VenerableDzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche
NalandaWest, Seattle, WA
I appreciate thisopportunity very much. It’s true that Dharma communities have many greatartists and incredibly talented people, whether they’re visual artists, musicians,dancers, performance artists, or creative writers. What would this world belike without their creativity? Not only do these artists make the world more beautifulin the cliché sense, but they also hold the world with a sense of depth and offertheir wonderful qualities to everyone.
All art of the past,present, and future makes this world beautiful—as well as less solid, rigid,and overly serious. We enjoy these qualities of art now, and the legacy ofartists will continue through the imprints and impressions formed in the mindsof future generations of artists who also will leave their imprints on thisworld. Art’s uniquely magical quality—the artists’ minds that infuse theircreations—means that even centuries later when people look at their art, theobserver also can feel something. In this way, a transference of the artist’smind occurs in the art, especially if the artist has moved through emotionalstruggles and created beautiful art from this process. Whether the art is traditionalor non-traditional, the artist’s freedom of mind is thus represented.
Of course, in the initialstage of creating art, there’s a difference between the traditional andnontraditional. Ballet could not be more traditional, but the ballet dancer’smind must become completely free, so the dance can be graceful and flowing. Similarly,though playing the piano or cello is traditional and form-oriented, the mind ofthe musician must be free to enable the music to flow gracefully and reach outto others. In the traditional, one trains meticulously in form. In thenontraditional, one goes with one’s instincts, “first thought, best thought.”But in the end, both arrive at the same place—a presence of mind free fromrestrictions and the construct of concepts. When someone like Beethoven movedthough such restrictions, the result was music that timelessly touches people.The painter Kandinsky is one of my favorite visual artists because he alsomoved through his restrictions in this way. Great artists always have to movethrough their emotions and internal hindrances.
Such artists merge theirtraining and creativity to make great art. When that happens, even centurieslater, those who experience their art feel it and are touched by itstimelessness, as if they were right there, witnessing its creation. I don't seethis very often. For example, somebody a thousand years ago who wrote somethingbeautifully creative, even when it’s read a thousand years later, there's atimeless quality to that experience. It’s as if you're right there witnessingthe unfolding of the person’s creative process. In this way, artists—not only inthe present time, but continuously—really do beautify this world and leave arich inheritance for us all.
Though politicians andbusinessmen have their place in the world, its soul is the artists. Therefore,in Dharma and in any community, art and artists must be recognized and cherished.Art is not to be seen as frivolous or mundane work, unrelated to one’sspiritual life and path. Not many people actually go to the mountains to livesingle-pointedly and become a yogi like Milarepa, but look what happened tohim. He became a singer, an artist, and one of the greatest creative persons, apoet.
I have met many artists inthe West who’ve said they had been pursuing art as their spiritual path for along time. But when they came into the Dharma, they felt art was a frivolouspursuit, so they stopped being engaged with the creative process and art—and theymiss it. They were unable to find a way to combine their artistic life with themeditative state of mind and the different practices that they do on thespiritual path. This is a great loss.
Meditation and theCreative Process Can Be One
Dharma should always helpthe world and people to do well; it should bring more benefit to the world,more richness, so others can be touched by it. So, it’s very important toencourage artists in Dharma communities to be active and creative, to create and exhibit art, as well as to speakof how their creative process, Dharma practice, and meditative experience allcome together. In this light, I've been speaking and writing about how mediationand the creative process can be one—especially with the Mahamudra and Maha Atipractices. So, I'm really glad to see a spiritual community and artists comingtogether, exhibiting their work, and sharing with one another.
Thank you for giving me theopportunity to speak and to observe your art. I hope that these kinds of thingswill happen more in even larger spiritual communities, whether of theBuddhadharma, Christian, or other religions. It would be very difficult foranyone to oppose the idea that artists are the soul of a community. When artistsare recognized as such, there will be a real seat for them in the world.
Those are some of myrandom thoughts on Dharma and art. If you have any questions or comments,please ask. I'm glad to hear.
Question: You were talking abouthaving the form, and then mastering the mechanics of that form, and how thecreative part comes together with that. It made me start thinking of differentways to approach visual art, too, where you have a concept of what you want tomake, or you just start moving paint around. I wanted to ask you whether you havea leaning toward one way or another. When you're doing your own work, do youstart by playing with paint, or do you have an idea of what you want to make?
Rinpoche: I was trained intraditional music and learned how to play all the instruments in the monastery.From this, I know that you have to follow the notes and guidelines veryprecisely. But if you think too strictly about the notes and the guidelines, whenit comes time to play, you may be too uptight. Some musicians in the monastery knewthe notes and all the correct movements of the fingers, and how the instrument shouldsound, but when it came time to play, if their mind was too uptight, thinking toomuch about the movements of the fingers or how the sound should be, often withthe kangling, for example, they weren’t able to manage the circular breathingbecause they were in their mind too much.
