If style is how you live your life when no one else is watching, then art is what happens when you live your life with style.
I live in an art town. Tiny little Santa Fe, New Mexico bills itself as the third largest art market in America. It probably is. No other city in the country except New York and L.A. has more galleries, museums and artists-in-residence. Art is everywhere, from the sculpture that populates our landscape to the painted switchboxes that handle our traffic lights to the murals that decorate even the most mundane exterior walls to Canyon Road, without a doubt the single most impressive collection of galleries on the planet. Art is in the shops, in display windows along the Plaza, on every bookstore wall. Hell, even the café I am sitting in bills itself as Bakery / Café / Art Space. And to get in, I had to step over a beautiful actress who was sitting in the doorway, meditating on her Dailys for the film they are shooting outside, which is appropriately titled The Tao Of Steve. No shit.
In another city her beauty would have stopped me dead in my tracks and turned me into a teenager again, searching my wrinkled face for pimples and unable to speak a coherent sentence. But here she's just another artwork in a city full of them. There is a Rama story that illustrates what I am talking about. He was in Paris with a group of students. I was not there, and am reporting this story second hand, for which I apologize, but it's simply too good a story not to repeat, so I beg your indulgence. Rama and his students were in the Louvre, waiting for the last stragglers to arrive so they could begin their tour-that-is-more-than-a-tour.
Rama was standing in the spacious lobby with a friend of mine. They were passing the time discussing the various pieces of art that the staff of the museum had so thoughtfully displayed in their outer lobby. But then an attractive - nay, stunning - young French woman walked by. Talk stopped as if it were a test dummy in one of those collision tests you see on TV trying to convince you that the automobile you drive will save your ass. Rama and my friend just pushed the PAUSE button on their previous conversation and watched in rapt admiration as she walked by. As my friend later put it, "She had a second attention that could kill at a hundred paces."
She walked past them and into the museum and the two of them finally returned to their senses and their conversation. Rama noticed the lapse and laughed and said to my friend, "All this (gesturing to the walls of the lobby and the artworks lining them, artworks that would have been the subject of special exhibitions in lesser museums) is wonderful. But you know…the best art is living."
So the actress, as beautiful an artwork as she is, does not even make me break my stride, because in Santa Fe as in Paris the best art is living, and in my town, art is everywhere. Art is everywhere because the energy to create art is everywhere. There is a creative vibe in Santa Fe, a feeling so unmistakable that even people who would otherwise never be caught using the word 'vibe' have to fall back on it when describing the place. Folks who work in or aspire to the arts have a tendency to visit this place and be so captured by the torrent of creative ideas surging through their minds that they never leave. Either that or they reluctantly leave, but not before vowing to find a way to never have to leave someday. I am one of the latter.
The other thing Santa Fe is known for, besides the art and its natural beauty, is off-beat, non-mainstream spirituality. If a spiritual trip exists on the planet, it probably has not only an active branch here but also its own support group for ex-members who have outgrown the larger group but still like to get together socially to enjoy a fine whine. It's one of the standard stops on the spiritual smorgasbord circuit. If you want to see a particular guru or lama or healer or Jyotishi or shaman or trance channeler, you never have to leave home. They will be here sooner or later, for a lecture or a smoke ceremony or satsang or maybe just a meeting in someone's living room around the kiva. The town is definitely New Age, although many of its residents are so burned out on the phenomenon that they pronounce that term to rhyme with sewage.
In my mind, this conjunction of art and alternative spirituality is natural; the two are inextricably linked. One of the many pathways to enlightenment that Rama presented to his students - along with Zen, mysticism, Tantric Buddhism, martial arts, the Tao of Business and many others - was the way of Art.
Along with dharma talks and lectures on topics ranging from business to Buddhism, Rama also tried to increase our appreciation for the world of art. He arranged field trips for his students to see Shakespeare in Balboa Park, to visit museums for special exhibitions, to view films on opening night. He turned us on to some of his favorite writers - Thoreau, Dostoyevsky, Joyce, Roethke - and occasionally even read to us from his own works in progress.
The man respected art because at heart he was an artist. With Zazen, he created beautiful music that transports the listener to worlds of light; with the help of talented graphic artists and designers, he created beautiful brochures and materials to be given away for free at the public meditations; on his own he created at least five books, one of them a best-seller.
