From the first design of the Chakravati, the wheel of the law, to the sand mandalas created by Tibetan lamas, to the recent movies that portray the life of Gautama Buddha, people have attempted for centuries to give artistic expression to the dharma through whatever medium is available.
How do art and dharma intersect? To explore this question, we enlisted the help of artists and visionaries who draw inspiration from their spiritual practice—painters, a poet, a dancer, a composer, a writer, a filmmaker. They offer some fresh and sometimes surprising angles on the relation between art and dharma, as well as the very nature of each. They raise further questions: Is the artistic impulse identical with the religious impulse? Are all expressions of pure mind art? Is all good art in essence “Buddhist”?
Tibetan Buddhist scholar and raconteur Robert Thurman sees art, in a Buddhist context, as simply another word for upaya, or skillful means. “All Buddhist art,” he says, “is liberative art.” Discussing the nature of human creativity more broadly, Zen priest and poet Norman Fischer suggests that we grow tired of the “madeness” of the world and that “art-making is an anti-making.” For many, artistic expression is itself a form of meditation. Says the late composer John Cage, “My meditation has been through my music, where I am trying to get rid of my own likes and dislikes and open myself to the flow of experience.” Artist Alex Grey describes his paintings as “visionary riffs on Buddhist practice.”
Of course, art often expresses the dharma without being specifically Buddhist in content; Gaetano Maida and Steve Goodman of the Buddhist Film Society cite Hollywood movies such as Groundhog Day and even episodes of the animated TV sitcom King of the Hill as cases in point. Taking us on a tour through her recent readings, novelist and short story writer Kate Wheeler muses on what might be labeled “Buddhist fiction,” and whether there even is such a thing.
In a post-9/11 piece responding to terrorism and antiterrorism, Alan Senauke, former director of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, probes the nature of “the tangle,” both inner and outer. As the interview with artist Alex Grey suggests, art can play a powerful role in healing the fear and confusion of the world. The current issue of Inquiring Mind is offered in this spirit. At a time when we are all so aware of violence, how blessed we are for the occasion to “unmake” the world and be liberated by art.