Art and Buddhism or Killing the Ego by Letting it Be

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I am, as much as I can be anything, a Buddhist (I’m other things, too, of course, especially when it comes to faith, since I like reimagining myself but that doesn’t matter now). Now there is no chance of me being a Buddhist in the Asian sense…I have lived with Buddhists and seen that the rules and private laws that I follow are fundamentally different to those that they follow…their world hangs from a different frame.

Yet I do believe, not in the Buddha as an attainable transformation of self into superhero, neither in enlightenment, but in the sensual world as maya, as “malleable illusion” or magic. I also believe, following that thought, that the ego is one big illusion, a mindfuck that each of us has developed in order to deal with the external world.

I believe that beyond the personal, there is something transpersonal. That it is possible to see yourself as a tiny speck in a vast whole and not lose any sense of self or purpose, but come out of it stronger and more confident and less controlled by the ebb and flow of emotions. This does not mean that emotions are less keenly felt, quite often they are stronger, but they exist on their own terms and I have learned to swim in them and sometimes to build bridges over them.

Yet one thing bothers me, particularly.

Art in some sense, especially a modern sense, is an exaltation of the one thing that I think illusory: the ego. In simple terms, I wonder how one can be an artist without completely disappearing up one’s own ass.

In one sense one has to believe in the art one creates and to make things that are fundamentally unimportant appear grand and important. It’s a sleight of hand, a magician’s trick. Yet there must be a balance between treating it with too obvious disdain (for that is another sign of an out of control ego, only the other side) and between not caring about it at all. Not giving a fuck leads to bad art. Giving too much of a fuck does too.

So…what to do?

Believe without believing? I don’t know.

Writing makes this split easier. Not believing in the reality of the ego, I can simply make up a hundred more and let them go at each other. I don’t come out of this experiment with any change of heart and soul, but I understand more about the unreality of personality. It is play, maya at work.

Photography makes it hard. You see everything except for the photographer yet for some reason the photographer is all you see in a good picture. By making himself invisible, he becomes the most visible thing of all. It runs contrary to what I believe.

Essentially I think the answer is just doing it without much worry about the what, the why and the what after. Finding the act, the sense of the act and the communal sense of the act (the dharma of Buddhist thought, where an act needs to be connected to all beings in order to be considered an excellent act…of course this is often a gesture more than anything, another sleight of hand, perhaps) in the doing itself.

Perhaps it is also helpful to consider that what is obvious to you (the inside of your head) may be both mysterious and new to another. Why this may be so, I do not understand, but I suppose it is just so.

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Hate the Sin, Love the Sinner or the Illusions of Morality

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Hate the sin but love the sinner. This is one of the Christian morals that I can attempt to understand. It is certainly better to despise an act and not a person, although in its more extreme form this view will lead to an utterly inflexible worldview where every act is considered separate from the circumstance necessitating it and where there is a hierarchy of sinful acts, each considered more atrocious than the one before and each deserving of a progressively prohibitive punishment.

In my view an act is not separate from the person acting. Cannot be. We’re not automatons that certain acts happen to according to a divine scale of retribution but we decide because of various interdependent motives and we can change our motives and our actions to better adapt to a situation and improve the chances of a positive outcome. We’re born improvisers. We’re born spontaneous and every mental construct is a burden to the natural expression of mind and spirit (yet, quite paradoxically, rather often the natural expression of the mind is the construction of such burdensome mental ballast out of spontaneous moments).

We’re variables, not constants. In fact, we’re a chain of variables so complex and diverse that the concept of “we” and “I” are probably no more than temporary illusions.

The Christian belief is that a sin creates an indelible tear in a permanent moral space. That is why it is so frightening. It is an intrusion of a demonic entity into otherwise pure space. Original sin changed the world utterly from a paradise into the occasionally hellish limbo that we find ourselves in. Yet we have a chance to return to it, to this childlike world of wonder and speaking animals. I like the second part from a purely psychological view. We all yearn to a certain degree to return to childhood and safety, so why not dream of Eden?

