Buddhism - Making Art on the Path
by Shakti Maira
Sri Lanka was where I became immersed in Buddhism under the guidance of Ayya Khema, a Western nun and a wonderful meditation teacher. A philosophy and practice centred on the Four Noble Truths that emphasized ‘desire’ as being the central cause of human suffering inevitably cast a shadow on anything that could stir desire, including the arts. In a Theravada Buddhist culture that was austere and stressed injunctions of the vinaya (Buddhist rules of conduct), clearly against enjoying music or dance or paintings, it seemed that making and enjoying art were parts of my life that were on the to-be-shed list.
I didn’t give this too much thought then. I was absorbed in learning and meditation and in a World Bank assignment and family life. I made just three paintings in those two years, but did notice the quality of quiet and awareness that I had in making them, and they remain amongst my favorite paintings for the quality of mind they exude.
There comes inevitably a time on the path when the emphasis of dharma practice shifts from learning and meditating to assimilation and implementation in daily life. And as an artist, I had to make some decisions on art. Was art part of the second noble truth and therefore a cause of dukkha or suffering? Should I make art at all? What art would be consistent with my practice? As an unreligious person who had found profound direction in the Buddha’s teachings, was there the possibility of a making of, what could be seen as ‘contemporary dharma art’?
Art in Early Buddhism
Some of the most beautiful art in the world is Buddhist and is found strewn across India, China, Tibet, Korea, Japan, Thailand, Cambodia, Afghanistan and Indonesia. The rendering of the Buddha’s face in sculpture or paintings, across this vast geography, is one of the best examples of an art that captures a state of being, which stills, stirs and inspires. So I knew there was more to the story of art and Buddhism.
We don’t really know much about the Buddha’s views on aesthetics or art. The one connection I have found is a story about the hesitation Sakya Dandapani, Siddhartha’s father-in-law, had about the marriage offer made by Siddhartha’s father, Sudhodana. The hesitation, says the Lalitavistara (a Buddhist text), was on account of the prospective bridegroom’s not being particularly proficient in the arts. But this is a story before Siddhartha became the Buddha!
In early Buddhism, there was wariness about all forms of art, as they were thought to lead to vasana or desire and were therefore seen as a cause of suffering. Early Buddhist art is focused on simply and attractively showing episodes that revealed the main principles of the Buddha’s teaching. After the second century AD, the images became richer, more ornate, as seen in the sculptures of Mathura, Sanchi and the paintings of Ajanta. And as Mahayana Buddhism developed into Vajrayana, the images changed to become dramatic, particularly in the thangkas (scroll paintings) of Tibet.
Images of Enlightenment
I have walked the old pilgrims’ path from Varanasi to Sarnath, the place the Buddha came to after his enlightenment, and where he was urged to teach. It is winter and the morning fog lies in the fields. At the ruins of the oldest stupa, the spot where the Buddha gave his first sermon 2,500 years ago and set the wheel of his teachings in motion, there is a group of Thai pilgrims in prayer. I sit quietly at the edge of their circle and wait for the opening hour of the nearby museum.
It is quiet as I enter the museum, filled with sculpture from the ruins, and reach this larger than human-size figure. The Buddha is seated, hands in teaching mudra, eyes closed with a gentle smile. The sculpture seems to draw me inwards, into the truth the Buddha has connected with, an image that radiates beauty—of an inner state of mind and being, the beauty inherent in the experience of profound realization, of nirvana: peace, calm, gentleness, spaciousness.
The museum is filled with beautiful Buddha sculptures. There is something in these rooms that is more than just beautiful forms. There seemed to be the presence of the Buddha’s experienced beauty of inner calm and clarity. How does one reconcile the creation of so many beautiful Buddhist objects with the psychological forces of pleasure, delight and its often-concomitant desire and craving? Was the conflict resolved by allowing art in the context of religious images but discouraged in other aspects? Or was it that the middle path called for some balance in the use of arts, some skilful use? Or was art, as in Tibet, to be used principally to create meditation and religious tools? Is there a particularly Buddhist aesthetic, I wondered.
