Integrating Art and Wisdom, Talk 1

Venerable Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche
March 17, 2007
Shambhala Center, Boulder, CO 

Good morning everyone. It is my pleasure to be here with you all again in this incredibly blessed place. The Karma Dzong shrine room is like a monument in North America. So many things have happened here with the late Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, with His Holiness Karmapa, and then with Khyentse Rinpoche. I was here with Penor Rinpoche when we had one of the most incredible empowerments of the Dzogchen tradition. Many other great masters have been here and have given their enlightened teachings and empowerments.

What moves me most is how much this place has served people. So many people from all walks of life have come into this shrine room and really transformed their whole way of being, forging a relationship to the Buddhadharma and to their own mind. That is incredibly precious and significant. For such things to happen in general is rare and difficult, but particularly for such things to happen in any place requires a great force of nature to bring things together, along with a great blessing even in the environment for such things to happen. So, I feel very blessed and fortunate to be here, and I hope that you all feel the same.

To be doing this program on Integrating Art and Wisdom today in particular is something I had been thinking about for some time. I thought it would be wonderful to do a program like this, so when I received the request to come here around the same time, I immediately felt the tendrel, the auspicious coincidence. It must mean something significant. It is also timely, as our friend here has said, because many people in our own community, as well as outside of our community, are artists and have been artists since they were very young. Much passion, love, time, effort, sense of joy—as well as sadness—have been put into their art and their own creative process. Consider how many people over lifetimes have put all of this into their art and creativity. On the other hand, they also have a connection to Dharma and the practice of Dharma. Since having become a spiritually-oriented person, one also puts that passion, love, time, energy, joy, and sadness into practice. So if these two, Dharma and art, can be brought together—not as things that are separate or alien from each other—all of us become more truly able to embody these two things that we love most and are able to integrate them into our lives, being enriched by both. Then, as artists and practitioners, we can begin to grow out of the places that we feel stuck because regardless, one is stuck in one’s mind and nowhere else.

If one can take art as a practice and practice as an art, growing in life, and coming to have a sense of deep peace as well as resolve within oneself, the art that one creates will be a result of that, and the way one creates that art will become more of a practice. So, art becomes a fruition and practice—a ground and path for its creation. That can provide not only an incredible sense of achievement for ourselves, but it also can be our contribution to the world. It can touch many people’s lives without their having to assume the role of some significant realized master of this or that spiritual tradition.

Anyone’s art, offered freely and without hesitation or hindrance, is for the enjoyment of the world. In this sense, as both practitioners and artists, this is a fulfilling fruition. I believe that everybody—whether they consider themselves an artist or not, or whether they create art to display or not—nevertheless appreciates, enjoys, loves, and feels deeply moved by art in the world. If you take art, music, dance, or any of the mind’s production of creativity out of the world, what would be left to feel delighted by? Not politics—especially not now! But for good politicians, even politics can be related to art. Isn’t that so-called diplomacy?

In that sense, human life is deeply connected to and enriched by creativity. We are deeply moved by works of art produced by such creativity. We don’t come into this world already knowing how to sing a song, but we’re not on our own. Even though it may be a song we sing while crying in the crib, others may not understand our song. Over time in our lives, music and the joy of playing songs, listening to them, singing them, comes to mean so much to us, similar to the joy we experience in visual arts—drawing, painting, showing art. We learn to get in touch with our own creativity and master it, to perfect it simply by playing, just as a child who sees others at play gets excited and wants to play along, too, eventually becoming a master at play. On a deeper level, the arts mean so much to us.

We sometimes take the arts for granted in our lives. In reality, when they’re taken away from us, we feel deprived. When we lose art, what kind of life are we living? What is the joy of life? What is it that one is trying to accomplish, and in the end, what is it that one actually accomplishes? Whatever higher, more significant goals or vision one has, including enlightenment, should never be undermined. If those goals are undermined, and you cut your own relationship to those things, even enlightenment can become too dualistically serious and be seen as a sense of deprivation in life. Anything with a sense of deprivation certainly will not enrich life. Life may become very stale. By appreciating art and creativity, we experience joy in living.

