Have we got dharma the wrong way round?

Dharma is something we strive towards but what if dharma is already in us? What if dharma is our default position and what we experience is a learnt overlay? 

What if we evolved into an altruistic, empathetic, compassionate and caring species of ape but owing to our overdeveloped brain we have become enveloped by the learnt rules of civilization which have to some extent suppressed, deflected or obscured our innate nature?

Dukka, impermanence and the self 

Dukka is suffering through wanting existence to be something it is not. When did we start to consider that existence owed us something? In order to desire something we don’t have certain foundational elements that have to be in place. First there has to be a self, an individual to create the desire, without an ego there is no one at home to do the desiring or feel the dissatisfaction of not getting it. The creation of the self automatically creates dualism; if there is a self there is a subject and if there is a subject there must by definition be an object. 

This is the Second element, there has to be something to desire and a reason for desiring it, the object. And third there has to be a barrier to obtaining the object of desire. Something between the subject and the object, the space created by dualism. 

Thus the emergence of the self, the individual, creates the conditions for dukka through the creation of the space of dualism. Once established this leads to the realisation that all objects are unsatisfactory as they are all impermanent. So no matter how many or how much we collect nothing lasts in this dualistic construct. 

Perhaps if we recognise that dualism is a construct we can see what lies beneath, existence is being in the world. Remembering playing as a child gives insight into this existence. In play there is no duality, there is only the experience of play. At the end of play comes the reemergence of the existence of duality.

The five hindrances

The five hindrances that are said to impede dharma practice, desire, anger, sloth, dissatisfaction, doubt can all be seen to some extent as learnt habits. No doubt there is a genetic base for some desires but the desires for those things we don’t need for survival might be a reflection of our learnt responses rather than anything innate. Adverts make us desire things which we certainly don’t need, no one thinks the desire for a new vacuum cleaner is innate.

We hurt when we are hit by a stone but our first response is surprise and we only engender hate when we develop a relationship with the person who threw the stone. We dont hate a cliff for letting a stone fall, or the person whose step disturbed the ground. hate only develops when we interpret the reason for the stone’s release as being an undeserved act of aggression.

We were not born slothful and children play constantly without becoming tired, boredom is a result of lack of imagination and creative endeavour, both of which are the result of lifestyles.

We worry, become restless and dissatisfied with our lot all because we are led to believe there is a better alternative. There is no better alternative to life and existence. What leads us to desire something other than what we have and where we are? Without exposure to the supposed benefits of alternatives we could not be aware of them and without awareness we could not desire them, we have therefore learnt to be dissatisfied.

Doubt might in this context be considered a useful attribute. Doubt about wisdom being something to aspire to. Perhaps wisdom is simply lying under the swaths of learnt habits to be revealed rather than attained?

The eightfold path

One of the issues secular dharma has with the eightfold path is the adjective Samma, traditionally translated as right but also interpreted to mean appropriate, complete, correct or other less dogmatic terms. One of the definitions in a Pali-English dictionary is ‘as it ought to be’

If we look at the eight; knowledge, perception, speech, action, work, effort, meditation and concentration and rather than doing these the right way we try act  them out as they ought to be, the emphasis changes from a set of guidelines held by a body that knows the correct way of doing things to doing things in way which is intrinsic to our nature. As it ought to be is, as it ought to exist. 

What then if the advice in the eight areas is not to do things the right way but to do them as they ought to be done. How ought we to act? “You ought to be more careful” this means not that you should follow rules of how to be careful but that acting with care is more sensible, again to be sensible is not to follow a rule but to act within our nature. “You ought to pay attention” is advice not to follow a rule but advice that to concentrate is inherently beneficial and sensible. “You ought to be ashamed of yourself” suggests that there is an undefined inherent ethic which you have violated.

What then is knowledge as it ought to be? Or speech as it ought to be? Or actions as they ought to be? Could these be to know, communicate and act as is our intrinsic nature? If not, What is the alternative? To act, communicate, work, concentrate following some other set of rules? If so, who made these rules? Who set the guidance? What higher guidance are we looking for? Perhaps the guidance is already within us. And the advice is to look for it under the layers that our upbringing has covered it with.

Can you remember learning to lie? Can you remember learning to steal? Can you remember learning to envy? Can you remember learning your status? Can you remember learning to hate?

Clearly humans have a great capacity for learning how to be but this learnt behaviour is not necessarily how we ought to behave. Perhaps we already know how we ought to behave but because of all we have learnt the path at times becomes obscured.

Seeing the dharma as a way of being and acting that is inherent leads to a different view of practice. Dharma practice is traditionally presented as procedures that lead to enlightenment. The eightfold path is presented as a guide to behaviour, a way to act ethically, but what if rather than how to be, it is an exposition of how we are?

These are thoughts that have been with me for some time and I am aware that they are poorly expressed and there are likely to be many holes in the hypothesis; it may indeed be fundamentally flawed. Please feel free to point out the errors as it is through dialogue that a more coherent idea might emerge. 

Dharma engineering

As essentially a practical person what follows is a physicalist and (limited) reductionist outline view of how I currently think the world works from the perspective of homo sapiens. My interest in dharma is to what extent it adds useful information and processes to this developing understanding. Rather than the idea that I start with the dharma and fit my worldview around it. Is there any value in this approach or does the dharma only work in totality? if there is value how would you suggest the project could be developed?

Sapiens are animals that think they have selves:

Humans have a brain which has evolved as an integral part of their body

The human brain is made up of modules with different functions

Most of the processing of these modules goes on unnoticed (unconscious)

The results of some of the processing is relayed to modules which are noticed (conscious)

The conscious modules can utilise the body to communicate the previously unconscious thoughts with other humans.

Since conscious modules are the only access to the functioning of the brain they give the impression that they are the whole brain.

They also create the impression that these thoughts are from an individual self somehow independent of the body. 

As the modules from which the thoughts emerge rely on other modules to produce the thoughts and all these modules are part of the body and the body is made up of the same stuff as everything else, it follows that the self is a creation of the body and world. However the illusion of a self independent from the world is so powerful and so useful that in everyday life almost all humans accept the self (and themselves) as separate from the environment.

How to act:

The decisions on what to do are made by the unconscious modules and relaid to the conscious. How these decisions are made is a mystery but they do seem to follow a pattern. Once one type of decision has been made it is often followed by similar ones, often referred to as a habit.

