I AM NOT A BUDDHIST. I don’t have the proper robes, I sometimes get confused during worship services in the zendos it has been my privilege to visit—yet, gate, gate, paragate,” I have been converted many tmes to Buddhism by experiences of its utter seriousness in practice and by its immense heritage of art. To say “I am not a Buddhist” seems tantamount to saying “I am not a human being”: an evident lie. One does not need to be formally Buddhist to recognize that the experience of great Buddhist Art is essentially a conversion. The quality of work of religious art may even, and properly, be assessed in terms of its power to convert. But to do so requires investigation of the meaning of conversion.
As Americans, we are more than likely to have a pop-culture “feel” for the word “conversion” that turns out, when one looks at these mental contents, to coexist with a deeper personal meaning. At the pop-culture level, there is a revival tent by a river somewhere in the Deep South of the mind, and passing that way one hears the impassioned voice of a preacher. That is one meaning of conversion, not the one I mean.
The conversion in contact with a great work of religious art is a shift in body, mind, and feeling that moves one almost involuntarily to conform with its spirit. If the work represents a human figure, for example a Buddha seated in meditation, and if the work is radiant, there can occur a general physical shift: back straightens, neck and head find their truer places in the stack, tensions become visible and drain down. The ancient work becomes a teacher: one’s mind resumes something of its nature as a grateful reflector of reality rather than a tea party at which the topic of discussion is life. One is gladdened by what one sees, whatever it is. The stone-carved jeweled necklace against the bare breast of a royal meditator—a perennial theme of Buddhist’ art—reminds one of the dazzle and profusion of our lives and of the emptiness against which all this is lived out. One receives both impressions with gratitude: this is so. The cut of a robe and its pattern of folds become, in the time of conversion, the ordered pattern of the world in which we are enfolded. One registers, with one’s sensitivity, everything, even the weight of the figure’s eyelids. One cannot help but experience one’s imperfection; while all this takes place, there are splats and vagrancies in the inner field. Yet consciousness has awakened.
In time the spell breaks, the conversion has occurred, one moves on. Religious art is not, nor can it be, the source of permanent conversion; it is a system of samples or tastes, providing a look forward or within. The intimate reorganization which it provides, and which it is meant to provide, is transient. The source of permanent conversion lies elsewhere, in fundamental practice and examined living, although the experience of great religious art secretly nourishes practice, and the making of religiously dedicated art can be an episode of examined living.
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