Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Zen & the Making of Art

Last month I read Stephen Batchelor’s Confession of a Buddhist Atheist. Somewhere in there (he’s a writer and photographer, his wife is a photographer) he makes the statement that Zen is the only religion (he doesn’t like that word, I don’t like that word, but we use what we got) that emphasizes art as a means of practice. It was such a simple statement, I was startled. He was correct (see postscript), but I was surprised that I hadn’t made such a statement, it’s so obvious. In fact, as I thought about it, it was art that brought me to Zen—in particular the peculiar little poems that go deeper and deeper the more you know them, and also the wonderful ink drawings and calligraphy pieces where negative space is such a constant.

If you hang out around me, you’ll hear me say that Zen is the only spiritual practice that teaches that those tiny moments of understanding—looking at a flower, a person, the ocean, when the self seems to drop away—is understood as a spiritual experience. The experience of oneness. Many of us first see this connection between our experience and a spiritual experience in haiku or other poems from Zen.  Take for instance, Basho’s famous haiku:
The old pond.
Frog jump in.
Back when I was growing up (teens, 20s, etc) I read a lot of poems by those American “Dharma Bums” Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen. They were both serious students of Zen. Gary studied in Japan at a monastery; Philip was a longtime student at the San Francisco Zen Center with Shunryu Suzuki and later Richard Baker. Here’s one of my favorites of Whalen’s poems, which I’m always finding a reason to quote. I was sitting on the floor of the University of Arizona library when I first read it, oh, something like 44 years ago:

Hymnus Ad Patrem Sinensis

I praise those ancient Chinamen
Who left me a few words,
Usually a pointless joke or a silly question
A line of poetry drunkenly scrawled on the margin of a quick
                         splashed picture—bug, leaf,
                         caricature of Teacher
    on paper held together now by little more than ink
    & their own strength brushed momentarily over it
Their world & several others since
Gone to hell in a handbasket, they knew it—
Cheered as it whizzed by—
& conked out among the busted spring rain cherryblossom winejars
Happy to have saved us all.

But I don’t want to talk about being a witness to art. I want to talk about making art as a way to practice Zen.
To study the Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things of the universe.
This is what Dogen said, and this is what we do when we sit zazen. And this is what the Zen practice of art is all about.

One of my favorite all-time books is Betty EdwardsDrawing on the Right Side of the Brain. It’s a remarkable book. I used it a long time ago. I was interested in trying to figure out if the experience of being a visual artist is like the experience of being a poet. Besides, I was envious of visual artists. I wanted to be one too. Edwards uses all sorts of exercises to teach hoof-handed folks like me how to draw. The two exercises I remember the most are drawing upside down and drawing a portrait.

Edwards said that forgers always turn a signature upside down to copy it. Why? Because they don’t want to be confused by what a letter “means,” they want to see its shape. They want to see the letters as they really are, not what the “think” they are. I did upside down signatures and I did a couple of upside down drawings. I was amazed at the results. Her point was that the rational mind (“the left side of the brain” in her terminology) got in the way of seeing. We have to figure out ways to let that go.

The same thing holds true for portraits. Most people (non-artists) when they try to draw somebody’s portrait it comes out totally out of proportion and warped. The face is usually magnified and takes up the whole head. The eyes are near the top of the head and the forehead is shriveled down. But really, she says, if you look at a head rightly, you’ll see that the eyes are in the middle of the skull so what we think of as the face is a much smaller element of the whole skull.

I was so happy. Especially when she described the experience of doing art as a place where time and place get lost. Minutes and even hours can go by and we’re not sure of what’s happened during that time except we were drawing. Also our sense of everything around us is dropped away. What’s essential is the act of drawing.

This is what happens when I write poems. Or “play with them,” editing them down to this and that. People ask me what some poem means or why did I choose that word, but really, I’m not making decisions like that. I’m listening to the poem, playing with it until “I feel it’s right.”

I think everybody has this experience in one way or another if they do something with conscious intention. What we could call love. Maybe they are doing martial arts or gardening or cooking or making love or other forms of creative activity. It’s our job, as Zen practitioners, to bring this experience to all parts of our lives—washing the dishes, resolving a conflict with a friend or spouse, engaging in our community or walking in the desert. By concentrating, by paying attention to what we are doing, by studying the self. Again, to repeat Dogen:
To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things of the universe.
 So, when people not used to drawing or writing poems, try to do so, they let their “self” get in the way. When I teach poetry writing, I’m always inventing exercises to try to get people to get out of the way of their self. And I tell them, by the way, not to worry. No matter what you do, your real self will be there. Your own unique experience and your perceptions will not be lost. To this end I want to remind you of Joko Beck’s adaptation of the Four Noble Truths, what she calls the Four Principles of Practice:
Caught in the self-centered dream, only dukkha (suffering).
Holding to self-centered thoughts, exactly the dream.
Life as it is, the only teacher.
Being just this moment, compassion’s way.
Now think of these not so much as principles for deeper spiritual understanding, but think of them as a way to make art. And enjoy your practice.

Thank you.
Bobby Kankin Byrd
POSTSCRIPT: This was originally a dharma talk that I wrote up in July. I read a part of it on a Tuesday night, but went riffing off somewhere else. Also, I don't like to get into the never-ending discussion about Zen as a "religion." At least not here. I should say that I believe that some people would argue "that Zen is the only religion that emphasizes art as a means of practice." He's speaking of recognized world religions like Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism and Muslim. He's not speaking, for instance, of all sorts of indigenous religions or practices that include the making of art as central to their spiritual practice. Although they wouldn't make these categories. I think too that every religion has a sect in some nook and cranny where art-making is at the core of what's happening. The mystic Sufi poet Rumi and his Dervish brethren come immediately to mind. But generally I think Batchelor's statement is true. The making of art is a vital facet of Zen practice, although all practitioners of Zen are not necessarily artists in the narrow sense.

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