FORUMS

This page is for longer exchanges between readers and the author.  If you would like to reply to or comment on any of the Discussions printed below, please either send it to my personal email address or in the “reply” box of one of the regular blog posts.   Please indicate which Discussion on the FORUM page you are responding to.  I will make sure that your comments are added to the discussion.    The latest Discussion is at the top of this page; scroll down for earlier Discussions.

 

Discussion #3  Activated Dec. 4, 2012.  This discussion begins with a comment (Labeled COMMENT A) from Neil on a post titled “Creative Reframing in Art and Zen”.  Neil’s comments have been copied below. This is followed by my response to Neil’s comments (COMMENT B ).  Further comments will be added in chronological order.

COMMENT A

Or could it be the case that the awakened life is not continuous reframing but no-framing? I know, this sounds like annoying zen cliche; so I better give some context. The Diamond Sutra addresses the problem of creating a perception of a being, which I would equate with (re)framing.The Buddha said to him, “Subhuti, those who would now set forth on the bodhisattva path should thus give birth to this thought: ‘However many beings there are in whatever realms of being might exist, whether born from an egg or born from a womb,…, in whatever conceivable realm of being one might conceive of beings, in the realm of complete nirvana I shall liberate them all. And though I thus liberate countless beings, not a single being is liberated.’
“And why not? Subhuti, a bodhisattva who creates the perception of a being cannot be called a ‘bodhisattva’. And why not? Subhuti, no one can be called a bodhisattva who creates the perception of a self or who creates the perception of a being, a life, or a soul.”The reframing of a situation would be the creation of the perception of new beings—added patterns to a painting, anger transformed to kindness, a dead person instead of a living one. But now we find ourselves in a new situation that subsequently needs to be reframed. This has an eerie similarity to rounds of rebirth. Buddhist liberation is freedom from such rounds. Thus reframing may be counter to liberation. In fact, it may be the very activity that is preventing liberation!The bodhisattva wants to liberate all beings. Eventually she does this. But, alas, no beings have been liberated at all, “not a single being liberated”. Why? Because she created beings that needed to be liberated in the first place; i.e., she created a situation that needed to be reframed.So are there no beings? Are there no new situations that need to be reframed? Is creativity actually binding and not liberating? I am not awakened, so I do think there are beings, etc. But this is where I think zen diverges from art, creativity and psychology. The best these things can do is reframe recursively, forever; zen tells us (or seems to always want to tell me) that the trick is not to frame at all—no beings; no patterns; no emotions; no dead people, no living people; no birth, no death.

This sounds insane. Where is my mistake?

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COMMENT B

Steve’s reply 12/4/2012

 

The thing about cliché’s, Zen or otherwise, is that they stick around because they are useful to some extent.  Most Zen clichés”, of the type I think you have in mind, serve to point to problems associated with using dualistic terms to understand something.  These reminders about the traps of dualistic thinking  can be helpful because if our conduct is based on a false dichotomy (self versus others being a biggie) we are ignorant of a more complex reality and suffer as a result. When I wrote the post called “Creative Reframing” in Art and Zen, ( and the later “Creative Refocusing”), I wanted to emphasize that this process entails a momentary dropping away of left-brain, discursive thought; adopting a more Open Focus, to use Fehmi and Fritz’s term.  My assumption was that this can be a key factor in developing new insights or new “frames” of understanding.  I did not really spell out clearly how I saw this as related to “enlightenment” or “the awakened life”.  However, my underlying assumption was that reframing/refocusing was a skill that could be learned through spiritual practices like Zazen, and that the awakened person is different than less awakened persons in that they are  more skilled at it: i.e. able to reframe faster and more consistently.  This would seem to be consistent with what Roshi called the “natural  flow of the awakened life”, in an earlier comment.  So I view the process of  enlightenment as occurring along a continuum, rather than being a discrete experience or way of being.  In my view, it is the development of  “reframing” skills, through practice (see Roshi’s comments ) that allows individuals to respond rather than react to new situations and this is the basis of  being in the present moment.

Neil has pointed out that this view could be seen to conflict with the passage he quotes from the Diamond Sutra.  At first I thought that Neil was making this argument because he was convinced of it’s validity.  However, after a face to face discussion with Neil on Sunday and the fact that he ends his comments with “This sounds insane”, I think he is probably simply pointing out that an argument could be made against using the term “creative reframing” when referring to the “awakened life,”  and was interested in  how I would respond.