Most often decisions are made to suit the culture and its conditions. Conditions arise from collective acceptance of ideas. Ideas like laws, money, nations, identity, professions, politics and most importantly, the self or ego.

To act without being influenced by the prevailing cultural conditions it is necessary to recognise when a decision is based on conditions. If a decision not to dance is based on the reactions of other people and a subsequent feeling of embarrassment this is an example of a decision based on conditions. If a decision to dance is based on reactions of other people and subsequent pride, this is another example of a decision based on conditions. 

If a decision to dance is based on a desire to dance and the only reaction is playful joy, this is an example of a decision not influenced by prevailing conditions.

This could be termed acting authentically

To act authentically is to act from a desire of the body/brain rather than from a desire to engage with other conditions in the world.

It is relatively straightforward to understand why actions are taken based on conditions. It is less clear to know what the motivation for authentic actions is.

If authentic actions come from a body/brain decision and that body/brain has evolved from earlier versions then it could be that these decisions come from hardwiring. Without an influencing self/ego the decisions could be said to come from the nature of the body/brain. Since the body/brain, like everything else, is a product of evolution then such a decision could be said to come from nature. Evolution and nature are without right and wrong, without ego/self, without direction or purpose, they simply exist.

Imagination and self

Considering the cognitive space which we refer to as imagination and which among other things, we use to imagine possible futures. Reflecting on the imagination being the entire way we experience reality led me to wonder about the relationship of ‘myself’ to imagination, the more I wondered the more it seemed to me that imagination was very closely related to the concept of self. Whenever imagination was present it seemed there had to be a self occupying it. I tried to think of situations when imagination was present but self wasn’t, and failed. I wondered where self could exist without imagination and again struggled to find those spaces. This led to further pondering the results of which are outlined below.

Neither imagination or a sense of self exist in a physical reality beyond the mind. So it is fair to say without much fear of contradiction that both self and imagination are creations of the mind. As well as this similarity there also seem to be other links between the space of imagination and a felt sense of self in terms of personal identity and our existence as an independent entity. 

It is difficult to conceive of the idea of a personal self existing anywhere but in the realm of imagination. Where, other than in the mind could the idea of a personal self reside? And since the self resides in the mind in which mind states can it be found other than the imagination? Despite my doubts about the value of dictionary definitions relating to subjective conscious experiences, for clarity I used a dictionary definition of imagination as; the facility to be able to create mental images of things not directly experienced by the senses (I am using this limited definition which does not include the word creativity to simplify things!). An additional aspect to imagination that is not covered in this definition is that the mental image in the imagination must change over time, indeed existence through time is an essential quality of imagination, remembering and planning take time. Imagination where ‘I’ view the past and future seems the natural space for my self to occupy, indeed it is not immediately obvious where the idea of a personal self might exist other than in the realm of imagination.

If I recall a past event or plan a future activity, both these thought processes take place in the realm of the imagination: recollection of something that happened in the past and planning for the future require an image of some description. If we are planning a future then we need to use imaginary versions of our senses; hearing and sound if we are composing music, vision if we are planning an event, movement if we are planning an activity, etc. Is it possible to consider any thought taking place in the imagination involving planning that does not involve us, i.e. our self, to a greater or lesser degree? Turning to memory, again we recall facsimiles of our senses and how they saw, heard, smelt, felt and reacted to a past time. These memory exist for us – our self – over time in imagination

There are some mind states where we seem to be without self. A sudden physical pain is a felt experience which only later might we refer to as ‘my pain’. Say we pick up a pan handle only to realise it is frighteningly hot, the pain is felt as an experience, we don’t think, ‘my hand is burnt’ there is simply an experience of pain. We can later say ‘I have burnt my hand’ but this is a later construction of a past event which would take place using imagination. The pain itself does not require imagination as it is a direct result of experience through the senses.

In samadhi meditation when we focus on the breath an aim is to concentrate on the felt experience to the exclusion of all other thoughts and images. In Vipassana meditation we are focusing on thoughts and emotions as they occur without judgment of reaction. In both processes there is the sense of the mind being focused beyond the realm of imagination and self. Other processes when the mind is involved in specific activities that take all available mind space such as complex mathematics and perhaps craft skills and some aspects of creativity can be so all encompassing that they leave no room for reflection on self. But do these activities involve imagination? In his studies of what he refers to as the state of flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi suggests that when in a state of optimal experience we lose both a sense of self and of time. Since imagination is a temporal experience this suggests that in flow we experience being without imagination or self.

It does appear then that these specific highly focused non-self activities that take place in the mind could also be characterised as taking place in thoughts that also lack the need for a general or broad imaginative space. These special cases, if they require imagination at all, require a highly specialised image. For example, In conversations with mathematician friends they say that when in mathematical flow they are using mathematics as a concept rather than dealing with images of symbols and numbers. This resonates with what Ronn said in the last meeting about these specialist areas having their own ‘language’.

The times when we are in flow are for most of us rare, the majority of the time our minds are much less focused, we harbour various imagined scenarios and are open to distraction. It is at these times that the imagination has space for our self. This is Descartes duality where we happily consider ourselves as having thoughts, memories, plans, conversations, it is at these times we cultivate, and have since childhood been developing, our sense of ourselves. What it means to be me. 

So if the self can only exist in the space we refer to as imagination, what of imagination? Where else does imagination – in the sense of a general broad platform rather than the very focused and narrow imaginations associated with specific thinking tasks such as complex mathematics or musical composition – exist?

Any time we consider using our imagination we must by default think of ourselves as part of that construct. Indeed we say, ‘our’ imagination, if it it our’s then it involves ‘our’ self. Even in dreams we either see ourselves or are the viewer of the action, in both cases there is either yourself taking part as a character or as an onlooker.  

To summarise, it could be argued that the self cannot exist without imagination and that imagination cannot exist with self. If this is the case what is the difference between self and imagination? Are they synonymous? Could it be that rather than a self residing in imagination, your imagination is your self? 

If we relate this back to creativity and the idea that there are aspects of the creative process that only work in the absence of self, then what this looks like now is that as well as finding a space that lacks self we are also looking for a space without imagination. This does seem to resonate with the idea of flow where any distraction and involvement of time, self and other diversions tend to disrupt the process. At times of flow there is simply experience rather than a self having an experience in an imaginary space over time. We may though have some sense of being while in flow, is this sense of awareness the same as self? There does seem to be a difference between a personal self, a personal identity, a sense of me, and the more distant sense of awareness of being that might occur in meditation, flow, etc.

