Friday, November 29, 2013

ARTICLE ~ Spiritual Art & Practice ~ Defining Terms

When I say 'spiritual' what do I mean?

For a Buddhist using the word 'spiritual' will have a different connotation than for a Christian, Muslim or Hindu.  Spiritual, is not for Buddhism, another way of saying sensitivity to a godly presence, or soulful inclination towards a divine creator. So what would the Buddhist interpretation of the term 'spiritual' really be pointing towards, if not to that? Here is where I need to chose carefully what words I use. Most English terms expressing a 'sense for something Other' than mundane worldly existence, are so stained through with Christian associations that, without intending to, it could still sound like I'm talking about god. Also, when attempts are made to define god, they can become so loose and broad that anything and everything becomes absorbed into it, like a black hole. So it's a minefield for misinterpretation, but here goes.

Bernini's ~ Ecstasy of St Theresa

When the Moon is full, and the sky a dark blue, the silver white of our nearest satellite shines down upon us like a bright beneficent goddess. For many thousands of years the Moon was only a deity you would point at, ask a favour of, or worship. Godlike deities are usually like this, visible but distant, tangible but intangible. Yet they are said to influence and guide human behaviour, to which you need only to surrender too, however unfathomable their purpose. Theistic interpretation of the word spiritual reflects this. Its about being in ecstasy with the divinity, abandoning ones liberty or freedom of choice, to let god be you guide. Anything spiritual, comes to represent this yearning to be at one with the godhead, to have you soul lifted up, your spirits elevated or transported to a more heavenly angelic realm. 

In Buddhism the Moon is not a god, its just a way to imaginatively visualise the goal of Enlightenment. There's a traditional Zen phrase about 'a finger pointing at the Moon'. So whilst the Moon is Enlightenment, the finger represents the descriptions of Enlightenment and practices that point towards the way to get there. The meaning of the phrase is that the finger is not the Moon ~ the means to the end, not being mistaken for the end ~ the practices alone are not it. So a Buddhist gazing at the Moon is aspiring to become more like a Buddha. They are not asking any deity for help, but they are directing themselves on the path towards the state of Enlightenment. 

In some traditions, this is often couched in terms like Buddha Nature or Other Power, which are criticised within Buddhism as verging too close to deification. They are simply metaphors, ways of talking about Enlightenment as not remote, but present and waiting, as a finger pointing. The idea of Other Power is interesting, in that as our practice deepens the state of Enlightenment as a vaguely intuited Other Power can be perceived as coming to meet us, to give us a leg up. You might be forgiven for thinking that sounds like god, but its more like plants growing towards the rays of the Sun.  The Moon and the reflection of that Moon in a puddle of water are, ultimately speaking, seen as the same.


So 'spiritual' in a Buddhist context, would be any subtle or profound experience that enriches our sense of the Enlightened state. Things that give a heartfelt sense for our final destination as practitioners, reinforce our confidence, trust or faith in the efficacy of our practice, and in the reality of that goal. The full achievement of Enlightenment for all of humanity in complete alignment with the whole universe.

For a Buddhist the experience of something spiritual in art, would be whatever gave us this visionary or passionate glimpse, an emotional uplift or encourage our Sraddha (faith.) in the goal
of Enlightenment. The basic qualities that the word spiritual evokes, are awe and aspiration to achieve that harmonious state of concord. In this Buddhist and Theistic use of the term spiritual bear a passing similarity, both desire to go beyond human and earthly limitations. It would however be a bit glib and superficial to say that we are therefore talking about the same thing. There are concepts and perceptions of how that ultimate goal is achieved, that differ greatly. They are not the same, so don't cobble them into a matching pair of bookends. 

The Prajna Paramita Mantra, expresses this ultimate Buddhist spiritual aspiration through a series of 'going beyonds' till we are Enlightened to reality as it really is.

Gone, Gone, Gone Beyond, Gone Altogether Beyond, Oh What An Awakening, All Hail! 

The spiritual in art provides a sensation in the present moment of what this 'going beyond' might be like. Yet for the artist, the art itself, and the viewer of the art, this spiritually awakening experience will be different. Generally art refines our sensibilities, it prepares us for ever subtler levels of awareness. The spiritual experience of a piece of  art, could either be one instance of momentary transformation, or a gradually developed aesthetic instinct that slowly re-orientates our whole being. 

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