For a variety of reason I don’t find myself drawn to the Sutras and so I have not read the Diamond Sutra.  So, whatever I say about this passage is not coming from a thorough analysis on my part.  When Buddha says that enlightened ones do not “create the perceptions of beings”, is he saying that they do not see others, are not aware of themselves and others, and that the usual human cognitive processes are somehow suspended?  That’s hard for me to believe since Buddha fashioned a theory of how to minimize suffering that would be understandable to others, was capable of setting up a monastery and concocting unique answers to questions from students, depending on his perception of what that person was capable of understanding.  So I don’t see anything in this passage that would convince me that the historic Buddha did not or could not frame or reframe, as I have used these terms.  I don’t think there is any direct evidence in the passage, one way or the other, but I also think it is not unreasonable to assume that Buddha was a superior “reframer”.  I have some preliminary ideas about an alternative reading of the passage Neil offered that I think would suggest that my assumption has some validity. (SEE  COMMENT D, BELOW) However, at this point I want to open this discussion to others.  Dogen says that practices starts with “the desire and thought of  enlightenment”.  What is your vision of enlightenment? ( We’ve had a couple of discussion on this after sitting but time constraints seem to prevent really exploring the issue). How does your vision of enlightenment jibe with the Sutra that Neil quoted and what does that Sutra say to you?

By the way, I not certain that there is really a right or wrong vision of enlightenment.  I just saw the movie Life of Pi which ends with one of the characters, a writer looking for a topic to write about, being put in a situation where he had to decide between two different narratives offered by Pi.  One was a fanciful story about his surviving a shipwreck that was the basis of the movie. The other, an alternative version that Pi had  told  to some investigators who wanted a “believable” version for their report on the cause of the shipwreck.  The writer character in the movie choose the fanciful version as the one he liked best.  We in the audience also had to make a choice.  Was the story depicted in the movie a figment of Pi’s imagination?    Pi, as a child, had practiced three different religions simultaneously and so when the writer in the movie told him that he preferred the least rational story, Pi says “and so it goes with God”.  What I took away from the movie is that which religious or spiritual “story” we choose  is not as important as whether you are living life as if  your favorite story is true.  (see http://screenrant.com/life-of-pi-movie-ending-spoilers/all/1/)

You and I may have different notions as to what is down a mountain path but I believe that if we both keep going, the views at the end will be worth it, whether or not they correspond to what we imagined it would be like.  Perhaps more important is that we find ourselves able to absorb ourselves in the views along the path so that we actually “forget” about what we may find at the end.

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COMMENT C

Comments added by Jiyu Roshi 12/9/2012

 I just want to make a couple of comments regarding Neil and Manoj’s recent conversation. (See Above).
First off I want to appreciate all the thinking, and meditating, that is going on to make these discussions useful and fascinating. After Manoj posted the recent article entitled “Creative Reframing in Art and Zen” on his blog, Neil stepped in and gave some comments of his own in response to that article. After Neil’s response Manoj jumped back in and gave some other comments himself. I encourage all of you to read both of those people’s comments.
So, I’m coming into the conversation where Manoj has said he believes that Neil is making an argument against using the term “creative reframing”. Assuming this is the  right understanding of Neil’s comment I think Manoj give’s a correct response. Again, please go back and read both writer’s comments. They are well thought out and will help every come to grips with some very difficult material.
Now, for the present, my main interest, or area of comment, has to do with Manoj’s statement right at the end of all of the previous points being made. Manoj references the movie, the Life of Pi, and says:
“I’m not certain that there is really a right or wrong vision of enlightenment. I just saw the movie, “Life of Pi”, which ends with one of the characters, a writer looking for a topic to write about, being put in a situation where he had to decide between two different narratives offered by Pi. One was a fanciful story about his survivinga shipwreck which was the basis of the movie. The other, an alternative version that Pi had told to some investigators who wanted a “believable“ version for their report on the cause of the shipwreck. The writer’s character in the movie chose the fanciful version as the one he liked best. We in the audience also had to make a choice. Was the story depicted in the movie a figment of Pi’s imagination? Pi, as a child, had practiced three different religions simultaneously and so when the writer in the movie told him that he preferred the least rational story, Pi says ‘and so it goes with God’. What I took away from the movie is that which religious or spiritual ‘story’ we choose is not as important as whether you are living life as if your favorite story is true.”
Upon reading this, my question for Manoj became: Are you talking about people on the path, or people who are enlightened? Right away Manoj answers that and says,
“You and I may have different notions as to what is down a mountain path, but I believe that if we both keep going, the views at the end will be worth it, whether or not they correspond to what we imagined it would be like. Perhaps more important, is that we find ourselves able to absorb ourselves in the views along the path so that we actually forget about what we may find at the end.”
Someone might say, “Good job Manoj, you’ve given us a great Zen answer”, but I’d like to point out there is no “Vision of Enlightenment”. There is just enlightenment. Enlightenment just is. We can’t add to, or subtract from enlightenment because there is no “it” to add to or subtract from.
Also, the enlightened person is not ignorant or forgetful. He, or she, knows exactly where they are on the path. Why? Because, by way of definition, they are “awake” (another term for enlightenment), the correct and necessary term in this instance.
Now, I know Manoj has “forget” “ in quotes so he may have known exactly what I’m saying when he wrote it, but this is a critical and subtle area where I think everything should be spelled out.
Please reply, or e-mail me, if you have questions about this.(If you would like to have your comments added to this discussion, please follow the instructions for doing so at the top of this page.)
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COMMENT D

