Integrating Art and Wisdom, Talk 2

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

Welcomeback. It’s nice to see so many of the people I have known overthe manyyears since I first came to Boulder. I think I sat here, and I remember givinga talk on a garuda soaring in the sky, and many people were riding with thegaruda. Then, at some point the garuda soared higher, and the people had tosoar higher, independently. That was about eighteen years ago. I didn’t haveall this gray hair. 

Sincethen, many of you have been an incredible support for me and my work. More thanthat, you have been incredibly committed, dedicated, and devoted to your ownteacher, to his vision, and to this community. You have really served theteacher, his vision, and his legacy, and you continueto serve manybeings who were part of the mandala then, along with those who have morerecently come into the mandala.In ourlifetimes, the buddhadharma has the greatest chance to become established inthe West, but without people’s devotion, dedication, and commitment, there isless of a chance for that to happen. All of our teachers have dedicatedthemselves to that, as we are dedicated to that. So, I really wanted to expressmy appreciation and to acknowledge that with those of you who have been here inthat way.

Integrating Wisdom and Art

And now, I will return to speaking about integrating wisdom and art—as an artist and meditator, or as a meditator with an artist’s expression of being a meditator. This morning we talked about the nature of the artist and where the source of creativity lies, and of how one can develop confidence in the creative energy that the nature has. Using examples of the universe—samsara and nirvana both being produced by that creative energy—in this context, what we actually intend to do is to create art. There’s nothing to feel insecure about nor to feel lost in the hopes and fears of ego-mind. Though one has to create a spacious mind for the ego, I consider the ego always to be a hindrance to anything we do, with the ego’s neuroses of hopes and fears, insecurities, and being caught up in the dynamic of wanting to please others more than simply being an artist and expressing creativity with integrity.

This is all a discipline that requires a bigger mind or no mind, and then being able to rest in it with self-confidence. Creativity or creative energy in Tibetan is called tsel. From the highest tantra of the Buddha’s teachings, tsel is the creator of the entire universe. Tsel always expresses itself, unceasingly, at all times. That is part of the wisdom aspect.

Art has two categories. First, there is art that has been learned step-by-step and perfected over generations, like music. Though changing and varying over time, music is always improved to better touch the needs and suit the ears of the hearer. In the same way, over time, through generations, mankind has perfected painting and dance—with continuing developments. There is tremendous beauty because you see the wisdom aspect by being in touch with your own bigger mind, or with no mind, and by having confidence in creative energy. Then, working with one’s hindrances, skills are developed and passed down for generations. In one’s own time, one goes through a process to be able to express oneself freely, though still within a framework of traditional skills. Within this framework, one is able to perfect the skill known as the perfection of that art.

There’s a lot of beauty in this—beauty from devotion and dedication—along with the hard work and skills required to produce the masterpiece. Recently, I was in an antique shop. Everything there that could be seen as beautiful was limited to what one could apprehend right then, at that moment. But if you also consider the history of how a particular object was created—how the creator’s process, original thinking, creative energy, intention, and skills all came together to create even a small art deco bottle—that object has a lot of yun or richness to it, and you can really appreciate that.

This can be true of anything. Tankas are great examples, or traditional paintings from Western art. What we see now is only what our eyes can see and provide for our mind to appreciate. That appreciation will be limited if one doesn’t explore the painting’s history, the artist’s process, or consider the artist’s mind. When you do that, in many ways, no art can be considered insignificant. In some ways, it is all significant because it all came from the mind of the artist, the artist’s creative energy, intention, and skills, all interplaying, interacting, and changing. Consider a stone—nothing we would think twice about on a walk—but when that stone is carved into a statue, it becomes incredibly significant. When transformed in this way, when this interplay and change occurs, it becomes magical. For the artist, having the freedom to express creativity for others to appreciate and enjoy enriches their lives; the world has been made fuller, more beautiful.

If we appreciate the creativity, then we also tremendously appreciate what was produced out of that. If we appreciate a particular work, that is different—it’s a matter of individual choice. Is it an individual work that we are appreciating, or the artist’s creativity and its expression? For artists, unlike others, it is the artist’s creativity that one appreciates more than a particular work because a particular work is greater than what’s seen as a perfect human work, like a computer, or some other inanimate thing that we create.

