Buddhist teachings can sometimes feel abstract. What does it mean exactly to say that “life is suffering?” How can that message be conveyed in a way that will resonate with me, that will feel visceral and true to my experience? In the poem “Bluebird” Charles Bukowski writes:
there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I’m too clever, I only let him out
at night sometimes
when everybody’s asleep.
I say, I know that you’re there,
so don’t be
then I put him back,
but he’s singing a little
in there, I haven’t quite let him
and we sleep together like
and it’s nice enough to
make a man
weep, but I don’t
When I read that I think, a-ha. The poem informs my understanding of suffering, capturing the kind of quiet yearning that I believe Buddhist practice addresses. Of course, art is subjective, and that interpretation of “Bluebird” might be unique to me. But this is precisely what makes art so powerful: inadvertently or not, it can be a container for meaning, a method for grasping what often seems ineffable.
We look to Buddhist teachers to convey meaning as well. Perhaps it would be helpful to know what they are looking at, what has caught their eye and enriched their practice—as long as, much like the old adage of the finger pointing to the moon, we don’t mistake the art for the insight. So I posed the following question to several Buddhist teachers: “What work of art or artist do you feel conveys the spirit of Buddhism in the most inspiring or interesting way, and why?”
One musician, songwriter, and practitioner I appreciate is Betsy Rose. I became aware of her through Thich Nhat Hanh years ago. This particular song expresses in beautiful tones the heart of practicing with suffering. This means embracing our human experience of dis-ease without pushing it away or drowning in it. We practice to cultivate the lifelong art of deep embrace. Music is and can be a powerful form of expressing insight, reflection, and compassion. I have engaged this song during difficult moments as an actual practice of holding my own face in my two hands. This song provides caring sounds, bringing me back to the present moment of my precious life.
Joan Anderson, artist and co-founder of Mountain Water, an art and meditation retreat center currently under construction in southern Colorado: A pieced quilt top by America Irby, one of a community of women quilters in Gee’s Bend, Alabama
America Irby’s composition provokes a marvelous shock of mind-stopping wonder—a wordless “wow.” Looking at this piece, I experience an alternation of resting in that wonder and investigating to understand what I am seeing—an alternation between silence and curiosity very much like in meditation.
The art I like best has a blade-like quality that cleaves a kind of gap into which thoughts and time vanish. A bright silence akin to wonder remains, an awake pleasure. I learned this first from painting, both in the act of painting and in looking at paintings. Later I recognized the experience in meditation. In that way, Buddhist meditation offers a language and context for the opening of the world. It instigates and supports aesthetic experience—beautifully.
Randall Ryotan Eiger, sensei at the Village Zendo, NYC: Ernest Hemingway
The artists that I value most are those who reveal the samboghakaya, the luminous reality of the world as it is. Through their work I encountered the samboghakaya long before I got mixed up with Buddhism. One of the first of those artists was Ernest Hemingway, whose work I began reading at age 16.
In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. — A Farewell to Arms
We encounter the samboghkaya every day of our lives, but it takes a great artist to call our attention to something we had known all along.
Josh Korda, presiding teacher at Dharma Punx, NYC: Legion on FX
As a dharma teacher I see Buddhist themes everywhere, inadvertent or otherwise; I suppose it can be quite tedious to friends hearing once again about how this or that movie manifests the samsaric cycles of suffering or the determinative role of feelings in producing behavior and views. So I’ll forgo the easy and obvious examples—The Matrix, Groundhog Day—and go with a recent cultural example.
In the second season of the enjoyably hallucinatory TV series Legion, Jon Hamm, in a voiceover role, provides a charming, dare I say clinically grounded, overview detailing how our species perceives reality. Our perception of the world is not only formed by sensory impressions arriving via sense ports—sight, sound, touch, smell, taste—but also constructed by the mind’s preconceptions of what surrounds us. How we experience life is shaped by earlier experiences, what we’ve been taught, cultural dispositions; the mind is “experience expectant.” Throughout the Pali Canon, the Buddha notes, “The mind is the forerunner of all things.” The narrative voice in Legion says exactly that, detailing how our minds shape what we mistake for reality. The lesson doesn’t stop there: we’re encouraged to espouse our full potential as human beings by acknowledging and taking ownership of the radical subjectivity of our experience. As a lifelong Buddhist I’d add that it’s only through letting go of the sense of “I know what’s really going on” that we ever stand a chance of “seeing things closer to way they really are” (Yatha-bhuta-nna-dassana in Pali).
Sharon Salzberg, author and co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA: Naomi Shihab Nye
The poet who I love to read over and over is Naomi Shihab Nye. Her poem “Kindness” rests kindness on clearly seeing sorrow, which I believe to be powerful and true. Also her poem “So Much Happiness,” which echoes what some of my meditation teachers have counseled: “Be happy for no good reason.” And her poem “The Art of Disappearing” contains the wisdom essence of the Buddha’s message about life:
Walk around feeling like a leaf
Know you could tumble any second
Then decide what to do with your time.