Thursday, May 22, 2014

Instructions for the Artist ~ No 7 ~ As carefully as if they were your own eyes

The seventh 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.

' "Use the property and possessions of the community as carefully as if they were your own eyes" The tenzo should handle all food he receives with respect, as if it were to be used in a meal for the emperor.'

Communal ownership of property and possessions often leads to a diminished sense of personal responsibility for them. Replacements for broken items often bought without it hitting any one's pocket financially, means we stop knowing the actual cost of things. This means we value them less. A casual carelessness then creeps into people's behaviour towards community property. Though looking after things means they last longer and make the most of earth's limited resources, this can escape the notice of even the most environmentally aware of individuals .Everything we use, whether our own or a communal possession, ought to be given due respect and care.  If  you were to treat things 'as if they were your own eyes'. you wouldn't want to needlessly damage or render anything useless.

Countless lives, and  lots of human energy, resources, time and ingenuity have gone into the making of our possessions. Its hard to remember this when they're so easy to dispose of and replace them with newer more fashionable versions. Everything has its own value, not just because they are useful to us, but because they exist at all. A lot of sweat, tears and personal suffering, both current and historical, lie behind the making of most ordinary household items. Those who made these items are valuable because they've provided their time, energy and labour, they put something of their life into making them. What we choose to make with what they make, is only one aspect that brings value to them. To be unaware that value has other applications beyond use, shows a lack of imagination for the whole lineage of conditions that have ended in these objects being present in our lives, for us to use and delight in at will.

Our highly developed economy provides us with most things on demand, whether it be food or art materials. We don't have to wait above a few days for goods bought online to be delivered. This should be treasured and valued for the wonder and the boon that it is. However, fast service can become an expectation, and treated as if it were some inalienable human right. We don't like to be kept waiting in banks, restaurants or cinemas.  Speed of delivery has quickened our impatience, we become critical and intolerant of people and situations that take their time. Having to wait, to delay the gratification of our desires, does cultivate patience. We also value a thing more when it finally arrives, simply because we've spent time waiting for it.

Whether the meal we make is for ourselves, our friends or our community, our approach should be no different. We should make it as though it were destined for an emperor. This impartiality extends to the ingredients as much as to the cooked meal. Dogen follows this paragraph by saying 'Cooked and uncooked food must be handled in the same manner'  Raw vegetables are raw vegetables, cooked food is cooked food, each has its own qualities and value. In the same way, we should appreciate tubes of paint or brushes as much as what is painted with them. Our free market economy gives objects value on the basis that someone has made them, the object has a market and a profit can be made. In capitalist terms, value is always added   Dogen is saying something radically different, that value is intrinsic, a quality that everything possesses. The partial value judgements we make have no lasting bearing on the impartial true value of things.

However, to not value something at all is to be in a state of wilful indifference, to not notice. Its harder to treasure or take delight in things if you're blind to their value. To appreciate is to value, but you must first be able to notice, become aware, to take things in and see them for what they are. If we are taking things for granted, then there is an underlying assumption that they will always be there, or that their existence has no significance. To not value a thing existing means we are still in denial about the nature of reality, we dont want to acknowledge that our lives, and the lives of objects will shatter, be lost, or die. The way we view and judge objects mirrors that of our own life, we operate as if we and they are all eternal.

'As carefully as if they were your own eyes' requires us to change our attitude towards the realm of 'things.' Things, like people, break, become worn out or will die on us. Things are impermanent, so what we value today may not be here tomorrow. In our habitual haste we can lose our mindfulness, start to handle things roughly and without care, respect or awareness of their essential fragility. Our interactions with the world and with 'things' should be lighter and gentler in its tone and touch.  Behaving as if everything were as vulnerable, sensitive and delicate as an eyeball in the palm of our hand.

Valuing all things, obviously includes ourselves. Our own existence is a very precious thing, we matter, our life is valueable, is worthy of care and respect too. So 'as carefully as if they were your own eyes' is asking us to perceive, appreciate and respond to everything as if it were an intrinsic part of our own being. 

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