So, I have some experiencewith this and also with writing. In poetry, there are many forms that can befollowed, but at some point, you have to go beyond the forms and write yourpoetry. Form may be reflected, but if you think about form too much, yourpoetry might not have as much flow and grace.
My interest in paintingcame when I was younger. I wanted to learn how to draw and paint, but only thangkapainting was available in the Tibetan community. Because there wasn’t anyone inmy community to teach me, I would have had to go to another place farther awayto learn thangka painting, so I never got around to that. But I rememberlonging to learn how to draw and paint.
Much later, I met MatthieuRicard’s mother, Yahne Le Toumelin, who invited me to her studio and told methat she would show me how to paint. “Isn't it very difficult to learn how topaint?” I asked her, and she said, “No, it’s not difficult; you just dowhatever you like.” I was a little taken aback and went to her studio to watchher paint. Her paintings are abstract, though she was trained traditionally. Shecreated something very beautiful with paint and turpentine on glossy paper, andas soon as something came up, she destroyed it, or just painted over it. Thensomething beautiful would come again, and she’d move through that or paint overit. Watching her paint in this way, I saw how my own mind got attached to what thepainting looked like. But then when she painted over it, I felt a sense of myattachments “popping” and felt some relief from that. After a time, I felt peaceand quiet within, and then she’d stop. She didn’t actually tell me, “This isthe process.” I just felt it as I watched her.
I thought this kind ofpainting could be a great post-meditation activity for me because it’s verysimilar to what happens in meditation practice. You have thoughts andexperiences, and you get attached—unknowingly sometimes—and then you have tolet go after you become aware. There are also a lot of aversions that arise,and you have to let go of those. In this way, all the thoughts and emotionsthat come up in the meditative experience become a teaching on equanimity, or thesense of one taste, which can grow over time. Going through those thoughts or statesand letting go allows you to mature and arrive at the state of one taste. Inthis way, painting resembles the meditation process, so I became interested in it.
This is what I try to doas much as possible when I paint; I try not to have an image or idea. Sometimesan image comes, and if I'm terribly attached to it, I try to paint over it. I’vefound this process to be interesting. In the first round or two, you are ableto paint something that looks quite nice, and maybe you become a littleattached to it. If you leave it, and everyone sees it and says it’s a beautifulpiece—because you left it there, because of the beauty that it represents—itdoesn't have as much depth. But if you paint over that piece and do a couplemore, in the end if something comes up, maybe it’s not as beautiful from thestandpoint of critics, but it seems to captivate people much more and toprovoke more feelings from them. In this way, I find that whatever I’m goingthrough as I paint, people seem to be able to “read” it afterwards when theyobserve the painting, and that is a very magical experience for me. So, Ipersonally don't paint in any of the traditional styles, only abstract.
Question: In the practice ofmaking art, how would you engage our Dharma understanding? Generally in Dharma,we take refuge, arouse bodhicitta during practice, and dedicate the merit asthe general container for practice. And then, we aspire to meet and look at ourexperience, to be able to listen to the Dharma and generate what we've heard. Inthe practice of making art, do you have any suggestions for how to use our Dharmaunderstanding in the time that we’re working?
Rinpoche: Not being too religious,if as artists we could generate some connection to the Three Jewels—as in the UttaratantraShastra—all Three Jewels are an expression of the nature itself. Sobasically, the Three Jewels themselves are a product of the creativity of the natureitself, whether it’s Buddha, Dharma, or Sangha. In that way, one can take refugein the absolute way in the nature and the Three Jewels.
One can also have theintention for creativity to be expressed for the benefit of many others to havea positive experience of creativity in their lives. After that, depending onthe person, the artist’s work might be conceptual, but it’s conceptual mind onthe right track. It is true that the nature is responsible for all Three Jewelsto manifest. It is also true that we are trying to connect with the nature andits creativity with an intention that it actually touches others and bringssome positive experience to them. Also, before one begins, I think it’s veryimportant to empty one’s mind, to be without any concept of being present whilebeing present. That’s the best way I can say how best to empty your mind.
