Buddha Got It Wrong

Well, he got it wrong with regard to creating art, at least in my estimation. Two of the basic tenants of Buddhism are non-attachment and the middle way. Non-attachment is normally presented as essentially “holding the world at arms length slightly and looking askance at it.” This applies to pleasures as well as pain. The middle way is “a balanced approach to life and the regulation of one’s impulses and behavior” between “self-denial and self-indulgence.”

The last post suggested that passion is a requisite for making art. If that is true, then the artist could not be detached or distant. Rather, the artist must be invested in the act of creation or the results, even though technically perfect, are likely to be mediocre or worse.

For example, not long ago at notes for a play rehearsal in a production utilizing very young actors, I heard myself tell one of those young actors that he needed to “own” the cross that he took in a particular scene (We had already had the motivated/unmotivated cross discussion). His mental and emotional detachment from his movement made his work unbelievable. Actors must own, or at least appear to own, not only their movement, but their words and gestures as well.

And “own it” is what other artists must do too. No matter what our medium, we must invest ourselves in our art. We must connect with it and nurture it and love it and hate it and expend our passion on it. Otherwise, it is likely to be bland or mechanical and certainly less than it could be

So while the notion of non-attachment may be an excellent principle to live by and while it is very, very useful for an artist when the creative process is over—in the critique, showing, and selling stages, during the process of creation, it is a distinct liability. It keeps us from engaging with, investing in, and owning our work.

The middle way, avoiding extremes, is also a very useful way to approach life. And it is also useful after the creative process has come to an end. The middle way coupled with non-attachment can be a great help to us in withstanding criticism and rejection, which, unfortunately, seem to come with life as an artist.

However, while the artist embraces creativity and the artistic process, he/she may be lead into behaviors that are anything but balanced. Obsession or creative frenzy is necessary—at least for some artists. Many have commented on it. George Sand said, “The trade of authorship is a violent, and indestructible obsession.” Barbara Streisand said, “I’ve been called many names like perfectionist, difficult and obsessive. I think it takes obsession for any artist to be good.” Obsession is the opposite of the middle way; rather it is an extreme single-minded self-immersion in the process of creation. Hazel Dooney has summarized, “Art can never be part of a balanced life. It only works if it’s a complete obsession.

So Buddha got it wrong? Certainly not with regard to life, but it does seem to be so with regard to creating art. Perhaps I do not fully understand the concepts of the middle way and non-attachment, or maybe I don’t fully understand creating art. But the more I think about it, the more difficulty I have in reconciling these notions with the intense attachment and extreme focus that it takes to make good art. Your thoughts?

Date: Sunday, 24. August 2014 23:18
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  1. 1

    Matthieu Ricard said “If we can speak about creativity, I think that it comes out of the space and awareness cultivated through meditation.” So is it possible that in the creation of art we are channeling something while in a sui meditative state? And more importantly, if one if using a rigid process for creation, doesn’t that in itself become a form of meditation, where our process is the meditative focal point? I don’t know, but it has piqued my interest.

    I do know that this is an issue of much debate. I would love to hear what Leonard Cohen would have to say about this. What with him living in a monastery for so many years.

  2. 2

    Creativity may well come from the same space and awareness as cultivation, and some would argue that flow (referenced in several posts) bears many characteristics in common with meditation. However, meditation without the work produces no art. And that work is often done with passionate rigor. Cohen has written about creativity, at least as it relates to song-writing, and really emphasizes the work aspect of it. You can read some excerpts here

  3. 3

    I think it helps if one does not believe that life is Art. Pretty hard to hold the world at arm’s length if it’s just a prop.

  4. 4

    True, but it seems to me that art informs life and vice versa

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