Rama would have been at home here. Hmmm…come to think of it, he was at home here, wasn't he? This was one of the locations where he had a house for a while. I can understand why. The power of this place has a certain outward direction that is not to be denied. It inspires and uplifts, but unlike some power places, it does not tempt you to withdraw within your self or Self and stay there. Instead, the first day you are here, it saturates you with so much light that the sensation occasionally feels like the place grabbed you by the scruff of the neck and shook the shit out of you - literally. It is not unusual for first-time visitors to suffer a case of Pueblo Revenge when they first arrive. Then the altitude hits you, and your intentions of staying up into the wee hours and partying down with the locals fizzle out at about 10:00 p.m. and you drag yourself back to your room and into bed, falling into the first truly restful sleep you have had in far too long.
The next morning you wake up and go out to have breakfast. If you are smart, you avoid the tourist places and find your way to one of the locals' hangouts. You peruse the amazing collection of magazines, then stand in line and get a cappuccino and a croissant and wander out to the front patio, where someone is just leaving and freeing up a table. You sit down, sip your coffee, and then it hits you. You are smiling, even though there is really nothing to smile about. You look around, and most of the other folks are smiling, too, even the ones reading the New York Times. Go figure.
You sit and sip for a while, reading a Santa Fe Reporter that you picked up from the rack of freebies, just enjoying the sun on your face and the way air tastes at 7,000 feet. And then the second wave hits you. You don't notice it at first, because it may have been a while since you experienced the flow of Tao working this particular way. From your initial perspective, you're just sitting there in the sun thinking. But then, whether you are a Buddhist and used to the practice of mindfulness or just a person with an artistic soul, you start to pay attention to what you are thinking.
They're only ideas, just like you have at home. But they're good ideas, creative ideas, ideas that just scream to be written down and acted upon. You search your pockets and find a pen but no paper. You see a woman sitting hunched over a spiral-bound notebook across the café, and you get up and walk over to ask her if you can borrow a piece of paper. You have to ask twice, because she is so lost in what she is writing that she doesn't hear you the first time. She looks up with a distressed look on her face, as if she is saying inwardly, "How dare you be so insensitive to what is going on here that you ask me to tear pages out of my spiral notebook?" But then she sees the look on your face and flips to the back of her notebook, tearing a page out and handing it to you. She gazes again at your eyes, and at the look on your face, and tears out two more. You take them and thank her and return to your table, and the café and all its other patrons just go away as you start trying to scribble down the furious flow of ideas cascading over the bumps and ridges of your cerebral cortex.
Welcome to Santa Fe, and to the world of art. I feel for those of you who have never experienced this outpouring of creativity, or more correctly, those of you who don't remember those moments. It is one of life's great gifts - the reversal of flow. Rama used to teach about inversions, the power that can be gained from taking an everyday experience and turning it into its opposite. I don't know for sure if the phenomenon I am describing falls into that category, or whether the folks reading this will get what I am talking about, but I have to try.
Those who will get this phenomenon most easily are those who have braved the mindset of this Puritan nation and attempted to teach meditation. The study of meditation and the spiritual arts is one thing. The teaching of it is quite another. The former is a process of taking stuff in, of becoming more and more receptive to the flow of light from outside yourself into your self, transforming that self over time to Self. It's the phenomenon we experience when we study with a spiritual teacher. The flow is inward.
But then you decide or the teacher you work with decides or Nature decides that you know enough to go out into the world and share with others what you have learned by teaching basic meditation. And you prepare as best you can, memorizing the points you want to cover in your talks, listening to your teacher's tapes and reviewing your notes to make sure you do not embarrass yourself and your study, and you set up a few public meditation classes. If you are smart, you do them for free, paying for the facilities and the advertising and the handouts yourself, because that way you turn the whole event into an act of giving. And you think you've got it all together.
You walk into the room, smile with the satisfaction of seeing it full of people, and begin speaking. And for a short time, you remain in the mindstate of believing you have it all together. But then a person in the back row asks a question, and it's a question you didn't prepare an answer for. You think about it and realize to your horror that you don't know the answer. For a moment despair sets in, and you feel like fleeing the room and burying yourself under an enormous pile of yak shit for having the chutzpah to even think that you have it together enough to attempt spiritual teaching.
