© MICHAEL SAWYER
© MICHAEL SAWYER

HIDDEN LIKE A Chinese hermit or a coyote in his den, Michael Sawyer lives at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center, in a narrow valley north of San Francisco. To visit him you must walk past the formal zendo and Japanese teahouse, up to a converted trailer at the very edge of the open hills.

There you are likely to find him sitting in a motorized chair, just inside a door that looks out to the hills and sky. Some days he’s slumped over so far that it seems he is about to slip to the floor; often he can’t speak, or can speak only in an indecipherable, whispering mumble. Despite this, he will almost certainly greet you with a smile that reaches all the way to his deep brown eyes, full of subtle humor and intelligence.

Next, you may notice that you are surrounded by visions: on the walls all around you are images of Buddhas, flying birds, naked women, skulls, monks, trees, waterfalls, a chimpanzee playing the clarinet, an ocelot, a hummingbird. You have entered another, secret world—phantasmagoric, surreal, and luminous.

Michael is a painter, a carpenter, a Zen priest, and a person with Parkinson’s disease. He noticed the first signs of the disease in 1985, when his hand began losing its steadiness with a brush. Now he is in a state of near bondage to its demands. But as the disease has progressed—to the point where putting on a sock or eating a meal is a slow and monumental effort—his commitment to painting has only intensified. When I stand in Michael’s room, I feel that I’m standing in the middle of one of the deepest expressions of freedom I’ve ever known. To look carefully at his paintings is to be reminded that the unfolding of inner freedom is not ultimately constrained by physical limitations.

When a man like Michael tells you that the last five years have been the happiest in his life, you know you are no longer in the territory of conventional understanding. So what is the territory that Michael is painting and living within? What is its geography? What are its deep roots?

Michael was born in 1942 and grew up in the ranching and mining town of Kamloops, British Columbia. He began painting watercolors when he was in his twenties, after his first experiences with psychedelics. Largely self-taught, he was interested in fine detail, the meeting of the animal, human, and divine realms, and archetypal imagery. He received a prestigious grant from the Canada Council for the Arts, then worked as a landscaper and carpenter before moving to San Francisco in 1975, where he became a resident of the San Francisco Zen Center and met his wife, Emila Heller. Green Gulch Farm is one of the San Francisco Zen Center’s places of practice, and Michael and Emila have given many years to its community.

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Sky Wheel, 1972, diameter 17.5 inches

As Michael’s condition worsened, he was less able to work for the community and had more time to paint. While it once took him a year or more to finish one exquisitely detailed painting, now he paints “like a madman.” And his painting has changed. He says, “The paintings are less formal—there’s no perfect Buddha up there in the sky, but someone down here mucking around with someone else. The illness had something to do with it—I got looser.” When asked if his paintings are a form of teaching, Michael replies that he doesn’t see them as teachings, but rather as the dance of life and death. “That’s the holy truth: Death exists. Don’t forget it.”

I ask Michael how his last five years have been his happiest. “Early on when I was painting,” he responds, “there were lots of blocks. Now there’s not anything blocking at all. No more hesitating, not knowing what to put somewhere. So the feeling of not being interfered with means that whatever I’m doing, it’s not me. Everything flows. I can sit for hours and paint and never even stop. My body feels good. I could say that the joy is occurring in the painting, but actually the joy is in the body. People talk about writer’s block—that’s interference. But for me, for the last five or ten years, I just go from one painting to another. When I get close to the end of a painting, the next painting appears. This is pure magic, pure oneness. It delivers itself.” That, he says, is happiness.

Lou Hartman is a Zen priest in his nineties who owns a print of Ocean Samadhi [see top of page], one of Michael’s paintings. In this painting, a Buddha sits in the sunlight above an ocean beach as a flock of birds rises up through his body. On one side of the beach is a pile of playing babies; on the other, a pile of skulls. Lou says, “We are taught in Buddha’s tradition that there’s something before there is good and bad, beautiful and ugly. Before there are the babies and the skulls, there is—what? Serenity? That’s what I see there.”

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Buddha Nature, 1999, 13.5 x 18 inches

Although Michael is hidden, and his art is mostly hidden, people have a way of finding him. Residents of Green Gulch bring him meals, sit with him, and end up turning to him as an elder and friend.

Yet Michael is not interested in being a teacher, at least not in the usual way. “Teaching is a set up for dualism,” he says, “and I don’t like it. If I do teach, it’s because I don’t know I’m teaching. I’m offering the painting, but not necessarily as teaching. When people appreciate my work, their comments often are about something I haven’t seen. In that way, they create the paintings, which then include their perceptions. Viewers help me to see new things about my work, things I didn’t expect.” Michael was ordained as a priest in 1998, when he was already far into Parkinson’s. Why did he choose to accept ordination when his teacher suggested it? “I was spending too much time thinking about myself,” Michael says. “I wanted to think about others. ”

Michael has his own story of inspiration: “Some people say that they admire you, but hey, chronic illness isn’t much fun. When I was nine and went into the hospital to have an operation, I met a man who was a logger. He’d just lost an eye in a driving accident. I’ve always admired him. He did his best to cheer me up. He said of his missing eye, ‘That’s all right, ’cause I still have one left.’”

Everyone knows that one day Michael will no longer be able to paint or speak or perhaps even smile (though I suspect that his smile will be the last to go, like the Cheshire Cat’s). What then? Michael answers without hesitation: “It’s like saying, ‘If you can’t sit in the zendo anymore, how can you practice?’” No matter what, he believes, we find a way to express our life.

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Cosmic Silence, 1974, 13.5 x 8 inches

One of Michael’s young friends says that visiting him can be hard—like seeing death. In the face of this death, though, Michael laughs as he struggles to get his foot onto the chair, roars like a tiger when he can’t speak, chants sutras as best he can, and continues to paint naked women and monks and Buddhas cavorting together, fearless in the face of the messy mystery. His life is a reminder that illness and disability can be a path to freedom, even joy. And when he’s gone, his paintings will still be here, delicate, absurd, and daring—without interference.

Temple
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