Painting, calligraphy, photography, and flower arranging — all in the service of a creative, genuine life. Honoring the 25th anniversary of his death, we present the dharma art teachings and artworks of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche.
1. Dharma and Art
People often start with art and discover dharma out of that. But our approach is different: we begin with dharma, the truth of the teachings, the truth of reality, and then we try to find if there is any art in it. We start right at the beginning, right at the basic point—with the question of who we are, what we are, and what we are trying to do in terms of art. So in discussing dharma art, it is important to have some familiarity with dharma and why it is art.
Dharma means “norm” or “truth.” It is also defined as peace and coolness, because it reduces the heat of neurosis, the heat of aggression, passion, and ignorance. So dharma is very ordinary, very simple. It is the stage before you lay your hand on your brush, your clay, your canvas. It is very basic, peaceful, and cool. It is free from the neurosis that creates obstacles to perceiving the phenomenal world properly and fully, as a true artist should.
The basic obstacle to clear perception is omnipresent anxiety, which does not allow us to relate to ourselves or to the world outside ourselves. There is constant anxiety, and out of that anxiety comes a feeling of heat. It is like entering a hot room—we feel claustrophobic and there is no fresh air. That claustrophobia leads us to contract our sense perceptions.
When there is one hundred percent claustrophobia—the full heat of neurosis—we can’t see, we can’t smell, we can’t taste, we can’t hear, we can’t feel. Our sense perceptions are numbed, which is a great obstacle to creating a work of art.
Some people say that if there were no neurosis, they could not become good artists. This view of art is the opposite of a sense of peace and coolness. It undermines the possibility of intrinsic beauty. Fundamentally, art is the expression of unconditional beauty, which transcends the ordinary beauty of good and bad.
From that unconditional beauty, which is peaceful and cool, arises the possibility of relaxing, and thereby perceiving the phenomenal world and one’s own senses properly.
This is not a question of whether you have talent or not. Everybody has the tendency toward intrinsic beauty and intrinsic goodness, and talent comes along with that automatically. When your visual and auditory world is properly synchronized and you have a sense of humor, you are able to perceive the phenomenal world fully and truly. That is talent. Talent comes from the appreciation of basic beauty and basic goodness, which arises from the fundamental peace and coolness of dharma.
When we begin to perceive the phenomenal world with that sense of basic goodness, peace, and beauty, conflict begins to subside and we start to perceive our world clearly and thoroughly. There are no questions, no obstacles. As anxiety sub- sides, sense perceptions become workable because they are no longer distorted by any neurosis. Through the practice of meditation, we can relate with our thoughts, our mind, and our breath and begin to discover the clarity of our sense perceptions and our thinking process. That enables us to become dharmic people and true artists.
When we begin to realize that the principle of dharma exists within us, the heat of neurosis is cooled and pure insight takes place. Because restfulness exists beyond the neurosis, we begin to feel good about the whole thing. We could safely say that the principle of art is related with this idea of trust and relaxation. Such trust in ourselves comes from realizing that we do not have to sacrifice ourselves to neurosis. And relaxation can happen because such trust has become a part of our existence. Therefore, we feel we can afford to open our eyes and all our sense perceptions fully.
When relaxation develops in us, through letting go of neurosis and experiencing some sense of space and cool fresh air around us, we begin to feel good about ourselves. We feel that our existence is worthwhile. In turn we feel that our communication with others could also be worthwhile and pure and good. On the whole we begin to feel that we are not cheating anybody; we are not making anything up on the spot. We begin to feel that we are fully genuine. From that point of view, one of the basic principles of a work of art is the absence of lying. Genuine art tells the truth.
Dharma art means not creating further pollution in society; dharma art means creating greater vision and greater sanity. Art has to be done with genuineness, as it actually is, in the name of basic beauty and basic goodness. When basic goodness or basic beauty is not being expressed, what you do is neurotic and destructive, and cultivating other people’s sanity becomes difficult. Nonetheless, you cannot take the easy way out for the sake of making lots of money or becoming a big name. There has to be the basic integrity of maintaining our human society in a state of sanity. That is and should be the only way to work with art. The purpose of a work of art is bodhisattva action. This means that your production, manifestation, demonstration, and performance should be geared toward waking people up from their neurosis.
The name artist is not a trademark. The problem of the modern age is that everyone has become merchandised, everybody is a mercenary, and everybody has to have a label: either you are a dentist, an artist, a plumber, a dishwasher, or whatever. And the label of “artist” is the biggest problem of all. Even if you regard yourself as an artist, I request you not to write “artist” for your occupation when you fill out a form. From my way of thinking, and from what my training tells me, when you have perfected your art and developed your sensitivities, you cannot call yourself anybody at all.
Being an artist is not an occupation: it is your life, your whole being. From the time you wake up in the morning, when the buzzer in your clock rings, until you go to bed, every perception you experience is an expression of vision—the light coming through your window, the hot-water kettle boiling to make tea, the sizzling of the bacon on the stove, the way your children get up with a yawn and your wife comes down in her dressing gown into the kitchen. If you limit that by saying, “I am an artist,” that is terrible. It is showing disrespect for your discipline. We could safely say that there is no such thing as an artist. There is just art—dharma art, hopefully.
3. Heaven, Earth and Humanity
The principle of heaven, earth, and humanity seems to be basic to a work of art. Although this principle has the ring of visual art, it also could be applied to auditory art such as poetry or music, as well as to physical or three-dimensional art. The principle of heaven, earth, and humanity applies to calligraphy, painting, interior decoration, building a city, designing an airplane or an ocean liner, organizing dishwashing by choosing which dish to wash first, or vacuuming the floor. All of those works of art are included completely in the principle of heaven, earth, and humanity.
