For better or worse, “Zen and the Art of. . .” has become a phrase that, like “Catch-22,” gets bandied about in all kinds of contexts. Zen and the Art of Changing Diapers, Zen and the Art of Casino Gaming, Zen and the Art of Faking It—there are now literally hundreds of books with “Zen and the Art of. . .” in the title, all presumably taking their cue from Robert Pirsig’s huge 1970s bestseller, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Likewise, hundreds of articles—even scholarly ones—appear under the same banner: “Zen and the Art of Medical Image Registration,” “Zen and the Art of Policy Analysis,” and so on. Motorcycle Maintenance meanwhile took its own cue from Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery, which appeared in English in 1953, and this slightly different formulation still enjoys popularity too: Zen in the Art of Rhetoric, Zen in the Art of Child Maintenance, Zen in the Art of the SAT.

Even if in many cases the intent of these titles is obviously jocular, and even if in many others it should be, the bond they imply between Zen and the arts is serious, and it has prevailed in the popular Western imagination for 50 years or more. It has become so embedded, in fact, that many of us might see the phrase “Zen and the art of. . .” and scarcely take in what it is we have just read. We ascribe a vague meaning to it without really thinking about it. But what, after all, does it mean? And more basically, does its meaning signify anything of real consequence?

There is undoubtedly a historical connection between Zen practice and the arts. During the Tang Dynasty of medieval China (618–907 C.E.), when Zen (or Chan) first flourished, many artists and poets were practitioners of Chan Buddhism, and their works were to a greater or lesser extent inspired by Buddhist teachings and insights. This traditional connection between Chan and such arts as poetry and painting carried over when the practice moved to Japan during the Song period (960– 1279 C.E.). Zen masters were often expected to produce calligraphies, and many of these, whether pictorial or verbal (or both), would be on familiar subjects from Zen lore.

In the early twentieth century, it was Tang poets like Li Bai (Li Po) and Du Fu (Tu Fu) who originally fired up the Western appetite for East Asian poetry, which would become one factor leading to a wider interest in Zen generally. In the mid-1910s, a group of London poets, including Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, who styled themselves the Imagists, started producing their own lyrics inspired by Chinese poetry in translation. They not only opened the way to English free verse, which became the dominant mode of the twentieth century, but paved the way for the Beat poets of the 1950s, who devoured Buddhist poetry, took up the study of the dharma both in the U.S. and in Asia, and catalyzed the wholesale importation of Zen to America. Jack Kerouac wroteDharma Bums, Gary Snyder translated Han Shan, and Zen and literature became nearly inseparable. In the West, it seems, the connection between Zen and art has made perfect sense.

Zen Art Brushstrokes

I grew up in a liberal humanist milieu, in Oxford, England, which also happened to be a spiritual vacuum. The Church was no longer taken seriously in Cold War Oxford, and for us there really was no source of living spiritual authority. The poets who might have claimed it were such disasters in the art of living—addict Coleridge, fascist Pound, disturbed Eliot, crazy Lowell, and the long list of suicides and drunks—that any authority they commanded on the page they forfeited off it. We grew up in a Brownian motion of drifting morals and ethics. Fragments of hedonism, Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Positivism floated through our lives, none with the necessary weight to settle for long. On the other hand, what the poets did represent—Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, and the whole long line of English poets—was not so much a spiritual tradition as a real and great lineage, something worth investing oneself in. The one endeavor that, in fact, seemed to offer any hope of existential cogency was art, and poetry in particular.

Not that poetry, in my case, arrived as a choice. As it did to many, it grabbed me one evening, and I found myself awake in a way I never had before, with my first poem in my trembling fingers. Years later, when I was first exposed to the dharma, I recognized a comparable invitation to wake up, to encounter the world more intimately. There seemed to be a natural congruence between writing and the practice of zazen. And practice was demonstrably helpful: through daily zazen I worried less, focused more, had better ideas and produced more. I freely imbibed the notion of Zen and the arts mutually aiding and abetting one another. It seemed undeniable.

