1. Dharma and Art
often start with art and discover dharma out of that. But our approach
is different: we begin with dharma, the truth of the teachings, the
truth of reality, and then we try to find if there is any art in it. We
start right at the beginning, right at the basic point—with the question
of who we are, what we are, and what we are trying to do in terms of
art. So in discussing dharma art, it is important to have some
familiarity with dharma and why it is art.
means “norm” or “truth.” It is also defined as peace and coolness,
because it reduces the heat of neurosis, the heat of aggression,
passion, and ignorance. So dharma is very ordinary, very simple. It is
the stage before you lay your hand on your brush, your clay, your
canvas. It is very basic, peaceful, and cool. It is free from the
neurosis that creates obstacles to perceiving the phenomenal world
properly and fully, as a true artist should.
basic obstacle to clear perception is omnipresent anxiety, which does
not allow us to relate to ourselves or to the world outside ourselves.
There is constant anxiety, and out of that anxiety comes a feeling of
heat. It is like entering a hot room—we feel claustrophobic and there is
no fresh air. That claustrophobia leads us to contract our sense
there is one hundred percent claustrophobia—the full heat of
neurosis—we can’t see, we can’t smell, we can’t taste, we can’t hear, we
can’t feel. Our sense perceptions are numbed, which is a great obstacle
to creating a work of art.
people say that if there were no neurosis, they could not become good
artists. This view of art is the opposite of a sense of peace and
coolness. It undermines the possibility of intrinsic beauty.
Fundamentally, art is the expression of unconditional beauty, which
transcends the ordinary beauty of good and bad.
that unconditional beauty, which is peaceful and cool, arises the
possibility of relaxing, and thereby perceiving the phenomenal world and
one’s own senses properly.
is not a question of whether you have talent or not. Everybody has the
tendency toward intrinsic beauty and intrinsic goodness, and talent
comes along with that automatically. When your visual and auditory world
is properly synchronized and you have a sense of humor, you are able to
perceive the phenomenal world fully and truly. That is talent. Talent
comes from the appreciation of basic beauty and basic goodness, which
arises from the fundamental peace and coolness of dharma.
we begin to perceive the phenomenal world with that sense of basic
goodness, peace, and beauty, conflict begins to subside and we start to
perceive our world clearly and thoroughly. There are no questions, no
obstacles. As anxiety sub- sides, sense perceptions become workable
because they are no longer distorted by any neurosis. Through the
practice of meditation, we can relate with our thoughts, our mind, and
our breath and begin to discover the clarity of our sense perceptions
and our thinking process. That enables us to become dharmic people and
we begin to realize that the principle of dharma exists within us, the
heat of neurosis is cooled and pure insight takes place. Because
restfulness exists beyond the neurosis, we begin to feel good about the
whole thing. We could safely say that the principle of art is related
with this idea of trust and relaxation. Such trust in ourselves comes
from realizing that we do not have to sacrifice ourselves to neurosis.
And relaxation can happen because such trust has become a part of our
existence. Therefore, we feel we can afford to open our eyes and all our
sense perceptions fully.
relaxation develops in us, through letting go of neurosis and
experiencing some sense of space and cool fresh air around us, we begin
to feel good about ourselves. We feel that our existence is worthwhile.
In turn we feel that our communication with others could also be
worthwhile and pure and good. On the whole we begin to feel that we are
not cheating anybody; we are not making anything up on the spot. We
begin to feel that we are fully genuine. From that point of view, one of
the basic principles of a work of art is the absence of lying. Genuine
art tells the truth.
art means not creating further pollution in society; dharma art means
creating greater vision and greater sanity. Art has to be done with
genuineness, as it actually is, in the name of basic beauty and basic
goodness. When basic goodness or basic beauty is not being expressed,
what you do is neurotic and destructive, and cultivating other people’s
sanity becomes difficult. Nonetheless, you cannot take the easy way out
for the sake of making lots of money or becoming a big name. There has
to be the basic integrity of maintaining our human society in a state of
sanity. That is and should be the only way to work with art. The
purpose of a work of art is bodhisattva action. This means that your
production, manifestation, demonstration, and performance should be
geared toward waking people up from their neurosis.
The name artist
is not a trademark. The problem of the modern age is that everyone has
become merchandised, everybody is a mercenary, and everybody has to have
a label: either you are a dentist, an artist, a plumber, a dishwasher,
or whatever. And the label of “artist” is the biggest problem of all.
Even if you regard yourself as an artist, I request you not to write
“artist” for your occupation when you fill out a form. From my way of
thinking, and from what my training tells me, when you have perfected
your art and developed your sensitivities, you cannot call yourself
anybody at all.
an artist is not an occupation: it is your life, your whole being. From
the time you wake up in the morning, when the buzzer in your clock
rings, until you go to bed, every perception you experience is an
expression of vision—the light coming through your window, the hot-water
kettle boiling to make tea, the sizzling of the bacon on the stove, the
way your children get up with a yawn and your wife comes down in her
dressing gown into the kitchen. If you limit that by saying, “I am an
artist,” that is terrible. It is showing disrespect for your discipline.
We could safely say that there is no such thing as an artist. There is
just art—dharma art, hopefully.
3. Heaven, Earth and Humanity
The principle of heaven, earth, and humanity seems
to be basic to a work of art. Although this principle has the ring of visual
art, it also could be applied to auditory art such as poetry or music, as well
as to physical or three-dimensional art. The principle of heaven, earth, and
humanity applies to calligraphy, painting, interior decoration, building a
city, designing an airplane or an ocean liner, organizing dishwashing by
choosing which dish to wash first, or vacuuming the floor. All of those works
of art are included completely in the principle of heaven, earth, and humanity.