As separate religions, Buddhism and Hinduism are probably more of colonial and modern inventions. Both seem anchored in the same philosophic and spiritual ground. In India, then and now, spiritual teachers seem to grow from a common ground of deep ancient ideas. The dharmas of Hinduism are essentially the same as of Buddhism, though the paths are varied. In Hinduism there are austere Shaiva paths, more everyday life Vaishnava paths, and countless gurus and teachers like Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, Shirdi Sai Baba, Sri Aurobindo, to name some better-known ones. That the Buddha was not attempting to start a new religion is quite obvious.
What is less understood is that Buddhism rests comfortably in the Great Indian tradition of Dharma, with its myths, philosophies, sciences and arts. So the journey into Buddhist aesthetics must start from the common ground of Indian philosophy and aesthetics, where Truth and Beauty and the Divine are the same. (Satyam, Shivam, Sundaram)
These days, beauty and aesthetics have become polemic concepts, viewed by many with suspicion. I share much of the anguish about who decides what is beautiful, fraught as it has been with the politics of oppression in male dominated or colonized societies. But beauty is not prettiness; it is something much deeper and more meaningful. Beauty is not mainly about how things look. It is about how things are. Aesthetics has sadly become misunderstood: beauty is seen as the property of objects. This is a beautiful face, or this is a beautiful pot, is how we now talk about beauty.
In Indian aesthetics, beauty is an experience. There are some objects that induce in us the experience of beauty, joy, balance, harmony, connectedness. But in all cases, the objects are merely stimuli, the inducers of the aesthetic experience. In Indian aesthetics, beauty is more than pleasing. Beauty is something that is uplifting, that takes us out of our usual state of contracted consciousness, and gives us a taste of unity as we connect and resonate at a deeper level of consciousness.
Most of the philosophy on Indian aesthetics was written in the context of art making: its purpose, skills, attitudes and motivations, and the structure and levels of the aesthetic experience that occur in the viewer. I will try and summaries the main developments and postulates in the philosophy of Indian aesthetics, as it has much to offer in these times of aesthetic crisis.
Journey to Bliss
Several centuries before the Buddha, it was postulated that for something to be considered a work of art, two conditions needed to be met: it must be a work of skill, and it must have chhandomaya (the rhythm, balance, proportion, harmony that is the essence of nature, of life and, it was thought, the whole universe). These days the absence of the experiential properties of rhythm, balance, proportion, and harmony in much of contemporary art is one reason so many of us find it dissatisfying. The other is the absence of visual skills in a cultural scene dominated by various types of ‘Conceptual’ art.
Between second and eleventh centuries AD, the period of some of the greatest Buddhist art, it was thought that art was more than the product of skill and chhanda. While art must please the senses, it must also communicate a unique feeling and mental experience. It was thought that the essence of art lay not in its disciplined skill or representational adequacy and effectiveness, nor in its formal construction, but in its suggestiveness, its ability to evoke a state of feeling.
As feelings cannot be communicated directly, their evocation, through suggestion and implication had to be done indirectly, and this mood or implied feeling is the well-known Indian concept of rasadhvani. Abhinavagupta, a famous 12th century theoretician on aesthetics, built a comprehensive theory of feeling in which art and the aesthetic experience came to be postulated by the creative energy, vision and imagination of the artists and viewers. Skill and chhanda became means to make the external qualities of an art-object, but what imparted it soul (or atman), was the creative energy, vision and imagination of the artist.
The Buddha, of course, did not believe in the existence of a soul, and Buddhists are more comfortable with the dynamic term ‘consciousness’. In Indian philosophy, the ultimate aim of consciousness was to enable the human being to experience bliss (anandam). A gradation of functions was described for consciousness: starting with activities of nutrition, followed by senses and thought, which lead to cognition and finally, at the apex, anandam, absorption and bliss. This conception of the movement of the human spirit towards anandam furnished the central purpose of all the arts. It was to enable the experience of this inner bliss, which is the heart of the true aesthetic experience.
