AWAKE: ART, BUDDHISM, AND THE DIMENSIONS OF CONSCIOUSNESS is a multi-phase, non-sectarian program focusing on a major theme in American artistic life that has never fully been analyzed or presented in a comprehensive way: the common ground between the creative mind, the perceiving mind, and the meditative mind. Its two-year series of consortium meetings will explore the relationships between Buddhist practices and the arts in America; its year of public programs will reveal to the American public the threads of Buddhist influence that run through the fabric of contemporary culture and the potential for satisfying aesthetic experience engendered by an open, aware state of mind.

AWAKE is an independent catalyst for thinking and programming in the arts in both individual and institutional realms. It will be carried out by a consortium of arts institutions, creators, performers, scholars, and members of multiple cultural communities who will work together to elucidate complex historical and contemporary relationships, develop individual projects that will make up the overall program, and bring about new modes of public engagement with the arts.

Encompassing planning, implementation, and evaluation, AWAKE is designed for programmatic and enduring effects. On the one hand, AWAKE will result in a well-conceived series of exhibitions, performances, publications, workshops, readings, and other activities; while, on the other, it will aim to demonstrate how cultivation of awareness is primary to creativity—both in the making and the experiencing of art. Such deepening of awareness is not an arid academic enterprise; it is a vitalizing, energizing encounter— through the actual experience of art—and is connected to the inner needs and values by which life is lived. Thus, AWAKE seeks to contribute to the culture-at-large by revaluing the role of artists in society, encouraging the joint role of participants in artistic experience, and emphasizing the potential for the arts to play a role in addressing forces that rupture human nature and divide societies.


Buddhism is a way of life and thought. It encompasses the « inner sciences » and is not necessarily a religion. The aspects of Buddhism that have entered the Western world most prominently are the several schools of meditation within the Buddhist tradition, all of which emphasize training the mind and cultivating clear, stable, active attention and the capacity to see things as they are. There is, in the Buddhist meditation tradition, a strong emphasis on « experience » rather than « thinking about. »

Buddhism influences and resonates with the arts via the realm of meditation, which is a tangible and communicable methodology for enabling people to perceive the world and the lives of beings with accuracy, equanimity, and appreciation. In each of the Buddhist schools and traditions, the path and techniques of meditation consistently insist on the cultivation of attention. Attention is the capacity to be awake and present in each moment. It is the ability to see things and relationships as they actually are, clearly, without bias, judgment, or reaction.

The characteristics of a developed capacity for attention are stability, intentionality, energy, and receptivity. Because so much human experience occurs when our minds are distracted or numbed, dazzled or overloaded by our individual conditioning and by immediate needs and desires, the refinement of the capacity for attention is often neglected or ignored altogether. Meditation can, thus, be viewed as a means for training the mind to be more and more attentive, and a heightened capacity for attention can be viewed as an antidote to confused perceptions and wasted energy.

When attention is cultivated, people commonly report the experience of « seeing things in a new light » or « getting a new perspective on how the world looks. » They speak of an altered understanding of time, of the potency of silence, of the beneficent effects of modulating pace. They speak of a growing awareness of the relational nature of reality and of how that awareness brings compassion and openheartedness to the fore as values that are crucial to live by. They discover unsuspected inner wellsprings of creativity. They report, in other words, the same experiences artists often describe, both in their creative work and in conversations about the process of artistic expression. But for both the artist and the meditator, the mind of « don’t know » is critical to tolerate and to cultivate.

The cultivation of attention involves many different techniques. Contemplation is one such technique, but it is by no means the only one. Other capacities and qualities are useful, if not essential, and must be encouraged: curiosity, keen observation, imaginative investigation, courage, and enthusiasm, to name a few; and all must be exercised free of judgment and reactiveness. The goal of creating meditative contexts for experiencing the arts may challenge art-world conventions and clichés, but such challenges are necessary to keep pace with current artistic explorations of the realms of consciousness. The meditation tradition suggests different ways of staging creative work, ways that emphasize pace, silence, placement, environment and, above all, an open, receptive state of mind.