Primary Importance of Creativity

Throughout history, human beings have deeply valued and enjoyed creativity through music, dance, and paintings. In the 21st century, so much has changed, but our basic need for and appreciation of the arts to enjoy and enrich our life—and our relationship with our own mind—has not changed. What else is there to truly value in human culture that throughout generations has served beings? In that sense, one’s passion for creativity and what is produced by creativity should not be looked at as a secondary interest but as one of primary importance.

Creativity is a primary instinct of human beings. So many other needs have only recently become important to us, such as cars, petroleum, and what science and modern technology have been able to offer to us to live more comfortably. Only within the last century have we become dependent on them. Look at how much conflict there is in the world for such resources. We have become dependent on these resources, are threatened by their potential unavailability, and that need and greed create violence. Even if modern technology is valued in the bigger picture, it can become self-destructive. But art, music, dance—from the cave-dwellers onward—have served generations with incredible joy and enrichment.

So, what are our primary needs? What peacefully, naturally, organically uplifts one’s life, and what doesn’t? When we look at it this way, what is more important: Having music in one’s home or having a car? Having a painting to enjoy or a lawn mower? Being able to dance for creative expression or exercise, or watching CNN on television for twenty-four hours? Which is more important? We have to discriminate and choose the primary need that enriches life and brings joy and a sense of greater satisfaction, physical and mental health, and a sense of well-being. If you are not able to choose primary needs, are you using our human intelligence? Are you giving human intelligence a chance to fully develop? These are primary needs.

When we get too serious, too focused, or too outrageously consumed by anything that makes life regimented or deprived of enjoyment, we must reevaluate and rethink what we’re trying to accomplish. Even with enlightenment, we must ask: What am I trying to accomplish here? When we get in touch with our own core, most of the time it becomes clear that creativity is very important. Even people who are incredibly business-oriented—interested only in gaining dollars and wealth—in the end, what are they going to do with their empires? What are they going to do with all that money they made? In the end, what they worked so hard for all their lives—building that empire, accumulating wealth, preserving their wealth—what do they do when they realize that’s all going to be lost and has to be left behind? When they get in touch with their core, many buy museums and art and contribute to the enjoyment of future generations because that’s what they missed in their own lives. Having missed this in their own lives, they offer something to humanity. In this way, many of those who are businessmen eventually turn to art, music, and theater, or some kind of creativity, to contribute not only for their own offspring but for all humans to enjoy.

When we are truly in touch with our core, creativity is a great offering both to oneself and the world. If you want to make an offering, it should be something of worth to you first. For a dog, a piece of dry bone has more worth than a gold coin. From the Buddha’s point of view, that dry bone would be a greater offering from the dog than a great mandala plate piled with gold. Human beings cherish, appreciate, deeply value, and are enriched by music, dance, paintings, art—anything creatively produced that transforms their mind. They are great offerings to Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and human beings, also.

Wisdom Is the Source of Creativity

Now I want to speak about wisdom as the source of our creativity. First, creativity is something that we must always know and have confidence in within ourselves. Our world isn’t made for us by someone else with nails and hammer. Mountains, oceans, forests, the sun and moon, the seasons, the trees, flowers—everything that we have in this life—just as we are born, these are spontaneously present in our lives. Our own genes, our parents’ contribution of egg and sperm, have developed to become our body, our life. It’s all there, spontaneously present, to develop in the way that it has. To have that experience and relationship with any of that, from the highest Buddhist teachings’ point of view, comes from the creativity of our nature.

If not part of the creativity of the one nature that we are all part of, how could it ever be possible? How could this world be here for us? How could we ever experience anything? How could we make a relationship with it? You are artists because this nature is not someone else’s nature; this is your nature. From primordial time onwards, you are an artist because this nature is what one identifies with the most as an artist. What else could you identify with? Not the ego, which is always a hindrance to art and the artist. To produce good art, an artist must become free. As artists, we must always identify ourselves with this primordial nature that has the creativity to produce all of that.

