WHAT IS PERFECTION IN ART AND ZEN?

 

 

Since the publication of “Evolution of The Adagio – a therapeutic motion machine” there has been quite a bit of discussion about the importance of the Golden Ratio in the creation of art and music ( see “Truth , and Faith and B. S. in Art and Zen”).  The advocates of this approach contend  that art based on the proportions called the Golden ratio is somehow more aesthetically perfect or pleasing than others.  One of my readers, Charlie from Massachusetts, suggested that we do a little experiment on Art and Zen Today to test that idea.  I thought that sounded like fun and so asked Charlie to work on that for this Post.  After the experimental quiz, found below, I have added a few comments about how all of this could be seen as related to Zen practice.  The “right answers” to the quiz are contained in my comments.

Thanks Charlie for your contribution.

————————————————————————————————————————-

 

Since the series of post on the Golden Ratio I have consciously looked at objects to see whether or not I found those based on the Ratio to be more asthetically pleasing.  For instance, I went through a couple stores with my wife and I started seeing things in the stores through a prism of the golden rectangle. For example there was a sox display in the shape of the golden rectangle, a bench in the entryway to a store. and a couple other things. I kept saying to myself—is that shaped correctly? I think there is something to it.  Maybe the Renaissance was a more enlightened time—they were more in tune with a sense of beauty. Today few people care about whether things are shaped correctly to achieve a balance.”  I thought it might be interesting for your readers to see whether or not objects based on Golden Ratio were more pleasing to them.

In his article James took a wider view and discussed many applications of the golden mean. Here, I’m only focusing on the appearance of the front view of standing furniture. And now, starting from the very beginning, what is a golden rectangle? It’s a rectangle standing up like a sign whose width is 1.618 times bigger than the side. See below.

Ratio of Height to Width is .61 (Golden Mean)

The next image shows a man looking at a golden rectangle. According to the artists from the past, we should appreciate that the golden rectangle is a more pleasing to the eye than other rectangles.

Looking only at the front of a piece of furniture, let’s say, a bench (see below); someone may be able to convince you that a bench built to the dimensions of the golden ratio looks more pleasing than a wider one or a narrower version of the same bench.  To illustrate that, we see below a golden rectangle placed in back of a bench. You can see that the bench matches the golden rectangle—same width, same height off the floor. The front view of the bench is built to the dimensions of the golden rectangle.

The Bench is same proportion as Golden Ratio

 

Now, test your own preferences of what you think is more pleasing. Below are three pairs of furniture.  Without much thought, choose the one you find most pleasing.  Then check below to see if you picked those that were built to the dimensions of the golden ratio.  Make your choices before checking the answers below.

—————————————————————————————————————————–

 

 

When I took Charlie’s test, I choose the furniture that conformed to the Golden Ratio in two of the three sets.  I could imagine making other choices if the objects had varied in color, decoration or if I had to place the furniture in a spot with unique space requirements.  In other words, I am guessing that the “ideal” specified by the mathematics of the Golden Ratio, may have some validity but the “pull” towards this notion of what is aesthetically pleasing is not a strong one.  A study by psychologists McManus, Cook and Hunt seems to back up this view ( See “Beyond the Golden Section and Normative Aesthetics: Why Do IndividualsDiffer so Much in Their Aesthetic Preferences for Rectangles?”)

http://www.ucl.ac.uk/medical-education/publications/Reprints2010/2010-PACA-BeyondTheGoldenSection.pdf

In all three cases, the pieces on the right were proportioned in accord with the Golden Ratio.  I’d be very interested in how you did and what your process was like.  Any ideas on this topic would be welcomed. Take the time to write a comment.

Speaking of ideals, I just happened to have just finished reading Dale Wright’s The Six Perfections: Buddhism and the Cultivation of Character.   Wright sees the six perfections ( generosity, morality, tolerance, energy , mediation and wisdom) as traits which, throughout the evolution of Buddhist thought, have been seen as the most important and useful in defining or describing the “enlightened person”.  These ideals are understood to be those towards which practitioners should strive.  Although Wright provides the reader with a sense of how and why these “perfections” or ideals evolved over time, he also offers a critique of each and asks how our understanding of each should change to fit with our contemporary lifestyles. 