Is there any science to back up this hypothesis? The modular theory of mind as proposed by evolutionary psychologists suggests that what we think of as consciousness is one or more of such modules. The author and evolutionary psychologist Robert Wright refers to these as these in some of his teachings as the public relation or PR modules whose job it is to relate information from the unconscious modules. The fact that at least some aspects of thought originate first in the unconscious before being passed to the conscious is now well established. Indeed the theory that conscious thought is no such thing and that conscious processes are all after the fact is very pertinent to dharma and reactivity. Peter Carruthers view that there is no such thing as conscious thought suggests that feelings such as anger are products of unconscious processing passed on to consciousness that interprets them as real and instills in them a sense of ungrounded authenticity and If we can distance ourselves from these feelings we can begin to see them for the distractions they are.. Another perspective on the role of the unconscious in decision making can be found in Before you know it by John Bargh.

According to evolutionary psychology, modularisation evolved as part of sapien survival strategy. in The strange order of things Antonio Damasio presents a compelling argument that the whole brain, body, mind construct evolved from the effect of feelings and in this proposal consciousness is a side effect of feelings. 

Some current research appears to support the view that consciousness, including therefore the experiences of imagination and self, is a side effect of evolution These theories don’t contradict the idea that imagination and self could be one and the same thing. The modular view as developed by evolutionary psychology explicitly considers the self a fabrication of the mind. 

Taken together this current research suggests that we tend to look the wrong way through the telescope when considering self and consciousness. As beings with a self we can be fooled into giving prominence and indeed preeminence to ourselves. We can see ourselves as distinct and apart from the world around us, and consider ourselves to be individual and unique entities of special importance. If these feelings are as a result of the chance progress of evolution then it seems plausible that the construct of self might well see the space it calls as imagination as something other than itself, a space to occupy and to use when required. It is perhaps on reflection more difficult to see how or why two distinct systems – self and imagination should have conveniently evolved in tandem that so well suit each other. 

Are self and imagination two subjective experiences of the same phenomena, two names for the same experience? Since it is the nature of self to consider itself distinct, from a subjective perspective self and imagination would necessarily be perceived as two distinct phenomena but is this really the case? Ocham’s razor suggests we should always look for the more straightforward explanation, and favour explanations that posit fewer over more entities. 

Is it not possible at least, that looking the correct way down the telescope is to see self as nothing more than an evolutionary side effect which has so taken over the mind/brain/body that it has installed itself as the preeminent feature of being? This more objective stance might see self as a construct that evolved in tandem with the phenomena of imagination to enable a temporal view of the world that allows for reflection of the past and planning for the future. The moment to moment experience of being, tends now only to become prominent when we practice mindfulness.

To paraphrase the Christian aphorism that the greatest trick the devil ever played is to convince people that he does not exist. Perhaps the greatest trick the self ever played is to convince people it does exist 

Self and santa

There is more evidence for Santa than there is for god. Millions of children firmly contest the existence of father christmas their belief is well founded as unlike those who profess a belief in god the santa faithful have ample evidence to back up their claim. Once a year without fail Santa provides real solid gifts often to precise requests. Prayers to god rarely achieve such remarkable and replicable results. Indeed the children’s faith can hardly be called that. This is peer reviewed evidence based experimentation. The proof of Santa’s reality is confirmed by playground conversations all over the world.

That later in life the firm acceptance of Santa diminishes in no way reduces his reality for those same individuals in their earlier life or indeed for the contemporary children. We believe something because there is overwhelming evidence for it. When later an alternative explanation is presented by what we accept as authoritative voices we can accept that our earlier belief was misguided though no less real at the time, we cannot after all change the past or what we believed in the past.

The opposite effect to the belief in Santa is the belief in the self. We start life with no sense that we have an individual self, it is not until around five that we start to recognise that the sound associated with us is in fact our name and that this name identifies us as a wholly separate individual being from the others and indeed from the world. This is simply proved by a thought experiment. When did your self appear? At conception? As an embryo? On the day you were born? When you uttered your first word or took your first step? 

One thing is clear: there was no on/off switch for the self. The alternative therefore is that the self developed over time. Once this is accepted then the only question left is when? And the answer does not really matter. What is irrefutable is that at one point the person you call you did not have a self and at other times it did. Thus the self is not like other physical attributes, arms, ears, liver, toes, etc but more like language, painting, running, logic, faculties you did not have and then you did. And like language one the self has been established it cannot easily be forgotten, diminished or dismissed. But again like language it can be accepted as an ability, a faculty that can be seen for what it is and used wisely, or otherwise. 

Like the belief in Santa which was there at one point and not there later at one point the self did not exist and later it did. And like Santa the self is a belief. A very convincing belief but a belief all the same. The strength of conviction of the reality of a self though does vary with individuals. Those with the strongest beliefs in their ownership of a self are the most dangerous. For they require enormous resources to fulfil the requirements their selves demand. 

Selves have become an accepted part of most societies and the rights of individual selves have been enshrined in laws.

Individuality and creativity

A few things occur. (I just wrote ‘…to me.’ at the end of the last sentence and then deleted those two words. ‘I’ had nothing to do with the ideas that popped into this head, they just appeared)

All ideas are the result of what we call creativity. Therefore all philosopher’s ideas are the result of a creative process. Stephen Bachelor has talked of the process of Gautama’s awakening and spreading the word of his revelation as being similar to creative imagination. Indeed the story reads like a textbook example of creativity. A man is dissatisfied with the ways to live he sees around him – problem identification. He explores various alternatives – carries out extensive research. Thinks intensely about the problem – saturation. Sits down and resolves not to get up until he finds the solution – incubation. Has a moment of inspiration – insight. He then takes the idea to others to turn it into reality – realisation. And lives the idea – verification.

Looked at this way and following Stephen’s thread that in spreading the word of his insight Gautama is following a creative process. As well as encouraging his followers to live a questioning life is he also suggesting they follow a creative life? Apparently most African languages don’t have a word for creativity, perhaps an explanation is that what we call being creative is so all pervasive, so common, that it is implicit in life and does not require articulation. Like African languages, perhaps Gautama didn’t call what he was describing as living creatively simply because there was no word for creativity in Pali. It does seem from what Stephen is suggesting that Gautama was advocating living a creative life. One of Stephen’s questions to us on the ABB course was “what is Buddha nature?” Perhaps Buddha nature is a synonym for living creatively? Perhaps rather than just trying to interpret, understand and follow the thoughts and pronouncements that stemmed from Gautam’s insight we should focus on the underlying process of creativity that brought about these thoughts in the first place.