As a Buddhist, as a non-theist, this nature is our own enlightened nature, and our own enlightened nature has this creativity in it. As Longchenpa says in one of his writings, look at all in this universe that is spontaneously present. Who could ever have made it, one-by-one? It is one’s own greater nature’s production of its creativity. If we can realize that, if we can trust that and find our mind in this nature, as artists we will embody the primary source of not only our own creativity and what we are able to produce as art, but we also have come in touch with, are present with, and embrace the nature of all things, the nature of the universe, the nature of all creativity of past, present, and future artists.
So, no matter whose art you have admired in the past, or admire now or in the future, when you actually come in touch with your own primordial nature, the nature that has from its creativity sprung the entire universe, you have embraced the nature of all the tathagatas of the three times, every living being, and the nature of all things.

What is this primordial nature? This primordial nature is not alien to us. Even though it may seem far removed from our experience, and we may be alienated from our own primordial enlightened nature, it is not something that is far removed from our experience because we always operate with consciousness. Without consciousness, we would be inanimate. Consciousness has two sides, like a human being has two sides. You walk around during the day dressed up with layers of clothes. But at night, you take off your clothes and are naked. Similarly, consciousness wears sensory perceptions, wears thought processes, wears feelings, wears emotions, wears experiences, wears concepts and ideas. But if there is no one who wears, how could wearing be possible? No wearing is possible if there’s no wearer. And who is this wearer? Who could wear clothes if there is no naked body to put them on? The naked body has to be there to wear the clothes. In the same way, this present moment of consciousness is the wearer of all experiences of consciousness. And this present moment, if you’re simply present, is right here. You never lose it. It has never been lost. One has never become inanimate in the history of one’s life. If you had become inanimate, you would not have returned to being sentient.

This has no cause, no conditions, and is not born; therefore, it is not subject to decay. This has no center, no boundary. First, see whether you can find a center, and when you don’t find a center, let that be. Try to find an edge, and when you don’t find an edge, let that be. Try to find a cause and conditions, and when you don’t find any cause and conditions, let that be. Try to find a rising, and when you don’t find a rising, let that be. Try to find a ceasing, and if there is no ceasing, let that be. “Let that be” means that is your experience. It doesn’t happen outside of your experience, so that experience is your primordial consciousness.

It’s really simple. Being awake is a simple thing. You don’t have to travel or go anywhere to be awake. You are awake here right now at this very moment. I don’t see anybody snoring and sleeping here, so everybody is awake. But even if you are snoring and sleeping, you are still awake because consciousness is still going through experience on another level. Even there, the primary nature of consciousness doesn’t change.

This is the wisdom mind that all the tathagatas have ever spoken of, speak of now, and will speak of in the future. Embracing that is embracing the wisdom. And in a particular way, artists embracing that are embracing their own primordial nature. As Kyé dorjé Hevajra, you embrace that as a Kyé dorjé Hevajra. As Kalachakra, when you embrace that, you embrace that as a Kalachakra nature. As Vajrayogini, when you embrace that, you embrace that as a Vajrayogini nature. And as an artist, you embrace that as an artist’s nature. What other nature could embrace that? And not only do you have to embrace it, it has to embrace you. Not only has it embraced you, it has embraced the whole of samsara and nirvana as well. There is nothing that is outside of that nature. Therefore, it is known as mahamudra, too.

So as an artist, that is very important—to embrace one’s own artist’s nature and to do some meditation on that in the beginning to prepare oneself for the art of creation. But unless one embraces this as one’s own artist’s nature with a deep trust and conviction that that nature itself has the creativity to create the whole of samsara and nirvana, it’s difficult to transcend the ego of the artist. It is difficult to transcend the insecurities of the artist, the hopes and fears of the artist, and the integrity of the artist. Ego will always bother us. It bothers everybody. Artists don’t have any special deal with the ego; it may be worse! It may bother the artist worse because of the label “artist.” The ego is not going to allow us to be free and not have hopes and fears because hopes and fears are a curse of the ego, not something we enjoy. Nobody enjoys the pain and anxiety of hopes and fears.