Comments added by Steve (Manoj) 1/30/2012

Foreward:  What follows could possibly be seen as both an expression of arrogance and self-indulgence on my part.  To begin with it, it consists of a lot of speculation on my part regarding the nature of “the awakened life”.  Drawing on my limited experience and texts that I have read, I have tried to layout a “vision of enlightenment” that makes sense to me and will hopefully support my continued practice.  Above in Comment C, Roshi says that there is no “vision of enlightenment”.  I must confess that I do not understand what he means by this and I suspect that every student has some “vision of enlightenment” and that it constantly changes as practice unfolds; at least I know that my ideas have changed over time.  So this is my current “vision”.

It may seem to be self-indulgent as it is rather lenghty and perhaps overly complex at times.  But, this is how I have been working with Roshi for several years now; reading Zen texts and writing out my understanding in ways that help me make sense of the material.  Fortunately, Roshi has been kind enought to slog through what I have written and I have found follow-up discussions with him to be useful.  So, in a way, what comes next is self-indugent as it is written primarily for me, since I’ve found that I don’t really know what I think about something until I write it out.  I’m very greatful to Neil for posting his original comment that got me thinging about all of this.

Ok, so supposedly we have Buddha saying (see Neil’s comment above,  COMMENT A) “Subhuti, those who would now set forth on the bodhisattva path should thus give birth to this thought: ‘However many beings there are in whatever realms of being might exist, whether born from an egg or born from a womb,…, in whatever conceivable realm of being one might conceive of beings, in the realm of complete nirvana I shall liberate them all. And though I thus liberate countless beings, not a single being is liberated. “And why not? Subhuti, a bodhisattva who creates the perception of a being cannot be called a ‘bodhisattva’. And why not? Subhuti, no one can be called a bodhisattva who creates the perception of a self or who creates the perception of a being, a life, or a soul.”

In my first response (COMMENT B)  to Disucssion #3, above, I laid out what I do not think can be implied from this statement and Jiyu Roshi seemed to agree.  So here I’m going to take a stab at stating what I think is being said by Buddha in this verse.

The kind of insight expressed in this line of the Sutra seems to be one of many of Buddha’s sayings that illustrate or exemplify the realization of emptiness or “insight into emptiness”.  Such realizations seem to be associated with extreme alterations of consciousness ( usually a series of such experiences over time ) that involve a temporary waning of the language -based, left brain: those thought process that are responsible for sustaining our usual sense of self.   The content of such experiences  vary widely in the degree to which left-brain, self-sustaining processes continue, but the most extreme would be like that called “absolute samahi or “ the experience of no experience” (i.e. no sight, taste etc) by Loori .   During such experiences there is no content, nor “forming” , “framing”,  “reframing” (my term that prompted Neil’s comment), or “perceiving ” (the term used by the translator of the Diamond Sutra).  However, such experiences are temporary and the left-brain always kicks in again and, among other things, is compelled to make sense of what happened(i.e. framing)  and to communicate it to others.  Based on the social psychological literature on such experiences, we know that individuals will tend to use a language and explanatory framework that they have been exposed to, so a Buddhist practioner is likely to describe the experience in terms of “emptiness”, as described in the Buddhist teachings.

I would suggest  that persons having such experiences have realized, at a deeply personal level (i.e. not just an intellectual understanding),  what modern scholars calls the “social construction of reality”.  What this means is that the things that make up our reality exist only because we have shared names for them and this includes our “self” and of course, other selves as well.  In other words, whatever we take as reality to be, is based on our capacity for language and the mental processes that support language (generally considered “left-brain” processes) that focus on distinctions between socially constructed “things”.  When the left-brain is not dominant, as in samadhi experiences, a more wholistic, or right-brain (i.e. non-language based)  sense of things prevails. Wright suggests that the left-brain perceptual process never completely go away, but whether that is true or not, the kinds of experiences I am talking about entail a radically different sense of how things are.

