Art, Buddhism and Passion

A couple of posts back in  The Paradox of Freedom I  mentioned that wacky artist Soutine and his statement about art being more important than sanitation or olfactory agreeableness when he kept a rotting beef carcass in his studio in order to use it as a model for painting. Many other artists have done equally strange things in expression of their passion. People without such a degree of passion have some difficulty understanding that.

When we consider Buddhist ancestors it seems that quite a few had some kind of passion going on for the activity they were engaged in as well. And equally people without such a degree of passion have some difficulty understanding that.

I clipped a comment a long time back about passion and Buddhism. Apparently I didn’t catch the commenter’s name and I don’t recall the forum it was in. But it contained some interesting commentary on the role of passion in Buddhist practice. And from much I’ve encountered since then this commentary seems to express a common belief. The commenter said:

“The bottom line is that passion is not a valued quality in Buddhism.”

If what is meant by passion is any of the following definitions: boundless enthusiasm, fervor, fire, zeal, ardor, a strong liking or desire for or devotion to some activity, object, or concept then certainly Buddhism is full of passion. Especially once Bodhicitta has developed there is very little else that matches the ardor with which one practices Buddhism. (think Bodhidharma!) It may appear to be a subdued and long-lasting passion, compared to the immediacy of lust or desire-passion for sense objects, but without some kind of strong impetus like enthusiasm or  devotion most people would abandon Buddhist practices in the first few months.

“If you’re one of those folks who enjoys experiencing passion, and who is driven by it, you might find Buddhism unappealing. ”

Or you might find it gives your experiences a whole new level to contemplate.

Similarly, if you’re the type to be drawn to Buddhism, you might also be less likely to be the type to “suffer for your art,” so to speak. Because to a Buddhist, that would just be ignorant.”

Suffering for art is usually in the minds of the beholders. Most artists just do the thing they do in preference to doing the things most non-artists do like making a lot of money or having a lot of comforts. Artists have a certain devotional passion that is similar to a religious devotional passion. We may sit in our easy chairs and talk of their “suffering for art” or impose our definition of suffering upon these others but the question really is do they themselves define their lives as one of suffering (such as being without material pleasures) or one of joy and creation. People don’t do a thing, particularly something outside the “mainstream” unless there is some psychological/emotional/spiritual/etc. payoff. It wouldn’t happen again and again if there weren’t some kind of impulse and satisfaction of that impulse for the person driven by creative or devotional urges.

The renunciation of monastic life and the discipline of serious practice is certainly labeled as suffering by some. Yet people do it willingly for a lifetime. Just as artists do.

We’ve all read accounts of Buddhist, and particularly Zen practice that discuss burning off of karmic residue, that monastic and intensive training can be likened to a furnace and that it is advisable to, as Dogen Zenji said, “Sit as though your hair were on fire.”

Sounds pretty passionate to me.

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5 comments on “Art, Buddhism and Passion

  1. Again there is a linguistic confusion here. The Victorians who translated the various Pāli and Sanskrit words for desire (e.g. taṇha, lobha, rāga) as “passion” had in mind the passion of Christ – i.e. something unpleasant which overcomes us. Whereas these days we use ‘passion’ as a synonym for ‘enthusiasm’. Buddhism is all for *enthusiasm* (which I might use as a translation of ‘viriya’ or ‘ussoḷhi’), but we’re stuck with the vocabulary of Victorian England and seem unaware that we are.

    As a Buddhist artist I would have to say I think the link between art and suffering is a romantic delusion. Artists often do suffer for their art, but there is no *need* to. There are plenty of fine artists who had no more suffering than average, let’s say Anish Kapoor, or Andy Goldsworthy, or Olivier Messiaen, or Arvo Pärt. No doubt they have had human suffering, but they have not revelled in it, nor have they sought it, and their work is sublime!

    Seeking out suffering is not admirable, as anyone who has really suffered will know. I’m not in the least bit impressed by the affectations of artists who cause themselves pain in order to be seen as more authentic. There is nothing noble, per se, about suffering. The glorification of the negative is a theme of art that has grown alongside the nihilism of the modern age. If pleasure does not lead to happiness, then perhaps the opposite is true? But this other extreme is no more profound than hedonism. More often than not the artist (like the media) these days seeks to provoke a reaction, any reaction – and disgust, fear, anger are the easiest emotions to provoke. I have those in abundance, and would seek instead to provoke myself to wonder, to joy, to contentment.

  2. I think passion changes along the trajectory of a person’s path. Fire, fervor and a strong liking may more accurately describe passion for some. Then along the path peace and equanimity temper passion and grow along with the understanding of the paradox of desire as desire burns itself up like a match on the path that leads to where you already are.

  3. “If you’re one of those folks who enjoys experiencing passion, and who is driven by it, you might find Buddhism unappealing. ”

    If “passion” is defined as “a powerful emotion” then according to the above-statement, one might find Buddhism unappealing.” However, if one is without “passion”, one is “indifferent” or “apathetic” of Buddhism or any path, for that matter.

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