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Thread: zazen, emotions, desire, and making art

  1. #1

    zazen, emotions, desire, and making art

    Hi everyone,

    It's been a couple of weeks since I was here last, hope everyone has had a good holiday/new year. I've been so sloppy with my zen practice, on again off again, that I often wonder what is keeping me from going deeper (besides the stiff legs of course...!) For a very long time I've been struggling with one particular point that keeps coming up and preventing me from committing myself to practice...

    I have been writing my own songs for the last couple of years, often playing at coffee houses and bars-really wherever I can play. My main concern in practicing zazen long term is that it will eventually erode the idealistic (dare I say...romantic) tendencies that often catapult me into song. I feel that identifying with some aspects of the emotional narrative that often comes along with songwriting is fundamentally at odds with the buddhist notion of "non-attachment" and keeping the "flames" of desire, affections, and even anger negligible. While I am aware that when emotions get too big, they often become sickly sweet, and/or suffocating...that is a huge problem of mine (and many others I know)-I came to this practice precisely because my brain was on fire...but some of that fire, for better or worse, also inspires creativity.

    Perhaps not dwelling on, and thus solidifying the emotions makes sense-but how can art be made without at least an initial regard of the internal world? Maybe the answer is to experience and then purge the emotions through the canvas, music staff or whatever. In order to create one has to *know something about the self stories and emotional landscape. Maybe not...who knows?

    Any ideas?

    gassho,

    Jake
    Last edited by JStnton; 01-03-2013 at 12:06 AM.

  2. #2
    Romantic is romantic.
    Not romantic is romantic.
    Not romantic is not romantic.
    Or, romantic and not romantic are one and same, just different sides of the coin.
    Who knows? Go figure.
    Last edited by Jishin; 01-03-2013 at 12:58 AM.
    治 Ji (Healing)
    心​ Shin (Heart-Mind)

  3. #3
    I think when you're writing a song you should write it without thinking about songs or zen, and when you're practicing zazen you should also do it without thinking about songs or zen. Will your zazen practice change the way you write and sing songs? Definitely. But doesn't everything change the way you write and sing songs?

  4. #4
    I've been painting professionally for around 25 Years. There have been big changes over time, but to be honest it is hard to tease apart Buddhist practice from ordinary life wearing down the sharp corners. The two are inseparable for me. Passion for the creative process is brighter than ever. Appreciation for that magical turn of phrase (in paint, sound, etc) is sharper than ever. The passion that has fallen away is the passion of The Artist, and all the histrionic malarkey that comes with being self-centered and "deeply feeling". That's not to say there isn't still self-centered melodrama, there is, but it has lost its charm. More art, less Artist. ...that seems to be the general drift of things, and it's a relief.

    Gassho, kojip
    大山

  5. #5
    Quote Originally Posted by JStnton View Post
    Hi everyone,

    It's been a couple of weeks since I was here last, hope everyone has had a good holiday/new year. I've been so sloppy with my zen practice, on again off again, that I often wonder what is keeping me from going deeper (besides the stiff legs of course...!) For a very long time I've been struggling with one particular point that keeps coming up and preventing me from committing myself to practice...

    I have been writing my own songs for the last couple of years, often playing at coffee houses and bars-really wherever I can play. My main concern in practicing zazen long term is that it will eventually erode the idealistic (dare I say...romantic) tendencies that often catapult me into song. I feel that identifying with some aspects of the emotional narrative that often comes along with songwriting is fundamentally at odds with the buddhist notion of "non-attachment" and keeping the "flames" of desire, affections, and even anger negligible. While I am aware that when emotions get too big, they often become sickly sweet, and/or suffocating...that is a huge problem of mine (and many others I know)-I came to this practice precisely because my brain was on fire...but some of that fire, for better or worse, also inspires creativity.

    Perhaps not dwelling on, and thus solidifying the emotions makes sense-but how can art be made without at least an initial regard of the internal world? Maybe the answer is to experience and then purge the emotions through the canvas, music staff or whatever. In order to create one has to *know something about the self stories and emotional landscape. Maybe not...who knows?

    Any ideas?

    gassho,

    Jake
    Hi Jake,

    Well, decades of Zen Practice seem not to have had such an effect on noted Zenny Leonard Cohen (no direct relation, by the way) ...



