"Art is Bodhi" by Lama Rangbar

By Lama Rangbar Nyimai Özer

My Father, the son of an immigrant Jewish family, grew up in a time when the people around him struggled to gain a foothold in a new land. I can only imagine that the war my father participated in galvanized his own father’s view that life was filled with threats and struggle and that life was all about assuring a strong economic position to protect one’s family from likely but unpredictable events that the world continuously doles out.Regardless of these influences, my father opted for a life based on Art rather than on purely economic pursuits. He even went so far as to take a teaching job as a professor and chairman of the Arts department of Queens College in NY to assure that his income was not solely from the sale of his art, because this could adversely effect his content if he started to paint to please buyers or galleries.

I am surprised to learn more each year how much the struggles of my father influenced my own life and attitudes towards art, money and life in general. On the one hand, my education was very liberal and the value system I inherited truly encouraged me to take risks and pursue what I felt was true to my own soul regardless of its direct economic impact. But somehow, the notion that art would not bring home the bacon played on my psychology. Never the less, I did pursue fine arts as a major during my college years and felt great affinity with the arts my entire life. It is no wonder that when I became a Buddhist, although I did use it to sort out my life and purpose, I saw in it, a great repository of arts and sciences, the two things I loved most.

Arts deal with humans closeness with divinity, the ability to create that separates us from the animal, vegetable and mineral kingdoms, while science deals with understanding nature accurately and being able to show some level of proof of this understanding, In the Tibetan language the word Sorig is used to talk about both arts and sciences together. Sorig encompasses arts such as painting, sculpture, dance, song, architecture, geomancy, astrology and what we call sciences, such as medicine, diagnostics, mathematics, physics and metaphysics. All these are considered by Buddhists to be deeply interrelated. For example, medicine and Dharma are never separated. Dharma is used to heal our entire being while medicine heals our body / mind and enables us to practice properly. By working properly with the mind and substances that effect the body, the two are taken hand in hand in the roles of influencing each other. The sacred arts of song, dance, and painting, are all considered upaya or skillful means, to guide the mind into healing and understanding and eventually to unchanging great bliss which is essentially the fulfillment of the recongnition of our own inherent nature.

So when did it happen with me that I lost interest in the type of Arts of my father’s world? The art for art’s sake. No economic motive, just art for art. Where did I feel there was a break between art for healing and art for art? Was there a gap? It was not until my student pointed out to me that I was getting off track about art and its power that I began to consider this issue with any freshness.

Here is where several interesting issues come up all at once.

Motivation / purpose
Asia and the west
Form and content

For 18 years while living in Nepal and trying to embark on my worldly work, I encountered many interesting obstacles in life which became excellent teachers. Some of these I brought into the sphere of my advantage, while other issues lay dormant while I stayed in Nepal only to surface upon my return to the USA. I used to my advantage the fact that I didnt know what couldn’t be done in Nepal. The Nepalese were quite sure about what couldn’t be done and spent lots of time informing me about that list. Most of the things I wanted to do and pursue were on that “negative” list. So my not being able to relate to the internal obstacle of doubt that they faced, enabled me to do things they could not even dream of. More on this later in the context of our current stupa project.

Although I normally get little reward for generalizing, I noticed right away that most of the Asians I met seemed very concerned with regurgitation of information and were taught that capability in this regard was called education. This extended to the creation of art works and it was generally felt that art works could be done properly or improperly. Arts in a Nepali or Tibetan cultural context come from a long tradition handed down often along family lines and often closely associated with what we in the west call craftsmanship. But there was also a notion that there were some things that were correct to portray in art and other things that were not. This was also true in our western world in Judeo -Christian Europe when the Sistine chapel was painted. The process was not free of clash between the church and the artists. In Indian classical music there are some emotions that are taboo to evoke. Emotions such as sadness, yearning, devotion, and even pathos are considered fair play, while emotions of hatred, anger, rage, etc. are illegal. Naturally, since music vibrates sentiments into reality, one has to be careful what seeds one plants.