When these alterations in consciousness subside, the rational mind has not disappeared so much as it is now operates in the context of the remembered experience of “emptiness” or whatever you want to call it.  Although the experiencer goes back to operating in the socially constructed reality of his or her culture, it is not the same quality of participation as before.  While the socially constructed “things” are still percieved and recognized, and thus become part of a “frame”, there will be less affectivity associated with them, meaning there are no strong attachments to or aversions to these “things”, and this include the “self” and, specific as well as generalized “others”

So, as I said in my first response in Discussion #3 (COMMENT B), Buddha would be capable of normal conduct requiring left- brain processes and so capable of perceiving and acting upon those  socially constructed differences that are required so that normal social life can proceed.  Yet, if he were instructing a student who may not yet have had the same kind of life- altering experiences that he had, he would likely say what was supposedly recorded in this conversation.  In effect he is saying that unless the student fully realizes the “social construction of reality” (including the distinction between self and other)  they are not yet a Bodhisattva.  When it is eventually understood by one who has fully realized “emptiness”, the  Bodhisattva vow then would have the meaning indicated in this verse from the Diamond sutra.  So, “not a single being is liberated” because what is usually thought of as a ” being” to be liberated (or “saved” or “freed”) is seen as an arbitrarily constructed entity like every other thing. Likewise there would be the realization that there is no “real” thing (i.e. self) to do the saving or enlightening.

On more than one occassion I have read an author who suggest the Bodhisattva Vow is sort of an ultimate Koan, serving as a test to determine whether a student believes that there is a “self” who can, will or should save others and whether or not he or she perceives that there are others to be saved.  Presumably those who “pass” are then fully able to actually enlighten or save “others” and since there are no “true” others”, the saving process will involve “non-doing” as suggested at the end of  my posted titled “JAZZ/ZEN IMPROVISATION”.   So, in paradoxical Zen fashion, one ends up engaging in conduct that is consistent with the vow, but “he” or “she” is not doing it.  This improvisational freedom or “not-doing” is exactly what liberates others to do the same. Furthermore it follows that those students who do not fully understand this Vow through having full insight into the emptiness of things, should not allow themselves to get stressed out about trying to attain a vow that seemly is impossible and thus, not meaninful.

Now back to Neil original suggest that the awakened life entails “no framing”. To me “framing means making sense of  or giving meaning to each new situation as it arises, and involves  “left-brain”, discursive thought processes. In the social sciences it is called defining the situation” and it is thought of as an assessment of the situation to decide how best to act in one’s own self interest.  I argued in my first comment (COMMENT B) that, based on what we know of the historical Buddha, there is no reason to believe that he no longer “framed” after his enlightenment.  In that first  response I was focused on trying to argue against the rather common belief that somehow the awaken life entails no “left-brain or discursive thought processes” at all.  This “no-left brain” or right brain dominant state does  charactierized what happens in the type of temporary “absolute samadhi ” experience discussed earlier in this comment. However, I don’t think it is an accurate characterization of what might be called “everyday awakened life”. I was focused on not perpetuating a romanticized vision of enlightenment that places the enlightened person in some realm other than being fully human.  Enlightened folks may “frame” their worlds differently, but they can and do frame as they go about their everyday lives.

But, the original blog post was about “reframing”, which I described in my response to Neil as a process that ” entails a momentary dropping away of left-brain, discursive thought; adopting a more Open Focus, to use Fehmi and Fritz’s term. My assumption was that this can be a key factor in developing new insights or new, more creative, “frames” of understanding. “   I find this term useful (there may be a better term) as a means of talking about how a relatively awakened individual incorporates their (non-left-brain) experiences of emptiness into their everyday lives when the left-brain is fully functioning.  In other word, I’m trying to explain one way that the “absolute” and the “relative” fit like a box and it’s lid, as stated in the “Identity of Relative and Absolute Sutra”.  Earlier in this current comment I said that after consciousness altering experiences of “emptiness” or “the Absolute”,  “the rational mind has not disappeared so much as it is now operates in the context of the remembered experience of “emptiness” or whatever you want to call it.”  The term “remembering” here is somewhat misleading because it does not entail recalling knowledge or information in the usual sense that we use this term.  It seems to be more like a “felt sense” of an alternative way of being, that has been carried forth from earlier experiences where left-brain functioning had waned.

So,reframing involves a momentarily dropping our of the “left-brain” so to speak and “remembering” (in the Shamanic sense of the word) of what one has taken away from these earlier experiences of emptiness.  It is not a language- based understanding but involves a sort of knowing  that reality, including one’s “framing” of the current situation being faced, is socially constructed and thus empty in the Buddhist sense of the word.  Bringing this larger picture or context into awareness can allow for more creative and spontaneous responses than those allowed by the original framing of the situation.  ”Reframing” isn’t just changing one’s mind, based on new information about how to act in one’s in one’s own self-interest so as to attain what is valued in one’s life.  It involves a change in those values, or at least the affectivity surrounding them.  In modern day parlance, it is referred to as “letting go”;  letting go of what Hershock calls   “holding on (obsessive attachment) and holding off (the arrogance of aversion)” of our habitual framing.  It’s the left-brain’s “job”, so to speak, to assess each new situation and provide a strategy for protecting and sustaining the usual sense of self.  The practiced “reframer”, however, can pause momentarily, and on the basis of earlier experiences of emptiness, determine whether or not such a strategy is necessary in this case.  In a way it entails drawing on an expanded awareness to bring new, usually ignored information to bear in decision-making.

