Thanks for all the suggestions. Today I’m working on rewriting Nishijima’s version of Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Song of the Middle Way. As I was typing away trying to explain a particular point he made, I put down the following paragraph:

“We say, for example, that a whirlpool is a spiraling current of water in a river. Then, when we communicate with each other, we can use the word ‘whirlpool’ to refer to something we all understand. However, the whirlpool is not really different from the river. It cannot exist except as part of the river. In the same way, the things and phenomena of the universe — including you and I — do not exist except as part of the universe. They are temporary manifestations of the activity of the universe as a whole in precisely the same way the whirlpool is a temporary manifestation of the activity of the river. We lose sight of this fact very easily, perhaps some of us never even gain sight of it to begin with. Our definitions of individual things and phenomena are based on the characteristics we rather arbitrarily assign to them. This way we are able to create mental representations of those things and to manipulate those representations in our minds. It is a mistake to think that the arbitrary divisions of the real universe that we make in our minds correspond to divisions in the real universe itself.”

Ugh! Heavy stuff.

So how about the topic of creativity and Zen? Or fantasy and Zen as some of you have said. It is true, I work in an industry devoted to creating fantasies. This seems utterly wrong for someone who is also devoted to a pursuit of the truth. It has, in fact, caused me a tremendous amount of consternation. This has come up a few times in my interactions with Nishijima Sensei. I remember once, I brought along a book about Ultraman to a retreat just as something to look at and as a way to study a little bit of Japanese. Nishijima saw me reading it and said, “Those TV shows teach children.” I kind of laughed and asked what he thought the shows taught them. “They teach them to believe in power.” Ack!

He was right, though. Superhero shows give kids the idea that they can be saved by outside forces with powers beyond their own. Religions teach exactly the same thing. So I made it my business to try and inject some doubt into that idea. I made friends with one of the chief writers of the show and had long conversations with him about various subjects. I submitted stories of my own for consideration. In ways both subtle and overt the theme of all of my submissions was to cast a shadow of doubt upon this belief in power.

I never succeeded in getting any of my stories on the air. But as time went on, I began seeing the little seeds of doubt I’d planted begin to grow. You’d have to watch a lot of Ultraman episodes very closely to see the results. But they’re definitely there. I’ve never seen another superhero show in which such doubts about the efficacy of power to save the powerless was ever questioned. I recently watched the new Superman movie and there’s absolutely no doubt at all that we little people need someone with super powers to save us.

If you can make even a tiny bit of difference, that can help. It’s better than doing nothing at all and it’s better than standing around complaining.

Zen is pretty famous for its creativity. Zen teachers always seem to have some kind of creative outlet. Some, like Dogen, are writers and poets. Some are calligraphers, painters and musicians. Some take a creative approach to things like archery or the martial arts. This has led to a certain degree of confusion in the West. We’ve never been exposed much to calligraphy, Asian styles of visual art, or their unique approach to certain sports like archery and the martial arts. So we’ve combined these things with Zen in such a way as to foster belief that these arts in particular are somehow “Zen” in and of themselves as opposed to other forms of art that are not “Zen.” Really, though, it’s not the style of art itself, but rather how the artist approaches it. I’d hate for someone who wasn’t exposed to much of Western culture to read my writings and decide that hardcore punk was somehow more “Zen” than other forms of artistic expression. I just use my expression in that field to try and talk about the way a person steeped in this philosophy approaches art in general.

Art is good. Art is necessary for human life. I once heard Nishijima talk about why he appreciated actors. I can’t remember his exact words. But it was something about how actors can express emotion without themselves getting caught up in emotion. All art performs an important function in society. I consider what I do here as a kind of artistic expression. To a certain degree, even the autobiographical parts of Hardcore Zen contain a certain amount of fiction. Not that I made up any of the stories, they all really happened. But when you try and write about things years later, you inevitably have to fill in the gaps in your memory with stuff you pretty much invent the same way a fiction writer invents the activities of a character.

In fact, if you really want to get into it, some of the greatest works in Buddhist literature are works of fiction. Virtually all of the Mahayana sutras have huge amounts of made-up stuff in them, stories that never “really” happened as matters of historical fact, but which are nonetheless absolutely true.

So do some art. OK?

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22 Responses

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  1. oxeye
    oxeye February 6, 2007 at 12:39 pm |

    “It is a mistake to think that the arbitrary divisions of the real universe that we make in our minds correspond to divisions in the real universe itself.”

    That was some good stuff Brad.. But could it also be a mistake to think that there are real divisions in the real universe?

