Not Fast Enough: Looking at Engagement

By Suzanne Lacy


« I’ve seen enough to know that we’ve got it good, » belts out the male country-and-western singer, pausing to inhale, suspended momentarily before the next phrase. Baam! I hit the snooze alarm and try to pretend I haven’t really moved, haven’t awakened, squeeze my eyes shut. Failing, I wonder too late: « What was he going to say next? »

« Can we share that good like I know we should »?
« At any price I protect my own ‘hood’ »?

As possibilities run through my mind, I ponder the tone of his voice to gain more insight into his possible next sentence. There’s pride, an up-by-my- bootstraps working-class and family-protective stance, prominent among the boot-wearing men in the small town of my California upbringing. What could he say next, in this post World Trade Center bombing, flag-waving America where even the working class has its SUV’s and two weeks paid vacation?

Three hours earlier, at 4:00 am, I had awakened and couldn’t sleep. In preparing for this discussion I’d been reading Robert Thurman’s interpretation of Nagarjua’s principles of « Buddhist social ethics, » instructions to King Udayi of the powerful Satavahana dynasty of south central India in the second century C.E. (1) In a compelling argument for the ethical and political guidelines for action in Buddhist thought, Thurman interprets Nagarjua’s teachings to the highest secular leader of his time, gleaning four principals, simply stated:

1 Enlightenment of any one individual is of supreme importance. The best thing the King can do for his nation is, finally, to perfect himself.

2 Understanding the questionable desirability of normal passions, practice self restraint, detachment, and pacifism.

3 Commit to a pluralistic, liberation-oriented education for all, considered the major business of the whole nation.

4 Commit to a compassionate socialist state, based on a psychology of abundance, dedicated to providing everyone with everything they need to gain enlightenment.

Falling back asleep, I dreamt of a grateful land where transformative education was the highest virtue and everyone had enough to eat. Then, waking to the country music king’s song, I remembered Thurman’s description of ordinary Americans as the « hundreds and millions of ‘kings’ and ‘queens’…[who like Nagarjua] must face their obligations to other peoples, to other species, and to nature itself. (2) I tried to imagine the singer continuing: « And as we stand on the backs of all sentient beings, both now and in the past, I vow to use all these resources, this goodness, to save them. »

But I knew that he wouldn’t, not because the rhyme but the sentiment was all wrong. We’ve got it good in America, but I’ve seen enough to know that our understanding of how that « good » came to us is only one of our problems, and I wonder if transformation, one soul at a time, is fast enough to save us.

This, I suppose, puts me on the activist end of the movement known as « engaged Buddhism. » It’s not an unfamiliar position. As an artist, I advocate for discussions on ethics and personal responsibility in contemporary public and conceptual art, and that puts me on the same end of an entirely different spectrum, that of the art world. In this essay I will begin with definitions of engaged Buddhism and engaged art, reflect on some shared history and concerns, and discuss issues within engaged Buddhist communities (perhaps causing disjunctures there as well) that might shed light on the practices, strategies, and conflicts within the visual arts.


« Buddhism is already engaged B. If it is not, it is not Buddhism. » (3)
On Oct 14, 1956, I was ten, just on the edge of eleven years old in Wasco, California. Half way around the world a remarkable event was taking place in Nagpur, India, where almost a half a million ex-Untouchable Hindus embraced the Buddhist religion. Though I was quite aware even then of the racism in the United States that was moving inexorably toward our own Civil Rights Movement, I did not know about this most astounding event. At a press conference Dr. Ambedkar, himself an Untouchable as well as a highly educated and influential Indian leader, explained why he advocated abandoning their country’s majority religion for a faith that had virtually disappeared from India 800 years before. « Ask yourselves and your fathers, what self respecting person could remain in a system that offers only token handouts and menial jobs to low-born citizens? Are you Brahmins, » he said to the reporters, « prepared to change places with us Untouchables? Only by leaving Hinduism can we find a better life…Our Buddhism will be a neo-Buddhism, a Navayana. » (4)

While this cannot be said to be the founding of engaged Buddhism in the West, (5) it is certainly an early heralding of what, within my own lifetime, has become a movement of powerful possibilities, of multiple expressions and inspirational voices in many parts of the world, with implications for the resolution of post-modernist crises in self and community. Donald Rothberg, in tracing the genealogy of the term « engaged Buddhism, » suggests that « engaged » was drawn from the French existentialist movement and first used by Thich Nhat Hahn as an acknowledgement of one’s inescapable involvement in the world. What has an activist connotation in the United States may have originally been more comprehensive, including three Vietnamese movements: Buddhism for Everybody (a lay movement in the late 50s and early 60’s, cultivating awareness in daily life outside of the monastic tradition), Going Into the World (an evolving emphasis on charity, social service, and education) and Getting Involved (dating from 1963 and connected with explicit activism, during the Vietnam war). (6)

The current understandings of what constitutes Buddhism in the United States are much in play. Discussions around socially engaged Buddhism are part of a larger discussion that includes issues of elite and ethnic Buddhism, the relevance of the East and its teachers, and even the privileging of meditation over the traditional model of a three-fold training in ethics, meditation, and wisdom. Rothberg suggests that Buddhism made its first appearance at a time when modernist sensibilities emphasized meditation, de-emphasizing ethics and wisdom. (7)

Engaged Buddhists cover a range of activities and perspectives, from an expanded emphasis on lay practice—non-monastic Buddhist practice of everyday life—to teaching meditation techniques; from social service and charity type activity, to activist political organizing. On the one hand, some engaged Buddhists embrace the term, scouring ancient texts to confirm original activist aspects of Buddhism, and attempt to draft a Buddhist political analysis of contemporary suffering caused by governmental, institutional and commercial forces. On the other hand, some engaged Buddhists, like Khemadhammo, founder of the Buddhist prison service Angulimala, are embarrassed by the categorization: « The phrase seems to imply that there are, can be, disengaged Buddhists…This becomes clearer if we use the Dalai Lama’s alternative expression, ‘universal responsibility.’ Would it sound okay to say, ‘we are the responsible Buddhists, they are the irresponsible ones?’ « (8)

Whatever their different approaches, there is unity on one point: the existence of suffering evokes a feeling of universal responsibility which compels acting in the world to alleviate that suffering.

