NaturalVitality, Wisdom, and Creativity

VenerableDzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche

TibetHouse, New York, October 3, 2007

I want to thank Tibet House forthis event and all of you for your support and coming here tonight. I know NewYork is a very tough crowd for art, so it’s aprivilege to be doing this exhibition here and in such a nice place as TibetHouse. 

My interest in abstract Westernart has much to do with my own practice of meditation. Though it seems like anodd combination—the practice of meditation and abstract art—in the practice ofmeditation, one first works with disciplining one’s own mind and tries to embodythe view of the natural state and whatever arises from that natural state. Eventhough this natural state is pristine and enlightened, what arises from it maysometimes be pleasant and sometimes unpleasant. We may grasp after whatever ispleasant that arises or reject the unpleasant that arises. To transcend thegrasping and rejecting in this kind of disciplinedpractice of meditation, one must have the self-confidence to trust thatwhatever arises from the natural state is pure in itself. The grasping andrejecting that arise have more to do with one’s habits and ego’s insecurities. Over time, one will begin to feel more self-confidentand secure in one’s own practice of meditation. Your understanding of the nature that was pointed outto you by your teacher will increase—the nature, which from beginning-less timeis pure, pristine, and stainless.Whatever arises from the nature is like waves that arise from the ocean; regardless of the colors ofthe waves—black, brown, or pristine white—all are essentially the element ofwater itself.

All of the various thoughts andfeelings that arise in the practice of meditation out of one’s own naturalstate of mind, ultimately, are made of that same material that is emptyawareness itself. In meditation, if onedoesn’t become so vulnerable and succumb to habits, insecurities, orpreconceived notions of what meditation should be—how meditation always should have this or that quality—one can accept everything that arises. Allcan be seen as an expression of that very nature that one is trying torecognize as enlightened. Therefore, all expressions of that enlightened natureare also enlightened nature itself.

Then one begins to experience notonly relaxation but also less reactivityand fewer judgments. One becomes more accepting and open, and begins to see the world as pure—not purein thesense of pure versus ugly or ugly versus pure, but whatever it is, its veryexistence has perfection in it. This has not been arranged by someone withconcepts or with a view of how it should be, and therefore it is beautiful. Butthe beauty is just as it is, the way it has found its own shape, its own form,its own color out of the nature. That nature is not simply a void because if itwere, then it couldn’t produce anything. So, that nature must have tremendousvitality in order to give birth to all of the things that we actuallyexperience in the mind and in the world. 

To be able to trust that and notbe so dualistic is part of the meditation practice that I’ve been introduced toby my great Buddhist Vajrayana teachers, such as His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, TulkuUrgyen Rinpoche, and Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche. That has been my lifelong passion. I’ve been a meditator since I was fourteen.I’m forty-three now, so thathas been twenty-nine years. Part of the conduct in the Vajrayana practice ofmeditation is to support the meditation and the view. If the conduct weresomething separate from what you’re trying to accomplish in the meditation,when you’re trying to enhance the view, then that conduct won’t have much placein life. That conduct would be something completely separate—a whole otherthing. In general in the Buddhist view and particularly in the Vajrayana practiceof the discipline of meditation, conduct has to be a support for the meditationthat you are trying to practice and the view that you are trying toenhance.  

Painting as Enhancement toMeditation

A long time ago, when I first went to France, I met Matthieu Ricard’s mother, Yahne Le Toumelin. When I was inAsia and studying with Khyentse Rinpoche, she used to come to visit. I knewthat she was a painter, but I hadn’t watched her painting then. But later inFrance, I had a chance to visit her privately. As I watched her painting, itseemed very freeing, non-conceptual, and expressive. Itseemed like trying to go beyond the restrictions of one’s own judgments, likefearless expression—fearless of being stuck with hopes, fearless of all theattachments, and fearless in the sense that all the rejections and insecuritiesare being overcome as well. I thought this would be a good, modern-day aspect of conduct to support meditationpractice. This would be something I could try to learn from her to enhance mymeditation practice, as well as the view of the practice of Dzogchen. And so, Imade a connection in that way, and then Yahne also offered to teach me. A fewyears later, I started to learn from her. She was very free with whateverexpression that surfaced on the canvas or paper with turpentine and paint, andwhenever there was any sense of being stuck in hopes and fears—just goingbeyond, sometimes in very fearless ways.

