Buddha as a performance artist? Not so far fetched according to Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman:
Say you are a buddha and you’re free of suffering and you feel totally great–as happy as a bee and a clam and at one with the universe- and then you see all of these miserable people. Yet what good would it do for you to go and give them a big grin and a hug, or smother them with joyfulness? They’ll just get freaked out and be paranoid and say, ‘What does this person want? So instead, a buddha has to develop some strategies – some art – to, first of all, open that person’s imagination to the fact that there is a world where they don’t have to be miserable all the time. And then he has to help them with a method of how to move from their paranoid corner of misery into the great ocean of the bliss of the universe that you, a buddha, perceive. (The Wonderful Ambiquity of Art, Inquiring Mind, Spring 2002, pg. 7)
Thurman points out that the term upaya is usually used in Buddhist literature to refer to the “means by which compassion- the universal compassion of an enlightened being- manifests in action to enable other beings to find freeedom from suffering” (pg. 7) Usually translated as “skillful means”, Thurman suggests that upaya is best translated as “art”; art in the broadest sense, as in “liberal arts”.
One of the simplest definitions of “art” that I have seen says essentially that it is a set of skills learned to create something. This is a pretty broad and useful definitionas it allows us to talk about artful skills in all aspects of life, not just what we traditionally think of as “the arts”. It should also be pointed out that whatever it is that is being created, whether a painting, a garden, a dinner or one’s self/life, there can be variations in how creatively it is done.
Interestingly, even in “the arts”, the definition of art is constantly changing. Back in 1917, when Marcel Duchamp entered a urinal in a prestigious art exhibit the boundaries of art were being challenged. Since then, as creativity, as I defined it ( See Art, Zen and Creativity) has become an integral value in the art world, artist have been coming up with new ways of expanding the boundaries of this world. It is commonplace today to hear comments such as “That’s interesting but it is really art”.
So, given all this, it does not seem too far fetched to consider Buddha, Christ and a variety of other spiritual leaders as performance artists. Like Marina Abramovic, they realized that their insights were better demonstrated than talked about. What are the insights to be shared or taught? Essentially, to be present, alive or awake. But, this is not easily conveyed through didatic teaching and, as Thruman says in the quote above, people need to know that it is possible to be present, alive or awake and what that might look like.
What all of these “performance artists” have in common is that they found it necessary
to supplement didatic teachings with demonstrations of their realizations by performing them in their everyday lives.
The other thing all of these artists (the spiritual artists as well as the performance artists) have in common is that their practices consist of setting up obstacles that provide them with challenges that, when overcome, can lead to self-transformation. Usually these take the form of some sort of “rules” governing their performances.
Montano and Hsieh restricted how far apart they could get, the time they would remain teathered, and specified that they could not touch. My last post on Abravovic specifies many of the rules that she set up for herself during various performance pieces.
In fact, the taking on of restrictions or obstacles is something found among all creative people. It is common in all of the arts to hear of people setting up certain boundaries or restrictions for themselves as means for challenging themselves to greater creativity. In fact, I think that committing oneself to any creative pursuit necessarily involves confronting barriers. For instance, I commonly hear painters say something to the effect of “my painting is going badly” which simply means they are in the midst of resolving some issue in the activity that they voluntarily have decided to take on; one that can lead to a “creative breakthrough” later on.
So called spiritual artists do the same thing by, for instance, committing to a certain amount of time for meditation or committing to follow certain vows or codes. For example, in formally becoming a Zen student a person commits to following four vows and to following 16 precepts. Within Zen these “restrictions” are not seen as equivalent of “sins” in that transgressions will lead to going to hell or something like this. Rather they are restrictions that one voluntarily takes on in “performing” everyday life and like the “obstacles” set up by artists like Abramovic are ultimately designed to help heighten self awareness; in other words to become more alive, awake or present.
In the next post I will look at this phenomena more closely and see how it relates to both artists in the conventional sense as well as “spiritual artists”.