But then something happens. The flow reverses. Several different bits of knowledge synthesize and combine into one and an answer forms. A series of words pop into your mind, with such force that they also come burbling out of your mouth in a torrent, like the suddenly-released gush of a desert spring when the last rock is removed that blocks its flow. You sit there, watching from somewhere else, and marvel at what is coming out of your mouth. It's not half bad. Damn! It can almost be considered good. It answers the student's question and then some. Wow! Where the fuck did that come from?
Welcome to the world of art. I define art as the reversal of flow. Instead of kicking back and taking everything in from the world around us, we somehow trick ourselves into a mindstate where the flow reverses, and we are forced to share some of what we have absorbed with those who are demanding it of us. Sound familiar, meditation teachers?
The creation of art is very Taoist. It is the process of first becoming attuned to the flow of life, and then indulging the reversal of that flow. To do this successfully, you have to have a fairly healthy ego. You have to be able to trust the quality of the creative ideas that flow through your mind, to allow them free expression in the hope that they are not simply delusions but somehow of value to other humans. And that is a bitch. To pull it off you have to overcome all the conditioning the world has laid on you about your ordinariness. You have to revel in that very ordinariness and broadcast it to the world, assuming that 'ordinary' is of as little consequence as is 'extraordinary.'
I know it is self serving, given the somewhat stream-of-consciousness approach I take to my writing, but I believe that this indulgence in the reversal of the flow of Tao has some value, both for the indulgent artist and for his or her audience.
For artists, it can transport them into the realms of light and allow them to play there for a while, and thus bring that light into their own lives. For the audience, if they are sensitive enough to perceive the doorway that these moments of flow reversal have opened for the artist, it can allow them to walk through that doorway themselves, and experience life as seen by someone who, at least for the time required to create the work of art, was hanging ten on an outbound wave of Tao.
This is the reason I believe there is an inextricable link between artists and alternative spiritual paths. The process that enables artists to trust themselves and spew forth the Ideas That Seem To Have Value on an unsuspecting art-buying public is the very process that enables spiritual seekers to choose their own path from the smorgasbord of paths presented to them, or to find their own if none of the selections look like what they wish to dine on. It's a question of trust, of believing in one's own perception of the universe more strongly than anyone else's. In my opinion, the artists who are most in tune with this arguably self-involved and egocentric view of the universe create the best art. Hmmm…make that in my not-so-humble opinion.
Great art is rampant in this town. I could write for pages and pages and pages about the art I have seen here, and the places - the cool moments out of time - that art has taken me, but I won't. Right now, anyway. I will limit myself to writing about the single best work of art and the single best artist I have encountered on my travels around this rock.
The best artwork was in Amsterdam. No question about it. It was tucked off in a corner of the Asiatic Art wing of the Rijksmuseum, overshadowed by the more popular and more valued sculptures and paintings of Shiva dancing, Buddha meditating, gods and goddesses cavorting across canvas or stone or terra cotta. I gazed at all of them, appreciating their beauty and their timelessness, but it was the sculpture in the corner that truly captured my attention.
It was, and is for the adventurous among you who might someday venture to the most Tantric city I have had the pleasure to visit on this rock, a carved wooden sculpture of a Buddhist monk, about two-thirds life size. It was carved by a true master, one who had been able to see the grain of the wood and realize that as the soft wood between the rings wore away over the centuries, the face he was sculpting would grow better with age, as human faces do.
The sculpture is not of the Buddha, or of one of the numerous celestial figures who populate his world and his myth, but of a simple monk. It is titled One of the Ten Great Disciples of the Buddha. And in my opinion the choice of subject matter is what makes all the difference.
The other paintings and terra cottas and sculptures in the Asiatic Art wing are magnificent. Please don't get me wrong. But there is something missing from them, from the point of view of someone who was taught to see by Dr. Frederick Lenz. The quality that is missing is the same quality that is missing from so much of spiritual literature and dogma. It is a sense of identification with the subject matter.
