Thursday, 2 February 2012

Zen as Art continued

An argument can be made that good quality art reflects ourselves back at us; really fantastic art is so free or transparent of its own agenda that it continues to provide reflection for centuries. The intent of the artist merges into the work, and it appears to be all-of-itself, self-created and self justifying, or indeed so of itself that it needs no justification. That allows us to read ourselves in its form, it carries enough weight of "reality" that we trust the reflections we find in it and draw meaning from them. In Zen, meaning is synonymous with the thing itself, and not only as far as Art is concerned. All of life, in its myriad forms, has its place. This doesn't mean that there are no distinctions or differences, but rather each distinction and difference is as much a part of the Cosmos as the most "cosmic" thing we can think of. The tin can and the marble frieze; the broken computer and the most exquisite seashell. Again, let's be clear: this isn't to say that the tin can somehow must produce the same reaction in us as the frieze. This is the mistake of post-modernism. But they both "belong" in a fundamental sense. Whether or not they both belong in an art gallery is open to debate. Too often the pursuit of "spirituality" becomes a way of acquiring a certain aesthetic: linen rather than polyester, retreats rather than package holidays, meditation rather than television watching. In this way, spirituality can become an expensive middle-class pursuit. Now, obviously the justification for these choices is that they are better for allowing us to see through our Selves, our thoughts, concepts, beliefs, habits and emotions. For a time, they may well be. But the real art is to see through those things amidst all activities, surroundings and conditions. It is possible to get hung up on the spiritual aesthetic, as happens in this story featured in "Dropping Ashes on the Buddha":

The student was very upset. He went to Soen-sa and said, "Those plastic flowers are awful. Can't I take them off the altar and dump them somewhere?"
Soen-sa said, "It is your mind that is plastic. The whole universe is plastic."
The student said, "What do you mean?"
Soen-sa said, "Buddha said, 'When one's mind is pure, the whole universe is pure;When one's mind is tainted, the whole universe is tainted.' Every day we meet people who are unhappy. When their minds are sad, everything they see, hear, smell, taste,and touch is sad, the whole universe is sad. When the mind is happy, the whole universe is happy. If you desire something, then you are attached to it. If you reject it, you are just as attached to it. Being attached to a thing means that it becomes a hindrance in your mind. So 'I don't like plastic' is the same as 'I like plastic'— both are attachments. You don't like plastic flowers, so your mind has become plastic, and the whole universe is plastic. Put it all down. Then you won't be hindered by anything. You won't care whether the flowers are plastic or real, whether they are on the altar or in the
garbage pail. This is true freedom. A plastic flower is just a a plastic flower. A real flower is just a real flower. You mustn't be attached to name and form."

So perhaps one way of putting it is to say that Zen is seeing the Art in everything.