Yet safety and the childhood dreams are all illusion and if taken as literally real become prisons of thought. The pain and the moral anguish that we suffer as we grow older is equally an illusion. It is a drama of the senses and the intellect that has very little, if anything, to do with our actual experience.

Of course it is frightening for a devout Christian to consider that sin is not real and that an act, kind or awful, really makes very little impression on the universe. It may make a lot of impression on another person, equally inhibited in their eternity of morals or entirely free of them, but the universe really couldn’t care less. Whatever you do, it will just continue being the universe and that is being naturally spontaneous in infinite variations.

In the mind of some people declaring sin unreal equals declaring salvation unreal. Declaring the most trivial aspect of god unreal equals declaring god’s most essential aspect unreal for a mind trained in literal rigidity or for a person who has quite a lot invested in the hope of personal salvation by an ultimately benevolent deity.  

Of course most of us fall right in the middle. Between childlike faith and existential reason. We fluctuate and that is a very good state to be in.

Maya and Karma – Two Endless Sisters

The Indian mind, if someone can make such a blanket statement, is certainly a fascinating thing. While Indians do not possess the other-worldliness that one likes to ascribe to them, they do possess an immense strength of spirit and an incredible flexibility when it comes to dealing with personal problems. Amusingly described as a fail-safe mechanism, Hinduism has one aspect that it shares with Buddhism and that proves immensely practical.

The concept of maya, which is the fundamental unreality and illusion of the world.

This concept does not come to bear in the way one would expect it – Indians do not consider the world in front of them, filled with all the dirt and filth and the nose-tingling and stomach churning mixture of stenches and the shocking poverty to be fundamentally unreal. They simply do not notice it because their focus is internal and completely self-absorbed. It has a completely different application in Zen and Buddhist-influenced thought, but this is material for another time.

I think we all know the state of running around completely preoccupied with something, a state of absolute exclusion of the outside world – it’s a state that some mistake with meditation or transcendence, but it is instead single-mindedness. Whatever happens outside, it is discarded because we hold a burning image in our mind. In conversations with Indians one will often find that it is almost completely impossible to interest them for anything that is outside of their immediate sphere of necessity. They are completely oblivious to anything that does not immediately concern them – distraction could mean missing an opportunity and could mean a threat to survival. To be fair, to have a chance in the churning day to day reality of India, absolute focus is a necessity. Simply to cross the road without dying requires a certain amount of focus and daring. Apparently that feeling is still deeply ingrained in the Indian psyche, even if it sometimes comes across as utter callousness in those whose survival is already secured enough to open themselves up a little bit.

So, the prevailing sense of India is not absence of the self, but complete focus on the self.

How can these two things be mistaken for each other?

Or do the selfless doctrines of Mahavira and Buddha just stand out so much more in that context to be considered all-pervasive? This is where the concept of maya comes in.

Maya is eminently useful in situations of failure. Something that would seem a soul-crushing defeat in other spiritual circumstances is simply shrugged off and the fundamental unreality of the world is evoked as suffrage. This creates an immense reservoir of strength and spirit and makes it possible for people to live in difficult or even dreadful circumstances without giving in to despair. It is the universal panacea of Buddhism and is equally valid in Hinduism.

The other concepts of Hindu faith that are applied in day-to-day life are karma and the accountability of the gods and the possibility of their personal intervention. Just like maya, karma has the potential for healing. No matter how badly one fails in one’s endeavours, the wheel of karma is unpredictable and fortune might come, unpremeditated, at any moment. If not in this life, then in the next or the one after that.

Maya comes to bear in moments of utter despair – your whole life might be in shambles and all your plans may have failed or were broken up. Don’t worry. It’s all unreal, a painted veil drawn and spun by the senses as they dance. Pick yourself up, move on. There’s still life in you.

That helps to explain the psychological resilience of people who have little to no possessions and little to no chance of succeeding in the material world and occasionally manage to succeed against those monumental odds.

Religion, in its original sense, is there to take people’s fear of death and the unknown.

