SuttaCentral

Using art to teach dhamma

Artwork has often been used to teach dhamma in a way that is easily relateable in the history of Buddhism. (Thank you @Coemgenu for pointing this out in the Dhamma Doodles thread!).
Nowadays, many monks and nuns still use their inspiration in the dhamma to create artworks but that is mainly for their own use, not for teaching. So this thread is for

  1. exploring dhamma teachers who use artwork for teaching activities; what kind of art do they use, how do they teach, etc., and
  2. sharing of personal experiences if anyone has participated in “artistic retreats” before.

Art can be a good way to reach out to people who find dhamma talks and / or sutta studies too dry and passive to be pay attention and be inspired. People learn by different means and engaging the right creative hemisphere of the brain might be useful for many.

One monastery I have visited that focuses on teaching by art is Sunnataram - pictures here - in Australia. They have many different art installations in various parts of their extensive gardens, symbolizing abstract teachings like the 5 aggregates, dependent origination, etc. During retreats, the head monk uses them to explain points of dhamma, and retreatants can help build new artwork during work/dhamma service periods.
Here’s a link to more photos of one of their retreats, but you have to scroll down quite a bit to see their 5 aggregates installation (colored gates).

:man_artist: :woman_artist:

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I have created some Buddhist inspired artwork, though nothing worthy of sharing publically…if nothing else, I find it is one of the more wholesome form of diversion one can engage in. It might also help some people to synthesize some of the teachings in creative ways, working them in with their subconscious mind?

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Ajahn Sucitto has written a very good book, titled The Dawn of the Dhamma. In it he has some prints of paintings he did at the start of each chapter. Apparently he was an artist before ordaining and used those skills in his book. It is out of print, but can be found online:
https://www.cittaviveka.org/files/books/dawn/index.htm

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Before going forth I worked for a long time in child development, particularly using art mediums. Yes this is an area which possibilities are wide open (speaking of Dhamma) so long we’re talking about adults!

The question is though what Dhamma and how much Dhamma would be appropriate for children? I’ve always thought it is inappropriate to teach religious doctrines (including renunciation) for young children, especially those who do not particularly show interest in religious, metaphysical, or spiritual questions or concerns. But for adults it’s great; though I haven’t come across any dynamic art workshops for Dhamma teaching.

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I held a dynamic art and meditation workshop in Australia earlier this year. When I was an artist, I always made art about Dhamma and meditation (though it was not explicit). Facilitating a workshop on meditation and art, was like looking at art from the point of view of meditation. For me, the focus was an investigation of perception: empowering people to develop flexibility and playfulness in meditation.

The general feedback for the workshop was very positive, people enjoyed themselves. More experienced meditators felt it gave them new insight into practicing.

Reflecting on the the workshop, I felt it was too short (3-4 hours – making art and group processes interspersed with talks and meditation takes time!). And that there is a lot of scope for development here. I found it a bit restrictive to run the workshop inside a meditation centre, because I would have loved to give people the chance to really throw some paint around and get messy. But it was definitely worth it. I would love to do more of these workshops and to see where this could go.

There is perhaps some resistance in monastic communities towards art as-a-practice (where people sometimes see it as a sensual indulgence). But I think perhaps it’s useful, interesting, that the tendency to become passionate, or giddy, is a counterbalance to the dour, over-serious flavour that is sometimes present in meditation retreats/workshops.

Sometimes having a physical image to reflect on can take away the fear, the stigma, the shame of the things we are dealing with. Some people can meditate for years bypassing their own issues. But when someone can express their experience without judgment - in a drawing or a movement – it is a way to see what is culturally unacceptable, what the culture considers ugly, or shameful, in a new way – to find the “beauty” in the darkness. It has the value of including and integrating.

But it’s not just about bringing the shadow to light, it’s also about finding a way to connect to our environment and community, and to share. Those qualities were noticeably present during the workshop and that gave a very different feeling and enthusiasm to meditation sessions as well. I’m reminded that during Bhante Sujato’s sutta workshops, he emphasised that practicing the Dhamma happens through sila, sutta, samatha, sakkacca, and vipassana. Art takes the role of sakkaca in this process.

I’ve noticed that this topic of art-Dhamma-meditation is getting some attention at the moment. Barre centre for Buddhist studies recently held a conference on “Dhamma and art”. The Hemera institute is sponsoring artists to attend meditation retreats in the states. David Lynch speaks openly about the way his meditation fuels his creativity. Meditation/writing workshops are more common, eg. Nathalie Goldman’s writing and Zen meditation workshops. I hope this development continues. I would like to see more of it, and to collaborate and teach more workshops on art and Dhamma.

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My first experience of Buddha is the seen of Buddha image when I was about four years old.
That experience have a great impact on my life for liking yellow colour and Buddhist monks.

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That’s great to hear! Thank you for sharing that.
What kind of artworks did you create with participants?
Is there any recording of the talks you gave, or pictures of the artwork? Or some further information about your course?

Yes, I think that’s a common experience of the monks and nuns who create artworks. Having objects that symbolize one’s “dark side” can be very helpful. But as you say, there can be some resistance and pressure from others, so it’s often just done in private.
Would you be comfortable to share some of your dhamma-inspired art with us?

