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. 


in the hands of alchemy

 
Sometimes finding the truth of one’s work – and one’s life – costs everything. How much of our belief structure, our convictions and habitual behavior are we prepared to relinquish in order to allow space for the utterly authentic to express through our voices and hands?

In 1979, at age 29, Jerry Wennstrom destroyed all the art he had created, gave everything he owned away, and set out to discover the rock-bottom truth of his life. He sensed an inner and outer world in perfect order and became a willing participant in that order – he leaped into the void, the ultimate creative act. He began a life of unconditional trust, allowing life to provide all that was needed. He lived this way for 15 years.

Wennstrom’s wish was to open to the energy of life itself. In releasing the structure of daily habits and routines, he learned to trust and appreciate the significance of each moment. This entailed relying on intuition, listening keenly to the deeper nature of feelings, and wisely observing the ways in which our inner world reflects the outer, and vice versa.

In 1998 he moved to Washington State, where he eventually married Marilyn Strong and produced a large new body of art.  Marilyn and Jerry’s charming Whidbey Island home is now filled with his unique interactive sculptures and paintings.  Jerry also built a 40-foot meditation tower on his property, which is featured, along with his story, in a book by Laura Chester called Holy Personal.

 

Jerry Wennstrom - The Confessional

Confessional
Interactive sculpture – 8ft in height

 

During a trip to Italy I was moved by a few ancient, worm-eaten Confessionals I saw in several of the older cathedrals in Assisi. The oldest ones were small and simple and appeared not to be in use any longer. They were often placed off to the sides of the smaller chapels or in out of the way places. These old confessionals were so well-used over the years that the places where knees touched wood were worn in shape of two half moons. There were places on the hand rest where finger nails dug deep into the wood. The inspiration for this art piece was the power and energy of guilt, angst and forgiveness that these confessionals embodied.

I call the piece Confessional and it is made out of an 8′ X 26″ hollow, cedar log that I drug up from the ravine below our house. The outer, female figure is a double door that opens down the middle and around the face to reveal the life-size, fully carved saint inside. Turning the Danger High Voltage switch that is situated under the lower mask turns the saint into a devil — his halo disappears, little red horns appear out of the figure’s head, a forked tongue comes out of his mouth, a tail wags from behind and his hands offer an apple.

– Jerry Wennstrom

 

Jerry Wennstrom - Confessional interior showing saint
Confessional interior showing ‘saint’.
See more details of this work on the blog (see link below)

 

Jerry’s story is told in his book, The Inspired Heart: An Artist’s Journey of Transformation (foreword by Thomas Moore) published by Sentient Publications and in the Parabola Magazine documentary film called In the Hands of Alchemy: The Art and Life of Jerry WennstromThere is also a Sentient Publications DVD with the same name, which includes a short new film called Studio Dialogue.  Studio Dialogue is a presentation Jerry did before a live audience with music by Susan McKeown, sung by Marilyn Strong.  Jerry travels internationally lecturing, teaching and presenting his film and work and he writes a monthly piece on the spirit of the times for a New York City consulting firm.

Most of the above information is sourced from  Jerry’s website. The images and his comments about Confessional are sourced from his blog.
 
Jerry Wennstrom's blog - In the Hands of Alchemy

Click on the screenshot to visit Jerry and Marilyn’s blog.

Jerry Wennstrom is also featured on my website ‘the awakened eye’: the way of trust and transformation


art and awakening

 

Brody Neuenschwander - Library of Babel

 

getting past the words

Words are wonderful when they serve as pointers.  The problem is that we tend to ascribe ‘realness’ or ‘thingness’ to words, forgetting their sole function as symbols representing shared concepts.  In order to get beyond the word it’s necessary to plant one’s feet firmly within its accepted meaning, and then explore what that meaning might be pointing towards.  Art and awakening are two words that are hot potatoes for some reason, and without signing up for the task I seem to have had a default preoccupation with both concepts all my life.  This little essay tries to express what I’ve learned, or rather what I’ve unlearned.

I’ll begin with a couple of definitions:

art
putting things in their ‘right’ place, in order, in the spot where they sing with a rightness independent of one’s cultural conditioning; a cellular-level rightness which is somehow recognized by the body.

awakening
the irreversible apperception that no independent entity exists who could possibly awaken or become enlightened, or be other than whatever this is, here and now.

Art – art as that creative process of finding the ‘right’ place, rather than the art product – was a consuming passion for the first half of my life.  Hey, I even married (and un-married) a guy called Art, and he’s as passionate about creating as I am!  It’s likely that my later pre-occupation with the concept of ‘awakening’ was seeded in the magical experiences that occurred within the creative context, but its flowering would only happen later in life, when concerns with career paths faded.

health and creativity

During the decades spent teaching art and design and immersed in creative practice in my studio, it became obvious to me that overall health in human beings appears to be nurtured, fostered and sustained by enthusiasm and wonder, accompanied by the urge to move, to make.

Finding one’s health (wholeness), purpose, self-esteem and fulfillment seems to depend on these qualities, and artistic work – perhaps more than most other activities – offers a portal through which they may be accessed.  Developing and refining artistic skills which cultivate and express these qualities would surely be the aim of a curriculum for art and design education in a holistic context.