For us, Westerners, this is hard to understand because Christianity works with heavy assumptions of power and guilt and is often little more than empty pomp. Hinduism and Buddhism both offer flexible and useful answers that allow a person to accept them without signing their souls away, so to speak. There is no personal contract or covenant with god as it exists in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. There is no way to displease the crores upon crores of gods and if they mete out punishment it is because they follow a cosmic law not because they want to avenge personal displeasure. Guilt is not woven into the fabric of life.

Hinduism, however, offers a different concept of communality and social help. For a staunch Hindu one’s immediate and ultimate goal is always to save oneself. Another’s fate is not their concern. Various religious movements stress the ultimate acceptance of everyone, others have a strict concept of dharma or social duty, some are militant and fundamentalist, bristling with fury against everything that is not Bharat, not Hindu, not India.

It may come as no surprise that in a country where almost half the population lives in poverty many charitable organizations have sprung up. Some operate out of greed for influence or power (not unlike messianic institutions in Europe or America), but in almost all the cases the services provided far outweigh the hidden or overt intentions. If a party like the BJP, the largest right wing party, organizes meals out of political calculations, they will still have fed people for a day. This is an ill-suited point for any ideological lever.

Charity is certainly not a completely unknown concept in India, but as in any society the people who would willingly give up material rewards in order to help are few. And often, if they do, they expect spiritual rewards in turn. Christian missionaries who help with a sense of intellectual and social condescension or Buddhists who assume that the repetition of a ritual will raise their spiritual account balance. But this is another blanket statement – the history of Christian missionaries is, no doubt, as colorful and diverse as any history where, sadly, a few rotten ones stand out and for people who have no way of increasing their money, increasing spiritual currency gives them at least a sense of self-worth.

Those concepts, maya and karma aren’t considered to be particularly spiritual. They would be comparable to what we call conscience – it’s a religious concept that has found hold in day to day life in Christian areas of the world and is so much part of our lives that most would probably object to calling it a religious concept. Perhaps we are just as pragmatic when it comes to ordering day-to-day society, only we usually call the decisive factor our reason and common sense, which are results of an intellectual revolution almost religious in scope.

It’s common to assume that Asia or Africa are backward because they have never had an Age of Reason, no great revolution of thought that overthrew old structures and paved the way for industrialism and free economy. But perhaps their age of reason has come and gone long ago. Perhaps their age of reason never came because we enlightened Europeans stomped on it and cut it down with swords and shot it with Enfield rifles, so we could keep calling ourselves enlightened or industrious or advanced.

I do not believe that either East or West holds an advantage as far as the sheer volume of philosophy is concerned or that, viewed over a span of several centuries, the armies of one side have proven to be indisputably stronger. Different geological circumstances have created different social structures. Different social structures have created different psychological necessities. It is ridiculous to debate about something that boils down to the question if living near a river or near a mountain is better. Eastern thought is more flexible while Western thought has found strength in rigidity and linear progression. Those are well known commonplaces.

The challenge is – as always – to be open enough to begin to understand. Maya – illusion – and karma – consequence. The two sisters are a good enough place to begin this attempt to understand.

The Story of Siddhartha

 

Buddhism is a child of India. It was born in the form of Prince Siddhartha. It was also born out of desperation, because the Vedic system had become a prison, encapsulating every living being in a fixed and unchangeable form. You are born a beggar, so you will be a beggar until you die and then are reborn as a gnat.

So the great achievement of Buddhism was this: humans can change.

The prince himself was changed numerous times and every time this change brought him great pain. He went out of the palace of his parents, a pampered youth, somebody who believes the world is at his feet or in the palm of his hand. Up until this day he had known nothing but riches, three lavish meals a day, soft clothes and the beauty or anger of his own thoughts. This image is most of us, who have not seen suffering or have never been forced to change…we live in a prison of our own thoughts, beautiful and frightening mirages that we take to be our lives.

