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To consider oneself a Buddhist, says His Holiness the Dalai Lama, one must embrace the four noble truths expounded two and a half millennia ago by Shakyamuni Buddha during his 45 years as a teacher of the dharma. Regardless of one’s lineage or tradition, these truths state that (1) there is suffering; (2) the cause of suffering is thirst (trishna), which most commentators interpret as being selfish desire; (3) there is a way to end suffering; and (4) that way is the eightfold path (arya astanga marga). Of the eight steps on this path, the one to which the others build and in which they triumphantly culminate is right mindfulness (samyak smrti). It is the root and fruit of all Buddhist practice. 

As a Buddhist and phenomenologist, I understand at age 58, and after 26 years of practicing meditation, something of the depths of clarity and insight delivered by right mindfulness. But it was as a young artist in my teens—someone for whom drawing and encountering art from all cultures, historical periods, and countries had been a passion since childhood—that Eastern philosophies and religions first seduced me. The seeds for my journey to the East were sown when I was 14 in Evanston, Illinois. I pulled down a volume on yoga from my mother’s shelf of books in our living room and, after reading the chapter devoted to “Meditation,” I spent the next half an hour in my bedroom following its instructions for Vipassana, the method Shakyamuni Buddha recommended for his followers in the magnificent Mahasatipatthana Sutra (“The Great Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness”). It was the most peaceful and renewing thirty minutes I’d ever known, an experience that radically slowed down my sense of time and cleared away the background noise always on the edge of my consciousness. The risible “monkey mind” described by Vivekananda in Raja Yoga was suddenly quieted. I was seeing without judgment. Without judgment, there were no distinctions. Without distinctions, there was no desire. Without desire, there was only clarity and compassion. After meditation, I was suddenly no longer squandering my energies and consciousness by worrying about things in the past that could not be recovered or changed, nor was I preliving a future that would never come. Rather, all my attention rested peacefully in the present moment, a total immersion in the here and now very similar to the state of self-forgetting artists know well from focused moments of creation. To my astonishment, I felt capable of infinite patience with and empathy for my parents, teachers, and friends. Within me, I detected not the slightest trace of fear or anger or anxiety about anything. Nor was I conscious of myself, only of what was in my field of consciousness, and that, of course, was indeed an unusual event in the life of a 14-year-old American boy in 1962.

But in addition to being transformative and rewarding that first meditation was frightening, too. I wondered what the hell I’d just done to myself. I felt as if I’d been playing with a loaded pistol, a powerful tool I could not control because at that time I did not have a teacher. So for a long time I backed away from meditation. I feared it might make me too detached and dispassionate and lacking the fire—the desire and internal agitation—for venturing out into the world and exploring all the things, high and low, that I, as a teenager, was burning to see, know, and taste.

Ironically, that very hunger for worldly experience brought me face to face again with the haunting practices I’d been briefly exposed to in the dharma, for even the briefest glimpse is enough to change one’s life and orientation forever. Whenever I encountered anything related to Buddhism or Taoism—a Zen painting like Liu Ts’ai’s 14th-century Fishes memorable for its harmony, restraint, and understatement, or a haiku by Basho so pure in its simplicity that it seemed a thing discovered in Nature—I found myself stopped cold, thrown instantly into an attitude of egoless listening and inner peace as if I’d suddenly heard a call of remembrance to look within myself, my own mind, for the origin of all I experienced, a call that also beckoned me home. This was especially true when, still in my teens, I experienced either desire or anger, for no sooner than those emotions made possible by dualism arose, a partitioning of the world into self and other, I became aware of the contribution of my own conditioned thoughts to the way the thing desired appeared. “Now why,” I would wonder, “do I want to believe that? Why do I think such a thing will bring me happiness? Am I truly seeing this person or thing or feeling clearly? Through my own eyes or those of my parents, friends, teachers or Madison Avenue? Are these thoughts and judgments my own or have I received them from others?” Once I asked those questions, and turned inward to examine the rising and falling of my own thoughts and feelings (which is the essence of Vipassana), attachment to and thirst for the thing desired inevitably diminished, and finally disappeared, leaving only aesthetic appreciation for it, and a feeling of thanksgiving.

