Last Tuesday, I had the honor of seeing His Holiness The Dalai Lama for the second time. In 2005, I flew to Washington, DC to hear him speak on how we can - as individuals and citizens of the world - learn to live peaceably. It was worth every Skymile.
This time, I saw him practically in our own backyard, as part of Emory University's ongoing partnership with The Dalai Lama as a distinguished professor of the school. He spoke at events over the course of three days, but the one Wendy and I chose seemed apt to our livelihoods, a presentation on the spiritual nature of creativity. He was joined by author Alice Walker and actor Richard Gere.
Ironically, the first thing we learned as the discussion began was that, according to the Dalai Lama, there is no word in Tibetan for "creativity". In fact, this was a subject he didn't feel very well versed in. He has spent much of his adult life learning about science, other religions, and ethics, but as for painting, writing, and music, well...when asked to lead off the conversation, he giggled, smiled, and said, "Well, I don't know..." and then pointed to his fellow panelists, as if to say, 'run with it, kids.'
As Gere is a longtime follower of Buddhism, he and the Dalai Lama have a longtime friendship. The Dalai Lama admitted to never having seen any of Gere's films. He said he was concerned that much of the music and film today holds up violence and permissive sex as an enticing normalcy, and he worried that it was lowering our sense of value for life. This, obviously, is an opinion shared by many people of varying religious beliefs. Gere respectfully said that he believed - as many artists do - that his job is to show the human experience, warts and all, and hold that mirror up for people to see parts of our society we might not otherwise know about, then decide how to act accordingly. Alice Walker chimed in here to point out that until you have an encounter with a person or group of people, it is difficult to have understanding or empathy for them, a theme she has presented in much of her work.
Personally, I've always held the belief that Gere and Walker shared. Yes, sometimes art is graphic, but if it is working to share a greater truth, if it is telling the truth as it does so, then it is valid. Often, we need to experience the darkness to better appreciate the light.
For me, where the line seems to demarcate between art and crassness is when anyone - Hollywood, a singer, a comedian - takes advantage of shock and titillation to merely prop up an otherwise weak work. It's why John Singleton's "Boyz in the Hood" has stayed with me to this very day, but I've all but forgotten the crass mediocrity of 2 Live Crew.
Perhaps most interesting to me was when I remembered that the Dalai Lama once said, in "The Art of Happiness" I believe, that there is no word in Tibetan for self-hatred or not liking oneself. Meanwhile, in the West, we have enough terms for this to fill a therapist's couch three times over. In fact, we've built a healthy psychological and pharmaceutical cottage industry around this notion. So many of the most creative minds of our culture - from Picasso and Van Gogh to Hemingway and Cobain - have had a nasty streak of self-hatred, whether it manifested itself as depression, addiction, narcissism, abuse, or ultimately, death. It's almost if, on the highest level, these two concepts - creativity and self-loathing - are intrinsically linked, at least by a thread.
Another delineation that was made was the difference between the art the West embraces and that in the Dalai Lama's decidedly more Eastern experience. Many of us in the West - myself included - prefer art to be a tad abstract or expressionistic. I love that Dali, Bergman, and Dylan make me do some of the work. However, the Dalai Lama is looking for objective truths in a work of art. Seeing things as they are, a tenet of Buddhism. Again, perhaps the Middle Way is the best solution here: work that offers truths, but makes you do a bit of the searching to find and define it. And perhaps, just perhaps, that truth is not exactly the same for each artist or viewer.
To me, the question of a link between the creative and spiritual felt a bit moot. In my experience, honest artistic expression has always been spiritual. Perhaps it is not an act of religiosity or a dogmatic statement. Perhaps the spiritual act was not committed on behalf of the deity or dharma to which you prescribe, but to be able to see something holy in everything - the brushstroke, the flawed character's sincere motivation, the failures of a noble protagonist, the imperfect potter's attempt at perfection - is what elevates us closer to whatever we define as divine.
And I can't help but think that, whether we know it or not, when we sit down to write, paint, or sculpt. or stand to dance, play, sing, or act, we are all attempting sainthood. Our act of creating is our humblest, most earnest prayer.