Arts & Culture

The growing influence of Buddhist artistic expression in contemporary culture
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    "Gen Sun Tzu at the Allied Front," "Selling Samsara," and "Eat a Cookie, Save a Tree." Paid Member

    Gen Sun Tzu at the Allied Front A Chinese text on military strategy written 2,500 years ago for the Chinese kingdom of Wu is now an indispensable element of U.S. Marine Corps modern warfare. The Corps' commandant, General Alfred Gray, has made The Art of War, by General Sun Tzu, required reading for his men. Shambhala Publications, Inc., recently shipped 10,000 copies of the audiotape to the marines, and the book was a reported favorite among commanders and frontline marines during the Kuwait liberation.  More »
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    Mike's Cartoon Paid Member

    Michael Hurson lives in New York City and exhibits at the Paula Cooper Gallery.  Image credit: Mike's Cartoon, by Michael Hurson c. mid-60s. More »
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    The Garden & The Sword Paid Member

    “Many lives ago I stood where you are standing,” writes W. S. Merwin in his poem “Fox Sleep,” “and they assembled in front of me and I spoke to them/ about waking until one day one of them asked me/ When someone has wakened to what is really there/ is that person free of the chain of consequences/ and I answered Yes and with that I turned into a fox.” The poem paraphrases Case 2 of the koan collection The Gateless Barrier, a case called “Pai-chang and the Fox.” The koan deals with the nature of liberated activity within the realm of cause and effect, and it is one of the most widely commented-upon koans in Zen literature. But you won’t likely hear the new U.S. Poet Laureate talking about it. More »
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    Visionary Realms Paid Member