There has to be appreciation among artists. Though one’s own artistic expression is different, there has to be common ground to acknowledge that all artists are working with their own creative energy and letting that creative energy give birth to a form. When that energy has been formalized into a piece, your energy has not only become that piece, but it has been blessed by that energy. If that contains your creative energy, and your energy leaves you, then no matter how much precious, deathless nectar you have, drop-by-drop it will be drained. At some point, you will have lost all of that precious nectar. However, when we see art as blessed by one’s own creative energy, and that creative energy itself has no particular form, it can actually take all forms. This creative energy can express itself in different ways that are more suitable for the individual to appreciate. But at a deeper level, this energy encompasses all forms, all expressions. That is a greater, more accurate view. In this way, one never loses one’s creativity but discovers it to be an inexhaustible source of creativity.

Art Complements Meditation

Then there is the other category of art—that which is directly expressed without any form, image, or structure in the mind, without any particular theme or rules or following any guidelines. The expression of this art actually creates itself and is blessed by your creative energy. My art, as you know, is more or less that way. I studied with Matthieu Ricard’s mother, Yahne Le Toumelin, who is eighty-five or six and received a traditional artist’s training. When I felt a passion to study and learn from her and to become a student of hers, I was really looking forward to the whole process because I thought it would enhance my meditation practice. I thought the painting process would complement my meditation practice and give me more of a sense of having a carefree attitude toward expressing myself. I didn’t go through traditional training so much but dove right into the abstract art world, though I also have a lot of appreciation for traditional art.

For me, personally, my practice of painting has been a great complement to my meditation practice. Why? When learning to practice meditation, in the beginning you follow the guidelines and instructions of your guru. Then you relate to your mind according to those instructions and have the experiences that are expected to arise in your meditation practice. As you come to know and trust your mind and its basic nature more, you begin to see it like the ocean and its waves. No matter how different the waves look—in color, in shape, in functions, and activities—essentially, they’re water. The ocean and waves cannot be anything other than water itself. Like that, as a meditator, when one becomes more confident and at ease, any struggles with the mind and what arises—rejecting and grasping—are naturally transcended.

If one doesn’t want to transcend that but prefers to hold on, there’s no way to progress in meditation. At some point, you would have to limit yourself to only good thoughts, good feelings, and good perceptions. But what is good genuinely has to be abandoned when you see that you have made choices, selections. You have made dualistic separations between good/bad that you would have to stick to. If you do that, you may be considered the most positive thinker in the world—you might even be invited as Oprah’s special guest—but that doesn’t make you a good meditator.

One can develop natural ease and confidence in one’s own nature and all that arises out of it—as the ocean and the waves—not one, and not separate either. Therefore, become non-judgmental toward what arises rather than picking and choosing between your perceptions, thoughts, and feelings. The basic insecurities you have in relation to your mind—fear of your mind, hope for some future perfection—all have to go. Then, as you rest there, you can accept it all—not that there’s no interdependent origination but a more and more pure perception of the world and beings, thoughts, and feelings. This is not something that you work on in order to become a positive thinker; instead, that naturally happens out of the purification of one’s own ignorance, by letting go of dualistic mind and its confusions about how to relate to the world.

View, Meditation, and Conduct

This is the process of the meditator, which throughout history most of the great realized masters and all the tathagatas have gone through. There is no dualistic meditation through which you can become enlightened other than this non-dual way of relating to your nature and the expression of the nature as not one and not separate, and all as blessed by that nature. This view, this meditation, has to be enhanced by conduct. Many times, this is what happens on your cushion. The purpose of one’s conduct is to enhance meditation and the view. When we really believe in the process of meditation, conduct enhances this view and this meditation. If you think in those terms, what could be better conduct than expressing yourself freely in art?

Directly putting this view to work in the process of art was my intention. That was my teaching, too. Yahne’s main, sacred instruction was: When you get attached, destroy it. And she really did—right in front of our eyes. Something beautiful would emerge on her canvas. Maybe she was getting attached, or maybe we were getting attached, and she would just destroy it right then. And then another beautiful thing would arise, and she would destroy it in that way. That was a great teaching for me, so I try to work in a similar way. 

For me, the combination of painting with oil and turpentine, and working with freedom of expression with my own hands feels like a magical process. It’s magical because right before your eyes something appears from nothing. What once was solid and singular—the singularity and solidity of colors, red as red, black as black, yellow as yellow, green as green, and the sense of paper as paper, canvas as canvas, artist as artist—in the interplay and change, from the meditation process or coming from the view of meditation, everything loses its singularity, its solidity. It all becomes one, as well as distinct. 