The interpretation of basic Buddhist teachings that leads to this sense of responsibility is this: for anything to arise, or come into being, there must be conditions for its arising. Whatever is, is a function of the conditions which allow it to exist, and it, in turn, allows all other phenomena to exist. The principle of dependent origination, or dependent co-arising, as it is variously called, suggests that nothing is separate from anything else. Everything is related to everything else. Recalling Indra’s Net, a vast expanse of reflective jewels, each facet of each jewel reflecting all other jewels simultaneously, each jewel moving within the net causing all others to move at the same time, Joanna Macy says, « Everything is interdependent and mutually conditioning— each thought, word, and act, and all beings too, in the web of life. . . . » (9)

The significant leap made by many engaged Buddhists comes when dependent co-arising is applied globally: « A Chernobyl meltdown contaminates Polish milk; a Philippine revolution ignites efforts for democratic reform in Korea. » (10) The illusion of a separate self and the nature of impermanence are the subjects of meditation practice; translated into the world of action they become a continuing practice in empathy. « Not two, » this injunction reminding us of the essential non-duality of all things is also, for engaged Buddhists, a call to global responsibility.

While grounding themselves specifically in traditional models of discipline, virtue, and altruism, Rothberg suggests « engaged Buddhists have extended the meanings of Buddhist precepts beyond their usual sense of being limited to personal and face-to-face relationships… What is innovative is thus both the wider perspective on what is ethically meaningful, in the context of contemporary social realities, and the imperative to act in a series of contexts that are, at least from the point of view of traditional Buddhist practice, relatively new and unexplored. » (11)

Whether, as some argue, the originating tenants of engaged Buddhism, can be found in ancient India in Nagarjua’s principals of « Buddhist social ethics, » or within the influencing ideas of Western philosophy, or honed in the fires of resistance to U.S. and European imperialism in Vietnam, on the beach at Maui, or in the inevitable extension of Buddhist practice in and of itself, this much is clear: here in the West a crucible of practice and theory is being formed, and reformed, one that will challenge and may change the face of Buddhism itself.


It was 1977 in Hawaii. Six friends sat talking about the build up of nuclear weapons after the Vietnam War and what they saw as ‘structural violence’ caused by US arms build-up. Out of this conversation on the front porch of the former Maui Zendo founded by Robert Aitken Roshi, the Buddhism Peace Fellowship was founded. As Nelson Foster, present at that session stated, « Anyone, feeling compassion, seeing no boundary between self and others, would feel compelled to do something. » (12)

Just hours away, on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, several women artists gathered in Los Angeles to discuss news coverage of a series of sex murders called « The Hillside Strangler Case. » We considered the role of mass media and other institutions in what we saw as « structural » violence against women. Out of this conversation Ariadne, a Social Art Network was developed, to use public art as a way to bring attention to the suffering of women. A media performance, « In Mourning and In Rage » was planned.

Since the 1970s, visual artists of varying backgrounds and perspectives have been working in a manner resembling political and social activity but distinguished by an aesthetic sensibility. Dealing with some of the most profound issues of our time—toxic waste, homelessness, aging, race relations, cultural identity, and gang warfare—these artists have developed distinct models for an art whose public strategies of engagement are an important part of their aesthetic language. The sources of these artworks are not exclusively visual or socio-political, but derive, rather, from an internal necessity perceived by the artist in conjunction with his or her audience. Such artists adopt « public » as their operative concept and quest, connecting art in deeper ways to the fabric of everyday life.

While socially engaged visual art includes many art forms, I will restrict my comments to work that not only visually illustrates social themes, but transgresses traditional artistic forms to create art formally and ideologically related to the service practices of engaged Buddhism. These art forms have become known variously as public art, new genre public art, transient art, engaged art, and community-based art.(13) It has several basic characteristics that link it to engaged Buddhist practice.

Range of sources, practices, and media

The contemporary engaged « artist » is a non-fixed and fluid position that moves along a spectrum of artist as experiencer, witness, analyst, and activist. It covers a range of aesthetic approaches and media and a spectrum of political positions that inform action and range between the metaphoric and confrontational. While the work starts with similar social themes of engaged Buddhism (ecology, racism, criminal justice and prisons, education, poverty, and so on), it may end up as a mural, performance, installation, process, or conceptual work of a hybrid nature. Engaged artists might investigate ecological systems with scientists, create models of community development inspired by planners, or work toward concrete changes in police practice. Engaged art is best defined by its relationship to a larger agenda of community, or world change, than to any specific art form.

Sited in Community

Wherever it ends up, most engaged work begins in a particular « community, » as defined by geography or other shared identity or concern. While it might be translated into a museum or gallery setting, and in some cases is co-created for both community and museum,14 it’s locations outside of typical art venues are subject, inspiration, and location for the work. These sites give a contextual reality and demand an authentic presence of the work in the lives of those who are not artists and have very different agendas. It is the skillful mixing of the artist’s and the community’s agendas that make engaged arts practice difficult and original.

Dialogic modalities foreground relationships

All art posits a space between the artist and the perceiver of the work, traditionally filled with the art object. In engaged art, that space is filled with the relationship between artist and audience. It begins with empathy, reaching out to another; this is an underlying dynamic of feeling that is the source of activism. Thus, this work suggests a fundamental premise: that this creative work can be a representation of, or an actual manifestation of this human relationship. As Suzi Gablik comments, « Art that is more empathic and interactive … can only come into its own in dialogue, in open conversation in which one is obliged to listen and include other voices. »(15)

Audience is central

As the use of dialogic modes has grown, so the relationship between an artist and audience has become more central. Factoring the audience into the actual construction of the work activated the viewer, placing them in the role of participant or even a collaborator. This evolution of consciousness mirrors that found in other social justice movements: compassionate action is acting with, not for. Bearing witness to an identifiable group challenges the monolithic image of the audience that has been enshrined in the value systems and criticism of late modern art. It is not surprising that race and racism are often overt and sub-textual subjects in such work. (16)

