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Nov 23
Arts and Poetry
Compassionate Brush

A student's tone drawing of a lotus

A student’s tone drawing of a lotus

Contemplative Art Project with the Vancouver School Board

article, photos and video by Brian Callahan

On October 21st, His Holiness XIV Dalai Lama visited a Vancouver high school to dialogue with students on the importance of educating the heart as well as the mind. HHDL’s visit was hosted by John Oliver Secondary School and Vancouver’s Dalai Lama Centre for Peace and Education.

The ‘Compassionate Brush’ project was an important part of the preparation for the Dalai Lama’s visit. On October 8th and 10th, students from John Oliver were joined by 7th graders from Trudeau Elementary for a contemplative arts workshop at Van Dusen botanical gardens. Thirty 11 and 12 year old students from Trudeau joined several secondary school students for a day of art making and contemplative exercises.

VanDusen Garden lotus pond

VanDusen Garden lotus pond

Working with John Oliver teacher, Dustin Keller, and Trudeau teacher, Alison Deesfelt, Shambhala Art Teacher, Margaret Jones Callahan, introduced the students to mindfulness practice and shared information about how mindfulness works and effects the brain. The students were very interested in learning about the structure of their brains and how they work.

Of course, when sharing mindfulness with teens, it’s important to keep things active. After teaching a basic breath-based practice, Margaret lead the group though some mindful movement exercises inspired by chi gung. The movement practices helped the students become even more present and attentive.

Compassionate Brush Student Enso

Compassionate Brush Student Enso

Next, Margaret introduced working with small calligraphy brushes and water. She led the students through learning three foundational brush strokes: one horizontal, one vertical, and a circular stroke. In the midst of teaching the first stroke, one of the seventh graders knocked a water container over. Water spilled over the table, chairs and students papers. Chaos broke out. That moment presented the opportunity for the most powerful demonstration of mindfulness in the classroom. With some support from the other teachers in the room, Margaret made sure that the students were okay and taken care of. Then, she drew the attention of the students to herself, and the front of the room, telling them: “When chaos breaks out, that’s a great opportunity to practice.” Margaret then lead the class through three mindful breaths. At that remarkable moment, a centered presence was restored and the class regained calm focus within one minute.

The water spilling incident occurs approximately 9.5 minutes into this short video.

After learning these three foundational strokes, the students were encouraged to explore the Gardens, rich in fall foliage and blooms. Part of their assignment was to allow their attention to settle, to notice details and texture from whatever drew their attention, and to draw at least three sketches from nature. Forty minutes later, the group came back rich with sketches of mosses, leaves, trees, stones, sculptures, flowers, and fish in the garden’s large pond.

VanDusen Garden pond

VanDusen Garden pond

The instruction continued with the students learning to work with three tones of color, black, grey and light, using sumi ink and water. With these tones, the students were invited to make art inspired by their sketches from the garden.

The last part of the day involved working with very big calligraphy brushes. These brushes, made with horse hair and timber bamboo, some with heads the size of a small mop, were used on very large sheets of paper to draw Enso’s. In groups of 10, the students were invited to sit around a square protective floor covering. The group then bowed to each other, picked up their individual brush, and dipped the brush in buckets of ink. Holding their brush and waiting until the time felt right, the students each made one, circular stroke. Brushes were returned to their holders and the students waited, more or less quietly, for everyone to finish. Then the group bowed and prepared the area for the next group of students.

Students with big brush on canvas

Students with big brush on canvas

The climax of art making for the day involved each students making an Enso on a square of large, white canvas. As one of the teacher’s told the students: “There is no right or wrong. There is just your mark, expressing who you are, perfect.” Forty-five wonderful, circular brush strokes later, we had the beginning of a work of contemplative art.

Margaret joined the students again on October 15th and 17th. These classes took place at John Oliver Secondary School. Both times, the students worked with making further marks on the white canvas banners. The final product included three large banners with multi-colored Enso’s that hung in the school gymnasium.

On October 22nd, when HH Dalai Lama entered the school gym and took his place on the stage for the dialogue program with students, his seat faced directly towards those three large banners. 1400 students gathered in the gym to hear the Dalai Lama speak of the importance of educating the heart.

The event was live-streamed and over 35,000 students throughout British Columbia and beyond also participated. As one of the invited guests, I appreciated the wisdom shared by His Holiness. I also smiled and appreciated that the student produced, contemplative-inspired art.

In Margaret’s words: “It’s as much about what the heart sees as what the brain and eyes see.”

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3 responses to “ Compassionate Brush ”
  1. Brian and Margaret,
    So glad you were able to share this on the Shambhala Times. There are many wonderful projects inspired by the Sakyong’s instruction to ‘turn the flower outward’ happening around the mandala but sadly we only hear about a few of them. This was very inspiring. Thank-you!

  2. Wow, I am amazed and moved, thank you Margaret and Brian for offering this to students, please continue!

  3. Awesome!! What a wonderful teaching and gift to those kids.

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