About Zen Art and Ordinary Art
Some casual thoughts about art.
I was a student of a Japanese zen master, Terayama Tanchu Roshi, who was one of the greatest zen artists and zen art teachers of Japan. His art was calligraphy but he could comment all other arts and their spiritual or mundane features because he knew how to analyse the "zen quality" in them. This was possible because he knew the mind where art emanates from through his own zen meditation practice.
In short, the zen quality in art means whether the utter clarity and aliveness of mind is transmitted into and through the art piece to the observer. Pieces of zen art, created by people who have pure minds are impressive and have impact in a deepest meaning of the word because it reaches and touches the core of the viewer or listener, instead of merely causing the viewer to think or feel on the level of thoughts and emotions as ordinary art does. Zen art clarifies, purifies and inspires the viewer's mind while ordinary art clouds it with thought and abstract mental ideas.
In zen calligraphy, the form of the art piece can be a simple dot, a line or a circle or it can be an abstract painting or a poem brushed in alphabet or Chinese letters. In music this can mean playing a single or very few notes or creating elaborate tonal textures of complex harmonies. The form does not matter even nearly as much as the zen quality of it. If the vibrancy and aliveness of buddhanature does not come through the art, it is not zen art.
”Zen and the arts have not only a closely-tied but an
inseparable relationship, like Siamese twins. The inseparability
arises because zen negates the self and in the absolute being called buddha, then affirms its being. The self once negated is not only the simple limited self but is also the manifestation of buddha, symbol of that which we revere
as universal life. When something which cannot be seen or touched is symbolized in this way, it is worthy of recognition as a magnificent
work of art. When this occurs, zen takes the form of artistic expression.
But notice, all work from a zen priest is not necessarily zen art. The art must embody the selfless absolute and in the true religious sense zen art must embody the mind that is awake.”
- Omori Sogen Roshi, Japanese zen master
In my teens I was a keen musician and studied guitar with several great musicians, played a few hundred gigs and went through the whole formal music education channel. I also became a music producer until I quit music entirely for nearly 20 years. I never stopped listening music, though.
At the time I didn't know what it actually meant but I always sought ”truth” through music. I thought that through learning the instrument, its playing techniques, musical theory and many things about melody, harmony and so on. would help me to get there, to truth, whatever it was. I spent many thousands of hours learning these things but ironically it was only when I somehow got out from everything I had learned when great music came out and and touched the hearts of the listeners. I spent a few dozen hours a week learning all these things about fingerings, chords, effects and copy the musical phrases of great musicians but when ”that something”, a glimpse, happened live, it was like jumping out from the box of musical learning to an unknown and utterly fresh territory where pure expression gushed out from. At the time as a teenager I intuited that it had to do with what was talked about by spiritual masters in their books but no one I knew had ways to systematically cultivate this.
In retrospect, after countless hours of meditation and study of buddhist psychology and zen art, I know that these moments of pure expression happened because my sense of me-ness subsided for the true me, the selfless creative space, to take over. This is nothing new to anyone who has delved deeply into doing their favourite hobby or art. My own mother, a professional of handcrafts, could instantly recognise from my narration what she has often experienced.
This is what all the greatest artists and athletes speak about. Champions like Ayrton Senna (Formula 1) or Kobe Bryant, one of the greatest basketball players ever, always say that they played and achieved their best when they went beyond their mind that thinks in usual terms of their art such as: winning, competing, game tactics or particular techniques like running, jumping, throwing, hitting the gas or changing the gear. Similarly musical giants like John Coltrane (jazz saxophone) and Steve Vai, (electric guitar, of whom I have written a book about), who are keenly into sitting meditation and prayer, testify that when their usual sense of self subsides, the true art emanates forth by itself. This is why the greats are known as ”greats”.
It is curious that one cannot become a zen calligrapher by applying brush, and black ink on white paper alone. In the same way a musician cannot learn to know and express the deepest and the most profound part of him- or herself by playing his instrument alone. One cannot learn to know ones mind, its deluded and pure areas, in any other way than through meditation. And it is here where the biggest problem and hindrance of musical education lies at because no system of musical education teaches us how to study our minds.
The consequence is that educated musicians become good at technique and they come to know everything there is to know about the common aspects of music, but they don't learn to know themselves as existential beings beyond their self-deluded mind. In terms of musical education the self-delusion becomes created through becoming biased to the works of idols, to the theory of music and by identifying with a particular genre or style of music. The students become biased to the view that this is all they need to learn, that these are the ingredients that will enable them to become as great as their idols. But this is a misleading idea because the whole thing lacks a larger context, that of mind and awareness which is the basis of everything.
”Whenever we go into that creative element of our brain,
we always gravitate to the thing that interests us the most.
Some people are very passionate about politics, about love affairs,
about fast cars, most of the time we are thinking about sex... Right?
But for some reason, ever since I was very young, I've been a seeker,
after truth or reality. And through the years, I've studied,
even more than guitar, more than anything, I've studied
various religions, spiritual thoughts and truths.
You know, that's a personal journey, we all can have.
And when I go to write my music, many times I immediately just
gravitate to that core. Then my brain has all the technical information
and ability so it mixes it all up. That's how I get the music that I write.”
- Steve Vai from ”Zen of Steve Vai”
We play and create music firstly with our hearts and minds, and secondly with our bodies, voices, fingers, feet and instruments. Sounds that we create are expressions of our minds. A skilled zen artist can instantly recognise whether the notes, musical vibrations, carry the messy energy of conceptually biased mind or whether they transmit freshness and wonder of the natural mind. The nature of mind infuses the art with way more power and appeal than a deluded mind ever could.
Education of Zen Art
Music is about listening or hearing. Hearing means being in a receptive mode, rather than in a transmitting mode, projecting outwards. After one has learned the essentials about one's own instrument and music in general, it is important for one to become a listener, or otherwise one ends up blabbering all the things you've heard from others which is interesting only to those who are stuck in the same limbo. Learning to listen can and does take years of practice but if you ever stepped out from your limited mind zone and tasted pure expresion, you already know it is more than worth it.
We need to learn to listen in order for us to hear our own voice. This point has been stressed by all spiritual classics. Hearing our own voice means going beyond our sense of me-ness with all the conceptions we have acquired. When we do that, expression begins to flow by itself. We start to play, or dance or sculpt in a way we always dreamed of.
”People ask me,
'How do you write music and how do you get inspiration?'.
Sometimes inspiration just comes and you never know how it's gonna come. The best music comes when you listen to your inner ear
and you hear the melodies there.”
- Steve Vai
This happens because the nature of awareness is to create and express its own nature in every way it can. For this reason we can detect the same feel, or zen quality in the work of a master race car driver, a master rock'n'roll guitarist or in the work by a master craftsman. The same vibe can be observed from an aware person walking, fixing a car, having a cup of tea, or when having an argument.
Thank you for reading.
- Kim Katami. 10/2017
Teacher of zen art, buddhist tantra and dzogchen. Amateur guitar player.
Open Heart, www.openheart.fi
See also my Soul of Sound-Facebook project about music and guitar.