Death is the Mother of Beauty

© Ken McLeod, 2001

The title of this paper is taken from the poem Sunday Morning by Wallace Stevens.

The end of building is ruin.
The end of meeting is parting.
The end of accumulation is dispersal.
The end of birth is death.

Our human heritage is a clear open awareness that is the capacity to know clearly and respond appropriately to what arises in experience. In Buddhism , it has many names: original nature, the fourth moment, original purity, and the perfection of wisdom. The perfection of wisdom is regarded as the mother of all buddhas. Remember, buddha means to be awake, so this clear awake knowing is what gives birth to buddhas. To know the perfection of wisdom, you must let go or die to the sense of a self that is separate from what you experience. From the Buddhist perspective the sense of self and the sense of being separate from experience are both the result of conditioning. This conditioning prevents you from knowing who and what you are. Dying to the sense of separation opens the door to the perfection of wisdom.

A moment of death also lies at the heart of the creative process. The death on which creativity depends is analogous to the death of the sense of self and separation. Just as death is the mother of buddha or awakening, so death is the mother of both the creation and experience of art. Before discussing Buddhist approaches to death and impermanence, I first posit some ideas about how the way death is met at the moment of creation affects the artistic process. The key distinction is between reaction and response.

When a creative vision arises in the artist, the force of the creative vision encounters internal forces that block what is trying to take expression. Energy builds up from the friction between these two forces. What happens next plays a crucial role in determining what is created. If the energy exceeds the artist’s capacity for attention, reactive patterns take over the artistic process. The energy generated by the creative vision and internal blocks pours into reactive patterns, which now shape the expression of the creative vision. When given form by the talent of a gifted artist, such expressions have considerable power and intensity. No matter the intensity of the work of art, however, the artist is bound more deeply to reactive patterns by the artistic process itself. Art, in this case, imprisons the artist. We see this phenomenon frequently, from Picasso in his paintings of his conflicted obsessions with his mistresses to Sharon Olds and her poems about her alcoholic father. In some cases, such as Dylan Thomas or Vincent Van Gogh, the artist is consumed by his or her own patterns. The energy released by the creative vision powers the reactive patterns so strongly that the artist does not survive. He or she falls into the well of addiction to numb the pain of reactive patterns, descends into insanity as the patterns take over, or succumbs to the allure of suicide.

Gifted artists who create these powerful depictions of their own reactive patterns invariably draw the viewer into his or her web. Startled or shocked by the power of the presentation, the viewer may mistake the intensity of experience for the quality of presence. The confusion between intensity and quality lies at the heart of the celebration of much art that shocks, disturbs, or disgusts but does not edify. Art powered by emotional reactivity leads both artist and viewer away from the light of clarity and direct understanding and deeper into the darkness of emotional disturbance. Or, as Bob Dylan sang in « She’s An Artist »

She takes the dark out of the nighttime
To paint the daytime black.

All of the above takes place because the artist is unable to stay present with her or his own patterns, or, to put it another way, is unable to die to the operation of the conditioned personality. In other words, art, in this case, is a product of reactive processes.

If, on the other hand, the artist has a capacity for attention that enables him or her to stay in the tension between the creative energy and conditioned reactive patterns, the artist experiences a death, dying to the world defined by his or her own personality, conditioning, and projections. This death frees the energy locked in the artist’s conditioned personality. The freed energy is then available to power attention and seeing to deeper levels. Now he or she can be creative in a different way, responding to the creative vision and expressing it so powerfully, so vividly that a similar experience of presence is precipitated in the viewer. As Robert Graves once said,

True poetry makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up as you recite it while shaving in the morning.

One example is the poetry of Ryokan, a Zen teacher. His poems are intensely personal, but they are also the pure expression of what he is experiencing. For me, he is completely present with what he is feeling, but not consumed by it either. Here is a poem from the collection One Robe, One Bowl.

A cold night—sitting alone in my empty room
Filled only with incense smoke.
Outside, a bamboo grove of a hundred trees;
On the bed, several volumes of poetry.
The moon shines through the top of the window,
And the entire neighborhood is still except for the cry of insects.
Looking at this scene, limitless emotion
But not one word.

