Buddhism and Contemporary Art

These are provocative times, living amidst the raging materialistic and corporate influences of the 21st century. The domination of materialism has increasingly seeped into the culture and is smothering the genuine power of art. Western art, though, has assimilated a number of refreshing non-material influences, including the practice of Buddhism. Buddhist practice is essentially non-conceptual at its heart and in its intention. This powerful and profound view is found among many; including artists, musicians, writers, and scholars. Within this influence, one can see possibilities of an art arising beyond thought, beyond concept altogether. So it is inspiring to write a few words about this meeting of contemporary art and Buddhist practice as well as my own personal experience with that mix.

The perception and understanding of Buddhist thought and practice by the larger general populace is still in its early stages. There remain many misperceptions and erroneous clichés of Buddhism, specifically about Zen and Tibetan Tantric Buddhism. The Western fascination with the exoticism of the East and its cultural baggage can easily devolve into spiritual materialism, even with well intentioned people. But many actually do practice Buddhism beyond theory and academic study, and speak and act from experience, rather than from an ungrounded conceptual framework. With direct experience, the proverbial rock meets bone, silence becomes wisdom–that is the ground that greatly interests me.

To see the first true glimmers of Buddhism in the United States is to go back to the Transcendentalist writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau in the mid-nineteenth century, who connected to various aspects of Buddhism, especially the cultivation of deep questioning and the emphasis on intuition, and the comprehensive view of the interdependency of humankind and nature. Their writings inspired William James, Walt Whitman, and the Theosophists, among others. In 1879 English Poet Sir Edwin Arnold published the “Light of Asia”, a well received monumental poem about the life and teachings of Guatama Buddha.

Theosophy, founded by Helena Blavatsky and a few others, had an emphasis on individual intuition. Her teachings took inspiration from Buddhism, especially late in her tenure leading the Theosophy movement. Her successor, Anne Besant, steered the Theosophists towards Hinduism and away from Buddhist sources. The Theosophists, with this tangled view of Buddhism, influenced many Western artists, including Kandinsky, Klee, Mondrian, Gauguin, Marc, Malevich and Frantisek Kupka.

The great Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi added specifically to the Buddhist infusion in art with his connection to Milarepa, the 11th century Tibetan master. Brancusi, especially later in his life, lived an almost ascetic life and was greatly inspired by the life of Milarepa, the quintessential wandering yogi. As Brancusi humorously said, “I make pee-pee on intelligence,” something one might image Milarepa saying, making a distinction between intelligence and wisdom. Brancusi spent his last decade living with his work, not producing it but communing with it.

The influence on contemporary art of Marcel Duchamp, conceptualism’s patriarch, cannot be overstated. Duchamp was exposed to various Buddhist ideas, some apparently through Frantisca Kupka, who was his neighbor and perhaps mentor when they both lived in Paris. Duchamp’s emphasis was on the mind of the viewer, specifically on the mental space between the art object and observer. He emphasized that space as essential and pointed to it as art itself. Duchamp explained it as the “aesthetic echo” in 1949, and Duchamp’s own echo resonates strongly today in the art world, although it can be argued that he spawned many confused fish.

The masterful Japanese scholar D.T. Suzuki opened many hearts and minds in the western world with over 100 books on Zen, influencing many artists, including the much under appreciated John Cage in particular, who became a pioneering figure in embodying the Dharma in his art. Poet Gary Snyder stated that D.T. Suzuki is “probably the most culturally significant Japanese person in international terms, in all of history.” He influenced writer/scholar Alan Watts as well, who himself enthused many artists about Zen as he drew large audiences for his lectures in the 1950-60’s.

The appearance of Zen master Suzuki Roshi in San Francisco in the early 1960’s led to the introduction of the genuine practice of formal meditation. It seems that up until then, as a general rule, many artists used Buddhism as a rich source of ideas, rather than an actual experience. Suzuki went beyond concept through practice to get to the essence of Dharma. The subsequent wave of Tibetan Buddhist teachers in the 1970’s, such as the Dalai Lama and Chogyam Trungpa, further exploded concepts and emphasized the actual practice of meditation.

The Beat writers, centered in the West Coast, were famously influenced by Buddhist ideas and some became serious practitioners. Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Joanne Kyger, Diane di Prima, Philip Whalen, Michael McClure and Anne Waldman all figured prominently in the cultual mileau. Phillip Whalen later became a Zen monk & abbot of the Hartford Zen Center. Many artists and writers started their study with Suzuki Roshi and continued on with Chogyam Trungpa.

