“Give yourself permission to be yourself, and don’t be frightened by the unknown,” wrote John Daido Loori in The Zen of Creativity. The photographer, Zen master, and founder of Zen Mountain Monastery, who died on October 9, wrote in that book that he first had a glimpse of the spontaneity and naturalness that can shine out of the supposedly ordinary world during a workshop with the great photographer Minor White. Zen training and the founding of the monastery followed but for Loori spiritual practice and and creative expression always went together. The real aim of artistic expression is pointing the way to truth, Loori once told me during an interview years ago. True originality can arise only from having a real contact with our origins, with the ground of our being–and this is also the aim of Zen practice. Drawing closer to the source, helping it flow outward through us, isn’t this the aim of all authentic spiritual ways and all authentic creative expressions? This double impulse has been present in human beings since Lascaux (which I wrote about a couple of blogs ago). Jeanne de Salzmann (whose upcoming book I’ve also been writing about) also taught about the need to cultivate an awareness of our origins, our source, before our energy flows outward into all the branching tributaries of thought and habit. What a difficult and remote attainment that seems to me! It seems about as likely to happen to me in the near future as climbing Everest. It feels like it would only a superhuman (or a possibly pre-Atlantian cave artist from Lascaux) could live and express themselves from that awareness of Wholeness. Yet, both Loori and de Salzmann taught that the way up the mountain is to see completely what is here and now, the inattention, the dispersion.
One day years ago, I sat at a picnic table in the sun at Zen Mountain Monastery in the Catskill Mountains, interviewing Loori Roshi (for PW) about Zen and creativity and about what it might mean be our true selves in the midst of life: “The whole point of Buddhist practice has to do with being the world, ” he said. “You work your way up the mountain until you reach a peak where the view is boundless and limitless. But it doesn’t end there in Zen. You keep going, and going straight ahead when you’re on the peak of a mountain can only mean one thing, going back downhill back into the world. The aim of Zen is to take everything that has been realized and actualize in everything we do.”
I asked him if this actualization that he spoke of wasn’t close to a definition of art because what I took from his book was that the deeper the awareness, the closer to the source, the more true and powerful a creative expression will be–no matter what the form of expression, movement or words.
He said yes, but that “Zen arts are really about teaching people to wake up. ” Still, he allowed that in the last stages of the book, when he found himself on deadline and “just breaking out and writing and what came out was very Buddhist….” And his non Buddhist editor and publisher and others especially liked those chapters which struck him as very Buddhist. So maybe it was the breaking out, the naturalness and spontaneity shining out. Maybe John Daido Loori was being himself without fearing the unknown in those late chapters. What a great way to spend a life.
In the front of the truth of impermanence, it is clear that paying attention to life really matters. It also strikes me that the best possible way of living might have to do with breathing in and breathing out, drawing inward to the source, then exhaling, expressing that source through the channel of our one, brief and precious life.