The correlation between Dhamma, Art, & Gender

Someone recently posted on the [Buddhism Sub-Reddit][1] a comment that Bhante @sujato made in 2009 on [his blog][2].

The initial question stated, “Is it possible then for musicians and artists to perform music or paint without having any attachment to their art?”

Bhante replies by addressing the idea that there are aspects of the self that are not explored in meditation and Dhamma. Furthermore, he writes,

It is, perhaps, the very ambiguities and uncertainties of life that art captures so well. In meditation, we confront the presently arisen consciousness, the mind on the very cusp of creating itself. There is a bright clarity there: what is, is, and what is not is nowhere to be seen. And yet it seems to me that those things that are nowhere to be seen still wield their influence. In creative expression we have boundaries: the frame of the canvas, the 4/4 of the song, the lines of a book. These strictures give us the freedom to encounter things within that could never be expressed in the vulnerable space of everyday living. We can freely say things, manufacture an external representation of part of our mind, then sit back and ‘objectively’ look at them, consider them as an outsider would; or even listen to what others say about them…I find it’s much more interesting to ask, ‘What is there in me that is untouched by Dhamma’. Say that, express it as best you can in whatever medium you can, and then ask why? Is this really divorced from Dhamma? If so, what is there to be done about it? Or is it really something else, an aspect of Dhamma that your conscious mind has not yet made sense of or discovered in the literal teachings? For me, this ‘something else’ is, of course, the feminine.

I find this to be a fascinating idea in that it is something I have often struggled with myself as a singer/writer/photographer/etc.–that being, what is art (through self-expression) attempting to achieve and how does it relate to the practice? I think Bhante also makes an excellent point about delving into whether that expression itself is actually separate from the Dhamma or whether it is just an aspect that has not yet been discovered.

For me, art reaches an aspect of the self that goes beyond the self–that in some sense seeks to affirm the universality of human experience. Perhaps that is one of the ways in which art correlates with the Dhamma, in that it recognizes the paradox between the creation of the self and the lack thereof. And interestingly enough, I’ve also found that self-expression acts in accordance with gender (i.e. the exploration of my own masculinity).

However, I think it’s profoundly difficult to understand the ‘yearning’ that artists feel and to understand how it relates to the self and, in addition, to the Dhamma.

I’d be interested to know if anyone knows of any EBTs or other essays that address this subject from a Buddhist perspective.


Dear Brenna,

this is a very interesting question for me, and one about which I have often thought. I don’t know any EBT that deal with art, but I will tell you how I have experienced this relationship in my life and practice. I must make two premises. The first is that I have quite extensive experience of art as a spectator, not as a creator. The second is that what I will say relates chiefly to my experience of only a few great works of art (which happen to be all of the past), such as the sculptures of the pediment at Olympia in Greece (which were created roughly at the same time as the Buddha lived), the marbles of the Parthenon, the works of Dante, the Tristan by Wagner etc. My idea (which is not original, since Schopenhauer was the first Western philosopher who was interested in Buddhism and who at the same time wrote in the most eulogitic way about the arts) is that when we contemplate a truly great work of art our awareness is enhanced so that, to use Ajahn Brahm’s terminology, the knowing part of our mind (the vinnana) is energized and the doer (the sankhara, or the will) is calmed down. The same thing happens also in meditation, only in meditation the object of our awareness is more simplifled (eg our breath), so that it becomes clear to us that the beauty of the breath comes from the purity of our mind and from the way we look at it, rather than being in the breath itself. But I think that it’s the same in great art: some artworks appear so beautiful to us because our relationship to art is different from everyday life, when our mind is always in movement and disturbed by willing. When contemplating art our will calms down and our awareness is energised, so we are happier and the object appears more beautiful. This, again, is how Ajahn Brahm discusses the pleasure that we have in contemplating the beautiful breath (and he talks of the beautiful breath as the sping board that takes us into Jhanas).

The reason why I have been talking about great art is that even if we experience it through the external senses, it’s our mind awareness that is particularly enhanced there, just like in meditation (which, again, does that in a more direct, simplified and powerful way). I would not be able to explain it using ordinary language, but that’s something that clearly happens to me. For exemple, when contemplating a truly great ancient Greek sculpture, I feel like saying that my mind is flooded with light. And I know that Goethe described his experience of contemplating some art or reading some philosophers by saying that for him it was like walking into a brightly lit room. Clearly that’s not a physical light he was talking about, it’s the clarity of the mind.

