Increasing My Practice of Generosity
By Bev Brecht
I wasn’t even really aware of when my practice of generosity began. I think I had always had a sort of generalized, half-baked practice of giving even before I became a student of Buddhism. If I could help someone I would. If I had something someone else admired I might give it to them…even a stranger I did not know. I always felt good when I did this.
But I do know when the practice I have now started. It was in 2008 at Lehigh University. I was attending a teaching by His Holiness on the Great Treatise of the Stages of the Path. One day during lunch break I was sitting outside with a group of lay people and monastics from Sravasti Abbey in Washington state. I didn’t know anyone in this group except for my Dharma buddy Tanya, who knew all of these people. The Abbess, Venerable Thubten Chodron, was talking about a construction project underway at the Abbey—a dormitory for the nuns. She casually mentioned that she would like to have a stained glass window in the building. My friend Tanya just turned to me and smiled. She has known me for a long time and knew that as a professional stained glass artist I had the skill to create this window. So I spoke up and said, “I can make you a window”. I don’t exactly remember what anyone said just then but eventually I submitted a portfolio of images of my glass work to Venerable Thubten Tarpa at the Abbey. I got the job.
This window was to depict the first Buddhist nun, Mahaprajapati. The problem was that there were few images of this woman that we knew about. Venerable Chodron found a Tibetan artist/thangka painter who agreed to create a painting I could use as a model. This was immensely helpful as I am not a trained Tibetan artist who would be familiar with the Tibetan grid system used for creating correct proportion. He produced the painting and I created the window. It was installed in Gotami House in 2009. I felt good giving this window to the Abbey. It was a generous gift given freely from my heart. By this time I knew the monastics who lived there and would be living with the window.
I had been creating stained glass windows for more than thirty years and always felt that these works of art were “my windows.” I always signed my name. This one was different. I felt that this was “their window.” The usual sense of ego gratification wasn’t there….well, OK…maybe just a little bit it was there, but I did not sign my name on the window. Well and good. Job done.
Not quite. In 2012 construction began on another building, Chenrezig Hall. I received an email from Venerable Tarpa inquiring if I would be willing to create another window for the Abbey. Sure. This one was to be of the Buddha of Compassion, Chenrezig. Wow. This was an entirely different ask, and not just because the window would be extraordinarily complicated. This Buddha has one thousand eyes in the palms of one thousand hands attached to one thousand arms. People consider His Holiness, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama of Tibet to be a manifestation of this Buddha. I would be charged with creating a “portrait” of His Holiness. I am a huge fan of his! I have been blessed with the great, good karma to have attended many of his teachings and even received a one-on-one blessing from him; the living, breathing incarnation of the Buddha of Compassion. Three years later the window was installed. I didn’t sign this one either.
During the construction of this window I realized that I was not simply giving a gift to the Abbey. I was giving a gift to countless people who would see this window at the Abbey for years to come….people I would never know and who would never know me. I realized that this window might inspire them in their practice, might help them to actually visualize Chenrezig in their practice. I know this is an effect this window has because the Abbey monastics who live with this window every day told me this was their experience.
So now I am about to begin construction on window number three. The four-armed version of Chenrezig, the Buddha of Compassion. This window will also be installed in Chenrezig Hall, in the Kuan Yin room…a small room adjacent to the main hall where the thousand-armed window is. At this point I fully realize my practice of generosity. I am giving a gift to thousands of people I will never know. Maybe even more than that. When I think about these people, my heart is filled with love and compassion. I hope these windows help them find peace in their hearts, just as my knowledge of them has helped me find peace in mine.
I am grateful to the monastics of Sravasti Abbey for giving me this unbelievable, once-in-many-lifetimes practice of generosity. Thank you.
Below is an interview with Bev on her creative process conducted by Venerables Chodron and Pema during her recent visit to the Abbey.
1. What inspires you to start the creative process? What sustains you thru the process?
The first window, the Gotami window, each day, before I would start working, I would meditate on the White Tara. Then I would listen to Dharma talks from the Abbey and His Holiness, or I would play Tibetan music while I worked. When I get inspired, it doesn’t seem to matter how long it takes, whether its nine months or three years, it doesn’t matter really, the process just takes as long as it takes.