The above attitudes could be seen not only in the art world but in other normal aspects of life such as business. Creativity in business in 1990 in Nepal was very rare. The idea to bring in a new product into the market was always met with laughs, doubts and jeers. Of course, once the new ideas took hold in the market reality, imitation and knock offs abounded along with claims that these knock offs (the ones who said it was impossible to begin with) thought of it first. One thing I loved about Nepal, was helping the Nepalese understand that unique ideas were wonderful and that not everything had to be done as it always was before. In this manner I introduced nearly 100 new technologies to Nepal in the fields of solar and renewable energy, electric vehicles and other clean energy products. I also made inroads in training and developing the capacities of local Nepali artisans who would accept my training and fill my orders for rather unique Buddhist ritual arts items. Initially, when I asked them to make something according to a specific vision I had, they would say (in this order), “We don’t do that. We never did that. We don’t know how to do that” Inevitably I would sit down with them and grab their tools and start to show them how to go about it. Once they saw me using their tools, they felt secure in trying to accomplish the work I had described to them.

It was much harder to find Art for arts sake in Asia other than what sentiments had seemed to have trickled in more recently from the west into the more affluently exposed segments of the populations. In some cases, such as Bali in Indonesia, the economic pressure from tourists who started buying art works form artists that “took risks” and showed uniqueness, influenced the artists greatly. While in Nepal, although this influence did creep in eventually, it took much longer and so the Nepalese retained their tendency to produce traditional arts such as Thangkas and bronze statuary iconographically much the same way they had done for centuries.

When an Asian youth is confronted with a test question to describe Nepal, they are rewarded if they answer that “Nepal is a small land-locked country sandwiched between the two economic giants of China and India and therefore doesn’t stand a chance.”

In essence, what we call plagiarism is rewarded in Asia whereas creation of new things and ways of behavior is often punished. Conversely, in the west, our youth will be punished for plagiarism and often rewarded for trying to break the mold. In fact, we can even say, that our pride as Americans often rests in our ability to think “outside the box” and to be pioneers on all fronts.

Good art is valuable and interesting to us because it grabs our attention and makes us think. It can show us a new way of thinking and a new way of considering something we have perhaps over looked. Good art can be a medicine for our society as it can also show us who we are in the current moment, who we have evolved to be and where that stands in relation to our core values. Art can help us recognize who we are and enjoy that or it can help us transform ourselves into who we wish to be.

Much of my fathers work for example, was not something you would hang on your living room walls (unless you were my father and mother). Although some periods of his work were more subdued, Many of the works displayed the utmost grizzly aspects of our human existence and one could even say, were questionable fare for young eyes. During my father’s time, from an Asian perspective, his works would never be something one would place in one’s home as they would have been considered the worst Feng Shui possible. Scenes that depicted our ultimate violence and ability to cover it with sweet lies and advertisements. Our worst debased pornographic or self-enfatuated tendencies, displayed as the high points of our society. Essentially, they were works that could be seen by Asians as a way of hastening the world into chaos and an aid to demoralizing us about our own natures if not as a kind of license to do unspeakable things.

But the purpose of my father’s art was not that. My father’s intention was to make us aware of our base tendencies and to help us to wake up to the dangers of the hidden shadow sides of our natures, to reflect on what it meant to be human or divine. I can only imagine he meant them to be homeopathic doses of poison designed to make us take exception to our trends and to therefore be encouraged to peel away the layers of falsehood we so tightly wrapped ourselves in. But one culture’s medicine could be another culture’s enebriation.

Art as a mystical function

While I lived in Hawaii I spent many of my days in a ceramic studio. When not there, I was typically hiking around the wilderness. Often I would find “offerings” placed here and there. Normally these were a rock wrapped in a tee leaf. Tee is a local island plant with long pinnate leaves. They were placed at path intersections, along pathways or near pools and ponds. Somehow, although they were clearly “offerings” they were to me little works of art. A special interaction with the environment. I began to make them now and then when I felt like it. Sometimes just a rock, and sometimes wrapped in a tee leaf and sometimes some other offering of food left out on a leaf plate for example.