In this way, art has become partof my practice. This is what I try to do, though, of course, sometimes it’seasier or more simple than other times, but generally this is my technique. In doing so, what I find isthat I can move myself away from the work that I’m doing due to the disciplineof the meditation practice, and then I let the work have its own life. When thework becomes a natural process in this way, at some point you feel a deep satisfaction. I think that satisfaction comesfrom the synchronization between the feeling of resolution inside with how thework is outside, and then ending it there. In that way, I try to do as well as possible without being judgmental,accepting and gladly acknowledging that itis not my art but what creativity produced. All beings have creativity and long to express itin different forms. When we are able to express this creativity, a tremendoussense of joy and well-being arises in our minds.

Transference of Consciousness inArt

I also believe that atransference of consciousness occurs in art. Looking at a work of art, anobserver can get a good sense of the artist’s process and the emotions or stateof mind of the artist. Even though they are not directly observing the consciousnessof the artist, they feel touched by it just by looking at the art. There’s atransference of consciousness from the artist’s mind and creation—the artcreated out of the artist’s natural creativity—to the observer. Thatis the artist’s offering—natural creativity.

Without art, the world would betoo serious, too pragmatic, humorless. The beauty brought into the world by artists—by musicians, dancers, writers, poets, orpainters—truly transforms the world. Since humankind has existed, society hascontinuously enjoyed art. Even cave people made creative offerings to their society. We still enjoy their art today. The worldis continually enriched by and made greater by artists, their creative minds, and by the natureitself. When that nature is in the artist’sworks—when the artist movesaway from being between the nature and the work being produced—art enriches and beautifies the world.

Our Innate Natural Vitality IsGreat

When art enriches the world, theworld might acknowledge the artist to be “great.” But from the artist’s pointof view, they’re not great. If they were, why would they have to move from thenature that is in the work and the work that is being produced? The artist could stay in between and try to create. Butsince the artist has to move away from between the nature that is in the work,and the actual work produced, the artist understands that it is the naturalvitality—our own innate, naturalvitality—that is great. Our own nature is great. In that nature, there’sno differentiation between artist and non-artist. In that natural vitality,there’s no difference between someone who’slabeled an artist and someone who’s not labeled an artist; all have the samenature, the same natural vitality. 

If we think about it, thatnatural vitality is always creating—creating thoughts, emotions, life; it’screating everything in the world. The universe is being created moment bymoment. The process of creating art is a fraction of the same process that takesplace all of the time. One cannot be so dualisticabout one’s own creation versus others’ creations, artists versus non-artists.One can actually appreciate all that is created out of the nature andnatural vitality. When we come to understand that it is the nature and naturalvitality that are great,they transcend the duality of one’s own and others’ works. Artists canappreciate all other artists’ creativity as coming from their own naturalvitality, a natural vitality that is part of the nature of all beings. 

Whether one is interested inexpressing oneself or not, in general, one is always creating one’s world, one’s universe. Theuniverse is not objectively there on its own without the subjective mind. Thesubjective mind interdependently creates the universe; the world isinterdependently creating the universe. Similarly, our own lives are beingcreated by our thoughts and feelings, and all thoughts and feelings are created, in essence, by our natural vitalityand our natural state of mind. 

Anythingthat is a part of the nature—that enhances rather than going against thenature—could be seen as art.  If one isin conflict with the nature—pulled by the problems and insecurities of the ego,insecurities of not understanding the nature, insecurities of wanting somethingfor me—it will be a challenge to produce anything wholesome. Even if theartist has been able to produce something recognized and appreciated by manyothers, the artist will suffer from the “me and my” problem—the attachment, grasping, aggression, rejection—thatcan suffocate the artist, like the silk worm that creates its cocoon andsuffocates within it.  

Life and Meditation United

Through meditation practice, withdiscipline and a transcendental mind that acknowledges the nature and itsvitality, artists can cease getting in between the nature and the expression ofthat natural vitality. Work can be more beneficial to the artist personally andbe an offering to the world.

