Do You Want to Make Something Out of It?

Zen meditation and the artistic impulse

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 12, No 3 (Fall 2001)

Norman Fischer

Allen Ginsberg begins his essay "Meditation and Poetics" with this paragraph: "It's an old tradition in the West among great poets that poetry is rarely thought of as 'just poetry.' Real poetry practitioners are practitioners of mind awareness, or practitioners of reality, expressing their fascination with the phenomenal universe and trying to penetrate to the heart of it. Poetics isn't mere picturesque dilettantism or egotistical expressionism for craven motives grasping for sensation and flattery. Classical poetry is a 'process' or experiment — a probe into the nature of reality and the nature of the mind.” And the poet Philip Whalen makes the same point in a poem when he says something like, “I don't want to be another pretty poety-boo; I want to be a world.”

For me this sense of making poetry or art as an heroic and grandiose undertaking whose cost and goal is everything sounds about right — providing you don't get too excited about it, seeing it as anything more or less than any human being is doing, or would do, if he or she reflected for a few minutes about what is a worthwhile and reasonable way to spend a human life. So: 1) art isn't just another job, it's an endless exploration, and as with any exploration there are proliferating avenues of pursuit and no final successes, and 2) art is a necessity for humans, and we all need to find a way to participate in it.

The reason we need art so desperately is that the world and we ourselves persist in being made. There is something exhausting and troublesome in the madeness of the world and in the madeness of ourselves. What is made has always the quality of limitation or unsatisfactoriness. Madeness captures us into a vicious cycle of desiring more madeness or better madeness, and the madeness we get only makes us want to make improvements or additions. Art making is an anti-making. It is an anti-making because it is a making of what is useless — this is what makes art art, that it is useless, that it doesn't do anything, that it is something inherently unmade and this is the source of its liveliness. Any piece of art stares us in the face with the fact of its being what it is uselessly, it is a record of a person's commitment to the confrontation with the made, a confrontation one is bound to come away from second best, and yet one does it, and reaches a peak of exaltation in the doing of it, and the art work facing the viewer or hearer is a phenomenal testament to that useless confrontation, which by virtue of its supreme failure, calls our life into question. If you really look at a piece of art or hear a piece of music or poetry or see a dance, you walk away wondering about your life. This is what these objects are supposed to do, this is why artists make such sacrifices in the doing of what they do because this doing is the undoing at least temporarily of what has done them in in their lives and would do them in to the point of death or madness if it weren't undone in the process of making art.

One of the qualities of art work that has always impressed me is its unstable nature. The art work is its physical presence — its words or notes or paint — and yet it isn't that. If you are hit in the face by a plank you will definitely be hit by it and will feel the effects of it no matter whether you believe in planks or not, no matter whether you are in the mood for the sensation of pain or not. But if you make an effort to experience an art work you may not experience anything at all — it may strike you as a meaningless hunk of this or that, hardly worth a second look. Or it may strike you as profoundly moving one day, and completely beside the point the next day. Imagine an art work sent from one gallery to another for a major show. Of all the people that will come into contact with that work — movers, curators, technicians who hang the work, security guards, the perhaps thousands of people who will file by to see it — of all these only a few, a very few, will actually experience it as an art work, and even those few might come back to the gallery the next day and not at all be able to fathom why the day before the work moved them so, or even if they could say why it moved them, and explain it, that would only be a memory. The actual experiencing of the painting has occupied only a few seconds or perhaps minutes in the hours of human contact with the work. In other words, real experience of art is extremely rare, and it is fleeting, unstable.

The poet Paul Valery said of poetry, that it is “completely irregular, inconstant, involuntary, and fragile, and that we lose it, as we find it, by accident.” It is a fantastic thing that people place such enormous value on something like this, something so evanescent that we are really hard pressed to say whether it actually exists or not. I suppose, to some extent, we value art out of long habit, or perhaps because it has become a good business: in art's aspect of non-art, it can become just as much a commodity as anything else people will pay good money for, probably even more so, because some sorts of art are even more subject to sudden economic inflation than an Internet or gene-splicing stock. Yet, at bottom, there remains the mystery of the uselessness of art, of the shifting and unmade quality of it, and of the tremendous need that we have for the unmade and the undone, no matter how unstable or accidental our experience of it may be. The experience of it is precious and life changing always.