While I make no claims to be an expert or even knowledgeable about art, here are a few examples of art that, for me, have the potential to precipitate this experience of presence in the viewer. The first is Edward Hopper’s painting Nighthawks. The first time I encountered this painting was in reproduction, yet, even in that form, I felt immediately open and present when I looked at it.

Käthe Kollowitz’s drawings have a similar quality. Though deeply personal and powerfully moving, their effect is to uplift the viewer, presenting in such drawings as Sharpening the Scythe a vision of the endurance of the human spirit through the horrible effects of oppression, war, and totalitarianism.

The final example is found in the series of Lohan sculptures from the Liao dynasty, figures inspired by the moment of awakening itself. These figures have precipitated moments of awakening in many who have viewed them.

An understanding of the distinction between reaction and presence is essential to appreciate the influence of Buddhist contemplations of death and impermanence on the artistic process. Meditation on death and impermanence is one of the three principal methods used to uncover the natural knowing described at the beginning of this paper. The other two are compassion and devotion, but these are beyond the scope of this presentation.

While many artists are sensitive to the ephemeral quality of experience, the contemplation of impermanence and death leads to a different kind of understanding. Buddhist practice aims at what is called direct understanding. It is a kind of intelligence that arises when you know something so deeply that it informs your response to life without any need to remember or recall it explicitly. It might manifest, for instance, in the way you say goodbye to your spouse when you leave for work in the morning, taking care how you say goodbye because you know that you may never see him or her again. A phrase from a Tibetan contemplative liturgy reads:

You don’t know which will come first:
Tomorrow or the next world.

All of us know that we could die at any moment, but most people live their lives ignoring or forgetting this possibility and find the reminder, whether it comes through an accident, a natural disaster or the outbreak of war, a harsh awakening.

To understand the influence of death and impermanence on the way you experience life and hence on the creative process, you cannot rely on an intellectual knowledge of dying. What you know intellectually must be remembered in order for you to use it in your life. Intellectual knowledge usually does not have sufficient power or energy to penetrate the operation of reactive emotions or conditioned beliefs, so you are not released from their tyranny. Understanding must be taken to the experiential level. Experiential understanding is not a state of disturbance and reaction. On the contrary, it is a deeper level of appreciation in which reactive tendencies have subsided and are replaced by an understanding and an acceptance of the inevitability of death and the fragility of life.

Instead of giving you lengthy descriptions about how an awareness of death and impermanence changes your perception of life, I offer a set of exercises for you to do. For the most part, they are short and simple, but they will serve to precipitate moments or flashes of an experiential understanding of death and impermanence. A single moment of direct experience is worth more than volumes of explanation, just as a single lick of an ice-cream cone gives you more information about ice cream than any description possibly could. That being said, these exercises are challenging because they put you in touch with aspects of life that many people deliberately avoid. They are not fun, nor will they make you feel good. But if you give them a chance, they will open a door for you.

Exercise 1: death is inevitable
Purpose: to understand that you will experience death

Look at a painting of a corpse. Some day, you will look like this, too. This is how you will end. Your body will lie motionless, devoid of life, and will either be consumed in flames or rot in the earth.
Holbein’s painting Christ Entombed is ideal for this contemplation.

click here for larger image
Look at this picture and reflect that one day, your body will be as lifeless as this one. If you think you will not die, remember that all the greatest spiritual teachers died and their bodies became corpses. Will you be any different?

You will die one day. That much is certain. When and how, no one can tell. If you are vividly aware that death can come at any time, attention goes into the actual experience of life, not into the effort to achieve fame or fortune. Living in the knowledge that every relationship is going to end, you take nothing for granted and savor every moment with your spouse, parents, children, colleagues, and friends.

Exercise 2: death is ever present
Purpose: to understand that death is never far away

For one day, one whole day, imagine that death is walking just behind you, looking over your shoulder on everything you do, eating, walking, talking, working, playing with your children, or making love.
Feel death’s breath on the back of your neck.
How does feeling the possibility of death in every moment affect how you experience and relate to your life or art?

