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Our need for a Western Buddhist Art

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Why do we need it?

          Art allows the development of imaginaries that preside over the collective creation of our shared reality. It has a function of preserving the values and nurturing the potentials of hope. A nihilist art can only dissipate the last bits of humanity in us and disseminates germs of slow poison.

          Our present is the prehistory of Buddhism

          The emergence of a Buddhist art made by Westerners is vital for the existence of a living Buddhism in the West. We are currently in a situation of acculturation: the cultural integration of Tibetan Buddhism has not yet been achieved, and it still appears to us as an exotic object, strange and marvelous. We could sincerely get some experience from this base of projection, for some years, and suddenly, by lack of engagement and understanding, abandon it. What a surprise it was to see in a TV series, the character of a student declaring: “my father is a struggling Buddhist”. Behind the line, there is a reality which is expressed. The recent scandals and cases that have marked several international communities have shown that misunderstandings persist. Those misunderstandings are often linked back to a lack of study of traditional tenet systems which approach reality in a way that is so different from ours, and so to a cultural integration that is almost non-existent at present.

          We are in the prehistory of Buddhism in the West, but we have to start learning to paint the walls of our caves. Who knows the effects of such gems when they will be rediscovered in a thousand years? If a benevolent intention and a loving, altruistic compassion give rise to them, they will produce extraordinary effects in the long run. Buddhist Art must be truly linked to the thought of the benefits they can bring to humanity and to all living things.

          In view of the ecological and educational stakes that the current crisis has revealed, it is in the interest of the future of humanity that a generation of qualified Buddhist artists – having sufficiently integrated the practice in their heart to allow the spontaneous creation of an expression reflecting the essence of the teachings of the Mahayana – could appear. In that way, they will unite their activity to the vows of the great masters from the past.

          This is why it is one of the tasks of this generation: to prepare the educational ground for an assimilation of Buddhism by the various cultures of the West.

          The collective interest of Art: a Buddhist Brain Trust

          In his New Deal to alleviate the catastrophic aftermath of the Great Depression, President Roosevelt provided funding for artists. WPA’s Federal Art Project supported artists creation. It was a long-term view: that artistic expression could deliver a content beyond ephemerals truths. Because art pre-empts the future. Any narrative situation is a matrix of our future attitude. A story, by the networks of situations it sets up, conditions us. It conditions our thought patterns, our perceptual abilities and our emotional reactions.

          Artists who create universes know this: even in a post-apocalyptic world where water is scarce and the great states have disappeared, you can stage a society based on mutual aid and cooperation, peaceful resolution of major collective problems, repair of humanity through intelligence, re-foundation of civilization through mutual benevolence, sharing of knowledge and egalitarian self-organization.

          A low-tech world can be described as a desert where scavengers who no longer have the name of human beings kill each other for a rare commodity, spice, power, or knowledge, “an island where cannibals devour each other” (Patrul Rinpoche); but this same world can appear as a profusion of technical innovations, where brilliant and altruistic beings compete with intelligence to solve the major problem of an entire civilization: the egalitarian sharing of resources. A society in the making where the norm is creation, where discipline is friendship, where generosity is the law: not the law of retaliation, but a law of respect; a society where each person is aware of his or her own fragility, his or her smallness in a cascade of immense catastrophes that surpass his or her own existence; a society where each person is aware of the ephemeral nature of his or her own life and will do his or her utmost for the benefit of others and of all.

          Artist’s Ethics : a care for life

          This is the choice of every scriptwriter, of every author, of every artist: one can stage a survivalist armed and ready for the worst extremities to survive, or show survivors who, by a reasoned understanding of their own situation, set up a civilizational system based on benevolence, tolerance, educational development: a world where life has become precious again, where cynicism is no longer the cardinal virtue, and where the politics of the least worst are replaced by a politics that cares for life.

          When will there be characters in novels who think and act according to the four seals of the precepts? When will there be characters, in the midst of a civil war, who rely on the practice of the six paramitas? Who, through generosity, ethics, patience, diligence, meditative concentration and discerning wisdom, make crucial choices that guide their reality towards its inherent fundamental goodness? When will we see people who, in the midst of personal or collective crisis, decide not to let go spirituality, but to make it the only thing, the primordial thing, the foundation of their existence and the ferment of the future? Those characters in search of spirituality and practicing loving-kindness could give a vitality, a grace and a dramatic furioso that challenge the commercial and old narrative models based on the law of the most violent and the most stupid.

          The ball is in the court of the artists attracted to Buddhism: a Western Buddhist art cannot rise without a real and personal integration of those who have the know-how. Reading a few books and doing ten minutes of meditation per day will probably not be enough.

          Dreams may come true:

          Soon, there will be : astronauts meditating in space, armies deciding to become nonviolent, philanthropists setting up study centers for the care of the elderly, heterotopic governments funding research on laws of peace, start-up entrepreneurs building their businesses on the principles of Middle Way, secret societies governed by the sight of the Mind Only, intergalactic battles free from the extremes of nothingness and existence, terraforming planets that respect the living and increase knowledge, endless space quests that discover the six realms of existence, billionaires who return from the land of the dead, bus drivers who practice perpetual prayer, philosophy teachers who teach the Five Paths and the Ten Grounds, meditational self-managed phalansteries.

The Sutra of the Teachings of Vimalakirti says:

The bodhisattva takes the lead of the crowds

Terrorized; he soothes them, comforts them

By offering them the absence of fear,

And leading them to engender the spirit of awakening.

He shows itself perfectly free of desire,

Like a wise man gifted with the five magics,

And he brings the crowd of sentient beings

To settle in discipline, patience and love.

In the biography of Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö, this anecdote is told:

         Coming out from retreat and having very long nails, he had a meeting with a statue maker in a temple. Master Khyentse, measuring with his hands, extremely large, told the maker that a new statue of such and such a size should be created, showing gigantic dimensions. The maker himself had unimaginable qualities: thanks to a long practice of detailed visualizations (here long practice means: “during several existences”), he was able to take the measure of the objects to be made at sight and without mistake. He then declared that the new statue will reach beyond the size of the temple: it will not fit inside. The Master immediately declared: “we must build a new temple”.

          This is now what we have to do: The Buddhist statue already exists, it is very large. We have to be ready to welcome it in such a vast space.

~Paul Baffier

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