    Zazen should not turn us into emotional Zombies, although it should allow us to be in the emotional drivers' seat much more (rather than prone to skidding headlong over the emotional cliffs). We know all the emotions ... perhaps in ways more than many people due to awareness of the games of our "mind theatre".

    http://www.treeleaf.org/forums/showt...Seeds-PRACTICE

    Non-attachment is not "detachment". Our way is not to become lobotomized, numb and tranquilized, too passive to rage at the unjust machine! We are about vibrant living! Some Buddhist schools were (and still are) about abandoning emotions, hitting the 'off' switch, cooling the passions and desires. Later, the Mahayana, and especially Zen (many Vajrayana flavors too) became more about seeing through and not being trapped by the emotions, excess, passions and desires. We do not escape from fear, happiness, worry, love, glumness, depression, "what if's", the greatest joys, passion, warmth, panic attacks, addictions, grief at loss, the thrill of new love ... but run right in it, dance with it all, embody all, become FREE! This is LIFE! At the same time, we see through the passing puppet show of the theatre of mind and emotions, do not get trapped and caught by any one, find the Buddha's Wisdom in all of it ... are no longer enslaved by the theatre of mind. The Stillness we find is not standing still, is both rock solid and the swirl of the greatest storm.

    So, write your songs of love and loss and all the rest. Yes, we sense that Heart Which Can Never Be Broken, but we find it right at the heart of a lover's broken heart. Yes, you may find yourself writing more songs about peace ... and less about falling prisoner to runaway anger ... but such songs are wondrous too.

    I hope that helps.

    Gassho, J

    Last edited by Jundo; 01-03-2013 at 03:03 AM.
    ALL OF LIFE IS OUR TEMPLE

  6. #6
    Hi Jake,

    Ideas?...

    There is no contradiction whatsoever. Do your stuff. Write and sing your heart out. Practice is about letting go of the very voice that wrote your post. There is nothing wrong about heart being broken and all the rest of it. Ryokan fell in love writing poems and drinking sake as well as sitting too). Some of the greatest Buddhist masters were poets, artists and lovers.

    The junk is the belief system. The raw heart of creativity is vital and fully part of the Dharma.

    gassho

    A bloke that loves the company of beautiful women, writing useless poems and texts, moon gazing drinking away and ...sitting.
    Taigu, teacher at Treeleaf Sangha, was born in 1964, started Zazen early and received Shukke Tokudo in 1983 at age 18 from Rev. Mokusho Zeisler of the Deshimaru Lineage. Received Dharma Transmission from Chodo Cross in 2002. Now resides in Osaka, Japan.

  7. #7
    Hi Jake - agree with everything written here - no contradiction between Zen/emotional/artistic expression at all.

    Two books I read recently:

    'Nothing and Everything - the influence of Buddhism on the American Avant-Garde' by Ellen Pearlman

    and the second I return to often,

    'One Robe One Bowl' The zen poetry of Ryokan.

    Ryokan's poetry is full of yearning, melancholy, simplicity, beauty and wisdom.

    In essence the dharma is the whole of life and the whole of life the dharma.

    Gassho

    Willow

    (I also love to write songs, make art etc )

  8. #8
    Hi Jake, somebody mentioned this book on this forum before. Daido Loori Roshi was an artist himself and he used art practice in his Zen teaching methods.
    Gassho,
    Andy

  9. #9
    Hi all,

    Thanks very much for your insights and replies-I have never quite thought about dharma practice this way...I tend to forget that sometimes life can be paradoxical rather than black and white (hence my appreciation for Zen)-I set up a false dichotomy in my head where I thought I had to choose either the life of the artist-sensual, emotive, idealistic or the life of the contemplative practitioner-austere, even headed, realistic. I understand the dangers of clinging to the impermanent, fluctuating world of selves and ideas-but it's these very selves and ideas that, sometimes, provide fodder for art that can both be free form yet relatable-no division between "pop" and "avant garde" so to speak. Concepts are just useful fictions-but I think we do need them to live in the human-social world-Writing a song about a loved one-deeply missing a loved one may be foolish from a zen standpoint...but wholly cathartic from an artistic one.
    Maybe the key is to just do both-live in both worlds-because there is really no separation...

