Artist and Dharma teacher Kongtrul Jigme Namgyel presented this talk to accompany his 2008 exhibition Natural Vitality at Tibet House, New York.
I’m grateful for his kind permission to share his wisdom and inspiration here.
Imagine a life without music, without sculpture, painting, poetry, theater or dance. The purpose of art is to reflect and enjoy the richness of the world – not just what we think is ‘good’ and ‘pleasing’ – but the entirety of human experience. The primordial instinct to express creativity has been part of the human appreciation of life since the cave men. Creativity expresses itself at the very beginning of life – it could be said that our first cry is our very first song. But we really engage our creativity when we begin to play. We watch other children play. Their play excites us and we want to play, to learn how to play; we express our urge to play, and then we become masters of play ourselves. The beauty of the world means so much to us, although we may sometimes take it for granted.
When we walk into a good antique shop we appreciate the craftsmanship of the pieces. We see the time and skill put into the glass, silver and wood. Antiques have a quality of richness because in the past artisans had more time to put into their craft – things were not mass-produced and there was a sense of lineage – a way of doing things. The energy put into the creation of art reflects our own richness and in turn communicates this richness to others. When we appreciate a beautiful piece of art it is not limited to the piece itself – we experience the process that the artist went through as well; it is a transference of consciousness. Whether we are an artist or a spectator we feel the creative energy. When it has been formalized into a piece, the artist’s energy has not become the piece itself – but the piece is blessed by the creativity of the artist. We usually think of creativity as ‘belonging’ to the artist. But in a larger sense creative energy is innate and spontaneously present, not fabricated by hammer and nail. It is unborn, with no center or boundary, yet nothing exists outside of it. The mountains, oceans, the sun and moon, the seasons arise spontaneously from it. What has become ‘our life’ – everything we are and everything we have been since we stepped into this world – is spontaneously present. Our genetic make up – the egg and sperm of our parents – arose from and is encompassed by the creative energy of our basic nature. The great Buddhist practitioner Kunchyen Longchenpa said: “The universe is spontaneously present, who could have created it? It is the grand production of its creative energy.” And all appearance is blessed by it.
When we speak about natural creativity and its expression we are not talking about something separate from our own mind and experience. All that we call ‘existent phenomena’ is experienced by mind. This awareness is primordial and omnipresent – is there ever a time when we don’t experience it? Experience can be dull, we may be asleep, we may be ignorant or distracted… but we are always ‘awake’ in one way or another – experiencing our thoughts, our emotions, our state of mind; experiencing our dullness, our distractedness or joy. There has never been a time we have been inanimate, like a rock. This creative energy never leaves us, whether we turn toward ignorance or enlightenment, whether our intelligence is obstructed or not, whether we operate from the ego or from a bigger state of mind. It remains in its own naked state at all times.
Even if we aspire to enlightenment, if we don’t appreciate and trust the potential and expression of our natural creativity – which is all phenomena- and look for enlightenment elsewhere, our spiritual path will become dualistic. It is an egoistic tendency to try to arrange phenomena according to our preferences rather than appreciate them for what they are. This approach leads us to resent certain experiences and search for an enlightenment – or a creativity – divorced from what we directly encounter. Resenting experience is resenting the natural vitality of mind and prevents us from having a trust in the fullness of the way phenomena unfold. So we need to see this primordial potential in all of our experiences, in the same way a doctor sees the health and well-being in his patients. If a patient didn’t possess a fundamental well-being what would be the point of prescribing such antidotes as medicines, exercise or new diets?
In truth, enlightenment is always grounded in our own direct experience of mind and its activities, no matter what they may be. When we trust our creative energy we encounter a supreme kind of enjoyment – an amazement at the natural unfolding of life beyond our ordinary way of looking at things. When we talk about creating art – or more importantly – the art of living a sane life, it means trusting our basic nature and its natural creativity. Natural creativity is something very large – the essence of everything. As artists we make such a big deal about creating something ‘good’, something ‘pleasing’. We want everyone to love our creations in order to confirm our existence. Our insecurities, hopes and fears haunt us. Either we feel we lack the ability to create or we use art as a means to solidify ourselves: “Look here, my art is in the Guggenheim!” “Look at my resume, I danced with the Russian Ballet!” Don’t let your insecurities rob you of your trust! Just remember, this natural energy created the entire universe – a humbling thought that puts our own artistic creations in perspective! Think: “The universe is here! Where did it come from?” Then have some trust and let this natural energy express itself.
