Tuesday, April 22, 2014

ARTICLE ~ Instructions for the Artist ~ No 1, 'From Ancient Times'

The first 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.

Instructions for the Tenzo by Dogen, is a favourite Buddhist text that I treasure. It presents practical no nonsense instructions for a task on a simultaneous footing as spiritual practice. I find it inspiring and it raises up my aspirations whenever I read it. In this series of articles, drawn from notes and reflections made during my recent Art Retreat, I explore how these instructions might apply to the work of an artist.

The translation I'm using is From the Zen Kitchen to Enlightenment by Dogen/ Uchiyama Roshi, Translator Thomas Wright, Publisher Weatherhill, 1983

'From Ancient Times'

The cook in a monastery does a very practical and life enhancing task. Cooking is an act of service, its other regarding and a cooks culinary talents are daily put before everyone to savour or dislike. This makes it an ideal vehicle for working with the exigencies of self and other. Cooking can build or crush ones ego. People complain about the smallest things when it comes to eating. Buddhist can have as many like and dislikes as anyone else when it comes to the food they consume. Food is rarely right for everyone. Similarly, art is very subjective and a personal preference, it's not for everyone. People either love, loath or are indifferent to art. Creating an artwork is as personal a thing as making a meal, except its served up on a wall in a gallery for admiration or ridicule. Artistic and culinary tastes tends to both be areas where subjective preferences are presented as if they are incontravertible objective facts. Art and Cooking then, share similar working grounds for spiritual practice.

Dogen emphasises in the Instructions for the Tenzo that its important not to over invest in the perfection of a meal. A meal like a painting is never as good as you'd first imagined in your mind. Nevertheless our ego will still look out for every crumb of praise to bolster our self worth. It doesn't mean we shouldn't care, but in trying to do our best creatively we should aim to do it for the benefit of others, much more than for the benefit of ourselves. Everything turns out better that way.

When you first look at art and the artistic process, the similarities with cooking are not always apparent. Art doesn't have the same tangible immediacy or practical benefit. Sure it can be life enhancing, but not quite like cooking. Cooking sustains life. By comparison art is pretty useless.  Sangharakshita has perversely turned this uselessness on its head and made it arts primary virtue. Art has no practical life giving role, its quite unworldly, other worldly even. It isn't created in order to make a dull life more tolerable,nor to be a drug or a coping strategy. Art speaks to the core of us, lifting the spirit by pointing to something other, just out of tangible reach. Art is able to touch us with a vision for a life transcended, and refines our spiritual receptivity. Its no surprise that the creation of art over the millenia has been under the control of religious patronage. An artist in early civilisations was thought to be an oracle or divinator, someone touched by the hand of the gods.

Art has performed this function for humanity 'from ancient times' It has a responsibility to introduce us to 'awe'. The moment we step into a cathedral or Buddhist temple our breath is taken away. There is a momentary intake, our souls are exalted, the spirit is uplifted like a bird.  Art's primary purpose is to 'build great temples from ordinary greens' Something beautiful created seemingly out of nothing, out of no where, out of this world.

Though lets make no bones about this, no one has yet died from a lack of art. Yet it is the very stuff and essence of our dreams.  In another essay Dogen talks about 'creating a dream within a dream' as a metaphor for among other things, spiritual practice. Art is par excellence the creation of a 'dream within a dream'  Its made by proffessional day dreamers. its so embroidered with spiritual intent you can't remove that quality from art without rendering it lifeless. 'From ancient times' this has been so. From the moment representations of animals were painted on the walls of caves and caverns buried deep underground, art has had a magical function. No one stops to think these days, why were these caves abandoned?  Perhaps they no longer had religious significance, the belief in their magical efficacy was lost, the spell was broken, the culture of their society changed and required new magic, and a new 'dream within a dream' then emerged to replace them.

Artists present a vision and a sense for values that our society can easily lose sight of in the midst of its rampant consumption. Whilst food feeds the stomach, art feeds the heart and emotions, it is soul food.

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