According to the Buddhist scholar Robert Sharf, the relationship between Zen and art is neither simple nor obvious. Indeed, it is a matter that we in the West have largely gotten wrong. The connection between certain Chinese arts and Chan has been overstated, Sharf told me. It was in important ways tangential. In feudal society, Buddhist monasteries were cultural centers, havens for the arts, just as Christian abbeys were in medieval Europe. Calligraphy, painting, and poetry were all studied there too. But no one would have considered these arts integral parts of Buddhist practice. Rather, they were part of the stock-in-trade of a cultured Chinese person. Religion infused the society, and religious institutions were the repositories of culture. But that’s not the same as extracting an essence called “Zen” from its historical context and applying it to the arts that grew out of that very cultural milieu. We know, equally, that Leonardo da Vinci was operating within a Christian context, but the fact that he painted The Last Supper doesn’t inspire us to value his art primarily for some abstracted notion of Christianity.

As in China, when Zen monasteries began to spring up in Japan during the Kamakura period (1185–1333), they became centers not just for Zen, but for the high Chinese arts. Later, during the Tokugawa period (1603– 1867), aristocratic samurai would spend time in monasteries studying the Chinese arts in order to gain the refinements necessary for the elite society of the day. The poetry was for the most part secular, not Buddhist, in content and intent. It was only later, says Sharf, during the Meiji persecution of Buddhism in the late 1800s, that various groups of scholars and monks, most of them Buddhist modernists, began to argue that many aspects of Japanese culture and art were explicitly Buddhist. One of the most vociferous and public of these, both in Japan and abroad, was D. T. Suzuki. Buddhism was universal, he insisted, but it was an experience the Japanese intuitively had more than anyone else. The proof of this was to be found in the arts that defined the Japanese soul. No matter that these arts were really Chinese arts; they exhibited the natural Buddhist temperament of the Japanese. Suzuki portrayed Zen as a free-floating, spiritual-aesthetic principle—a kind of protoreligion, a nonreligious spirituality that might be manifested and approached in ways other than through Buddhist ritual and practice: for example, through the arts. And as Sharf points out, it was this distinctly modernist conception of Zen that Suzuki transmitted to the West.

Zen Artwork by Chaco Terada
Artwork by Chaco Terada

“The arts of Zen are not intended for utilitarian purposes or for purely aesthetic enjoyment,” Suzuki wrote, “but are meant to train the mind, indeed, to bring it in contact with ultimate reality.” This raises the stakes even higher. Not only is Zen inherently allied with the arts, but its vision of art is even better than that of regular art, even great regular art. Where does that leave Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Beethoven? Could Suzuki’s idea of Zen art shed any light on their work? It is hard to see how.

In 1953, Suzuki endorsed Eugen Herrigel’sZen in the Art of Archery with an introduction. The book was destined to become not just an international bestseller but an enduring classic—even if it was a classic of misinterpretation. It purports to trace how Herrigel’s training in kyudo, the “art” or “way” of archery, was simultaneously a training in Zen. But in the years since its publication, various problems in his account have come to light, many of which have been chronicled by the scholar Shoji Yamada in his illuminating book Shots in the Dark. Herrigel’s archery teacher, for example, far from being a Zen master, was actually a Shin Buddhist, had undergone no Zen training, and was explicitly critical of Zen. Herrigel’s Japanese was not very good, and he misunderstood much of what he was told, always in favor of greater spiritual mystique. Moreover, Herrigel’s conception of Zen was similarly based on a romantic notion gleaned from D. T. Suzuki, rather than any direct engagement with traditional Zen practice. Nevertheless, the confabulation of the book was swallowed whole, worldwide, and even in Japan, where it was a smash.

Shoji Yamada has also conducted an exhaustive study of the history of attitudes to the famous “Zen garden” at Ryoanji in Kyoto. What soon becomes clear from his analysis of textbooks on Japanese culture is that it was only in the years immediately after World War II that the garden came to be regarded as an embodiment of Zen. Previously it had been variously ignored, criticized, or appreciated simply as the fine work of a temple gardener—but not as somehow encapsulating a Zen view of things. In fact, Yamada argues that the shepherding of Japanese rock gardens into the Zen fold was only part of a broader attempt to restore national pride after the disasters of the war, by creating a national myth in which Zen was a central characteristic of the Japanese people, finding expression in various cultural forms, such as gardens, archery, and tea ceremony.

