A mouse in a trap takes a long time to realize he’s in a trap. After that something in him never stops trembling. -John Berger
I am writing this in Athens where I am working at the moment. Right outside my window is the Parthenon, or what’s left of it, up on the Acropolis outlined against the sky. And I’m thinking about some of the really dramatic things that happened there.
Of course the familiar story is literally the classic one. Roughly twenty-five hundred years ago, in a shockingly short period of time, the foundations were laid down for a huge number of the disciplines and systems that have come to define western civilization: jurisprudence, philosophy, mathematics, poetry, ethics, tragedy, satire, and sculpture, among many others.
It does seem strange however that while men were creating this rational world of harmony and balance they were simultaneously picturing a heaven not of beauty and order but chaos. Men portrayed themselves as noble, creative, and capable of greatness, while Greek gods and goddesses were pictured as a squabbling bunch of competitive, preoccupied, and vain trouble makers. Heavens are typically the opposite, full of light, truth, and judgment. The places down below are usually packed with sinners. Why was this ancient world upside down? And why, by the way, do the archaic Greek statues smile so much like Buddhas?
The next part of the story, and the one that interests me more at the moment, is what happened to the Acropolis as it expanded and changed. Initially the faithful worshipped their goddess Athena here. In the fifth century B.C. the Parthenon—a glorious embodiment of rationality and skill—rose up around the statue. Soon the temple grounds were crowded with offerings, and the votive pieces became more and more expressive. Some of them became exquisite. The jumble of offerings had evolved into an exhibition of art works. Almost like a time-lapse sequence, religion had passed through rationality and turned into art.
The next step here is the really strange one. It had become understandably difficult and distracting for the faithful to worship in the middle of the art show that the Parthenon had become. So the new mystical cults and sects abandoned the Acropolis and left for the surrounding areas—the woods and groves and caves. For the moment, faith had won out over beauty and the Parthenon and all that it stood for were left to crumble, to fall into ruins, to be forgotten.
Ethics is the esthetics of the future. -Lenin
Recently I was talking to a journalist who said, « Who taught you what beauty is? » At first I actually tried to answer this question and then realized that the list of people was so long that it would be impossible even to begin. At the moment, however, my ideas and feelings about art and beliefs (both my own and in general) seem to be in the middle of a sea change that I myself do not yet fully understand. I’m on shaky ground—not a bad place to be really. But I would like to use this opportunity to think about a few ways that art and beliefs can intersect. Do they share an esthetic? And if so, what is it and how did it develop? And along the way I want to bring in a few quotations from here and there, the words of my teachers who have taught me some of what they know of beauty.
The Time It Takes
Every story should have a beginning a middle and an end— just not necessarily in that order. -Jean-Luc Godard
It seems like many religions go to great lengths to explain the way that time works. Sometimes I think that even more than teachings of goodness and evil, religions teach us how to live in time. They answer fundamental questions. How did the world begin? How will it end? Where do we fall in the long line of humans? Is there progress?
I myself spent much of my life waiting for my life to begin. Or in planning things. Or imagining the future. Meanwhile I love getting lost in memories, hopes, and daydreams. These are the stuff, the material, of my art. Do I work like this because I see time in a certain way?
I believe we’re shaped by the way we perceive time. So do we behave differently if we happen to believe in entropy as opposed to the infinitely expanding universe? If you believed that you would live to be three hundred would you be living differently than now?
Once Is Enough
As a young and quite strictly theoretical artist, I was almost fanatically committed to presenting my work only once. I was afraid that repetition would make it theater, which I despised because theater was about people pretending to be other people. And that was already so much like life.
However, I was also already actually playing many roles in my work process. As an artist, when I imagine new images or sounds I look and listen from many angles, trying to escape my own point of view. I imagine being an old man, a dog, a fly on the wall. Later, if the work is made for an audience, I split myself further into audience member, analyst, performer, in an effort to see this new thing well enough to edit it. When I try to motivate myself I become an even larger group. For example if I’m discouraged I might imagine part of myself as a small and fearful girl and another part as the heroic and understanding adult who rushes to her rescue.
These psychodramas go on and on. I have often found them very useful in making and understanding new forms. One of the dramas I no longer use is a carrot and donkey arrangement I worked out decades ago to convince myself to work. It was a way to picture the rewards I’d get if only I could finish this or that project. Of course the rewards never materialized, but the beauty of the arrangement was that I never had to actually think about why I was working and I could extend and renew the system each time it failed yet again. That is, until the donkey died and the symbiotic metaphor died with it. A carrot and a dead donkey are really going nowhere.
What is relative and absolute? Master Sekito Kisen writes:
The relative fits the absolute as a box and its lid
The absolute meets the relative
Like two arrows meeting in midair.