What I said is perhaps a bit personal, since although I am a scientist by profession, for many year I had looked for the most meaningful experiences in life (perhaps under the influence of Schopenhauer) in the contemplation of art. Now, after discovering the teachings of Ajahn Brahm, I find the natural extension of this in meditation. I also think that Ajahn Brahm can explain some things that had puzzled me previously when I was more interested in philosophy and the arts. For example Schopenhauer explains the idea of beauty in the arts by saying that art represents the Platonic ideas of things. But Platonic ideas are like prototypes of things, so that the Platonic idea of something repulsive (like the world was at bottom to Schopenhauer) should be repulsive to the extreme, whereas our experience shows that what makes us suffer or digusts us in life, can become beautiful in art. So Ajahn Brahm’s story of when he went to the toilets after he had had a good meditation during a retreat and his shit looked so beautiful that he could not stop contemplating it and really had to force himself to flush the toilet, has finally solved this philosophical problem for me after many years of puzzlement :smile: . I think that when we see beauty in a piece of shit it’s not because we experience the Platonic idea of shit (which if anything should be more disgusting), but merely because of our mind and of our attitude to the object of contemplation : ie because our awareness is so enhanced and at the same time our will (ie our desires and aversions) have totallly calmed down. And the same seems to be the case for the rest of the world in general.

With metta



Thank you, Stefano! This is a truly wonderful way to connect the Dhamma to art.

I’d then like to pose the idea of whether the same ‘purity of mind’ can be utilized or found in the creation of art. For instance, does one’s conception of the self or extension of the self unto the creation of art hinder the purity that comes from the understanding or observation of the mind?

I think it’s also notable to ask (since you brought up sankhara) what the intention of creating art is. Is it to validate the self? To gain clarity or happiness? Because I think the importance of art lies in what you mentioned, its ability to bring a new or refined state of mind to the observer, a new awareness. But for the creator it seems that there is often (at least from my experience) a lack of clarity–which is something that I’m greatly interested in.

Again, thank you for your post. It really is remarkable to read. :smile:

Hi Brenna,

Thank you
for your feedback. Concerning:

Generalizations are difficult but for Tolstoy for example the purpose of art was precisely that of improving our mind, see this quote from his book What is art which I copy from Wikipedia since I am at the lab and don’t have the book here.
'just as in the evolution of knowledge - that is, the forcing out and supplanting of mistaken and unnecessary knowledge by truer and more necessary knowledge - so the evolution of feelings takes place by means of art, replacing lower feelings, less kind and less needed for the good of humanity, by kinder feelings, more needed for that good. This is the purpose of art.'
In my case, I remember that when I started metta meditation I realized that I was developing those feelings that I had begun to become particularly aware of when reading George Eliot (which is one of the authors that Tolstoy appreciated). So reading Middlemarch for me had been a sort of prelude to metta meditation (before I knew what the latter was). Of course, not all art promotes just positive and ethical feelings, some works just enhance our mindfulness, whereas those that Tolstoy was referring to and promoting are those that help us develop what Ajahn Brahm referes to as kindfulness.

Concerning the ego, in Schopenhauer’s conception of the artist I was referring to, the great artist is precisely the person who abandons his or her ego and is just a mirror of reality (like Baudelaire’s description of Leonardo as a ‘miroir profound et sombre’). I remember the literary critic Eric Heller referring to this and saying for example that it is fit that we should have no information about the life or personality of great geniuses like Shakespeare or Homer, all we know about them is in their work and in the many different characters they have created, and it’s fit that it should be like this and know nothing ‘personal’ about them. Also Thomas Mann had this idea and wrote about the fact that to be a great creator ‘one must die’, which roughly corresponds to the idea of abandoning the ego. Again I am writing quickly from the lab so I don’t have the precise references for this, but the gist of their argument was this.

However here again generalizations are difficult. Also, the fact I was referring to yesterday that I was going to talk about the great art of the past is important. I think that the association of artists and ego is very much a recent phenomenon, of the last century or so. Take Las meninas in the original version by Velazquez and in its remake by Picasso. Velazquez, undoubtedly one of the greatest visual geniuses of history, portrays himself very inconspicuously in the scene where the focus of attention is elsewhere. On the other hand in Picasso’s remake the figure of the artist becomes gigantic, reflecting this modern idea of the importance of the artist as a person, which as I said I believe was absent in the great art of the past.

It’s been a long time since I thought about these things! I remember that when reading Mindfulness bliss and beyond two and and a half years ago I had this strong feeling that all that I had been looking for was to be found in meditation, and I quickly lost most of my interest for the arts which I have loved so much. So now I joke that Ajahn Brahm has saved me a lot of hassle: now I don’t have to travel to Greece or go to a crowded Louvre to see beauty: I just have to find a quiet place (which admittedly sometimes can be a hassle too) and watch my breath!.. :smiley:

With lots of metta Stef