Insecurities arise. Am I a good artist? Am I not a good artist? Am I up to Level One, Level Two, Level Three, Level Six? You compare yourself and ask: Will the world like me? My painting? My performance? Is the world going to like my dance? When you are completely sucked into such insecurities, worried about these kinds of things, where is the integrity of the artist? Not that there is nothing to be mastered, but if one is lost in that kind of questioning, there is no integrity as an artist. It becomes a painful journey instead of a joyful one and a time-consuming maintenance of one’s ego rather than a journey of becoming free of ego and expressing your potential.

Trusting One’s Nature

All of this really comes down to one thing, and that is trusting your own nature’s primordial creative energy. It’s not a thing of substance that you could tangibly grasp with your hands and say, “Ah! I’ve got it here!” holding it tightly. It’s not going to be tangible: “Oh, look, here’s my art in the Louvre in Paris.” Or, “Here is my resume. I performed in a Russian ballet!” It’s not tangible. It is a relationship with yourself, not a relationship with the outside. It’s a relationship with your primordial self, your primordial nature, yourself as an artist. And as with any relationship, whether with a god, a deity, a guru, a spouse, a lover, or with anyone, a certain amount of trust and ability to relax is required for the mind to feel at ease.

The mind will never be at ease when it is worrying, and the basis of worry is doubt. The basis of doubt is one’s own inability to trust—rather than there being nothing to trust. One must trust. Then, if you have trusted your nature and its creative energy—and you have expressed your creativity out of that—you are not only producing art but the creative energy that has produced the whole universe! So, this is no small thing. [Laughter] Trust, and then as you produce one thing after another, you will be able to relax even further.

In a skillful and wise manner, one must always be able to work against one’s own label as an “artist,” the ego of an artist, and the curse of that ego—hopes, fears, insecurities, and losing one’s mind in worrying, thereby losing the integrity of the artist. You must be able to work with that, to allow spacious room for it to breathe. Then it’s like a storm that comes up and dissipates into space.

Being wrapped up in worries or fighting against them doesn’t help because we are not going to be freed. Fighting makes it more rigid, solid, and difficult—more of an intrinsic problem. So, in being an artist, there has to be room. That is the core discipline of the artist. It requires the mind to be sane and creative. For this, you need meditation practice. Unless you are an incredible superhuman in the art of sanity, you need meditation to have this framework of mind, this sanity. Whether you call it being a meditator or not, some form of discipline is necessary to work with one’s mind.

To trust is an ability, as I said—not that there is something to trust or not to trust. When we think, “How can I be sure?” Right then, one is already wrapped up in feeling insecure, and that insecurity gives birth to self-doubt. Then self-doubt becomes confirmed by a lack of appreciation or lack of confirmation of oneself from the outside world. In this way, where are you going to look? To the outside world? Even the Buddha was not able to please an infinite number of beings to confirm the existence of his enlightenment. Who would be able to confirm your own existence as an artist by looking out in that way? Nobody will be able to do that. If one trusts one’s own buddha nature, one’s goodness, one can say for sure that buddha nature—this primordial nature—has the energy of creativity and trust. Not trusting that creative energy is present is distrusting buddha nature itself. If you cannot trust the creative energy of buddha nature, the ego challenges one’s ability.

People might think that trust is blind faith, but it is not. The universe is here. Where did it come from? It couldn’t have come from a void; it had to come from a source of energy. When the tathagatas of the past, present, and future trace the source of their energy, that source is the energy of one’s own enlightened nature. It’s not blind faith while you are looking at that nature. How could it be blind faith? Trust in that and, when you lack the ability to trust, know that you are going astray as a practitioner and as an artist, going toward endless struggle in samsara. When you are able to rest and trust primordial nature, it all takes care of itself. Rest there.

