BEING PRESENT: ZEN AND TRANSUBSTANTIATION

In my last post, “Art, Zen and Transubstantiation: It’s Like Kind of Crazy”  I discussed Marcel Duchamp’s fascination with “transubstantiation” and provided an interpretation concerning the meaning/impact of “Fountain”.  To quote a little known authority on not much of anything, (i.e. myself):

When Duchamp entered the urinal in a art show, he was obviously raising the question “What is it?”, or more to the point, “Is it art?” His point seems to be that it all depends on how “it” is seen by the spectators. If it is defined and perceived as art, (as if it were art) by viewers, then it will be perceived and responded to differently than if it is seen as “just a urinal”. If something is seen as “art” it brings forth a special mode of attention that is different from something seen as part of “everyday life”.

What is the special kind of attention associated with art? Those of you who have been reading my previous post know that is what I have been calling being “present/awake/alive”. (From “Art, Zen and Transubstantiation: It’s Like Kind of Crazy”)

I ended the last blog post with the assertion that Buddhist and more specifically Zen philosophers had been making similar proclamations for thousands of years; not specifically about “art” but life in general.  So I want to play some more with the concept of “transubstantiation” focusing on spiritual practices.

 

Let me start first with Christianity, since this is where the term “transubstantiation” was first developed. As I said in the previous post, the term refers to the idea that in Communion, the bread and wine are not just symbols of Christ’s body and blood but are his body and blood, although in another form. I went on to suggest that, later interpretations allow that the bread and body are symbols or metaphors for Christ consciousness and that what makes this real or true is the faith of the participants in Communion. In other words it is as if the wine was Christ’s blood.

 

The general idea of my last post was that by shifting our perception so that everyday life is seen “as if” it is ”art”, we are more likely to be “present/awake/alive” with it.  Similarly, spiritual traditions can help foster this “as if” attitude and help practitioners develop a more comprehensive shift in consciousness.

However, It seems to me that the teachings in all spiritual traditions often foster a tendency to view a particular event or phenomenon as “fact” rather than as a metaphor/similie  (i.e. “as if”).  I can imagine that a great deal of confusion might have been spared, if over the years, Christ was seen “as if” he were the son of god” or that it was understood that that his teaching could lead to one’s transformation “as if” one was being “reborn” or “resurrected”.  It is my opinion that most enlightened Christians have discovered this “as if” perspective on their own and understand that their aim is to live their lives “as if ” they were Christ; in other words to develop “Christ Consciousness”.

I think the same kind of confusion can be found in some varieties of Buddhism as well, and much of this might be due to what the historical Buddha said or was said to have said.  For instance,let us look again at the Sutra, I mentioned in the last blog, where Buddha supposedly said the following to his student Subhuti, :

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.  I agree with my fellow student’s reaction to this when he said it “sounds insane”(see previous post and Discussion #3 in FORUMS).

The historic Buddha would often not answer questions such as “Is there a Self?”, presumably because he understood that by answering either “yes” or “no”, the interlocker could misunderstand the true nature of things…  I wonder whether if Buddha’s advice to his student Subhuti would seem less “insane” if he had said something like “a Bodhisattava should act as if both he or she, and all others, have no perception of a self………?”  My guess is that, if the words above is truly what the Buddha said to Subhuti, he was using language fitting for his students advanced understanding at the time and perhaps did not feel the need to signal that he was talking metaphorically.

