The Art of Awareness

What makes art a transformative practice, explains Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, is allowing the art to reflect a natural, uncontrived awareness.

By Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche

SF#10, 2006. Painting by Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche.

My interest in Western art has a lot to do with my own meditation practice. Though Buddhist meditation and abstract art may seem like an odd combination, the practice of meditation and the practice of abstract painting are actually complementary.

As Buddhists, we are taught that the natural state of mind is pristine and enlightened in itself. To embody this view of the natural state, first we need to work with our mind through discipline. In our meditation practice, sometimes we are present with this experience of the natural state and sometimes we are not. When something pleasant arises, we often grasp at it, and when something unpleasant comes, we may reject it. Our discipline is to transcend these grasping and rejection tendencies that cause us so much suffering.

Over time, as we feel more self-confident and secure in our practice of meditation—and in our understanding of the true nature of mind pointed out by our teacher—we will see that the true nature is pristine and stainless. In the traditional analogy of the ocean and its waves, it is said that however large or small the waves, all are essentially made of the element of water and cannot be separated from the ocean. Similarly, in the view of meditation, all our thoughts and various feelings arise out of the natural state of mind and are ultimately made out of the same “material.” That material is empty awareness itself. If we do not succumb to habits and insecurities, or preconceptions about meditation and how our mind should be, we can then recognize that everything that arises is simply a manifestation of this very nature. Any expressions that arise from this enlightened nature can be understood as enlightened expressions when we do not approach them through the habits of acceptance and rejection.

Realizing this, we can begin to experience relaxation, as well as a lessening of judgments and reactivity. We experience more openness and acceptance. Slowly, and naturally, we begin to see the world as pure—not as in “pure” versus “ugly,” but pure in the sense of seeing the perfection of its existence. This existence is not determined according to some concept or idea of the way it should be; it simply has come to exist naturally. Its beauty is found in it being just the way it is. The world has found its own shape, form, and color. All of it arises out of the nature of mind.

We understand that the nature of mind is not simply a void. If it were, it could not produce anything. Rather, this nature must have tremendous vitality to give birth to all of the things we experience in the mind and in the world. Part of the meditation practice shown to me by my teachers His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, Tulku Ugyen Rinpoche, and Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche was to be able to trust this vitality, without becoming dualistic in my view or experience. I’ve been a meditator since I was fourteen and this has been my passion. That’s about thirty years now.

I believe we can view art as a form of contemplative meditation. I don’t see it as separate from meditation practice in any way. However, since art making involves being actively engaged with the physical body, the emotions, and the mind, in contrast to resting in the nature of mind without moving, we could consider art to be a form of meditative conduct. In Vajrayana, “conduct” refers to activity that supports our meditation practice and view. If the conduct were something separate from what we’re trying to accomplish in meditation, then it wouldn’t have much place in the life of a meditator. It would be something altogether different.

I began to paint nine years ago. Many years before, when I studied with Khyentse Rinpoche, I met Matthieu Ricard’s mother, Yahne Le Toumelin. I knew she was a painter but I did not know what kind. When I visited France for the first time, I had a chance to meet her privately in her studio while she was painting. Her painting process looked freeing, nonconceptual, and expressive. It seemed very much like a process of trying to go beyond the restrictions of her own judgments—a very fearless expression. It was fearless in the sense of not remaining stuck with hopes, and in terms of getting beyond all attachments, overcoming rejections and insecurities. I thought, “Oh, this would be an excellent modern-day conduct to support meditation practice. This could be something I could learn from her to enhance my meditation and view of the practice of Dzogchen.”

Painting by Dzigar Kongtrul.
Untitled #245, 2006.

That’s how I made a connection with painting. Yahne offered to teach me, and a few years later I started studying with her. As she instructed me, she was very free with the expression that was surfacing out of the mixture of turpentine and paint on the canvas or paper. Whenever there was any sense of becoming stuck with hopes or fears, she simply went beyond it. Sometimes she did so with great fearlessness.

