The Bodhisattva as Artist
In the Zen koan tradition we’re working at the intersection of spiritual practice and art form. It seems significant that the wisdom of the tradition is for the most part encoded in brief stories, images, and quotations from the popular culture of the time, rather than in, say, philosophical or doctrinal texts. You can say that the nature of all things is fundamentally empty, or you can say, “The stone woman gives birth in the middle of the night,” a koan image of how emptiness mysteriously manifests as phenomena. You can say that everything interpermeates everything else, or you can say, “Clouds gather on North Mountain, rain falls on South Mountain.”
What’s the invitation being offered here? People have often said that koans are meant to subvert the habitual processes of the rational mind, which is true, but that’s only a first step towards something else, which is the engagement of the whole person—body, heart, intuition, personal psychology, deep psyche, and rational mind. The assumption is that being a human being isn’t a problem to be fixed through spiritual practice, but an offering we can make to the world.
In responding to a koan (notice I said ‘responding to’ rather than ‘answering’), the idea is to express rather than explain what the koan means, something at which art of all kinds—literary, spoken, visual, performance—is particularly good. From the beginning of the tradition, responses have often come in the form of physical gesture and literary quotation, and now photos, videos, drawings, and music are in the mix, too. There’s an assumption that we go beyond understanding or following the teachings to embodying them—to finding, each of us, the unique way we are the Dharma in the world.
Taking up a koan is entering into a fundamentally creative process. As in any art form, there’s a tradition with knowledge and skill developed and refined over time, and there’s the unique expression each of us contributes to it, every time we take up a paintbrush or a cooking pot or a koan. We offer ourselves as the mixing ground of the vastness—the empty, radiant world we connect with through practice—and the swirl of a particular body, heart, and mind, condition and circumstance. In a small and local way, we agree to contribute to the ongoing creation of the world.
This kind of practice shifts the way we see our lives, so that they too become co-creations among person, world, and vastness. What began perhaps as a spiritual or philosophical or even psychological practice becomes more like an art of life. The distinction between what happens on the meditation cushion and the so-called rest of life dissolves. We’re no longer focusing on techniques and methods to fix the problem of being human, but on how, in all the moment of our lives, we can use our human capacities to help create a world more in tune with our deepest aspirations. That’s the way of the bodhisattva—someone who is, in an essential way, an artist, always refining her skills to make an offering to the world.