Creativity Enhances Meditation

Venerable Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche
August 8, 2011
Marpa Institute, Warsaw, Poland 

Good evening to you all. It is my great pleasure to be in Poland and Warsaw, particularly in such a beautiful place as this old building, and to talk with all of you on the connection between meditation and art. Those of you who are artists or interested in art may know more about art than I do. But for us to be artists or even to have an interest in creating art or pursuing the lifestyle of the artist, this is the common ground where we meet.

Throughout history, I feel that artists are the most interesting people of any society, and their expressions of passion and creativity have contributed greatly. If we think as far back as the time of cave people and their beautiful drawings, such as those found in caves in France and different parts of the world, we see the human mind has a genuine interest and passion to express creativity and to leave such expressions for future generations to enjoy and appreciate.

If this human world were deprived of artists and their creations, what would it be like without paintings, music, poetry, dance, theater, or performances to enjoy? The world would be a bleak and dark place. From that point of view, artists and their creative contributions to society—in their own time and also what they leave behind for future generations to enjoy—are a great gift of light in the world. From that point of view, I feel that what we have now to appreciate and enjoy is due to the kindness and legacies of artists of the past and present. I have a tremendous appreciation for artists and their communities and what they have been able to achieve, not only as they live their lives and express their creativity, but also in how they are able to touch humanity at large and contribute to and light up the everyday lives of others. 

Artists as the Soul of the Community

Of course, it’s important to respect and honor, as well as to understand, how artists and their communities may be struggling in their individual lives and their communities. Sometimes artists struggle more as a part of our society than even those who are in politics or the business world. The business community and that of politicians also contribute to society and have their own place, but artists are the soul of the community. Artists are the ones who take ordinary situations that need to be changed and bring about the change. They are often the first ones to perceive what is working and what is not working in a society. In that way, artists are the first revolutionaries in changing society in a progressive way.

So, I welcome all of you who are interested in art and also the artists here as we share this common interest and speak about the importance of creativity and creating art, not only for the present, but for the future, to leave something behind that might last for a thousand years to come and continue to be enjoyed by all of humankind. I became interested in art at a really young age and remember trying to draw and paint and play different instruments. This kind of instinct for drawing, painting, playing music, and dancing came very naturally to me. I felt a sense of great pleasure and relief when I was able to engage in those kinds of activities. I think we could say that playing is also a form of art. As children, we use our imagination and play with a lot of joy and enjoy being unpredictable, even beyond creating art. In this way, art and play are closely linked.

When I entered the monastic community, I was able to pursue myinterest in music and learned to play the instruments and to do the lamadancing. I also spent a lot of time learning Tibetan calligraphy and trying toperfect that art form. All that time, I recall feeling a tremendous sense ofjoy in being able to express myself and create any of those forms of art. Ialso was very delighted when I was able to engage with the state of opennessand to let things flow from there.

I wanted very much to do Tibetan thangka painting and wished I had ateacher, but since there wasn’t one nearby, I didn’t have the opportunity topursue that. At some point, I began to focus on my studies in traditional philosophy.I also received Dharma teachings and initiations, and learned how to practicemeditation and studied the Dharma. In 1991 or 1992, I went to France and met MatthieuRicard’s mother, Yahne Le Toumelin, a great artist and accomplished modernpainter. I think she studied and painted her entire life in France. Workingwith her, I felt very inspired because she was open to showing her paintingtechniques and teaching any of us who wanted to learn from her, as I did.

She had a small studio and painted with oil and turpentine on shinypaper. Watching her paint, I was fascinated. The surface changed quickly, and alot of beautiful things were instantly created. Then she re-created, over andover—without being attached to what had already been created—all on one pieceof paper. As I watched this process, I was able to see how I got attached towhat was there and what she had created. But then she would move forward andre-create, even when she noticed how beautiful it was. Seeing that, I realizedhow this would be a very helpful post-meditation practice for getting over one’sattachments—all the kinds of things that we tend to get stuck in. And if youcan move through one attachment, you can probably move through otherattachments, as well—emotion is emotion. I thought this would enhance the in-mediationpractice that my teachers introduced to me.