Personal responsibility

Engaged art raises questions about artist’s practice, just as engagement puts in question the practice and priorities of the Buddhist, and is related to all service and activist fields. Primary among these are: the role of the artists as outsider versus the community participant as insider; the nature of responsibility to one’s audience, especially when that audience may be sometimes antagonistic to art outside cultural tradition; and the function of reciprocity or the recognition of the mutual impact of any interaction. Articulated by Allan Kaprow, himself on the less « activist » end of the spectrum of new genre public artists but a ground-breaking theorist: « It’s not only the transformation of the public consciousness that we are interested in, but its our own transformation as artists that’s just as important. Perhaps a corollary is that community change can’t take place unless it’s transformative within us. » (17)

The Everyday

Engaged Buddhism and engaged art are activist practices in the United States came into being in the 1960s during a politically charged era when social justice, activism, and community engagement were being redefined by issues of race, war, gender, and economic equity. Significantly, there was a convergence on the U.S. of spokespersons from Asia who brought with them new ideas emphasizing the ethics and wisdom practices, expanding the understandings of Buddhism. (18) The Civil Rights and antiwar movements were fertile ground for these charismatic spokespersons, in a public discourse on the rights and responsibilities of individuals, liberation from oppression for all, and the morality of nations. In the arts there was an equally fertile ground, with artists adopting overtly political stances, such as the Guerilla Art Action Group’s resistance to the Vietnam War.

Engagement in everyday life is one end of the spectrum of engaged Buddhism, a general approach to integrating insight, gained from meditation, into one’s work, family and community life. Joko Beck stresses the practice of relationship is as strenuous if not more so than that of meditation, during weeklong intensive sesshins in the middle of the working class neighborhood where her San Diego Zendo is located. It was not unusual to chant inside the Zendo to the accompaniment of loud beer parties in the apartments next door. In this notion of engagement with everyday life, relational modes of practice are explored. « Buddhism is to be brought into life ‘in the world’ in all its aspects, including the everyday contexts of families, interpersonal relationships, communities, and work. From this perspective, everything we do is potentially an act of engaged Buddhism…. it does not necessarily imply an interest in or involvement in social service or social action. » (19)

It is no surprise then that Allan Kaprow, Pauline Oliveros, and John Cage—pioneers in the practice of art in everyday life—were all deeply engaged in Buddhist practice early on. A parallel movement in art, beginning in the late 1950s and identified with Kaprow, the « Happenings » in New York, was not really a « new » movement at all, but rather extended the 20th century avant garde explorations along that fine edge dividing art and life. By the 1970s it came into sharp focus when the work of conceptual and performance artists led to, what Lucy Lippard dubbed, « the dematerialization of the art object. » This was picked up on and furthered by ethnic and feminist artists through their explorations into the « democratization of art » which traversed the dividing line between high and low art, high class and the issues and tastes of middle and lower class people. In this crucible of the politicized 1970s, when notions of equity were mixed with essentialist queries into the nature of differences, art took on a decidedly political cast: Marxist, feminist, lesbian, Chicanos, African American, Native American and Asian artists began working within their own communities.

Race and ethnicity have been configured differently in the worlds of engaged Buddhism and art. Although in engaged Buddhism, significant inspiration was drawn from the Southeast Asian countries and their charismatic leaders, engaged Buddhism has been primarily defined by white Americans, reflective of the constituency of Zen Buddhism in this country. In engaged art, although the field grew from the predominantly white contemporary art scene in New York beginning in the 1960s, there have been significant inspirational leaders from representing many diverse cultures since the 1970s. (20) And the contemporary art world, profoundly influenced by popular culture, embarked in the 1980s on an interrogation of race, ethnicity, and privilege in creative practice, with the activist implications of such themes continuing to be played out particularly in engaged art.
Engaged art practices elided and morphed with various other art genre, forming a complex practice that sits uneasily alongside more traditional art. The slippery slope from studio artist to engaged artist disturbs critics who prefer conventional notions of visual beauty and curators who can’t figure out how to show it. In this work, as in engaged Buddhism, the question comes up: « Is it really art? (or Buddhism?) » Hidden within the critiques of both practices, there is a sense of « higher » and more inspirational practices beyond community engagement. Nelson Foster explains how this critique operates in Buddhist circles: « Social service obstructs the Sangha’s paramount function of protecting and offering the Dharma. »(21) In the arts, some critics seem to feel that engaged arts subverts the arts presumed paramount function of being above populist public life. Ancient Buddhist texts provide some moments of exposition that might be pieced together to create a coherent rationale for such engagement, however. But this piecing together has not taken place sufficiently through a re-reading of art history in order to impact mainstream arts criticism. (22) And history aside, in Buddhism (like other religious practices), questions of right action, ethical behavior, and ultimate meaning are taken to be part of the practice itself. Discussions of socially engaged art are bound to flounder against the backdrop of silence within the art field on questions of wisdom, service, and discipline.

Both engaged art and engaged Buddhism are inherently anti-materialist and anti-hierarchical advocacies for meaning-making and ethical practices. In the arts, themes of material culture, wealth, and an increasingly disassociated and amoral stance toward constituencies are countered by engaged art that stresses ethics, cultural relevance, and the specificity of constituencies and their needs. In engaged Buddhism, the discussion centers on the enlightenment of the self as service to all and the mandate to act now within the public sphere. Both are responses to the increasing visibility of what was formerly invisible: through mass media the suffering of the world is more revealed.


Let us take as a starting point the individual experience, here and now. Within the white walls of the hypothetical studio (even if that studio is in the mind), there is a silence, a waiting for words, for visual and audible images. In the Zendo, on the cushion, diffuse forms of observing, listening—shikan taza, just sitting, is like the artist staring at a blank page, a white canvas. In the studio, on the cushion, there is a mandate to be present at this specific place and in this particular moment. In Buddhism, not knowing is quite different from an ordinary profession of ignorance…it is intimately related to learning and insight. (23) Paying attention is deeply part of the artistic creative process: openness to what is there, suspension of perceptual closure and judgment, resistance to conventional ways of knowing, and deep curiosity for what arises.