I humbly request that all of youwhom I consider to be artists to trust your nature, your naturalvitality.Fearlessly let go of the ego’s insecurities, and embody self-confidence in thenature and natural vitality. Accept what is created with that freedom. Then, asa Buddhist, as a meditator who is painting or creating any form of art, youwill see that art doesn’t have to be separate from meditation practice. Itcould be one of the most supportive activities for meditation practice. 

Many have told me they wereartists before they became Buddhists or before they became meditators, but then they let go of art.They thought it was too frivolous or not supportive for the spiritual path andmeditation. I think that’s absolutely wrong. How one engages in producing artcould be the most supportive activity. Art can enrich meditationpractice, and meditation practice and art can be united. This is the objectivegoal of all practitioners: what one practices in meditation becomes one’s life. Life andone’s meditation practice are united. Inthis way, there isn’t muchdifference between post-meditation and in-meditation. How one conducts oneself post-meditation is part of the same disciplineas in-meditation, which provides a senseof deep satisfaction.

Otherwise, one might have alonging to be an artist and also have a longing to be a meditator yet see theselongings in conflict. Onemight actually think one has to let go of one to pick up the other and thuslose something that could be very important in one’s life, something veryenriching, fulfilling, and supportive. Not understood or appreciated, one mightnot take it onto the path. 

Inthis way, at the end of one’s life—even if one becomes a good meditator—onemight feel that a part of one’s deep longing or passion had to be cut short.Forsaking that, one could feel unfulfilled. One might feel okay, but if there’sno reason to see art and meditation practice in conflict but as supportive ofeach another, then I think one can have both connections, both passions, bothfulfillments, and both joys, making a whole life. One might spend moretime doing one or the other, as a choice, but the two are never in conflict. Asa teacher of Buddhist meditation practice, I hope to encourage Buddhistmeditators not to forsake their art—to bring meditation and art together, asboth have significant benefits for themselves and for others. 

Those are my humble statements onart, wisdom, and natural vitality. If youhave any questions, please ask.

Question: How can we tell the difference between the egocontriving and the ego playing itself out? You know what I mean? I’m seeingfrom your talk that there’s a difference betweenthinking with ideas of right and wrong to put a picture on the wall, and thenletting go of things to let them flow through, having the trust to let thathappen. I guess there’s always that place between. I see them both as stillconceptual. How can you know if you’re trying to contrive things and makethings to be a certain way instead of letting things play out and getting outof your way?

Rinpoche: Thankyou for that question. That’s a very important point. We all have ego, and wecannot, even if we want to, get rid of our ego that easily. The ego’sattachments, insecurities, fears, grasping, and rejections naturally arise. You can empower them or move throughthem—put them in charge or move through and trust your natural ability tocreate. Without moving through, it’s difficult, but with self-confidence,simply moving through a few times, then you canreally trust yourself and express freely. Then, if you just let it flow and letit do its work, the work becomes stainless because you have moved through.

It’s not like you have nevermoved through things. For instance, in my painting, I paint over and over andover. Even though I can create an image in the first round, painting it overand over makes me move through. In the end, the painting becomes a blessingbecause of what I have moved through. The first one, even if it was beautiful, doesn’t have as much of ablessing. So, I try to move through as much as possible.

Question: Youwere talking about the way art-making supports meditative practice. I’ve cometo think about the actual practice of making art as a form of contemplative practice.It’s not separate at all. I’m interested in the idea of support throughconduct.

Rinpoche: Thankyou. I think that’s an important point. Art is a contemplative meditation, andfrom that point of view, it is not separate from the meditation practiceitself. But since art actively engages your physical body, your mind andemotions—rather than just resting in the nature on the cushion withoutmoving—it is conduct rather than meditation.

Question: Do you think that in the act of abstractpainting, whether you meditate or not, that your state of mind when you’reworking is the same?

Rinpoche: If yourdiscipline is to move through ego’s contrivances and to trust yourcreativity—being aware of creativity and allowing its process—that in itself ismeditation. There’s not really any difference, whether you have a separatemeditation discipline or not.

Question: I’mtrying to apply this to writing. When you write, you’re mining, trying to gointo your conceptual world to mine it, organize it, and put it out. I can seehow this applies to abstract art because it’s a little more physical, and a lotmore about letting go, but can you talk a little bit about how it applies towriting?