I would suggest that our habitual framing processes are never dissolved, as might be inferred from the Sutra that Neil brought forward.  Framing is the “business” of the left brain processes that are key  to our self-preservation.  Usually our framing is based on  past experiences and reflects our attachments and aversions.  So frames have the potential to create suffering when they are used as a blueprint for action that is not appropriate in the current situation.  Reframing and the accompanying term “refocusing”  simply refers to the process of allowing a new, and hopefully less suffering-inducing frame to emerge based on one’s remembered experience of emptiness.  What exactly is “remembered”?  Simply that whatever frame I am using at the moment to make sense of what is happening around me, as well as the  “me” that the frame is constructed around is  arbitrary, temporary, changeable and thus “empty”.  It is an understanding that however I am perceiviing and making sense of what is going on in my life is egocentric and so not the only way of framing.

Like the artist or scientist who gains insight into a problem upon “letting go”of a prevailing paradigm, the long term Zen practioner is free to receive a “sudden insight” that allows for a creative response; one which is likely to cause less suffering. Such shifts can occur in an instant and I would suggest that, through Zen practice, one learns not only  to “reframe” more quickly but more often.  Zazen may be seen as providing the fundamental skill behind “reframing”, in that it is during this practice that one learns to recognize when they are caught up in discursive thoughts, which are the building blocks of framing.  By “letting go” of thoughts, over and over again for years, the practioner is learning the basis of “reframing”.  As practice continues, this “reframing” begins to “spill over” into daily life and so practice becomes a Way of Life.

Another way of saying the same thing is that the from practice of Zazen one learns to become “awake/present/alive” over and over again.  I conjecture that the awakened life involves doing exactly this in each new, everyday situation as it is faced.  Certainly, the so-called enlightened person is more skilled  at this than a beginner, most likely being able to “reframe” or “wake up” more quickly and more consistently. Again to conjecture, I’d suggest that enlightened framing might be referred to as “non-framing” (as opposed to Neil’s suggestion of “no-framing”) since it becomes more and more automatic and spontaneous.  This is the case because, more and more there is
no one who is framing”.

But, I am also  suggesting that since, left-brain, discursive processes are still active amont the more awakened, (i.e. these persons are alive), there is the possibility of this skill eroding so that these persons begin creating higher levels of suffering for self and others.  Musicians who can easily and consistently move into that state of “no-self” essential for improvising,  still practice and my guess is it is because they know that they may lose this virtuosity if they do not.  Furthermore, as in anything else (e.g. musical performance) there is no end to the perfecting of this skill.(See the Cartoon at the beginning of ”Jazz/Zen Improvisation: Social Virtuosity and Practice”.  This is why, I believe, that Dogen and other Zen writers say that “enlightenment is practice”.

So this is how I am “framing” things at the moment. But, remembering that  ”all frames are empty”, you can now just forget what you’ve read.

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DISCUSSION #2: A CONTINUATION OF THE PLACE OF MEANING IN ART AND SPIRITUAL PRACTICE.  ACTIVATED OCT 2, 2012

The discussion below is a “spill over” from that found in the post titled ” PERFORMER-AUDIENCE COMMUNICATION.    That post was inspired by the comment printed below by Jiyu Roshi regarding the previous post “Buddha as a Performance Artist?”  I’m going to respond further to Jiyu’s comments within this FORUM since it seems to deal with the broader issue of meaning in art and spiritual practice, as discussed above.  Also, my comments here get a bit deeper into Art and Zen than is appropriate for a blog post.

 

Jiyu, Sept. 28, 2012

Dale Wright Is the author of a book entitled “Philosophical meditations on Zen Buddhism”in which he talks about the person who is reading anything about the Zen, whether a scholarly work, or one of the Buddhist sutras, it is necessary to become totally engaged in the text being read, not only as an observer, but also as a participant. Only in this way can the reader totally accomplish the point of being a Zen student which is coming to answer the questions: “What is the Great Matter, What is our life about? Who are we?”  I appreciate your current blog about what it means to be a performance artist. I would like to suggest that it might be as important to be a performance audience.

Steve Oct. 2, 2012

This discussion is a logical extention of Discussion #1 above where I ended up saying the following:

If art is a form of communication then both the artist and the audience are actively involved in creating whatever it is than is being communicated.  In spoken conversations participants don’t always share identical understanding or meanings, but “relationship” occurs anyway.  I see the relationship between artists and audience as being the same.   Rarely does the audience experience or understand a piece of art the same way the artist does.  Furthermore, both the artist and audience may change their understanding over time; sometimes as a result of further communication with one another.  Any true communication entails all parties to “take the role of the other”, that is try to see things from the other’s perspective. What endangers this “relationship” is when either of the participants refuse to do the work necessary to play the role of the other.  This happens when an artist refuses to “work” by responding  to questions about the meaning of their art or when the audience refuses to “work” to understand the artist’s perspective.