In Buddhism, because everything changes, nothing can be known except for what arises anew in each moment of awareness. Thus, not knowing, the renunciation of fixed ideas and prejudices, is a major tenant of Buddhism. When applied to engaged Buddhism it is a caution against polarizing, categorizing, and perpetuating illusions of separation; the simple and direct apprehension of reality can only be known by bearing witness. According to Bernard Glassman, « Only don’t know means choosing to pay attention. Confusion is dispelled, just seeing, just hearing, » and here he adds an important concept to mindfulness practice, « or just perceiving the needs of the other. » (24) Engaged practitioners, such as Glassman, try to dislodge knowing in their pupils: « When our paradigms and concepts stop making sense, we get upset. »(25)

For artists, upsetting paradigms signals an opportunity to make new ones. Among engaged artists there is a high tolerance for ambiguity; formlessness is an invitation to play, to make shape and meaning in a process they will later label « art. » Faced with a new situation, they will enter it afresh, looking for « images » which are a new form of information. Stumbling upon small and otherwise inconsequential details, the AHA! experience navigates them into areas they don’t know or yet understand. The focus on « process » as an art medium is not restricted to socially engaged artists, but it is a critical vehicle for their interest: the intersection of art-ethical-social terrain. Process as media gives engaged artists a way to explore daily life. It privileges time and relationships, giving activist artists a way to « shape » the non-traditional art aspects of what they do. In fact, art media in these works seldom exists in and of themselves, but are called into service for « higher » aims: to give form to the relational, social, or political process itself.

In both Buddhism and art, entering a situation with a « mind of don’t know » inevitably privileges process over outcome. Focusing on process, both engaged artists and engaged Buddhists struggle with the master narratives of their disciplines. For engaged Buddhists, specific outcomes as demanded by an activist practice (for example, shutting down the nuclear power plant) can compete with openness to life « as it is. » The commitment to not knowing mind is hard to reconcile with the activist objective. Artists, too, when entering the « field » of the artwork (an open-ended and often geographic site of inquiry), are looking for an outcome in the shape of an artwork. In applying a critique of engaged Buddhism to the practice of engaged artists, we see that when an artist enters a community to bear witness, listen, or engage people in a collective endeavor, there is a portion of their consciousness that is always reserved for « making art. » As open as an artists might be, they still approach a situation with a desire to make something and this may be seen as manipulating community into an artistic outcome. Since an artist is there specifically for that purpose, their intent to make art intervenes and may be seen to limit open-ended and receptive perception. This subtlety exposes a critical crisis: are artists « finding » shape or giving shape in their process? If finding shape, who is the perceiver that finds it? If making shape, do artists predetermine, to some extent, the experience itself? Is it possible that the shape of the artwork then deviates from the perceived need? Or, if the form of the work is suspended, for whatever amount of time, does a form arise at the point at which acting gains priority over experiencing?

This departure point, one I’ve pondered often in my own work, constitutes an aspect of the moral dilemma of the engaged artist, a dilemma that, in one sense, might be said to revolve around the self-other duality. As such, is it possible that Buddhism might offer some insight into the ethics of engaged art and the relationship of community to self?

Self in Engaged Art

The main danger of socially engaged Buddhism, according to its critics, is that the ego becomes increasingly involved in the act. In activism, the ego identifies itself around the issue, self-righteousness results, and things may be seen simplistically, in terms of right and wrong. This is also a hazard for the social activist artist who adopts a political analysis and tries to determine outcomes in the service of notions of right and wrong for the community or project. There are additional practical and theoretical complications as well.

First is the position of the self of the artist in contemporary art practice. If art is an expression of the artist’s interiority, then « self » is indelibly wedded to and valued in the making. The individual psychology of the artist becomes intrinsic to visual art. In process art, the actions and time measured by the artwork are often those actions and time of the artist herself. So in one sense the exploration of the artwork is the exploration of the self of the artist. (26) In the culture of the art world, the artist is variously iconicized, aggrandized, defamed, and infantilized, all around the notion of the ego or « self. » Artists have played with this notion, including Jeff Koons who made a career on the ironic parody of himself as art star, or art ego, and Cindy Sherman who becomes every self and, thus, no-self.

In engaged art, there are indications of a move away from the artist as separate self. The notion of the « expanded self »– a singular self within a relational context of multiple others– was one I used in the early seventies in teaching performance to women at the Feminist Studio Workshop. (27) A practice of empathy in art, (28) this exercise was an exploration of a developing practice of relationship and activism. While the « expanded self » still premised a distinct self, it moved toward the recognition of the self as illusion. Thirty years later, the practice of empathy and relationship are staples of engaged art. Artists explore the self/other dualism as subjective anthropologists, introducing the self in a matrix of social relations in community settings. This is interesting to consider in light of Victor Hori’s discussion of elite and ethnic Buddhism in which he suggests a cultural difference between the Western notion of the person as autonomous individual, independent of social roles, and the Eastern notion of self as a nexus of social relations, with identity and uniqueness only because of his or her social relationships. (29)
Examining engaged art against the Western ideological backdrop privileging the separate and special sense of self, leads to criticism and cynicism . Even for the engaged artist, moving toward dialogic and collaborative modes of practice where they are part of a nexus of social relations, the sense of individualism clings as an aura to the practice, creating contradictions that do not exist in the same ways for the practicing engaged Buddhist fortified by a consistent belief system.
Furthermore, in a direct and practical way, the compelling need of the artist to make shape–to practice their aesthetics–motivates them at least as strongly as the desire to serve and, thus, can come into conflict with the needs of working partners. So, while there may be a willingness to allow content to be determined by collaborators who are not practicing artists, there is just as often, for the artist, a painful struggle to maintain a specific sense of personal aesthetics and there are moments when the artist’s aesthetic may come in opposition to that of the collaborating constituency. (30) It presents a conflict to the « self » of the artist between aesthetic vision and an ethic of collaboration.

