Letter Eight: Western artists influenced by Buddhism

Dear Reader,

I would like to share readings from Buddha’s Smile, a book written by Jacquelynn Baas that examines other Western artists who have been influenced by Buddhist philosophy and its precepts.

Wassily Kandinsky, In the Circle, 1911­13 watercolor, gouache and ink
Wassily Kandinsky, In the Circle, 1911-­13 watercolor, gouache and ink
Wassily Kandinsky, In the Circle, 1911-­13 watercolor, gouache and ink

In Buddha’s Smile, Baas refers to Kandinsky’s painting In the Circle, 1911-­13 as an example of the artist’s strong feelings for the inner force of the circle and as a source of living wonder. [8] The full moon comes to mind.

Baas considered other works of Wassily Kandinsky, who believed that art is the creation of reality and that a true work of art leads to a full inner life. He was interested in the Theosophical movement of the time, which was a religion based on the scientific knowledge of things spiritual; it offered solutions of how to reanimate the material world with spiritual qualities. [9]

Baas makes an interesting comparison between Kandinsky and Marcel Duchamp that helps me understand each artist: “For Kandinsky, art was form—a creation with life of its own that connects artist and viewer—for Duchamp art was emptiness, a space wherein the viewer ‘brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.’” [10]

Kandinsky believed that nature and art are a non­dualism:

Everything showed me its face, its innermost being, its secret soul, inclined more often to silence than speech—not only the stars, moon, woods, flowers of which poets sing, but even a cigar butt lying in the ashtray, a patient white trouser­button looking up at you from a puddle in the street, a submissive piece of bark carried through the long grass in the ant’s strong jaws to some uncertain and vital end…. Likewise, every still and moving point became for me just as alive and revealed to me its soul. [11]

Baas wrote of Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel (1964):

In Buddha’s first sermon the wheel stands, among other things, for the newly enlightened Buddha’s determination to turn the wheel of truth in this world. In early Buddhist art, the Wheel of Dharma is represented by a wheel placed on a throne or pillar. Duchamp enthroned his wheel on a pillarlike studio stool, signifying the commencement of Duchamp’s new path in art as well as his teachings. [12]

Duchamp had a more casual explanation, though:

The bicycle wheel … had more to do with the idea of chance. In a way, letting things go by themselves and having a sort of created atmosphere in a studio, an apartment where you live, probably, to help the ideas come out of your head. To see that wheel turning was very soothing, very comforting, a sort of opening of avenues on other things than material life of every day. [13]

Another book I enjoyed was Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art, edited by Jacquelynn Baas, which contains a collection of essays written by artists on the relationship between Buddhist practice and art practice. Arthur Danto, an art critic, in his essay “Upper West Side Buddhism,” discusses John Cage’s use of Zen precepts in his music. The musician sought to hear the music in everyday life noises. He tries to overcome the differences between musical sounds and mere noise. Danto refers to Cage’s musical composition 4’ 33”.

It was first performed in Maverick Hall in Woodstock, N.Y. in 1952 by David Tudor. It is three movements, though the keyboard is never touched. The pianist closes the keyboard and the piece begins. At the end of the first movement, he opens it. To mark the second movement, he closes it once more, reading the score to determine for how long the movement lasts. He does not strike a single note throughout the piece’s duration. [14]

Cage was influenced earlier in his career by professor D.T. Suzuki, who lectured on Zen Buddhism at Columbia University. “What Cage was bent upon was erasing the difference between music, understood as intended sounds and the irrepressible racket of life. The ‘music’ in this extended sense consisted of all the sounds that fill the auditorium for four minutes and thirty­three seconds of the performance’s duration.” [15]

These readings were encouraging, placing my interest in Buddhism in a larger context with artwork I was familiar with and have long admired. I have thought about Cage’s music when listening to city sounds coming in my window.

In Eleanor Rosch’s essay “If You Depict a Bird, Give It Space to Fly,” she presents a fairly optimistic view that there is another, more open and less encumbered way to experience daily life than the one most of us have, the one burdened with our egoic hopes, dreams, pasts, presents, and futures.

She believes very much in the power of meditation and art as a means to help expand our minds to a greater, panoramic view of our world. In fact, she argues that “meditation and art can illuminate each other and can do so beyond particular styles and practices.” [16] Her basic claim is that the arts have a special avenue for “showing people themselves in a mirror which reflects their ordinary self­image in light of these broader and deeper intuitions.” [17] She feels this can be done because the arts are created and appreciated by the thinking mind, but she also is aware of Buddhist traditions that warn that the activity of the mind and sense “are inherently doubled­faced. They arise from and can point back either to their surface, confused, habitual mode of operation.” [18]

Despite this, Rosch makes the following claim: “humans have a mode of knowing themselves and their world that is more basic and deeply rooted than the habits of mind that we usually deploy, and art, at its best, can provide glimpses.” [19] I have found the combination of artwork and meditation to be a good thing. I am more mindful of passing thoughts as I work. If I’m angry, for example, I can expect that anger somehow to be expressed in the work and perhaps it is not my intention to express anger. I think this practice helps me focus on my intentions without the heaviness that intentions may be dogmatic. Artwork and meditation can work well together.

