Zen in art, and art in Zen

Since the Beat generation of the 1960s, artists and poets have turned towards Zen meditation for inspiration and structure. West Coast poet Gary Snyder studied in a Zen monastery in Kyoto and continues to draw connections between sitting, reality and the written word.

Since the Beat generation of the 1960s, artists and poets have turned towards Zen meditation for inspiration and structure. West Coast poet Gary Snyder studied in a Zen monastery in Kyoto and continues to draw connections between sitting, reality and the written word. Pacific Northwest painter Mark Tobey invented a style of white abstract writing in the 1950s that arose from a direct connection with the expansive white space found in Zen calligraphy. What were these artists discovering by sitting on a cushion, and how does it affect their art?

The subject of meditation is the everyday activity of mind and body. Avant-garde artists of the 1970s stopped making objects in favor of making artwork about life experiences. Taiwanese artist Tehching Hsieh executed a number of performances including a one-year piece in the 1980s titled Art/Life where he was tethered to Linda Montano by rope for one year. The eccentric Tibetan teacher Chogyam Trungpa defined a new generation of Dharma art where the greatest art manifests from life itself, closing the gap between creating something new to the world and living one’s own simple life. In the 21st century, contemporary American video artist Bill Viola continues to explore the profound side of art as direct experience of body and mind in works such as Four Hands made in 2001. This black-and-white video is of four people’s hands taking on various gestures, constantly shifting positions to serve as a meditation on a contemporary of mudras, hand positions of the Buddha.

In pursuit of a stronger connection between my art and life, I set off for a seven-day silent retreat, tossing aside my work responsibilities, classes and friends in favor of nothingness. Sixty miles west of Portland in a former elementary school is not exactly the place where you would expect to find 31 people meditating, but that is where I ended up spending my week. Soon after arriving, I had a matcha green tea latt퀌� in hand and was told my work practice for the week: polishing lime deposits off every toilet pipe, 33 to be exact. It has been scientifically proven that repetition increases mindfulness, although in America we are far more familiar with the art of multi-tasking, a good example of mindlessness. Just sitting on a cushion without talking, writing or reading-how unproductive could I possibly be for one week? With the goal of “seeing the self just as it is,” I began my discovery of the art of staring at the wall.

Monday 6:38 p.m.

Instead of taking the Korean quiz I should be doing on campus right now I am setting up my black cushion on a black pad where I will spend 10 hours a day for the next seven days.

Tuesday 3:51 a.m.

Awoken by someone running around the hall with a hellish bell clanging in the pitch dark. Didn’t sleep for more than an hour at a time throughout the night, constantly waking up and looking at the clock, thinking I’d overslept. I jumped out of bed to find it’s freezing cold and pouring rain outside.

7:42 a.m.

Where is my art studio? All the things I won’t be doing this week: smoking weed, painting, earning money, having sex, doing homework, taking photographs and making phone calls. Life is sitting on a cushion. Breath is my paintbrush, the art of breathing. Maybe we can teach a class in breathing at PSU, where anyone can make a masterpiece in a few minutes.

6:13 p.m.

Today we are told by the Japanese teacher, “The mind is like a vast sky. Thoughts are just clouds that pass by, stormy at times, low at others, and always changing. The root of all our problems is preference, an American obsession, choices, choices and more choices! One moment: right here and now.”

There is a small hole bored in the bamboo flooring in front of my seat in the meditation hall, I wonder what is going on down there? Seems it may go to Beijing if I stare down it long enough. I’m starting to see landscapes from staring at wood surfaces around the monastery. It is amazing how big miniscule details become when you’re not making eye contact with other people.

9:42 p.m.

After our last meditation period I am one of the servers for formal tea and cookies. I’m nervous but not nearly as nervous as the poor woman doing it with me. She’s scared so shitless she can’t even breathe during the whole thing, white-faced and all. The whole ceremony is an exhibition of simplicity shared by all, although it only lasts five minutes, it feels like an eternity. Just before bed, I come up with two new ideas for new art installations: one is an arrangement of pigment squares lined up perfectly on the floor and the other is a water room with floating air cushions where you can meditate on top of the water.

Wednesday 3:44 a.m.

Two days ago I was partying at this hour and now I’m waking up just a few minutes before the ringer comes running around to wake us all up for morning meditation.

1:59 p.m.

One hour of free time after lunch equals one hour of napping. I wonder if I could ever be this disciplined with my studio practice, partitioning off the day from 4 a.m. until 10 p.m. with artistic tasks, meals and activities that contribute to my art practice? Somehow I notice more and more minutes in each day now. In everyday life, minutes get zapped without even realizing they are gone. Just before heading back to meditate I notice the moss on the decrepit schoolyard playground is gleaming in a sudden burst of sunshine.

7:42 p.m.

I wonder what the guy who I have been sitting next to for two days does for a living? Why do we try to get to “know” other people in life? My ride home bolted from the retreat after dinner today, just drove off, no idea why. An ounce of doubt could easily turn into a mountain when you’re sitting with yourself every minute of the day.

9:53 p.m.

The art of serving tea is really growing on me. Somehow everything tastes better because I am the last one to be served.

10:11 p.m.

Have I ever surrendered to a painting the way I do when meditating? There’s really no way to think your way out of sitting on your ass all these hours. The only choice is to allow things to be what they are without controlling them.

Thursday 7:48 a.m.

What would you do if you had only a few hours to live? Maybe I can do a performance art piece called, “Imminent Death.” Living one’s last days on earth, all the time.

10:18 a.m.

Who thought water droplets falling from an eave in sunlight could sound like a discourse on the nature of art? Three days of silence brings something out of nothing.

1:52 p.m.

Somehow during breaks the weather is always cloudy, but the sky always clears during meditation. Artists are about as useless to society as Zen nuns. Both are obsessed with speaking without speaking, expressing something beyond words. One does it with paint as their medium and the other with their lifestyle.

6:14 p.m.

I’m noticing the subtleties of a white wall. They are not as white as they look at first, or are they?

Friday7:48 a.m.

Why sit? Why eat? Why make? Why see? Why me? Why we? Why write? Why learn? Why earn? Why talk? Why read? Why drink? Why war? Why sky? Why star? Why be?

2:26 p.m.

What if we painted the parking lot like a vegetable garden? Paint spinach, tomatoes, eggplants and garlic right on the pavement and then continue to drive on it and use it for parking?

9:47 p.m.

It’s Friday night! Who gives a shit? In order for the weekend to have any meaning you have to be constrained by a workweek. All I know is my knee is full of excruciating pain, throbbing from being folded up for the past four days. Everybody’s legs must hurt at some point during this retreat, we’re all silently screaming into the air.

Saturday7:55 a.m.

Losing track of the days, it is all about minutes. Making the most of each one!

8:02 a.m.

Has there ever been a president who meditates? Will we ever have one? What about Hilary 2008?

1:42 p.m.

Simultaneous sniffles sound off in the meditation hall today. What are the sounds in between obvious sounds? Is it silence?

Sunday7:23 a.m.

I never thought I would consider sunrise to be late, but after six days of rising at four in the morning, this feels like a mellow start to the last day of this retreat.