Sometimes it takes a while for expressions to come without hopes and fears, without giving in to insecurities, without losing the artist’s integrity, and to trust that creative energy is present. Being present within the big mind, the artist almost unfailingly finds an expression there. That expression may have gone through many instances of the process of destroying one’s hopes, fears, insecurities, and the danger of losing one’s integrity as an artist, not trusting—all the hindrances, including attachment, pride, and arrogance. While you are working and destroying all of that, at some point, when all of that is exhausted in the mind, that’s when the expression comes—whatever that expression may be. Finding satisfaction with that expression, the artist then just drops it right there, without working any further on it.

As a practice, all of this is a process of simply coming to the primordial, naked mind. Sometimes, of course, it is much stronger and more present, sometimes less. Nonetheless, it’s always there, and being able to simply rest in there is very invigorating and deeply fulfilling; it feels incredibly liberating. One also feels in awe, not in a narcissistic way, but in appreciation of one’s own and all beings’ nature and of that creative energy’s interplay finding expression. If one is in awe of one’s work in a narcissistic way, there is always pain. But if one can appreciate one’s own art or someone else’s with this view of where everything has come from and from where everything has unfolded up to the point of this expression, there is nothing to feel apologetic about. If you are the artist, there is nothing to feel insecure about if it is your work being appreciated, nor is there anything to be superficially modest about. Genuine modesty is always good; superficial modesty is merely fooling oneself.

Always appreciate your work this way in the end, and then spend some time with your work to develop a relationship, so that afterwards you don’t get caught in struggles of your mind over this being your creation or your child, so to speak. Just be present, and appreciate at least how you were offered the opportunity to go through this process and develop a relationship with what you created and expressed—and then move on.

Art as a Transference of Consciousness

When art is created, a transference of consciousness occurs because, as usual, so much is going on in the artist’s mind, though many times we don’t notice. In this context, you do notice and are able to transcend, to go beyond. Every step—what the artist has gone through, has transcended, has transformed, and then moved on—is imprinted in the work itself.

Human beings have two levels of consciousness: an outer level, which is ignorant, and an inner level of consciousness, which has tremendous intuitive power. When you look at a work of art, both levels of consciousness can be involved. Many times, what moves you the most about art is what it does to your psyche rather than what it does to your conceptual mind. In this way, I think people see it in an instant [Rinpoche snaps his fingers], not over a long process. Not only do people see it in an instant, but they feel it in their own experience to some extent. That is a transference of consciousness, a transmission of sorts. “Transmission” in this case means a transference of consciousness—the transference of a blessing, the transference of realization. 

When these things happen right in front of you—and when you hear them in the comments people make after seeing your art—and you recognize that what was going on in your mind was accurate, you wonder: How could they actually know that? You are not trying to be clairvoyant, yet there is something magical happening. The more transformation that occurs within you, the more people are able to see and feel it and go through it themselves. They are able to appreciate it and be touched by that. This is a great gift to the world.

It is a tremendous honor to be able to make such offerings to the world. What can be done through teaching has to be processed through so many layers of consciousness—ear consciousness, the sixth consciousness or the thought process, and then the feeling or the emotional consciousness. Then it may reach deep down somewhere to touch the soul or the hearts of individuals. Usually there are a lot of gods—somebody trying to tell you what to do—and involuntarily, your ears flop closed! If we were good listeners and open-minded in that way, we would have done much better in our relationships. Even though there are natural differences in listening to teachings, with viewing art, there are none. You are there to look at it, appreciate it, and to be moved and touched by it. And then a transmission happens—something carries through, knowingly or not. Viewing art is very profound in this way. This is not to put down the teachings in any way because I feel that the same thing can happen. Sometimes the different effects can depend on how you, the artist, have transcended, moved forward, have not become stagnant, and have not stuck yourself to a piece of work.

Offerings are continuously made to the world by great artists. As far as we know, many are not meditators or Vajrayana practitioners. Nevertheless, their basic relationship with their mind has to be the same. They have to transcend themselves. They have to be in touch with their bigger mind. They have to trust their creative energy. They have to develop confidence in that, and then they have to engage in the interplay of canvas, colors, and their hands, breaking down the singularity and solidity of everything, and create magic. They have to get beyond their insecurities and their fears of losing their integrity as an artist. 

Kandinsky, the Russian painter who is so influential in the abstract art movement, was a great practitioner in that way because he had the courage to move forward with modern and abstract art. He made that first step with the painting that he sold that moved him to go toward abstract art—a painting of a house that you can make out as a house from afar, but when you get closer to it, it becomes blurry. At the time, this was outrageous. When he painted from the view of being in touch with his own big mind—the creative energy expressing itself, not caught up in the hindrances of ego, hopes and fears, insecurities, or losing the artist’s integrity—the more people responded positively.