In this way, art has become part of my practice. As I follow the approach Yahne showed me, I find that, because of the discipline of meditation, I can remove myself from the work and allow it to have its own life. When the work becomes a natural process in this way, there is a deep feeling of satisfaction. The satisfaction comes in knowing that the evolution of the painting on the outside reflects how resolved I feel on the inside through the discipline of relinquishing all attachment. The moment I stop painting is when the “outside” and the “inside” coincide in this way. That is, when the painting itself reflects a natural, uncontrived awareness.

As part of this discipline, it’s important to be nonjudgmental and instead cultivate an attitude of acceptance in which we attribute the work to our natural creativity. This creativity is the birthright of all beings, and we all long to express it in different forms and different ways. When it is expressed, there is a tremendous sense of joy, and a great feeling of well-being blossoms in the mind. When this is present in an artist’s mind, I believe that a transference of consciousness occurs through the art itself. When we view this art, we can comprehend the emotions and the state of mind of the artist, and feel touched by it, even though we are not directly seeing the artist at work, and are not able to see exactly what the artist went through. From that point of view, the art produced out of natural creativity is an offering to the observer, rather than a statement of our ego’s own splendor.

Without art, I think the world would feel far too serious, too pragmatic, and very humorless. Such great beauty is brought into the world by artists, whether they are musicians, dancers, writers, poets, or painters. Artists have existed since prehistoric times. Even then they made such offerings to their communities. This world has been enriched and beautified by art. It has been made greater by artists and by the creativity of the mind of the artist, which stems directly from the true nature of mind itself. My point is that when an artist is able to step out of the way—to not stand between the true nature of mind and the work that is being produced—the work of art itself becomes enriched and the offering made to the world thereby becomes more significant.

The world might think of an artist as great and acknowledge him or her as distinct or important. Nevertheless, the artist continuously has to step out of the way and not obstruct the nature of mind that is in the work as it is being produced. So, ultimately, we could say that any “greatness” is simply the manifesting of our innate natural vitality. Furthermore, in regard to this natural vitality, there is really no difference between someone who is labeled as an artist and someone who is not. All have the same nature and the same natural vitality, and that natural vitality is always creating. It is creating thoughts, emotions, our life, and the world that each of us inhabits. The universe is being created moment to moment out of the true nature of mind. Creating art is part of that very same process that takes place all the time on a larger scale. From that perspective, we really cannot be dualistic about our own creation versus someone else’s creation, or about being an artist or not. We can appreciate all that is being created out of the true nature of mind and its natural vitality. When we come to understand how the nature of mind is vast and its vitality so pervasive and inspiring, we transcend all of the dualism between “my” work and “their” work. All artists, I think, have to appreciate the natural vitality of other artists’ work.

Regardless of whether we are interested in expressing ourselves artistically, from the perspective of the Buddha’s teachings we are always creating our world. The universe cannot be said to exist objectively on its own without our subjective mind to apprehend it. You cannot separate the two or speak of one without the other. In this sense, our life is created by our thoughts, feelings, and perceptions; and all of those thoughts and feelings are in essence being created by our natural vitality and our natural state of mind. If we look at it in this way, art can be seen as anything that arises from the true nature of mind, hand-in-hand with any conduct that promotes that expression. Anything that is in conflict with this natural vitality—that tries to freeze or grasp it—will create entanglement in the insecurities of the ego, causing misunderstanding of what the true nature of mind is, and fostering the ego’s desire to secure something for itself.

These tendencies pose a challenge to creating something wholesome. Even if someone is able to produce something that becomes widely acclaimed and appreciated, they will suffer from this “me” and “mine” problem. All of that attachment and grasping, aggression and rejection, will hinder rather than liberate the artist. We could come to a point where our own work suffocates us, like the silkworm that creates a cocoon and expires inside. However, through the meditation practice of transcendental mind that acknowledges mind’s true nature and natural vitality, all artists could create works that are beneficial to themselves and to others.

