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”.


The Artist is Present

I happened to see “Marina Abramovic The Artist is Present” on HBO the other night and would highly recommend it to this crowd of readers.  It is a documentary that follows the Serbian performance artist as she prepares for a retrospective of her work at The Museum of Modern Art inNew York.  It is available on Netflixs.

The retrospective included either videos of or reenactments (using hired artists) of performances carried out by Abramovic over the course of her career.  Photos of some of those early performance pieces are included below, along with some commentary.

Marina plays "game" stabbing knife between fingers rapidly for hours.

“The main problem in this relationship was what to do with the two artists’ egos. I had to find out how to put my ego down, as did he, to create something like a hermaphroditic state of being that we called the death “ self”

Marina on her relationship with Ulay.



Ulay and Marina screaming at one another as Performance Art


Performance piece with Ulay

   Abramovic lived on three connected platforms in full view of audience for 12 days.IN 2002 Marina lived for 12 days on three platforms in full view of the public. the ladders leading down from the platforms had rungs made of butcher knives.

A large part of the MOMA retrospective consisted of videos or reenactments of these and many other past performances by Abramovic.  However,the main attraction was the artist herself who sat motionless in a chair in the museum while gazing into the eyes of whoever wanted to sit across from her.  Thus, the title of the exhibit (and the documentary), “The Artist is Present”, was based on the fact that Marina was in the museum during every moment that the Museum was open during the 3 month exhibit; 7 1/2 hours a day, 6 days a week.

The title seems to have a double meaning.  Not only was she present in the sense that she was there at  her show every hour of every day- something, I’m sure, no other artist has accomplished- but she was totally “present” with everyone who sat before her.

In the film, Klaus Bresanbach , the curator for the exhibit, said:

What is so beautiful about the MOMA performance, she’s treating actually every human being she is encountered with the same attention and the same respect.


As you can see from the photos, many of those who waited in long lines to be in Abromovic’s presence were profoundly affected.  Many people openly wept and I found one person online who descibed herself as having an “out of body experience” while gazing into the artist’s eyes.  In the film Marina says of those who sat with her:

  Some of them are really open and you feel this incredible pain…….when they are sitting in the front of me, it’s not about me any more.  It’s very soon, that I’m just mirror of their own self.

 In other words,Marina was being “in the present” in the sense that I talked about this concept in the earlier post “What the ______was that Video About?  In the film, Marina tells us:  It doesn’t matter what kind of work you are doing as an artist.  The most important is from which state of mind you are doing what you are doing, and performance is all about state of mind.

 It is clear from the film and from other interviews with Marina that she sees her art as a means of transforming herself.  By confronting challenges and fears, she is able to create, not a new art object but a new self.  This reminds me of Suzuki’s statement as follows: The Zen-man is an artist to the extent that, as the sculptor chisels out a great figure deeply buried in a mass of inert matter, the Zen-man transforms his own life into a work of creation.  (D.. Suzuki, Zen and Japanese Culture)


Zen Meditation

There is much about Abramovic’s art practice and her life that reminds me of  serious Zen practioners.  Consider this quote from the movie:

The hardest thing is to do something that is close to nothing.  It’s demanding all of you because there is no story anymore to tell.  There’s no objects to hide behind.  You have to rely on your own pure energy and nothing else.

I am sure that any Zen student who has sat for hours in a prolonged meditation retreat can relate to her description.

Although it is clear that Abramovic is aware of and has practiced various meditiation

Marina at the end of a day of sitting.

techniques, she does not identify herself as a spiritual seeker. As she said in a joint interview with Ulay:

…as we speak about a reserve of energy, about our bodies, you might think Zen Buddhism is behind our work, or other philosophies, but we’re really interested  only in  experience.” (http://www.flashartonline.com/interno.php?pagina=articolo_det&id_art=197&det=ok&title=MARINA-ABRAMOVIC-AND-ULAY)

Whether or not Abramovic’s art  is spiritual, it involves a practice that resembles what seems to be required in all genuine spiritual pursuits; the practice of raising ones awareness to the point where something new is a possible outcome.  This is nicely summed up in the movie when Marina says:

Artists have to be warriors.  Have to have this determination and have to have the stamina to conquer not just new territory, but also to conquer himself and his weaknesses.