What I did not do there and needed to be done was to extend this idea of performer-audience communication from the arts to the realm of spiritual practice, which was the focus of Jiyu’s comments and his reason for mentioning Wright’s book.

Interestingly, Wright begins his book with a chapter on how to “read” Buddhist texts and, as Jiyu has pointed out, concludes that reading or understanding philosophical ideas are problematic only when they become an end in and of themselves rather than as a step in self-transformation.  I think this is why there is within Zen a traditional of what we might call performative or demonstrational strategies used by teachers to help students experience being in the present moment.  The Zen literature is fond of citing a supposed historical moment when Shakyamunk Buddha held up a flower and his main disciple  smiled and supposedly was enlightened.  So Zen has been described as “teaching beyond words”.  But, as Wright points out, Zen advocates have been extremely involved over the centuries in talking and writing about Zen.  So, it seems that conveying meaning and understanding is not, in and of itself, a problem.  Mainly, I think the concern is that if too much emphasis is put on reading, students will think that the ultimate goal is simply memorizing the words rather than developing what Dogen calls “actional understanding”; a philosophical understanding that can foster self-transformation.

Wright says that the usual way of  reading and understanding is to put whatever new information we read into our established perspective or philosophy of life.   What he seems to be saying is that reading Zen, or anything else, can be transformative only if we are willing to change our existing perspective or philosophy.  In other words, reading spiritual texts can only be fruitful for those seeking self-understanding  (and thus concerned with what Jiyu  called “the great matter” or the great questions such as “What is our life about?” and “Who are we?”)

 

I think it is clear from previous discussions in this FORUM, that there is no agreement about exactly what “message” is or can be (or should be) conveyed in art; except maybe that something is conveyed that can not or can not easily be conveyed in words. (see the associated PERFORMER-AUDIENCE COMMUNICATION post).  In that post, I suggested that it is possible for “presence, aliveness or awakeness”  to be conveyed by artist to audience.  I would add here, that this these “communications” are necessarily vague because they do not take any specific form .  I also suggest that for this “communication” to happen the audience members have to bring an attitude of openness to the performance or art piece.

Now, back to Zen texts, where I believe a similar kind of communication can occur if the reader approaches them with the requisite openess.  Dogen, the “godfather” of Soto Zen, is what one might call a philosophical- artist since his writing cover the great matters of life but do so in a poetic way.  One of his chief strategies (skillful means) is word play.   To begin with, it is difficult to follow Dogen because his subject matter resembles that found art (see above) where his intention is to convey the possibility of “presence/aliveness/awakeness”.  His works are especially difficult for us Westerners to get in on, because he was writing in a different languge (often incorporating Chinese as well as Japanese) and in a different time.

With the help of commentaries by Hee-Jin Kim (Eihei Dogen: the Mystical Realist), it became clear to me that Dogen  is not just addressing the “great matters” in an intellectual fashion but is also writing to precipitate self-understanding and self-change.  One of his chief strategies in doing so is to consider terms that in either everyday life or in the Zen literature set up apparent opposites, such as body vs. mind, “illusion vs. reality, enlightenment versus delusion, or practice and enlightenment.  One way Dogen demonstrates the false dichotomies inherent in these seeming opposites is to put them back together in a hyphenated form, for example “ Being -Time“.  He then proceeds to show that each of  these distinctions are examples of the dualistic kind of thinking that Zen sees as obstructing us from realizing our natural enlightened nature.

When I first read Roshi’s comment on Sept. 28 2012 (above) my reaction was befuddlement.  I didn’t, and still don’t, see what it had to do with what I had written in BUDDHA AS PERFORMANCE ARTIST?.  The exasperation I felt reminded me of how I often felt with trying to read Dogen.  Then it occurred to me that regardless of where Roshi was coming from, his use of the term “performance audience” was not unlike what Dogen does by combing apparent opposites into a single term.  When I realized this, it was no longer important where Roshi was coming from, since  I now had a kernel to work with for this weeks post PERFORMER-AUDIENCE COMMUNICATION.

Jiyu   Oct. 3, 2012

I think Manoj has a great idea in seeing Buddha as performance artist. In thinking about it myself, I realized that Mahakasyapa became the pentultimate audience member by participating totally with Buddha and experiencing spiritual transformation when Buddha raised the now famous flower.  Mahakasyapa was the only person in the audience to have such an experience according to historical records. He was the performance audience member necessary for Zen Buddhism to exist for us today.