    “To a certain degree, even the autobiographical parts of Hardcore Zen contain a certain amount of fiction.”

    I think that recalling any part of our lives will be almost as fictional as it is real. That isn’t our intention of course, but we tend to filter out circumstances through our own points of view.

  2. Lone Wolf
    Lone Wolf February 6, 2007 at 2:03 pm |

    NICE! Thanks for writing about Art and Zen Brad.(You should right a screenplay based on the same concept that you wrote the Ultraman shows on).

    It’s funny you are speaking about superhero’s, because I’m currently writing my first novel about a flawed fat guy who becomes a fat superhero, and in like many Marvel movies, regular human beings help the superhero when he gets himself in a bind. Many Superheros are saved by humans, such as in Superman Lives when they decide to turn the plane around and go get the drowning Superman. I’m also going to add some Tibetan Buddhist satire in my story with on of the characters. My as well put all that information I learned to some good use.

    As far as, the whirlpool and the universe. The difference between the whirlpool and humans is discriminating awarness. Whirlpool’s don’t think (as far as I know lol). So is correct practice to realize that your part of the universe, even though your discrimitive mind contiues to seperate the universe in little parts and add ideas of attachtment or dislike to those parts.

    I really don’t think to much about the philisophical side of Buddhism much anymore, I just sit and do what needs to be done throughout the day. Isn’t the point of Buddhist philosophy just to keep faith in sitting Zazen everyday?

    I really enjoyed what Nishijima Sensei said about the actors expressing emotion without getting caught in emotion.

  3. Anonymous
    Anonymous February 6, 2007 at 2:22 pm |

    “I recently watched the new Superman movie and there’s absolutely no doubt at all that we little people need someone with super powers to save us.” – Doubtboy

    Say what? Let’s review:

    Superdude takes an extended hiatus to the old country.

    Louis Lane garners a Pulitzer Prize for her piece, “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman.”

    Bad boy Lex Luthor walks into Superdudes playhouse, which SD neglected to lockup before he split, and steals the family jewels (power, baby!).

    “The only thing power can’t change is change” – Thomas Edison

  4. "James"
    "James" February 6, 2007 at 3:30 pm |

    I think art is a very important part of our lives. I am an Buddhist who does art and recently did a painting of the Buddha. You can find it on my art website:


  5. Jules
    Jules February 6, 2007 at 3:50 pm |

    People learn about a lot of things from art. Justice, truth, compassion, all kinds of ideals that motivate people to make the world a better place.

    They aren’t real, but our dreams, goals, fantasies and ideals lead us to take real action which shapes our lives. Of course, reality never turns out the way we imagine, but these things provide us with direction and motivation.

    But there comes a point in passive entertainment where we go past learning and inspiration, and start using art as an escape. There’s a point of balance in there somewhere.

  6. Jinzang
    Jinzang February 6, 2007 at 4:55 pm |

    The purpose of art is to shed light on the human condition.
    A man once saw Marilyn Monroe reading a book and asked what she was reading.
    “A novel,” she said.
    “I’d rather read something that’s true,” he said.
    “This is the truth,” she replied.

  7. PhilBob-SquareHead
    PhilBob-SquareHead February 6, 2007 at 5:30 pm |

    Art is great. But what does one do when the muse no longer comes around?

  8. Lone Wolf
    Lone Wolf February 6, 2007 at 9:15 pm |

    Philbob, what do you do when you don’t want to sit? Keep on sitting!

    Fuck the muse. Just keep on creating art. Tell your self that your free to create the worst crap in the world. Not everything you create will be a masterpiece, but you will never create a masterpiece if you wait around your whole life for the muse to show up.

    I’m reminded of someone trying to join a Zen temple in Japan in the good old day. They would knock on the door and ask to join the temple, and some monk would slam the door in thier face. So to show that they are serious, the person stands out in front of the temple all night. They again knock on the door in the morning. Slam! Door in your face. Not until the third day does the monk finally let you in. Why? Because looking at the truth can be some tough shit. And if your not willing to stay outside for three days, maybe in the snow or rain even, then your not ready to sit and face the truth. So there is this little protector in are heads, the gaurdian at the gate. You have to get past him to reach the muse again. You must make a serious effort. The muse isn’t seperate from yourself, who is yourself anyways?

    To maintain your practice and effort no matter how you feel is the key.

    Thats my stupid rant ( I pretty much stole that whole rant from Natlie Goldberg, and she explains it much better. But she calls the gaudian “Monkey Mind”)

    And speaking about the Beatles (in the last post), I just finished a great novel called “Norwegian Wood” by Harukai Murakami. I highly recommend it.