    Thanks for all the book recommendations by the way-I will check them out!

    gassho,

    Jake

  10. #10
    PS

    *Maybe sometimes a yearning moan or a yelp of anger is more appropriate than quelling the heart with the breath of equanimity...leaving these difficult emotions to articulate themselves through song. If I write a song that has a hint of anger or jealousy-I can sing it even when I am no longer angry or jealous because I still have compassion for the person who wrote it and perhaps somebody else might be able to relate to that person for the time being...

  11. #11
    Hi Jake,

    If I may add:
    Sometimes it's the other way round - art can help you with your practice!
    For example most people who are really in love with creative photography quite soon see the world around them with new eyes.
    I see beauty in the most ordinary things thanks to photography. That's also a reason why this Zen practice is so appealing to me.

    I think when you really relax, take things easy (and yourself not too seriously), you might discover that your music deepens your practice and vice versa. And if not, it's also OK.

    Gassho,

    Timo
    no thing needs to be added

  12. #12
    Hi Timo,

    In a couple of weeks I'll be starting my first photography course at my college and am pretty thrilled...I have read a lot about how buddhist author Stephen Batchelor has used his photography as a way to deepen his practice and vice versa...

    I discovered a wonderful little song the other day by one of my favorite bands Kleenex Girl Wonder-an indie-pop band out of Chicago-the song is called "Don't Cry, Ikkyu"-referencing of course the zen master.

    some lyrics...

    Don't cry Ikkyu
    There are spirits all around you
    empowered by lyrics that sound true
    so listen, don't cry Ikkyu, words can keep you

    safe from the demons
    that present themselves without reason
    and append themselves to every feeling
    you've ever had, look don't cry Ikkyu it's not that bad...!

    The singer Graham Smith is known for writing irresistibly catchy little tunes, with lyrics that are both shockingly verbose, absurd, and in some ways utterly profound...after discovering this song of his I wonder if he has read up on/practiced any zen before...either way-good stuff

    http://kgw.me/track/dont-cry-ikkyu

    here's a link to the track to stream for free if interested on the official KGW website...

  13. #13
    Quote Originally Posted by JStnton View Post
    Concepts are just useful fictions-but I think we do need them to live in the human-social world-Writing a song about a loved one-deeply missing a loved one may be foolish from a zen standpoint...but wholly cathartic from an artistic one.

    Then I must be big zen fool, because the kid's away on a sleepover, and I can smell his hair with a little knot in my gut.

    Gassho, kojip
    大山

  14. #14
    Kojip,

    I suppose I was being a little harsh with that statement-these restrictions and ideas about zen and non-zen, being detached and being wholly absorbed... are purely fabrications from my utterly policed mind...I speak in ignorance of course. Daring not to sit too long lest I surprise myself with a clearer mind AND yet all at once the same feelings, yearnings, and "knots" that compel make art.

    And again Timo, like you mentioned-at the end of the day not taking myself too seriously is a wonderful practice

    gassho,

    Jake

  15. #15
    Quote Originally Posted by JStnton View Post
    .... Concepts are just useful fictions-but I think we do need them to live in the human-social world-Writing a song about a loved one-deeply missing a loved one may be foolish from a zen standpoint...but wholly cathartic from an artistic one.
    Maybe the key is to just do both-live in both worlds-because there is really no separation...

    ...

    Maybe sometimes a yearning moan or a yelp of anger is more appropriate than quelling the heart with the breath of equanimity...

    ...
    There is no separation, even in a world of separation. As with Kojyp, my son is away today with family and I miss him dearly. Hand-in-hand, I taste that which is free of distance, loss and gain, any other to be missed. Perhaps one face of our Practice is mastering the fine art of leaping back and forth and right through all these perspectives, each appropriate in its time and place ... both true at once, really one truth as one, for both the bright and dark sides of the one moon are always present but cannot always easily be seen at once (though can when seeing right through and through).

    Tap into all of that ... all the human emotions ... if it helps write your song of anger, jealousy, longing, love and loss (I'm a big country music fan, by the way, and there would be no Nashville without such things). Perhaps also write some songs too about a Buddha's Heart, free of greed, anger, jealousy, loss. Then maybe write some harmonious songs about the harmonious blending off all that in one lovely tune. Heck, Buddhist Practice will expand your available repertoire of emotions. There is a whole uncharted moon to be explored!

    When we are sick and in pain in the hospital, we may moan moan moan with unavoidable misery ... and think "poor me". To be so is just human and the flesh. All Zen Practice allows us to be is wholly one with the pain and the moan moan moan and the feeling miserable. It may also allow the taste of something which can never fall sick, free of a "me" to be "poor".