The first time the prince went out he saw a beggar. What did he do? Probably ignored him or did not know what to do with the man clutching his hand with such a hard grip until some attendant shooed him away, kicked him maybe, berated him or gave him a coin to get rid of him. But he couldn’t understand. Weren’t all people rich and well-fed? The gaunt and hungry face and the burning eyes of the man followed the prince deep into his own dreams. He felt unwell until he understood that he had begun to accept the beggar’s suffering. He had taken it into himself. This could be us, if we begin to accept what we don’t want to accept. We will suffer, yes, but this is simply change.

The second time the prince went out he brought coins with him and distributed them to the beggars. Then he saw a woman with sores, gruesome wet and slimy-looking wounds over her legs. She refused his coins, just looked at him with eyes full of pride and pain. So again the prince returned and again his dreams were troubling and painful. He looked at the bodies of those around him and saw on them those wounds, blooming like the most frightening of flowers. They came out of nowhere and caused such great pain. He went to the palace doctors, obsessively so, and had himself checked over and over again and took pills and tinctures with him. This could also be us, if we accept suffering but become afraid of it.

The third time the prince went out he had with him coins and medicine and was awfully nervous and fussy, making his caravan stop anytime he saw someone malnourished or pale so he could give and give in order to feel better. On this trip he came across something that would frighten him very badly: a woman holding a bundle. He went up to her, inquiring whether he could help her and her child and he saw the empty face of the woman and realized that the child she clung to was no longer living. He hurried away, full of fear, but this was one fear that he simply could not conquer by fussing about it or by changing himself to accommodate it. Gradually he lost all interest in the beautiful pastimes of the court, stopped smiling at the young women who visited him to talk to him or hear him recite poetry and lost himself in gloomy, pensive moods. This is us, if we get lost in what we call today a depression.

The prince realized that would have to change something else. Not the clothes he wore, not the words he said, not the things he ate. No fasting and no gluttony would help him, no drugs and no medicine. He would have to change himself, be a prince no longer. So one morning he left his name behind the way other people leave a finished book on the bedside table.

He left the woman who was his wife behind, too, and that is something many women rightfully complain about. Couldn’t he have explained himself to her? Maybe she would have understood. Maybe she would have come with him. At least she would have deserved a choice.

Her name, by the way, was Yashodhara. But this is as it is. He did not give her that choice. He also left his son behind and that, perhaps, is damning, but it is what he did. Could Siddhartha have become Buddha if he had gone with his family or would he have had to give up his quest in order to take up a plow or learn a trade to feed the two?

I wonder what a woman would actually say to this…Yashodhara, in her material situation, probably wouldn’t have been too bad off. The son, especially if he was fond of his father, might have been a problem, but she could have lived a comfortable life even without Siddhartha. I wonder as well if women consider all that talk about giving up your desires about as silly as they consider men’s talk about going to war and about honour.

Perhaps his mother and wife got together after he left and talked about how silly he was just to comfort each other…of course this wouldn’t bring him back, so eventually they would have to reconcile themselves somehow.

Anyway, what was his quest? This quest that drove him from all comforts his world offered to him? What made him give up food and sex and warmth?

To understand life and death. To understand change. To understand now and forever.

Is that a worthwhile trade? Perhaps…perhaps not. After all the ultimate fates of a man who chooses a life at home with his family and the man who remains alone in order to gain understanding don’t differ too much.

Whatever you or I may think, Siddhartha – although he was no longer Siddhartha, but just some guy named either Nobody or That One, depending on whom you believe – chose that lonely path and went into the woods to meditate.

Meditation back then meant a lot of physical self abuse. Punch nails through your tongue, eat dirt, hang on one limb from a tree. The same stuff that an old one-eyed wanderer did in Europe’s North when he hung himself from the ash tree. Denial of the body – asceticism.

So That One lost a lot of weight until not even his wife and mother could have told the difference between him and a skeleton. He also gained a lot of scars. But he was none the wiser for it.

After a few years of that he decided to start eating rice again and he found that he genuinely liked it. He could have eaten a hundred bowls, but he moderated himself. He realized that if he stopped doing something he liked at a certain point the enjoyment didn’t overtake him completely, nor did it disappear entirely. That was something to remember.