Wright points out that in the West, values are largely based on a Platonic tendency to see ideals as “timeless, fixed forms to which human lives must conform”(pg. 270).   I think this is true for many adherents of the “golden ratio” theory of aesthetics, who seem to be looking for an objective unchanging notion of what is beautiful.  Wright points out some difficulties with this approach:

What Plato did not see, or was not able to concede, is that human history is the story of the unfolding of visions of “the good, the true, and the beautiful” as they have come to be experienced throughout the variegated history of human cultures.  Rather than being fixed in character and given to us in advance of our quest, these ideals stand out ahead of us as the horizons that inspire our striving and that recede into the future as we approach them……..   “Enlightenment” and all of its components, from generosity to wisdom, are moving targets” (pg. 270)

Charlie may have been on to something when he seemed to suggest above that during the   Renaissance the allure of the Golden Ratio may have been stronger. In that artists and craftspersons during that time would have been well advised to utilize this ideal in their creations.

 In TRUTH AND FAITH AND “B.S.” IN ART AND ZEN, James suggests that without accepting the “truth” of theories that specify aesthetic ideals, they can be used as  jumping off points for creative endeavors.  I believe that the same may be said for schemes like the “six perfections” in the realm of spiritual transformation.  Wright suggest that in practices like Zen, students need some sense of what they are doing  (“the idea of enlightenment”),  and this requires the same sort of imagination that is essential to the creativity of artists and innovative thinkers. (see “HOW CREATIVITY WORKS”).  [ By the way, he differentiates between imagination and fantasy; in the latter we may entertain possibilities for the future but "they are not our possibilities". (pg.211)  He points out that existing (traditional) theories, whether they  deal with aesthetic ideals or ideals of personal traits,should not be blindly followed.  But, he also says that we should not throw them out.   According to Wright:

We understand only by virtue of standing within and upon traditions of understanding……The role of traditions, therefore…………..is to provide points of departure for advancing into the future.  Creative thinking does not overthrow the past so much as stand upon it and use it for purposes of renewal, continually amending, rethinking, and reconstituting ideals suitable for current circumstances.  (pg. 211)

Whether creating a new painting, piece of music, a new garden, a new job project or an new life, it makes sense to pay attention to what has come before us and mindfully use this knowledge as we respond  to our present circumstances. 

Without tradition, art is a flock of sheep without a shepherd. Without innovation, it is a corpse.
Winston Churchill


To leave a comment, click on the white bubble at the right of the title.  To make an anonymous comment, write “anonymous” when prompted for a name.  You can also send comments to me directly.

SO, CAN AVERAGE JOE GROW AND LEARN TO FLOW?

In my last post “Are You A Flow Addict?”, I suggested that most of us become attached to those experiences of being “present-awake-alive”- experiences that Dr.Mihaly Csikszentimaihalyi (Dr. C.)  has called “flow experiences”.  I received a reply from Jiyu Roshi regarding my article saying:  No, “flow” is not addictive. And you cannot become a “flow” addict. ”Flow” is living in a place of complete freedom. ”I must make clear the “flow” I am talking about is the life of the awakened person.  This comment may seem to contradict the main point of the original post, but I believe it is really saying what I said in a slightly different way.

This blog is a work in process and I am constantly discovering for myself what my goals are in writing it.  It became clear a couple of months back that one thing I was doing was trying to see whether or not I could stretch the term “creativity” to apply to both artistic and spiritual practices.  As I thought about Roshi’s comments to my last post, it also occurred to me that I am exploring alternative ways of talking about the purpose and practice of Zen.  So I am thankfull to him for raising my awareness about this.

Since Zen comes from a non-Western tradition, I personally find that the language used in the Zen literature often obfuscates rather than clarifies; this is confounded by that fact that many Zen writers do this purposely. In Zen there are frequent references to the “awakened”, “enlightened” or “liberated person”, as Roshi has done in his reply.  Western Zen scholars such as Dale Wright and Peter Hershock suggest that these terms conjure up, for many Western readers, images of persons possessing a special, often “supernatural” state that is simultaneously not comprehensible, not personally attainable and a magical way of being that will deliver one, once and for all, from all of one’s problems.

Unfortunately such a view can lead to conditions which actually are an impediment to the “life flow” that Roshi says is enjoyed by such persons.  To the extent that one fosters a dream of some unattainable, wonderful way of being, that person will find difficulty in being present-awake-alive, moment by moment in his or her life.  It is my assumption that this is why many Zen writers have said that one should not practice Zen in order to attain enlightenment.

I’m not sure whether my exploration of alternative “languages” will help Westerners to better understand Zen or not.  But, I can only find out by trying it out and that is the purpose of this Blog.  Needless to say, I will be dependent upon your responses to help me evaluate this endeavor.

