphors to lead the reader to deeper level of understanding about our existence. By using poetry to explore the realm of the mind I hope to illuminate the magnitude of the power that resides within all of us.

Your art is full of vivid colors and revels in nature. Too often we divorce ourselves from nature--
how would you reconnect the world to this seminal source?

The teachings of Zen Buddhism are founded in dharma, which is the truth of nature or natural truth. The truth is always evolving each moment and therefore it is essential to keep your mind focused on what nature is telling you so that you can respond appropriately. As you learn to observe nature with greater discernment you gain a better understanding of 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 the universe, compassion becomes the most logical, rational response. My hope is to make a compelling appeal for more compassion in the world.

One might say he or she could find 'joy' at your Zen Art Center at the Joy Street studios in Somerville. What do you offer there for us seekers?

I use the word art to mean anything that you put your heart into. I’m 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 sword. The idea is to use meditation and dharma teachings to understand the mind, then use the various art techniques to bring what is in the mind out into reality through creativity. I hope to inspire others to develop an art form that appeals to them and learn how to apply Zen techniques to the practice. By using this process we can understand how the power of the mind 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 are reflected in our mind.

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