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Modern Art and Vajrayana Buddhism

Updated: May 21, 2023

One of the most prominent painters of the 20th century, Francis Bacon said that he wishes to paint the human gums as beautiful as water lilies from Monet's painting. The founder of Butoh Tatsumi Hijikata presented sickness, death and all the grotesque phenomena as something extremely elegant on the stage. Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhist practitioners would offer urine instead of flowers to the Buddha …There seems to be a profound connection in the visions of many of the modern artists and the ancient wisdom tradition.

We tend to accept what we consider as beautiful and to reject what we consider as ugly. But the border between beauty and ugly is obviously very subjective and vague. In the morning in Tokyo, pigeons are often joyfully making parties surrounding puke from drunken men. It is just because of our habitual perception patterns and biological conditions that most of us humans consider puke as something dirty. It is not innately dirty nor clean. Many artists or novelists have been transforming poisons into beauty, as if peacocks eat poisons that actually make their feathers so colourful and beautiful. They have opened a possibility to embrace the totality of existence, flipping over the hierarchy of beauty. At the same time, there seems to be some tendency in the art world to say that a shit is beautiful but a flower is not. I have heard some well-known art critics saying that “Art must be disturbing. Otherwise it is not art” Such ideas seem to be falling into another twisted dualistic perception. And it is quite questionable how much these artists contributed to truly awaken mankind to the deepest reality, to liberate us from the unsatisfactory nature of existence. Instead they might have at times invited people to further confused state and madness.

The Vajrayana Buddhist view is based on the recognition that all phenomena are manifestations of consciousness, and that the deepest nature of consciousness is absolutely pure, therefore all phenomena are innately pure. It is just because our current state of consciousness is stained by temporal obscurations, we do not see such reality. And this is not a belief system that is imposed by authority, but rather a reality that has been directly witnessed by countless numbers of practitioners over two millennia, through their direct investigation and observation of consciousness. At the same time a great risk is emphasised in these traditions, to only conceptually apprehend such truth and it is introduced only by a qualified teacher to a qualified student. At the beginning of the training, it is actually very important to distinguish what is clean and what is dirty, what should be cultivated and what should be discarded. And unfortunately there seems to be many cases where such a view is used from a mundane point of view as a mere justification of our habitual emotional patterns. But if such a view is authentically realised, it will allow us limitless openness, freedom, and unconditional love.

Can we take over the great experiments of modern artists but see steps further, to make art as a way to reveal the deepest reality of existence, to cultivate profound wisdom in the world, to awaken the most profound spirituality of mankind?


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