A key question that follows from this and one that has the potential to expand the concept of creativity, is what does it mean to be a creative person? There is a tendency in our culture to focus on creative outcomes, particularly in the arts, and to label the individuals who made them creative. This reverse engineering approach tends to emphasise both the exceptional nature of creativity and extol the individuals who produce creative output. If the earlier explanation of why some languages don’t have a word for creatively has some validity, then perhaps what we should be focusing on is not tangible product but intangible process and reflecting on whether that process is exclusive to the gifted few or is indeed ubiquitous. 

Going back to the deletion of the words ‘to me’ I mentioned in the first sentence above. This seems like a key element in the process of creativity. We talk about individuals having ideas. Socrates, Guatama, Keats, Leonardo etc. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the ideas came through them rather than the individual being in some way responsible for the idea. We can only set up the conditions for ideas to emerge, we can’t make ideas in the way  we can follow a set of instructions to make a chair.

In the world we live in we recognise the individual as being significant, central and indeed pretty much what we are – individuals. But when did this happen? At what stage in our lives did we become individuals? My daughter is 8 months pregnant with what will be, we hope, our first grandchild. The unborn child is referred to as ‘Toots’ (an early scan looked like Carla Miranda with a bunch of fruit on its head, hence ‘Tooty fruity’) So Toots already has an individuality and even nascent personality (all the pre-birth gifts were fruit orientated.) This individuality though is a projection created by us, it is not embodied in the infant. 

Donald Winnicott, was a pediatrician and psychoanalysis who explored the nature of being of infants and children. One of his interests was what is the world-view of babies and how does it change over time? He surmised from his observations that babies do not identify as individuals separate from the world but they simply experience being, and that experience over time includes an increasing number of things but does not initially have a hierarchy or delineation of self and other, things just are. As children grow they develop a sense of a subject/object structure to reality and from this grows a sense of self separate from the other. From my own childhood I have a memory of a time before I became an individual and can recall some of the first times I was told to respond to others as separate individuals rather than as things in experience. For me school was the most decisive and divisive factor. School required responsible individuals, not beings having experiences, and so over time the being was separated from its experience of being in the world and became the individual Rupert.

Winnicott also wrote about the importance of childhood play, he considered play nascent creativity. This theory supports the idea of creativity as being ubiquitous. If all babies and children play and play is the seed of creativity then all children have the potential to grow into creative adults. But here, like play, creativity would not be defined by outcome, we don’t categorize childhood play by what is achieved, by what the outcomes of play are. We consider play important and worthwhile in itself perhaps we can apply the same principle to adult creativity? 

This relates back to Gautama’s idea of non-self. Non-self could be seen to be a key to creativity. If we can regain the early experience of non duality and lose the trappings of individuality, ego, self, we can reclaim playfulness and develop our creativity. 

Seeing dharma in three paintings

This is a follow up piece to the last entry which discussed the idea that painting can be considered a source of dharmic reflection. There I outlined some of the ways paintings can be approached, looked at and seen. This essay considers three actual paintings as examples and suggests some points of entry. I have been brief in both the historical context, greater detail is easily found on wikipedia, and on the discussion pointers, these are by their nature personal insights, think of them as introductions to meet and converse with paintings and their painters. After an introduction conversations tend to veer off in directions of personal interest. dharma is about human interactions and about being alive in the world. 

Poets and writers provide insights into dharma, I think painters can also offer opportunities for an unmediated exploration of these ideas. The great advantage of painting is, as a visual media, we are not presented with the distraction of language. There is no need to interpret another’s thoughts, we can converse directly with life as lived and revealed by another through the paintings they create.

The Sainsbury wing of the national gallery contains some of the finest paintings of the early renaissance. A period in painting history which is particularly interesting as it covers a revolution in western art just as dramatic, perhaps even more so, that the period from the mid 19th to 20th centuries which saw the evolution of modern art. Western art had for many centuries been held in something of a stranglehold by the dogma of how Christianity and Christian scenes should be portrayed. Artists were reliant on the catholic church, or if they were particularly talented and fortunate, on royal patronage. Both institutions insisted on a fairly rigorous adherence to appropriate representations of Christ and other religious figures. Representation was further constrained by the available painting technology. Fresco painting had to be done directly onto walls covered in wet plaster and completed before the plaster dried; limiting both time and transportability. Movable and therefore more sellable work was restricted by the medium of egg tempera often with gold leaf as a background, again limiting the time available to paint by the drying time of the egg base. As well as material constraints, experiments in representing three dimensions on two dimensional surfaces was also only slowly emerging with most characters still being portrayed as flat individuals existing in a flat world.

By 1400 things in art were beginning to change. Excuse the broad brush stroke summary but for the sake of brevity the changing role of painting can be explained by significant shifts in culture, finance and technology. Culturally there was great interest in the discoveries of ancient Roman and Greek texts including poetry, philosophy and mathematics as well as the reassessment of Roman architecture. Equally significant was the rise of the middle class professions including banking, merchants and guilds creating a new market for artists. For painters the invention of oil paint meant that not only could far more subtle and realistic images be created and more time could be spent on blending and layering colours, but by painting in oils on wood or canvas art became a transferable and tradable commodity. 

Thus overnight – a long night of a hundred years or so – artists had exciting new technologies to work with, a ready and prosperous market ready and eager to buy the new products and a wealth of new material to draw inspiration from and from which an endless supply of new product possibilities would emerge.

Three paintings by three great painters working in three different european regions with three different markets motivated by three different inspirations using three different techniques serve as examples of this emerging diversity. More than the dramatic individual creativity expressed in these three paintings though, it is the extraordinary depth and personal engagement with the viewer that they invite, that marks a change in dialogue from earlier more single minded works. Previously painting was primarily to be accepted, to be revered as embodied spirituality. As with images of Buddha, Shiva, and all totems of gods. Religious painting prior to the 15th century was pretty much a one way conversation, the painting speaks of god and you cower and listen. 

