Time is Memory, an Interview with Allan Graham

September 24, 2009

The following is an interview I did with Allan Graham, also known as Toadhouse, in 2003, for a Canadian magazine called Espace:

Allan Graham was born in 1943 in San Francisco, California and later moved to New Mexico, where he has lived for most of his adult life, exhibiting continuously at both galleries and museums, from Santa Fe, to New York, to Switzerland and Italy. His works are in several major collections, both private and public, noteworthy among them being that of the Villa Menafoglio Litta Panza, a public space created by the collector Panza de Biumo in Verese, Italy with the organisation FAI.

‘Non-conceptual.’ This is the first word that comes to my mind when confronted with the work of Graham. His art is not so much the art of the idea, as the art of what the idea indicates and what it cannot possibly say – visually or verbally. Whether it be the two bronze coffee mugs sitting alone in an empty room (TIDE: two ideas defining emptiness), the word-groups pasted as bumper stickers on vintage automobile bumpers (Toadhouse), or the wooden doors painted with a palette knife (Pre-hung: for those who suffer form), Graham consistently points to what is on the other side of thoughts and concepts.

‘Time is Memory’, last exhibited at SITE Santa Fe, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, is one of his most interesting pieces and consists of, in Graham’s own words, “16 death poems by 16 Zen Buddhist masters, 16 zafus (meditation cushions) and 16 reading lights connected to a central hub which is then connected to a solar electric computerised tracker. The poems, zafus and lights form an oval or circle on the floor with the solar electric tracker on the roof of the building. Weather, light shifts and human consciousness create a sensitive flux to the room’s events. Rising with the sun, flowing with the weather and then setting into darkness. The zafus are to be sat on, the poems are to be read and change to be experienced.”

The death poems used in the piece were composed by the various Zen masters just before they died, and are Graham’s renderings from various translations that he has read.

The following interview took place toward the end of January, 2003.

Brendan Connell. A lot of your work, and obviously ‘Time is Memory’ in particular, has what I view as a Zen Buddhist theme. Many contemporary artists use the same type of ‘minimalist’ aesthetics found in traditional Zen Buddhist art. But do you think, visually, a piece of artwork can have the same sort of affect as say, a Zen Koan, – an enlightenment effect?

Allan Graham. From a Zen standpoint art is only the pointing finger. Multiplicity, simultaneity and connections that become too vast for our logic or reason to hold onto have been my ‘focus’ for many years. That is my connection with Zen. But it also occurs in say, Sufi (Rumi), even in the most resent science – a beyond-self related comprehension. Physical details in art are just the language. I have no loyalty to a style or subject but there are reoccurring loops that feel like a part of me, whatever I do. Read the rest of this entry »

Diamond Sutra Rough Draft / Unfinished

June 8, 2008

This is a translation of The Diamond Sutra that I starter a long time ago but never finished. I was translating it from the Tibetan, using some translations from the Chinese and Sanskrit as reference points. This is a totally rough draft of the first part of the text, with notes to myself (?) left in:

Homage to the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas!

 Thus have I heard:

     At one time the Buddha was staying by Sravasti, in Prince Jeta’s grove, the garden of Anathapindika, together with a large company of monks, even 1,250, and numerous great Bodhisattvas. Then, in the morning, Buddha put on his robe and undergarments, took up his begging bowl, and entered the great city of Sravasti in order to beg for alms. Having begged for his food, Buddha returned and, with renunciation, ate. He then put away his begging bowl and robe and sat down on the seat arranged for him, crossing his legs and straightening his body with evident mindfulness.

     Many monks then proceeded to approach where the Buddha was, bowing their heads towards his feet, circumambulating him three times, and sitting off to one side.

     At that time the venerable Subhuti once more appeared at the assembly and sat down. He then got up from his seat, arranged his robe over one shoulder, kneeled, his right knee to the ground, and with hands respectfully folded said to the Buddha, “Bhagavan, Sugata, it is really quite wonderful how much the Tathagata, the Arhat, the fully enlightened Buddha has helped the great Bodhisattvas by providing them with the greatest help and favored the great Bodhisattvas by favoring them with the highest favor! Bhagavan, how should the Bodhisattva vehicle be entered? How should one dwell in it? How should one progress in it? What is the best way to take hold of the mind?” Read the rest of this entry »

The Sutra of Immeasurable Life and Wisdom

September 17, 2007

The following is a text that I translated from Tibetan with a friend of mine, Roy Lee. As far as I know this text has never appeared anywhere in English before . . . but I could be wrong: 



Homage to the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas!

Thus have I heard:

     At one time the Buddha was staying by Sravasti, in Prince Jeta’s Grove, the garden of Anathapindika, together with a large company of monks, even one thousand two hundred and fifty, and numerous great Bodhisattvas.

     Then Buddha said to the youthful Manjusri, “Manjusri, in the heavens there is a world called Immeasurable Excellence, wherein abides a Tathagata, an Arhat, a fully enlightened Buddha called Exceedingly Definite Immeasurable Life and Wisdom, King of Brilliance. He engages in sustaining life, extending it to its limit, as well as in demonstrating Dharma to sentient beings.

     “Listen youthful Manjusri! The people of Jambuling have a short life span, merely one hundred years, and in general they die prematurely.