I want to go a little further in considering what the actual experience of this unmadeness might be. In ordinary waking life we do make clear and hard distinctions between separate things. This distinction-making is what perception and thought are all about, and all day long we have perception and thought, piling one thing on top of the other, until there is a great weight of them. We define ourselves in the same way among or within our perceptions and thoughts, and get buried in the process. Life is very practical and very weighty, and there is a great deal of conflict that comes from the bumping into each other of the various perceptions and thoughts that cannot occupy the same space at the same time. So there are decisions and considerations and there is desire for organization, yet there is less organization always than one would like, because as soon as the world is organized, along comes something else, and there is disorganization again, then the need to make something else to counteract what has just been made, and the weight of it wants to pull the house down. The problem of being human is historically always more or less the same problem, but it is tempting to imagine that in our current historical period all of what I have been saying is more true than it appeared to be in the past. There seems to be, simply, more going on, more piling up, more that cries for organization and will not be organized.

The work of art, by contrast, is entirely organized and therefore peaceful. Formally it may not be organized at all, but our experience in appreciating it, if we are fortunate enough to be in the situation of having such an accident befall us all of a sudden, is that of organization, radical organization. Artistic form is the expression of this sort of organization that is essentially an unpiling of the piling up of distinctions that make up our lives. The work of art unpiles everything and undoes us in the process; it raises a million questions that amount to one question: who are we and what are we doing here? This question is the essential question that undoes us every time because we never can answer it. So it keeps us fresh and it allows our life to fully enter itself.

What I mean by organization is a feeling of connection or inclusion or completion beyond thought. In the light of the experience of the work of art the world makes sense because it is no longer made of weighty and disparate parts; it is a world of nuance and shimmer: what we call beauty, though this word has become fairly useless because it has become confused with pretty. Beauty is not necessarily pretty; it is, rather, this accidental sensation, before we think about it and therefore make something of it, of connection, unmadeness, uselessness, perfection, freedom.

Again Valery, “I recognize it (he speaks here of the poetic experience, but I think his remarks can be extended to any sort of art) in myself by this: that all possible objects of the ordinary world, external or internal, beings, events, feelings, and actions, while keeping their usual appearance, are suddenly placed in an indefinable but wonderfully fitting relationship with the modes of our general sensibility. That is to say that these well known things and beings — or rather the ideas that represent them — somehow change in value. They attract one another, they are connected in ways quite different from the ordinary; they become (if you will permit the expression) musicalized, resonant, harmonically related....”

What Valery is describing here is a trancelike state that is more real to us than the real world we live in every day. It is a state that is oddly brought on by a formal arrangement of ordinary stuff in such a way as to discreate the ordinary stuff, take it apart, which is so startling, when we actually notice it, that we become literally entranced. The Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins once hypnotized a duck with a straight white chalkline, then lifted his hand. The duck kept staring at the chalkline and did not move. Hopkins wrote, “They explain that the bird keeping the abiding offscape of the hand grasping her neck fancies she is still held down and cannot lift her head as long as she looks at the chalkline which she associates with the power that holds her. This duck lifted her head at once when I put it down on the table without chalk. But this seems inadequate. It is most likely the fascinating instress of the straight white stroke.” Instress is the term Hopkins coined to refer to the potentially torqued nature of anything purely perceived without too much definition; he considered it clear evidence of the nature of God. The duck in this case was mesmerized, Hopkins says, not by becoming habituated to the hand on her neck, but by virtue of her utter fascination with the chalk line as such. For us, art is that chalk line; it points to the instress, to use Hopkins' term, of each thing in our perceptual world.

The experience of art is an experience of connection beyond thought. The curiosity of it is that the experience, as a human experience, can't take place anywhere else but in thought or perception. This is exactly why it is so hard to pin down what an art work actually is, and it is its unpindownable nature, always the case, but lately more appreciated and examined than heretofore, that probably accounts for the history of art in the century that is now drawing to a close. This has been the job of this time: to point out directly and baldly that doubt and accident lie at the heart of what art has always been. And in doing this one comes close to the boundary between art and life and immerses the boundary itself in doubt and accident. The words art and life become quite indistinct and imprecise. One could substitute for both the word reality, or being. That the job of all art or living is to appreciate and authenticate what is — our life simply as it appears. Vikton Shlovsky, the Russian literary theorist, said, “To make a stone stony: that is the purpose of art.”