When I think of “flow” I picture myself floating down a river on a raft.  Although I can paddle and steer the raft to some degree, the speed and direction of the raft are largely determined by the flow of the water in the river.  Sometimes the raft may move at a speed I find fun; at other times it may be too fast or too slow.  When it is just right, I have fun;  I have a “flow experience”. I’m am present-awake-alive.  When it is too fast or slow, I am not in the moment because I want my experience to be other than what it is.  To the extent that I become attached to a particular kind of rafting experience; that is, one where I am fully present, I suffer when that is not happening.  This is the point I was trying to make in the previous post using Dr. C’s theory.

Now regardless of how much I may struggle to speed up or slow down the raft, it keeps on moving according to the flow of the river.  No matter how much I want to repeat a particular fun experience (maybe an exhilarating dive through some rapids) that I had in the past, the flow of the river, the raft and my life continues.  As long as I’m on the raft I am flowing, whether or not I like what is happening and whether or not I am “present-awake-alive” to what is happening. So it is possible to say that as long as I am alive, my life is naturally in a state of flow; that is I am always flowing.  This seems to be the way that flow is used in the saying that I quoted in “To Know Flow or No Flow” and is repeated below.  For me the ghist of Lao Tzu’s saying is that if our life is naturally a flow, we might as well be fully present as it is happening.

—————————————————————————————————————-

Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them – that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like. Lao Tzu

___________________________________________________________________

Things flow naturally and we can avoid suffering by “going with the flow”.   Roshi seems to have this idea of flow in mind when he says that flow is not addictive.  In his comments, Roshi indicates that he is using a slightly different definition of “flow” than Dr. C’s when he says:

“I must make clear the “flow” I am talking about is the life of the awakened person.  True freedom doesn’t “feel” good or bad. True freedom is that place where you are able to adjust instantly to whatever arises and you no longer worry about making the right or wrong decision.”

What Roshi refers to as the “awakened person” is presumably someone who is “present-awake-alive” almost all the time.  Such individuals can go with the flow of their particular life, regardless of where it takes him or her.  This was my point in the article when I said that the “autotelic personality” was better able to flow in a variety of situations, regardless of whether or not they defined them as “fun”.    My point was that such a person would not be addicted to particular experiences in their lives.  So I was trying, using somewhat different language, to make the same point as Roshi: that is, that “awakened persons” are not addicted to flow.  The problem for those of us who are not “awakened” is that whenever we separate out some aspect of the flow of our life as being an experience we want to repeat or avoid, we are struggling against the natural flow of our lives.

When most people have a certain kind of experience, good or bad, it is always relative to other experiences they have had or may be dreaming of.  To have an experience, requires “getting into one’s head”, so to speak: getting involved in making comparisons with other “experiences” and making plans to try to either repeat or avoid similar experiences in the future.  To the extent that one’s self becomes the focus of attention, one becomes separate from that flow of life as it is happening right here now.  When an experience becomes something to attain or avoid, one is ignoring the fact that change is the essence of life. As Roshi says “Our mistake is in believing the self is permanent and we become attached (and sometimes addicted) to things we think will make the self happy, or fulfilled, so we keep trying one thing after another to satisfy this self.”

Having a self or being a self entails trying to control our experiences in ways that corresponds to what we think we are or should be (i.e how our life should be).  This thwarts the natural flow that is our life as it is unfolding moment by moment.  “Letting go of the self” or “becoming One with everthing”  or “becoming an awakened person”are terms that often are used  in Zen literature to refer to allowing one’s life to flow without resisting it.   Many people find these terms to be either unfathomable or frightening, and this is one reason that I wanted to write about all of this using terms such as “flow experience”  “being present”. We have all had such experiences, it may be easier for us to imagine what it would be like to be a part of this natural flow of life, that is, to use Roshi’s terms, to be an “awakened person”.  I wanted to use Dr. C’s term “autotelic personality” because it seems much less intimidating than “awakened person” and I plan to use elements of his theory to show how it relates to the idea of creativity, as it has been used in prior posts.

On my raft, I may paddle faster to avoid polluted waters or steer to avoid oncoming rocks; being in the flow of the river doesn’t mean not responding to what is happening moment by moment.  But, if I am truly responding to each present moment as it unfolds I am not suffering because things are not going the way I want them to.  Suffering, in this sense, can be eliminated by learning to be present-awake-alive in each moment and all situations and practicing Zen is one way this learning can take place.

I’ll end by quoting the last few lines of Jiyu Roshi’s comments:

If you are serious about understanding and living a flowing, free life you will need to be willing to do the creative work/play Manoj (Steve) discusses.

The focus of this blogsite is “creativity” and little has been said about this in the past few blogs.  Coming up I will look at the “creative work/play” process involved in overcoming our separation from our natural life flow.

To leave comments, check on the white cloud to the right of the Title.  If you don’t want your name published, simply write “Anonymous”, when prompted.