William Edelen: My Zen Priest Brother

The Contrary Minister

During this month of June… in preparation for my June 29th last Symposium of the season… I have been contemplating and meditating on the subject of the HUMAN SPIRIT… and THE SPIRIT WITHIN… particularly as it relates to the arts and artists. During my meditation… it came to me vividly… how one of my friends and former colleagues, who called me “brother”… created his art from HIS SPIRIT WITHIN.

His name was Richard Kirsten-Daiensai, an ordained Zen Buddhist priest as well as one of the most distinguished artists in America.  He and I became good friends and kindred spirits. We met when he lived in Seattle, and I was in Tacoma teaching at the University of Puget Sound. The Kirsten Gallery opened in Seattle in 1972. My essays were being published in the Seattle and Tacoma newspapers and Kirsten was reading them. He loved them due to the fact that my essays on Zen and Taoism were radically different from the rigid and dogmatic doctrines and creeds of Christianity. My essays were factual, scholarly, informative and educational. Readers got an accurate and articulate picture of the beauty of Zen. Kirsten loved my work as I loved his. Thus began a beautiful friendship.

I limited my University classes to 50 students. Kirsten and I worked out a plan whereby I could bring my entire class to his gallery in Seattle for education. It turned out to be an awesome and fantastic experience for the students. Every semester I introduced my new students to Kirsten, and they could not wait to go to the gallery. Previous students had passed the “word” on what an experience it was.

We would all go into this large room and sit on the floor surrounded by the beauty of the gallery. Kirsten, in his long, flowing, beautiful Buddhist robes, would come out and walk into the middle of the students gathered.  The students would already be mesmerized even before he started lecturing. He would tell them how he went into deep meditation and painted while in a meditative state.

Upon coming out of that mental state he would be surprised and pleased at what he had painted. It was like a “muse” or a “spirit” had been using him and working through him. It was a brilliant vision into that “spirit” within us all, that often just cries to get out and to be released. It always was a profound and beautiful lesson for the students, as well as me and others listening.

Kirsten and I communicated often by mail. His envelopes sent to me became real “collector’s items”. The address was always: “BILL EDELEN SENSEI”. I cherished those envelopes with that address to me. “SENSEI” is the title for an honored teacher and Zen Master.

One of his first letters included the following to me, “In my many meditations in the temple I had thoughts of you and your well being”…. “I feel very much that we are brothers, from past lives, as well as this life.”  “All is in a grand flow… and I will send you a new picture in October. Take care Bill… with love,” Richard Kirsten-Daiensai.

That letter written, “Monday morning… UCHUJI… Zen Temple, Aug 17, 1992, Japan”.

Kirsten’s stature as an artist brought him international praise. His work is in the permanent collection of the Seattle Art Museum, as well as the Library of Congress, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the DeYoung Memorial Museum in San Francisco, and many others in the United States and Japan. He was head of the Editorial Art Department of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer for 30 years. And, of course, his art is in thousands of private homes.

Artists from Michelangelo on have recognized the presence of an inner spirit that cannot be defined… and yet is the source of their creativity. One of his sonnets says it well:

“The best of artists has that thought alone……

which is contained within the marble shell…

The sculptor’s hand can only break the spell….

To FREE the figures slumbering in the stone…..”

Students of Eskimo culture have found that these people recognize the SPIRIT they assume to be present in natural objects.  Technical skills are only to allow the spirit to emerge into the open.

The SPIRIT WITHIN… only waiting to be released and set FREE… as Kirsten knew, and all humans who are awake. That will also be my subject for my final Symposium this season on JUNE 29th.

Kirsten, my ZEN PRIEST BROTHER, passed over in February last year. He will long be remembered with love by this brother who found him such a wonderful inspiration.