This overlapping of spiritual and artistic practices is the central focus of this blog.


Monk On the Cover of Time Magazine

I would love to be able to see the mental images conjured up in readers’ heads by the title of today’s post.  Was I really spanked by a Monk?  Yes, by Thelonious Monk to be precise.

Monk was one of the first jazz artist I heard as a kid and is regarded by many to be one of the early geniuses of modern jazz.  The incident I am about to relay came to mind several times while reading Lehrer’s book Imagine: How Creativity Works. Here is the story of my intimate encounter with Monk’s creativity.

Soon after my wife and I moved to Philadelphia in 1967, Thelonius and his band played at “The Showboat” on Lombard St. for three straight nights. We attended all three nights and became friendly with Charlie Rouse, Monk’s sax player and the other band members.  Over the course of three nights, we also spent time drinking with Baroness Nica Von Koenighswarter, who was friend, patron and caretaker to both Charlie Parker and Monk.

The stage in the Showboat was behind the bar and behind the bar stools, separated by a narrow walkway, were stadium-like seats fitted with tables.  To get to the stage, musicians enter the club like any customer, and climb a short flight of stairs at one end of the bar.  For all three nights we sat at the bar with the Baroness and other avid Monk fans.                                                              

Baroness “Nica” and Monk

The first night of the series, Monk arrived about an hour late, long after his band had gone up on stage ready  to play.  When Thelonius finally entered the club, he carried a long-handled shoe horn from his hotel.  As he stepped through the door, he immediately tucked the shoe horn under his arm, like a riding crop or swagger stick, and began marching around the club.  For another 30 minutes he strutted around with the shoe horn – back and forth along the bar, and up and down the bleachers- like a general in the Prussian army.  At first it was entertaining but as the club owner got more and more irradiated, the audience began to grow impatient as well.  All the while, his band watched their leader from the stage with their instruments ready.

Eventually, after much pleading from Rouse, the Baroness and the owner, Monk went to the stage and started playing the first tune.  He placed the shoehorn on the music stand of the piano and began playing as if nothing unusual had happened.  However, when it came time for his solo, Monk stood up, grabbed the shoehorn and used it to peck out his solo, one key at a time.

If you know Monks music, you can imagine that the solo did not really sound that unusual as he sometimes played one-fingered solos.  After, his solo was finished,  instead of sitting back down, he backed up a bit, knocking over the piano bench.  He then moved away from the piano, doing his little “Monk dance” across the stage (see short video clip below).


That night I was sitting near the end of the bar, close to the steps going to the stage. Fueled by the many cocktails consumed during the long wait, I charged up the stairs with the intention of picking up the toppled piano bench, while Monk did his dance.  As soon as I leaned over to pick it up, I felt a sharp sting of the shoe horn across my rear end.  Much to the delight of the audience, I had been touched by genius.  As would be expected from Thelonious Monk, the Melodious Thunk of the spank fit right into the tune they were playing.

The next night, in talking with the band members, it was revealed that Monk had been high on “speed” and that , after the gig, he had been remorsefully “crying like a baby”, according to Rouse.  I’ve thought a lot about that night since then, wondering exactly what  we had witnessed.  Was it:  Drug abuse?  Monk’s creative genius?  Showmanship? Psychological disorder?


I will take a stab at my interpretation in the next blog.  To get to the bottom of this(excuse me-I couldn’t resist), I’ll be going back to Lehrer’s Imagination: How Creativity Works for some help.  In the meantime, let me hear your interpretations, theories, reactions and stories.