This principle comes from the Chinese tradition and was developed further in Japan. It has been connected with the tradition of ikebana, Japanese flower arranging, but we should not restrict it to that. If you study the architectural vision of a place like Nalanda University in India, or if you visit Bodhgaya, with its stupa and its compound, or the Buddhist and Hindu temples of Indonesia, you see that they are all founded on the heaven, earth, and humanity principle. In horseback riding, the rider, the horse, and the performance are connected with the heaven, earth, and humanity principle, which can also be applied to the disciplines of archery and swordsmanship. Any discipline, whether Occidental or Oriental, contains the principle of heaven, earth, and humanity.
To begin with, let’s consider this principle from the artist’s point of view. The first aspect is heaven, which is connected with nonthought, or vision. You are being provided with a big canvas, with all the oil paints and a good brush. You have an easel in front of you and you have your smock on, ready to paint. At that point you become frightened, and you do not know what to do. Or you might have blank sheets of paper and a pen sitting on your desk, and you are about to write poetry. You pick up your pen with a big sigh—you have nothing to say. Or you pick up your musical instrument and do not know what note to play.
That first space is heaven, and it is the best one! It is not regarded as regression; it is just basic space in which you have no idea what it is going to do or what you are going to do. This initial fear of inadequacy may be regarded as heaven, basic space, complete space. Such fear of knowledge is not all that big a fear, but a gap in space that allows you to step back. It is one’s first insight, a kind of positive bewilderment.
Then, as you look at your canvas or your notepad, you come up with a first thought of some kind, which you timidly put out. You begin to mix your paints with your brush or to scribble timidly on your notepad. The slogan “First thought is best thought!” is an expression of that principle, which is earth.
The third principle is humanity. The humanity principle confirms the original panic of the heaven principle and the “first thought best thought” of the earth principle put together. You begin to realize that you have something concrete to present. There is a sense of joy and a slight smile at the corners of your mouth, a slight sense of humor. You can actually say something about what you are trying to create. That is the third principle, humanity.
So we have heaven, earth, and humanity. First, you have the sky; then you have the earth to complement the sky, and having sky and earth already, you have somebody to occupy that space, which is humanity. It is like creation, or genesis. This is connected with the ideal form of a work of art, although it can include much more than that. It arises from the basis of health, on the ground of coolness and sanity, which we have already discussed.
Having discussed the heaven, earth, and humanity principle in connection with creating a work of art, we could discuss what takes place for the individual who witnesses a work of art. To understand the perceiver of art, it is important to discuss perception in general, the way we perceive things based on the principles of seeing and looking. Whether we are executing a work of art or witnessing one, first we look and then we see.
The notion of looking at things as they are is important here. We cannot even call it a concept; it is an experience. Look! Why do we look at all? Or we could say, listen! Why do we listen at all? Why do we feel at all? Why do we taste? The one and only answer is that there is such a thing as inquisitiveness in our makeup. Inquisitiveness is the seed syllable of the artist. The artist is interested in sight, sound, feeling, and touchable objects. We are interested and inquisitive, and we are willing to explore. We appreciate purple, blue, red, white, yellow, violet. When we see them, we are so interested. Such tremendous inquisitiveness is the key point in the way we look at things, because with inquisitiveness we have a connection. We as human beings have certain sense organs, such as eyes, noses, ears, mouths, and tongues, to experience the different levels of sense perceptions. And our minds, basically speaking, can communicate thoroughly and properly through any one of those sense organs. By training ourselves in the understanding of art as a fundamental and basic discipline, we could learn to synchronize our mind and body completely. In doing so, the first step is learning how to look, how to listen, how to feel. By learning how to look, we begin to discover how to see. By learning how to listen, we learn how to hear. By learning how to feel, we learn how to experience.
When sense objects and sense perceptions and sense organs meet, and they begin to be synchronized, you let yourself go a little further. You open yourself. It is like a camera aperture: your lens is open at that point. Then you see things, and they reflect into your state of mind. That seems to be the basic idea of how a perceiver looks at a work of art.
5. Unconditional Expression
From our practice of meditation, we no longer regard a work of art as a gimmick or as confirmation. It is simply expression— not even self-expression, just expression. We could safely say that there is such a thing as unconditional expression that does not come from self or other. It manifests out of nowhere like mushrooms in a meadow, like hailstones, like thundershowers.
The basic sense of delight and spontaneity in a person who has opened fully and thoroughly to him or herself and life can provide wonderful rainbows and thundershowers and gusts of wind. We don’t have to be tied down to the greasy-spoon world of well-meaning artists with heavy-handed looks on their faces and over- fed information in their brains. The basic idea of dharma art is the sense of peace and refreshing coolness of the absence of neurosis.
We have to be so genuine and gentle. Otherwise, there is no way to work with the universe at all. You have a tremendous responsibility: the first is to yourself, to become gentle and genuine; the second is to work for others in the same way. It is very important to realize how powerful all of us are. What we are doing may seem insignificant, but this notion of dharma art will be like an atomic bomb you carry in your mind. You could play a tremendous role in developing peace throughout the world.
Adapted by Carolyn Rose Gimian from “Heaven, Earth, and Man,” in The Collected Works of Chögyam Trungpa, volume Seven, based on a seminar entitled “Dharma Art” given in Boulder, Colorado, in July 1979. Photos and paintings courtesy of Shambhala Archives.