This principle comes from the Chinese tradition and
was developed further in Japan. It has been connected with the tradition of
ikebana, Japanese flower arranging, but we should not restrict it to that. If
you study the architectural vision of a place like Nalanda University in India,
or if you visit Bodhgaya, with its stupa and its compound, or the Buddhist and
Hindu temples of Indonesia, you see that they are all founded on the heaven,
earth, and humanity principle. In horseback riding, the rider, the horse, and
the performance are connected with the heaven, earth, and humanity principle,
which can also be applied to the disciplines of archery and swordsmanship. Any
discipline, whether Occidental or Oriental, contains the principle of heaven, earth,
To begin with, let’s consider this principle from
the artist’s point of view. The first aspect is heaven, which is connected with
nonthought, or vision. You are being provided with a big canvas, with all the
oil paints and a good brush. You have an easel in front of you and you have
your smock on, ready to paint. At that point you become frightened, and you do
not know what to do. Or you might have blank sheets of paper and a pen sitting
on your desk, and you are about to write poetry. You pick up your pen with a
big sigh—you have nothing to say. Or you pick up your musical instrument and do
not know what note to play.
That first space is heaven, and it is the best one!
It is not regarded as regression; it is just basic space in which you have no
idea what it is going to do or what you are going to do. This initial fear of
inadequacy may be regarded as heaven, basic space, complete space. Such fear of
knowledge is not all that big a fear, but a gap in space that allows you to
step back. It is one’s first insight, a kind of positive bewilderment.
Then, as you look at your canvas or your notepad,
you come up with a first thought of some kind, which you timidly put out. You
begin to mix your paints with your brush or to scribble timidly on your
notepad. The slogan “First thought is best thought!” is an expression of that
principle, which is earth.
The third principle is humanity. The humanity
principle confirms the original panic of the heaven principle and the “first
thought best thought” of the earth principle put together. You begin to realize
that you have something concrete to present. There is a sense of joy and a
slight smile at the corners of your mouth, a slight sense of humor. You can
actually say something about what you are trying to create. That is the third
So we have heaven, earth, and humanity. First, you have the sky; then
you have the earth to complement the sky, and having sky and earth already, you
have somebody to occupy that space, which is humanity. It is like creation, or
genesis. This is connected with the ideal form of a work of art, although it
can include much more than that. It arises from the basis of health, on the
ground of coolness and sanity, which we have already discussed.
Having discussed the heaven, earth, and humanity
principle in connection with creating a work of art, we could discuss what
takes place for the individual who witnesses a work of art. To understand the
perceiver of art, it is important to discuss perception in general, the way we
perceive things based on the principles of seeing and looking. Whether we are
executing a work of art or witnessing one, first we look and then we see.
The notion of looking at things as they are is
important here. We cannot even call it a concept; it is an experience. Look!
Why do we look at all? Or we could say, listen! Why do we listen at all? Why do
we feel at all? Why do we taste? The one and only answer is that there is such
a thing as inquisitiveness in our makeup. Inquisitiveness is the seed syllable
of the artist. The artist is interested in sight, sound, feeling, and touchable
objects. We are interested and inquisitive, and we are willing to explore. We
appreciate purple, blue, red, white, yellow, violet. When we see them, we are
so interested. Such tremendous inquisitiveness is the key point in the way we
look at things, because with inquisitiveness we have a connection. We as human
beings have certain sense organs, such as eyes, noses, ears, mouths, and
tongues, to experience the different levels of sense perceptions. And our
minds, basically speaking, can communicate thoroughly and properly through any
one of those sense organs. By training ourselves in the understanding of art as
a fundamental and basic discipline, we could learn to synchronize our mind and
body completely. In doing so, the first step is learning how to look, how to
listen, how to feel. By learning how to look, we begin to discover how to see.
By learning how to listen, we learn how to hear. By learning how to feel, we
learn how to experience.
When sense objects and sense perceptions and sense organs meet, and they
begin to be synchronized, you let yourself go a little further. You open
yourself. It is like a camera aperture: your lens is open at that point. Then
you see things, and they reflect into your state of mind. That seems to be the
basic idea of how a perceiver looks at a work of art.
5. Unconditional Expression
From our practice of meditation, we no longer
regard a work of art as a gimmick or as confirmation. It is simply expression—
not even self-expression, just expression. We could safely say that there is
such a thing as unconditional expression that does not come from self or other.
It manifests out of nowhere like mushrooms in a meadow, like hailstones, like
The basic sense of delight and spontaneity in a
person who has opened fully and thoroughly to him or herself and life can
provide wonderful rainbows and thundershowers and gusts of wind. We don’t have
to be tied down to the greasy-spoon world of well-meaning artists with
heavy-handed looks on their faces and over- fed information in their brains.
The basic idea of dharma art is the sense of peace and refreshing coolness of
the absence of neurosis.
We have to be so genuine and gentle. Otherwise, there is no way to work
with the universe at all. You have a tremendous responsibility: the first is to
yourself, to become gentle and genuine; the second is to work for others in the
same way. It is very important to realize how powerful all of us are. What we
are doing may seem insignificant, but this notion of dharma art will be like an
atomic bomb you carry in your mind. You could play a tremendous role in
developing peace throughout the world.
by Carolyn Rose Gimian from “Heaven, Earth, and Man,” in The Collected
Works of Chögyam Trungpa, volume Seven, based on a seminar entitled
“Dharma Art” given in Boulder, Colorado, in July 1979.
Photo courtesy of Shambhala Archives.