The Eight Worldly Dharmas of Art

Pleasure and pain, gain and loss, fame and disgrace, praise and blame – these are the Eight Worldly Dharmas (“dharma” means “fact,” so you could say these are the eight facts of life). In each pair of words, the first one is one we strive to get, and the second word is something we strive to avoid. We hope for the first ones, and fear the second ones. But, as we say: “Hope and fear: those two impostors.” They are both equally invalid. Hoping for pleasure is as meaningless to the true core of our lives as is fearing pain.

Since I’m a painter, I’m not immune to hopes of success and fears of failure. I’d like to sell my work and be recognized. I often catch myself worrying that I might work this hard all my life just to wind up with an enormous number of paintings stacked in my dining room. I enjoy the pleasure of a successful painting and dislike the failure of an unsuccessful one. Since art is our expression of something very personal and intimate that comes from deep inside us, these pleasures and pains, hopes and fears, can be felt very keenly. We thrill to praise, and are hurt by a negative review. It’s a useful exercise to remember that none of these things matter. What matters is the art. Making art without caring about (or fearing) the consequences could (should?) be a meditative discipline like Zen archery, where the arrow is shot at a target without caring if it hits the bullseye. You might ask, “if hitting the target is so unimportant, why do they shoot at one at all?” Well, you need the target – that’s the thing you’re trying to drop – that need to hit the target.

So, it’s back to the studio for me – trying my best to create good art, while trying hard not to care about what happens to it. It’s a struggle. I’m not there yet. There’s a target out there, and I’m still all too inclined to aim at it.



In Praise of Form

As a Buddhist and a practitioner of several of the Meditative Arts (Haiku and Ikebana), I have, over the years, developed an appreciation of Form. In traditional haiku the form is pretty rigid: a 5-syllable line, followed by a 7-syllable line, followed by another 5-syllable line, with a reference (sometimes oblique) to the season. Without the Form, you might do anything (probably something sloppy or undisciplined). Clark Strand, in his book “Seeds From a Birch Tree – Haiku and the Spiritual Journey,” says: “There is a mistaken belief that form is confining and limiting….Ultimately, it is the very strictness of (haiku’s form) which allows us to forget the form and enter into a more profound relationship with nature and other people.” The form gives you the structure on which you can hang your creativity.

In Ikebana Form is based on a series of patterns. Three stems, their lengths always in the same relation to each other and to the container, are placed at very specific angles (different for each pattern). Creativity is expressed through the choice of pattern, flowers, container and “filler” branches. Students spend many years becoming adept at the various patterns. Once they have the discipline, and have absorbed the “spirit” – only then are they allowed to deviate from the patterns. Learn the form and make it yours, and then it can inform all your choices.

Painting has its own disciplines – rules of composition, how to prep the canvas, how to lay down the paint. Rules of how colors work together. The rules give you a starting point. Drawing is another discipline – knowing how to draw the human body and the things of nature. Once again, the Forms provide an armature for your creativity –  improve the composition, use color expressively or eschew it entirely, Emphasize the paint or de-emphasize the paint. Because you understand the rules, you can now begin to deviate from them. You can put the horizon line in the middle of the canvas, or the figure dead center. The difference is that now you’re doing it on purpose – for effect. But you have to have an underpinning of discipline. You have to walk before you can run.