Reflections on Art and Buddhism by Deborah Stevenson
Buddhism teaches us to be mindful—to slow down, pay attention, observe closely, and maybe even wake up. The creative process also involves slowing down, looking carefully, simplifying, and making choices. What to leave in? What to leave out? These are the questions we ask in life and in art. Artists consider the elements of line, color, size, shape, position, texture, variety, repetition, and unity. Buddhists contemplate right understanding, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. Priorities matter.
When I look into the heart of a flower, I see beauty, stillness, radiance. Flowers are very open to the world.
Intention is important in the creative process. What is it I want to paint (weave, photograph, or sculpt) and why? Is there an emotion, feeling tone, or thought I want to explore or express? Concentration is critical because without it, nothing ever gets completed. When we sit in meditation, the mind goes wild until we begin to see through the patterns, to unravel the stories behind the thoughts and emotions. Eventually things quiet down and we notice the stillness and expansiveness of each mind-moment as it arises. Artists and athletes speak of being “in the zone” or “in the flow.” They may forget to eat and frequently lose track of time. To experience “losing oneself” in this way is really quite beautiful and miraculous!
Looking into the heart of a flower, I see the universe—vast, expansive, and incredibly open. There are many dangers surrounding the beautiful flower—searing heat, fierce winds, and hungry insects. Cars, mowers, and passersby might run over it, crushing its delicate beauty. Still, the flower shines its face brightly for anyone who cares to look inside. Can you see yourself in the face of a flower? The Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh teaches this meditation: “Breathing in, I see myself as a beautiful flower. Breathing out, I feel fresh.”
Whether male or female, we each have a flower essence, an inner core of beauty and grace. When we open to our basic goodness, our radiance shines forth like the open face of the flower. In these dark times, the world needs our quiet centeredness to get a footing amidst all the fear and anxiety. One clear, luminous heart/mind can have a tremendous impact on the world. Shedding our layers of greed, hatred, and delusion takes years of patient practice. Likewise, an artist may take 20, 30, or 40 years to perfect her style. Suddenly, it flows with ease.
We are like flowers—our time to shine is brief. Impermanence (change) comes whether we want it or not. All too soon our petals fade and fall. Will we miss our moment—this moment—to live mindfully in open, creative awareness? In the Buddhist text, The Dhammapada, we read, “You are now like a yellowed leaf… You stand at the door to departure but have yet to provide for the journey. Make an island for yourself! Work quickly! Be wise!”
Nature calls us to see its beauty. Mindfulness calls us to wake up. The creative process, like meditation, is one path to discovering our Buddha nature. When I allow a mountain, a leaf, or a flower to express itself though me, I become a channel for lovingkindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity.
“Sometimes I go about pitying myself, when all along, my spirit is being blown by great winds across the sky” (Ojibwa saying). Fly paintbrush, fly!