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
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.