Our essential nature, our Buddha nature, and all the different manifestations of our world are not two. Subject and object are altogether as one.
Intimacy is nothing but realizing the fact that already you are as you are. Your essential nature is nothing but you as you are. See that these two arrows are already meeting is your own life. You are no longer whatever you think you are, you yourself are the life of the dharma, the life of Buddha. Realizing this fact is the moment of transmission. Transmission from whom to whom? There is nothing to be transmitted from anybody else to you, not even your true Self. This is intimacy. How do you appreciate it?
-Taizan Maezumi Roshi
I should say, I am not a sitter. I am, let’s say, a committed beginner of zazen. What has encouraged me as I come and go are the words of a teacher I had in 1975 in Barre, Massachusetts. I took part in a two-week period of silent meditation and at the end of the time, this teacher spoke to us briefly. He said something like,
« Now, of course you understand that when you leave some of you will continue to meditate many hours a day, some of you will meditate only a few hours and some of you won’t meditate at all. You’ll simply forget. But don’t worry about this. Because next time you’ll meditate a little longer and then you’ll forget again. And then maybe a little longer and then you’ll forget again. »
As I listened to him I realized that this was the first time I had heard effort described in a way I really recognized. In a way that was really human. In a way that described the way we move through time, remembering and forgetting and remembering again.
Wake Me When It’s Over
Like many of the artists I admire—among them William S. Burroughs and Andy Warhol—I’m attracted to and fascinated by death. Death in all its spooky goriness. But also in its connections to time.
And I’m thinking of Warhol’s fifteen minutes, his time limit for fame, for the spotlight. Why was it fifteen minutes and not ten or three or a New York minute? My own theory about the origin of this number is this: that fifteen was a very famous Cold War number. I remember seeing it in the headlines of papers like the New York Post. Fifteen minutes was the time it took for an ICBM to reach New York from Moscow.
I love stories and I tell them to myself for many reasons. Some I use to snap myself to attention. Some I use to just dream. I’m a collector and I have all sorts of stories in the collection—stories about waiting, losing, impermanence, alchemy. But almost all my favorites are various ways to see time, like this one, which is a summary of a Borges story:
Alexander the Great didn’t die at the Battle of Macedon like people say he did. Instead he was captured by some yellow men and forced to fight for them as a slave. He fought for many years and he was such a good fighter that eventually they paid him with some gold coins. And Alexander took the coins and on them was his own picture and he said, « This is from the time I was Alexander the Great. »
I also love Bob Wilson’s time loops. In his Letter for Queen Victoria there is a beautiful visual duet about colonialism and helplessness. And falling. From one side of the stage a man (obviously an Englishman) dressed in a morning suit and bowler hat and carrying an umbrella walks very slowly towards the center of the stage. From the other side of the stage a woman (obviously an Indian) dressed in a sari and barefoot walks very slowly towards the center. As they pass, she falls. He gallantly helps her up and she nods her head in thanks. They continue on. Then they repeat their slow walk to the center where she falls again, and again he picks her up, this time just a little quicker. They repeat this action many times. Each time she falls he picks her up with increasing impatience, then anger, and finally fury, until he is no longer helping her up but yanking her up while beating her with the umbrella.
My own short stories or songs I try to keep in the present tense. Especially if they are about time. Like this one:
What Fassbinder film is it?
A one armed man comes into a flower shop and says
« What flower expresses days go by
and they just keep going by
Endlessly pulling you into the future?
Days go by endlessly—
endlessly pulling you into the future? »
And the florist says, « White Lily. »
Some of my favorite Buddhist stories are the ones that are used to initiate feelings of compassion if it doesn’t arise naturally. One of the best is one that Tenzin Palmo tells in the book about her life, Cave in the Snow. The story, more of a picture than a story, envisions a small and helpless puppy being stoned to death by a laughing and jeering crowd. This story/picture never fails to get my attention and is—to me—incredibly beautiful.
Beauty and Suffering
I wouldn’t be the first person to find herself in danger of estheticizing suffering. There are countless images of grief that are painfully beautiful. But the experience of becoming intensely aware of suffering, ugliness, or even evil can be so piercing, so unbearable that it can seem complete, sufficient, beautiful. Enough to simply feel it. What is this? How is it that the realization can be so intensely beautiful? Is grief so close to happiness?
In Greek tragedy the more monstrous and appalling the event—the worse the situation—the more intensely pleasurable and complete the telling. The stories I find the most compelling are the ones in which people suffer and must act even though action means destruction, even though they are almost paralyzed. Among these are the tragic figures of Medea, Antigone, and Electra. Each suffers in a completely unique and individual way.