A seminal figure in planting Buddhism firmly into American soil was
Chogyam Trungpa, my principal teacher, who founded Naropa Institute in 1973, a Buddhist-inspired college in Colorado. His classic work, “Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism”, published in 1973, is among the many books he authored. In 1996, “Dharma Art”, a compilation of teachings that discuss the integration of Buddhist Dharma and art, was published. His uncanny skill in working with Western students along with his great mastery and humor was part of a Dharmic tidal wave that hit North America during that time.

“Spirituality without the cleric” has been a notable thread with artists throughout history. Eschewing formal institutions, artists have created, adopted, and cherry-picked their own versions of spirituality to act as foundations and references for their art. Sometimes it is a grab bag of varying deceptions, sometimes random acts of chance opportunity, and once in a while a genuine peeling away of ego’s delusion in developing a vision. Bringing one’s own experience to mingle with the unvarnished dharma can result in a deep understanding and compelling display of inventiveness.

The painters Ad Reinhardt, Mark Tobey, Sam Francis, Agnes Martin, Jasper Johns, Brice Marden, Richard Tuttle, Pat Steir, Veja Celmins and many others have found various inspirations in Buddhism’s approach. Tobey stated that “painting should come through the avenues of meditation rather than the canals of action.” Tuttle talks about striving for the “perfect balance of imminence and transcendence” in his work, bringing together these two dichotomies. Buddhist views made significant inroads into Western art during the last half of the 20th century.

On the Buddhist path of liberation, the essential tools for working with suffering are mindfulness and awareness, which leads to insight, both great and small. Artists throughout history have in their own way found a process of mindfulness that allowed them to remain focused enough to manifest their vision. Awareness, or insight, follows in the deepening and cultivation of that vision. It seems that artists, rather than blindly chasing their thoughts and impulses, require a way to discover the gap between the avalanche of thoughts in order to find a sense of being, of personal identity, and a fresh way to communicate. A discerning process of wading through the sensual waterfall of images to discover and cultivate a view is essential.

It is not a stretch to say that some contemporary artists and writers, curious enough about their minds and the world’s appearances, invest substantial time in the practice of mindfulness & awareness. These are precise practices that require an advanced commitment in time and intention, but which unfold with insightful rewards. Unraveling the tenacious, false narrative of a “self” that we’ve created is a laborious but ultimately transformative endeavor. Artists, like all of us, are not static, but in a continuous state of becoming. From a Buddhist point of view, our mind is fundamentally stable, clear and powerful, but with the various distractions and obstacles that we face, we don’t often experience these attributes.

The process of transplanting the Buddha’s teachings into the world of Western theism is a challenging and continuing story. The increasing tide of materialism and aggression, and the ubiquitous military viewpoint of the West, raise some obvious friction. Buddhism does not have the quality of self existing confirmation that theism offers. This lack of confirmation is threatening, though ultimately liberating. This quality is subtle in its relationship to the artistic process, and simultaneously beneficial.

Further, the ideas of original purity vs. original sin looms large over this discussion. The notion that we are somehow fundamentally flawed and arising from original sin is pervasive in Western culture. But the Buddhist tradition, (which begins around 500 BC), arises from the notion that we possess an original purity, without stain or blemish. Our birthright, this primordial purity, which lies unconditionally beneath our temporary neurosis, confusion, and messiness, can be rediscovered. This view changes the entire playing field, and thus the view of art and culture.

In my own practice of art and specifically painting, the process is one of active reflection, reciprocity and, as a consequence, painting becomes a contemplative process. A painting is an object of contemplation, one that can stop or give pause to the mind, a powerful portal, a living force that invites the viewer to complete the picture. Concepts bring us to the table, but once abandoned, can open into a more direct and refreshingly wakeful experience.

There are many teachings of Buddhism that can be brought into the artist’s studio. Synchronizing mind & body through meditation practice creates more opportunity for insight, providing a ground of fearlessness and openness, which unleashes creativity. The ideas of impermanence, egolessness, and our innate human goodness are essential qualities of the Buddhist path that can be incorporated into the ritual process of art.

Cultivating this presence and nowness, and the ability to let go of thoughts instead of grasping onto them as if they were life itself, are part of an ancient wisdom. It can be part of modern wisdom too, and it is well for it to be taught, discussed, and practiced in our creative communities.

Buddhism is not exotic, but rather earthy, practical, and natural. It is essentially a science of the mind rather than a religion, and adapts to different cultures in surprising ways. I hope in the ensuing decades and centuries that we’ll continue to see a deepening and increasingly beneficial meeting of contemporary art and Buddhadharma. A living, wakeful, generous art can arise– timeless in duration and inspiring in its diversity.

All content © 2014 by Daniel Berlin