    If there is injustice in the world we may feel a kind of righteous anger ... and work to right the wrong. However, anger is a special case, for like a match to dynamite, we must be very careful. I once wrote this.


    Can there be Righteous Anger ... Or as Buddhists who cultivate peace and hold to the Bodhisattva Vows that say 'Do not hold on to anger', are we to always try and put aside the anger in favor of compassion and peacefulness?

    This is an interesting question. You have probably seen, in Tibetan Buddhism, images of "wrathful" deities who turn their "pure anger" toward such causes as the protection of the Dharma and the saving of all Sentient Beings ... their wrath is directed at fighting evil, fire with fire ...



    Anger is also a natural part of being human ... like sadness and fear ... and we should not be angry about sometimes getting a little angry (or sad about sometimes being sad, etc.). That's just how our animal brains are wired.

    HOWEVER, sadness (which is just part of the scenery of life, rainy days following sunny), or fear (which may nature's way to keep us safe and out of harm's way) may be held in moderation short of falling over the cliff of despair and sheer panic. Life's normal blues and worry can be experienced, even as we see though to that free of loss, regret or worry. But, unlike those emotions, anger is truly fire & TNT, and has potential to do great harm even in small quantities. It is more likely to end up as a fight in a bar, a broken relationship or starting a war than it is to do any positive good. As well, there are other emotions and perspective which can accomplish the positive goods more effectively.

    So, for example, calm reflection, looking for a constructive solution and keeping one's head as much as possible while taking effective action is an approach more likely to solve a problem in this world or in one's life than tossing more fuel on the fires of hate. ... Perhaps, "righteous indignation" or "tough love" (if a parent ... even the Zen Master's "30 blows" are more of this kind) or "a firm hand with a calm mind" may be justified by a situation ...

    ... but I would say that anger is rarely, if ever, an appropriate response.

    You can read more in our threads on this subject for study of the Jukai Precepts ...

    http://www.treeleaf.org/forums/showt...om-Being-Angry
    Also this, on playing with fire ...

    [T]o fully remove these emotions from the human mind ... including potentially harmful emotions such as anger ... would rob of us of an important part of being human. We would be reduced to living in a way as emotionally numb and dull as a piece of cold wood or a stone. Some schools of Buddhism (and some other Eastern and Western religions too) have sought to completely kill or squelch such emotions within us (sometimes many other human emotions too). This has traditionally been described as pouring water on the fire until coals become completely wet and cool, and the fire is completely out.

    When Buddhism came to China, Korea, Tibet and Japan ... the Buddhist teachings on the emotions subtly changed (I paint with a broad brush, but speak of a general trend). The fires of emotions were not seen as necessarily negative things, but must be handled carefully and with balance. A campfire, so useful for cooking our supper if skillfully made, will quickly burn down the woods if left untended. A single candle which offers light can burn us and others, and the whole house down, if handled wrong. So it is with our emotions.

    ...

    ... Thus I say that the Precepts guide us away from excess and uncontrolled anger, greed, jealousy ... Anger at injustices in the world, for example, may spur us on to fight for change ... yet that anger should be kept in balance, and tempered with an equal dose of acceptance of life, lest it burns us to ashes too. The desire for change should not be allowed to run rampant as greed for and attachment to change from 'how things are'. A healthy dose of competition need not become jealousy and violence. We should use strong words much as we would scold a 3 year old child found playing with matches ... that is, with love and concern and understanding, not simply to hurt the child. A harsh word can be an "intervention" to shake a friend up who needs to hear ... or it can simply be a cruel and destructive word meant to hurt someone (the most famous example of "Zen tough love" may be all those old tough talking Masters administering "40 blows" of Wisdom). Thus, do not extinguish life fires ... but handle them with care and use them in constructive ways!
    So, yes, Buddhist Practice might lead you to write less violent, mean and angry songs, and replace that with some more gentle and peaceful songs. Maybe tap into the anger and jealousy to write a song about rejecting anger and jealousy. Zenning will expand your songbook of available perspectives and emotions. But a good song is a good song.

    Gassho, J
    Last edited by Jundo; 01-04-2013 at 03:25 AM.
    ALL OF LIFE IS OUR TEMPLE

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