And then, from one’s ownexperience, when one feels this has sufficiently taken place, engage in thecreative process without worrying so much about whether or not you are connectedto your creative process. When you are meditating on the nature and you havethis kind of guessing going on with yourself, you may try to conceptuallyconfirm that you are in the meditative state of mind. It’s “this way” or “that way,” and this is what emptiness means, or this is whatit means to be luminous, or this is what it means to be a union of the two.When you need this kind of strong reference to know that you are in the rightstate of mind, in this case, many of the great masters say that you losethe meditative state of mind. Je dab means that you are trying toclarify your meditative state of mind through concepts. It isn’t that there'sno point in knowing the various aspects, but when you're meditating, theguessing, doubting, and trying to confirm, not being able to confirm, andgetting frustrated, all of that takes you out of the meditative state ofmind.
This is also true with thecreative process. Whether one is connected with the creative process or not—isthis conceptual, or is this a real creative process overflowing—guessing anddoubting and trying to confirm and getting frustrated all become blocks to creativity.Otherwise, there would be no reason for creativity to be blocked. Creativity isalways creating the universe, so why should it be blocked for you? It is aconcept. One’s own mind can sometimes block creativity in this way. What I’msuggesting is to just create! Create freely, and trust that it is comingfrom the source, which is creativity. It has to be creativity because foranything to be created, there must be creativity involved. Since creation is goingon, and you're not stuck in a particular kind of dualistic mind, then it has tobe creativity coming from creativity. Then just move on.
The important point hereis that meanwhile, this has to be very rang ngang, meaning your ownexperience. If it is not rang ngang, or your own solo experience, if youare thinking from someone else’s point of view about what they might see or whatthey might say—forget it. It’s very difficult to get free from hopes and fears,and judgments. Because you have no liberty, you’re not operating from your ownexperience or rang ngang but from someone else’s point of view and perceptions.So, when an artist gets stuck there, I think many self-destructive emotions andhate can come from that. You're stuck. You have no liberty. You can't let go. Youcan’t be on your own. Many times, artists with the greatest skills can be theirown worst critics. Because of this, they can never enjoy their creativeprocess. So it has to be rang ngang, from your own experience, and not so muchfrom how others see it, receive it, or what others might think of it. It has tobe just from your experience and practice, or even in a group practice—aharmonious solo practice with others.
In this way, the artistcan get free from hopes, fears, and ego struggles. This doesn't mean that thingswon't come up. Of course, in much of our life, we are trained to think and tofeel that we are not to view things from our own experience but from others’ aswell. Whether you get stuck in that as an artist or not, that's up to you. If you get stuck there, it’swith very little integrity. But if things come up, and you don't get stuck butmove through—even with traditional training, wanting to do it exactly like yourcoach, mentor, or teacher—you have to arrive at the point where you arecompletely free to do what you want and not give a damn about what your teachersays. Otherwise, there will be this struggle that you cannot bypass. But if youmove through with integrity, then there will be no obstructions to creativity.
Moving through Ego’sInsecurities
A few obstructions tocreativity can come up: first from self, and then from others. These are allbasically ego problems. Whether coming from the insecurity of the self or fromothers, it is still an insecurity of the ego. One must move through the insecuritiesof the ego in order to really flow in one’s creativity. Otherwise, insecurityand the ego will take charge of the conceptual mind, rather than creativity andthe nature itself unfolding with creativity.
Question: It’s like what you weretalking about self-confidence. And then, in the artist’s practice, we work withwhat’s called critique, which is generally like reflecting on what thework is. And if I understand what you’re saying, in meditation, I would think thatwe would use critique, as well. It’s like noticing the difference between anin-meditation experience and a post-meditation one, and the relationship withthat. I’m wondering if critique from this point of view is not to self-criticizebut first to have appreciation.
Rinpoche: Good or bad—or anyproduct—one must have appreciation. Anything that one has created—have appreciationfor it. It’s very uncomfortable to sit and observe and appreciate one’s ownwork. But that has to be the discipline. In this way, you have moved through ego’sinsecurities and created. Then afterward, put everything down, just sit and bewith it, and appreciate it with an 0pen-hearted quality. However uncomfortable itmight be for you to work with that, move through that later, and justappreciate it as if you're not present, as if this is not actually done by you.Appreciate that.
Question: What about namingsomething? I’m curious about that. I tend not to do that. How do you work withnames?
Rinpoche: I generally don't namemy paintings. But sometimes, if you have to name a painting, it’s like theprovisional teachings. You know what I mean? Because without some reference, sometimespeople can't understand or have a sense of connection or appreciation for it. Whenyou give a name for those reasons, it’s more like a provisional name. Anyway, allnames are dar takpa, which means that all names are relative orprovisional.
Question: Rinpoche, there areseveral people present who have works of art displayed here. We are soappreciative of your time but would like to invite you if you’d like to take astroll around and enjoy some of the work. Some of the artists are here as well.It’s such a rare and precious opportunity to be able to interact with you inthis way, so we would be so grateful.
Rinpoche: Thank you all very much.