Have self-confidence—not egoic self-esteem, but self-confidence. Egoic self-esteem is always dependent on something outside to confirm the ego’s existence. With self-confidence, one’s mind is at ease in its primordial nature and is able to maintain sanity. Looking outward from that sanity, everything has sanity, as well. Even looking at someone who is insane, one is able to see the sanity in the insane person’s nature. If a doctor doesn’t see sanity in an insane person, what’s the point of a prescription? Even though this may seem to be a dichotomy, from that point of view, there is sanity.

Self-confidence is the key to transcending the neurosis of the artist. Artists of the past have struggled so much with this. Unless you are attracted to crazy syndromes or insanity, why would you be attracted to struggles and insanity and get carried away by such neuroses? Strictly from one’s own side, there is no reason. You don’t like the crazy mind—the pain, anxieties, and self-doubts. You don’t like hopes and fears. If you think that to prove yourself as an artist you must struggle, that’s a cliché, not a real thing. If you want to struggle, then I am sure there will always be a reason. Other than that, I don’t see any reason to be caught in that kind of struggle as an artist.

This is the wisdom aspect of the artist, and this morning we’ll only speak of that. Please, take whatever makes sense to you. I hope that it does make sense to you and that you will get in touch with your nature and your creative energy, and trust that creative energy is always there. Since it has created the whole of samsara and nirvana, this creative energy will not lack the ability to create art. So, always trust this. Then, get in touch again with what you are going to create, the creative energy for that, too. Create art with that kind of view. Recognize any hindrance to the view, and with discipline, transcend the hindrance.

If you have any questions, please do ask.

Question: Rinpoche, sometimes when I rest in consciousness, like right now, I like how you said that primordial consciousness is always there; you can’t lose it. Sometimes saying “primordial” makes it seem far away. Sometimes it seems blank.

Rinpoche: That’s true, but blank is an experience. It is not the essence of the experience itself. So blank is like, as I said, wearing clothes; you are wearing experience. So, you have to wear that out. You are just wearing blank clothes. How do you wear that out? By getting in touch with the essence of that blankness, which is consciousness. If it is not consciousness, you wouldn’t be experiencing anything in the first place. Inanimate things don’t experience anything.

Question: So it’s like absence is presence.

Rinpoche: Absence is a presence, but this absence has to wear out, too. So, what you do is just look at the blankness, and that will wear out.

Question: And sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t. Right?

Rinpoche: Most of the time it will if your confidence is good. If your confidence is not good, then you will be caught in the thought instead of wearing it out. But if you don’t get caught in the thought and just look at it, it will wear itself out because it is not intrinsic, so it would never prove to be intrinsic.

Question: So this is why practice is good because you can just sit there and wear it out.

Rinpoche: Yes. You could sit there, and you could wear it out, or you could just walk around and wear it out. You don’t wear it out one way or the other by actually re-entering into the thought process or wearing it out into the naked awareness; one or the other has to be done. Otherwise, if you are walking in the street, you might be hit by a bus. Right? So, this time you must wear it out not in the thought process, but wear it out into the naked awareness itself. Those are Mipham Rinpoche’s and also Guru Rinpoche’s instructions: just looking at it, you’re wearing it out.

Question: Thank you very much. When you mention the creativity and wisdom, you mentioned over and over the visual arts: music, poetry, dance. But I haven’t heard anything about mathematics or science, and you even seem to be pretty negative in the area of politics. [Rinpoche laughs.] Yet when I listen to the underlying things of what you are saying, it feels to me that problem-solving and looking at the world with its problems, that one’s whole life can be a creative work of art, and it doesn’t have to be expressed as music, art, or poetry. So, I’m just asking, what about those of us who don’t fit into the traditional artist’s role?