One thing is for sure, that small rock, with a tee leaf wrapped around it, could be said to be a very small adjustment to the natural landscape. The stone was not drastically altered in anyway, nor the leaf. Both were impermanent and fragile in their new intentional placement. But somehow, they are truly arts and offerings at the same time. One could not at all pass one of those offerings and not wonder, who placed it? What were they thinking? Were they small interventions of a human, or were they deep interactions with the unseen world of spirit? Although it may have been done thousands of times before, these rocks were still unique. They were something that would surely be noticed. This noticing is the root of awareness or “Budh” in sanskrit. The root of the word Bodhi is Budh or to notice. To be aware of. The rock called attention to something, something unseen. It was motivated by a need to communicate to the environment. to become part of the environment and to be in harmony with the environment, with an environment we are so often not attuned to, that we do not always listen to.

Art is Bodhi

One day, while traveling the back road to a place I liked very much called Hanna, I saw a nice jack fruit tree pregnant with huge ripe jack fruits un-owned by anyone. Being very fond of this fruit I pulled off the side of the road to try to collect one fruit. There is a very interesting perfume that comes from these trees, not so much based on the smell of the fruit nor its blossom but some other worldly smell. I climbed up the tree with great difficulty and eventually coaxed a large fruit off a sturdy branch. As I squatted on the branch and smelled the sweet strange smell I remembered the words of my Indonesian teacher who said:

“I don’t go into those trees and pull the fruits. I wait until they fall because there is always an exchange with the spirit of that type of tree”

Somehow, although I couldn’t relate to it when he said it to me, I now felt he was right. As I climbed down I pulled a rock from my pocket that was perfectly heart-shaped and offered it to the tree spirit into the crux of two branches and climbed down. Now it so happens that this heart shaped stone was just given to me by my newly wed wife as a very deep gesture at a very romantic moment. So it had some great value to me (and her) at that moment. It was fresh in my hand. After driving several miles away, my wife had misgivings about my trade. I drove back and took the stone back not feeling too good about my reneging on my offering.

Later that evening we went for a walk on the beech abandoning our shoes (including a new pair of my own hiking boots) Upon returning, her shoes were there but mine had been stolen. There was no doubt in my mind.

My Father used to say to me: “Son, in Asia form is content”

I was young and argued bitterly with him. I insisted that this was not true. That he didn’t know what he was talking about. That content was obviously different than form. The contents of a tea cup was far less important than what type of tea was inside the cup. Right or wrong, I have come to agree with my father. In Nepal or Tibet, in most social situations the person receiving a cup of tea would on average be far happier to receive a mediocre tea in a very elaborately embellished cup than to receive excellent tea in a humble and obviously inexpensive cup. After all, the group we call community, could not really be sure of the content. Only the drinker would be privy to that. Only the individual would be the wiser or beneficiary of that act whereas a fancy cup falls within the sphere of everyone’s eyes, everyone’s enjoyment, thereby overriding the preference of the individual.

And this is really where we come to with the discussion of arts east and west. 

Why is America so deeply loved and so deeply hated overseas? Of course there are far too many answers to this vast question. But some of the issues may revolve around some simple principles. As much as we westerners may have love hate relations with dogma and standardized forms, we seek meditation and standardized forms as a way of getting beyond ourselves. Taking a break from having to perform or create and instead just to be. Similarly, Asians often feel that America is the mother of self-emancipation. A place where anything goes. Where one can do as one pleases and not be bound by tradition or by what the neighbors think, The land of fast cars, fast women, etc. Yes America is also the land where families are destroyed by individual pursuit of happiness and where the masses suffer the intensely calculated mega-greed of the few. But these woes may be considered by many to be necessary, if not inevitable evils, the risk we take and the price we pay for such “self-emancipation”.

But in the end, Asians and other non-Americans, may not often be so fast to praise this aspect of America until they can actually bask in its self-emancipation pool. Don’t forget, they are still at home where the value system which praises (at least openly ) the virtues of self-sacrifice and conformity functions fully.

For me, I chose to make a stupa. A repository of all the enlightened blessings of past present and future. Beyond the limits of time and space, the construction of the stupa is itself a true art process which gives life to peace and galvanizes all of together in our common goal to be happy.

I have much to be thankful for in what my father left for me. Rich in Art, rich in the ability to read and enjoy the diversity of culture through art, and rich in my own satisfaction that art is the skillful means to bring life to wisdom and wisdom to life.