Saturday, April 26, 2014

ARTICLE ~ Instructions for the Artist ~ No 3, 'Carried out by Teachers'

The third in a series of articles based on Dogen's Instructions for the Tenzo, exploring how it might be applied to artistic practice and work in general.

'Carried out by Teachers settled in the way, and by others who have aroused the bodhisattva spirit within themselves.'

A tenzo isn't just someone who fancies a bit of large scale catering. It's someone who is 'settled in the way,' notice it is now 'settled 'not 'settling'. There is nothing much that isn't sorted out, this teacher has to some degree 'gone beyond.' sorting themselves out.  Dogen adds, it could also be someone who has  'aroused the bodhisattva spirit within themselves', which ultimately means the Bodhocitta, but they may have at least aroused the aspiration to attain this. He also goes on to warn that those who don't possess 'such a spirit' are setting themselves up for suffering and a very hard time indeed, where all efforts in pursuit of the Way would be ineffective. Being a tenzo means exerting 'all your energies', all your mental, physical and spiritual strengths and resources into practice. A tenzo needs to be a reasonably well integrated, clear thinking and emotionally robust person.

Similarly, an artist whose succeeded in making their work a spiritual practice, has to know themselves pretty well, and be emotionally resilient. Primarily because being an artist can be such a solitary existence. To prevent any artist's work from becoming an egotistical  self-indulgence, their creation has to be informed by an altruistic spirit. It's not so much about who an artwork is for, but what the artwork is for. Does it have a positive life enhancing benefit at its core?

A painting is unlikely to 'save all sentient beings from suffering'. Whilst an artwork does not necessarily have to be about human suffering, it should be informed by, or be in response to suffering. Art should aspire to be an encounter with beauty, that lifts the spirit and lightens hearts. It should be a torch light that shines until we get to the end of the longest and darkest of tunnels imaginable. Art that lacks 'such a spirit' isn't necessarily 'bad art' but it will be of no spiritual use in the pursuit of the Way. This is Dogen's main theme in these opening paragraphs of the Instructions for the tenzo. He's laying out the ground, the background ideals that underpin what he is to say subsequently.

Any artist whose in the midst of creating has imagined the effect on the persons who might view what they have made. They may want the viewer to be excited, exhilarated, perplexed, thoughtful, intrigued, or whatever response they wish to conjure in another persons being. For in these moments they 'imaginatively enter into the lives of another' as Sangharakshita puts it, which cultivates loving kindness the root of all compassionate feeling. Envisaging creating this response ithrough their artwork is a huge responsibility for an artist to take on their shoulders. It requires a lot of love and generosity to keep giving of your artistic talent for the benefit of others.

The function of much contemporary art is quite different from this, and though it serves its own function, its not one the Buddha nor Dogen would have necessarily endorsed. It can have an air of nihilism about it; provoking, challenging conventions, causing offence or breaking moral taboos. Engaging a viewer not with their aspirations but with cynicism or humiliation. Often aesthetically amoral, unkind, hostile, angry, even cruel, it exemplifies what happens when art 'lacks a spirit' of love, benevolence and altruism. It ends up causing further hardship and suffering, pulling ones attention away from any spiritual path and into the path of despair.

Whether you're a cook or an artist, your individual talents are being put to the service of others, and in a sense to serving all humanity. Feeding a world that's full of hungry stomachs and souls. An unpalatable meal is no different from an unpalatable artwork, in that it is unpleasant to look upon or consume. There should really be no inedible or unedifying art, only rich feasts for the eyes.

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