By Jakob Leschly
One of the things we need to remember about Buddhist art, and perhaps sacred art in general, is that it is not situated within a fragmented world view. The familiar split we in the modern world more or less consciously subscribe to, a three-way divorce between science, ethics, and art, does not generally apply to sacred art. Sacred art expresses undiluted reality, reality properly seen, and as such it represents knowledge and insight, which again has an immensely constructive role in providing vision and values – the key ingredients in a good life, as well as in the case of Buddhism, the foundation for enlightenment. While the poverty of a world that has separated beauty from truth and moral direction is increasingly palpable, one can still appreciate the brilliance of the cultures that have not fallen prey to such bad science.
The sacred as a realistic perspective on our experience is almost a contradiction in the modern world, where the sacred is often constructed as part of the great and soothing myths or narratives that are anything but realistic. But then again, the modern view of reality is quite different from most other cultures. The modern world’s view on reality is founded on an amputated science that excludes consciousness and spirit from observable matter, with real science exclusively operating with so-called objective knowledge – data and information exclusively established on the basis on what can be measured and empirically verified. Anything beyond that is problematic; anything that has to do with what we really live for is a grey zone. Go figure it out yourself – don’t come looking for wisdom in the hallowed halls of Stanford, Cambridge or Leiden!
In our modern culture, the real issues of our existence – those of our heart and mind – are traditionally the domains of ethics and religion. Sadly, for the modern believer in science, ethics are generally regarded as something impossibly relative, and religion is seen as founded on impossible fairy tales. Ethics and religion appear to have little to do with reasoning. And far from both science and religion, art has retreated to a neighbourhood that celebrates human creativity without any particular allegiance to either of the former two. At times a guru, at times an entertainer, at times a rebel, art generally has no pretence of representing more than fragments of human reality. The source of its inspiration is indeed often beauty and love, but also just as often confusion and suffering.
The Context of Sacred Reality
Sacred art, or the art of awakening, as we find it in Buddhism, and in numerous other sacred art traditions, is founded on a holistic vision that unites science with religion as the path that enables the awakening to reality. Science as truth and valid knowledge is key in Buddhism. We could translate the Sanskrit term for Buddhism, Dharma, as the study or law of reality. So a Buddhist studies to acquire a vision or grasp of reality, and the practice of Dharma is appreciated as eliminating confusion and dogma and unveiling what is undeceiving and valid. The Dharma is embraced not through blind faith or belief, but rather on the basis of a decisive critique of the deluded assumptions about reality that inevitably lead to suffering. Sacred art is based on liberation from delusion, and an unlimited vision of reality. Such vision reflects accurate knowledge of reality, and accurate knowledge of what leads to happiness and liberation. Such science is wisdom, and, being the domain of the sage, not the scientist, she is happily married to both ethical practice and the joy of artistic expression.
Liberation and enlightenment has inspired an immense production of art that celebrates its immanence and validity. In that enlightenment is regarded as pinnacle of life’s potential, Buddhist art everywhere celebrates this vision in paintings, sculptures, architecture, and calligraphy, flower-arranging, not to mention empty space – the gap that allows us to appreciate both space and the content of space. While the Sutra traditions, particularly Zen, celebrate the nature of wisdom through the beauty of uncluttered space, the Tantric traditions celebrate the inseparability of wisdom and its manifest qualities, reflected in an immense wealth of vivid and powerful sacred art, that also includes music, dance, and sensuality.
Engaging with the Sacred
Sacred art is not objectified and passively beheld as is common in our cultural practice of viewing art. Sacred art is seen as speaking to, or invoking, an inner heritage of what is profound and real, and so its real value is not in the external support – the piece of art itself. The experience of being touched profoundly by what is intuited as real can be called blessing, and as such the piece of art is not merely observed, but is seen as something that we interact or connect with. It touches us and provides us with the relief of recognising an inner wealth that lies beyond the stranglehold of our self-imposed limitation – samsara. For that reason, sacred art in Buddhism is sometimes viewed as a nirmanakaya, or physical manifestation of enlightenment.
Buddhist cultures, and other cultures that live with a sacred vision, do not celebrate their art through merely placing them in museums or galleries; sacred art is celebrated everywhere: in the streets, in the temples, in the hills, in the fields, in workplaces and homes, rendering immanent the sacred that is innate to all life, and providing a possibility of doing so. The sacred is celebrated with innumerable offerings, such as flowers, incense, light, song, poetry, and in the best case – a non-dual appreciation of the sacred within.
In front of sacred art, one does not dwell on some perceived gap between the sacred and one self, but extends a gesture of appreciation and connects with the sacred, or buddha nature, through bowing down and making offerings. In Indian and Tibetan temples, the shrine consists of two aspects: first, the support for the sacred – statues, books, objects, and secondly the place where the offerings are placed. A shrine is not a static institution, but is lively interacted with through honouring the support of the sacred through bowing, and through making offerings. These practices are generally done first thing in the morning, and they are continued throughout the day.
Vision of Life
We can see this practice of connecting with a greater vision of reality in cultures that have so far been untouched by the modern practice of leaving the primary concern of all life – happiness – to being a random private project that is inevitably subject to subjective confusion. In almost any other culture beside that of modernity, sacred art permeates all fabrics of societies with a vibrant way of connecting with, and celebrating, that which is real, and that which brings, on one hand the conditions for temporary and ordinary happiness and, on the other hand, liberation and enlightenment.
Disclaimer: the author apologises for any irritation or discomfort brought on by this article. Raised in the simple-minded cult of modern western rationality, he has had to de-program himself from numerous kinds of blind faith, assumptions, and dogma, and only gradually has the brilliant logic, vision, and liberation of innumerable Buddhist masters been able to penetrate his traumatised mind and heart, and resuscitate a minimal degree of natural sanity. A work in progress, his journey has unceasingly been inspired by the immense luminous beauty and power of traditional Tibetan art.