This blog post comes our way from Henry Shukman, a prize-winning poet and novelist. His most recent novel, The Lost City, was a New York Times Editor’s Choice. He is also an authorized Zen teacher in the Sanbo Kyodan Zen lineage, and he teaches at Mountain Cloud Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico. In the current issue of Tricycle, Shukman wrote a feature article on the “Zen and the Art” phenomenon.
I thought I knew what I was letting myself in for when I blithely dived into an essay on the phrase “Zen and the Art.” I’d been a writer since my teens, a Zen practitioner for almost as long. Surely these things would help. I thought I would strip away some of the entangling briars attached to our western notion of Zen—such as our perceived view of the congruence between writing and Zen, which undoubtedly helped Zen start to grow over here, or helped us discover, in some ways, that we already had it, making it less foreign. Instead I just seemed to get ever more tangled in the vines the further I got.
I read Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums when I was 14 and I didn’t realize how persistently it colored my view of Zen. I unconsciously inhaled the San Francisco ideals of the 50’s. Art, Zen, red wine—they were all a path to a single ideal of hip, liberation, self-expression. That bundle of vines was all very well, all nice and inspiring, but in its heart it hid a solid stump of self—at least in my case. But I didn’t realize it until I entered Zen training in earnest.
Why are so many of the best-known Buddhists also writers? Why are there many writers on Buddhist themes who are not authorized teachers yet through having written successful books have quietly morphed into unauthorized teachers? Is that right? Or is there a risk, in our celebrity-obsessed culture, of allowing Buddhism simply to turn into yet another arena for the pursuit of name and gain?
The artist is perfectly free to undertake the rampant pursuit of name and gain. I know because I’ve done it myself (with deplorably little success). To promote oneself is, apparently, a necessary part of being an artist. But how are we to marry this with being a Buddhist, one who has taken the Bodhisattva Vow to help all beings before oneself? Can they be compatible? And what about if you like to get up and write first thing, but your Buddhist practice requires you to meditate first thing? And how are you going to create art with the conviction that it’s worth it, yet without the myopic sense that your art matters more than just about anything else? If you do manage it, will the art be any good? Is desperate urgency necessary to its production? Many of the best poets, for example, have been profoundly miserable people. As Kay Redfield Jamison documents in Touched with Fire: A Study of Writers and Bipolar Disorder, depression and manic-depression are rife in the history of great literature.
As an artist who has also had a long dharma practice, as well as a private history of periodic depression, and whose priorities have shifted significantly through Zen training, with excellent mental-health benefits, I try to keep some caveats in mind these days: create art if you must, sure, but check up on your attachment to the outcome; be aware which is the higher priority, the dharma or the art; the art-making or the success; yourself or the work; yourself or your friends and family; the Pulitzer prize or your fellow-practitioners. Above all, keep your heart and mind open.
But it’s all a work in progress, and probably has been for a couple of thousand years, if not longer. What do other dharma-artist hyphenates find? How does practice help your art? How does your art help—or hinder—your dharma training? What does your teacher say about your art? How does worldly success fit in, or not?