the meaning of life is to see


It is [the] flash of realization
 of not-two-ness,
 that is both the center and the endpoint of our human experience.
– Frederick Franck

Frederick Franck, Mariakapel

I do what I am doing because I can’t do otherwise. If that results in books or drawings or sculptures, it is because I simply follow my nature. I can’t help it. If you want to call it creative, OK, but that is meaningless. I simply am a compulsive image maker. I have to draw, paint whatever. Do I call myself an “artist”? No.

Nothing I make is “designed”. It comes up or it doesn’t. It doesn’t intend either to impress, to charm, to please or to shock. It hopes to communicate something. Walking through art galleries I can’t help distinguishing art from kitsch. What is calculated to please, to sell, however technically admirable, is kitsch to me. For art arises from the deepest recesses of one’s being. It may be quite unacceptable. Van Gogh’s was unacceptable to his contemporaries. He sold one painting in his life – for twenty-five guilders – but one look at a Van Gogh and you know it is authentic. You know it came from his core. If I listen to a Bach Cantata there is no doubt where it came from. It is not “Mr. Bach expressing himself”, being “creative”. It is the great Mystery of Being that expresses itself.

When I start a drawing I am scared. Drawing from life, which I do at least once a week, I have to prove I can still do it. I did a drawing yesterday on the beach. There are thirty figures in that drawing. I scribbled them down in a kind of ecstasy mixed with despair. I could never do it again. Drawing is a strange process, for even where it succeeds you never do justice to what you see. If you draw well today, you can’t assume that tomorrow you can continue on that level, you have to start all over again, from scratch. No guarantee of success, unless you are a hack who uses a routine.

One’s truth is of course bottomless. When (Daisetz T.) Suzuki was ninety years old, which is very old, and I am almost as old now myself, he wrote what was perhaps his most profound essay. It was entitled: “The Unattainable Self’”.  I think that is a very good way of saying it.  So one cannot say one has discovered it.


Paradise, for Zen, is accessible now and here, for it is our everyday world,
but perceived by the awakened eye.


[Excerpts from an interview of Frederick Franck by Rod MacIver from Heron Dance Publishers.  You can read the whole interview HERE]

Much of Franck’s work relates in some way to seeing – being aware, connecting with the essence of something.  Excerpts from Zen Seeing, Zen Drawing:

The glaring contrast between seeing and looking – at the world around us – is immense; it is fateful. Everything in our society seems to conspire against our inborn human gift of seeing. We have become addicted to merely looking – at things and beings. The more we regress from seeing to looking-at the world – through the ever-more-perfected machinery of viewfinders, TV tubes, VCRs, microscopes, spectroscopes, stereoscopes – the less we see. The less we see, the more numbed we become to the joy and the pain of being alive, and the further estranged we become from ourselves and all others.

If we could still really see what day after day is shown on the six o’clock news, we would burst out in tears. We would pray, or kneel, or perhaps make the sign of the cross over that screen in an impotent gesture of exorcising such evil, such insanity. But there we sit, programmed as we are to look-at, to stare passively at those burning tanks, those animals choking in oil spills. We perfunctorily shake our heads, take another sip of our drink, and stare at the manic commercials until the thing switches back to smiling bigwigs reviewing honor guards, rows of corpses, and beauty queens preening.

No wonder that once the art of seeing is lost, Meaning is lost, and all life itself seems ever more meaningless: “They know not what they do, for they do not see what they look-at.”


To be liberated from the pathology of avidya
(which in Sanskrit literally means not-knowing, ignorance, in the sense of un-intelligence, i.e. stupidity!)
is to be awakened or enlightened,
to see realistically, to find one’s place in the organic Whole,
to see with the awakened eye.


“Not seeing what they look-at” may well be the root cause of the frightful suffering that we humans inflict on one another, on animals, on Earth herself.


How did I discover this seeing/drawing, in which the seeing and the drawing fuse into one undivided act, in which eye and hand, body and soul are no longer split? It happened around 1960 – on the equator. I was serving as an oral surgeon on the staff of Albert Schweitzer’s legendary jungle hospital in Lambarene. Before leaving New York, I had vowed to use my time in Africa to get into as close a contact with Africa and Africans as possible. I had brought two good cameras.

Soon, however, clicking the shutter, even a thousand times, did not satisfy me. The machine separated my eye from the reality it perceived. People in the leprosy section of the hospital would hide their disfigured bodies and flee approaching camera-toters, but they sat for me as models, they felt that ‘the act of’ drawing reverenced, dignified them.


There is no other reason for drawing than the awareness of the eye awakening from its half-sleep.
There is – I am convinced – no other good reason for art, all the art-popes and theories notwithstanding…


Multitudes of people paint, but few can draw, and far fewer still can see a drawing… The rare ones who do not look at a drawing as a thing but see it for what it is, a process, a happening…


The purpose of ‘looking’ is to survive, to cope, to manipulate …
this we are trained to do from our first day.
When, on the other hand, I SEE, suddenly I am all eyes,
I forget this ME, am liberated from it and dive into the reality that confronts me.

– Frederick Franck

Also see:

the Face of faces

the 10 commandments (guidelines for the creative life)

Frederick Franck at the artisans’ gallery


Frederick Franck: A Passion for Seeing

A Passion for Seeing
– Frederick Franck