“There is the basic mode of knowing that knows the knowing self, mind, body, and environment as one panoramic whole. Don’t we have glimpses of this independent of any formal meditation experience?” [20]

This is an interesting question. Rosch suggests looking at Chinese landscape paintings or the brush strokes of a Van Gogh painting. Also, perhaps experiencing the energy of movement through Chi. These are ways for one to feel part of nature. Interestingly, she quotes a wonderful passage from Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms as an example of narrative using its style and quality of description to depict nature, humanity, and energy. Rosch wonders if the mind that comprehends scientific knowing is different from the mind knowing art.

For many the scientific version seems to lead the intellect to the conclusion that we are mere products of nature and as such without value or meaning; that is, it tends to cut off the rest of knowing that goes with this type of intuition…. My claim is that when the underlying human knowledge of oneself as part of nature is evoked, it is anything but nihilistic. [21]

She then uses the following poem by Mary Oliver as an example:

“Wild Geese”

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through desert, repenting.
You only have to let the animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely.
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting— over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

This poem speaks eloquently to Rosch’s previous idea that when the knowledge of oneself is a part of nature, a richness abounds. The poem says to me that the world will offer its movement, life, and beauty to your imagination and a place within its family if you engage in it fully with nature and others.

Rosch continues to speak about humanity: “Who has not been deeply moved, perhaps life changingly, by visual images or narratives of other humans, even fictional ones? But we don’t really need a contemplative exercise to get in touch with feelings of connection to other humans, do we?” [22] Then she refers to a portion of another poem to contemplate by Vietnamese monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh.

“Please Call Me by My True Names”

Look deeply: I arrive in every second…

I am the frog swimming happily in the clear water of a pond,
and I am also the grass­snake who, approaching in silence,
feeds itself on the frog.

I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones, my legs as thin as bamboo sticks,
and I am the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons in Uganda…

Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and my laughs
at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names, so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart can be left open, the door of compassion.

Thich Nhat Hanh writes as though we are all one, touching, impacting all living beings, and that our joys and pains are all one when we look and see clearly, and this interrelatedness can lead to compassion.

In another resource I read the transcript of an interview with Thich Nhat Hanh in which he discusses engaging Buddhism in everyday life. I have been moving deeper into the practice and though I know the actual practice emphasizes interconnectedness with all aspects of life and existence as perceived by the mind, it is tricky navigating through the concepts of emptiness, impermanence, and selflessness without becoming self­absorbed. I have sometimes become lost, not seeing a clear path of engaging the practice in a social manner. Thich Nhat Hanh speaks very clearly:

Buddhism has to do with your daily life, with your suffering and with the suffering of the people around you. You have to learn how to help a wounded child while still practicing mindful breathing. You should not allow yourself to get lost in action. Action should be meditation at the same time…. Meditation is about awareness of what is going on, not only in your body and in your feelings, but all around you. [23]

I was very appreciative of this reading.

Rosch continues to write about timelessness and how consciousness tends to be obsessed and controlled by time: the past, the future, memories, reliving of defeats, replays of emotion—good and bad—plans, hopes, worries, fears, boredom. But there is another way of knowing time. She then asks her readers to recall a moment in which time seemed to stand still, perhaps a near­death experience, or the feeling of love at first sight, or something you saw or experienced. [24] I had a memory. I had been walking up a high hill in the park last fall in the evening and my eyes were tilted toward the sky, and suddenly my whole life flashed within a moment of time. It was as though every moment experienced in my life had appeared and then disappeared. It was so startling and powerful that I stopped and waited for a few minutes. How could a life be seen in a moment or a flash of time? Rosch refers to a Tibetan Buddhist concept of knowing time in which life seems complete in a single moment; it is called the fourth moment. “All phenomena are completely new and fresh, absolutely unique and entirely free from all concepts of past, present and future, as if experienced in another dimension of time.” [25]

Rosch gives examples of how this fourth moment might be seen in the arts such as a climax, or the perfection of form of an entire piece—music may have narrative­like climaxes. But she continues to ask: How can any experience be free of time when I can plainly see that the present experience is the result of who I am, my beliefs, feelings, expectations, and all my past experiences? Isn’t everything conscious filtered through our concepts, categories, and cognitive representations? This may be true, but it applies only to the content of the present experience. [26] “According to Buddhist teaching, while all the interdependent past can be causally gathered into the microcosm of the moment, of the present experience, that does not mean that the basic mode of apprehending the present moment is somehow filtered in distorted or abstractly representationally.” [27]

Finally, Rosch speaks about the idea of what is unconditional, how we sometimes bemoan that we didn’t get unconditional love growing up. But the Buddhist idea is that our fundamental state, what we are right now, is not any particular or special experience. “That is one reason mindfulness, rather than withdrawal from the senses, is a basic practice of Buddhism. When we realize this wisdom, it is said that the phenomenal world, including the false sense of self and all the other problems and degradations of life, are experienced as the timeless perfect radiance of that basic ground.” [28]

I enjoyed Rosch’s article. I particularly liked the poems and passages of fiction illustrating the human connection to nature. Her writing on “timelessness” was of interest to me as well. How I wish I could view each moment as fresh and unique, free of the past and future.

Love,

Tom