In Zen Buddhism it is necessary for the student and the teacher to experience this “mind-to-mind transmission” so that the teaching can continue into the future. It is an acknowledgment that the teacher and the student have become one and that the student has achieved the same level of understanding and enlightenment as the teacher. There is an absolute need for the performance of the teacher and the performance of the student to occur and be in agreement experientially.
Zen Buddhism uses other words to describe the relationship occurring between two people that may be transformational. Sometimes the teacher is called the host and the student is called guest. Here again you find that there is a level of performance required from both people involved in the particular activity.
So, we may have the artist and the audience, or we may have the student and the teacher, or we may have the host and the guest, each playing the different roles in particular activities.
My point simply was that it takes two to tango. Care to dance?
Oh, and I love that Dogen Zen-ji is our “God” Father! I wonder what he would think of that new title?
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DISCUSSION #1  ACTIVATED AUG. 8, 2012 Jane on July 6, 2012  Reply to “What the _____ was that Video About?”

Interesting. Word-artists, I’d say, don’t like explaining themselves not because we’re lazy but because the whole point of making word-art (stories, poetry) is to engage the reader in thought. If we told you what it meant, you wouldn’t think about it yourself, which would kill the whole point of our having written it.

Conversely, if we *had* to tell you what it meant, that would mean we’d failed as writers. (Or you’d have failed as a reader, in not thinking about what was written.)

Modern art bugs me sometimes for just that reason: I think it’s cheating to splodge paint on a canvas, stick up a turkey feather with Cheez-Whiz, title it “Vertigo/Civil War,” and accompany the thing with four paragraphs explaining that the artist’s mother loved her sister more. Art should be interpretable by itself–if it needs a monograph’s worth of explanation, it’s not doing its job.

Jane on July 19, 2012  Reply to “What the _______was that Video About?”

Responding to all art means thinking about it, if you ask me. (Okay, so you didn’t. Nonetheless…) And by “thinking” I really mean “processing”–sometimes it’s visceral, sometimes it’s cerebral.

I write to express & explore my thinking/feeling/experiences, but also–ideally, not necessarily actually–to induce thought/feelings/exploration in readers. If someone isn’t willing to think, that’s not a problem with the piece. But if my piece is “inaccessible” (lit jargon for “gibberish”), then it’s not really successful, because it doesn’t communicate my ideas. It’s only naval-gazing, and I should’ve written it in my journal. Likewise, if the ideas in the piece are so obvious that a drunk third-grader could understand them without pausing his video game, the piece is not worth thinking about: another kind of failure.

Are we being totally personal here, or theoretical? Because some people would say that art doesn’t have to communicate anything, and some writers (and boy, do I hate them) believe writing doesn’t have to communicate anything. There is a literary equivelent to Jackson Pollock’s drips, god help us. (He’s French. But don’t get me started.) Personally, I think good art (in any medium) needs to say something, and the audience needs to be willing to think about what that something might be.

Here’s another box of worms: What’s the difference between Jackson Pollock’s drips and Thomas Kincaid’s drips? In other words, if Pollock’s paintings are “about paint” (as an art historian once told me), and Kincaid’s are about escapism, why is one considered a genius and the other a hack?  I find Kincaid’s work treacly and repetitive, but it “says” a lot more than Pollock’s. I should stop typing before I get off on yet another tangent.

Reply by Steve  8/21/2012

This is a  somewhat lengthy response to comments made by Jane on my blog post, “What the ____ was that Video About?”.  It’s lengthy and has taken some time to write because I think Jane has raised some central questions about Art and, although she didn’t mention it, spiritual practices as well.

In the original post, I was wondering out loud about how important it was that a piece of art convey a message or meaning to the audience.    When I started dabbling in video art, I found myself having to give more thought to “meaning”.  I suggested that I understood this need for meaning because  giving or find meaning is how we function as human beings and suggested that Artist (and I was thinking of visual artists here)  often don’t help the viewers “understand” their work because they are “lazy”.  What I meant was that although they could write or talk about their work, thus “helping” the audience with their effort to find some meaning, they chose not to.  I guess what I was trying to do in the original blog post is figure out whether or not the artist should or should not get involved in providing this “help”.

To start with, I think the word “processing” (as used by Jane) is a good one to use for the discussion we are having since it includes both cognitive and somatic responses (which probably means both right and left brain goings-on).  I haven’t thought it through completely, but it seems to me that different art forms are “processed” differently, some requiring more “cerebral” processing and others more “visceral” processing, but most likely both of these come into play to some degree.  Most abstract art, like Pollock’s, does’nt call forth an immediate narrative and if there is a message or meaning behind it, the artist takes the risk that it might not be perceived by the viewer. Yet, I would suggest in all cases, even the most “visceral” art, to use Jane’s term, the audience is involved in some sort of cognitive processing and thus is giving it meaning.

I know that people often read meanings into my paintings when I was simply trying to provide a visceral response (presumably one that mirrored my own response to what I had painted).  The understanding that I am coming to is that regardless of the artist’s intent and regardless of how few clues in a piece of art provoking  some sort of narrative, the audience will try to find some meaning in it.

