The True Art Is Your Life

Dharma Art by Chogyam Trungpa.  The Collected Works of Chogyam Trungpa Volume Seven.  pp. 3-162.  Shamblala.  2004.

Zen and Creativity: Cultivating Your Artistic Life by John Daido Loori.  Ballantine Books.  248 pp.  $25.95.

I look back with great fondness on the days when I wrote my first novel.  It was 1973, and I had just turned 25.  Up until then I’d taken every opportunity I had—summer vacations, spring and winter breaks—to write as much as I could; I was teaching at a secondary school, and the early years of teaching were intense and difficult.  But in my third year, just after my son was born, I got an idea for a novel—something I’d been awaiting for years—and made the commitment to write it while I was teaching, getting up every morning at 4:50, like my college hero Wallace Fowlie.  I’d been a writer since I was fifteen, serious about it through all those years as I’ve never been serious since, but committing to writing every day was a huge step.  In a way that was when I really began.

I went to the kitchen first to make a cup of strong black coffee, then repaired to the small study beside our bedroom.  It was pitch black outside, and I stared at the blackness.  I could hear my wife moving in bed sometimes, also hear the little sleeping noises my son made.  I wrote with a ballpoint pen on legal pads, fell to it right away.  You don’t sit around chewing on your pen when you’ve gotten up at 5:00 in the morning.

I knew somehow that writing was sacred, treated it as a sacred act.  I was enacting the same ritual that Wallace Fowlie had told me about in his own life.  The two hours I had for writing—a little less, actually—were my favorite part of the day, the time when I was most alive.

It took me two years to write the book.  Despite my best efforts, it was never published.  It’s been over forty years, and I no longer even remember the title.  But I vividly remember those mornings when I wrote it.

I was a closeted writer in those days, had told only a handful of people what I was doing.  I fully expected to burst as a bright star onto the literary firmament.  It would be seven long years—probably the longest years of my life—before I had a book accepted for publication, and it was impossible to explain to people, through all the rejections, bouts of depression, trips to doctors for psychosomatic ailments, stints with two therapists, why I continued to write.  People thought I was wildly ambitious, incredibly stubborn, that I had delusions of grandeur, that I was making life difficult for myself and everyone around me.  All that was true enough.  But the reason I kept writing was something I couldn’t speak about.  I didn’t think anyone else would understand, and I barely understood myself.  It was a vague subtle feeling.

Those hours of writing put me in touch with something deep in myself and in the universe.  In some way I didn’t fully understand, they fed me.  I didn’t think I could live without them.

I didn’t keep writing because I knew I would publish someday, or because I wanted to be great.  I kept writing because of what it did for me.  What I kept saying to people was: I have a really good idea this time.  I think this one is it.  This is going to work out.  I have a good feeling about it.  But I was whistling in the dark.  I wrote the way a drowning man grabs for a life preserver.  I wrote because I had to.


That impulse is what Chogyam Trungpa is talking about in Dharma Art, a book which I read as part of his massive Collected Works but which has also been published in a couple of separate editions.  Like many of his books, it is a collection of lectures that he gave on various occasions, never intended to gather into a single volume.  (Many Buddhist writings are collections of lectures, but of all the students who have faithfully put together the work of their teachers, none has been more dedicated and skillful that those in Trungpa’s lineage, especially Carolyn Gilligan and Judith Lief.  The books are expertly edited, beautifully put together, and have excellent prefaces.  These women have been as important in spreading the Dharma as Trungpa.)  Some of the lectures are better than others.  But all have a common theme.  Art is not some isolated activity that people do to impose themselves on the world, or to make themselves famous.  Art is an activity that arises naturally out of a contemplative life.  It isn’t separate from that life and isn’t exceptional.  It’s as natural as eating and breathing.