These three paintings present the opportunity for a different and far more more egalitarian conversation. A wordless dialogue involving the painter, his subject and the viewer. A dialogue that we can be drawn into and dwelt with, spend time experiencing without the need for interpretation or explanation once the scene and context has been laid out for us. We can enter the space created by the painter and the painting and dwell within it.

Carlo Crivelli 1430-1495: The Annunciation 1486

This is a huge painting that celebrates a significant event, the partial independence of the city of Ascoli Piceno from papal control. The painting was commissioned by the city authorities and as the preeminent painter of the city, the commission was given to Cravelli . Crevelli was not a native of Ascoli or indeed from the Italian region of Le Marche. He was born in Venice and only moved to Le Marche once his initial training was completed, but it was here that he produced most of his work. Le Marche was and remains a fairly remote region cut off from the rest of Italy by the imposing Apennine mountain range. The isolation from the major changes in art that were happening across the mountains in Tuscany and the north kept Le March in a conservative bubble, that with little competition Crivelli was happy to serve. Due no doubt in part to the  conservative tastes of his clientele Crivelli’s paintings retain many of the iconography and symbolic features of earlier periods and don’t fully embrace the mathematical perspective and realism that was all the rage in the artisistict hotspots of Florence, Rome, Milan, Siena and other more cosmopolitan cities. Lacking some of the progressve experimentation of his peers perhaps, but Crivelli knew his local clientele and he was never out of work and was well regarded and remunerated throughout his career. 

The painting is a scene of the city at three removes; there is the situation itself, the real city it was painted for and hung in, and which you would have walked through to see it, it is second a view of that city, and third the painting contains a model of the city held by the cardinal in the centre of the image. This painting is clearly about a city and while it includes a scene of the annunciation, this is overwhelmed by the real subject, a celebration of a city, this is primarily a secular painting. 

This though is not a painting whose aim is realistic representation of a city, the idea is not to impress with accurate architectural perspective, this is a painting of a city filled with symbolism and imagination. We are presented with the wealth and finery of a city self-confident and assured. Here is a city of grandeur and opulence, of wonder and wealth, a hyperreal vision almost hallucinogenic in its intensity and vibrancy. This is a city viewed through the eyes of one fully awake to its splendour. While full of the wonders that wealth can bring It is also a city with strange unearthly qualities. A city where the greatest of spiritual miracles happen, this is the annunciation after all, but also a city of ordinary human life, as the figures going about their daily lives oblivious to the visitation by the archangel, attest. 

Spending time with this painting we are drawn into a world not unlike the one we are familiar with but with qualities that are quite unfamiliar. Is this a vision of a world with a veil lifted to reveal an underlying truth, or has a patina of illusion been added to reality? Is the world revealed after long hours of meditation on a silent retreat true reality? What do we mean by true reality? Crivelli invites us to explore the city he has revealed for us, a city where we can spend time marveling at the splendour, wandering the streets with its curious citizens or wondering at the centre stage miracle. It is interesting to note how this engagement makes us feel, how we respond to the detail, the characters and the life that is the city itself and how this differs from the city we visited to see this painting of a city.

There is much to explore on many levels in Carlo Crevellie’s masterpiece and as well as an intriguing glimpse of a world viewed through the eyes of a technical wizard, it also serves as a model for a strand of painting known a s symbolism, that runs through the history of art both backwards and forwards through the likes of Odilion Redon, Paul Gauguin, William Blake, Richard Dadd, Freda Kahlo and Georgia O’Keeffe. 

Piero della Francesca 1415 – 1492: Baptism of Christ 1440?

In his day Francesca was considered an important mathematician as well as an artist. He wrote several treatises on the mathematics of perspective and geometry and we can see how this interest influenced his painting. While the baptism was painted well before the Crivelli, it was more revolutionary in terms of its composition. Not though in terms of medium; Francesca used the more traditional egg tempera paint, far less forgiving and more demanding than the recently invented oils. This painting is again quite large; it was commissioned as an altarpiece by a church local to Francesca’s hometown of Sansepolcro, which is probably depicted in the background, and was painted in the early stage of the artist’s career. The painting is quite startling for its time and represents a break with painterly conventions of the past while creating new and innovative compositional elements. There is much written about the mathematical composition and perspective elements of the painting and while fascinating from an art history point of view these formal aspects are perhaps less important when we consider the painting to be something we can see and listen to. Standing with the painting and noticing how the body and mind react, it is notable how many visitors report a sense of calm and quiet. Clearly the composition and rendering of the figures play a major role but it is worth spending time letting the eye explore the details of the context, the background and the supporting cast beyond the, very central, figure of Christ. We are in a landscape that contains a variety of subplots from John stretching up, balancing with arm and leg to reach high enough to pour the  water, to the figure next in line for baptism struggling to get his shirt over his head, to the parade of mysterious eastern figures behind him and of course the three bystanding angels engaged in playful and convivial conversation. Each of these scenes has an engaging, real life quality, a sense of a moment in time which contrasts with the formal set piece of the central motif. These moments offer us a way into the conversation, we can sympathise with the chap struggling out of his shirt, we have all been there, it would be fun to eavesdrop on the angels and to ogle at the strangers from the east, these are scenes and people we can relate to. 

If we turn our attention to the main man though there is something about him that is also very familiar. The colour of his skin is not straightforward. There are blues and mauves as well as pinks and whites. The tones and variations in hue are subtle and draw us in; it looks like a warm day, it is certainly very bright light, but his skin looks like it has never seen the sun; it has a translucent, cold quality. The painting offers the viewer many ways in; opportunities to take part in the conversation and to consider the painter himself, a young man who was at turns breaking and creating traditions. 

Much of all western painting that follows Francesca adopts the realism of the perspective and the geometry of composition that he pioneered, indeed until the mid 19th century these elements became the bedrock of western painting. Despite our familiarity now with the techniques used; the fresh, open and inviting personalities of Francesca’s Baptism along with its calm and quiet compositional elements offer us an opportunity to converse with a delightful creative young mind that died 500 years ago.

Jan van Eyck 1390-1441: the Arnolfini marriage 1434

The earliest of our three paintings was probably painted in Bruges in the Netherlands and was perhaps the most revolutionary as it is one of the first of all known paintings to use oil paint in a realistic portrait. Unlike the previous examples the religious iconography here is very much secondary to the secular; here we have a scene of two real people in their real home. They are wealthy individuals certainly but they are not sacred nor royal and in that sense they are like us. There is a huge amount of scholarly work surrounding this painting, its iconography, meaning, characters, perspective, technique, lighting, and potential use of optical devices in its production have produced a plethora of scholarly articles and scientific experiments but as with the other paintings it is the experience of being with the painting which will be the focus of this investigation.