Essentially there are two categories of art: there is figurative or structured art and abstract or free form art. Figurative art comes from developed lineages of precise techniques passed down for many generations. These techniques are learned and expressed freely within the framework of the tradition they represent. They provide the artist with the skills to create music or art of tremendous beauty – particularly when the artist has confidence in his or her creative energy. Objects produced in this way have a lot of “yün” or richness. Traditional music and dance has tremendous beauty, power and a sense of order as if divinely created.
Abstract art expresses itself without structure, theme, rules, concepts or guidelines. We gather together the elements such as the paint, canvas and turpentine and with a minimal amount of technique we just ‘let it happen’. This is the kind of work I do. My teacher Yahne le Toumelin, studied traditional art much of her life and later started to experiment and let go of those forms. I became interested in working with this formless practice because I felt it would enhance and complement by meditation and free up my creative expression. I didn’t engage traditional art but plunged right in with my teacher and what she was doing.
As with art, in meditation practice we begin with techniques or reference points that help us engage the mind in a sane way. But as we come to know the mind we begin to see mind and its activities like we see that ocean and its waves. The activity of water often manifests as ripples and sometimes as enormous waves, yet essentially this movement is always made of water. We cannot say the waves and the water are one thing yet we also cannot say they are separate. It is the same when we speak about mind and its activities. In meditation practice we see that all movement of mind is the manifestation of primordial creative energy. So whatever arises in the mind we understand to be blessed by this energy. Like water and waves, mind and activities share this relationship of essence and expression.
My instruction from Yahne reflects a discipline that integrates the view of meditation and art: She would say: “When you get attached to anything that emerges on the canvas, destroy it!” I would watch her create something beautiful and then paint over it or scrape off the paint. “Destroy, destroy, destroy.” This is not to say that beauty or attachment to beauty is a problem. Destroying them is not an aggressive act, an annihilation of self or a rejection of experience. It enhances creativity. It is a natural wearing away of attachment and becomes a part of the creative process itself – a way to engage bigger mind. The more I do this, the greater the satisfaction. I am not fixated on creating something ‘good’ or ‘pleasing.’ My interest or focus is on the process of creating and connecting to my natural creativity. The main discipline is to let go. Usually I go through the process of destroying many times in order to get beyond my emotions, hopes and fears. Often the paintings I destroy repeatedly are the least contrived, raw and most provocative. They are often unrecognizable from one moment to the next – even the colors change. Because we paint with oil and turpentine the paint is easy to manipulate. The combination provides a freedom of expression because one can easily add, remove or scrape away any paint. I don’t think all styles of painting would support his approach, for instance, traditional thangka painting. The attitude and discipline of working with attachment and connecting to creativity is the basic point.
Recently an artist talked about her experience of creating a painting. She had a big red shape in the middle of the painting she got attached to. She wanted to keep it in. Somehow she found she couldn’t move freely with her creativity because she was painting around it and this restricted her creative movement. Finally she decided to let it go. Only then could she move ahead and be surprised at what would finally emerge.
When I have exhausted my fixations through the process of destroying I let the painting be. At this point I have reached what I call the ‘mark of non-creating’ – a state of uncontrived creativity where the artist just steps out of his or her own way. When I find that I have arrived at that point I just drop any activity – stop – and leave the painting right there without trying to improve or manipulate it. I never judge my paintings – I always appreciate and spend time with them because I appreciate where they come from. It is similar to appreciating and coming to understand all aspects of my mind through the process of meditation: whatever arises teaches me something. Everything I encounter is fresh and surprising. In this way I never become stagnant in my work. Sometimes I access this freedom more quickly than others, but I trust that it is always present as the nature of all expression. This is an invigorating and deeply fulfilling liberation. I feel in awe of the whole process – not in a narcissistic way – but of the expression of this primordial creativity.
When it comes to art, the process we engage in is reflected in its expression. If we trust in the basic nature – it is communicated. If we are insecure and self-conscious – it is communicated. Ultimately, because everything arises from the creative nature of primordial mind, there is nothing that is more profound, miraculous or ‘creative’ than anything else. My hope is that my paintings communicate the beauty of this unhindered practice of free expression.
©2015 Kongtrul Jigme Namgyel
relevant links on ‘the awakened eye’:
The Paintings of Kongtrul Jigme Namgyel