     “Whatever sentient being, Manjusri, proclaims the good qualities of, and praises the Tathagata Exceedingly Definite Immeasurable Life and Wisdom, or copies down the words of this discourse on Dharma, has others copy them, or just hears the name of it, or reads it and copies it into a book, memorizes it at home etc., or offers it flowers, incense, garlands, ointments and aromatic powders, they will Manjusri, instead of having their life exhausted, live for one hundred years. Whatever sentient being, Manjusri, hears, one-hundred and eight times, the name Exceedingly Definite Immeasurable Life and Wisdom, King of Brilliance, will also have their life extended. Whatever sentient being, when their life is almost exhausted, recites this name will also have their life extended. Therefore Manjusri, a son of a good family, or daughter of a good family, who, wishing to have a long life, hears the name of the Tathagata Immeasurable Life and Wisdom one hundred and eight times, or writes it down, asks another to write it down, or reads it, their excellence and well being will also be so. 

     Om Namo Bhagavate, Aparimita Ayurjnana Subinishchitate Jorajaya, Tathagataya. Om Punye Punye Mahapunye, Aparimita Punye Aparimita Punye Jnana Sambharopachite. Om Sarva Samskara Parishuddha Dharmate Gaganasa Mudgate Sabhava Bishudbhe Mahanaya Parivare Svaha.

     “Manjusri, whoever copies down the name of this Tathagata one-hundred and eight times, or has others copy it, or, memorizing it, copies it into a book, or reads it-whoever does this will, instead of having their life exhausted, live for one hundred years. And, at the time of their death, they will transmigrate to places such as the pureland of the Tathagata Immeasurable Life, The World of Immeasurable excellence. Read the rest of this entry »

One Finger Ch’an

September 2, 2007

Whenever anything was asked, Master Chu Ti would just raise one finger.

Commentary on the Tibetan Book of the Dead

August 6, 2007

This is an article I wrote for a Canadian magazine called Ascent:

Commentary on the Tibetan Book of the Dead

The third century Indian philosopher Nagarjuna said that if a person were to heap together the bones from the bodies of all their previous rebirths, the pile would be higher than Mt. Everest-and that, in the future, if one does not exert oneself on the path, they will have to discard even more skeletons than that!

This fixation on death is not something unique to Buddhism. Indeed, all cultures probe the subject, whether it be through folklore or literature. Plato has his Phaedo, Dante his Inferno. Homer and Virgil both describe trips to the netherworld. The Hindu Katha Upanishad describes a boy’s encounter with Yama, the god of death, and what he learned from him.


In Buddhism, the most famous piece of death literature is certainly The Tibetan Book of the Dead or Bardo Thödröl. Most people with any interest in Eastern mysticism have heard of it, but not all have read it. Few of us, involved as we are in the rush of life, care to look to such a morbid source for reading material. Generally it is a book that one reads upon experiencing the loss of a loved one, or during a period of fear about ones own mortality. At that time we pick the book up with grave curiosity. We want to know what exactly does happen when we die. Read the rest of this entry »

The Heart Sutra

July 18, 2007

This is something I translated some time ago from the Tibetan:


The Heart of The Buddha’s Perfection of Wisdom

Homage to the Buddha’s Perfection of Wisdom

     Thus have I heard: At one time the Buddha was staying at Vulture Peak, by Rajagriha, with a great congregation of monks and Bodhisattvas.

     At that time the Buddha entered into a profound and vivid meditation, a samadhi, called Recognizing the True Nature of Things. Meanwhile Arya Avalokitesvara, the great Bodhisattva, was practicing the perfection of wisdom and having his own profound insight, that is, seeing that the five skandhas are empty of inherent existence.

     Then, through the Buddha’s magical power, the venerable Sariputra asked Arya Avalokitesvara, “Concerning this profound perfection of wisdom, if a son of a good family, or daughter of a good family happened to want to study it, what would they be taught?”

     At these words Arya Avalokitesvara replied to the venerable Sariputra, “Sariputra, if a son of a good family, or daughter of a good family happened to want to study this profound perfection of wisdom, he must look at things like this: There are five skandhas and these, when really seen, are seen to be empty of inherent existence. Form is emptiness. Emptiness is form. Form is no different from emptiness; emptiness is no different from form. In the same way are feelings, discriminations, actions and consciousness also empty.

     “Therefore Sariputra, the true nature of things is empty, without attributes, without beginning or end, immaculate, not lost or disconnected, and neither complete nor incomplete. Therefore Sariputra, emptiness is formless, unknown, without eyes, ears, nose or tongue – devoid of a scent, a flavor, and intangible. Without a true nature. This follows through, from there being no ignorance, yet ignorance being inexhaustible, all the way to there being no old age and death, and yet old age and death being inexhaustible. Likewise there is no suffering, origin of suffering, cessation of suffering, and no path. Nor is there any wisdom, attainment, or anything to be attained. Therefore Sariputra, Bodhisattvas, on account of their being supported by this profound perfection of wisdom, abiding without any mental obstructions, and not being frightened by erroneous views, have nothing to attain – for they have gone beyond, as far as they can go, to nirvana.

     “That is why all the Buddhas of the past, present and future come to this profound perfection of wisdom and enter into it – enter into it recognizing complete and perfect enlightenment.

     “Therefore one should know the mantra of the perfection of wisdom, the great magic formula, the highest mantra, the unequaled mantra – one should know the mantra of the perfection of wisdom because it is the truth and not a lie. It goes: Tadyatha Om Gate Gate Paragate Parasamgate Bodhi Svaha.

     “In this way Sariputra do great Bodhisattvas train in the profound perfection of wisdom.”

     Then the Buddha emerged from his meditation and, turning to Arya Avalokitesvara, gave his approval, saying, “Well done son of a good family, very well done. It is just like that son of a good family, it is just like that. For, just as you describe the practice of this profound perfection of wisdom, so do all the Tathagatas rejoice in it.”

     After the Buddha pronounced these words, Sariputra, Arya Avalokitesvara, the great Bodhisattva, and the whole congregation and world with its gods, humans, asuras and ghandarvas all praised his speech.

So ends the Heart Sutra