So wherever I turned in my teens, the dharma seemed to beckon me. In college, I was a philosophy and journalism major, and a professional cartoonist. I had studied with the cartoonist and writer Lawrence Lariar, starting when I was fifteen, then began publishing catalog illustrations for a Chicago magic company, award-winning cartoons, and comic strips (and also three short stories in my school newspaper) when I was seventeen in 1965. Between that year and 1972, I published over one thousand drawings and illustrations as a political cartoonist, two collections of drawings (Black Humor in 1970 and Half-Past Nation-TIme in 1972), and created, produced, and hosted an early PBS how-to-draw series, Charlie’s Pad (1970). When not studying for my classes in Western philosophy or working on assignments for publications like the Chicago Tribune, the Southern Illinoisan, Black World (formerly Negro Digest) and Jet, I consumed in translation the major texts of first Buddhism, then Hinduism and Taoism (and I now deeply enjoy translating Sanskrit works in the first religion from the original Devanagari texts). 

During the racially turbulent late 1960s, when anger and violence, the polarization of blacks and whites, the young and old, was everywhere around me, these works became my spiritual refuge. I remained devoted to researching and writing about African American and African history and culture, of course, and discovered that the study of Eastern philosophies enriched and enabled that lifelong project. I devoured everything in print by D.T. Suzuki, Eugen Herrigel, Christmas Humphreys, Alan Watts, and a library of esoteric books by authors from India, China, and Japan. I took courses on Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu, and the Vedas. I studied over and over the “Ten Oxherding Pictures” of 12th-century Zen artist Kakuan Shien (and now use Tomikichiro Tokuriki’s woodcut version as the screensaver on my PC) and other Asian artworks as if they were the visual equivalent of a mantra. In Liang K’ai’s 13th-century sketch The Sixth Patriarch Tears up a Sutra, I saw a spontaneity in his brushstrokes that seemed analogous to the sudden, instantaneous experience of satori favored by Ch’an (Zen) Buddhists. In Ma Yüan’s Landscape in Moonlight (1200 C.E.) and Kao K’o-kung’s Landscape after Rain (1250-1300 C.E.), my eyes moved over paintings that gently nudged me into seeing how all things from the very first have eternally been in a perfect state of tranquility. Ephemeral cliffs and mountain peaks were forms briefly manifest from a fecund emptiness (sunyata) that, mysteriously, was also a plenitude of being. Such forms arose (tress, clouds, people), were captured on silk, but were ever on the verge of vanishing back into the Undifferentiated, the Non-Dual, leaving no trace of themselves like waves on water. Both works were fine examples of how the “beautiful” was attained in Buddhist art: namely by dissolving the false distinction or duality between the beautiful and the ugly—it was the realm before their ontological and epistemological separation (by mind, by language) and obscuring by relativity that I was seeing in Eastern art. 

Jacqueline Poggi/Flickr

We might also say these images sprang from a transcendent vision identical to the one that infuses Tibetan sand mandalas, the making of which requires years of practice and is a form of meditation through art dating back to the 6th and 7th centuries. Tapping out colored grains of sand from a funnel called a chakpu, monks create elaborate, minutely detailed palaces and grounds for Buddhist deities. One tiny lotus may take hours to make. And then, after several days, after the mandala is done, its creators toss the sand into local waters to illustrate the impermanence of all things—even breathtakingly beautiful ones. 

