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Submitted by Robert Colpitts on Sun, 5/27/2012, 12:37pm
The end of May brings the end of Arts month at IDP, as well as Memorial Day in the US. Over the course of the month, I’ve been contemplating and studying the book True Perception by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, hoping to gain some insight into the nature of Dharma or Buddhist art with the ultimate goal of being able to share my knowledge with you.
I would find it rather inadequate to speak only of art so close to Memorial Day without mentioning war, and without honoring the brave men and women who serve in the military. At the same time, I feel that delivering my message about art is important, as I so rarely discuss it, and it is my path in life.
It turns out that our relationship to art and war as meditators and Buddhists is similar, and so I will discuss both.
The Observance of Art and War
If there is one thing that is easy to say about Dharma art, it is that meditation and studying the dharma is a very important part of it. After all, it is our meditation practice and our study of the dharma that conducts our action and insight in daily life, and art and war are part of daily life.
At times I have observed a subtle struggle to find a place for the critique of art in Buddhist discussions and philosophy. Often, in the analysis of art as Buddhist or non-Buddhist, I see a flaw: we treat the philosophy that guides our relationship to art very differently than we treat the philosophy that guides our relationship to how we govern our daily life and the workings of our mind. Whereas we might find ourselves peaceful and at ease with a difficult family member or co-worker, we might not feel the necessity to stay present and kind when we see an aggressive or egotistical piece of art.
A similar tendency can be seen when we observe war. In fact, it might be more difficult for us to accept war than art because the physical violence caused by war is something that we know immediately causes pain and suffering. We would like to live in a world without war. We might also imagine a world in which all the art is Buddhist.
When observing art and war, our job is to treat those objects as any other object in our practice of meditation. Perhaps it is the object we try to stay present with. Perhaps it is the object of our contemplation. Either way, we are simply observant. Ultimately, it does not seem that there is much place for a ‘critique’ of art as either Buddhist or non-Buddhist. Nor is there a place to say whether or not war should exist. Things that are simply are.
The Making of Art and War
When we make art and war, as Buddhists and meditators, we have control over the output and process. We are involved in the making of it. Our state of mind, the words we offer, the colors we share, the stories we tell, the notes we choose, the actions we take, and the messages we deliver are within our control. If there is one thing that Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche says in his book that I think sums up a Buddhist approach to art and war it is this:
The Buddhist way of approaching art is nonaggressive. Aggressiveness brings competitiveness, money concerns, comparison, frustration, excitement, all kinds of things. If there’s no aggression, that brings joy, openness, dance. I don’t mean joy in a sense of love-and-light, swimming in a sea of honey—but joy in the sense that things could be touched and appreciated. (Trungpa, 21)
The creation of Buddhist art has a tremendous amount to do with our approach to it. We can actually start working on our art in a nonaggressive way by choosing a good approach.
I’d like to share with you a bit of my own experience with writing poetry in order to demonstrate this. My own understanding of what it is like create art in an aggressive way is when I use my creative process to get rid of some anger I am feeling, or to get back at someone who I disagree with, or to show the world how great I am, or to give up on everything and to tell everyone to go to hell, all of which I have done at one time or another. I want to emphasize how subtle this aggression is, but I want to show you an example of how unsubtle the result can be. Here is an example of a poem I wrote in July of 2008:
Asking this question is starting to piss me off.
How are you?
What are you up to?
Where are you at these days?
Don’t ask me these fucking questions.
I take time to answer you.
I ask you the same.
Do you ever write back?
None of you.
What the fuck?
Am I some fucking penny machine?
Put in a penny?
And you get a pretty story?
You want to know how I am?
You want to know where I’m at?
You want to know where I’m going?
Take a fucking train ride.
Meet me where I am.
Ask me in person.
I’m not answering that shit anymore.
Or, if you don’t care to come.
At least answer my fucking email.
I mean, come on folks,
I stopped writing long emails,
Because you assholes can’t handle that.
Surely you can handle a three sentence email.
And you can take the time to type it.
In NY. Doing well. Be good.
Lazy goddamn morons.
Don’t ask questions
If you can’t handle a response
Learn how to type
I hope you are well
Put a period.
End it with a courteous stop
Not a curious ?
You’re not curious
You’re a fucking leech
From the perspective of observing that piece of art, it is not our job to condemn it, to say how bad it is for us, or how good, if it is constructed properly, or not, if it means something or it doesn’t. You and I can see something in it and it is enough to speak of that. There is a message there, both in the words, and behind them. There is a story there, of a man who is having a bad day because people are not writing him. We can have compassion for the person behind it when we just stay present with it. If we meet this man, we might have some insight into the precise wisdom that we can share to alleviate this confusion, but until that day comes, we came, we saw, we witnessed.
However, from the perspective of me creating the poem, it is clear that I was filled with aggression and was lashing out. Acting out with this kind of aggression in mind is not Buddhist art (to my credit, not all of my work in 2008 was like this, nor was I introduced to Buddhism until much later).
Yet this does not mean that as artists we don’t have bones to pick, or problems to discuss, or even wars to win. Here is a poem that I wrote this month under different conditions:
And seem to
And the wind
If you’ve been keeping up with some of my other writing, you will know that there is some deep suffering in my family, and on the day I wrote that poem I wept and wept. I wept as I wrote it, and it took a good hour or so. In it, I capture the moment, as I remember it, perfectly. Nothing more needed to be said about what was happening for me even though I was filled with great emotion. Though sadness filled me, and the message was not cheerful, that was my non-aggressive poem describing it.
And that is what it boils down to. Everything is worth expressing. There is reality everywhere, but when we, as Buddhist artists, create art, we have to make it very personal. We have to cut everything down to what is true, what we see, and what our experience is, what we are feeling, and to cut out anything else. In finding what is true about what we see, and making art that shows that, we offer something to other people. But we really have to sit with our art, to hone it, to carve it into the perfect shape for the moment, and only our deepest, most compassionate self can find it.
This is true with war as well. Yes, it would be better if violence and war did not exist, but it would be a shame if all the Bodhisattva warriors decided to lay down their arms, and leave the wars to the most confused. Wars can be fought in a non-aggressive manner. A recent NPR article shows this. In that article there are the personal responses of military men who are asked what memories of Afghanistan stick the most in their mind. I want to turn your attention to Spc. Michael Cella’s story. Take a moment to read it. You can see a complex situation in which violence was avoided. But think of the strength and centeredness it took for Spc. Cella to avoid aggressiveness in war that day. He literally thought he was about to die, and he waited and waited and waited to see if what he was seeing was true before he pulled the trigger.
Aggression and horror does not disappear just because we don’t think it should be there any more than the first poem I introduced disappeared because I introduced the second. If we are witnessing art and war, our job is simply to witness it.
But to make art or war, we have to change the way we approach it. To make Buddhist war, we have to take aggression out of it. To make Buddhist art, we have to do the same.
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