This process coincided with the growing appetite for Zen in the West, and neatly carried the arts along with it. In other words, by a general distillation of the term, “Zen” was freed up for all kinds of associations that have little to do with its original monastic manifestation. It became such a multivalent designation that it was easy to ally to almost any activity—a case of the Japanese reabsorbing a notion of Zen that they themselves had so successfully proselytized in the West.

Perhaps, though, the notion of Zen arts, despite its legacy of misleading interpretation, still might have something to teach us. It might, for starters, serve as a corrective or counterpoint to some of the assumptions common in the West about art and artists.

The Trappist monk and accomplished writer and poet Thomas Merton wrote: “Today the artist has inherited the combined functions of hermit, pilgrim, prophet, priest, shaman, sorcerer, soothsayer, alchemist.” Artists can be fractured mystics, DIY monastics, self-appointed priests, ministers to misguided humanity, but they may also be craven sensualists, insatiable Casanovas, rabid seekers of name and gain. In the West, the connection between art and personal suffering is deeply entrenched. The world of poetry is populated by all manner of egos, some strutting on stilts, some limping on crutches, most doing both. In spite of all the academic poets active today, the model of the Western poet is still the hopeless misfit, more in need of a bodhisattva than likely to become one.

Friction between the self and the world is the fuel of art; the struggle with an intractable medium is metaphoric of the life. This is what can make art such a misery, as well as, at times, such a source of deep, self-forgetting happiness. Perhaps there is a parallel between the artist wrestling with his medium, bending it to the shape he seeks, and a dharma practitioner wrestling with the equally intractable medium of the “self,” which she strives to see for what it is. But if artists are seekers, they need not be finders. Art is fueled by dissatisfaction. Even when it aspires to realize things sacred, art is inspired as much by the failure to attain transcendence as by the transcendent itself. As T.S. Eliot wrote, “the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates.”

Disentangling the insights of art from the artist’s ego is no easy business. Great poems, for example, may express deep truths of our experience, yet their creation may involve flying in the face of those truths. Robert Frost, whose poems are full of wisdom, lobbied the literary power-brokers of his day with a zeal we might find shallow and distasteful. I don’t care if they like my poems, he said, just so long as they give me the prizes. Four Pulitzers, and he still wasn’t satisfied. While writing Anna Karenina, a book that contains some of the greatest passages about spiritual experience to be found anywhere, Tolstoy had a nervous breakdown. When he writes of Levin’s period of despair, he is describing his own struggle with depression. But far from diminishing Tolstoy’s spiritual greatness, this only exemplifies it.

Art can be a kind of training—in resilience, in feeling more deeply, in waking to a broader kind of life. Artists try to express the dramas and stories of the self, and find some kind of resolution within them. Like dharma practitioners, artists must, at least in their own way, take up what the 13th-century Zen master Eihei Dogen called the study of the self. And if we are to understand how Zen and art might inform one another, perhaps it is to the self and its study that we should turn.

Zen Art

In his 1996 article “The Creative Personality,” the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “CHICK-sent-mehigh-ee”) suggests that creative people live in tension between opposing impulses and traits. Whereas most people can be readily categorized as extrovert or introvert, for example, creative people are more likely to be both. They tend to have stronger libidos, yet engage in periods of sexual abstinence; to be divergent and convergent thinkers; to be highly energetic yet at times deeply idle; and so on. In Csikszentmihalyi view, this complexity is a very good thing in that it can lead to exceptional creativity. But it’s harder to live out; there are more contradictions to manage. This certainly makes sense when we apply it to those artists whose work graces and illuminates our lives but whose own lives are so deeply troubled. It also might shed light on something we in the Buddhist community have come up against repeatedly over the years: talented and creative teachers can in the lives they lead significantly contradict the values they transmit. Creative people, in any walk of life, are complex and contradictory, and that is not an easy thing to be.

It seems natural to see the study of the self as solely a psychological or spiritual matter. Self-experience is so close at hand that it is easy to assume that people at different times and in different cultures have experienced the self, at least in its general characteristics, the same way. But the historical and anthropological evidence is that they don’t. The self as constructed within a Japanese feudal framework, for example, will have been different from that in a 21st-century American framework. In the case of the contemporary West, much that is distinctive to our sense of self seems to have first developed in the course of the Renaissance. Chaucer wrote out of the very soil of medieval society, mocking it, rocking it, but never doubting that he was of it. With Shakespeare we see the emergence of a deeper existential separation, and in Milton the poet is already morphing into the spiritual solitary, a lone wolf at odds with his day. In the Romantic period 150 years later, Shelley would deplore the fact that poets were “unacknowledged legislators to the world”—they stood alone like biblical prophets, seeing the truth the rest of society was blind to.

