Lion's Roar

Readers’ Essays: Creativity

Buddhadharma readers share their experience of Buddhist practice in everyday life as it relates to creativity.

By Lion’s Roar

Even though creativity has been a part of my life since my childhood, I was unprepared for the parallel I discovered when I began studying Buddhism. As I became familiar with the practice and methods of developing mindfulness, I found myself recognizing an old friend: drawing.

Like a clear bell tolling a resounding verity, I discovered that the quality of presence I regularly experience in my studio when I am in the process of putting pigment to paper and paint to surface is mindfulness. The true attention that creativity requires—the presence that is pure and undistracted—is the same true attention that the cushion requires. Until I began studying Buddhism, I had never encountered another instance of this beyond the studio. The revelation deepened not only my practice, but also my creativity.

Now I use what naturally comes to me in the studio on the cushion, and extend it (when I’m skillful) into my days and nights. I realize that what is compelling in my work is the same thing that is compelling in my practice; they are one and the same.

John Cage once told an anecdote on creativity that went something like this: When you begin working, everyone in the world whom you respect, admire and with whom you are concerned are there in the room with you. Then, as you continue working, one by one they leave. Finally, when you are truly working, then you also leave. I have experienced what Cage describes for many years in the studio, and gratefully take it now to the cushion and into my practice. For it is true: When we are truly practicing, when we are truly creating, then we also leave.

Linda Lynch
Columbus, N.Mex.

I began sculpting in clay when I was 14 and stopped at 21, my mind so busy creating drama and distractions that I could no longer be patient or concentrate through the sculpting process. A life of abusing myself on all levels brought me to kidney disease and, at age 45, a prognosis for a very short life. Western medicine had nothing to offer me. A Chinese acupuncturist told me that he could not help me and that Buddhist meditation was the only thing that would save my life. And, so it was.

I learned Zen meditation and, at the same time, began to find healing in the peace of my hands in clay. Sculpture is very much part of my practice now—gently recreating an eye or finger, over and over for hours or days, until it appears whole and full of life. Patience, gratitude and the joy of being alive all envelop me as I work. The hours pass; I have no awareness of time.

Art has helped me heal by pulling me away from always thinking of an outcome and, for once in my life, focusing on the process itself. Until my diagnosis I had been so impatient, entrenched in a belief that all my efforts must show results or create profit. It would have been impossible for me to work with clay in that mind.

After a 25-year absence, I had to relearn everything about sculpture. I was forced to work on one foot, one eyeball, one lip, one ear at a time—learning to love each as I progressed. I could never have returned to sculpture without having learned the silent observation and presence of sitting meditation.

With meditation, I open to stillness—something I had not experienced since I was five years old. With sculpture, I experience a freeing of my spirit. How amazing that we can be so locked-up, so closed, that a death sentence is required to open us to what was freely ours as children. The dharma says that freedom is our birthright. Art can express it. Art can be a path to it.

Deborah Lissom
Floyds Knobs, Ind.

I was one of six artists commissioned to create an outdoor work for a busy market street in the heart of New York City’s Chinatown. I decided to make blankets of crocheted granny squares for each streetlight, stoplight and signpost along the street, sixty blankets in all. The piece became the pivotal point in my life for about nine months. All my usual activities—caring for my children, keeping house, meeting deadlines, and even riding the subway—had to revolve around making and stitching together over 2,000 granny squares. There were very few moments when my hands were idle.

The process of giving away the results of all that labor was the most challenging and most rewarding part of the project. At first, I was very attached to each blanket and would think, “I can’t give this away, I’ll keep just this one.” But on the street at the moment when I put the work up, I knew I could let it go. The best feeling was arriving at Canal Street in the morning with two big bags filled with my work and, a few hours later, walking away empty-handed. This feeling of letting it go, giving it all away, was addictive-I felt like a junky before each installation, knowing that I would have my high by the afternoon. When the exhibition period was over, I went back to collect a few of the blankets that remained (most were taken in the first few days after they were installed) as a record of the project. That experience was very unsatisfying. I had looked forward to having a few of them for my own, but the magic of the blankets and the granny squares were connected to the street and to giving them away. They were meaningless to me once removed from the site.

The project is a good metaphor for my experience of trying to understand the dharma: substitute the word “emotion” or “ideas” for the word “blanket.” I see how attached I am to those things because I have labored over them all my life. Giving them away, letting them go, seems like it will be painful but walking away empty-handed is ultimately the best experience. Likewise, it is not something that can be detached from everyday experience.

Robyn Love
Sunnyside, N.Y.

Finished works reflect both the observational skills and the quality of mind at the time of execution and, like life, work well if there is balance and no attachment to outcomes. Too much ego involvement and the work becomes self-conscious, lacking honesty and integrity; the process becomes fearful instead of joyful or connected.

The process of drawing is at first an exercise in seeing clearly. Objects become clearer and more detailed, but as the work or series unfolds, objects begin to emerge more fully, appearing simpler or deeper, no longer necessarily a visual match with the original object.

Sometimes the finished work is very still; other times even still life becomes dramatically flowing. Forms become less defined. Space materializes. The most interesting pieces are both still and dynamic.

Making art, a process, is a skillful means for learning how to live; a way to observe more deeply; and a chance to capture visually insubstantial experiences in the transmuting flow of existence.

Mary Rees
Houston, Tex.

