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the zen of creativity

Post #332 • July 28, 2004, 6:37 AM • 1 Comment

John Daido Loori just released The Zen of Creativity: Cultivating Your Artistic Life. I trained a little with Daido up at Zen Mountain Monastery, where students practice a tough Japanese style of Zen. In addition to his post as abbot, he uses photography as an art practice in the same manner that monks of old used ink and paper.

I enjoyed this book, but I wonder about recommending it to anyone not already interested in Asian religion. After telling the story of his own path into monastic life that began with workshops with Minor White, he presents a series of exercises aimed at opening awareness, talks about the traditional Zen arts such as shakuhachi, zenga, and tea ceremony, and concludes with commentary on the Zen idea of reality.

As such, it is a religious work, and while reading it I couldn't help but think that the religious idea about art, like the political idea about art, is often the wrong idea. Peter Shaffer's Amadeus exemplified this, with pious Salieri reduced to painful awareness of his mediocrity in the face of the genius of impious Mozart.

But Zen may have a better chance of getting it right on this point than Christianity (no disrespect meant to the latter), because the closest thing Zen has to a supreme diety is the act of attention. Shaffer's Salieri hoped in vain that God would reward his piety with talent. Zen encourages practitioners to pay so much attention to the act of art-making that they disappear into it. The artist cannot will that disappearence, but by working in mindfulness he may infuse his work with a sense of infinity.

I signed up for this in a big way, I admit. Zenga had a huge impact on my work, particularly that of Sengai and other followers of Hakuin. And yet I have noticed that sometimes I created my best pieces while yapping with my model, employing no mindfulness whatsoever. One cannot correlate human decency with artistic ability. I would guess that concentrative powers correlate with it to some degree, but experience tells me that joriki - meditative strength - does not comprise the entire picture.

Still, anyone with a reflective bent who wants to nurture their creative talents will find many of the points useful and much of the narrative interesting. This book comes partly out of Dogen's tradition. Dogen is not meant to be understood with the rational mind, and your feelings about a passage like this...

That night, when the poet was enlightened, can we say that the poet was enlightened by the sounds of the brook? Or was it the brook that was enlightened by the poet? Dare anyone say that this is a pint of water or an ocean into which all rivers enter? Ultimately speaking, is it the poet who has been enlightened, or is it the mountains and rivers that are enlightened?

...may indicate whether you'll enjoy this book, keeping in mind that Daido's more straightforward words comprise the majority of the text. The book includes one of the few extant descriptions of a looking technique called creative audience that Minor White used in his teaching, which puts one in a receptive, contemplative state in the presence of art. The anecdotes will appeal to American Asianophiles big time. I've noticed that artists will as likely engage in spirituality as world-class hedonism; to whatever extent one might favor the former, one will find much to like in the book. And so I recommend it, recognizing that it will not call to many people who will continue to make excellent art anyway, without much mindfulness, discipline, or thinking about the infinite.



mary agnes

July 28, 2004, 10:28 PM

I wonder if inner peace leads to the dissipation of the emotional intensity that makes much of what we in the West consider so engaging in the visual arts?



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