In Anne Carson’s brilliant translation of Electra, mother and daughter clash. In one scene, the mother sits with her new husband (the « brave bridegroom »), the man who had helped her murder her first husband, Electra’s father. Electra has been in a dark mood ever since the murder. She’s been getting on her mother’s nerves. Now the daughter does yet another annoying thing and the mother screams:
You’ll pay for this
And by her side
The brave bridegroom
This lump of bad meat.
How amazing to draw characters in these one and two-syllable beats! Later Electra screams at her mother:
I don’t think of you as mother at all
You are some sort of punishment cage
Locked around my life.
Both mother and daughter are bitter and particular. Trapped. Their situations are twisted, bizarre and dark.
In discussing Electra, the writer Edith Hamilton argues about the type versus the individual:
A tragedy cannot take place around a type. There is no such thing as typical suffering except in the mind, a pallid image of the philosopher’s making, not the artist’s. Pain is the most individualizing thing on earth. It is true that it is the great common bond as well but that realization comes only when it is over. To suffer is to be alone; to watch another suffer is to know the barrier that shuts each of us away by himself.
So what is it really « to watch another suffer »? When I see these plays I feel a kind of wild grief. And this grief feels inevitable and timeless. (How does the Greek concept of fate really relate to samsara?) When I see these plays, the grief does extend beyond the particular character. It doesn’t seem like all it does is shut « each of us away by himself. » One of the most powerful teachings of Buddhism is that we are really so alike in our suffering. And in our ability for compassion. How does the Greek concept of pity relate to Buddhist ideas about compassion?
Do not be fooled by words and ideas. When you practice with a koan, take the koan as your life. Koans are not something to evaluate apart from yourself. Make your life itself genjo koan, the realization of koan. This is what your life already is. Such a life is totally open and full, and one is not conscious of oneself. -Taizan Maezumi Roshi
* * * * * *
That’s Really Pretty Ugly
Nobody exclaims ‘Isn’t that ugly! I must take a photograph of it.’ -Susan Sontag
In Cave in the Snow, Tenzin Palmo suggests that in praying we should invoke not only « all things bright and beautiful » but « all things dull and ugly » too. Not to mention boring, shabby, repetitive, overworked, stupid, shriveled, and mean. For me, the question « (but) is it art? » has never seemed urgent or important or even particularly relevant. Especially because so many formerly dull and/or ugly things are constantly being transferred over into the art camps where they are proclaimed beautiful.
Do you find that as soon as you pay attention to something it becomes beautiful? Is it the act of paying attention that is the beautiful thing? For John Cage all sounds were already perfect. What kind of artists can we be if everything is already perfect and all we lack are sufficient ways to appreciate it? How would this work? What would these museums look like? Perhaps not collections at all but something made of shifting attitudes and perceptions. Perhaps these art objects will be the fetishes of the future.
Is Some Art More Buddhist Than Other Art?
A lot of the art I happen to like seems to have elements that I associate with Buddhism. Somewhere in this work there is an understanding of—or illumination of—impermanence, emptiness, suffering. There is an approach to the world that moves away from symmetry (a kind of duality?) towards a simple and striking sometimes shocking single element. It also might involve a suddenness that I associate with the effort to be aware, to be awake.
Is this a kind of Buddhist esthetic? I can easily imagine the opposite: that real awareness and an ability to be in the moment would allow us to be completely non-judgmental, esthetic-free. I can imagine a way of seeing in which even our preferences are no longer important. I can imagine being so astounded by the world that there is no time to reject any of it at all.
That said, I still do love certain things more than others and certain art works more than others. My recent favorite art work was made by Marina Abramovic in the Sean Kelly Gallery in New York last fall. She lived on a shelf for twelve days. No writing. No talking. Fasting, taking showers, doing normal things. It had many of the elements of a spiritual retreat except that it was more of a display rather than a retreat. At least on the surface. When I read about the piece I had already filed it in the « non urgent » pile and wasn’t planning to see it. I thought I knew what it would be, and endurance art has never really inspired me that much.
When I went to the gallery however it was a completely different story. It was electrifying and fascinating. Time had stopped. The confrontation with her as she stood on her shelf looking at us or sometimes around us was voluntary and soft. Ceremonial. At other times it was intense and confrontational. I was there for a very long time. I can’t remember ever having such an articulate and moving wordless meeting. A silent conversation.
The original implications of ceremony in Judeo-Christian culture reveal how we live and point to what is missing in our life now. In Latin ‘ceremony’ is caerimonia, which is related to cura meaning ‘cure,’ the act that cures or heals, or by which something is healed. In having a ceremony or in doing ceremonial action, we must ask, what is healed? By what?