Van Eyck has constructed a room and invites us to view an intimate scene, possibly a marriage vow, with him. There is little space in the room for us so we stand quietly and respectfully at the door as guests. The scene is formal and we hope we are dressed appropriately; this is a celebration that has been carefully and expensively organised. We are entranced by the couple; they are obviously taking this very seriously; there is solemnity in their expression and delacy in their gestures and touch. But we can also luxuriate in the splendour of the surrounding and costumes. What wonderful garments and so well designed, the fabrics are of such high quality we can’t help but be impressed. The whole scene in fact resembles those special occasions where we are invited to something out of the ordinary. Here now we have the opportunity to reflect on what those moments feel like, what makes a wedding, funeral, church service, anniversary, graduation, special? Out of the ordinary? The couple are like us but this is their special day and we are here to help them celebrate, it would not be the same without us, someone to share their happiness with. We can feel a reflection of what it means to us to be in convivial company, what it means to be part of a group with shared values and aspirations. Feeling that perhaps for a moment a softening the ego, individual and self in us and release a sense of being part of a collective, a society, a broader life.

Stepping back from the intimacy of the scene and spending a little time with the painter exposes us to other considerations and emotions. If we look around at the detail he has created we can stand beside him with his brush and pallet in hand. He is a highly skilled craftsman as well as an artist, indeed he seems to be a conjurer. On this sheet of wood armed only with a box of oil based pigment he is making a whole world appear as if by magic. We are so used to seeing three dimensional scenes represented in two dimensional images that we have forgotten how astonishing a feat this was. No photography and with little grasp of formal perspective, van Eyck was working many years before Francesca published his treatise on how to do it. Van Eyck manages to create a whole new world for us. Is this all done as a job? Is financial reward his only motivation? Why then go to all the effort of painting details that only forensic investigation will reveal? We sense that there is pride and enjoyment in this work and we can smile and marvel as we perhaps sense vicariously, emotions of an artist seeming entirely at one with his life and work.

All three paintings are on show in rooms quite close together and so they are easily taken in on one visit to the National Gallery and while popular, due to their size the Crivelli and Francesca are easily seen, the van Eyck is more problematic to spend a lot of time in front of as it is the most popular of the three and as it is quite small there is little room to stand in front of it. The best move is to get in early and look at this one first.

I do not teach, I tell tales – Montaigne.

On the secular dharma course Stephen Bachelor talked of a shift in his writing from telling to showing – not telling but rather allowing the work to reveal the writer’s intention. Stephen talked about no longer being interested in telling people about Buddhism but now wanting to show and be transparent, to remove himself as the organiser, author and use the material to bare witness, to show dharma as a practice not a theory. There is a parallel with this idea in some paintings which can reveal the thoughts, ideas and intention of the painter. Great paintings are like great books, an artist can reveal aspects of the nature of being that might otherwise remain hidden. Sometimes though to read a painting a grasp of an individual language is required.

Comparing Vermeer and Bruegel Stephen suggests the former explores the inner nature of what it is to be a person while the latter explores the nature of the world; one looks inward to the individual and the other looks outward to the world. Vermeer leads us inward, inside the person and Pieter Bruegel takes us out to the world.

There is a parallel here with Stephen’s book The Art of Solitude which is designed to be one half of a work to be completed and complemented by The Art of Care. Each book by having the same number of chapters and words will mirror the other in a similar fashion to his collages where found materials are mirrored by flat coloured squares. Both being examples of Diptych with two complementary aspects of life are revealed. These books then are works of art that through reading reveal an internal exploration and an external practice of the dharma. In a similar way to Stephen suggesting Vermeer and Pieter Bruegel paintings respectively look inwards to the internal person and outwards to the world.

This dualism between inward and outward looking implies some form of barrier between the internal self and the outside world; where though is this border? the membrane between solitude and care? inside and outside, person and world.  The terms Diptych and dualism assume a demarcation between sides, two alternatives, two approaches. 

While there may be a linguistic distinction between the two approaches this may have more to do with the nature of language and with how thought is based on language than what is actually happening. Since paintings don’t rely on language to communicate, they can be more subtle and nuanced and less dogmatic. Many of Vermeer’s characters suggest an imminent transaction with their world and some of Bruegel’s figures suggest if not contemplation then certainly a level of introspection. Perhaps the paintings that reveal the potential for art to dissolve the artificial border between inner and outer worlds are Rembrandt’s portraits. In his later self portraits Rembrandt looks out at us and allows us into his being he shows us what it is to be him and that being is very directly engaging with us. Unlike Vermeer’s milkmaid who is clearly involved in quiet introspection, Rembrandt is engaging us in a language free conversation, a conversation where by laying himself direct, open and honest he enables us to reciprocate and to engage with him and to observe our process in that engagement. We see the man and experience something of his being in the world and we know that the experience of engagement is possible by our also being in the world.

Rembrandt’s genius though is not reserved for self portraiture. In his portraits he is able to show us both how the sitter would have themselves portaided to the world, how they would have others see them and at the same time expose the inner self. In his portrait of Lady Margaretha de Geer Rembrandt renders the worldly trappings of power and position delicately and beautifully; presented without irony, but of actual status not assumed or without substance. However, spending more time with the work begins to reveal the character of the sitter. We see a formidable personality, her strength of character, the unflinching recognition of the world and her position in it. Yet alongside this the longer we stay with her the more we become aware of her acceptance of her own mortality, her human frailty and impermanence. Rembrandt reveals the inner and outer worlds and we realise that there is no border between. Margaretha was clearly not afraid of being presented as what life had made her, she demanded no painter’s flattery. Margaretha sat twice for Rembrandt so she knew perfectly well what to expect.

The longer you spend looking at a Rembrandt portrait the more you get to know the person, their characteristics and their personality. It is similar to how a person unfolds over time when you meet them in life. The mystery is quite how this effect is achieved. what is there in the painting that is similar to life? and what is it that goes beyond an image, after all in order to find out what someone is like we need to talk to them to engage with them not simply to look at them. Somehow Rembrandt creates an accessible personality by manipulating pigment on canvas. It is I think this realisation that is key, the understanding that there is an interpreter between us and the sitter. It is through Rembrandt’s interpretive rendering of the sitter that we learn about them. Here again the process is all. The painting is no more an end than the viewing, the painter enables the painting which enables the communication. Producing painting as a commodity is not art.