Rinpoche: Yes, I was just talking about the role of traditional artists. But as you expressed, this point of view includes life itself. We are all artists. We are always creating and always have that energy of creativity within us. Whether you are cooking in your kitchen, gardening, or working on a problem-solving project, all of that comes from creative energy and the ability to manifest that and trust that ability in the first place, finding oneself and one’s mind at ease in one’s own nature. As to politics, I think there could be enlightened politics, as Guru Rinpoche has said. I do believe there are enlightened politics, and many enlightened people have governed their world with enlightened politics. But in English, the word politics has negative connotations.

Question: Rinpoche, it seems that for me, the creative process always includes a strong passion that arises first. It’s almost on a non-thought level. There’s this natural inclination to want to move forward towards something and create. So, can you address passion a little more in connection with art and wisdom?

Rinpoche: I think that’s a good question, and I’m glad you asked. This urge to create something is the yearning of that energy within oneself. And as you said, it’s really like a primal call. It’s not a conceptual or a thought process, it’s a primal call, a longing. What seems to happen when that energy is blocked by structures or burdens of life or is too constricted by the rules of how one is to play and behave, this longing gets even stronger. And that’s why, from my point of view, philosophers may have ideas about how to live, but artists truly know how to live their lives.

So, this balance between someone who is intellectual and very good at analyzing, thinking, and processing their thoughts with great depth of intellect is one side that we see. And then on the other side is the artist who is more creative, spontaneous, and expressive—not as conceptual or thought-oriented and philosophical. We can have both inside of us. What’s inside of all of us is projected out there, and sometimes when it goes to the extreme, then you will see that out there. But this is all inside of us, and it’s also outside in people. When it’s extreme, it creates categories of people. But both sides are within anyone. So, marrying those two sides is a very good thing—not being prejudiced against one or the other but marrying them, like the Chinese yin/yang. Marrying the two makes oneself whole. When I was younger, even though I felt that call deep inside me, I didn’t have the privilege to express that very much, so I trained more in the philosophical route. Now as I get older and also as a result of practice—not just getting older—I am turning much more toward being an artist and looking forward to becoming more of an artist. Why? Not to prove anything to the outside, but there is more of a sense of enjoyment, of feeling enriched by going in that direction.

So, I appreciate that call or longing. When it’s there, it’s a sign that life is a little bit out of balance. It’s a sign of some constrictions, restrictions, or burdens in the ways that one is manifesting and not feeling soothed on a deep level. So if one honors that, one will profit. If one ignores that and works continuously, being very driven in the world of ambitions and whatever one is trying to accomplish, as I said, in the end even enlightenment would seem like it’s missing something.

Question: Rinpoche, a lot of the art that I enjoy and like to create comes from sadness, and I’m wondering if without the struggle there will still be that sadness, or if art created from sadness is just not healthy.

Rinpoche: No, I think art created from sadness is not necessarily unhealthy because the best things that come into the world are from compassion, and compassion, in essence, is a sense of feeling sadness, too. So, sadness doesn’t have to be an unhealthy, neurotic state. When art is created in the state of sadness, what is really happening is not that art is created out of the state of sadness; it is one’s own life and mind having thus gone through the experience of suffering that makes one more in touch with one’s own deeper nature. And that deeper nature—as one gets touched through any strong emotions—opens up, and more creative energy is present. Of course, it still has the flavor of sadness. But sadness is not going to create anything alone. If sadness could create anything, everyone would be creating because sadness is there a lot of the time. Instead, it’s that creative energy from the experience of becoming more in touch with the deeper nature, the deeper nature opening up, and the creative energy flowing. Then it includes the feeling of the sadness, and a combination of that is when it creates.

This is what I want to talk about next—art as the transference of consciousness. By that I mean that whatever the artist was going through while working, people also will feel it by just looking at the work. That is a great magic. So, in some ways, this emphasizes that artists have a responsibility to be genuine and authentic. If you are not genuine and authentic in your creation, it will show up in your art, and then that art will not move anything, however skillful it may be. That interplay between the artist’s mind and the observer’s experience has to be magic because there are no linear connections there. It’s magic, and that is an incredible, powerful medium of communication as well.

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