He made himself a robe of old linen that was given to him by a petitioner and wore it comfortably. He clumsily carved himself a bowl and ate from it. After all this self-torture and constant pain such small things seemed an inestimable comfort to him.

Some people say he was fasting and meditating for fifty days, but really it came quite suddenly to him. He had found a tree that he liked and sat underneath it and rested for a bit.

Actually he had given up meditation by this point or – as more romantic souls say – everything had become meditation to him.

Very dimly he remembered a wife and a son, a young man who would by now have become a prince and he felt at peace.

The animals speaking to him? Now that’s a tricky bit. Just like St. Francis…are they meant to represent something, perhaps the lower urges of men that he had learned to curb? Or are they actually animals because he has become so silent that he now understands the speech of all things?

So under that tree a curious thing happened to him. He hadn’t fallen asleep yet – and he really liked to sleep because he was becoming older – but all of a sudden he woke up. How strange that was. He knew so many things he didn’t know and contrariwise there were so many things he had thought he knew that he actually had no clue about.

He had finally changed and That One became Buddha – the Awakened One.

In his heart perhaps he preferred to be That One or No One, but now there were so many things to do and the world was so full of people that he got up from underneath the tree and started walking again, trusting his feet to know the way, his tongue to know the words and his eyes to see what was truly there.

Citta Vagga

As a bow-maker draws taut the string and a fletcher straightens the arrow’s shaft, so the calm straighten their mind – for the mind is fickle, unsteady and always ready to escape.

The mind may quiver and jump like a fish thrown on dry land. Abandon the realm of illusions and the mind will slip back into the ocean.

When the mind is not pulling you to whatever it desires, you will know peace and happiness.

When the subtleties of the mind to achieve whatever it desires are recognized and guarded against, you will know peace and happiness.

The mind lives, formless, in the cave of the heart and from there it wanders far and alone. Let it not lead, but look with a discerning eye on the gifts it returns from its desirous wanderings.

You can know a thousand words of teaching, but unless you posess a calm mind, you will not have wisdom.

There is no fear for one who has awakened. When the mind does neither lust nor hate, when it is far beyond good and evil and all duality is recognized for what it is, the mind will be calm.

See you own body, broken and withered, and know that the mind needs to be clear or you will waste this gift of life.
Before long your body will be broken. You will lie on the ground, useless like a dead piece of wood.
Whatever harm an enemy may do to an enemy, whatever harm comes when hate meets with hate, it is nothing compared to the harm that comes from a mind in constant turmoil.
Not you mother, not your father, not your brother, not your child…they may be the most beautiful gifts on this earth but even they cannot give you what a mind at peace does. Happiness is a seed born from your mind.
Quotations from the Dhammapada – Illustration from elftantra.deviantart.com

Image Selection IX – Monks

Palden is a young monk from Reckong Peo. He likes hip-hop music and bad American horror films and has one of the biggest hearts of any men.

I do not know his name, but I suppose he doesn’t like attention too much. Taken in MacLeod Ganj.

Their most serious business – rituals. A mixture of music, song and trance to open realms to the divine.

His name translates as Benevolent Lion. His eyes show why.

Please don’t use without authorization. The images are all copyrighted by Sebastian Buchner.

Image Selection VI – Festivals & Dancers

The women of Leo and the neighbouring villages wear bright green capes embroidered with individual designs and carry khatas – white ceremonial scarves representing love and compassion and showing the purity of the giver’s intentions.

In Kungri the male dancers try to evoke the memory of their warrior-ancestors by carrying curved swords and bright red hats – in the valleys Buddhism and martial traditions often went hand in hand.

Old ladies and young men of Nako, hurrying to participate in a festival that renews the sacred protection of their village. The sacred texts, deities in their own right, are carried from the temple in a wide circle around the village.

One of the oldest swordsmen serves as a leader of their procession. In his time he may have had opportunity to use the sword against actual enemies.

All images are copyrighted by Sebastian Buchner. Please leave them alone and don’t copy or misuse. Thanks.