Sometimes when I enter my studio in the morning I am struck by the vividness and clarity of the paintings. They contrast with my jumbled state of mind. As I settle down to work on a new painting I feel layers of discursive thought dropping away. Many times when my brush is in my hand or I am mixing colors I feel settled; I have become very focused. And I immediately know when my mind wanders from the object of my painting practice—the paint container drops to the floor leaving a big, lime-green spill, or the taut, curvy line I am drawing becomes a fat blob of paint. Before I would have felt that I had ruined something and would have hurled a harsh word into space. But now, because of years of meditating, when I do get lost in my work I see it quickly and regain clarity.

The view of emptiness/luminosity informs my images—brilliantly colored, abstract shapes morphing and framing vast space. The slow reading of these paintings yields an invitation to rest in a contemplative depth, be it edgy or peaceful. For the work to get to the point where it becomes a catalyst for this type of experience, I have to continually stop my mind as it goes off to grab a solution to a given problem and bring it back. A painting works because it is the result of innumerable found decisions. It has painted itself.

Wendy Miller
New York, N.Y.

As a songwriter and performing artist, music is a hard-wired part of me. Yet it is a playmate, interpreter, friend, and teacher, as well. I’ve found that my art pours wisdom, energy, and spirit into my other activities. And as my knowledge of Buddhism grows, I am more loving toward my creative self.

I guess art can sometimes be “a lie that makes us realize truth” (Picasso), but art is more often, I believe, truth in its purest form. Much of my performance is done with my eyes closed, in a kind of blissful state, totally absorbed in the moment. So my music is often my meditation. It runs the gamut of emotion—happiness, sadness, humor, desire, need, pain, love, and compassion. The resulting creation, the essence, is a balance. The mind I bring to the creative process is, at its deepest level, a reaching out to the universe, juxtaposed with going inward and connecting with myself. My art acknowledges, confronts, and transmutes my deepest needs. Through it, I invoke my spirit, expose my sensuality, state my needs, proclaim my views on social issues, poke fun at myself, and try to connect with my audience. Through it, I let my spirit dance.

Clara M. Landau
Knoxville, Tenn.

My precious root teacher inspired the birth of my heart. There I discovered the artist waiting patiently to give rise to her voice. Having taken ordination soon after meeting the path, I was filled with the wish to use every breath, every movement to deepen my spiritual practice and strengthen the qualities of wisdom and compassion in the world for the benefit of all beings.

The roots of my artistic practices extend deep into the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. I adhere strictly to the instruction set forth by the traditional master with whom I have had the good fortune to train.

Before a painting is begun, prayers are made to remove any obstacles. Appropriate meditations are done to purify the canvas and to bless the pigments and brushes. The canvas is primed with prayer and four coats of gesso, one dedicated to the lama and one for each of the three precious jewels. The canvas is sanded between each coat with prayers to remove obstacles and smooth the way for all beings to find true happiness. The image is carefully sketched in place; each element of the painting—color, ritual implements, facial expression, mudras—is researched for accuracy and meaning. Adherence to the correct proportions and details of specific elements of each composition is said to be of inestimable benefit to the art, the artist and those who experience the work.

While including the traditional proportions, postures and such, I have chosen to paint in the contemporary Western style of pointillism. Using small brushes I lay in fields of color in each area of the painting. Six colors are applied to each field, up to five different shades, creating vibrancy and dimension. Millions of tiny dots completely cover the canvas. Each dot is visualized as a jeweled universe, each universe is offered to the buddhas and bodhisattvas, requesting their blessings to appear in the world to end suffering.

According to the teachings, an image of the Buddha is as though the Buddha himself has appeared in the world. His qualities of loving-kindness and compassion are a radiant presence. Whether that is understood or not the blessing is there: potent, brilliant, immeasurable, drawing forth the very best qualities of our hearts. This practice has ignited the passion of my heart.

Sherab Khandro
Sedona, Ariz.

Art is a train that can take us to our destination. That destination is right here, right now. Yet, once we arrive, we can’t explain it. We can hardly utter a breath. That is where art, or any form of communication, steps in. We use many forms to communicate one point that is fundamentally beyond explanation, but not beyond experience. Since we all experience this indescribable “something,” we can all appreciate the need to express it to someone else.

As artists, our job is to question, to wonder about all of reality, and all of ourselves. We question until there is nothing left. When everything has disappeared, when everything has become clear then we move: fast, like lightening; slow, like a ladybug. Communicate what can’t be explained. Live what can never be contained. Just do it over and over again. That is art.

Let us, as artists, as practitioners, as humans, give away our practice to this world. Let every brush stroke, every musical note and every photo be completed with the mind that only wishes to save all sentient beings from suffering. We must work hard, create bodhisattva action, paint a picture of love and compassion, and then we must freely give this away to everything with which we come into contact. If we can do that on an individual level, others will be encouraged to do the same. If even one person brings everything into question, already that is the Buddha painting. That is the Buddha singing. That is the Buddha.

Daniel Munkus
Berkeley, Calif.


Lion's Roar

Lion’s Roar

Lion’s Roar is the website of Lion’s Roar magazine (formerly the Shambhala Sun) and Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly, with exclusive Buddhist news, teachings, art, and commentary. Sign up for the Lion’s Roar weekly newsletter and follow Lion’s Roar on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.