Buddhist and meditative inspiration can be identified in the image or subject of a work, the materials and method by which it is created, and/or the mental state it induces in the participant. It can range in genre from painting and sculpture created through and for meditation; to video installation; to photography that tests the nature of reality; to performance that tests the limits of endurance as it extends consciousness of the body and spirit; to art as a ritual and object for healing; to actions as undistinguished everyday activity. This art is created from a conscious awareness and calls forth an awareness of experience on the part of the viewer. Buddhist concepts can also be recognized in the level of engagement with audiences: in the creation of spaces that heighten direct experience of reality, in audience participation in the act of creation, and in the compassion a work seeks to evoke.


The vast implications of Buddhism in contemporary art and culture suggested the formation of a consortium in order to represent multiple readings of the subject and develop multiple forms of engagement. By including a diversity of sites—from museums and performance spaces to religious and services organizations, to educational organizations, schools, universities, and practice centers—the organizers of AWAKE hope to foster a process that will enable multiple partners to equally impact the outcome, while creating a project that mirrors a quintessentially Buddhist model of openness and interdependence.

AWAKE began as a West Coast component of a New York program based at the Snug Harbor Cultural Center entitled « The Buddhism Project. » In Spring 2000 the steering committees of the two programs agreed to proceed separately. Sharing of information between the two programs continues, and joint projects are likely to develop. In addition, AWAKE is generating a group of National Associates, colleagues nationwide interested in developing related programming, and who will participate in Consortium meetings as their schedules allow.

An initial consortium meeting was held in October 1999 at the University of California Berkeley Art Museum. At the conclusion, this gathering of nearly thirty artists, scholars, writers, curators, educators, cultural critics, and meditation practitioners agreed that they wished to meet periodically, continuing the exploratory, open-ended nature of the discussion and allowing structure and product to grow out of process. Since that time, a Steering Committee and Content Consultant Committee have been developed and have met several times with the support of a Consultant Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. A three-year grant from the Nathan Cummings Foundation is allowing the planning to move forward. The first of eight projected meetings occurred April 5-7, the second is planned for June 14-16, and the third for October 25-27, 2001.

Consortium meetings will be aimed toward investigating the manner in which contemporary art practice resonates with Buddhist thought, and developing a shared understanding of this territory with a common grounding in historical and other issues that will focus as well as frame the presentation of relevant works. While projects will emanate from this shared conceptual foundation and be undertaken according to institutional and local community needs, new modes of intra-organizational cooperation will be tested as projects are developed collaboratively and/or the impact of individual efforts magnified. The process of undertaking AWAKE will also provide a forum for institutional practitioners to rethink their own work and gain input from fields that cross professional, geographic, and institutional/departmental lines. Thus, AWAKE can address the professional need for new avenues through which we can think creatively and productively about the arts, culture, audiences, and humanity.

Consortium meetings aim to address these goals. Issues for discussion were generated and the first white papers commissioned during a six-month early planning phase, September 2000 through February 2001. Agendas are developed out of the proceedings of previous meetings, with guidance from an advisory Content Consultant Committee composed of specialists in the fields of Buddhism, Aesthetics, Cultural History, and Cultural Criticism. Consortium meetings of approximately thirty people are being held quarterly at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center in Marin County. Meetings include coming together to share a meal and program ideas in the evening, shifting to issues the next day. Each session focuses on specific areas of inquiry, and includes presentation/discussions led by white paper authors, artist/creators, and other specialists; along with presentations of potential projects by consortium members.

Consortium Members and National Associates thus have ample opportunity to familiarize themselves with each other, and to learn about the sites and programs of other participants. Meeting notes available on the website and updated electronic forums will form the basis for future agendas. The Internet will be used for moderated discussions to investigate specific topics, as research for projects and essays, and as a vehicle to create conversations beyond and between the meetings.


