For this blog post I pondered: “What is the connection between the life of an artist and the way of the bodhisattva?”
This is a provocative question. Western culture often considers the life of artist to be one of self-absorption, isolation, non-conformity and separation from what is commonly considered socially, politically, and culturally mainstream. Being an artist is associated with struggle – how to manifest one’s creative expression with the time and resources available, financial challenges, and the social alienation of being an “outsider.” Artists are rebels and courageous risk takers. They can sometimes be stubborn, egotistical and self-important. The lifestyles and behaviors of artists are often called “crazy,” “wild,” and “unconventional.” Many visual artists are introverts and many performers are extraverts. For artists, one size definitely does not fit all. Most artists perceive and interpret the world differently from the norm. They “walk to the beat of a different drummer” and so do bodhisattvas who turn self-interest on its head.
Artists often struggle with being misunderstood or worse — not understood at all. Artists long to share their creative experiences with the world but all too often they are under-appreciated or ignored. There are countless stories of accomplished artists who have battled loneliness, depression and other mental illnesses, relationship problems, substance abuse and other addictive behaviors. All too often great artists die with their work unknown and their genius undiscovered.
I am a proud, stubborn, crazy artist and I am traveling the path of the bodhisattva to tame my monkey mind and benefit beings. So for me there is a visceral connection between creative expression and my spiritual journey. Being an artist is one of the ways that I identify who I am and so is being Buddhist. As Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche likes to say, Buddhism is a science of mind. It is a way of viewing reality and taking action in the world. A Buddhist view defines my experience and helps me to make sense of an often bizarre world. My sense of identity is connected to being an artist and a creative person (no matter how fleeting and ultimately illusory such labels are). My aesthetic style is very ratna (one of the five Buddha families). Ratnas are “more is more” people – quite the opposite of the simplicity of Zen design (which I greatly admire). The world fascinates me – especially the wonders of nature with its great variety of color, texture, shapes. As a Buddhist, I am fascinated by human nature, the display of emotions, impermanence and working with obstacles.
I once had an art teacher who said, “Being an artist is choiceless.” At the time, I had a full-time job that didn’t feel particularly creative. It made me wonder if I really was an artist because I had other career choices and interests. But later, I came to understand that there is a sense of choicelessness to my being an artist. Creative expression is like breathing or eating. If I neglect that side of myself, I become kind of dead inside. Feeding my artist self is a kind of “life force” nourishment that is essential. Buddhist study, meditation and contemplation are also essential nutrients for me.
Here are eight commonalities between the life of the artist and the way of the bodhisattva:
- Discipline – you have to show up for your practice on a regular basis.
- Humor – laughing feels good and one can’t take oneself too seriously.
- Fearlessness – fear can be paralyzing. It is pointless to worry about what others may think or how you compare to others. Your path is unique. Take a leap!
- Confidence – a belief in your basic goodness and that your presence and expression can make a positive difference in the world.
- Failure – nature is a great teacher here. Try and try again, then try some more.
- Expectations – are pointless and only lead to disappointment. Let them go.
- Disappointment – a painful part of the human condition. Everything changes and happens for a reason, so move on.
- Time – don’t dwell in the past; don’t anticipate the future. Be here now.
Perhaps the best examples of the “marriage” of my bodhisattva path and being an artist is my clown character, MeeMee HeeHee. She was “born” several years ago following an amazing weekend workshop at Naropa University on the “Clown Chakra” led by Moshe Cohen, a Zen Buddhist practitioner and founder of Clowns Without Borders. He helped me find and begin to articulate this very playful side of my performer self.
MeeMee (it is all about Me) is characterized by her childlike innocence and curiosity. There is a Buddhist mind training slogan by Atisha that says, “Be a child of illusion.” This is MeeMee HeeHee’s motto. The slogan is often explained as “like a young child experiencing and encountering new things which are unfamiliar and dream-like.” For HeeHee, this might be physical objects or emotional responses. She bumbles along and enjoys the ride. MeeMee HeeHee sometimes reminds us of simple human truths and hopefully connects her audiences with the joy of being alive.
Most of my clown performances have been in the context of meditation retreats. My source material arises from the experience of spending 10 days studying and practicing Buddhism with 100 people. My short performances will reference something that has been learned or occurred during that time. Another example is collaborating with other Buddhists to create performances. In 2004 for the inauguration of Nalanda West in Seattle, Thomas Hewitt Brooks and I performed part of an original play he wrote about the life of the great yogi, Milarepa. The play is set in modern times and Milarepa is a city slicker in search of Marpa in the backwoods of Tennessee. I had the privilege of playing the role of Milarepa to Hewitt Brooks’ brilliant portrayal of Marpa.
One of my favorite pastimes is re-writing song lyrics with a Buddhist twist. This habit was first inspired by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche for whom I rewrote the lyrics to Madonna’s “Rain” as “Rain of Wisdom.” He then challenged me to rewrite the lyrics to the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” I’ve been continuing this type of playful creativity ever since. I often perform the songs at Nalandabodhi gatherings.
Another Buddhist-inspired performance expression for me is using puppets and props to act out dohas, spontaneous songs that express spiritual inspiration and realizations. The Tibetan saint, Milarepa, is quite famous for these types of songs, as is my teacher’s guru, Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche. Once at a Nalandabodhi sangha retreat, Mitra Lee Worley and I were using an Indonesian rod puppet to act out the doha called “Eighteen Kinds of Yogic Joy” by Milarepa. When we got to the line that said, “Fearsome visions getting worse and worse, feels even better still,” the puppet’s head accidentally flew off!
Whether it is through creative expression or simply being in the world, my aspiration is to make the world a better place through joy, wonder and laughter. In this way I hope that my life can sometimes cheer folks up and connect them with their inherent goodness.
“Everything is a miracle. It is a miracle that one does not dissolve in one’s bath like a lump of sugar.” – Pablo Picasso