"According to Buddhism, art is something produced by a student rather than by an isolated person. You might think that sounds very stuffy; however, it is true. Art is produced by a student with an interest not only in his own creation, but in the basic necessity of expression that is, what needs to be shown to others. Beyond that, the Buddhist approach to art is anti-garbage. You don't keep churning out scruffy things; they go into the garbage and are burned.
"The basic Buddhist approach to art comes from a sense of studentship, which is also as sense of teachership, because even though teachers may be highly developed, they are still always students themselves. One of the reasons that art has never died is that successive teachers have continued to study works of art, rather than just proclaiming themselves as models. Usually what happens to those who proclaim themselves as models is that they lead decadent lives and become cynical and aggressive and indulge themselves unnecessarily.
"Basically, when we talk about art, we are talking about a form of some kind that we could work on. So it is like the practice of meditation. But what is that form, and how does meditation go along with it? The obvious answer according to the Buddha is that form doesn't actually exist, and dharma also doesn't exist; therefore, form and dharma could mix together. It's like spreading cheese on bread: you can't distinguish between the cheese and the bread anymore. In order to do that, we need a lot of meditative discipline. Absolutely nobody can become a good craftsman or a good artist without relating with the practice of meditation. By meditation I mean shamatha-vipashyana practice, not hunting peacefully in the jungle with your rifle or fishing peacefully, sitting beside the lake with your fishing rod. I'm talking about the sitting practice of meditation. Nobody can create a perfect work of art or understand a perfect work of art without understanding the practice of meditation. So the sitting practice of meditation is the basic ground.
"But what do we mean by the sitting practice of meditation? For instance, Beethoven, El Greco, or my most favorite person in music, Mozart I think they all sat. They actually sat in the sense that their minds became blank before they did what they were doing. Otherwise, they couldn't possibly do it. Just coming out of the market and plopping down at the dining-room table and writing a play that's impossible. Some kind of mind-less-ness in the Buddhist sense has to take place.
"From that basic ground, the sense of being, openness, or isness begins to develop. Isness might be a better word than being, because there is something happening. When you sit or you don't sit, when you cook your meal or wash your dishes, there's isness taking place. In the Buddhist tradition, that is called awareness. But we are not referring to the kind of awareness where we say, 'I should be aware that I have to take my medicine at five o'clock, since I'm allergic to bugs.' It's not that kind of awareness. The awareness referred to here is isness, which is very important and powerful. We have to understand that and work with it. That is absolutely important.
"Isness is all-pervasive. Whatever we do, there is something happening. So there is no separation between the medium and you. For instance, if at this moment you are sitting on your buttocks on the floor underneath a tent that is isness. We are here, we are actually here! That kind of awareness is very important. We are here, nowhere else. Since we are here, why not be here?
"That sense of isness, beingness, or awareness is known as postmeditation practice. In sitting meditation, you don't trip out, but simply sit, identify with your breath, work with your thoughts. You do everything very manually, very definitely, constantly. But in postmeditation practice, you are here. You are definitely here: whether you are combing your hair, pressing your clothes, walking around, taking a bite of a peach, or whatever you are doing in your life. That is all an expression of isness.
"In terms of art, if you do art, you just do it. You can see that this part of the clay is wrongly put or this particular color is wrong, so you scrape it out or use another color. You go ahead and do it. There's no problem, and there's no challenge either. Nobody is trying to compete against anything. You are not trying to become the master of the world. You are just trying to be yourself and express yourself in a very, very simple, meditative, and nonaggressive Buddhist way. And as you meditate more and you work on your art more, the boundary between meditation and the practice of art, between openness and action, becomes fuzzy which is what everybody experienced in the past.
"The Buddhist way of approaching art is nonaggressive. Aggressiveness brings competitiveness, money concerns, comparison, frustration, excitement, all kinds of things. If there's no aggression, that brings joy, openness, dance. I don't mean joy in a sense of love-and-light, swimming in a sea of honey but joy in the sense that things could be touched and appreciated. You could look at things that are beautiful, but there's no point in picking the flower. You can look at things, you can experience things, you can feel things, you can touch things, and that's fantastic. There is a real sense of real richness taking place from that perspective of nonaggression, nonpossessiveness. Some people go window-shopping in big cities, and all the time they are miserable because they can't afford to buy anything. Other people go window-shopping because they like to look at beautiful things. That seems to be the basic distinction.
"Aggression is very deep-rooted. Anger is like the heart of the earth: it has brewed for years and years and years, thousands of years. And when it is just about to give a little peep out on the surface of the earth, that is aggression. Don't try to make it go away, and don't try to invite it that is what's called the path. The path consists of collections of dirt, stones, grasses. It includes everything passion, aggression, and ignorance. Without those, you have no path. So you shouldn't try to build a highway and have everything smooth under your car. That's the difference between the Buddhist path and the American materialistic path.