Rinpoche: Thankyou for that important question. Iconsider teaching an art, but teachings are conceptual in that you thinkthrough points as you present them. If you allow it to flow naturally and allowyour thought process to naturally create without the ego contriving to hinderit, that thought process is the production. Allowing the natural process totake place, to make the point or write the story, is the same thing. Whetherit’s conceptual or non-conceptual, it has to flow, and the flow has to comefrom not nit-picking. It has to come genuinely from your creative mind andtrusting your natural state of mind to express itself. Moving throughhindrances—of ego-contrivance beingstuck with ego-emotions—asquickly as possible is required, as well. Writing and teaching are no differentfrom abstract art in that way. Only the outcome is different.

Question: Basedon that, almost any activity could be considered art and therefore not separatefrom meditation.

Rinpoche: Yes,absolutely, that’s what I was trying to say. When we trust our nature and thenatural vitality, we know that it is producing everything without the hindranceof ego-contrivance, without being stuck in ego’s hopes and fears, attachments,and aversions. Working in this way offers the most to the world and is the mostenriching and beautifying. It removesdualistic divisions between artists and non-artists. An artist can besomeone who passionately engages with the world in that way, and then the worldmoves on in its own way. Everything is created all the time whether oneconsiders oneself an artist or not.

Question: I’mwondering if the ego can also be viewed as an expression of art.

Rinpoche: That’swhat I was trying to point out. Anything that is in conflict with the nature,anything that is against the force of the flow of natural vitality, has to bemoved through. If you take that ego as art—yes, you could—you’re going to getstuck there. You’re not going to be free. So even if you make somethingbeautiful to offer to the world, and the world appreciates it, you are stillgoing to be stuck there. And that would make you suffer. What’s the point ofbeing an artist if the result is to suffer more than we need to?

Question: Early on, you talked about the inner worldcoinciding with the outer world. Is that when you know you’ve finished apainting?

Rinpoche: Yes,that’s right. When you move through a couple of times with your thoughts andfeelings, there may be a little ego contrivance, but then you get to a placewhere you feel resolved. When you feel resolved inside—whatever the outside maybe—if you can, have the integrity to just leave the work there. At this point,it takes courage not to continue to mess around with it. When you are able towalk away and just look at it and appreciate it, then I think it has moreblessing than it would with further messing around.

Question:Rinpoche, I was wondering if you could talk about storytelling and the notionthat, in Western storytelling, we try to take an enlightened view and look athow ego creates problems, how characters deal with and overcome those problems.

Rinpoche: KhenRinpoche used to tell me that when you become a more advanced meditator, whenthe natural creativity works without hindrance from ego contrivances, it helpsyou in everything, from storytelling to anything that you do. There is amore natural flow and a deeper resonance with others, and it has greater powerto transform minds because it contains more blessings. So, even though you needto write the story, to tell the story and make your points, ego contrivances will be against rather than in supportof that natural flow and the blessings.

Question: Meditationpractice has many structures and forms to follow, which become the support forthe natural state. In art, we see a range of disciplines. Some forms of art areextremely disciplined—for instance, Tibetan thangka painting, and also music.People who are accomplished in those arts are often very accomplished in forms,as well. The idea of art as expression sometimes tends to mean an absence offorms. So, my question is how do you judge? In the case of meditation, at whatpoint are you free of forms? Similarly, with art, how much do you need toground the art in form as you do in meditation?

Rinpoche: I thinkboth are similar in discipline and form. With art, first one needs to masterthe precise discipline. Whether it is traditional thangka painting or Westerndrawing, a lot of practice andconcentration are necessary. As concentration is mastered and precisionis mastered, then there is more room to relax. It becomes a more overflowing, natural process. When art becomes anoverflowing, natural process—one’s own creativity enhanced by discipline—then it has real blessing,whether it is a thangka painting, traditional art, or Western art. It is the same with music and writing—with everything.

There are two stages to this. Thefirst stage is the training stage, mastering concentration and precise work. Inthe second stage, natural creativity flows. In the traditional arts, form isenhanced by discipline. Once discipline and precision have been mastered, ifone is not able to trust one’s own natural creativity and natural state ofmind, to relax into it, even if a piece is beautifully done, it will not haveas much blessing or touch the audience as much. The artist suffers from a kindof tightness. At that point, such tightness will have a great deal to do withthe artist’s insecurities because the discipline and the precision have beenmastered. If one can relax, yet doesn’t, then it is a neurosis.

