In Praise of Buddhist Art
Brush-drawn images of Ch'an and Zen adepts, exemplified by the monk Feng-kan napping with his pet tiger, represent another pole of the genius of Buddhist art. The image is marvelously droll and informal, with zinging brush strokes and offbeat characterization. And yet it confronts us with some of the central ideals of Buddhist practice, implicitly invites us to persevere to the point that all persevering ceases, all strain concludes: to sleep, in that anticipated time, is no different than to wake, and one's tiger is affable.
For a work to be truly alive, each of the thousand hairs of the brush must be energized.
—A calligrapher's proverb
Even in this very brief exploration of the map of Buddhist art, we cannot afford to overlook one of its most eloquent expressions: calligraphy. For example, the rendering by Ikkyu Sojun, famed fifteenth-century monk and abbot, of nostalgic lines from The Tale of Genji is an indescribable masterpiece. "Do they have me in mind? The wind seems to bring news of their thoughts." The incredibly musical flow of his line across the surface, its rhythmic appearances and near-disappearances, its utter security although it has so little substance—all of this and more brings one to sense, in the calligraphy and within oneself, an energetic condition that surely approaches the essence and magic of Buddhism. One is converted, again; now not by the majestic figure of an awakened human being but by the trace of a gesture.
An eighth-century Chinese painter answers a question about his technique: "Externally, all Creation is my master. Internally, I have found the mind's resources."
Feng-kan sleeping on his tiger, in the style of Shin-k'o, thirteenth century C.E., ink on paper
The Buddhist heritage in art inspires practice even today and not only among those formally dedicated to Buddhism. But this observation raises an engaging question: does the heritage inspire American Buddhist artists in their vocation as artists no less than in their vocation as seekers of truth? American Buddhist artists, and their witnesses, may worry at times about their dual heritage, their belatedness, and—not least—the question of authenticity. The dual heritage is both confusing and potentially enriching. To be Western and American is to be Jewish and Christian and Socratic, and imbued, like Rembrandt, with regard for the individual; it is to be devoted to science and warily grateful for technology; it is to be far more familiar with Jackson Pollock's calligraphy than with Ikkyu's, and to prefer one's tea without butter. To be Buddhist is to recognize as one's own an Asian tradition that rarely intersected with the West until the early nineteenth century and remained "other" and alien until quite recently. Apart from this relatively external sense of cultural belonging, to be Buddhist surely means to engage seriously with inner disciplines that can lead into the depths of human nature and uncover an "order of things"—perceptions of reality and a sense of purpose—that change one's life in large and small ways.
This dual heritage can strike the artist as uncomfortable—as can the obvious fact that artists, like the rest of us, are latecomers to Buddhist tradition. The Wheel of the Law has been turning for some time without much assistance from us, so far as we know, and the heritage of visual art, scripture, liturgy, and instruction is overwhelming in scope and profundity. Can a Western Buddhist artist of our time make a single gesture that has not been made elsewhere, elsewhen, with an authority one cannot hope to match?
WITH THIS THOUGHT the adventure begins. It is a crippling thought. When one sets it aside, two rather different paths become evident. On the one hand, it is possible to declare summarily—either in words or by unspoken assertion—that because one is a Buddhist, one's art is Buddhist. To do so may be to adapt that odious, mainstream American, relativistic assertion, "Art is what artists do," to read: "Buddhist art is what Buddhist artists do." Or, on the contrary, for some artists in whom the spirit of Buddhism runs deep, the assertion may be factual. On the other hand, it is possible, and probably more realistic, to bend the knee and serve a long apprenticeship, which, like any apprenticeship, guarantees opportunities for effort and learning but does not guarantee results.
Ikkyu Sojun, fifteenth century C.E., ink on paper
It would be an apprenticeship to the tradition: to its forms and at least some techniques, to its meanings, to its high standards, to its history, to its variety, to its symbols and sensibility. And because the apprenticeship is a retrospective search for roots, and for sap with a certain aroma, it leaves unanswered the central question of what meanings the artist today needs to express, and through what forms. Apprenticeship raises this question to a peak of tension and un-answeredness, yet lets it be until the time is ripe to begin answering it. The question only sharpens as one experiences the greatness of past accomplishments, and as one measures the distance between their language—the language of those who came before—and our own. At the worst of times, the apprentice to tradition will feel that the gap is unbridgeable, that we neither can nor should create Buddhist icons now as they did then, nor are we likely to develop authentically Buddhist art in the languages of modern and postmodern art.
All of this is an enactment in the spirit of the Fire Sermon:
are on fire.
is on fire;
forms are on fire. . .
The fire purifies. It need not burn away the longing to act in the world as an artist, to make images that are true and new and moving.
From the fire can emerge a Buddhist artist. It does not necessarily mean to adapt or copy past models, although there is always a niche, particularly to liturgical purpose, for strictly traditional artistry—for the thangka maker and bronze-worker who create time-honored images along time-honored lines. It does mean to accept as one's intimate heritage the standards embodied in great works of the past. It means to strive to meet and—why not?—surpass those standards in works that reflect our current experience and enrich it.
To live the artist's vocation in this way is the conversion of the artist. It is also a mystery, for who has seen contemporary art that arises from knowing love of the tradition and natural, American fluency in our own visual languages?
I REMEMBER a Japanese lacquer box. Its lid is black and gold, the colors of darkness and light. It has a pictorial decoration: a torrent of water with wagon wheels bobbing chaotically in the flood, some half-visible, others almost completely immersed. The water swirls like hanks of thick cord. In contact with this work, the mind fills with two simultaneous images. The first is of a village flood in spring: the peasants' carts have broken up, the wheels tumble downstream. The second is the Dharma Wheel, in its regularity and dignity, rushing down the samsaric stream of time and events, half-drowned, half-visible, half-invisible. What will become of it?
Editor and biographer of Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, Roger Lipsey most recently published An Art of Our Own: The Spiritual in Twentieth Century Art. He is currently working on a reinterpretation of the Delphic oracle for HarperSanFrancisco.