There are three elements to this process of communication, the painting, the painter and the viewer.  It is interesting to see the parallels here with aspects of the eight-fold path tasks, complete view/understanding and complete speech/communication. Rembrandt is able to communicate an understanding of what it is to be alive. As far as we know, Rembrandt was not a Buddhist or even a philosopher, he was creating these images, these languageless explorations into the nature of what it is to be in the world, through his life and work as a painter. He didn’t have to paint this way, he could have painted in the fashion of the times and made money and not died in debt. It seems he had no choice, or rather his choice was to paint to explore and reveal what he could of the truth of  being alive, what is the point of anything else? There is a mirror here also of complete livelyhood, a complete understanding of his craft to enable him to work without thinking about the technicalities. Just as a master potter throws a pot, the technicalities of the process are second nature and the potter is able to focus on the form arising from the hand.

Dorothea Tanning is interesting as she explores an inner world that reflects aspects of her inner world but all are in turn reflections of the life she has lived, she shows images of dreams that have almost real places with almost real people. Some works explore relationships and how characters appear, she paints characters as our emotions portray them. Later works appear to be formed as they are being painted rather than being planned. elements appear as if from the background half imagined memories fade in and out of focus. Tanning explores dark and mysterious, romantic and playful work flows from her almost as if she can make solid what she feels.

Marc Rothko. “art of not self expression” Agnes Martyn art of solitude.

If not expressing something of the self what is abstract art expressing? something of the self of the viewer perhaps? When looking at a Rothko it is our self that is doing the expressing we react to the painting, it provokes a reaction, a mood, an emotion, Rothko manipulates us in a similar way to Bruegel and Vermeer . The painting is designed, considered and constructed. This is a different process to Rembrandt, Bacon or Tanning where the painting emerges from the process of painting. It is possible to conceive of the former painters providing others with instructions on how to produce their paintings or to enlist their help in the production. This is not possible with the latter painters as their work is not pre-planned in the same way but rather emerges from the process of production and only the artist as they are working can make this happen.

Spending time in front of great art can bring us into a contemplative space. We can find dharma revealed in great art. As useful as meditation.

not sure that Bruegel is “not entertainment” The paintings are interesting, well made, draw you in, take you round, show you interesting things and tell you a story. I think they are designed as entertainment, there is so much to see and admire. Bruegel

Rothko’s work on a more meditative plane, they are designed to provoke emotions, going so far as to overwhelm the viewer and become the primary focus of the mind.

Both the Bruegel and Rothko can though be said to be paintings that are part of the process of art rather than commodities, the Bruegel is closer to a commodity and Bruegel  was painting to make a living, he was painting for a market. Rothko was appalled by the appropriation of art works by capitalism and the commodification of painting  and saw the subsequent development of pop art as a commercial enterprise devoid of true art.

An Andy Warhol print is clearly a product to be marketed rather than a work of art to be meditated on. Pop art in this way is an exploitation of commerce and an undermining of the meditative purpose of art, art as process.  The outcome is predetermined before the process has begun. rather like the production of any commercially manufactured product the art work is designed before being mass produced, marketed and sold. There is little or no sense of a process involving artist and viewer, the artistic process is reduced to little more than a commercial transaction.

In this way of thinking conceptual art also has limitations as art of meditative contemplation. With conceptual art it is the idea rather than the object that is central to the work and ideas can only be contemplated upon by a consciousness. So while there is process beyond the production that is limited to an Intellectualization or politicalization process, it is true that following the process of interpretation the viewer may then experience an affect but this is at least one point removed from the work itself. it is not the contemplation of the work but rather the contemplation of what the work means that arouses an emotional response. There is also a sense of control by the artist that restricts the process, treating the viewer as an object to be manipulated into feeling the way intended to have a response predicated by the object. Thus the object is less part of the process more an outcome with a specific purpose.

Great art transcends this  exploitative and manipulative approach and introduces and invites the viewer to become part of the process with no specific or predetermined outcome in the mind of the artist as to what that interpretative outcome will be other than to offer the opportunity to explore and experience being. Here the idea of the sublime in art can be considered both a contemplation and an experience, that is to say both a reasoned and a felt encounter, working at both a conscious and unconscious level. A work that opens up creative expression within the viewer of being and the world.

The art of Bruegel requires primarily a conscious reading but can lead to an unconscious contemplation reading whereas Rothko appeals to the unconscious more directly by removing obviously recognisable elements that would be open to interpretation by the rational conscious.

Rembrandt’s portraits, while figurative and therefore providing a direct channel to the world, lack a complex distracting narrative and the invitation is to look directly into the character to commune to both feel directly and to understand the nature of the sitter.

In an online comment discussing a Rembrandt self portrait there was a comment from someone who had seen the painting and said it felt like a haunting. It made me think that this was indeed exactly what it is like.

Looking at a Rembrandt portrait is like seeing someone alive who you know is not only dead but not there. What you are looking at is a picture of someone who died a long time ago in a distant land, what you see is a living person there in the room with you. Said like this it sounds very much like a ghostly apparition. However, while slightly unnerving, this is no fearful encounter; it is an almost normal meeting with someone who just happens not to be there and who is long since dead.

You could say that looking at a photograph might have a similar effect but a photograph can only capture reflected light and thus gives only a facsimile, a lifeless copy. A photographer has only limited options in order to manipulate their image, the medium has its uses but it cannot animate lifeless pigment.

Buddhist values reestablished in everyday life. This is what is in Bruegel paintings, the elements of compassion,  suffering, are brought into the ordinary world of everyday life.

Painting emptiness

Look around, what do you see? We could say we see all sorts of things but the question is not what things do you see, rather what do you see. What we see is what enters our eyes and what enters our eyes is light. Photons of light bouncing off things, which is why we say we see things.  In physics photons can be thought of as both particles and waves. Photons make the world appear light, less photons and  the world appears darker. 