Exercise 3: conditioning and death in meditation
Purpose: to use the awareness of death to cut through conditioning in meditation

Do this exercise for 5 to 10 minutes (or longer, if you are used to meditation). Rest with the coming and going of the breath, but with each exhalation, imagine that this is the last breath you will ever experience. Each breath is your last breath. As thoughts, feelings and sensations arise, note how you react to them. How does this exercise affect your ability to stay present with the breath?

Exercise 4: conditioning and death in activity
Purpose: to use the awareness of death to cut through conditioning in activity

Pick a period of the day, an hour, say, at work or at home. Go about your usual activities, but with the sense that each activity will be your last. If you talk with your spouse or a colleague, the conversation will be the last conversation you will have with this person. If you are eating a meal, the food you eat will be the last food that you ever eat. Look at your favorite work of art, knowing that this will be the last thing you ever see. Think of the various projects in which you are engaged. Which of these would you do if it were the last thing you ever did?

On the one hand, you know that nothing lasts forever, that every relationship will end, and that the time will come when you have to leave everything behind. On the other hand, you don’t know when you will die. Relationships can end at any moment or last for many years. You may never see the results of your current work, but you could just as probably see it through to completion and then have to decide what to do next.

Since you can’t count on the future but chances are you won’t die this instant, how do you actually live? Uchiyama Roshi, in Refining Your Life, gives this response:

In this world of impermanence, we have no idea what may occur during the night; maybe there will be an earthquake or a disastrous fire, war may break out, or perhaps a revolution might erupt, or we ourselves could very well meet death. Nevertheless, we are told to prepare the gruel for the following morning and make a plan for lunch. Moreover, we are to do this as tonight’s work. In preparing the meal for the following day as tonight’s work, there is no goal for tomorrow being established. Yet, our direction for right now is clear: prepare tomorrow’s gruel. Here is where our awakening to the impermanence of all things becomes manifest, while at the same time our activity manifests our recognition of the law of cause and effect. In this routine matter of preparing tomorrow’s gruel as this evening’s work lies the key to the attitude necessary for coping with this absolute contradiction of impermanence and cause and effect.

Exercise 5: presence and the contemplation of death
Purpose: to show how contemplation of death leads directly to the open space of presence.

Wherever you are when you read this, stop reading right now. Look around you. Note everything that you see, hear or touch. Imagine that you are going to die in the next minute. You have no time to make any phone calls or to say anything to anyone. This is it. You are going to die. Note what arises: fear, agitation, regret, relief, or peace. Continue to breathe with the sense that whatever you are thinking, feeling or sensing will be the last things that you ever think, feel or sense. Your life is over.

Now look at a piece of art, one that you know well. Maintain the sense of immediacy of death as you look at it. What, if anything, changes in your experience or appreciation of the work?

Death casts a different light on life. The more fully you relate to death, the more fully you relate to life. You are clearer about what is and isn’t important, what can and cannot be done, what is and isn’t meaningful. Increasingly, you look below the surface of things and see what really matters. Social prescriptions and promises of success and security ring hollow. Conventional definitions of success and failure—happiness and unhappiness, gain and loss, fame and obscurity, respect and disdain—lose their hold. You stop following convention for convention’s sake or tradition for tradition’s sake. In the end, you may do many of the same things, but you do them for different, more personal, reasons. Each action, each meeting, each word you say comes not from what you’ve been told to believe or do, but from a personal connection to life.

Exercise 6: life is just what we experience
Purpose: to dissolve the sense that life is other than what we experience

Take a day and go about your life as if you were dead and everything that you are experiencing is arising in your own mind. Your spouse, children and family, friends, colleagues, and enemies, are all experiences that you have. They have no more reality than the people you encounter in a dream. The same holds for places, activities, feelings, and reactions.

Look at a piece of art or work on an art project of your own while you carry the idea that what you are experiencing is just an arising in your own mind, like a dream.