I am currently reading “The Embodied Mind” which was suggested to me by fellow blogger Sean Voisen (The Koan).  This fascinating book draws on elements of Buddhist philosophy to solve several theoretical dead ends that current scientist’s working in the area of Cognitive Science have run into.  Their main point is  similar to that made by Buddha in the Sutra above; i.e. there is no scientific evidence pointing to anything substantial that we could call a “self”.  Their careful review of research and theory in the Cognitive Sciences leads to the same conclusion that is summed up by the authors in a quote from Tsultrim Gyamtso:

 Buddhism is not telling anyone that he should believe that he has a self or that he does not have a self.  It is saying that when one looks at the way one suffers and the way one thinks and responds emotionally to life, it as if one believed that there were a self  (Underline is mine) that was lasting, single and independent and yet on closer analysis no such self can be found.  ” (The Embodied Mind, pg 72)

Note the use of the term “as if”. What I have taken away from The Embodied Mind  is that we all tend to ignore the moment to moment variations in our thoughts, feelings, experiences etc. because of our need to have something stable to provide a sense of meaning.  It is this grasping which is the cause of suffering that Buddha said that we can overcome.  It is through meditation that we slowly come to see and accept then fact that our notion of being a Self is just a convenient fiction. And, when we begin to see this in ourselves we realize that this is also  the case for so called other “selves” as well, which seems to be what Subhuti was being taught by Buddha in the Sutra in queston.

 

Now even if one were to come to this understanding about the nature of the Self, he or she would still need to act, in some cases, as if selves exist.  This is why, I am guessing that the historic Buddha frequently refused to answer one way or the other when asked whether there was or was not a Self.  However, all of this suggests that we are  capable of holding both of these perspectives (the “self exists” and “does not exist”) and can become free to shift our perceptions regarding selfhood depending upon what is required by the current situation.

For instance, if you and I are together and I am fully present/awake/alive with you, I am not concerned about our past or our present and so, for all practicable purposes, neither you or I have or are “selves” in that moment.  I think that Buddha’s advice to Subhuti could be easily translated to simply say “to be a Bodhistava, “be present/awake/alive.” (Be sure to read “The Artist is Present“)

In the next post, I plan to look once more at the concept of transubstantiation and explore the possibilities more of incorporating the attitude of “as if” into our daily lives.

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BUDDHA AS A PERFORMANCE ARTIST?

 

Buddha as a performance artist?  Not so far fetched according to Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman:

Robert Thurman and the Dalai Lama

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

Montano and Hsieh Performance Piece

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”.

 

SUN RA, THE ALIEN: THE THIN LINE BETWEEN GENIUS, SPIRITUALITY AND CRAZY.

(Click on “Forums” on the menu at the top for a in-depth response to comments from Jane on “What the ____was that Video about?”.)

Of all the early jazz musicians, Sun Ra had to be one of the most “far out”.  He claimed that he was from Saturn, not from earth, and used cosmic philosophies and lyrical poetry to preach awareness and peace. The notion that he came from Saturn seems to be connected to a profound altered state of consciousness experience he had while  in college.  Here is how he chose to describe it:

my whole body changed into something else. I could see through myself. And I went up … I wasn’t in human form … I landed on a planet that I identified as Saturn … they teleported me and I was down on [a] stage with them. They wanted to talk with me……..They told me to stop [attending college] because there was going to be great trouble in schools … the world was going into complete chaos … I would speak [through music], and the world would listen. That’s what they told me.   Szwed, John F. (August 21, 1998). Space Is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra. Da Capo Press. ISBN 978-0-306-80855-5

 

He abandoned his birth name and took on the name and persona of Sun Ra (Ra is the Egyptian God of the Sun) and formed his “Arkestra” to help him spread his message through his music. The band members wore colorful  outfits that were a combination of African garb and space suits and  Sun Ra usually wore an outfit, with a headdress and flowing cloak.

The music they played was very complex and often atonal.  . But being in the Arkestra

House in Phila. where the Arkestra lived and rehearsed.

was a difficult way of life. The band members never made much money, and Ra demanded discipline and hard work. He banned drugs, alcohol, and women, and band members had to be available for practice around-the-clock.  This monastic atmosphere seemed to have been something close to what one might find in a Zen monastery.