Thanks for sharing these references, very interesting!

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Just wanted to share links to the resources that Ayya @Aranya mentioned.

Barre Center Dharma and Art course

Hemera Foundation fellowships for artists

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This picture is from an small art-book that i made a few years ago. It’s much more Dhamma-explicit than the work that I made when I was a lay-person.

IMG_1739
If you click the picture it should take you to a link where you can download the whole book.

or alternatively try this link
Mortal Frames.pdf (8.2 MB)

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Mother of all Dhamma arts!

https://dhammawheel.com/viewtopic.php?f=13&t=110&hilit=Ceylon

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No, I don’t think there were any recordings made. I made a slide-show with a commentary on art and meditation that I have been planning to clean up. When I get around to it, I can post it.

Here’s a photo from the workshop. It was a group exercise, just after we practiced metta together. I was emphased process over result in this workshop. This was especially important because some people didn’t consider themselves capable of making any art. The most of what we did was imprompty and messy. But this group exercise at the end tied together the afternoon. It was actually a lovely tree in the end.

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Thanks for sharing your art! It’s touching something very deep inside. :heart:

Yes, please do. I’d be very interested.

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I’ve cleaned up the slide presentation (and reduced the file size) from the “meditation and art workshop” to share on Discourse. :relaxed::heart: I hope it brings benefit to others.

meditation and art workshop slides small file.pdf (6.8 MB)

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Thanks for sharing!

Art can expand your vision and open your mind: a mind which is flexible, malleable, wieldy, light is able to perceive truth.

Transformation: there are lots of things in ourselves that we deny, are blind to, or repress! Art lets us express without censure or judgment.

:heart:

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Stone balance - by Michael Grab

A friend pointed out this artist’s work to me:

I find it absolutely amazing! :heart_eyes::heart_eyes::heart_eyes:

stonebalance01

With his work the artist both practises and expresses qualities like mindfulness, being focused in the present moment, relating closely to nature, and much much patience… He is also a practising meditator and Zen Buddhist.

And, guess what? Similar to Venerable @yodha he also takes some inspiration from a certain wise extraterrestrial being! :sweat_smile:

I happenend to find this quote on his website:

“Try not. Do, or do not. There is no try.”
—Yoda

:yoda_sw: :lightsaber::sparkling_heart:

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wow, thanks so much for the link @sabbamitta. His work is truly remarkable and very inspiring in many ways… I’m in awe!

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I was thinking today about a very moving piece of Buddhist art by Thai artist Montien Boonma. He made this alms-bowl sculpture when he found out he had a brain tumour in 1999 – he died shortly after, in 2000.

Montien Boonma Untitled- two acts II

This work made a very strong impression on me, and keeps coming back to my mind. For me, it’s such a beautiful, deeply personal expression of the themes in Buddhism: suffering, impermance, generosity, transformation, not-self.

The bowl is lined with impressions of his own teeth. The handles that look like bones, or vertebrae, are made from the imprints of his hands gripping clay.

When he first exhibited this work, he invited friends and family to drink from the bowl (it was filled with whiskey and herbs – medicines for pain) with a ladle made in the mold of his own mouth.

The bowl is a symbol of giving and receiving, of humility and human dependency. Boonma makes himself into the bowl itself. His pain is expressed without hiding or prettifying - the first noble truth. And then that pain is transformed through offering. Giving from within his own body, down to the lasting remains – the bones and teeth. Though the image is grotesque, the act of sharing – nourishing and healing self and others – through generosity is sublime.

The bowl embodies the fragile, real dimension of human mortality, alongside the transcendent quality of love and giving. And while he is exploring the theme of mortality and impermanence, the bowl itself is heavy brass, and the generosity, truth, and devotion it represents will endure.

Boonma became fascinated with alms bowls and began to draw one every day as a meditation practice. He said of the alms bowl

When I think about the space in the bowl, I prefer to be inside this space which is separated from the outside world. I would like to place my mind inside the bowl.

In this piece, Boonma embodies the container/boundary of the bowl, on the edge of life and death, or world and emptiness

Montien Boonma Untitled- two acts

This work was on exhibition at the art gallery of NSW in 2016.

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Slightly macabre -Anatomy of an angel by Damien Hurst

20120809-135528

with metta,

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Ayya Yeshe uses her warm and rich voice in order to convey messages of peace and compassion, as for example during the Sakyadhita Buddhist Women’s Conference in Hongkong 2017 where she spontaneously sang “Ella’s song”, a song on social justice and compassion from African American Acapella group “Sweet honey and the Rock”:


Edit: See also this thread:

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I have to confess that while it might be seen as an “entertainment,” I have an interest in calligraphy and some forms of Japanese art such as ceramics, and am planning to visit a Rinzai zendo in the Driftless area of southwestern Wisconsin next year to observe their Japanese calligraphy and ceramics practice. I’d even welcome the chance to fire an almsbowl in the new kiln that they installed recently. As long as they don’t force me to do koans as the price of admission… :slight_smile:

almsbowl 1

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