When one reaches the secondstage, it’s the same. In the first, it may be a little different withtraditional art because you have a lot of concentration and precision tomaster. In abstract art, it’s free form. But whether it’s free form or not, ifthere is the view to trust one’s natural state and natural vitality—and oneexpresses that as one works, removing oneself as much as possible, movingthrough ego-contrivance or emotions—the result will be the best blessing andproduction. The person will enjoy the work much more.

As we know, being stuck and notable to go through is painful. For many people, even if they have the talent tobe a great artist, when they’re stuck and not moving through, they becomeaggressive toward themselves and give up art. Many artists suffer in that way.

Question: Rothko,a renowned artist in the United States and worldwide, once said that on afairly decent day when he was painting, there were a couple of people in theroom, and a couple of those were talking. On a pretty good day, he was in theroom by himself. On a very good day, he also was alone.

Rinpoche: Iappreciate your comment on that. It is definitely more challenging when there’s an observer than when you are alone, andespecially if you have an observer with a camera right on your face! On theother hand it, that challenge is good because if one can work with thatchallenge, it could contribute to one’s growth, as well.

Question:Rinpoche, along the lines of being witnessed or watched, could you speak aboutthe artist’s relationship to audience?

Rinpoche: Theaudience is those to whom we make the offering, and the offering that we makeis the art—whatever form of art that we create out of our creativity. But ifyou think from the audience’s perspective—what is beautiful, what is notbeautiful; what is good art, what is not good art; what is something they like,what is something they don’t like—then you lose your integrity as an artist. So,it’s best to treat the audience as those to whom you will make an offering, butthis offering has to come from your genuine self.

Not thinking from the audience’sside but from your own genuine side, consider the art you make with yourpersonal integrity, and then leave the audience with their comments, theirlikes and dislikes, their acceptance and rejections, all of which, to me, seemlike a good thing.

Without rejecting, there’s noaccepting; without disliking, there’s no liking; without the one response,there’s not going to be another response. So, if your art makes someconnection, I think that’s equally valid. It doesn’t have to mean that allaudiences must like or appreciate, and then go away with a connection.Actually, the way some pieces provoke certain thoughts and feelings is goodbecause, if they’re flat, they evoke less transference. If they provokeemotions, some likes and dislikes, or some acceptance and rejection, then maybethe audience experiences some of what you were going through inside while youwere creating the paintings. There are connections being made.

Question: Inregard to the dynamic that gets set up on authority or praise or that kind ofthing that gets called a connection is almost, maybe, a disconnection? Do youknow what I mean?

Rinpoche:Exactly. If you are depending on the reviews and approval of others, and yourjob is linked with that, there will be stronger feelings, insecurities, andreactions of the ego mind. At the end of the day, one has to be able to trustoneself. Without that trust, if one doesn’t sleep well and trust oneself, onewill become a victim of one’s neurosis. You are like a chef making a beautifuldinner, inviting guests, and then offering them the dinner. Some people mightenjoy the dinner, some people might not, but you did the best you could withyour creativity and your chef-hood. 

Question: I’mwondering whether it’s true that the greater the art, the greater the ego.

Rinpoche: From myknowledge, when some of the great artists who produced the great art that theworld appreciates so much were actually producing that art, their egos were notin their way. But after having created their art, post-art, theyexperienced the dynamics of their relationships with the outside world based ontheir ego, so sometimes they were more caught up in that. But while they werecreating their art, I think they experienced egolessness. 

Question: In termsof the visual arts, the performing arts, sometimes it seems as though in theprocess of creating, the artist can become quite immodest, especially in termsof working with actors, musicians, and dancers. Maybe that’s skillful means.

Rinpoche: Let’slook at it this way. The less one is self-conscious, the better the productionwill be. Less self-consciousness means less ego. If you’re too self-consciousas an actor or as a musician, or as any performer, even if you have masteredthe skills, you will make many mistakes. Even if mistakes are not made, itwon’t be as graceful, so as art, it won’t be as good. Whether you are an actoror dancer, less self-consciousness makes the mastery of that skill graceful.Egolessness and being less self-conscious are the same thing to me.