– Taizan Maezumi Roshi
Another work of art I really love is a piece of music for solo flute which is a similar combination of the intensely visceral and mental. I heard this piece only once in a studio at ZKM, a media center in Karlsruhe Germany, and I no longer remember the name of the piece. Maybe it didn’t even have a name and was simply part of some research. In any case, when I arrived at the studio they had just finished recording. Almost a hundred microphones had been used to record it. There were several dozen positioned around the room—some hanging from the ceiling, others on boom stands. The flute player stood in the midst of a dozen others which were tilted at various angles and pointing at him. Then there were many smaller mics taped to his body, and finally his flute was covered with what looked like swarms of flies, tiny black microphones attached to the inside of the instrument and on his head.
The engineers were mixing the 48 channels of sound and they let me listen on headphones to various holophonic mixes. Of course I know from MRIs that my head is densely packed with coils of what look like thick steaks and chops. Nevertheless I often have the sensation that my head is quite light and occasionally very empty. But I had never been aware of the space inside my head as volume, as a cavernous empty room.
There were countless ways to mix this piece of music, but all of them were based on the thrilling motion of sound filling a large space. Suddenly the sound of breath or air or wind went rushing into my right ear, compressing to fit in the narrow channel and then flooding the cavernous space in my head, traveling up the back wall and then expanding to fill the space with what sounded like room tone or resonant frequency. Sometimes the pitches would be mixed with this wind, sometimes bits of overtones would swirl. Sometimes it went howling from ear to ear and back. Sometimes the sound would die and the silence would be deafening. Because it’s one thing when it’s quiet in the room and quite another when it seems to become extremely quiet inside your head.
In fact we are already caught in the trap. Why? Because we are human. That means we are conditioned. So be aware that you are already trapped. At the same time, there really is no trap. Why? Because our conditioned self is our true self. Our life as it is is in perfect realization. – Taizan Maezumi Roshi
It’s the breath that combines and involves so many of the senses but most of all it is the breath that turns you inside out. You draw the breath and are invaded by the outside world, the boundaries between inside and outside disappear. Listening to this wind music was almost like the head was becoming a lung. For me it’s really exciting when I can get to a point when the senses are so mixed up that it is all just pure sensation.
One thing I try to do for fun once in a while is to use the wrong sense. Sometimes it’s easy. You can listen with your hands by putting them on vibrating surfaces. Or you can listen with your eyes (sometimes called reading). But it’s very hard to smell with your eyes. Or hear with your nose. So I try to use these impossible exercises to explain my lack of comprehension of dimensions such as time.
The Vision of Desire
When I open my eyes after a long meditation period, I suddenly seem to have about ten additional degrees of peripheral vision, like through a fish eye lens. The first time this happened I felt like I was understanding space for the first time the way an architect might. It became pure volume. No place was more important than another. The space behind me was just as deep as that in front. Nothing had a back or front.
Obviously I wasn’t actually seeing more but I had less desire, less of what I think of as the vision of desire: I want that, focus on it, see it as if through a gun sight.
Then go get it.
Much of what I think is beautiful was shaped by the first groups of artists I worked with. This was the early and mid-seventies. And in some ways the art scene was about paying very close attention, recognizing and using shapes and forms that were already there rather than inventing brand new ones, using tools in new ways.
Buddhism in many forms was in the air. Spirituality was stylish. Artists wore white. There were a lot of drugs. Activism had been a life and death matter because it was fueled by the draft. There was a sense of purpose. It seemed like what we were doing really mattered. We were self conscious, we were aware that we were creating a scene, something that was really new. It had a name and a place. Downtown. It wasn’t much like now at all. Not in a million ways but that’s another story.
Thirty years later I find myself in the middle of looking at how I see and what I believe and realizing that another new way of seeing things, of feeling them, is beginning to take shape. I feel so grateful to be here in Athens at the moment while I grope my way along. Greece is a place where renewal seems natural, a place where it’s part of the tradition to invent and shock ourselves.
Know thyself. Nothing in excess. What do these teachers give us?
We build on top of our beliefs, the way the Aztecs built on top of the pyramids they found in a huge valley; the way the Catholics built their churches on top of the Aztec temples. The way the Turks built on top of the Byzantines on top of the Christians on top of the Greeks on top of the Acropolis.
And with all these history towers I’m thinking of the teaching that speaks to me most clearly and most eloquently: that all of time is happening in this very moment. Exactly now.
All quotations from Taizan Maezumi Roshi are taken from his book, Appreciate Your Life – The Essence of Zen Practice, Shambala, 2001.
The text of Edith Hamilton is taken from The Greek Way, W.W. Norton, reissued as paperback, 1993.
Cave in the Snow is by Vicki Mackenzie, Bloomsbury, 1998.
Euripides’s Electra, translated by Anne Carson, Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, 2001.