How does this exercise affect your relationship with what you experience?

Exercise 7: working from death
Purpose: to experience the effect that death and impermanence have on the creative process

Do exercise #3 or #5 again. When you finish, take a piece of paper and draw or write about whatever is right in front of you. Draw or write as if this act is the last thing you will ever do.

Bring what you created to the meeting on Oct. 25th.

These exercises give you a taste of the kind of attention and awareness that comes from accepting and embracing your own mortality.

Here is an excerpt from the writings of Putowa, a 12th-century Tibetan master, in which he describes the effects of attention to death and impermanence.

The cultivation of an awareness of death and impermanence works to:

first plant the seed for engaging spiritual values,

then facilitate the motivation to practice and

finally contribute to the direct understanding that all experience is just experience.

What seems important in the context of life may become inconsequential in the light of death. What seems pointless and meaningless in life may become important and central when death’s hand touches you. The shift in priorities leads you to look deeper into life for value and meaning. In the context of art, you may find that an appreciation of death and impermanence brings a heightened energy and awareness to creative efforts while simultaneously bringing a sense of balance and equanimity. The result is that you are not pulled this way and that by reactive patterns. Energy is free to flow into the creative process itself.

Some people start to practice meditation and contemplation when faced with death. Why? This is a question well worth reflection—why do people turn to spiritual resources when they come face to face with the great matter of life and death?

As your understanding of death and its implications matures, you see that not only is everyone equal before death, but all experience, in the light of death, is equal—all of it is just experience. It just comes and goes. Equanimity arises. You uncover the possibility of seeing and appreciating differences without making judgments.

Everyone who cultivates an awareness of death and impermanence finds, ironically, that their relationship with life is deepened. Resting in the central paradox of human experience, the absolute inevitability of death and the complete uncertainty about when death will come, they are able to pour the energy into everything they do without expectation of result. Such a way of life is true freedom, the freedom of creating life from moment to moment in each and every activity. Here is an example of this way of living from one of my students.

I remember many years ago, when people still used typewriters, I brought mine in to be repaired. It was a dark and dusty little shop cluttered with all manners of typewriters. This Geppetto of a man sat amongst his mechanical children contentedly. We talked about typewriter repair and he told me how each typewriter was different and how each one required something special for it to be at its optimum. At that moment I realized that this man was an artist and his insight and attention enabled him to see the essence of things and elevate repair to an art form.

Deeper looking is at the heart of the creative process. At the beginning of this paper, I described how the death of the sense of a self that is separate from experience is the mother of awakening and presence. When the sense of a separate self is released, the result is a profound equanimity that sees things distinctly and clearly, but does not judge in terms of good or evil, one or many, high or low. Direct understanding of death and impermanence is one of the doors to an equanimity that doesn’t attach to characteristics and concepts. Creativity comes out of equanimity, seeing things without judgment so that they can be truly seen, a theme captured in the title of a book about Robert Irwin’s work—Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees. The same holds true for the viewer, to see without conditioned patterns of judgment so that the work of art can be seen as it is.

American culture seeks to avoid death at all costs. Such ignoring introduces a serious imbalance into the experience of life. Everything is judged and evaluated from the perspective of life. Death, in this culture, is regarded as the opposite of life. Yet death is really the end of life, not its opposite. It is just as much a part of life as birth, the beginning of life. So to ignore or deny death results in an incomplete and unbalanced relationship with life. You cannot know life fully.

Instead, you take what is transitory—money, fame, power, relationship— to be real and base your life on achieving what cannot last—happiness, gain, fame, and respect. When you base life on things that can be taken away from you, you give power over your life to anyone who can take those things away. You become dependent on others and on society for a sense of well-being. You give your life away to others and what others deem to be important. The active contemplation of change and mortality corrects this culturally trained imbalance. In seeing things as they are you step out of conditioned reaction and can respond to what is. The result for the artist is a clearer vision and an increased ability to give that vision expression without it being clouded or distorted by the conditioned personality. For the viewer, the result is the ability to see clearly without judgment, to experience the work of art for what it is.




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