  9. Lone Wolf
    Lone Wolf February 6, 2007 at 9:19 pm |

    Wow! I really need to edit my post. I competely changed from “Them” to the “you” perspective half way through a paragraph.

  10. muddy elephant
    muddy elephant February 6, 2007 at 11:29 pm |

    Every breath as a work of art. Every intellectual analysis a piece of fantasy. Staring at the wall.

  11. Katie
    Katie February 7, 2007 at 12:38 am |

    I think part of the reason why art is so amazing is because it allows you to see into someone else’s mind, which is essentially your own mind, and see different sides of “you” that you never realized were there. It’s eye-opening and I love it.

    By the way, just a quick and random question-
    I’m in college and living in a tiny apartment. When I sit, I can either sit on my bed and face the wall, or sit on the floor and face some drawers, my bedspread, a desk… no wall. What’s more important? Because I’ve been sitting on my bed so I can look at the wall, but I feel weird on a bed…

  12. magik
    magik February 7, 2007 at 2:13 am |

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  13. drunken monkey
    drunken monkey February 7, 2007 at 2:15 am |


    Buddhist schools have a disproportionately high amount of artists. Even I, induldge in artistic expression in my free time although my intended career path is a far distance from art.
    Some say the right side of the brain coincides with artistic expression as well as spirituality (imagination) so I guess its unsuprising to see so many artists.

    philbob says; Art is great. But what does one do when the muse no longer comes around?


    Normally I look to the daily deviations for inspiration and ideas float to the surface of my mind when meditating (unintentionally).

  14. daniel
    daniel February 7, 2007 at 2:18 am |


    gudo nishijima once said that whenever he stays in a hotel etc and therefore away from his zafu he just sits on the hotel bed and uses the pillow as the zafu.

    or maybe you could hang a white sheet over the drawers and then sit on the floor?

  15. MikeDoe
    MikeDoe February 7, 2007 at 3:16 am |

    Art is a way in which we make the unconscious conscious. It is in part how we manifest our true nature.

  16. Anonymous
    Anonymous February 7, 2007 at 4:05 am |

    Thanks for this post Brad. I’ve always pointed to something that goes beyond technical skill, a core strength that allows me(us) to pick up anything and learn to do it well. Nice to know I’m not the only one seeing this. People usually just cock their heads to the side like a confused dog when i mention it. Guy

  17. Waylon
    Waylon February 7, 2007 at 7:21 am |

    “People usually just cock their heads to the side like a confused dog when i mention it.”

    That is my response when I hear MOST people mention the word “art”, it’s the same response I usually have when most people use the word “Zen” too. Not that I am anti art or anything…it’s just when I hear most people talking about “Zen”, it usually has nothing to do with Zen…..

  18. Anonymous
    Anonymous February 7, 2007 at 10:09 am |

    it’s just when I hear most people talking about “Zen”, it usually has nothing to do with Zen…..

    You should get out more… hehe

  19. oxeye
    oxeye February 7, 2007 at 10:58 am |

    An artwork might start off being about one thing and end up being about something completely different. It sort of goes off on it’s own if you’re doing it right. And if you are really doing it right, you are being made by your art.

  20. Deliciously Large
    Deliciously Large February 8, 2007 at 6:59 am |

    “Superhero shows give kids the idea that they can be saved by outside forces with powers beyond their own. Religions teach exactly the same thing.”

    Yep, superhereos like Jesus, God, Allah, Krishna, Heracules, Hachiman, Marishiten, Cúchulainn, Mars, Mercury,……etc.

    And to EVERY Chinese I’ve ever met – BUDDHA too! Yes, to the Chinese Buddha is a god to be prayed to for divine intervention.

    There is a Chinese Buddhist temple a few blocks from me. They insist that Buddha is a god living in heaven. Heaven must be pretty crowded with all those gods up there! Wonder if they take turns at overseeing the goings on of us mere mortals?

  21. Anonymous
    Anonymous February 10, 2007 at 2:18 pm |

    I keep finding the outline of a novel about how the trees on this planet are really sentient, just with a much slower speed of thought/communication (being via chemical pheromones instead of sonic vibrations) pops up during zazen. The gist of the novel is that the trees have just discovered our existence and are having a debate about whether to kill us all by releasing poison gas or to try to survive despite our mass tree slaughter. Some of the trees are non-violent.

    But then I realize I’ve forgotten my breath and return to it.

  22. jenni
    jenni February 13, 2007 at 2:24 pm |

    Thank you.

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