Why don't we experience a stone as stony? Why do we persistently forget to come alive to the world as it is in front of our faces? Why do we have to go to all the trouble of making art so that we can return to where we are and have been all along? I think it is because of the way thought works in us. To be present in the midst of our being what we are is a pure sensation that we can never exactly apprehend. It is fleeting and ungraspable. Thought is always coming a second afterward, telling us something, singing a song of the past. Thought includes the aroma of our being alive, but it also includes so much that is made, so much of doing and piling up, that it tempts us necessarily away from ourselves. To find within our thought and perception (for perception is already thought) a settled free and unmade place takes effort, and this is the effort of art. Valery again, “There is no other definition of the present except sensation itself, which includes, perhaps, the impulse to action that could modify that sensation. On the other hand, whatever is properly thought, image, sentiment, is always in some way, a production of absent things. Memory is the substance of all thought...thought is, in short, the activity that causes what does not exist to come alive in us.... Between voice and thought, between thought and voice, between presence and absence, oscillates the poetic pendulum....”

This reminds me very much of the saying of the Heart Sutra, form is emptiness, emptiness is form....

All of what I have been saying is a zen perspective on art, although I have a strong resistance to the idea of a zen perspective on anything for reasons that are probably obvious from what I have said already. So take the words zen perspective please with a grain of salt, and understand them as shorthand for a way of looking at the world that is essentially unmade and undefined. We can't get away with that of course. We will always have to be someplace and called something so we will have to use terms somehow in the hope that we will remain willing to have them deconstructed right before our eyes, and to find their deconstruction amenable. In the practice of zen meditation we are not trying to do anything other than to undo everything and simply be present as directly as possible with all phenomena that arise. This necessarily involves a moment by moment letting go of definition and perception and thought. I do not mean that we would attempt to become stupid blankminded and unthinking. Rather that we would let the world come and go as it naturally does, without trying to stop it at some arbitrary point of our own conscious or unconscious choosing. Which of course is what we do try to do by making a world up, piling it up, as I have said, and becoming its victim. In zen meditation we happily enter a radically simple, even an absurd, situation — just sitting still and breathing — so that we have the possibility of seeing how this troublesome world is made. Although we may not be able to do anything with this meditation practice, it does serve as a kind of training, helping us, by familiarity, to become directly used to the actual situation that prevails more or less within being. Meditation practice is a return, over and over again every moment, to that particularly odd situation, which we can see as time goes on exists in the middle of any situation, no matter how simple or complex.

The sense of artmaking that I am advancing here is, after all, following Ginsberg and Valery, an inherently religious one. I do not want to conflate art and religion, of course. I recognize that they are not the same thing, and yet I am arguing that what we call the aesthetic impulse is at bottom identical to what we call the religious impulse. Certainly the cultural history of zen, particularly in Japan, would attest to the close relationship between the two activities.

Insofar as both art and religious practice always manifest in the world as we know it as particular things, both have serious built in problems. Religion solidifies into doctrinaire narrow-mindedness or institutional power-brokering, or usually both, and art solidifies into money, if it is successful, and despair if it is not, a defeat in either case. I am not the first to point out that art in our radically mercantile society is more or less doomed to become commodified, and that it is generally made for the wealthy, and becomes for them in various ways a kind of sanitized and enriched currency. Even artists who do not make economically valuable art work must create economically attractive explanations to attract funders to pay for the generally high costs of the art habit. Even poets, who need only about $10 worth of materials to create their works, must vie for these dollars. Despite this, I do not think the situation is hopeless, and that is why I have taken the time to think about this topic. I believe that if the artist can be clear about the nature of the project that he or she is finally concerned with, and actively work at being clear about it — for clarity is never a given, it needs constant revision — just as if the religious practitioner, which is any of us, can be clear about the project he or she is engaged in, it is possible to proceed with liveliness and integrity, despite the difficulties. Life well and seriously lived has never been without these difficulties; it is part of the fun and simply a given in the situation.

A final quote from Valery, “The mind is terribly variable, deceptive and self-deceiving, fertile in insoluble problems and illusory solutions. How could a remarkable work emerge from this chaos if this chaos that contains everything did not also contain some serious chance to know one's self and to choose within one's self whatever is worth taking from each moment and using carefully?”

And a poem of Zen master Dogen:

Being as it is,
What's that?
In a waterdrop
Shaken from a duck's beak:
An image of the moon

Norman Fischer is a Zen priest and abbot, a husband, father, poet, and teacher. After almost thirty years at the San Francisco Zen center, he retired in 2000 to take his teaching out into the world. He is the teacher at the Everyday Zen Foundation. This essay first appeared in Success, published in 2000 by Singing Horse Press. It is published here with permission of the author.

Valery quotations are from “Poetry and Abstract Thought,” in The Art of Poetry, by Paul Valery (New York: Vintage Books, 1961. Translated by Denise Folliot.)