Regardless of the audience, that is the artist’s challenge—to themselves more than anyone else—and the world carries on that transformation by observing their art. At a museum I went to once, I saw a young child sitting on a bench in front of a large Kandinsky painting. The child appeared deeply moved by the painting, even though the child was too young to have developed the conceptual mind to its fullest. An old lady and old man looking at the painting were also moved. I could see the changes in their faces, their eyes, their whole bodies. Something profound was communicated to these people about the artist’s process of transformation that had been transferred into the painting itself. I don’t believe the painting itself was channeling anything, but it was what had been imprinted in the painting. Even though the artist has been gone a long time, he continues to be part of the process of the work itself.

Such things are possible in all of our lives. As a meditator, conduct should enhance the meditation and the view that you truly believe to be the path of enlightenment. For me, painting and abstract art have become one of the best enhancers of my meditation and the view of enlightened mind. I hope this makes sense to you and that you also will be able to be in touch with your big mind and its creative energy, and to trust that.

Creating Art, Developing Trust

In the beginning, creating art is a matter of developing the ability to trust. Since all of us have strayed from this ability, it takes a while for that ability to come back and to be able to trust. When that ability becomes a reality and you are able to express yourself in this way, then one thing after another in the world will present itself to you. Of course, if you neurotically want to be caught in your own self-doubt, you can always do that. But whether you have the creative energy within yourself to express itself or not, you don’t have to worry after you have produced many beautiful things and offered them to the world.

At that point, you don’t necessarily have to depend on others for their approval. Simply being able to transform yourself in that way, and then getting to the other side and becoming successful in that, is the success that we all have to look for—not the success of how your show goes, or what kind of label you get, or the kind of career you make out of it. Those are all secondary successes. I acknowledge them as successes, but they are secondary. Think of any artist who has not completely transformed themselves. They will always be struggling with themselves in their minds. Such struggle, such pain, such a relationship with one’s mind, no matter what you achieve as an external success, will not become the form of success that your passion took when it chose to become an artist. 

Success is always assured because it only depends upon your integrity. It depends upon your discipline. It depends upon your transformations of mind. It depends upon your meditation and the view, and that’s been offered and is here with us. Other aspects of success naturally follow if you want them. Most of the great artists have questions about those things. Many have tried to stay away from those aspects. Picasso did well in this. If one wants, those things can easily come.

I hope all of you can become good meditators and good artists, and are able to be in touch with your own nature and creative energy, and are able to express yourself in whatever form and medium you choose.


Thank you all very much for coming. I know that you have come in good faith, and I appreciate that. Are there any questions?

Question:  Rinpoche, would you like to say something about your paintings?

Rinpoche:  These paintings? [Chuckles] What more can I say than what I have been saying?

Question: How many times did you destroy them?

Rinpoche: That is something I think you can feel in the paintings. I could tell you numbers, but they wouldn’t make much difference. I have to go through a number of them, and the more I go through them, the more I am able to drop it with greater satisfaction. When I come back later—not just in that moment, and not necessarily right after—I have much more appreciation for that time. The whole process—even if it was based on something neurotic—it’s a good journey.
And if it’s based on anything not neurotic, it’s a good journey, too. Both journeys in the end become satisfying, enriching, and fulfilling.

Even though the art is abstract, one still develops some discipline and skill. As skills develop and are of primary focus, they become pathways of expression. Having a primary focus takes a lot more energy in that way. It becomes a pathway to expression. Whether it fits or comes through that may or may not be emphasized.

Question: Can you speak more about destroying as a part of creating the painting?

Rinpoche: When one gets attached, destroying that attachment seems to really help one move on to greater creativity. As an expression of creativity, even though it is a “good piece of work,” when you are getting attached, you are becoming more focused on that good piece of work. When you are able to destroy that attachment and move forward from the good piece of work, later it becomes much more rewarding for oneself. Also, I feel there is more of a relationship being made with one’s own creativity by having removed that hindrance. That relationship with creativity and being in touch with it without any hindrances, or having moved through the hindrances that expressed themselves, is much more moving than merely a good piece of work—less me, less attachment to a good piece of work over other things. 

Question: I appreciate what you have been saying about destroying. My experience is like trying to work with a live bomb about to explode at any moment. Discrimination is right next to that, which is more gentle and sensitive. When those start coming together for me, I can barely handle it. I want to self-destruct or something at that moment, and I don’t know if it’s fear or possibly aggression wanting to move through it. I don’t think that’s what you’re talking about when you say “destroy.”