What artist, after all, can do justice to the portrait of a Buddha? Unless they are enlightened themselves, how can they possibly identify with the concept of enlightenment, much less its manifestation? They do their best, and some of them come close, but unless they have experienced that same infinity in their own lives, the artwork must of necessity fall short of its goal of mirroring that which lies beyond our finite experience.
The artist who created One of the Ten Great Disciples of the Buddha must have realized this, because he didn't even try. He (and I use 'he' advisedly here, because in the century it was created in Japan, only males would have been allowed to become monks) chose as the subject matter not the Buddha but one of his followers. If the artist was as honest with himself as I suspect he was, he probably realized that he could never truly identify with the Buddha, so he chose a subject he could identify with.
The artist was a simple Buddhist monk. He chose to sculpt another simple Buddhist monk, and in doing so, he opened one of the most powerful portals to the worlds of light I have ever experienced on this rock. The face of the sculpture, which for all we know may have been the artist's own, reflects perfectly the longing that draws a seeker to the feet of a spiritual teacher, the burning desire to emulate and become that nexus of infinity dancing that is an enlightened being.
I have stood in front of this sculpture many times meditating, sometimes for hours. I visit it every time I return to Amsterdam. The simple face of this simple monk, revealed in its perfection lurking within a former tree trunk, takes me to places in these meditations that meditation on an image of the Buddha never does. What can I say? I'm a little weird.
But in my opinion this artist, who lived and died centuries ago, probably unknown and unrecognized in his own time, managed to channel that reversal of flow I spoke of earlier, and store the power of it in the textures of a piece of wood that had once been a living creature in a forest in the mountains of Japan, radiating its own Buddha Nature as surely as did the first Buddha. It rocks. Take my word for it. Or, even better, don't. Spend a few bucks on a KLM flight to Europe and do a stopover in Amsterdam (free, of course…the Dutch know how to run an airline) for a few days before continuing on to your final destination. Check out both the artist and his subject, gentlemen the museum catalog describes simply as "…detached, friendly people, like this older man."
That takes care of the best work of art I have discovered in my travels. The best artist, by far, was Rama. And his best artform, although he was proficient in many, was teaching.
To be present at one of Rama's public meditation seminars was to be invited to one of the most spectacular openings in the world of art. The experience starts before you think it does. Driving there, having heard something of him from friends, or having been lured by one of his outrageous ad campaigns, you feel some intangible sense of expectation. Then you arrive at the hall, whether it is in the meeting room of a liberal church or in the Los Angeles Convention Center or in Carnegie Hall, and you notice the setup. There are registration tables out front, staffed by folks who dress well and smile better. They take your money (usually not much money - the first one I attended cost all of two bucks) and you wander inside to sit down. You settle yourself in your seat and look at the empty stage, which isn't. It is decorated with an antique Chinese screen and rug, on which rest a Japanese end table and a single chair that must have come from Roche-Bobois because it simply reeks of style.
Cool moments never start on time. This one is no exception. So you just sit there reading the free handouts and listening to the music, music you never suspect is a part of the experience. And when the seminar actually does start, you are somewhat taken aback by the appearance of the seminar leader. Rama walks out on stage and the first thing you notice about him is his height. "Geez!" you think to yourself, "this guy must be at least six-five!" Six-four, actually. The next thing you notice about him is that he is dressed really well, usually in a Kenzo suit and the latest Versace tie. "Hmmm," you say to yourself, "I was expecting something else." Everyone always expects something else…don't worry about it.
Rama sits down in the stylish chair and begins fiddling with his equally stylish briefcase, sorting through papers, pulling out a CD case and looking for just the right one, ignoring the audience completely. Finally, he finds the one he was searching for (Hint: it was right on top the whole time; he just wanted to spend some time taking in the vibe of the audience and trying to see what they were up for) and pops it into the player on top of the Japanese table. He pushes the PLAY button and the music starts. It's electronic and kinda spacy; you're not sure you like it, but at least it's better than Tina Turner or Jimi Hendrix or Ministry. Unless, of course, he chooses to start out the evening playing Tina or Jimi or Ministry, which he sometimes does.