Bearing witness

« Do not avoid contact with suffering or close your eyes to it. Find ways to be with those who are suffering by all means, including personal contact and visits, images, sound. By such means, awaken yourself and others to the reality of suffering in the world. » (31) Whether sitting in a Zendo or on the railroad tracks in Auschwitz, contemplation of interdependence leads the engaged Buddhist to bear witness to the existence of suffering. Bernard Glassman has become known for his controversial practice of bearing witness through week-long intensives in the slums of urban America, concentration camps, and in the Letten, a short lived experiment by Swiss authorities to confine « vices »(such as drug use and prostitution) to well-regulated park outside of Zurich. In bearing witness to forms of human suffering, Glassman has been led to act, developing extensive model housing and cooperative businesses to support inner city residents down on their luck. In both bearing witness and creating viable models for social change, he exemplifies practices familiar to engaged artists over the past thirty years. (32)

For the artist, bearing witness implies a distance of observation; being there, seeing, listening, and then expressing as a mode of communication. Rachel Rosenthal is a most articulate and passionate ecology advocate, who through years of increasingly powerful work engages us to engage the world. From a simple litany of the recently extinguished species of animals to a hunched-over hostile bag lady as Gaia borne again to the urban streets, to an enactment of the tortuous shift of the continental plates like the arthritis rubbing bone on bone in her knees, her pain for the numberless beings blankets us, brings us to tears, opens our hearts to the screams of the earth. Visual art that bears witness are « stories » of many real or metaphorical voices, compassionate representations meant to inform others of the suffering in the world. Engaged art is evangelistic; it needs an audience. Bearing witness, artists want others to have the same experience and the artwork is often constructed with great care for the emotional and pedagogic passages of the audience, motivating them to wake up to the issues.

There are pitfalls of bearing witness through art. First is the need to recognize the complexity of the subject. Artworks rarely incorporate all aspects of an issue, and all sides of a story. Even when they might attempt to, the politics of issues pushes artists toward a less balanced, advocacy-based and sometimes adversarial position within the work. Engaged Buddhists face the same problems of how to bear witness to all aspects of a situation, to see its wholeness, much more difficult in action than in contemplation. Moreover, in representing the situation to which one bears witness, the narrative traditions of art sometimes emulate mass media, where complex identities are reduced to a single issue (say, « the battered woman » or « the youth offender »). As with the media, artists, too, can fall into the trap of working with sensational, attention-grabbing subjects in stereotypical ways through the display of their suffering. Bearing witness means exactly the opposite: a process of opening oneself to suffering without borders or limits, to non-quantifiable experiences which expand rather than contract one’s awareness.

Secondly, artists working in public run the same risks of separation and burn out experienced by helping professionals. Though reciprocity is often explored within the context of the work, this is a difficult practice. How vulnerable does an artist make themselves to the situation? Do they live on the street, or invite the homeless to sleep on their couch? Where does the artist control, and where give up control? Does the very process of making art block natural empathy, in the same way that analyzing can distance the professional helper? Bearing witness demands a personal strength that needs a powerful base, one generally provided by religion but perhaps not art.

Finally, the relationship between suffering and desire is a dilemma that complicates the practice of both engaged Buddhism and art. In Buddhist terms, suffering is caused by attachment and desire. « The secular activist sets himself the endless task of satisfying that desire, and perhaps hopes to end social suffering by constructing utopias. The Buddhist is concerned ultimately with the transformation of desire. » (33) The artist, like the secular activist, is interested in constructing utopias, giving form to its representation. Desire as a cause of suffering isn’t configured into their work; rather, artists tend to operate as straight-forward advocates, addressing issues presented by their constituencies at face value. One suspects that artists who position their work as models for social change (perhaps a convenient way to resolve the conflict between an end product of art versus an end product of activism, or more likely a response to the sheer magnitude of the problems) are, in offering a solution to a problem, oriented toward fulfilling a desire.


In engaged Buddhism, awareness of suffering and the observation that we are all one, brings with it the imperative of action. Characteristically straightforward, Glassman explains: « If I cut my hand and it starts to bleed, I take care of it. I don’t join a discussion group or wait for the right equipment or wait until I am enlightened or go off to get trained. I immediately get some rags to stop the bleeding—because it’s me that is bleeding. » (34) The expression of service takes place along a continuum, from the results-oriented practice of Glassman, prison chaplains, and others who serve, to the more confrontational and activist oriented practices of advocacy and protest. The connection with a rigorous meditation practice is sometimes obscure; some, such as Glassman, go out on a limb and suggest that Zazen might not be a fundamental criteria to the practice. (35)

In the visual arts, service is not a result of art or an art form. At the « highest » art professional levels, service or use-value is actually looked down upon, seen as a functional application of the creative process. And while many artists do successfully combine their creative practice with other professions, such as teaching art and art therapy, (36) they are are not the elite, the stuff of mainstream art discourse. And in art circles where it is discussed, when the notion of service rears its head, it is dismissed with a post-colonialist, missionary critique–the very word conjuring up images of disempowerment of those served.

Yet we do serve, those of us involved in engaged art. As in engaged Buddhism, where our immediate responsibility is to do what we can to alleviate the concrete conditions of human affliction, artists who work in community know that along with a community-based practice, comes obligations and responsibilities of that relationship. Working with youth on an art project means that when one of them is in trouble, needs an advocate, or is flunking out of school, you might be called upon. John Malpede, working with homeless people on the streets of Los Angeles, helps find a bed for the evening or talks someone through a drug crisis. This service which is part of the work is not all the work. But, as an engaged artist, are you simply responding humanely? Or is art itself a service? In thinking about art as a meaning-making activity that takes place in a relational space, the stage is set for art to be of service. Whether it will be of service, depends upon a series of issues.
It might be interesting to introduce the notion of service into engaged arts. Just as artists in the 1970 asked, « Who is the artist? » so today we might begin asking, « Who is served by a work of engaged art? The artist? The constituency/collaborators? The audience? » Because artists have been preoccupied with justifying their work–to the art world and the community—and the ethics of choosing to work in community, they have avoided opening the door of inquiry to: « How is an artist served by working in community? What are they getting out of it? » These are questions that must be asked, because reciprocity is critical to meaningful, working relationships. When asked why he bore witness at the Letten Glassman answered, « I wanted to have a relationship with the Letten and all its inhabitants. » (37) In distinguishing compassion and pity, Ram Dass suggests, « whereas compassion reflects the yearning of the heart to merge and take on some of the suffering, pity is a controlled set of thoughts designed to assure separateness. » (38) Likewise, art making and witnessing-as-art could, theoretically, be a controlled method to assure separateness between the artist and the audience…or a reflection of the yearning of the heart.


