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  • Writer's picturekristina jacobsen

Art, Songwriting and Zen: Why They Are Good for One Another

Bodhi Manda Zen Center Dining Room

The Sutra Hall (Prayer Hall), Bodhi Manda Zen Center

I am sitting in front of a warm wood stove, the scent of pine cones, oak and hickory filling the room, at the Bodhi Manda Zen center in Jemez Springs, New Mexico. I’m a few miles outside of Jemez Pueblo, and this mountain town feels like a mix of what I love most about New England (my birthplace) and the Navajo Nation or the Rez (where I’ve spent much of my adult life). It’s rural, stunningly beautiful, and feels shockingly far from the city of Albuquerque (my current home). It’s snowing in thick flakes outside, and I’m wearing a double lined hat from Sweden, a thick wool skirt that looks like a carpet, long underwear, and insulated hiking boots. In other words, it’s cold! But inside, on this day after Santa Lucia’s Day, here there is a fire and there is warmth….

As I’ve worked on two books over the last three years and written songs for a new album, the ‘Bodhi’ (as people like to call it) has been a haven, a respite, a sanctuary. It’s also the place where the songwriter Leonard Cohen lived when he was studying Zen Buddhism, and thus, for songwriters, it is hallowed ground.

Songwriter Leonard Cohen, sitting in lotus position, picture taken in the library, Bodhi Manda Zen Center

the author in the library writing by the fire, Bodhi Manda Zen Center

Each time I return here, I gain a larger experiential piece of the relationship between Buddhism (in all its iterations) and art, and why they are so good for one another. (One of the adult sons of the Abbess, Kai Mammoser, is also a songwriter, and has released an album of original songs).

Both Buddhism and songwriting put a primacy on–and benefit from–sitting still, slowing down, and paying attention. Both place a value in sitting with what is, and using that as the fountain for our deepest intentions and values. Both benefit from the importance of a beautiful space–our physical surroundings–for making art and feeling cared for (The carpenter’s daughter in me is a sucker for natural wood, and the gardener’s daughter in me loves a beautiful flower arrangement like nobody’s business).

And, for me, they are best married in the moments here when the sun rises over the mountain and filters into the Zendo, when the mist curls over the hot springs that lie behind the ‘longhouse,’ in drinking from the beautifully gracefull red pottery mug that was gifted to me to bring home, or in a deeply satisfying meal shared with likeminded seekers, travelers and humans invested in this place (yesterday for lunch we had a shitake miso soup to die for, roasted butternut squash with a maple-ginger glaze, and milky Earl gray tea-my day was already complete and it was only noon!). You finish a meal like that with rosy cheeks, a warm belly, and a sense of satisfaction that isn’t just about the nutriments from the food; it’s also about the nutriments from the humans you eat it with.

Compared to other faith traditions, Buddhism is also remarkably ecumenical. Although my ‘home’ sangha is in the Plum Village tradition, inspired and informed by the engaged Buddhism of Thich Nhat Hanh, the wonderful Abbess, Hosen, welcomes folks from not only all Buddhist traditions, but as I understand it also all faith traditions, with the belief–something I hold near and dear to my heart–that Buddhism provides a set of tools with which one can deepen any spiritual practice, whatever name that has, and whether this is an organized religion or not. Indeed, this is exactly what mindfulness is for me: a set of tools I use to inform my artmaking, my teaching, my retreat leading, and my relationships. 

Wooden clapper (not the official term) outside the Zendo

I’ve also been writing songs about this, trying to feel my way through these questions of songwriting and Zen and connections between mindfulness and creative process in my own artmaking. 

my guitar, that just returned from Spain and South Africa, sitting by my window facing the creek

Because I’m a big believer in sharing unfinished work and works-in-progress, here’s a song I started on Tuesday of this week; I am still working on a chorus that feels right for this song, and would love your thoughts on the kind of chorus you’d like to hear!

Lyric to a Song in Progress (title TBD):

I am hugged by mountains

A narrow valley and red cliffs

There’s a hot springs and a Zendo

A blue cushion where I can sit

The light comes through the casements 

It filters early dawn

And a Bodhisattva on the altar

smiling and looking on

There’s hippies and there’s rednecks

And somehow in this town

The Buddha is the broker

Between these very different folks

And so, with this, I’ll sign off for this morning, so I can pack up, eat a meal, and drive back down to Albuquerque before the snow gets too thick.

May you be happy, may you each be well, and may you each feel in touch with some creative part of yourself today, whatever that looks like.


Many thanks to Bodhi Manda Zen Center for hosting me on this visit. You can learn more about the Bodhi, and also how to visit them for their amazing retreats and support them, here.

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