Dogen on painted cakes and hunger. Again.

 
A recent online conversation with a friend brought up our observations of the way so many folk in the ‘spiritual field’ feel that it’s somehow wrong to have a passion to create, or be interested in, art. He commented, “They’ve internalized teachings that say that artistic expression is a lie, that it is too sensuous, too rajasic, too much of a distraction from “higher” things. I’m reminded of Plato wanting to expel poets and musicians from his Republic!”

The mainstream art world is a minefield for artists and artisans whose practice is fuelled by the impulse to express from the wonderment and awe that is their authentic experience. On the one hand we have the denial by its curators and critics of anything that whiffs of ‘the spiritual’ in contemporary art (see the daylighting has begun), and on the other we are rebuked by the high priests, teachers and purveyors of (so-called) “higher” things themselves! I have had first-hand experience of this on my journey – I was associated for a while with teachings that regarded all creative expression as potential ego-reinforcement. It was a liberation for me to abandon such a separative misconception and embrace the full monty of the creative life; to meet and work with new teachers who themselves were artists and who considered creative practice to be an essential aspect of awakening to the Real.

My friend finished by saying that many of these people have “suppressed creative, esthetic, blissful, sensitive, compassionate and divinely universal parts of themselves by rejecting the aesthetic aspect of life.”

It made me think back to this post – originally written and published in 2009 – and prompted me to put it up again. Lest we forget.


 

Zen saying: painted cakes do not satisfy hunger

 

Wonderingmind Studio: Wayne Thiebaud - Boston Cremes, 1962

 

Meaning: painted cakes aren’t the real thing, they only describe the real thing. Implying that for the serious seeker of Truth, creative work is a vanity, a distraction, a pointless pursuit.

It is true that the tendency to identify with one’s creative expressions can cause the ego to inflate, with all the suffering that comes by default. But identification with any human activity carries this danger.

The question:  What is the self that expresses in self-expression? is our lifeboat in these dangerous waters.

The monk Dogen saw the bigger picture.
He said:  Painted cakes do satisfy hunger.

Aside from painted cakes, there is no way to satisfy hunger.
Aside from the painted cakes we make,
artists and writers and educators and web builders
have no way to express their ideas and inspirations.

Aside from the process of making painted cakes
we have no insight into our creativity
and what fosters it or sabotages it.

Aside from the painted cakes we perceive,
what so-called Reality is there?

If Reality is REAL, it must be whole and undivided.  Our painted cakes are therefore nondual expressions of the truth – whether we know it or not, and whether we like it or not.  The ten thousand things are painted cakes awaiting the glance of an awakened wondering mind.  This vast and all-embracing perspective lifts our creative work into the realm of sacred practice, something many artisans – including this one – are very conscious of and deeply committed to.  Our works are ‘painted cakes’ and amazingly, they do satisfy hunger.


Gratitude to John Daido Loori, Sensei, for inspiration and teachings.


Painting by Wayne Thiebaud – Boston Cremes, 1962


If this topic interests you, do pop over to my other website theawakenedeye.com and have a look around. 


my brush is my suijo

 

I’d never attempted a self-portrait

until the day

I drew my breath

 
In John Daido Loori‘s must-have book for artists of all persuasions, The Zen of Creativity, he writes about the way shakuhachi maestro Watazumi Doso Roshi regarded his flute as a tool to monitor his authentic integration with, and expression of, the Life Force.

[The] ability to be free in his music was the result of Doso’s life-long, unrelenting commitment to the discipline of the breath. He actually wasn’t very interested in the shakuhachi as a musical instrument.  He called his flute suijo, which loosely translates as “concentrated breathing tool.”  Doso saw himself not so much as a musician or entertainer, but as one who is totally devoted to developing his life force – chi – by utilizing and strengthening his breath.  The bamboo flute was simply a tool for that practice.  He said once, “Since I must have some way of knowing how my breath is doing, I blow into a piece of bamboo and hear how it sounds.”