September 2000-Feb. 2001
PHASE I-Early Planning and Development of a National Profile

March 2001-June 2003
PHASE II-Consortium Meetings

July-December 2003
PHASE III-Implementation; Public Projects begin

January 2004-mid-2004
PHASE IV-Projects continue; Program Evaluation


1. Creative processes: the mind in the creative process and the mind in meditation. Are they the same? Different? Related?

2. The experience of the participant: the mind in the process of perception and the mind in the process of creation and/or meditation. How can a meditative state of mind be encouraged in participants by institutional practice and interpretation, or other means, such as architecture and exhibition design?

3. The influence of Buddhism on art through practice: artists whose creative process is directly linked with his or her own Buddhist practice.

4. The influence of Buddhism on art through culture: artists who are heir to the general influence of Buddhist philosophy and practice on Western culture from the mid-nineteenth century forward.

5. Artists whose work has a strong resonance with the themes of Buddhism, especially through exploration of the nature of perception and reality.

6. Historical and cultural contexts: the meanings of work from historical periods and the persistence of and changes in tradition within contemporary cultural practice.


In addition to putting in place a series of coordinated installations, exhibitions, performances, readings, workshops, and other events at individual institutions and other venues, consortium discussions will expose junctures and generate ways in which the impact of individual efforts can be extended. The goal of this institutional collaboration is not so much to stage a « festival » under a single theme and marketing umbrella, but to create a rich, integrated network of projects and programming that is fully informed by its process of creation. AWAKE will take as one of its main objectives devising avenues by which persons from different backgrounds can engage the works presented—ways that do not privilege contemporary art knowledge or art-world savvy as the index of experience but rather value multiple, other backgrounds.

In the initial planning meeting of October 1999 the group identified at least three audiences to which particular attention needs to be given:

First- and second-generation immigrants for whom Buddhism is their family religion;

Those who may or may not have another primary religion (such as Judaism or Christianity), but who regularly engage in meditation or Buddhist-inspired practices; and

The contemporary art audience who knows little about Buddhism.

To these, a fourth group can be added: teachers, students, and scholars of culture in general, and the arts or Buddhism in particular.

AWAKE can allow for an uncommon crossing of audiences. This potential exists because each above-named group is rooted in the very subject of the program through spiritual and/or artistic practice. Each finds a connection to work presented and, moreover, a deep connection due to the depth of investment each has at the point of origin and orientation: family tradition, daily life rituals, and love of art, respectively. This aspect of the program creates a basis for exchange of an exceptional intensity of engagement, which can lead to cross-cultural experiences.

Secondly, the projects comprising AWAKE will provide many opportunities for contact with artists and performers from multi-national artistic and cultural backgrounds. For example, Asian Buddhist subgroups within the Bay Area include recent immigrant groups from Southeast Asia such as Lao, Hmong, Khmu, Mien, and Thai. Along with earlier immigrants such as the Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese, these groups practice a spectrum of art, religion, and culture that is deeply shaped by Buddhism. These very local cultures help to dispel stereotyping about Asians in general, about Buddhists specifically, and, even more specifically, demonstrate the rich potentials of art and ceremony that are driven by complex philosophies of existence. This aspect of the program can help Americans to consider the beauty and wide array of their neighbors, as well as provide opportunities for some of these local subgroups to speak publicly about their values and ways of life.

Finally, artists have proven to be boundary-crossers, moving between domains defined by society and provoking a rethinking of the lines that can restrict an exchange of thought and even actual meeting of persons within a single culture or region. For AWAKE it is essential to address the wide range of art forms and the fluidity between genres that defies categorization, denies the modernist division of tradition and the avant-garde, and redraws audience definitions. This means crossing boundaries of artistic discipline, linking essential elements that are at the core of artistic expression, and traversing social and class lines in valuing multiple audiences. It is no coincidence that today’s artistic strategies of collaboration and communication, which are at the core of artistic practice-outside-the-studio, are, in part, Buddhist-inspired. This aspect of the program can help the public see artists as playing an essential role in society.


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