We all have an ego, and even when we want to, we cannot get rid of it easily. The ego and its attachments, aversions, and insecurities are naturally going to arise continually. However, whether you submit to them or move through them, whether you put them in charge or trust your natural ability to create—this is up to you. It’s going to be difficult to create without moving through these things, but if you have self-confidence and repeatedly make it through attachments and fears, eventually you reach a place where you really trust yourself and allow yourself to become freely expressive. At that point, if you just “let it flow,” the work becomes stainless. For instance, in my painting, I paint over and over and over on the same canvas. Even though I can create an image in the first round, painting it over and over makes me move through many emotions and ego-contrivances. No matter how the painting ends up looking, it contains the blessing of what I have moved through. The first painting, even though it may be beautiful, does not have as much of a blessing as the end result of moving through and letting go of attachments. So I try to move through as much as possible. This is a big part of the discipline I suggest we try to cultivate as artists.

Painting by Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche.
Untitled #213, 2006.

I would like to make a humble request to all of you who are artists to trust your true nature, trust your natural vitality, and fearlessly let go of the ego’s insecurities. Simply embody self-confidence in the true nature of mind and its natural vitality and become accepting of all that is created naturally with such freedom. Then any form of art created in this way will not have to be divorced from our meditation practice. It could actually become the most supportive conduct for your practice. Regardless of whether you are a meditator, if your discipline is to move through your ego contrivance—trusting your creativity and remaining aware of it in the work, and then just allowing the process to take place—this itself is meditation. It makes no difference whether you have a separate meditation discipline. This is true for any form of art.

I consider teaching to be an art form as well, yet teachings are conceptual. You think things through as you present various points. If you allow your thought process to flow naturally and creatively without any hindrance from ego or ego-contrivance, then your thought process can be the same as with abstract expressionist painting. Again, this thought process is the production of the true nature of mind, and allowing that natural process to take place without getting in the way is the same discipline—just go with the story you are writing or the music you are composing. Whether it is conceptual or nonconceptual it has to flow, and the flow has to come very genuinely out of your creative mind and not from nitpicking. This creative mind can be trusted to be there in your natural state, ready to express itself. Removing the hindrances of ego-contrivance—by moving through the ego-emotions as quickly as possible—is what is required.

Many people have told me that they used to be artists, but since they became Buddhist meditators they have let go of their art. They thought it too frivolous a pursuit, not supportive of their spiritual path and the practice of meditation. I think that is absolutely wrong. I think art can be the most supportive part of what one does in life with meditation practice. Art enriches the practice, and in the end, meditation practice and art become united. This is the goal of all practitioners: what we practice in meditation becomes our life. Life and our meditation practice become united to the point that there is not much difference between meditation sessions and post-meditation. Post-meditation becomes part of the same discipline as in-meditation, and with that there is a great sense of deep satisfaction.

Otherwise, we can have a connection to art and a longing to be an artist and yet see this as a conflict with our connection to meditation practice and our longing to be a meditator. Seeing it as a conflict, we might think we have to drop one and pick up the other, and in this way we lose something that is very important, very enriching, fulfilling, and mutually supportive. In this case something important is not being understood or appreciated or taken onto the path. If we follow this route, even though we may become a good meditator, at the end of life we might feel that we had forsaken a part of our own deep longing or passion.

Perhaps you are already aware of your choice, and forsaking your passion has left you a little unfulfilled. You might feel okay about it, and believe that at least it is better than being acutely disappointed or sad. However, there is no reason to feel unfulfilled in the first place! There is no reason to see a conflict between art and meditation practice. Of course, you might want to spend more time doing one or the other but, please, never see them in conflict. See them as supportive of one another. Both have connections, passions, fulfillment and joy which, together, make us whole. This wholeness of being is the true accomplishment of a full life.

Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche’s art can be viewed at, along with a video of him painting and audio teachings.

Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche

Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche

Dzigar Kongtrül Rinpoche was born in Northern India and now lives in southern Colorado. He is the founder of Mangala Shri Bhuti, an organization dedicated to the study and practice of the teachings of the Longchen Nyingthik lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. He wrote It’s Up to You: The Practice of Self-Reflection on the Buddhist Path, published by Shambhala Publications.