In Buddhist tradition as it is practiced in Japan, it is said that, “The way of art is the way of the Buddha.” 「芸道是佛道」In the Buddhist view, one of the reasons we human beings experience suffering is that our minds get very busy wanting certain ephemeral but desirable things in life—things like love, wealth, power, or status. We feel such disappointment when we don’t get them all, or all at the same time, or when they don’t last. The disappointment is pretty inevitable. Let’s face it: when is your life going to look exactly the way you want it to, in all aspects? Probably never. Though life can feel pretty darn good for some magical stretches, like when you fall in love or win the Nobel Prize, “happiness out there” (the kind of happiness you might feel if only a number of external circumstances could be met) is going to be an endlessly receding horizon we will never actually catch.
That’s why part of Buddhist practice is to learn to quiet this busy mind that bounces around the halls of desire and disappointment. If we learn not to attach too strongly to these wishes, we reduce our suffering. If you actually get to a point where you realize that the feeling of separateness from what you think you want is itself only an illusion—because in the Buddhist view there is no true separation of any one thing from another—then in that instant you have touched your “Buddha nature.” Now, animals are considered to possess this Buddha nature automatically, because they are completely innocent in their experience of life. They do only what comes naturally to them. Although animals certainly struggle every day just to survive, they are almost certainly not tortured by their own thoughts. How does one achieve this blissful emptiness of mind? Meditating in front of a rock garden might be one way, but doing art is considered another. Therefore, “The way of art is the way of the Buddha.” When you lose yourself in the practice of a craft, you might temporarily experience something like nirvana.
A life without desires or wishes may sound bland and awful to some, but the idea is not to become an unfeeling robot. The promise is a life of greater peace, not less enjoyment. In Japan I had the opportunity on a couple of occasions to meet the abbots of Zen temples I was visiting. I found them to have a gleam in their eyes and a guileless delight in their laughter. Not bad for a mind that practices “going blank.”
In modern psychological terms, this state of “ecstasy” (which literally means you are “displaced,” “in a trance,” or, even more literally, “standing outside of yourself”) has been called “flow.” The originator of the concept, Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi, describes it as a state of mind a person achieves when deeply engaged in an activity that requires just the amount of skill that the person possesses, especially when the challenge in the activity and the skill level in the person are both high. In this state, time passes without the person even knowing it. (See Czikszentmihalyi’s TED talk at http://www.ted.com/talks/mihaly_csikszentmihalyi_on_flow ) Whatever you call it, or however you get to it, it feels good to be in that space.
For more on the Buddhist perspective on happiness, told by Sylvia Boorstein in an accessible and enjoyable fashion, see also: http://www.sylviaboorstein.com/books.html .
In the midst of a painting now. Blissfulness.
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Right on, my Brother!
This is lovely. One response I have:
Animals in captivity, and that might even include household pets depending on circumstance, surely must be tortured by their own thoughts (?). Many animals in captivity develop lifelong behaviors that reflect the chasm between what they want/perceive they need and what they have available to them. In fact I am reading a book called Animal Madness by Laurel Braitman on this topic. So my question is, to what extent has the social/environmental context for we humans created a sense of captivity for some of us? And how might that influence the disquiet within some of us? It certainly argues for the importance of development of one’s artful space.
Josie, your comment raises so many interesting questions! For one thing, perhaps it is true that the “Buddha nature” of animals is “automatic” only in their natural, undomesticated state. Is there such a thing as a true “state of nature” for human beings? The very phrase calls to mind some of the great Western philosophers of the Enlightenment–Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau–who wrestled with that question. Were we humans happier as hunter-gatherers? Perhaps shorter-lived, but perhaps happier? With a less institutionalized Social Contract (the understood agreement that individuals will abide by society’s rules, sacrificing some measure of freedom for greater order and safety) in those wild old days, we may indeed have been less constricted in our choices from day to day… Or was it more constricted, since the struggle to survive must have been a harsh disciplinarian!? Yes, I think it is hard to imagine a human who is not captive to some need, physical or psychological, that works against absolute freedom. All the more reason to choose to adopt a pursuit that may promote psychological freedom at least. Maybe you know Rainer Maria Rilke’s famous poem, “The Panther,” which is powerful only because it resonates so deeply with the human condition:
His vision, from the constantly passing bars,
has grown so weary that it cannot hold
anything else. It seems to him there are
a thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world.
As he paces in cramped circles, over and over,
the movement of his powerful soft strides
is like a ritual dance around a center
in which a mighty will stands paralyzed.
Only at times, the curtain of the pupils
lifts, quietly–. An image enters in,
rushes down through the tensed, arrested muscles,
plunges into the heart and is gone.
The original German:
Sein Blick ist vom Vorübergehn der Stäbe
so müd geworden, daß er nichts mehr hält.
Ihm ist, als ob es tausend Stäbe gäbe
und hinter tausend Stäben keine Welt.
Der weiche Gang geschmeidig starker Schritte,
der sich im allerkleinsten Kreise dreht,
ist wie ein Tanz von Kraft um eine Mitte,
in der betäubt ein großer Wille steht.
Nur manchmal schiebt der Vorhang der Pupille
sich lautlos auf — dann geht ein Bild hinein,
geht durch der Glieder angespannte Stille —
und hört im Herzen auf zu sein.
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