Is it possible that a twisted individual might derive pleasure from witnessing human pain? Asked about a particularly precarious witnessing in the Letten, where a panorama of human inflicted pain was laid out before him—drug dealing, getting high, soliciting for prostitution, people in various stages of dress and undress, soberness and drunkenness, Glassman responded that « bearing witness was not simply looking but also understanding how the Letten is a metaphor for our whole society. » (39) But Glassman is certainly on safer ground than the artist, for whom the opportunity to exploit is enhanced by the nature of making a visual display.

Voyeurism, looking to derive pleasure, is an integral part of the practice of visual art. By introducing « looking » into the notion of bearing witness, artists likely set the viewer and the viewed apart. Engaged artists navigate this chasm between art and audience in many ways: they make the art with a primary audience of the people with whom the work derives its meaning, reporting only in documentary fashion to the art world; they gain agreement from their constituents and enlist them as co-authors in acts of self-representation; they make products for art display that conceal the identity of their constituency; and they do collaborative projects with constituent groups focused on issues outside of the identity of the constituents.


When art making becomes an act of, or a response to, bearing witness, the act of representation can raise ethical questions. Who has the right to represent, not only by training but by access to distribution opportunities? There is a distinct difference between being observed by Glassman’s retreat participants, and perhaps even being represented later in their recounting of the week’s experiences, and being represented in an artwork in a fixed and perhaps enduring way. In particular, representation across class, race, ethnicity, or gender is highly contested. (40) The strategies used to « get it right » provide a growing body of knowledge in cross-cultural communication and widening field of ethics in art making, helping to define the formal and structural components of engaged art.

Sometimes in art, the unethical use of images or people’s situations for the artist’s own advantage or profit is obvious. In the mid-1990s this issue raised debate well beyond the circle of art over Andres Serrano’s beatific portraits of homeless people. Paid twenty-five dollars for posing, each person unwittingly allowed their color portrait to be placed on sale at Soho’s Paula Cooper Gallery initially for between $5,000-10,000, depending on scale. Only after the outcry did the gallery make available a portion of the sales to charity. In engaged art practice the line between cooperation and exploitation is often blurred. Even the act of exposure in the art world without direct revenues inevitably advances the artists’ career.

Perhaps we are just beginning to understand the complexity of engaged art and the difficulty in treating it as a conventional visual arts expression with conventional critical strategies. Like engaged Buddhism, this field in motion, close to the bone of human suffering, raises many ethical questions. While art discourse now incorporates a critique of colonialism and paternalism, one just beginning in engaged Buddhism, there is not, as yet, language to express a yearning of the heart to merge and take on suffering, a desire to be of service that comes from recognizing we are all responsible for each other.

In engaged Buddhism, service is not an end it itself, but a vehicle through which we reach a deeper understanding of life. Service is a practice that benefits the greater whole of which we are all a part. Not two—server and served, community and artist—but a single dynamic and interdependent relationship. In the Sarvoday movement in Sri Lanka, an extensive Buddhist project of rural community development there is a saying: we build the road and the road builds us. (41)
Engaged Buddhists see service as a practice of mindfulness that leads to awareness of unity that leads to the desire to serve. For process-oriented engaged artists, in making art we gain a better understanding of ourselves in relationship to each other. We expand ourselves, we become one with those with whom we create, we grow in awareness. The longing to serve and yearning of the heart are deeply akin to the yearning to create. We act, and the effects ripple out in time and space; each act effects all other acts in Indra’s Net. We make the art and the art makes us.

« No one can afford to be innocent, or to indulge themselves in ignorance of the nature of contemporary governments, politics, and social orders. The national polities of the modern world are ‘states’ which maintain their existence by deliberately fostering craving and fear: monstrous protection rackets. » (42)

The Buddhist Peace Fellowship (BPF), founded in 1978 has made important theoretical contributions by linking political analyses to Buddhist traditions. They elaborate on the notion of dukkha, or suffering, by emphasizing not only personal suffering but what they call « structural dukkha. » In their mission statement, they confront the potential causes of structural suffering, oppression, and violence in a manner dangerously close to what some might consider dualistic thinking: « We feel it is our particular responsibility to address structural and social forms of suffering, oppression, and violence…These structures have only the appearance of anonymity, and protect those in power from taking responsibility for their own actions and the effects of the systems they have in place. In order to recognize this legitimized violence, it is important to become educated in the way in which structural violence works in the institutions in society and globally. For the Buddhist this entails understanding interdependence in specific ways. » (43) In attempting to develop an analysis that links their practice on and off the cushion, they pose a challenge for themselves to keep actions tethered to ongoing ethical inquiry and, thus, offer a model for the engaged artist.

Somewhere in the midst of ethics and analysis, engaged artists stumble. In a class at California State University at Monterey, Amalia Mesa Bains teaches « Ways of Seeing, » an ethics class that serves as a cornerstone of a curriculum built on art in communities, service, and public art. The curriculum stresses such key practices in engaged art as consensual decision-making, cross-cultural communication, whole-cloth thinking, and listening. But this curriculum is rare in the world of professional art education, and questions of ethics are almost as scarce. What are some of the building blocks of an analysis upon which our work can stand? How will we prepare artists of the future to be engaged?

The problem facing professional arts educators is that there is no analysis of how socially engaged art effects and is effected by contemporary politics, institutions, and public life. What analysis does exist is specific to discrete issues: ecology, youth development, community development, and so on. Can one become aware of the suffering of youth, for example, and act on their behalf without understanding their « structural dukhha »– the way in which education, the criminal justice, health care, and family structures affect them? Currently the analyses that help frame engaged arts are separate from the arts. Could they, nonetheless, be the building blocks needed to begin and, like the BPF, from which could be created an overarching analysis, suited to the multiplicity of themes encompassed by socially engaged art and linking creativity with public life in a strategic and activist way?