Rinpoche: These are the instructions of my teacher: “Destroy it when you get attached.” But I don’t think of it as any kind of aggression. It is more or less not getting stuck in that attachment, or not getting sticky with your work. I think that’s what she’s saying.

I think the synthesis of all remedies is trust. So, when you are destroying, you have to be able to trust that you are moving forward to another level of being an artist and getting more in touch with the creative energy. The art that will come out of that will become much more satisfying and beautiful. There has to be that trust; otherwise, I think that destroying would be some kind of annihilation of yourself, and that wouldn’t be so good. It shouldn’t be annihilation of yourself, but it should be trust getting deeper and more enriching for you.

Yesterday Sasha Meyerowitz was filming me while I was painting, and it was very interesting because I had to have that trust in my creative energy, since when you are being videoed like that, it takes a while for creative energy to express itself. It’s as if it’s shy. But with trust, Sasha and the camera disappeared, and I too disappeared and was able to do something. It was an interesting experience.

Question: For those of us who aren’t artists, there’s still a sense of that passion in being creative. When you have that desire, how do you know where to start?

Rinpoche: I think that everything could be looked at as art—like decorating your house, dressing your body, your make-up, your hairstyle, choosing the colors of your house, and where everything goes in your cupboard. Once I met a lady who drove me from Palo Alto to the Napa Valley. At first, I didn’t notice anything. Then at some point, I noticed the ride was very smooth. It was a Mercedes Benz, but more than just being a smooth ride in a nice car, there was something very peaceful in that car. So I asked, “What is it that is so peaceful here?” She told me that she takes her driving as an expression of art: how she uses the clutch, shifts the gears, how she brakes, how she uses the blinkers. She takes everything with a tremendous sense of mindfulness and relaxation, like a discipline, and I could feel that in the car. I think that’s a good example.

Question: I have a longing to practice, but there seems not to be enough time or the discipline. How do I find a balance?

Rinpoche: The practice of meditation requires discipline. The practice of being an artist also requires discipline and diligence. A very effective instruction for being a diligent person is before you get burned out, you must take a break. So before you get burned out as a meditator, be an artist. And before you get burned out as an artist, meditate. There’s a good balance in this because both are your passion, and they will be a great combination because one requires being still, and one requires movement. Stillness and movement are the nature of our mind.

Question: My experience is, when I’m drawing or whatever I’m doing, focusing on my work, I get too intense, trying to be too good, so I get uptight. I like what you’re saying about letting go, or destroying it—letting go of attachment.

Rinpoche: I think that’s really good. I know quite a few good artists who can’t paint anymore because they are so judgmental of their work. Not that being judgmental and critical is a problem, but in this context, their relationship with their mind had become too painful, and that made them stop painting. Being able to move through that would be very good for those artists who are skilled in both art and meditation practice.

In many ways, there are greater artists here than I am, both in how long they’ve been artists and in the kind of creativity itself. I might think I couldn’t actually contribute anything. But my hope is in how one can create a better relationship with one’s mind and deepen as both artist and practitioner—bridging the two and being able to enrich, grow, and transcend. I’m glad you asked that question and that you have awareness of what you are doing in your mind.

Question: I’m trying to get clear on when a painting is destroyed because for me, I have limited time to paint, and when I fall in love with the material, I’m blind. Is that the moment I destroy?

Rinpoche: I’m not quite sure whether you could always destroy your paintings. This refers to a certain context of abstract art, and I’m talking about my teacher’s instructions. When I am working with turpentine and oil, painting on paper is very fluid, and in mere minutes, a painting could emerge, another painting destroyed, and yet another painting could emerge. I don’t know how it would be with other media. But the principle of destroying your attachment is good, and moving forward from your attachment is good—not necessarily destroying the painting. If you have a Tara you have been painting for over a month, and then in the end, if you are getting attached and you destroy that, it would be very costly. [Laughter] Then what will you eat for the next month? That’s a question, too. I don’t think that’s necessarily applicable. As always, if one is getting attached, one could transcend the attachment, go beyond it, and leave the painting alone.

Question: I can give an example of that. I was working on a painting, and I had this big red blob. I kept painting around it, and the whole painting ended up being painted around it. After a certain point, I realized, “This has got to go!” So, I finally took the brush and painted over my favorite part, and I felt physical relief. I had no idea the attachment was so strong. 

Rinpoche:  It’s really true. Thank you. May meditators and artists prevail!

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