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Part 3 - Origins of Buddhist Dharma Art and Contemplative Arts

Updated: Oct 25, 2023

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Over the years, numerous rules have been developed to depict the Buddha and convey Buddhist symbolic imagery. These guidelines adhere closely to the ancient Indian customs of iconography and iconometry, regarded as sacred and elevated art forms (Lahdrepa & Davis, 2017). Various sources widely emphasize that traditional Buddhist art serves a purpose beyond mere aesthetics; its primary function is to embody the teachings of the Buddha and foster meditation practices (Trungpa, 1975; Patry Leidy, 2008; Lahdrepa and Davis, 2017;).

Lahdrepa and Davis (2017) elaborate on this concept in their book titled “The Art of Awakening: A User’s Guide to Tibetan Buddhist Art and Practice”:

Visual representations of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas, statues and paintings, are being used as external objects for contemplation and meditation practice. These visual representations are symbols of the supreme qualities of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas that one aspire to cultivate within self and for the benefit of all sentient beings.

As previously discussed, the Industrial Revolution played a significant role in the spread of Buddhism across different countries. In Asia, each nation could adapt the core Buddhist principles to fit its unique cultural, religious, social, and political contexts (McMahan, 2012). The Buddhist Dharma Art also underwent a similar process of integration and development, aligning with the specific cultural traditions of each country in the East. However, a variation in Buddhist ‘supreme art’ developed with the sect known as Ch’an (Zen in Japan; Skt. Dhyana) a few years after Buddhism arrived in China and Japan.

The Chinese Buddhist Ch’an school foundations are based on the “Flower Sutra.” Addiss (1989) described the genesis of Zen through the Flower Sutra:

Zen is said to have begun with a visual allusion. The Buddha did not give his usual verbal sermon to his followers one day, but simply held a flower in his hand. A single disciple - Mahākāśyapa - understood this wordless message, and Zen was born (p.6).

Lilac flower and light - Miksang contemplative photography by E. Ates

Within Zen, the Flower Sutra communicates the ineffable nature of tathātā (suchness), and Mahākāśyapa's smile signifies the direct transmission of wisdom without words.

Davey (2007, p.28) introduces the origins of Zen and its Ways:

The Zen Buddhist sect originated in India in the sixth century. Its originator is generally considered to be the monk Bodhidharma (Daruma in Japanese). Shortly after establishing Zen, in about A.D. 520, he left for China, where, according to oral tradition, Daruma sat facing a wall – “wall-gazing” practice - for nine years until he attained enlightenment. Zen, in its link of meditation to daily activities, has made a deep impression on the Japanese Do; indeed, the Ways have been described as “plastic Zen.” Zen stresses the avoidance of self-deception, and the Ways have long served as a “reality check” (p.29).

Zen developed various Japanese Ways (Do) with multimodal training methodologies and practices. These include Hitsuzendo (the Way of Zen calligraphy, also called Zenga), Kado (flower arrangement), Togeido (the Way of pottery), Kodo (the Way of incense), Shodo (the Way of the brush), as well as martial arts like Judo, Kendo, Karate-do, and numerous others. While each of these modalities contributes to the training of the embodied mind, a detailed exploration of each multimodal “Way” of training is beyond the scope of this paper. It is worth noting that the origins of the Do practices can be traced back to Chinese Taoist teachings, which were later imported to Japan and referred to as Dokyo (combining "do," meaning Tao, and "Kyo," meaning teachings) and arts (Davey, 2007, p.22).

Addiss (1989) explained the tradition of Zenga, which describes painting and calligraphy by Zen monks from 1600 to the present:

In other Buddhist sects, accomplished craftsmen have produced images with care and precision to be radiant, idealized, and awe-inspiring. The works were created neither “for art’s sake” nor at the bidding of wealthy patrons, but rather to aid meditation and to lead toward enlightenment. The translation from mind and spirit to paper was spontaneous. These works distill the essence of Zen experience into strokes of the brush. Zen art, as a part of Zen training, has a long history. Zen art had a double function: it was a form of active meditation for the creators of the works and a method of visual instruction for those who received them (pp.6-7).

Over the centuries, Zen Buddhism evolved and transformed until it reached Western societies. Buddhist teachers who immigrated to Europe and North America were crucial in introducing Zen Buddhist teachings and art practices to the West. Notable figures like D.T. Suzuki, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and Thich Nhat Hanh adapted the Zen Ways for the West into Contemplative Arts, simplifying and preserving its connection to the Dharma. Shambhala International (1994-2023) states that Contemplative Arts are rooted in Chögyam Trungpa's teachings on direct perception and directly inspired by Dharma Art and Shambhala Art.

Dharma Art embodies art that emerges from a meditative state of mind, infusing wakefulness and awareness into the creative and viewing processes through the integration of contemplation and meditation. Dharma art teachings morphed into Contemplative Arts to present secular artistic and creative disciplines that fuse traditional Indo-Tibetan and Zen Buddhist teachings into Western life.

Keywords: Contemplative Creative Therapy, Contemplative Creative Science, Contemplative Science, Contemplative Psychotherapy, Buddhist Psychology, Embodied Mind, Embodied Creativity, Psychotherapy, Meditations.

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