One band member who had studied Zen before joining Sun Ra said that the leader’s use of non sequiturs and absurd replies to questions seemed to resemble the use of Koans and other responses observed among Zen Masters.       According to John Szwed, Ra’s biographer, the drummer Art Jenkins admitted that Sun Ra’s “nonsense” sometimes troubled his thoughts for days until inspiring a profound change in outlook.    Drummer Andrew Cyrille said Sun Ra’s comments were;

 ”very interesting stuff … whether you believed it or not. And a lot of times it was humorous, and a lot of times it was ridiculous, and a lot of times it was right on the money.”Szwed, John F. , 1998). Space Is the Place.)

In addition, I’ve found numerous quotes from Sun Ra, like the one below, that could have just as easily come from the mouth of a Zen master.

“I’ve been to a zone where there is no air, no light, no sound, no life, no death, nothing. There’s five billion people on this planet, all out of tune. I’ve got to raise their consciousness, tell them about the wonderful potential to bypass death.”

Szwed, 1998

I’ve never been a big fan of Sun Ra’s music but was prompted to write about him for

Van Gogh, Self Portrait

several reasons.  One is to reiterate an observation I made in an earlier post (Waikiki, Dylan, Zen and the Spanking Monk) about the thin line that exists between madness creative genius and spirituality.  In that post I pointed out the problems in using such terms when talking about creative people, whether ourselves or others.

Secondly, his case seems to nicely illustrate what I have been writing about in the past few posts; namely “aliens”.  While I don’t believe Sun Ra came from Saturn or was teleported by aliens, he does seem to be someone who has consciously and adopted the position of  an extreme “alien” in society to support his creativity and spirituality.

Finally, I recently found myself influenced by a “close encounter” that I had with Sun Ra back in the mid 1980s, when he and I both lived in the Philadelphia area.  A friend and I attended a Sun Ra concert where I witnessed something that became the inspirational seed for one of my music videos.  I’ll tell the story and show the video in the next post. Peace!

SUDDEN INSIGHT AND CREATIVITY

I just finished reading a new book titled Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer, an editor for Wired Magazine.  Lehrer has a knack for combing through a lot of highly technical material on the major factors affecting creativity and bringing this information to life for the reader.

I want to start with the flashy and mysterious aspect of creativity; those moments where new insights, inspirations or ideas suddenly appear out of the blue.  As an artist and a Zen student, I think this material is highly relevant to my practices.

Looking at both antidotal and experimental evidence, Lehrer found that these moments of insight nearly always happen once we relax and stop trying to solve whatever problem we are working on.  I’ll say some more about the scientific evidence behind this observation in a later post, but at this point I want to tell you about a personal experience with insight problem-solving.

Everyday during lunch, my 97 year old mother and I work on one of the three cross word puzzles she tackles per day.  Prior to her moving in with us, I had no interest at all in doing cross word puzzles, mainly because I could never get them started.  However, by lunch time, my mother usually has a pretty good start on a puzzle and with some letters present, I’m able to give her some help, especially on clues that related to pop culture or technical terminology. She good at coming up with words that are no longer used much and she knows many French terms.  Anyway, together we make a pretty good team and usually manage to cooperatively solve each day’s puzzle.

The other day we had completed a puzzle but were unsettled by one of the answers we provided.  The clue for a four word Across was “Shopping Center”.  Based on all the words we had answered going Down, the answer to this clue ended up being “pees”.  We were certain that our vertical answers were correct and could not understand how “pees” would be the correct answer to “Shopping Center”.  Not only did it not make sense but it also seemed a bit risqué for a cross word puzzle.

After a while, we both agreed that the puzzle creator had simply made a mistake and I went into the kitchen to clean up the dishes.  For a few minutes I thought about whatever it was I was going to be doing next, but then, all of a sudden,  it came to me why our answer was correct.

See if you can get it.  When you do, please leave a comment and describe how you came up with the answer.   I’ll provide the answer in my next blog post and say a little about why I think this kind of problem-solving is related to art and spiritual practices.To leave a comment, click on the title of this post (written in red) under “Recent Posts”  in the upper right hand corner of this page.