Art and Mind

Arhat: Kanakabharadvaja  18th century    Tibet

In the next three posts, I will present the content of my talk at the
annual gathering of the
Northwest Dharma Association.
The evening of talks was entitled "The Arts as Buddhist Practice"

Only a teacup of the ocean of Buddhist art is here represented.

Liang kai  : Buddha descending the mountain

I am going to talk about the practice of contemporary painters making contemporary art 
as  a practice of spiritual insight.
While showing slides from the long history of such practices in Asia, 
and a few Modern paintings, I’ll introduce some principles of practice. (this post)

Then I’ll discuss a single work by a midcentury painter, (next post)
and close with some of my paintings  that 
demonstrate my basic approaches to painting. (3rd post)

 Hakuin : Mu

Traditional Buddhist art forms include contemplative practice.
Painting in the West has also included contemplations of the Mystery of Being,

but has more or less lost the quality of mystery
since the Renaissance with its preoccupation with surfaces and illusion.

It is sometimes hard these days to know what art is, 
and much of it can be confused with Popular Culture.

Art as a spiritual practice within the Western tradition is now riskier 
because the contemplative methods and the motivations are not clear.

They are not taught in art school. 

Mu Qi : swallow on a lotus pod

The Dharma is formless – like space. Without form it cannot be shown.  
"Form is the protagonist of space."   (quote from Eduardo Chillida)
The Dharma teaches that Formless Self is our very nature.
And yet, we spend our lives as a differentiated self,   full of form ;   full of space.
Fullness and emptiness.   
Without the cloud,   we cannot see the sky.

The moment you make a mark on a piece of paper, the universe is divided.
From No-thing to Some-thing. From that division, another follows and now a process of dynamic tension is in play between Form and Space ; cloud and sky ; tree and field ; mountain and valley ; song and thrush ; reason and intuition ; thought and mind-itself. 
When you make a shape or a line, do so with the space in mind. This is the key. 

Its natural and easy, as Shitou (the 8th century Chan master), explains in his Sandokai:

“Like the front foot and back foot in walking” 

Tosa Mitsuyoshi : moonlight

Art begins just like this, with the longing to make the ineffable visible.
The creative activity of making a painting is addressed to the moment of its being looked at.
The creative activity of Buddhist practice is addressed to the moment of awakening.
And making a painting can be addressed to awakening, for artist and viewer.

Yu Chien : Clear Morning

If we work our art  convinced of a concrete intrinsic reality  
in our subject,   our materials,    and in our self,
then we  get more of the   limited mind  with which we began.

Claude Monet : Nympheas  (Water lilies)

If we practice simple mind from the outset, at least quiet mind but even better a glimmer of insight  that nothing exists as an intrinsic reality.

If we  “look at the mind that cannot be looked at,”
then,  in our activity of making something is the possibility of Awakening.
The Heart Sutra manifests in our hands, our materials, forms, and mind.

Art is mind revealing Mind.

Paul Klee : Ancient Harmony

In this way, Art practice flows out of formal meditation practice.
For an art to serve as an authentic Dharma practice, it helps if it’s grounded in
meditation, with the guidance of a qualified teacher.

Without this spacious basis,   the artist is bound to be working instead   from more distraction.

Antoni Tàpies : Ochre and Grey on Brown

Keep your formal meditation practice separate from your art practice.
Use meditation methods in your studio work,  
but perform your art as art,   and your meditation as meditation.
This important lesson was given me by   Lama Michael Conklin   and it freed up both practices.

Mu Xin : Half Thousand Li of the Ruo River

Both meditation and art can make use of ritual.
The forms of ritual have the effect of pulling our self-centeredness out of the activity.
The focus is on the forms, the technique, and the motif or subject.

  As Gustave Flaubert said :  “Reveal art; conceal the artist.”

Allow yourself to come to Zero –

When a carpenter sets a piece of wood to plumb,  he looks at the bubble on the level  
and his body, mind and the wood, in that brief moment, adjust to plumb.  
Simple and silent.

There is only plumb   -  and out of plumb.

Every carpenter does this throughout the day without fanfare. 

Begin your studio session like this.

You can also :  Bring to mind all beings  and the aspiration that your studio activity will benefit all beings. You need not be rational about this. Just bearing it in mind helps establish an altruistic motivation.

Then, enter the absorption of creative play.

You can take a moment at the end your session to dedicate the goodness of your work to the benefit of all beings. This helps to cut off clinging to your work. Success? Let it go. Failure? Let it go.

Vija Celmins : graphite drawing

This is the first of three installments. 
Next post : A Midcentury Painter

Note : What I have expressed here has formed in my mind over 40 years of painting, sitting and study. Some of the ideas may be familiar to you. In the last post (March 2, 2014) I included a bibliography, which is made up from books on my shelves. It's not at all exhaustive. I did not want to complicate the post with footnotes. Feel free to contact me about any of my comments. In this particular post, some ideas are paraphrased from writings of Ananda Coomaraswamy, John Berger, Michael Conklin, Donald Kuspit, Shin'ichi Hisamatsu, and from the artists shown.