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Dharma Art—Genuine Art
A letter written on the occasion of the Naropa Institute’s first summer program, July 1974.
The term dharma art does not mean art depicting Buddhist symbols or ideas, such as the wheel of life or the story of Gautama Buddha. Rather, dharma art refers to art that springs from a certain state of mind on the part of the artist that could be called the meditative state. It is an attitude of directness and unself-consciousness in one’s creative work.
The basic problem in artistic endeavor is the tendency to split the artist from the audience and then try to send a message from one to the other. When this happens, art becomes exhibitionism. One person may get a tremendous flash of inspiration and rush to ‘‘put it down on paper’’ to impress or excite others, and a more deliberate artist may strategize each step of his work in order to produce certain effects on his viewers. But no matter how well-intentioned or technically accomplished such approaches may be, they inevitably become clumsy and aggressive toward others and toward oneself.
In meditative art, the artist embodies the viewer as well as the creator of the works. Vision is not separate from operation, and there is no fear of being clumsy or failing to achieve his aspiration. He or she simply makes a painting, poem, piece of music, or whatever. In that sense, a complete novice could pick up a brush and, with the right state of mind, produce a masterpiece. It is possible, but that is a very hit-and-miss approach. In art, as in life generally, we need to study our craft, develop our skills, and absorb the knowledge and insight passed down by tradition.
But whether we have the attitude of a student who could still become more proficient in handling his materials, or the attitude of an accomplished master, when we are actually creating a work of art there is a sense of total confidence. Our message is simply one of appreciating the nature of things as they are and expressing it without any struggle of thoughts and fears. We give up aggression, both toward ourselves, that we have to make a special effort to impress people, and toward others, that we can put something over on them.
Genuine art—dharma art—is simply the activity of nonaggression.
Art Begins at Home
Dharma art is not purely about art and life alone. It has to do with how we handle ourselves altogether: how we hold a glass of water, how to put it down, how we can hold a note card and make it into a sacred scepter, how we can sit on a chair, how we can work with a table, how we do anything.
Dharma art is not purely about art and life alone. It has to do with how we handle ourselves altogether: how we hold a glass of water, how to put it down, how we can hold a note card and make it into a sacred scepter, how we can sit on a chair, how we can work with a table, how we do anything. So it is not a narrow-minded approach or a crash course on how to be the best artist and get the best money out of that. I’m afraid it doesn’t work like that. Dharma art is a long-term project, but if you are willing to keep up with the basic discipline, you will never regret it. In fact, you will appreciate it a lot and you will be very moved at some point. Whenever you make your breakthrough and develop that reference point, you will appreciate it and enjoy it enormously. You will be so thankful. That is my personal experience. It has been done, and it will be done in the future.
Dharma art is a question of general awareness. It is much more than art alone. For instance, if you are involved with an art form, such as flower arranging, you could begin with your own household, organizing it in that fashion. You could set up a place for flower arrangements. In a Japanese household, there is always a place for a central arrangement, called a tokonoma. Or in the Buddhist tradition, there is always a shrine of some kind. Not only that, but you could work with the notion of how you arrange the kitchen, where you put your cups and saucers and where you put your pots and pans, how you put things away and arrange them properly. Also, in the bathroom, where you put your soap, where you put your towel; and in the bedroom, how you fold your sheets. You begin to come into your home with a sense that there is a total household, which takes hard work and discipline. At the same time, it is so elegant and practical that you don’t have to run into messy edges of any kind. That seems to be the start.
Once you have your domestic setup properly done, ideally you can invite a few friends to your house and show them how you handle your life. From that you can introduce flower arranging to people. In that way, flower arranging is not just something you do when you are feeling bad, like making a little flower thingy for your mantelpiece; it is a total world. Students should learn that; they should know that. You are not just making flower arrangements in your living room, but you have that same general sense of perception everywhere. So dharma art involves how to rinse your towel in the bathroom, how you hang it up properly so it dries nicely and you don’t have to iron it. It has to do with how your sheets are folded, how your table is placed in the sitting room. It is a total world, in which you pay attention to every little detail. If the executive director of IBM came to visit you, and you were fooling with these little things, he might think you were crazy—but on the other hand, he might appreciate you. This approach is not necessarily Oriental; it is just the basic sanity of how you do things properly and have a place for everything. It is running your household as a work of art. That seems to be the main point.
In this case, the particular arrangement of the household is not the duty of the husband or the wife or the children, but everybody does it. They each do their part, so nobody begins to be labeled as the housecleaner or the cook. Everybody in the family should learn how to cook, and they should also learn how to clean up after they have cooked. Everybody should learn how to make things clean and orderly. That way, eventually you won’t need a spring cleaning, as they say. Instead of once a year doing a whole big sweep, it’s being done every minute, every hour, every day. So everything is being handled properly and beautifully, and you begin to appreciate your home.
Even though you might be living in a plastic-looking condominium or apartment, you can still look elegant. That seems to be the basic point. It’s very natural. You don’t just throw things on the floor. When you take off your pajamas, you fold them up and put them in their proper place. Dharma art is natural awareness. You do not need to make a special effort or have a chunk of time in order to do a good job. It’s just a question of where you place your soap on your dish, how you fold your towel, which doesn’t take all that much extra time. That is dharma art, actually. We could experiment with that. Do you think it’s possible?