The sense of self was further changed by urbanization and the Industrial Revolution. Broadly speaking, its evolution, according to psychological anthropologists, has been toward ever greater individuality and interiority, which come at the price of ever greater alienation. The essential inner conflict of a highly individualized self—the conflict between its inner freedom and its acute separateness—is perhaps experienced more intensely by sensitive people, including artists. Indeed, the intensity of this inner conflict may be the very thing that makes a person an artist.

But every era constructs its own history, too. History is a mirror we look into in order to see ourselves; it evolves as we do. The fundamental existential experience that produces our kind of artist is generated by ourparticular kind of “self.” It affects how we experience art, and what we need our art to be and do. The same holds with our Buddhism. It has suited many contemporary Westerners to construe Zen as secular and closely allied with the arts. But when we compare our art with that of medieval Asia, and believe we are expressing the same insights, that may be a piece of historical sleight of hand.

In his book What Good Are the Arts? the British cultural critic John Carey argues that art is whatever someone defines as art. Yet even if we can accept this proposition, we all surely intuit a difference between drawing a bow, arranging flowers, or cleaning a carburetor on the one hand, and Shakespeare, Austen, or Beethoven composing their masterpieces on the other. From an absolute point of view, every act, whether sitting, walking or picking up a fork, is an existentially complete—not to say vast—expression. But artists aren’t satisfied with this. They inherently want to create, to make things, whereas for a Zen practitioner, each moment of daily life is, ideally, a creatively and existentially complete act. Every moment, in fact, is art. How could it not be?

Csikszentmihalyi is most well known for developing the idea of “flow,” of optimal experience, in human activity. Flow has various aspects, but according to Csikszentmihalyi the most telling of these, and most relevant here, is self-transcendence. Whether the experience happens to a surgeon performing surgery, an artist making art, a Zen student doing zazen, or a surfer surfing, the core characteristic of flow is the loss of the sense of self through immersion in the activity. Any artist or athlete will be familiar with this. It’s surely at the heart of why we love art, along with many other activities, and is in that sense generically religious or spiritual. The experience of self-transcendence evokes awe for the activity that elicits it, whether that activity is Zen meditation, poetry, or basketball. Csikszentmihalyi’s research tells us that it is through self-forgetting focus on a challenging task that we human beings, across the board, find the happiness we seek through all sorts of means. But at least in theory, any activity will do. Anything can be the vehicle for optimal experience. If it is fair to criticize Suzuki for applying the term “Zen” to all manner of self-transcendent experience, it is also fair to acknowledge him for bringing the matter so insistently to our attention. It was no small contribution.

Yet at the same time, to reduce Zen to nothing but self-forgetting is also a piece of reductionism. “This old monk does not abide in clarity,” Joshu told his monks. “Then what do you hold on to?” one countered. “I don’t know either,” said Joshu. The dharma is indeed vast and subtle; any prescriptive statement about Zen is made at one’s peril.

Art, like sport or religious ritual, is a separate, bounded realm, with its own coherence and order, which models and dramatizes a meaningful aspect of life. In a sense, however, the secret truth is that art is useless. It must be. When it’s not useless, it has—paradoxically—failed in its usefulness. Its “purpose” is to delight with its purposelessness, to demonstrate that in our lives of “getting and spending” there must be one thing without utilitarian value. Some writers claim to write for the benefit of others, but the true artist does it for one reason only: one’s art demands it. That is its gift. That’s how it gives us back our lives: without reason, without purpose.

Here, it surely finds its deepest communion with the dharma. “What purpose did Bodhidharma have when he came from the West?” a monk asked Rinzai. Rinzai replied: “If he’d had a purpose, he couldn’t have saved even himself.” Zen or any other training may have an apparent purpose—to deliver practitioners from the root-system of the self, to free them from suffering, to raise in them the aspiration to deliver others to the same freedom— but with some success there dawns the recognition that there never truly was such a purpose. All along, everything was complete. Or better: a marvel, something worth celebrating in art.

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