Experiencing Life as a work of art is possible when the process of creating becomes a consciously-held intention, a matrix within which we refine our focus on the details of that which we desire to create. But these are merely fancy words until we come to understand who or what we truly are within the big picture – the macromatrix.  That’s where awakening comes in.

loving what-is

Understanding and healing occur when there is acceptance and appreciation of the what-is of our Life. Love for our Life returns us to Wholeness.  In that Wholeness we wake up from the myth that we were ever separate from the Wholeness – which brings a huge new understanding.  We know that there cannot be, logically or rationally, anything apart from Wholeness, and consequently, that we cannot possibly exist as a separate, independent entity.  We are that Wholeness.  Enthusiasm and wonder arise spontaneously, and we are compelled to create and celebrate as they bathe our perception of the world and its “ten thousand things”.

free-will?

Our desire is the desire of Wholeness.  Our creations are the creations of that Wholeness.  Free-will is something we pretend to ‘have’.  But since there’s no separate entity apart from Wholeness, the will that appears to be ‘ours’ and ‘free’ is in fact the will of the Wholeness.  The will of Wholeness, or Creation, is energy – ubiquitous, amoral and impartial energy.  It is ceaselessly moving and ceaselessly making.  We say it moves according to ‘our’ thoughts.  We say we must change, or focus ‘our’ thoughts in order to create what we wish.  But what we come to understand is that the impulse which seems to be attributable to ‘me’ is (without permission or control) doing all the things we used to take credit or blame for!  Impulse, intention, focus and application of ‘will power’ are all actions of the Wholeness that we are.  And whatever is created via those actions is created by Wholeness.

art is a way

Will is happening, will cannot not happen so long as there are conscious emanations of Wholeness (called sentient beings) being Lived by that Wholeness.  Life’s ex-pression of Wholeness is the only valid description of authentic art.  We exist to express this Wholeness, and art is a Way.  A way-less way, if you like – for the ultimate art is the realization that there is no artist and no way.

The activities that have always interested me most in the art room or studio are those that, rather than providing a pathway for the production of a certain kind of image, are simply explored as a mirror that reflects my assumptions, habits and notions about myself, about art, and about life.  Because these are the only things that obscure the truth of one’s being.  The approaches to that truth are as varied and numerous as there are participants in the playground.  And the truly creative curriculum in the arts will be a resource of ways to explore the most remarkable, miraculous fact that can ever be known:  the wonder of being alive and the recognition that one is no-thing other than that alive-ness.

Awakening is just precisely that.

awareness

Awareness in healthy humans is what allows the capacity for and sense of alive-ness.  Alive-ness cannot be cultivated – it is surely there or not, and if it’s not, you won’t be reading this.  Awareness likewise cannot be cultivated, since, try as we might, we cannot find it!  Yet it is always present.

The presence of Awareness is only obscured by the noise of our notions and opinions about everything. Making things is a wonderful way of meeting these notions.  Awareness itself then performs the remarkable deed of dissolving these hindrances, seemingly opening itself up to more sense of itself. Heightened awareness of all the worlds assumed to be real – both outwardly and in the hidden recesses of the mind – inevitably opens up new perspectives on life, and, if there is ripeness, awakening might ‘happen’.

Without a whisper of will, without a trace of trying, life awakens to itself and knows itself as naked Knowingness.

Without a name, belonging to no person,
with no history, no future, containing nothing,
without preferences, abhorring nothing, needing nothing,
being no-thing:

that no-thing from which all things arise

THAT
which lies beyond the words

 


Image credit: Library of Babel by Brody Neuenschwander


when the artist disappears, creativity radiates

 

The loss of a sense of separateness, of self-as-artist, isn’t an uncommon experience for artists, writers, actors and performers – or perhaps anyone in deep intimacy with their task-at-hand. But it’s not commonly written or talked about, so I was delighted to find a blog post by artist Meg Hitchcock on exactly this theme. Amazingly, we were writing these observations at around the same time – Meg in New York and me in Queensland Australia. Memes at work? 
 

Meg Hitchcock, Radiance

When I’m particularly absorbed in the creative process, I lose awareness of myself as someone to attend to.  Instead there is an awareness of an energy flowing through me that requires no explanation, no assistance, no tending to.  I am conscious of consciousness, and compelled to do only one thing: stay out of the way.  Just keep working, don’t analyze, try to ignore thoughts, and keep plugging away at the process at hand.

At the moment I’m cutting up the Koran with an x-acto blade letter by letter, and reassembling it into the Book of Revelation.  Pretty rote stuff.  But there are a lot of aesthetic decisions to be made as I work, so I can’t just put it on autopilot.  I’m present insofar as I decide where the line of type is going to be placed on the paper, but my ego involvement is minimal.  That’s when everything’s going well.  When things go badly, it’s because I’ve thought too much, and my ego has slipped through the gap.  My flat files are filled with paintings and drawings that were done by my ego.  Boring stuff.

I hear actors talk about losing themselves in the role they’re playing.  Ironically, when there is no trace of the actor, that’s when she gives a brilliant performance.  It’s the same with visual art.  Closing the gap and losing oneself is what creativity is all about.  When the artist disappears, pure creativity radiates, and consciousness unfolds into more consciousness.

– Meg Hitchcock


Read the entire post at Meg’s blog: http://meghitchcock.blogspot.com/2009/09/consciousness-creativity.html

Image source – Meg Hitchcock’s website

Meg’s work and writing also appears at the awakened eye website