Not knowing is most intimate
Post #1464 • March 9, 2010, 11:11 AM • 27 Comments
Generally speaking, Zen masters are no more respecters of personality than of conceptualism. Their eye is fixed on something beyond all forms of limitation and definability, and they would criticise others from this higher attitude of their own. When thus the Emperor further asked Bodhidharma, "Who are you then [who is regarded as a holy transmitter of Buddha's doctrine]?" Bodhidharma unceremoniously replied, "I do not know." On this, Engo comments, "Tut! Again, not worth a penny!" This is not necessarily Engo's sarcasm. Inasmuch as he is bent on warning people not to be enticed by words or concepts, he is, we must admit, justified in using such strong caustic language. We are also to remember that Bodhidharma here as no thing to do with agnosticism.
Lately I've been picking my somewhat neglected meditation practice back up. I have a meditation cushion sitting on a set of flat files in the home studio. Next to it, on a stool, is a Buddha head with a sandalwood mala encircling the base, and a little bowl of rice for holding incense. If I spent as much time on that cushion as the cats, I would have attained anuttara samyak sambodhi by now. The cats aren't nearly as busy as I am, of course. No, let's put it this way - the cats don't have nearly as many expectations of themselves.
I found Zen during college and thus came into fine art already inoculated against the idea that art could be figured out intellectually. Our old teacher, Gesshin, used to remind us: "You will never figure out this life with your thinking mind." Renoir remarked: "You come before nature with theories. Nature throws them to the ground." One can pull similar notions at will from the pages of Greenberg (this one from Homemade Esthetics):
It turns out - and it has always turned out - that art, that esthetic experience can't be fruitfully reasoned about, at least not beyond a point that lies close to the beginning of reasoning. ...
The picture has everything it needs in order to succeed as art. By virtue solely of that judgment it demonstrates that to me. And so does every other work of art or esthetic experience that I've found satisfying. How could art that's proven itself satisfying, that's elicited a positive value judgment, fail to have "content," "relevance," "human interest," and so on? Esthetic value judgments, and nothing else, not interpretation, not explication, not argument, answer that kind of question. ... Unexamined habits of mind and speech lay traps here (as they do almost everywhere else in the discussion of art).
Thus I noted the ineffability of the whole creative enterprise, at least the part worth talking about, early on as part of the continuum of experience. We live in a time in which the explainers are ascendant, though. One of the major differences between the present and the middle of the last century is that a college education went from being a rare privilege for the brightest to a necessity for any work requiring a desk. All we can fairly ask of college is to explain things. And here we are with an art world built by and for the explainers. Watching art struggle in a world of explanations is like watching a butterfly caught in a spider web.
And yet if you know not to know, that world drops away. Butterflies float freely around the studio. Somewhere, Dizang chuckles.