Central to such an analysis would be the concept of making. Making, a word we artists are fond of using, removing both object and subject to focus on the act, is innately optimistic. We counter despair, personally and metaphorically, by making. Art practice might be said to be a statement against helplessness, by the very fact of its being. According to Ram Dass: « The condition of helplessness is one that we tend to push away, deny, or stigmatize. Our cultural myths neither encourage us to accept a common helplessness nor teach us how to act upon it. In a society that emphasizes power, many of us feel we have little influence over conditions beyond our most immediate circumstances. The choices we have seem empty and hollow, and we feel impotent. » (44) Johanna Macy in her work on despair stresses how feeling the pain of the world can cause activists to burn out. Becoming present to pain without self-destructing into helplessness is the knife’s edge social activists walk. But even while struggling with the worst of situations, the engaged artist is creating. The aspirational longings from which art is created and which are akin to other spiritual longings, want to be manifest in form.

The Sangha

« The next Buddha will come not as a single person but a Sangha. »(45)
The development of a conscious community, or Sangha, is difficult in the United States, where the greatest recent coming together we’ve seen may well be around the World Trade Center bombing, replete and resonant with political opportunism and commercialized sentiment. In addition to one’s choice of religious or spiritual affiliation, communities or groupings of supportive people arise based on accidents of geography, work sites, sports and extra-professional interests, and, touted through increasing numbers of sitcoms, friendship networks of twenty-somethings. Perhaps most people identify first with a network of family members, however far flung these may be. But consider Thich Nhat Hahn’s description of Sangha: « It functions as a community of resistance countering and transforming the individualism, isolation, and greed fostered in modern society. It is a base community of spiritual friends who are living in ways that nourish a culture of mindfulness, compassion, and understanding. » (46)

In our professional cultures, competition and individual achievement are rewarded; spiritual dimensions of community for its own sake are rarely emphasized. In speaking about elite-versus-ethnic Buddhism, Hori comments, « For the autonomous individual, practice is seen as freeing the self from social conditioning and releasing its pure nature; for those who assume the other, practice is seen a breaking habits of selfishness in order to become more responsible and compassionate. » (47) Without implying a value judgment, this might be applied to two models of art practice–studio and engaged art practices. Whereas in the studio, the concept of artist exists within a Western European tradition of individualism and art making is seen as a liberating act of self hood, outside the studio, artists working in community attempt an authentic creative practice in relationship to the social body.

Both kinds of artists operate within a larger « art world, » consisting of a network of economic and intellectual interests and institutions (museums, publications, galleries, contemporary critical discourse, and so on). Within this, there are established systems of power relationships and hierarchies, shifting slightly to accommodate innovation and economic vagaries. In spite of persistent critiques of these professional networks, many artists persist in believing they belong to an art « community. » This hopeful if illusionary concept competes with another—the notion of the artist as quintessential outsider—resulting in a contradiction perhaps curiously resolved by the inaccuracy of both concepts.

Drawing from Buddhist tradition, engaged Buddhists place the Sangha at the center of their practice, stressing that if we don’t know how to build community for ourselves we cannot help others. Nurturing the character traits essential to grow in a mindful community is part of a devotional practice. Since community is a word that has assumed center stage in engaged art practice, as well as the culture-at-large since in the ‘90s, perhaps it is time to turn a light on ourselves: In what ways do visual artists belong in community, and for what reasons? If, in Hori’s terms, artists see themselves as a nexus of social relations, what constitutes those relations? (48)

During the 1960s and ’70s, the counter-cultural, anti-war, feminist, La Raza, and Civil Rights Movements aspired to a sense of community and artists, working within these contexts, participated in this ethos. Now, in 2001, community is harder to come by for artists. Often, it is just out of art school where most young artists first experience an arts-based community. They begin their practice of community by living together and, out of economic and emotional necessity, group themselves in large warehouses, huddle together late at night over coffee, and gather at openings. They form collaborative groups or working relationships, or they seek each other out and know each other through their works. As an artist grows, so does this form of community, spread out over geography and time. Artists develop their own relationship to the prevailing ideas of the time and to other artists, who in their practice, are like them. This « community » of artists based on shared practice is neither geographic-based nor daily, but rather a community of intermixed personal and professional affiliations, and sometimes it constitutes a movement. The « movement » of socially engaged artists working in 2001 in the United States is such a community and many of us know each other well.

Sensing the vacancy in their daily lives, artists are also drawn into « engagement » with their own proximate and daily communities. The community of one’s daily interactions—the grocer, newsstand dealer, cleaner, next door neighbor you wave to in the morning—for some artists, can also become the motivation for and subject matter of their practice.49 There are many examples of engaged artists who create sustained communities that become, in themselves, exemplary artworks. One remembers Bonnie Sherk’s The Farm, a patch of land at the intersection of several freeway on-ramps in San Francisco, which was a vital center of rural and urban ecological interface, art exhibitions, and educational activities during the seventies. Today, Rick Lowe’s Project Row Houses, a series of renovated shot-gun houses in an economically depressed neighborhood in Houston function as artist living quarters and residency studios, social service offices and housing for single mothers, art classrooms for the community and exhibition galleries.

However personally satisfying these sustained projects may be for engaged artists, they suffer from problems in translation within the professional art world. Coming to art world attention for their remarkable skill, conceptualization, shape, and sheer endurance, art projects such as Project Row Houses are difficult to shift into other settings. They are generated in ways specific to the region, the time, and the people. It is because the artist has successfully situated him or herself as part of a network of social relations, that the work both derives its power and appeal, and cannot be facilely replicated in another place and time. This presents a dilemma for a professional artist, who will be called upon professionally to do precisely that. Viability within the art world rests on the ability to continually innovate, translate, represent and be represented—especially within museums and galleries. As this work is viewed by the art world, mostly in terms of subject matter (social issues) or its specific formal elements, and not in terms of the quality of its relationships and the shape of its interactions, such work runs the danger of being diminished by reductivist art discourse and passed over by the latest new trend. (50)
However, many engaged artists do pursue a translatable and peripatetic practice. They are adept at forming temporary communities within the sites they work. Often the subject of the work, mined from the experience of local residents or constituents, provides an opportunity to focus on an important issue that isn’t attended to within the community’s ongoing interaction. The artwork becomes a platform to highlight this concern, to gather resources, to stimulate community discourse. People drawn to work with artists in these temporary communities gather around a politic of affinity. Differences are discussed, tolerated, and give shape to an evolving whole. In such temporary communities, normal rules of interaction are often suspended and new ways of relating explored. Ideally, through the successful work of engaged art participants come new understandings and feelings of validation of their own experiences; re-emerging into the daily life of their own community, they bring with them a new sense of belonging, or at least awareness.