The Zen of Creativity: Cultivating Your Artistic Life by John Daido Loori  (1931 – 2009)

This intrigued me. For many years now, part of my own art practice has been to use a single, horizontal brushstroke to express the exhalation of my breath.  It’s a contemplative practice I’ve written about before on this blog (see the links below), and one that continues – whatever the vagaries of my life.  It’s clear to me that my breathscribe paintings are my suijo, my “concentrated breathing tool”.  They show me how my breath is doing. Which in turn reveals what my mind is doing. And that tells me everything about how my Life is doing.
 
 

Wonderingmind Studio: Miriam Louisa Simons, Breathscribe Series, Desert Breath

 

More helpful advice, this time from Watazumi Doso Roshi himself. It applies equally well to artist and musician, singer and dancer, indeed, to all of us as we embrace genuine authenticity:

So in that sound you have to put in your guts, your strength and your own specialness.  And what you are putting in then is your own Life and your own Life Force.  When you hear some music or hear some sound, if for some reason you like it very well; the reason is that sound is in balance or in harmony with your pulse.  And so making a sound, you try to make various different sounds that imitate various different sounds of the universe, but what you are finally making is your own sound, the sound of yourself.

Watazumido Doso Roshi (1910 – 1992)

 

My outer life has vanished,

but love’s breath still breathes for me.

– Hafiz

 


how many ways can you draw quiet?
California breathing
breathscribe series


12.10.12

 

daily details 12.10.12

 

acrylic paint, modeling paste, sand, handmade paper


If I was asked to get rid of the Zen aesthetic
and just keep one quality necessary to create art,
I would say its trust.

When you learn to trust yourself implicitly,
you no longer need to improve something through your art.
You simply allow it to come out, to be effortless.
It happens just as you grow your hair.
It grows.

– John Daido Loori


the heart of creativity

 

John Daido Loori: Think Non Thinking

John Daido Loori, Roshi, Think Non-thinking, 2000
Sumi-e on paper

 
The still point is at the heart of the creative process.  In Zen, we access it through zazen.  The still point is like the eye of the hurricane.  Still, calm, even in the midst of chaos.  It is not, as many believe, a void to retreat into, shutting out the world.  To be still means to empty yourself from the incessant flow of thoughts and create a state of consciousness that is open and receptive.  Stillness is very natural and uncomplicated.  It’s not esoteric in any way.  Yet it’s incredibly profound.

. . .

“I find myself agitated most of the time,” said a young man, so it’s difficult for me to sit. What would you suggest I do?”

Eido [Shimano] reached for the pitcher of water that was sitting next to him.  He lifted it with a swift jerk, causing water to spill.  “What can I do?”  Then he jerked the pitcher to the right.  Again water spilled. “I don’t know what is happening.”  Again to the left.  “I can’t settle down.”  Again to the right.  Suddenly he held the pitcher high above his head and in a deep voice shouted, “TIME TO SHUT UP AND SIT!” and slammed the pitcher on the floor.  He reared back, stared at the pitcher, pointed at it, turned to the audience, and said, “Look, it’s still.”  Again he folded his hands, lowered his eyes, and became silent.

John Daido Loori, Roshi


Source – both of these passages come from The Zen of Creativity: Cultivating Your Artistic Life by John Daido Loori, Roshi


creativity will never make sense

Dharma Wheel

Naturalness, spontaneity, and playfulness are all aspects of the ordinary mind that catches a glimpse of the world of things just as they are.

To live this life fully means to see all of it.

The doorway to this experience is the creative process.  Please delve deeply into it.

Give it a chance to do what it is capable of doing.  Engage it fully with the whole body and mind.

If you do, sooner or later, this limitless way of being will be your own.

It will never make sense, and you’ll never be able to explain it to anybody, but you will experience it, and by so doing, you will make it real.

– John Daido Loori, The Zen of Creativity

John Daido Loori - Floating Rocks

Homage to John Daido Loori, who left us on Friday.

Gratitude for all that he shared with us as a fully human being, and taught us as a Zen Master. And for his inspiring insights into the creative process, shared in his books and revealed in his exquisite photography.

Photograph:  Floating Rocks, copyright John Daido Loori


For more on Daido Roshi, please visit his pages at the awakened eye website:
the zen of creativity
John Daido Loori, artisan