As I recall Jane’s comments were a response to some reflections I was making about the differences between making abstract paintings and making videos.  In making abstract paintings I was never particularly concerned about their meaning.  I knew that viewers would often come up with various interpretations and stories about the paintings but I was mostly interested in whether or not they were “liked”.  With video, there seems to be an expectation, one that I share, that somehow there should be an associated narrative; that is a story or a point that the viewer is supposed to get.  Now it is the case that videos and films are made that are designed to simply provoke emotional responses (positive or negative) with no clear narrative and I enjoy these kind of experiences.  And, I’ve tried to provide these kind of experiences in some of my videos.  But I’ve found it difficult to not also try to provide some sort of message or lesson as well.  For instance, Requiem for the Sunset”, which is a series of sunsets and music, ends with a quote about the fear of death.

The other difference, at least for me, is that I feel much more willing and able to seek out and respond to the responses of viewers to my videos than I would or could with my paintings.  Painting tends to by a solitary venture and once completed is not likely to be altered by viewer’s comments.  When making a video I am much more likely to have others look at it at various stages and make changes based on what they say.  Part of the reason for this is that I’m more concerned about the meaning issue, mentioned above.  Are viewers getting my point of view, if I indeed have one, or are they reading something into my video that I had no intention of conveying?

One of things I realized in reading Jane’s comments is that much of what I was saying in the post was based mainly on my experiences with visual arts and music.  And so it is good that she introduces “word art” into the discussion. I must say that I am  much more concerned about whether my meaning is being transferred in writing my blog, which I really consider more Art than anything else.  In writing, as Jane points out, a good author’s meaning should be clear to those who are reading it. On the other hand I remember attending a poetry reading that was scheduled the evening I completed my first 7 day meditation retreat.  I was unable or, more accurately, unwilling to try to engage in the mental work required to figure out what any of the poets where trying to say.   So, generally, the evening was unfulfilling for me.  There was one woman, however, whose voice was so captivating and soothing that even though I had no idea what she was saying, I was on cloud nine as she performed.

Is it possible for there to be “word art” that resembles what Pollick did on canvas?  Non-sense poetry of the type Lewis Carole played with would seem to come close to that and it is my understanding that Haiku would as well.  And of course there is Bob Dylan.  And this brings up music as an art form, where, like abstract visual art, any narrative or meaning seems to be wholly supplied by the audience. However, I just ran across this quote by Victor Wooten which might suggest an alternative view.

“I just approach music as a language, because it is,” Wooten said. “It serves the same purpose. It’s a form of expression. A way for me to express myself, convey feelings, and sometimes it actually works better than a written or verbal language.”  

(Perhaps some of my musician readers would like to chime in about this.)

So to sum up my current understanding about all of this; it seems that wanting things to make sense or have meaning is a key part of who we are as humans.  Both Art and Zen seem to raise healthy concerns about making this the all consuming preoccupation that is fostered in contemporary Western culture.  However, I’m not sure it is healthy to disavow or undermine  our capacities for making sense and being understood, which often seems to be an implied implication whenever there are discussions about meaning.  The Isadora Duncan’s quote I used in the original post is an example of this

“If I could tell you what it meant, there would be no point in dancing it.”

I could supply many other similar quotes from artists working in all art forms.

Lehrer, my disgraced inspiration for this series of posts, seems to argue that creativity is not just a right brain matter. In the world of Zen, I think I can point to evidence that it’s all about an integration of left and right brain functioning (“relative” and “absolute” working together like a box and its lid etc. ).  In Zen and the Brain, Austin writes ” the proposals that a meditator becomes wholly “right-brained”  cannot be supported”. (p. 366) In  Philosophical Meditation on  Zen Buddhism, Wright suggests that despite the literature’s suggestion that thought has no place in Zen, thinking is an integral part of all aspects of Zen training.  My limited study of the more” inaccessible” (see Jane’s comments) Zen writings such as Lin Chi’s and Dogen’s leads me to believe the “oneness” or “wholeness” that can be attained in Zen is the unity of one’s own consciousness or Mind.  And  so I wonder, if this could not also be considered the goal or function of the various Arts as well.

If art is a form of communication then both the artist and the audience are actively involved in creating whatever it is than is being communicated.  In spoken conversations participants don’t always share identical understanding or meanings, but “relationship” occurs anyway.  I see the relationship between artists and audience as being the same.   Rarely does the audience experience or understand a piece of art the same way the artist does.  Furthermore, both the artist and audience may change their understanding over time; sometimes as a result of further communication with one another.  Any true communication entails all parties to “take the role of the other”, that is try to see things from the other’s perspective. What endangers this “relationship” is when either of the participants refuse to do the work necessary to play the role of the other.  This happens when an artist refuses to “work” by responding  to questions about the meaning of their art or when the audience refuses to “work” to understand the artist’s perspective.

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