2. What does this current Four Chenrezig window represent to you? How is it different from the other two windows? How is it different from how you normally create your other pieces of art?
It isn’t different from the 1,000 armed Chenrezig window because it’s still His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. However these two windows for Chenrezig Hall, they’re different from the Gotami window because I identify more with His Holiness then I did with just the abstract concept of the first Buddhist nun.
I got the book on Becoming the Compassion Buddha, it’s seriously wonderful and it really is a lot different in that way then the first window because with the Chenrezig windows, I knew, its like in the piece that I wrote (Increasing My Practice of Generosity), I knew that it was a portriat of His Holiness, so that makes it a lot different because I really believed that. Putting that energy into that window made it a lot different than the Gotami window.
(The creation process) is like meditation for me. It’s even better than meditation. It’s almost like an out of body experience. It’s kind of hard to explain. I get into a state of mind where I don’t really know what time it is or I’m not that aware of my body. I’m just working and I’m so focused on everything that I’m doing, cutting a piece of glass or figuring out how the work is going. It’s hard to explain. It’s like the very best meditation that I ever have.
The other stained glass projects that I have done and still do, they’re enjoyable but its work. Compared to the Abbey windows, its like the difference between washing dishes and sitting and having a great meditation. One is just work and the other is almost like bliss, really.
Also, I don’t just think about His Holiness when I do these windows. I think about everyone at the Abbey. I think about all the people who would see these windows and be inspired by them. I think about that a lot. It’s never about me. I just feel like the pencil. I don’t feel like the mind or the brain, I’m just the pencil. There’s all these great energy focusing on and through me it translates into this window.
When I’m working on these windows, an inspired state of mind is really important because that’s what gives that window its spiritual power. I believe if I’m not focused, if I don’t have the right mental attitude, then the window won’t be as powerful. Someone will know.
If I can’t get in that state of mind, then I don’t work that day, I just go do something else. If it doesn’t feel right I don’t do it because its so important to me to be in the right state of mind.
3. Can you give an idea of the time and effort that goes into it, how many hours, how hard is it to get it right, how careful or detailed you need to be?
I don’t know. I don’t know because right now for the third window, for the Four-armed Chenrezig, I think about it on and off when I’m doing other things. I think about what I might do or what I could do when I get to my studio to work on it. It’s not possible for me to calculate how much time I spend because its in my mind all the time. The most difficult part is getting the design right in the first place. Once I start cutting glass, that’s the easy part.
(Getting it right) I think its either right or its not. There’s no middle option. Either a line is perfect and a piece of glass is cut perfectly or its not. If its not perfect then I don’t use it. If I were to use a piece of glass that wasn’t perfect and I said, “Well, it will be ok. It’s ok, it’s just ok, good enough,” then maybe the next piece of glass won’t fit right either. So the mistake will just keep getting bigger. That’s why each piece has to be perfect to begin with because the mistake will just grow and get bigger.
That’s on any window, any project that I work on. I learned many years ago, every piece has to be right. With stained glass especially, you just can’t have any piece that isn’t going to fit right because the window just won’t be the right size. But with these windows for the Abbey, you can’t make any mistake because then the window won’t fit into the space where its suppose to go.
Also, it has to be perfect because its a portrait of His Holiness. So I won’t have anything in that window that wasn’t my very best effort, that wasn’t as perfect as I could possibly do. It’s like a offering. You won’t make an offering to His Holiness of anything less than your very best.
4. What’s the biggest challenge of doing something like this?
The biggest challenge was getting the drawing right in the first place. When I was at the Abbey with my patterns, with my drawings, I wanted everyone to help me get this correct because that’s the hard part. I’m not a trained Tibetan artist. A thangka painter would know exactly the right proportion and how everything should be in a thangka painting, but I’ve not had that training so that’s where I needed everyone’s help, just getting the drawing right. That’s the hard part for me.