You tolerate the music, waiting for him to speak. When he does, whatever he says, it winds up making you laugh. The sound of your own laughter resonates somehow with his voice, and you start to relax as he starts to speak. You listen, and if you have been around the spiritual circuit a bit and spent some of the time of your life in pursuit of the timeless, you find little to disagree with in the things he has to say. The message is the same. The message is always the same.
So the content of Rama's talk doesn't push any of your buttons, unless he happens to be in a button-pushing mood, and then it definitely does. But either way, the topic he is discussing is not what is causing the sense of strangeness you begin to feel. You try to pin it down, and finally realize that it isn't anything to do with the guy sitting on stage and what he is talking about; it has to do with the lighting in the room. Someone is playing with the spots and the rheostats, making the room shift colors and turn progressively brighter. It's kinda annoying, and you wish they would stop. (Hint: no one is playing with the lighting except the guy onstage.)
Rama talks for a while and you listen and try to follow what he is saying, which isn't actually all that tough, because he makes a lot of sense. He doesn't use a lot of New Age or traditional jargon; he speaks in metaphors that connect with you, and enable you to get the things he is talking about. So everything's going fine, and you're having a good old time, until he invites you to meditate.
At first there's no problem. You've paid your dues on the spiritual circuit, right? You've been meditating for years, and know all about it. So when he instructs you in how to meditate, you ignore what he has to say because you already know how to do it better, and close your eyes to do it your way. But after a few moments, your way doesn't seem as familiar as it did this morning. There is a lightness, an expansiveness to it that you don't normally experience. Come to think of it, you are having trouble locating the you that normally experiences meditation, because he or she has beat feet for parts unknown and left within you this feeling of infinity experiencing infinity. Damn! What is going on?
What is going on is meditation, as it should be experienced. You finally give into the experience and ride with it until Rama shuts the music off and asks you to open your eyes. When you do, the assholes who are mucking with the lights must have been at it again, because the whole room seems to be aglow with light of a particular color. Why can't those guys leave well enough alone, so we can just experience the room the way it is instead of the way it looks now, filled with golden light?
The night goes on like this, alternating between periods of talking and periods of meditation. Some of the talks get a little difficult to follow, as he starts in one place - one universe - and somehow segues into another, taking the story and the audience with him. And the meditations are nice, but who can cope with this empty feeling they leave you with, the gnawing suspicion that there is no one in there really experiencing the meditation, that it is somehow playing itself out by itself for itself?
After some time, Rama takes questions from the audience and deals with them gracefully, no matter how insulting and condescending they may be. He answers as many as time allows, almost always with humor, and then conducts one more of those darned empty meditations. Finally, he thanks everyone for coming, makes absolutely no announcement of when and where the next talk is or how the people in the audience would go about learning more if they choose to, and pops a new CD into the player before walking off into the night. You sit there in your seat, unable to move, wondering why you are listening to Neil Young's After The Gold Rush in a meditation class and wondering even more why you are smiling and enjoying it so much.
The above is a pastiche of many seminars I saw Rama give over the years. These talks - how he structured them, how he choreographed them to music of his own choice and to mindstates of his own creation, how he always treated the audience with respect, even when they did not deserve it - are the highest art I have ever experienced on this planet, performed by the greatest artist I have ever met. There is simply no way to do justice to describing them.
But I had to try, because the impulse that drove Rama to create these moments out of time also drives me. It is the creative impulse itself, the desire to share with others a private vision that has transformed your life, and in so doing hopefully help them to find their own vision, one that will take them to interesting places. I have always been somewhat attracted by art, but watching Rama create his art gave me the courage and inspiration to attempt my own.
I hope you like it. You, at least, have a choice in the matter. You can choose to read or not read what I write. I, on the other hand, no longer have any choice but to write it. I have gone too far into unexplored territory, taken the path less traveled too many times to stop now. As if I wanted to. Writing for me has become a kind of meditation, taking me to shiny places with far more regularity than my morning and evening sitting meditations. Go figure. Theoretically it shouldn't work that way, unless my synthesis of Rama's teachings is correct - that the process of creating art is not just similar to but the same as the process of spiritual teaching.
This is just my own private theory. I never heard Rama espouse anything quite so ridiculous, and it could easily be wrong. I have been known to be wrong before. But if in your travels on the spiritual path you discover that I am wrong, please have the decency not to tell me. I am having far too much fun.