However, study alone became inadequate for satisfying my increasing absorption with the practices of Eastern philosophy. I could never shake the nagging sense that the Buddhadharma was something I had to work with more creatively. Specifically, I felt in the late 1960s and early 1970s compelled to come to terms with Shakyamuni Buddha’s phenomenological insight into ahumkara, the “I-maker” he unveiled when meditating beneath the bodhi tree; his beautiful description of the impermanence and codependence (pratitya samutpada) of all things; the rightness of a life devoted to ahimsa (“harmlessness to all sentient beings”); and the very Eastern truth that ontological dualism was one of the profoundest tricks of the mind. I wondered: Was race an illusion, a product of avidya, or ignorance? And when Buddhists recited the terse and trenchant Pali formulation anicca dukkha anatta (“Everything is transitory and impermanent, anicca; there is universal suffering, dukkha; and there is no self, anatta“), what did this ancient wisdom, especially the denial of an enduring, essential self, imply for Westerners in general and black Americans in particular. 

Inevitably, then, I turned from my early career as a cartoonist to writing the Buddhist- and Taoist- and Vedanta-themed novels Oxherding Tale and Middle Passage, short stories like “China” and “Kwoon,” and essays such as “The Elusive Art of Mindfulness” to more fully explore and dramatize these provocative questions. And, yes, I finally found the meditation teachers I needed and began daily practice in earnest in 1981, no longer fearing where a publicly declared devotion to Buddhism would take me—indeed, knowing at that juncture in my life that however small and insignificant might be my “turning the wheel of dharma,” this was crucial for my very survival as a “black” artist, college professor, writer, father, son, husband, colleague, and friend in a society that was growing more and more spiritually bankrupt, culturally provincial, ideologically balkanized, yet very Eurocentric as it entered deeper into a demonstrable period of late decadence. For to practice this way of life is to live without a safety net; to be open to all views and experiences; to be a verb and not a noun; to no longer “stick” to anything; and, as the bodhisattva ideal and metta bhavana gatha (“loving-kindness prayer”) of Mahayana Buddhism urge us, to spend one’s days energetically as an upasaka (lay Buddhist follower) working from our various stations in life to reduce the suffering of all sentient beings and assist them in their journey to awakening. 

All forms of art play a role in that spiritual project. But whatever means are employed—sketch, painting, or sculpture—creativity influenced by Buddhism or Taoism captures what the Japanese call myo, the spiritual, inner radiance of the beautiful. “Human eyes,” Wang Wei wrote in the 5th century, “are limited in their scope. Hence they are not able to perceive all that is to be seen; yet with one small brush I can draw the vast universe.” Reflecting on this approach, art historian E.H. Gombrich wrote in The Story of Art that Chinese artists “paint water and mountains in a spirit of reverence, not in order to teach any particular lesson, nor merely as decorations, but to provide material for deep thought. Their pictures on silk scrolls were kept in precious containers and only unrolled in quiet moments, to be looked at and pondered over as one might open a book of poetry and re-read a beautiful verse.”

In other words, for both artist and audience, the artwork and its process of creation presented the occasion for meditation leading to awakening. That, in part, is my understanding of the simultaneously mystical and practical Japanese Zen Buddhist term wabi sabi—that is, art provides a direct, intuitive insight into truth. Far different from Western theories of the beautiful derived from Greeks’ notions, in wabi (things fresh, simple, and quiet) sabi (things radiating beauty with age), which covers arts as diverse as Zen gardens, flower arrangement, the tea ceremony, poetry, and the music played by wandering monks (honkyoku), we find a preference for such features as imperfection, impermanence, immediacy, the idiosyncratic, incompleteness, modesty, and humility.

Originally wabi literally meant “poverty”—for example, that of hermits. From an initial negative denotation it came to imply freedom and nondependence on possessions and all the trappings of a materialistic society. Aesthetically, it is the perfect realization of right mindfulness, as described by Bhikkhu Bodhi—not a process of heaping up or accumulating things and ideas, but rather one of “letting go,” being “a matter not so much of doing but undoing, not thinking, not judging, not associating, not planning, not imagining, not wishing.” 

And it is through the everydayness of such an (un)remarkable art that we are blessed to experience the ordinary mind as a portal to transcendence and liberation.

From Taming the Ox, by Charles R. Johnson, © 2014 by Charles Johnson. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc., Boston, MA. www.shambhala.com

This article was first published in the International Review of African American Art, Vol. 21, No. 3, fall 2007. 


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