    I’ve heard it said that there are many doorways into the dharma: some students enter through reading texts, some through listening to teachings, and some through art. A number of teachers, including the mystic G. I. Gurdjieff and the meditation master Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, have spoken of artworks that embody higher consciousness and have the ability to transmit this awareness just by their visual presence. Robert Beer’s own paintings and drawings, and the work by contemporary Newar [indigenous people of the Kathmandu Valley] masters he discusses here, may be such art. I first encountered Beer’s work when in the late 1980s I came across a copy of Masters of Enchantment: The Lives and Legends of the Mahasiddhas, translated by Keith Dowman and illustrated by Beer. Beer’s dazzling paintings were based on traditional Tibetan iconography, but were done with an airbrush and colors that aren’t otherwise used in thangkas—soft but vibrant peaches, electric pinks, minty greens, and such. I’d never seen that combination of Western and Eastern techniques—and I haven’t seen it since. Beer’s work, at that time, took me to another world. And it continues to do so. I never tire of his Encyclopedia of Symbols and Tibetan Motifs, from 1999. I first met Beer in 2001, on the occasion of an exhibition of his work at Tibet House in New York City; I met him again in late 2009 when he returned to Tibet House, this time for an exhibition of Newar and Tibetan master paintings from his personal collection. You’ll find some of those paintings in these pages. As you will see, Beer is many things; boring is not one of them. —Frank Olinsky Tell me a bit about your early art background—art school and so on. When I was a child my father sometimes drew airplanes and sailing ships for me, and I learned to copy these from memory. Later I inherited a book called Tanks and How to Draw Them, and I learned a lot about perspective and illustrative techniques from this military manual, which strangely had much in common with the imagery of wrathful deities. I also was good at model making, which later led to the acquisition of skills such as grinding mirrors for telescopes and building a harpsichord. But most of all I was interested in drawing, especially narrative illustration, which first began to develop from the epic poems and ballads that we learned to memorize in school. Unfortunately, I could not enter art college because I was red-green colorblind. In retrospect this was probably a good thing, for it was at this time that I met a very eccentric artist named John F. B. Miles, who was destined to become my mentor and lifelong friend. “Eccentric” is a mild word to describe John, whose father was a landscape painter and a rationalist intellectual and militant socialist, and whose mother was an ex-Carmelite nun with strong spiritual, religious, and sexual yearnings. John was the real thing, a true artist in every cell of his being and certainly one of the finest visionary painters of our time. He wasn’t just larger than life; he was gigantic and, like Rasputin, egotistical, fearless, and outrageous in his devilish wit and sensuality. I was seventeen and homeless when I was absorbed into this alchemical crucible of art, where the passions were volcanic and often volatile beneath its dome of many-colored glass. Yet somehow I managed to retain my innocence. Can you tell us about an experience you had with him that illustrates his influence on you? Maybe it’s better here to illustrate his influence on other people. In his later years, one of John’s students was a young Tibetan who had lost his original documents from Lhasa. From a few crumpled photocopies of these papers, John was easily able to reproduce them in their original form, using red and blue pigments for the official headings and seals in both Chinese and Tibetan characters, and black ink for the handwritten text and signatures. John had never tried to copy any of these cursive scripts before, but they were absolutely perfect in their calligraphic precision, and as always there was no hesitation in the dexterity of his brushstrokes. A similar incident took place at Dartington Hall in Devon, where one summer a Japanese Zen artist was invited to teach a weeklong course. On the open day, John went along with two of his Japanese girlfriends, and they sat at the back of a hall full of cross-legged students, who were mesmerized by the spontaneous and rapier-like brushstrokes of the Zen master. At the end of the demonstration, there was a complete silence when members of the audience were invited to try their hand with a Japanese brush, until John shouted out from back, “I’ll have a go!” So in front of this meditative assembly John loaded the brush with ink, took one look at the Zen master’s last piece and duplicated it with the exact same sequence of brushstrokes. Within the space of a few swift minutes he made copies of all of the master’s previous calligraphic drawings. That evening, John and the Zen master both got very drunk on sake together, much to the dismay of the master’s more restrained and serious new students. Describe your first encounter with Buddhist art. When I was fourteen, my sister died from hydrocephalus. She was three years old and severely cranially deformed. On the day after she died, she came back to me in a dream to reveal that not only does the spirit or soul survive beyond death, but that its nature is timeless, incorruptible, and perfect; can assume any form; and that its essence consists of pure love, intelligence, luminosity, and blissful awareness. This sublime experience, or “after-death communication,” was to change the course of my life, for the doors of spiritual inquiry were thrown wide open. I soon began to gravitate toward the doctrines of Gnostic Christianity, Hinduism, Sufism, and Buddhism, which of course also find expression through the visual arts of pattern, symbols, and iconic forms. The narrative element, especially concerning the lives of saints, also provided a fertile ground for the play of imagination and inspiration, which also coincided with the advent of the psychedelic culture of the mid-sixties. So I was already painting my own imaginative forms of divine beings and mandalas before I actually encountered authentic Buddhist art, even to the extent of drawing multiple-armed figures with an eye in each palm. Then, in 1969, at the age of twenty-two, I underwent a psychedelically induced psychosis, which I would more accurately describe as a “kundalini crisis,” as it was instigated by my attempt to open the “central channel” of my psychic nerve system. This crisis was to endure in its severity for many years, as it unleashed a terrifying array of perceptual distortions and psychic states that are still hard to describe. It was in this condition that, in 1970, I left overland for India, where I was to remain for the next five years, with another year in Nepal. And it was here that I began to practice thangka painting with some of the finest Tibetan artists who were then living in exile. The vivid imagery of the Vajrayana deities resonated deeply with my own internal or “otherworldly” processes at this time. It was more of a primeval or aboriginal instinct, rather than any intellectual impetus, that propelled me toward these visionary realms of benign peace and ruthless wrath. For unlike most Westerners I was not seeking to attain enlightenment—I just wanted to find a way back to the safety of conventional reality. Of course, there wasn’t a way back, but there was a way forward. This was a long journey, and most of it was internal. For many years you created—and in fact became famous for creating—traditional Buddhist art. Your show at Tibet House last winter did not feature works painted by you, but instead showed works by other artists. Have you stopped painting? And can you say something about being both an artist and collector of works in the same genre? This is a long story, and most of it happened in the 25 years or more that I spent at the drawing board. I wasn’t really that naturally gifted as a draftsman. But I persevered until there came a point when I felt that I had tapped into the tradition, or was connected to its source. Then things really began to arise and make sense on a deep intuitive level. The entire Buddhist path is encapsulated within the symbolism of its vast pantheon of Vajrayana deities, and much more besides. So all the “traditional Buddhist art” that I am credited with creating and explaining, I tend to perceive as a byproduct of my own internal search for clarity and meaning, which mainly arose within the mystical context of ancient Indian culture. Art is outside, heart is inside, and I believe the real purpose of art is to transform the heart. This process of transformation is completely unhindered or “autonomous” for me now, so I stopped painting and drawing about 15 years ago after my marriage broke up. For the relentless demands of the Tibetan Buddhist bandwagon, with its multitude of charitable causes, had a devastating impact on my personal life, with an ever-increasing amount of requested work projects and a constant lack of funding. Many of my finest drawings and texts on deity symbolism have not been published, because the lack of support and funding inevitably tends to lead to a lack of ambition, and, dare I say it, to a lack of respect for the motivation of some individuals. Anyway, I could never really afford to take my family out for a meal, let alone buy thangkas, nor did I feel it was ethical for me to deal in Tibetan “sacred art,” as so much of it had been pilfered. However, I did get to see a lot of incredible art and learn from it. Yet I still possess only two late Tibetan thangkas, a Wheel of Life and a Gelugpa Refuge Tree, both of which I have recently reproduced as giclee [ink-jet] prints. So all the Newar and Tibetan paintings I now collect are contemporary pieces, most of which are made by artists I know personally. Say something about the lives of these painters who produce this traditional art while living in the so-called modern world. The Newars were the original inhabitants (circa 6th century B.C.E.) of the Kathmandu Valley, whose unique artistic and architectural styles were directly inherited from the late Pala dynasties of Eastern India (8th to 12th century C.E.). The Newar influence on much of what is now recognized as Early Tibetan Art was simply enormous, but with the increasing absorption of Hindu influences over the last few centuries its art traditions became somewhat static and neglected. More »
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    Thinking Like a Mountain Paid Member

    In the 1950s, poet Gary Snyder worked as a fire lookout in the Cascades of Washington State. Perched at 8,129 feet on Crater Mountain’s Desolation Peak, Snyder practiced calligraphy, sipped green tea, and learned to sit as the days flew by. The following is excerpted from John Suiter’s Poets on the Peaks. More »
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    The Natural Paid Member

    Jeff Bridges enters the living room of his hotel suite carrying a dark blue Shambhala paperback by Chögyam Trungpa entitled Training the Mind and Cultivating Loving-kindness. “One reason I’m anxious—because I have some anxiety about this interview, like you do,” he says, as he arranges his long body on the couch, “is that I wish I could be more facile with these things that I find so interesting and care about and want to express to people.” He opens the book. “This will be a challenge for me,” he says. “But I’ll attempt it.” More »