When you begin the practice of meditation, you follow the teacher’s instructionsvery precisely. Then when you reach the state of mind that you were introducedto by your teacher, you practice being able to stay in that state without beingattached to the state itself nor to the thoughts and emotions that come and go.To enhance that kind of meditation practice on the cushion or in post-mediation,it is said to be beneficial to have something to do that is very spontaneousand carefree. I thought painting would be a great form of practice and began totake a deep interest in it.

As I was painting, it really did seem to help my practice of meditation andthat my meditation practice also helped my painting process. In both, you haveto really let go and be open—to get beyond the self and being fixated on yourattachments, to get beyond your own fears and insecurities. The discipline isgetting beyond yourself and staying open, moving through your emotions—gettingbeyond your attachments and fixations on what you might conceive to bebeautiful or a good form of art, or something to hold onto and show to othersin order to receive some credential or recognition for yourself. Though thereis no way to suppress your emotions, you let go of them or the thought processand flow through them, moving yourself through as well, without getting stuckin the thoughts or emotions that prevent you from seeing what comes next. Onemust be open to what comes next, in the moment, on-the-spot. I find thisprocess to be very refreshing. 

The Surprise of Creativity

Being on-the-spot in this way, being open to what comes next, andhaving basic confidence that the open state of mind and the creative process arethere, you find creativity unfolds itself rather than you having to try to crankit out. This seems like the way to really engage with the creative process, andin this way creativity will often surprise you. Of course, you may feel insecure and wonder whetheranything beautiful will come from this process or whether it will meet yourexpectations. But if you can go beyond that and are on-the-spot and open, trustingthat whatever comes is an expression of that creativity without trying to controlit so much, you will be more free. Then from hindsight, when you look at yourwork, you can see that this is the most genuine art that you are able to createbecause you were not creating. It was flowing from your open state ofmind.

Even when we call it an open state or being on-the-spot without preconceptions,it’s not a blank state. It is full of dynamism that is about to express itself.Many times—because of our own fears and insecurities—we try not to allow thatdynamic energy that is about to express itself in our work. Instead, we may struggleto try to make something out of ourselves and our skills or our conceptions. Inthat way, from my point of view, even if one is a good craftsperson and has theskills to create art, if the art doesn’t have that flow, it lacks elegance. Whenwe are able to stay in that open state of mind and be on-the-spot, seeing whatcomes and letting the dynamic energy express itself and create, then it seems likemany surprises await you. For me, these surprises are the great joy of being inthe artistic process and being in touch with my own creativity.

As an artist, you have to know that you are here to express yourselfand your own creativity, and it’s not so much anyone else’s business. More orless, it’s your passion to express yourself that is of foremost importance.When you start to think about whether someone will like or not like a certain piece,or whether they will appreciate or reject it, getting caught in those thingsisn’t being in the genuine spirit of the artist. That’s being more in the marketingspirit. Though we cannot help but have those kinds of fears, insecurities, andconcerns come up sometimes, being able to move through them without gettingstuck there is the discipline, rather than expecting to be exempt from thoseemotions.

In that way, when one does create something, there are many blessings fromthat open state of mind. Whatever was happening in your mind at that time—themood you were in and the particular moods that you went through—if you are ableto move through those without getting stuck, being touched by your creativity, allseems to transfer into the object of art itself. That object is also blessed byyour creativity and your state of mind. Later, people can sometimes see that inyour art and feel quite moved by it; they are able to recall experiencing thesame kinds of emotions themselves. In this way, there’s a transference of theartist’s own state of mind through the art, and others also are able toperceive that.

People always ask me, “How do you know when to stop creating?” For me,when I feel I’ve gone through enough of the process inside myself, and I’veworked through enough of my own emotions—being trained to be in touch with theopen state and being on-the-spot, allowing myself to flow—that’s when I stop. Forme, it’s not necessary that the painting should be finished at that point.

These are a few of my experiences of the process of abstract painting. WhenI started out, I used paper with turpentine and oil paints, and now I mostly uselinseed oil and turpentine, primarily on canvas. I feel very grateful to havethis aspect of my life, and as I get older and retire from traveling andteaching, I hope to spend more time on painting. 