So Dharma Art isn’t art on Buddhist subjects, like paintings of the Buddha, or poems about realization.  It can be about anything, but has certain characteristics.  It is natural, like the flower arranging that Trungpa taught to his followers.  They weren’t trying to be artful, but arranged flowers as they might naturally occur.  It isn’t personal; it moves beyond the personal, as all good art does (though I have always felt, as Trungpa’s student Allen Ginsberg once said, that it is the most personal art that winds up being the most universal).  Above all it is not aggressive (a word which Trungpa came back to again and again; it had special meaning for him).  It doesn’t impose itself on the world.  It merges into the world.  It’s the same basic impulse as tastefully decorating your house.  In fact—as he suggests in the final essay—decorating your house is part of it.

Trungpa himself ordained as a monk, being recognized as a Tulku when he was a child and undergoing extensive training from an early age.  Once he had escaped Tibet and arrived in the West, he made the decision to take off his robes[1] because he thought his status as a monk was coming between him and his students.  I don’t pretend to understand the intricacies of Tibetan Buddhism, or all the aspects of his teaching.  But I think his ultimate vision was the one he expressed when he was well into his career and which he called the Shambhala teachings:  a vision of a society where meditation was not part of a religion but just the way people lived, a society where people slowed down and discovered the magic inherent in every moment of existence and lived lives of compassion and love.  The legendary Kingdom of Shambhala had a reality for him that it didn’t for many others.  There is an anecdote about how, on a rather ordinary social occasion, he gazed into a mirror and saw the Kingdom there, describing it in some detail[2].  My feeling about Dharma Art is that it is a sequel to the Shambhala teachings, more than to his teaching on the Buddha Dharma.  Creating art isn’t for monks, the way that Tibetan monks travel around the world creating those beautiful sand mandalas, then destroy them once they’re done.  Creating art is for everyone.  It begins with making your life a work of art.  The production of other art naturally follows.

I instinctively saw that when I was 25.  I just never heard anyone say it.  Most artists’ lives that I knew of were a mess.

If I were giving one book to a budding artist of any kind, it would be this one.  But I’d give it along with Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior, because it is only in light of that book that this one makes sense.


John Daido Loori must have encountered Trungpa in his own early days as a budding artist, because he spent time at the Naropa Institute, the Buddhist university that Trungpa founded and that was a hotbed of creativity.  Loori was a slightly older man than Trungpa, grew up in New Jersey and had done a stint in the navy.  He had a longtime interest in photography, and when he decided as a 40 year old man to take it seriously, he took a course with the renowned photographer Minor White, who frustrated him initially by having him engage in activities that seemed to have nothing to do with art, like meditation.  Loori almost dropped out immediately.  But other students persuaded him to persist, and Loori eventually took up Buddhism wholeheartedly, becoming one of the most important early teachers of Zen in this country.  He was known for being a difficult Roshi, almost militaristic in his training (maybe it was those days in the Navy) and for incorporating the arts into Zen training.  His temple at Mt. Tremper in New York thrives to this day.

Ordinarily I would have sprinted in the opposite direction from a book entitled The Zen of Creativity, but my wife had bought the book when she was contemplating art projects at our place in Asheville, and I picked it up one evening on a whim.  I found Loori to be a wonderful writer about both art and the Dharma, and the stories he tells about his own progression bring the whole subject to life.  He would agree with Trungpa that all art begins when the artist turns the light inward to illuminate the self, as Eihei Dogen put it, when he discovers within himself the still point from which all art comes.  A person doesn’t have to sit zazen to do that, but it’s a tried and true way.  That’s why Minor White advocated it.

I discovered all this on my own when I was 25 years old, sitting at my desk staring out at the pitch blackness.  I created a daily habit of going back to the still point.  I knew that habit was the precious thing, not the work it produced.

[1] I can never write that phrase without a smile, because Trungpa took off his robes in more ways than one, as I have noted before.  He was notorious for sleeping with his students and was a terrific boozer.  I nevertheless find his teachings among the most sane and helpful I’ve ever encountered.  I don’t know what to make of all that.

[2] That picture of Trunpa visualizing the kingdom while gazing into a mirror makes some kind of weird sense to me.