30. Dharma & Art?

Dharma & Art Mish MashIn blog post no. 28, I wrote about the first of two consecutive courses I took at BCBS, the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies. After the first course concluded, Cameron and I spent the afternoon there, then she left to stay overnight with a nearby dharma-buddy before she drove back down to home in Philadelphia.

I had arranged with staff to spend a few days at BCBS on my own before the next class, “Dharma and Art” started up with a 6-day residential segment. The following segment would be an online, 6-month portion, and the course would conclude with another residential segment in January of 2019.

It was very pleasant to spend a few days by myself in this beautiful setting. I spent part of the time doing some research. Shortly before we’d left for Barre, I had accidentally stumbled on articles in BCBS’s online Insight Journal about a Dharma and Art symposium held in 2016. These included video segments featuring some of the participants. Ruth Ozeki, author of one of my favorite books, A Tale for the Time Being, gave a wonderful talk which included an excerpt from the book and her focus was on ethics. Stephen Batchelor gave a talk on “An Aesthetics of Emptiness,” describing his process of making collage from found objects. Sculptor Roz Driscoll and Roshi Pat O’Hara, poet and film-maker discussed the challenges of incorporating dharma and art. Roz in particular pointed to how her dharma tradition actually discouraged an integration of dharma and art.

There were other distinguished artists and art historians who spoke as well. If there had been a reference to all this information in the course description, I’d overlooked it. I was intrigued and excited to unearth all this. It raised my expectations.

But over the duration of this first course segment, I grew disappointed. The approach was to let the course unfold without a lot of structure, which didn’t work for me.

The exception was the dharma talks. Gloria Taraniya Ambrosia, who taught the previous course, was also involved in this one. She gave daily talks on perception, which was intended to be the course’s primary focus. Her talks were, as always, wonderful, insightful, and inspiring.

But for me, the rest of the course seemed aimless, directionless and a bit like a pleasant summer art camp for kids. There was little opportunity to interact (at least for an introvert like me) with the participants on a deeper, dharma-oriented level. In an effort to avoid critical analysis, comparison, and the self-critical tendencies so prevalent in our culture and in art classes, artistic connections were, in my view, deliberately blocked.

We participated in segments on movement, sound, visual art, and writing which were intended to expand our awareness. Nothing wrong with that, but I think the time would have been better spent communicating with one another, tackling the issues and forging bonds both spiritual and artistic. Rituals based on the traditional four elements –earth, water, air, and fire, intended to be spontaneous and affirming, seemed lame and uninspired –at least from my perspective.

The people in the course were from diverse places (two were from the UK) and dharma traditions. There were writers, poets, a dancer/choreographer, and visual artists (I was, I think, the only cartoonist). Our ages varied considerably. They had a sense of positive energy and delight that was contagious. Most of them, I think, were having a great time and I could enjoy their enjoyment.

But I was left with a sense of deep dissatisfaction and upon careful reflection, decided to withdraw from the course (first time I’d done that since dropping out of college for a year as an undergraduate).

I did come away with a valuable insight. I saw that my perception of dharma and art as two separate endeavors that somehow needed to be wrangled and forcibly woven together was based on a limited view of myself. I do believe I have the tools and the capacity to merge these areas together in a new series of comics, Pause & Reflect Comics, and I firmly intend to give it my best shot.

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