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A Buddhist perspective on Art and Creativity

Amaranatho's picture

An unexpected insight
In December 2009, on a very cold day, I had been speaking at Jewish conference on Buddhism at the University of Warwick. At around half past eight in the evening I was given a lift to the local train station to travel back to the monastery. Arriving at the station I looked at the electronic timetable only to find my train was delayed by an hour. I went to the waiting room and sat quietly waiting for the train. About 9.15pm two drunken men burst in. It was close to Xmas and so, not surprisingly, they had been out celebrating. “Oi mate,” one said to me. “Are you a monk? A Buddhist monk? Are you always dressed up like that?” So I replied “ Yes this is the way I dress, all the time.”

One of the drunks came up and sat down next me. My mind wanted to try and escape, yet I decided to stay open and sensitive to what was going on. He mentioned he had been to Thailand and visited some of the temples. He liked the Buddha images he had seen and then went on to say how he had been brought up Catholic because his mum was Catholic. He told me how he found peace looking at the Buddha image and had decided to buy a Buddha image for his mum. When I heard what the drunk man had said, I was overcome with happiness and wonder. A simple image can bring joy and calm.

The use of images
In the time of the historical Buddha, over two and a half thousand years ago, he did not want imagery, statues, or representation of himself. As with all institutions, groups form. Devotees tried to express their love for the organization in a physical form. In the beginning it was with an empty throne 1, then with foot prints of the Buddha2 and finally Buddha images.

This is in sharp contrast to many of the images we see in British cities of men with guns in their hands. It’s not that I’m ungrateful for what these people have offered, it’s the message this image gives. The same happens with advertising signs. They are used to manipulate us; this type of imagery usually goes directly into our minds without being filtered.

Over the centuries we have lost our connection to symbology, what it means and how to use it. In a way it was the spiritual technology of its day and can still be used that way when we approach it with a reflective attitude. By this I mean learning to understand how the mind works and allowing our natural wisdom to inform us about it. Buddha images are not idols to be worshipped, or prayed to, they are there for reflection. The Buddha is sitting in meditation, sometimes on a lotus leaf; hands in a special formation called a Mudra 3; neck slightly swollen meaning he is doing breathing meditation; ears long, meaning the attitude of listening; eyes down cast meaning that you have to bow down in order to meet him and so on.

Being receptive
Most of the modern art world is about criticism and judgement not about just accepting it for what it is. Once when I was taken to Tate Modern and saw a Rothko image 4 , my mind moved into ‘I could do that’. It did not look that much, a huge canvas with graded blue colour. This is the nature of the thinking mind, to be judgmental and categorize things. For me though, where art comes from and the way it gets expressed, is a mystery.

To me, art is a sort of cosmic download. It is when we open up to our unlimited capacities, and our ego is not involved in judging or making something; then art manifests itself in a very natural way. Many of the great composers and artists did not do anything; they listened in a receptive way and then just recorded what came into their minds. For some it takes hours to first learn a skill so they can express it, for others it is just a natural ability.

Being a mirror
Much of Buddhist art seems to have occurred in this way; the colours, shapes and styles are pointing to something which cannot be expressed in purely a physical form. Buddhism is about recognizing, not defining or attaining. In this way art becomes a mirror. I consider myself as walking piece of art when I’m going around outside of the monastery in my monastic robes. When people see me, I am a mirror to the way their minds are working. If they like what they see, fine. If they don’t like what they see, fine. I do not need to take this personally.

Opening up to art
Often when a person feels this sense of awe, amazement or love of what is, they need to do something with the energy that is created. That could lead to drawing, poetry, or constructing something. Many of us have not continued developing our artistic side beyond the age of twelve and so we think we can’t do it. Twenty years ago before I was a monk, I went to adult education classes to learn to draw, I followed the exercise in the book utilizing the right side of my brain 5 with surprising results.

Art for me is not about the best or the greatest artist, it’s about acknowledging our life force (in Buddhism this is sometimes called our Buddha nature). How we express this depends on our personality. To hide it, or suppress it, leads us into depression, anger and frustration. If we open up to that part of ourselves, it allows expression, courage, and beauty. What would you do to allow beauty into your life?