Art With a Capital “A”

Stan Lai

If painting is something that comes from the soul, automatically arising on a canvas as abstract expressionists have practiced, then what we the viewers see in the painting is in fact the mind of the artist, a snapshot of the contents within.

It is not difficult thus to deduce that such an artist must spend at least as much time cultivating his mind as his craft, for the form itself dictates that the contents be in essence an "imprint of mind" - not to be conceptualized to start, and not to be modified or "beautified" when done. Thus the abstract expressionists, like their Dada, Expressionist and Surrealist predecessors, acknowledge a special and profound interplay between life and art. In other words, if you could paint "anything" and in this viewers found meaning and depth, this says a lot about the mind, if not also the technique, of the artist.

Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche's art expresses a refined technique that has everything to do with the refined techniques of training one's mind. Rinpoche asks us to not judge his works as "beautiful" or "ugly," "shocking" or "peaceful," but rather to experience them as they are. This is his way of painting, and in the transcendence of the artist's grasping toward what is "beautiful" or not, we are given the chance to experience the limitlessness and wonder of our own minds.

I once saw the paintings of Yahne Le Toumelin, artistic mentor of Rinpoche and mother of Matthieu Ricard, and marveled at their vastness of expression, and the speed with which she executed each work. There was no thought process as I would conceive a thought process, but a vaster kind of mind at work, making subtle and complex connections in a swift and confident improvisation of color and form. There was as much letting go as taking up, and in the letting go, the artist's mind as revealed in broad and profound strokes. For Rinpoche, it seems that Yahne has unlocked his vast artistic potential. Yet this potential is there because of the potential of mind. 

When I first started out in my own artistic endeavors in the theatre, art had a capital "A", and art was the supreme goal of life.As the years passed, my own artistic struggles brought me face to face with the deeper artistic problems of the artist once technique had been mastered. As the great film director Hou Hsiao-hsien once remarked privately to me, "I now can do anything. The question then is, what do I want to do?" This revealed to me that in the twofold training of the artist, technique and life wisdom are constantly at play with each other, but as one matures as an artist, wisdom or the lack of it becomes the dominant of the two, bringing the artist to greater heights or depths. Thus for some artists, later years, after technique is mastered, are spent cultivating the wisdom aspect of creativity.At first this cultivation is to serve the purpose of making greater art. As time goes on, the artist may see how "art" no longer needs a capital "A", and that spiritual practice and mind training are much more expansive and urgent endeavors. Attempts to manifest this training are now seen to be futile unless one has accomplished the training. Such attempts are like showing viewers a mid-term report or the early stages of an unfinished experiment. A true spiritual practitioner is beyond such vain games. 

After all the revolutions of the 20th century, the mind has long been the legitimate subject for artists. The canvas of mind projects directly on to the external canvas of work. Though Rinpoche teaches us not to judge, nevertheless we habitually judge the quality of an artist's mind as much as we judge the skill of his or her hand. Now we are face to face with the manifested mind of an accomplished Dharma practitioner. How and what are we to judge? Life and art can both be greatly limiting. But in Rinpoche's art, the limitlessness of life gives play to the limitlessness of art, and shows us how we are a part of that limitlessness.

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