"One kind of aggression happens because you have stuffed so much stuff into your head and you want to let it out, to make a display of it. Another kind of aggression is competitiveness, being achievement oriented. And yet another kind of aggression is that you are so involved with yourself that you forget the surface of the canvas or the medium that you are working with, so you lose the point. Also, in many cases, art is regarded as a release. That is absolutely the wrong attitude. A work of art should not be regarded as a release! 'I have nothing to do, I feel slightly depressed. Why don't I go to the pottery wheel and make some pots? That feels good.' It is very sacrilegious to regard a work of art in that way. Art has to be very serious.
"Art is unlimited. You can do anything. You can make a stick into a pair of chopsticks. You can do all kinds of things. You do not have to rely on a professional message coming through before you can do it unless you are working with something complicated, like computers. At the same time, you should be open to an artistic way of viewing that could be very technical and very detailed in terms of symbols and space and so forth. That also comes from the sitting practice of meditation. Usually in art, your medium is based on something very simple and direct. Sometimes there's fear, sometimes obstacles, but you should just go ahead and do it. But if you expect your work is going to be great, the result will be that your work is terrible.
"In looking at the role of sitting meditation practice in artistic perception, we should try to understand how the practice of meditation changes the way you relate with your world: how it changes your visual system, your hearing system, and your speaking as well. The way you look at somebody depends on your confidence and how much you want to look at such a person. When you project your voice, it is quite clear to what degree you are willing to expose yourself. So I would like to make it quite clear that what we are talking about is not purely aesthetics. A lot of artists are trying to present something beautiful and nice, flowery, polite. But we are not trying to be overly polite or aesthetic or, for that matter, overly rude. The idea is that the way we behave and the way we work with our sense perceptions comes from simple and straightforward Buddhism. You could call it buddha nature.
"The important point, to begin with, is to have a blank sheet of paper in front of you. That is, you are willing to open, willing to let go. The Buddhist approach to art is not so much learning the tricks of the five buddha families, but having a sense of openness and perspective. Artistic talent and the concept of visual space is already available to you. You don't need to cultivate it, and you don't need to make up something without any context. It happens naturally and very simply. According to the tantric Buddhist approach, we don't relate with art purely as aesthetics, but we approach artistic talent and perception simply, as natural phenomena.
"It's a question of paying more attention to the space that exists around us. In doing so, we develop a sense of confidence, confidence that space exists in front of our eyes and that it is not demanding anything. It's a free world, a truly free world. Obviously, in handling our life, questions and hesitations come up constantly. They are like the blank sheet of paper, the canvas. Out of those hesitations, we begin to make a move. We may begin to create a painting or a picture out of that. We are constantly creating and re-creating; each moment we are shifting from the previously created picture to creating the next picture. That is something to do with confidence. You have to be extremely sensitive and awake. That is the closest word I can think of: awake. Some kind of deliberateness is also necessary. But deliberateness does not mean trying to insert your personal ego; it is purely experiential and inspirational.
"Generally, we are extremely keen on becoming artistic, but that is obviously a hang-up. Once we become "artistic," we have a tendency to organize, and to build up dogma around that, and to defend our territory. As soon as we begin to do that, we come up with all kinds of problems: problems of communication with ourselves and problems of communication with others.
"Some artists appreciate eccentricity: 'He or she is unapproachable, just a crazy artist. Period. That's all.' If people try to approach such an artist, he won't speak to them. He only has a few carefully selected friends. He or she won't speak to anybody who does not buy into his particular trip, his particular ego. That kind of approach is well known, and since it amounts to what's known in spirituality as spiritual materialism, we could call it artistic materialism.
"Eagerness can be a problem for an artist. When you are eager to do something, you don't perceive the blank sheet of paper or blank canvas in front of you at all. The whole picture is already painted and printed. So you have nothing to paint, nothing to go beyond, nothing further to create. Your vision is completely lopsided nonexistent, for that matter. You might make something up out of necessity, out of some expectation that you or your friends might have. But the product will be junk. I think dogshit is the closest word for it.
"Some people may be inspired by violent art, such as pictures of you exploding your head or your brain. But the only people who will be really interested are those with a militant outlook. Although such violent artwork might be presented in a fantastic Zen-like, peaceful fashion, it is absolutely black. You are creating black magic, which harms people rather than helps them. So you should be very careful. Creating a work of art is not a harmless thing. It always is a powerful medium. Art is extraordinarily powerful and important. It challenges people's lives. So there are two choices: either you create black magic to turn people's heads, or you create some kind of basic sanity. Those are the two possibilities, so you should be very, very careful."