But there is no Sangha for engaged artists as artists in « the art world. » The engaged artist finds few opportunities to participate in reshaping the art world, developing a conscious community, or Sangha, a community of resistance transforming individualism and isolation, nourishing a culture of mindfulness, compassion, and understanding. Since the methodological and philosophical base for artistic practice, broad as it is, is essentially secular and materialist, the possibility of a cause-based or spirit-based greater community of visual artists is not theorized. Until recently and only in exceptional places, artists have not been able to learn about « community » in art schools and find training in how to be a member of one. In this absence, engaged artists create a « home of the spirit » in the political rationale for their practice, but it is a home without four walls and a daily support system.

Socially engaged artists, feeling this lack of community in their chosen discipline, form them as best they can. One of my most fulfilling experiences of participating as an artist within a community was in Medellin, Colombia. In my experience in the United States, the creation of viable community systems within each work becomes a labor intensive and almost overwhelming effort that falls upon the shoulders of the artist. The role of the artist in these communities is somewhat mythologized and occasionally suspect, but rarely clearly defined. Invited by Pilar Riano, a Colombian anthropologist, to participate with her and her social scientist and community activist colleagues in developing a public art project, I experienced a level of belonging that is hard to come by in this country. Not as artist-leader, not as artist-illustrator, not as artist-activist or artist-social worker, I was an artist, contributing specific skills of conceptualizing and making that had an integral place within a larger framework, created by committed colleagues and jointly including their skills. Together our concern was the people in Barrio Antioquoa with whom we worked, and their immediate circumstances. Each of us contributed and respected the work of others; we were a community. Art was not seen as trivial against in the face of this social need. The role of the intellectual and the artist in Latin America, the great need of the people in Medellin, and the way in which all of the members of the organizing group each brought non-competing skills to this on-going work—all this contributed to a community of cause, a spiritual Sangha. It is not surprising that this Sangha was a cross-cultural one, led by people from a country and an ethnicity not my own (caucasian).

Only recently have western Buddhists begun to consider the various implications of race in their Sanghas: the absence of people of color and, for those few who are there, the ways in which they feel exoticized or ignored in their ethnic identity. Since many engaged artists came out of various political and ethnically based movements and were themselves people of color, and since artists of all races have crossed these borders in their work, race has been an important theme in engaged art.

Both engaged Buddhists and engaged artists face two issues that deeply affect their communities. First, is presence (or absence): addressing the absence of people of color in all social gatherings and institutions is a critical political act at this point in time. This isn’t knee-jerk liberalism and isn’t, strictly speaking, only about inclusion and equity. In areas of culture—and I include religion and spiritual practice—issues raised by race are in a fundamental way concerned with the nature of reality. The magnanimous assertion that we are « not two » in this culture carries with it the responsibility to deeply understand the realities of others, their perceptions and suffering. Is it really possible for a white American to understand the suffering of a Latino immigrant by sitting on a cushion in a Zendo? Understanding the experiences resulting from one’s ethnic membership is a learning that takes place in relationship, in the community, crossing the strongly imposed boundaries of culture.

However, the most pernicious implication of race-based perception in engaged arts and engaged Buddhism emerges at the borders between ethnicities in the common ground of service. In the missionary concept of service, there is an implication that one is a doer, another a receiver, and those roles are often scripted according to ethnicity or race. While many engaged artists have incorporated a proactive awareness of race politics within their practice, however imperfect, according to Smith « it appears that issues of institutionalized racism from larger organizations within society that have such significant impact for black people – education, employment opportunities, social welfare, criminal justice, are yet to receive more detailed examination by socially engaged Buddhists. » (51) As engaged Buddhists do service in the communities of color and find they have difficulty engaging these same people in Buddhist community, they will do Buddhism a service by calling for an interrogation of the overt and covert racism in their Sanghas. Bearing witness from the limited perspective of our cultural specificity means that we see the need to form communities that seek out, embrace, and value cultural difference. And this act, connected as we are in Indra’s Net, will cause actions and reactions around the world.


« I’ve seen enough to know that we’ve got it good. »

We’ve got it good in America, as the would-be king of country music sings. But our « good » exists within a world that has virtually exploded with information about others. What we know today about situations of global ecology, economics, ethnicity, poverty, and many forms of oppression, is unavoidable to anyone who owns a television. Our knowledge is more sophisticated, more subtle, and our analyses better developed. Within engaged Buddhism and engaged arts, there is an acute awareness that our « good » exists as a result of the exploitation of others around the world. The Zendo, however remote its location, is not outside of the influence of this growing awareness. Nor is the art studio.

Both engaged art and engaged Buddhism have much to offer to their respective fields. Perhaps they have something to offer each other. Above and beyond their respective spheres of community endeavor, both engaged art and engaged Buddhism are spiritual practices and, to some degree, both focus on perception. As Buddhists know, perception itself has the power to transform situations. Things can change if they are seen differently, and from these shifts in perspective, we ourselves, in turn, change. And art, if it is about anything, is about perception, about changing perspectives.

« I’ve seen enough to know… » The refrain from the radio circles in my memory. Living as we do in perhaps what is the most mediated society in the history of the world, specific people’s perspectives on what is happening become « realities » disseminated through mass communication. These perspectives are enough to send us to war. Our perception of race leads us to abandon public schools. Our perception that « good » is an SUV blocks awareness of our relationship to a distant Alaskan wilderness. Dedicated activists understand that perceptual shifts are a key strategy for non-violent change. So are: bearing witness, mindfulness practice, serving, creating community, collaborating, making art. Engaged art and engaged Buddhism are statements of values, as well as reflections of ways of seeing, and practices of creativity and of enlightenment in the social nexus of relationships. They are about change, one step at a time, steps hounded by the question: is this fast enough?




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