In short, when we look around what we see is light. Through habit and survival we have evolved to edit the light and focus on those things that help us survive and reproduce but there is more to light than that if we are prepared to take the time to see. Light illuminates everything and everything includes that which is other than the things we see. For us humans the key word is ‘things’ not ‘see’. Once we accept that our vision is dominated by things, because they are useful, we can begin to recognise that there is much more to seeing than things. We can start to see the spaces between the things. But is the space between things really worth the effort? Try taking away the space between things. Try taking away the space between notes of a symphony, or the silence between words, or the absence of feelings between touches, or the absence of tastes between taste or the absence of scents between smells, none of this is possible to imagine. The space between things defines the things, things exist because they are not the space between them and other things. 

Light then, the light which fills our vision, is everything and most of everything is empty of things. We see emptiness. 

But only if we think and think hard can we begin to have an idea about what this means. To see emptiness and only emptiness because even the things which we see are not things which we see but photons that have bounced off things. We don’t see things, we see light and light is not a thing. Photons have no mass. Think for a moment what that means; to have no mass. 

Painters show us what they see so a great painter should show us light and a great painter who tried to do just that was JMW Turner. Towards the end of his life Turner turned away from the grand paintings that had made him the most famous painter in England and perhaps the world and put his skill to painting the emptiness of light. Light has no mass. How do you paint something that has no thinginess? If you paint recognisable things then you make your job much harder. Turner dispensed with things and focused on no things. 

Creative process and product

In an essay on creativity the philosopher Henri Bergson writes about the impossibility of there being a possible future that is already in some sort of virtual existence. He suggests that unlike the architectural plans for a building which precede the production of the building itself, there is no virtual future in the past waiting to be revealed. Predicting the future artifacts of creativity is a pointless and impossible task Bergson suggests, there is no way of predicting how creativity will be channeled through the conduit of a creative mind, there is know one not even Shakespeare could know Shakespear would write hamlet. Bergson considers the product to be of greater significance than the person who created it. Referring to Hamlet he asks, which is richer: the product or the person? 

As we had been discussing the creativity of evolution I wondered how this question would apply to nature; which is richer, nature or evolution? And then broadening the question out further; which is richer the universe or the processes that created it? – general relativity, quantum mechanics and the big bang (as far as current science goes)

Starting and the end so to speak with the biggest picture, trying to disentangle the universe from the processes that create it is a thankless task. The universe exists in general relativity; in time and space and according to general relativity time and space are not different things but simply different ways of measuring the same concept – spacetime. (the faster something travels through space the slower it travels through time and vice versa) So the universe is a process that we humans happen to perceive moment to moment. We say this is how the world is now but that is because of the perspective we are looking at from not because that is the way it is. We are always traveling through space time so can never see it from the ‘outside’. The universe is not a product or artifact but a continuous unfolding process.

Similarly trying to disentangle a flower from evolution is simply different ways of looking at the same thing, without evolution there is no flower and flowers exist in time and are constantly changing due to evolution – and the forces of nature of course. A flower is an example of evolution in progress and the world as we see it now is an example of all the forces of nature in progress at this point in time. 

From this perspective, all created products are also simply examples of the creative process unfolding at a moment in time. Products come into being are appreciated, age and change over time. The words of Hamlet might be the same as those Shakespear wrote but each generation’s interpretation of those words is coloured by their culture. A twenty-first century audience can not see through the eyes of an Elizabethan one. Taking this one step further to consider the person as the agent of creativity, are not they too simply temporal elements of the creative process? People are born, live and die, they exist through time, the ideas they come up with and the manufacture of outcomes they produce are all products of a process of living, creating, existing through time. 

From this perspective at least it seems that considering creativity as process is more likely to lead to deeper understanding than the subjectively manufactured human centred idea of equal primacy of person, process and product.

Perhaps like the holy trinity with its three manifestations of the concept of God, there is creative process the person, creative process the process and creative process the product as three manifestations of the same concept – the process of creativity?

Creativity: person product, process

There seems some value in categorising creativity as person, product and process. It covers all aspects of creativity, clearly defines these aspects and is easy to remember. Turning first to product; there is clearly a close if not essential link with all products to the person (or group of individuals working very closely together) that created it. All creative products/outcomes are the result of the actions of an individual/s. 

Interestingly it is very often possible to identify the creator from the created outcome alone. An observer familiar with the works of Rembrandt, Beethoven or Frank Lloyd Wright will likely be able to identify a work by them that they were previously unfamiliar with, from the style of the work alone. In this way the creator and the created product are linked by the approach, technical ability, education, social background as well as the creative mind – the creative process of the creator. Thus the creative person and product could be seen as the creative process manipulated by the prevailing culture.

It is difficult to accept that a visionary such as Leonardo da Vinci would have painted the Virgin on the rocks if he had been born in the 20th century. Leonardo was characterised by his creativity, his ability to invent, innovate and develop new techniques. Had he lived through the 10960/70s say, It is hard to see him feeling it appropriate to paint in the style of past masters.  He would surely have felt more affinity with the likes of Rothko, Pollock or Henry Moore. A late 20th century Mozart might well have produced music more akin to the Rolling Stones and a 17th century innovator like Phillip Glass is more likely to have composed music familiar to the tastes of lovers of JS Bach than the minimalism we are familiar with. It is not difficult to imagine Caravaggio as a Hollywood director or Artemisia Gentileschi as a 20th century Georgia O’Keeffe and a 20th century Brunelleschi would surely be as admired and influential an architect as Frank Gehry or Zaha Hadid. What we can be reasonably certain of is that none of the above creative individuals would have produced the same outcomes if their time, place and influence had been significantly different. 

The same could be said of scientists or mathematicians. Their work is possible because – to paraphrase Isacc Newton – they stood on the shoulders of giants. Einstein’s theories developed from the known perihelion precession anomaly of the orbit of Mercury, which could  not be explained by Newton’s laws. 

Interestingly the one field where prevailing culture may hold less influence over the creative individual is philosophy. While many philosophical ideas do build on earlier insights, that thinkers such as Laozi, Gautama and Socrates had ideas that are still seen as directly relevant today suggests that they may indeed have been able to free themselves from the constrictions of their culture. But putting those honorable exceptions to one side, for the most part it seems that creators and the artifacts they create are prisoners of their culture. 

The key to the hypothesis that creative individuals would be as likely to be creative if they were born in different times – given the appropriate resources – is that their creativity – their creative process – would remain unaltered. That is to say the creative process is the constant feature rather than the individual who uses it or the products they produce.

Of person, product and process it seems, from this analysis at least, while individuals and the products they create come and go influenced by their cultural winds; the creative process is the unchanging constant mechanism that underpins the possibilities of the other two.