A note on art & Buddhist practices

Sitting mountain Ink on paper

A note on art & Buddhist practices. 2001

My experience as an art practitioner more or less parallels my involvement with Budddhism – 47 years of erratic practice and study. Reinforced by my experiences of doing zazen (mindfulness meditation), by readings of various Buddhist scholars and practitioners, and by the work and example of Pyrrho, Sextus Empiricus, John Ruskin, Michel de Montaigne, John Cage, John Dewey, Joseph Beuys and others – I’ve maintained a belief in art as both a mode of enquiry, a way of doing and a way of being. These constitute three strands of my working practice as an artist and merge into my activities as an enquirer and teacher.

The being mode refers to being attentive, being aware, being open to the way things are – to beauty and ugliness and to the beauty of ugliness – developing a state of clear awareness, or what is called in Buddhism, mindfulness. Being alive in this way involves, in my case, the poetic use of words or through the medium of visual signs, marks and materials. Being also involves engaging with the impermanence of things (anitya/anicca) – negotiating the endless stream of events, images, feelings, thoughts and actions that constitutes who we are and what the world is. I try to use materials and words to evoke and enact the transience of life without trying to grasp or reify the fluidity of existence.

Buddhism can be seen as a sustained interrogation of the self – as a dispassionate empirical analysis of the experiential field that constitutes the I or the me that we think we are, the supposed nucleus of our encounters with the world and with other people. In Buddhism this analysis lead to the discovery that there is no nucleus, the self is found to be not an enduring entity but a matrix of processes – what are called skandhas: body, sensations, perceptions, mental formations (ideas, wishes, dreams, fantasies) and consciousness. To put this another way, the self is a complex of chemical, electrical and neurological interactions that give rise to consciousness – in the same way that that chemical interactions give rise to the flame of a burning candle that also appears to have continuity of substance and identity even though, in reality, it is really a rapid succession of energy events. The notion of the autonomous self is replaced by an awareness that the self is a relational process. This marks a profound shift between the Hindu concept of atman (often translated as the enduring soul or self), and the Buddha’s rejection of this idea in favour of anatman/anatta (no-self).

To round off this brief summary of 2500 years of Buddhist practice and thought we need to add to impermanence and no enduring self the third condition of human existence, namely, dukkha. This term is often translated as ‘suffering’ but it encompasses a whole spectrum of qualities, from a general sense of dissatisfaction, unease and disharmony – of wanting things to be different – through anxiety to physical and mental suffering of more serious and chronic kinds. Dukkha is caused or exacerbated by ignorance (avidya) or lack of understanding – our tendency to try to ignore the implacable impermanence of things and the self – and to become fixated by desire or trapped by habits, preconceptions and ‘clinging’ (trishna). The Buddha’s analysis of these three conditions, lead him to develop a body of practices, rooted in mindfulness, that provide a way to a more peaceful and compassionate way of living.

My own writings, drawings and other artworks constitute my own small contribution to mindful enquiry into these conditions of being. The things I write and make are tokens of being here, passing through, attending to the ever-changing stream of experience.

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