Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Art of Buddhist Practice

The above image is a painting by early 20th century artist Seraphine Louis. Last night, I watched a recent film about her life, and the unusual relationship she had with a well known German art critic and dealer, Wilhelm Uhde, who was also instrumental in bringing to prominence the work of Henri Rousseau. If you can't tell, I'm a bit of an obsessive when it comes to late 19th century, early 20th century art in general, so it was quite fun to discover the story of Seraphine, and her art.

Seraphine was, in 1912, a poor, unknown domestic worker living in a small town just north of Paris when she became the housekeeper for Mr. Uhde. When he discovered one of her paintings, and was told she was the artist, he began to offer support for her work, the same work that had been ridiculed by the few others who knew about it, and which Seraphine spent most of the little money she had on the painting supplies for doing it. The outbreak of World War I forced Uhde to leave France, and leave Seraphine behind, but apparently he never forgot about her. Thirteen years later, he found himself drawn to an exhibit of local artists in which he came upon one of Seraphine's paintings. A well known modern art collector by this time, Uhde immediately began financially underwriting her career, and arranging to exhibit her works.

One might think there's a love story behind all of this. And there was, I think, but not the usual kind. Uhde was gay, a pacifist in war torn Germany, a Jew who later spent the Second World War years hiding in southern France, and a collector of art that, when he began collecting it, was hated or ignored by nearly all the prominent art critics of the time. Louis was a secretive, marginalized, and mostly isolated artist, who was religiously inspired (her paintings were said to be offerings to the Virgin Mary) in such an intense way it seems to have sent her over the edge. So, when I say there was a love story, it is that of two people who recognized each others' uniqueness and, for a time, were intimately connected through that recognition.

This post is thus, in some ways, piggy backing off yesterday's post about the relational quality of Buddhist practice. There is something quite important about being able to recognize the uniqueness of each other, just as it is important to realize that at the bottom of it all, there are no individuals or real differences. It's one of the paradoxes of Buddhist teachings that people enjoy soundbyting, but which probably makes most of us uneasy when we sit with it long enough.

One of the beautiful things about the story of Seraphine and Udhe is how improbable it is on a conventional level. They were from completely different economic classes. Their meeting was, it seems, almost accidental, as was the way in which Udhe stumbled upon an early painting of Seraphine's at a neighbor's house. There was no romantic tie that often is the glue that brings together seemingly disparate people. And then there was the reunion after a World War, and over a decade's worth of time and distance.

In my view, the power of stories like this are in the ways in which they shatter cherished views about how the world works, and what we believe the future will be based upon our past. It's so easy to think you're doomed because of past failures, or that you're bound to be successful because of past "good deeds," but truly, the world functions in it's own way. That's not to say that the past isn't important - it certainly is. But it's not the one to one correspondence that pop culture views of karma often say it is.

The tragedy of Seraphine's later years also, you might say, speaks to this. The Great Depression forced Udhe to suspend the financial support he'd been offering, and Seraphine began having visions of coming of the end of the world, which eventually led to her commitment in a psych ward, where she spent the last ten years of her life, isolated again and uninterested in painting.

One of things I have wondered about for a long time is the intensity that comes with dedication to artistic expression and/or spiritual life. Often found in tandem, the lines between piercing through to the great truths of this life, and going insane, seem very thin and I think this is why many people shy away when they get anywhere near that edge. Van Gogh is probably one of the easiest to recognize modern cases of this edge - an intense young man with a missionary passion who has an equally intense burst of artwork that ends up astonishing people over a hundred years later. And it was all too much for him to handle.

The kinds of intensities experienced by Van Gogh and Seraphine probably feel quite remote for most of us. But I do think their stories can be somewhat instructive to modern Buddhist lay practitioners, trying to "fit it all in" or who might be, in spite of all the teachings, trying to achieve enlightenment, or something of the like. Somewhere along the line, both Seraphine and Van Gogh ceased to be able to navigate the waters of their visions. Although the full stories won't ever be known, regardless of what evidence is available, a few things connect their stories.

1. Isolation. Both artists had intense spiritual longings and visions that were coupled with deprived or strained social lives. The relational aspect was broken down for much of the lives of both of these artists, which I'd say was a major factor in their final breaking points.

2. Marginalized living with "bad habits." Although a lot isn't known about Seraphine's life, it's probable the the years of poverty she experienced had an effect on her physical and emotional health. And certainly, the smoking and lousy diet Van Gogh lived on had a negative impact on his health and well being.

3. Overworking and overdoing it. This is, in my view, where the connection between these artists and modern Buddhist lay practitioners might be most useful. Both Van Gogh and Serphine over did it when it came to their art, and the other work needed to support their art. And it's probably also the case that they both were driven to do this by a spiritual passion, a desire to embody the visions they had into a concrete form - a longing I have had myself, and also see embodied in the art and writing of masters from all periods of recorded human history.

But the danger, it seems, lies in the slide away from some sort of balance, from understanding one's internal compass well enough to know when to push and when to pull back. This has been precisely the place I have been exploring over the past year or so, and it is where many of my comments about lay practice, including the repeated undercutting of the primacy of meditation retreats and hours of sitting practice, are coming from. It's not about denying their impact on people; it's about a deep inquiry into what balance means for a spiritually focused person living in the everyday, busy world.

Just as Seraphine and Van Gogh were compelled to draw and paint the world they saw and experienced, I have, for most of my life, been compelled to write the world I experience in some form or another. And I feel that instead of idealizing the struggles past artists and writers had, and/or loving their art but dismissing their lives as failures in some sense, I feel called to learn from them as the whole people they were.

In a way, I am similar to Zen teacher Brad Warner in viewing Buddhist practice as an art form which, over the course of one's life, can change it's appearance many times. Sometimes, it might be deeply introspective, highly meditative. Other times, it might be radically social, pushing across established social norms and oppressive practices. Sometimes, it's full of faith and joy. Other times, it's almost all doubt and suffering.

These changes are all, in their own ways, quite beautiful. But learning to ride the horse of those changes is difficult, and I think not completely respected by even most spiritually-minded folks. People like routines, conformity, predictability, comfort, and knowing - all qualities that disappear at times if you are truly riding your horse, and not the horse someone else thinks you should have.

So, in writing this, I am offering a vow to my own "horse of life," and perhaps in doing so publicly, it might inspire others. At the very least, maybe you'll discover an obscure, but powerful artist in Seraphine, and find her story compelling in some way or another.

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