Combine Creative Work with Meditation

It is my hope to encourage Buddhists and meditators to combine their creativework with meditation. It is very helpful and therapeutic for people to havesome form of creativity in their lives. I know people in Buddhist andmeditation communities who were artists or involved in some other form of creativity,but when they became a Buddhist and started to pursue the path of theBuddhadharma and meditation, they often dropped those pursuits, thinking theywere somehow trivial. I would like to request that Buddhist practitioners andmeditators not drop their creative activities. I would prefer to seewhether they can combine meditation and the creative process, one as in-meditationand one as post-meditation. As I said, how valuable that will be for futuregenerations—just as something created a thousand years ago is still beingenjoyed now, with people still appreciating and commenting on how beautiful it is.

If you have any questions, please do ask.

Question: The translator didn’t repeat it, but yourteacher, Matthieu Ricard, is a monk?

Rinpoche: My teacher was Matthieu Ricard’s mother. Hisfather was a philosopher, and his mother was a painter and also a nun.

Question: In your painting, do you go more for the rhythmor the color harmony?

Rinpoche: Both. For the rhythm, when I’m more fixated onthe color, and then when I’m more fixated on the rhythm, I go for the color. Iswitch back and forth. Wherever I’m focused more intensely, I try to movetoward the other.

Question: You uncover more than produce artificially. Ourtheater director is experimental, and he used to say that memory of the processis going back to the far past, to the primordial, that which is generationsbehind us. Can you elaborate?

And the second issue concerns feeling endangered or anxious. Thisdirector used to say that there is no intensity of creating if such anxiety islacking.

Rinpoche: Yes. I think Iagree, and that’s a very poignant statement. When you are in that open stateand on-the-spot, and you don’t know what’s going to come next, just being ableto stay there and trust that something will express itself, fear and feeling anxiousmay come. For example, when giving a teaching and facing hundreds of people,you are there to say something, and people are waiting. You wonder, “What’s goingto come up?” So far, maybe nothing is coming up. Of course, people are lookingat you and expecting you to say something profound. With this dynamic, one cansometimes get a little anxious, but trusting and being present, one is able togo beyond that. In the teachings, for example, it often seems that one is ableto say something that meets the audience’s mind; it’s like that in painting.But, of course, painting is mostly done in private, though I would guess that inperformance art, you will have this connection with the audience. Even when oneis painting alone, there can be some anxiety, but when you are able to movethrough that, as I said, the result will seem like a more true impression ofyourself or your primordial nature that is able to carry out the work. So, Ifeel that a little bit of anxiousness can fuel creativity.

I recall a Larry King interview with a famous theater actress. When heasked this lady whether she gets anxious before her performances, she said, “Ofcourse! Always!” I think she’d been performing for forty or fifty years. LarryKing also said that Frank Sinatra said he was always a little anxious, but hethought that was the juice for getting out there and creating—that bit of anxiousness.Sometimes creativity is like riding a wild horse. When you’re anxious, you’renot as conceptually sure of yourself or what might come. It’s unpredictable,and I think that’s very healthy. But for many creative people, this could becomenerve-wracking and lead to an unhealthy lifestyle.

Question: You mentioned important places for Tibetan artand culture in Paris, France, but can you also mention other places of Tibetanart and culture in the world that you’ve visited?  

Rinpoche: In the large Tibetan communities in India, manyTibetans were able to recreate the Tibetan life style—not, of course, exactly asit was in Tibet, but with the monastic community and the teachers and monkscarrying on the rituals, pujas, and prayers every day. Living around themonasteries are older Tibetan people circumambulating, doing prostrations, aswell as just living their lives. For example, Bir, where I was born and grew up,is a cultural center, and there are many places like that in India. Dharmsala isanother, and in southern India there are quite a few Tibetan camps. Outside ofIndia, now that the Buddhadharma has come to western as well as eastern Europeancountries, the Dharma and its culture will be even more influential as themainstream notices its positive influence.

Thank you all very much. 

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