Question:Rinpoche, what are some of the qualities of the natural creative flow?

Rinpoche: I thinknatural creativity, natural vitality, surprises you. Every moment it’schanging. If you are able to observe that changing without preconceptions, it’sa surprise. It comes from your nature. Being still and observant and trustingthat process is the real discipline here.

Question: This issimilar to earlier questions. How do you then work with a theme?

Rinpoche: You canstill work with a theme because while you’re working with a theme, you stillmust be present, and if you’re present, you onlyhave that moment to engage with. If you’re engaged with that very moment, thenext moment is a fresh moment. If you engage in that as a whole, you accomplishthe theme, but in the moment, you are only engaged in the timelessness of thatpresent moment.

Question: Whenyou talk about trusting your creative or natural state, do you mean that youstop thinking?

Rinpoche: It’snot like you stop thinking. It’s more like you stop being conflicted.

Question: Do youever find that what you produce doesn’t have a close relationship to what youwere thinking about?

Rinpoche: I thinkthat happens with a theme. The reason I say not to stop thinking is becausethinking could enhance all of this. To stop thinking means suppressingthoughts. Not being conflicted here means not being so much of a victim ofhopes and fears, and one’s own critical mind that can stop you from workingrather than being able to move through the work and whatever comes up. Even ifconflict comes up, if you move through it, that conflict will be over. If youare too conflicted—stuck with that feeling of conflict, hopes, or fears—anddon’t move through, then that critical thinking or that conflicted mind mayhold you as a hostage. Once you are a hostage to that conflicted mind, then theonly thing that becomes important is what you might do to appease that ratherthan to create art. And, if it becomes more important than the art, then you’renot producing but are attending to something totally different.

Question: When one is working and in thatzone, what’s the difference between that and enlightened mind?

Rinpoche: I thinkthe purest form could be the enlightened mind itself. Then it’s a matter ofdegrees of greater awareness with a less self-conscious mind. It all will belike degrees of enlightened mind.

Question: Whenyou’re talking about blessings and you have the product of today, when youcreate natural mind, flowing, then is that the resonance that is therenaturally, all the time?

Rinpoche: That’swhat I think. We see art created over three thousand years that still touchesus. If it is not a blessing, what is it that touches us now? If it is not theperson’s mind and energy and creativity that has permeated the art and stillresonates and touches us, then what is it? I think this has to be considered ablessing.

Question: Itdoesn’t fix you; it somehow maintains your engagement or enlivened quality?

Rinpoche: Yes,when the blessings are in the art and consecrated in that way, so to speak,then they remain there until the art is destroyed or no longer there. Untilthat point, I think it stays there. It’s like rabné [the practice ofconsecrating representations of enlightened body, speech, and mind].

Question: Do youthink it is important for children to be exposed to the arts? Because it givesthem this focus and this wonderful thing that would be art in the creativeprocess, and focusing the mind totally, the ego falls away because they are soinvolved in the creative process.

Rinpoche:Especially now, it’s important to introduce children to art to learn how to gobeyond ego contrivance and the egoic mindset, to appreciate their naturalcreativity and the beauty that generations upon generations in humancivilization have created. Children can see the importance of creativity thenand now, that they can be a part of it and create even more for the future.This can get them out of the pessimistic thinking prevalent in the world today,seeing things getting worse and worse through the media.

Question: And themulti-tasking, which scatters the mind and destroys concentration.

Rinpoche: That’sright. Go ahead.

Question:Rinpoche, how do you start?

Rinpoche: Youstart when you’re ready, and when you’re ready, you start. Once I was told thata good meditator is like a crazy person getting enraged. The crazy person whogoes into a rage doesn’t plan to get enraged. They spontaneously fall into arage. Like that, whenever you’re inspired, when you are ready to engage, youengage.

Question: On thatnote, I was wondering, is there a consequence if you don’t engage?

Rinpoche: I’mglad you asked that question because I think all people have a longing for fulfillment,and this longing for fulfillment could not be enhanced if they suppress theircreativity. Suppression of creativity and getting very pragmatic with one’slife and everything that one does somehow kills something inside of oneself. Inthe end, instead of the deep fulfillment that might have come from that longinghaving been fully met, there’s pain.

Thankyou all very much.

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