This then is the common ground of Indian aesthetics, of which Buddhist art is a branch that has some particular inflections and ideas. In my view there are four defining characteristics of traditional or contemporary Buddhist aesthetics and art.
The first is the focus on the beauty of inner reality, not merely human but of all nature. What makes Buddhist art interesting is that Buddhism is a philosophy of the mind. Its central concern is inner, not external, reality. As a result, to the extent Buddhist art made visibly manifest deeper mental states, beyond the sensory, it was dealing with the aesthetics, the beauty, of inner peace, nirvana, emptiness, compassion, transience, and interconnectedness.
The second is the attempt to create an art experience that includes and integrates the different levels of human experience: sense perception, feelings and emotions, thoughts, cognition and understanding. Art that works at all these levels in a harmonious and interconnected way is, I think, part of all good art and aesthetics, but has a particularly Buddhist resonance because of the stress in Buddhism on the nature of mind and the reality of profound interconnectedness.
The third is the motivation of the artist to induce a shift in consciousness in the viewer: to create an object that would be so arresting that it would induce a radical, and if possible complete, temporary break in the stream of everyday concerns. This break would lead to the experience of anandam, the gateway to a cognitive understanding of truth.
The fourth is the quality of attention and mindfulness the artist brings to art making. One doesn’t have to be a Buddhist to make Buddhist art. It is thought that much of the classical art made from the second to twelfth centuries AD, was made by highly skilled, traveling artists who went from project to project across India, and even to neighboring Cambodia and Indonesia, and it is entirely possible that the same artist may have made beautiful statues of a meditating Buddha, a Mahavira and possibly a dancing Shiva. But one did need to be mindfully present, to have the meditative skills to become absorbed. Buddhist meditation practices have been used to bring this about, something strongly seen in Zen art.
I see these principles as having great relevance to our times: to an understanding of the experience of aesthetics, the purpose of art making and the attitudes of the artist and the viewer.
This is not to argue for any school of art or aesthetics or for any formalization in the making of art. There is a problem with formalization in art and indeed, of the Buddha’s teaching as well. The special quality of real personal experience, “be lamps unto yourselves”, the Buddha’s final words, rather than apish followers of any formalization gets lost.
For art to have that special quality, it must be made in the here-and-now, on the anvil of the artist’s life, what she is seeing, feeling, thinking, and her present state of consciousness. It is the being made richly in the present that imparts that quality to art, which we can call alive or true. It is there in all great art. The artist is searching, struggling to manifest what she is experiencing with all faculties. I think the strength of contemporary artists making dharma art is this quality of engagement in the Buddhist path combined with the search for new ways of expressing timeless teachings.
The challenge of art is not just of the artist but of the viewers as well. For viewers to get the full aesthetic experience we have been describing, they must give sufficient attention in their act of seeing. Unfortunately, most often the viewers’ engagement seems to be merely informational. We look at a work of art and ask: “What is it? What is it saying?” The more powerful engagement is when we seek an experience at all levels: sensory, emotional, intellectual and spiritual.
I think the idea that emerged in the 20th century, that art is an end in itself, was both foolish and false. Art is a means of sharing, of communication. Yet for the viewer’s experience to be significant, the work of art must be about them. John Steinbeck said something insightful about the relationship between art and the viewer in East of Eden. He was talking about the story and I have paraphrased it for the art image: “If the work of art is not about the viewer, he will not see. And here I make a rule—a great and interesting work of art is about everyone or it will not last.”
What excites me about making and seeing true Buddhist art is what I found stirring about Buddhism when I first encountered it: human access to an inner experiential reality that was outside the constrictions of belief, dogma, discursive thinking and afflictive emotions. When art shifts our awareness into that larger flow of integration and connectedness, of spaciousness and timelessness, we are in touch with true beauty. The arrival of such contemporary dharma art is an exciting impact of Buddhism in modern life.
Shakti Maira is a noted artist who now lives in New Delhi. He has been recognised as a leading practitioner of contemporary dharma art.
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