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Magic of Dharma Art: Chögyam Trungpa and his "True Perception"

Chögyam Trungpa and his "True Perception"
Chögyam Trungpa and his "True Perception"
Maya Ellenson

Chögyam Trungpa, "True Perception"


The lucid nature of Dharma Art can present to a real challenge for Western mindset, as its major principles are non-aggression and absence of reference points, while Western art is all about making points and asserting them aggressively. In Dharma Art, “dharma”, which means “norm” and “truth”, comes first and sparks the creative impulse. Dharma Art extends a unique path to becoming not only a genuine artist but simply an inspired human being. “The whole philosophy of dharma art is that you don’t try to be artistic, but you just approach objects as they are and message comes through automatically”, asserts a renowned meditation master, artist and poet, Chögyam Trungpa (1940-1987) in his book, “True Perception: The Path of Dhama Art”.

Chögyam Trungpa’s spiritual education began in Tibet, where he mastered traditional Buddhist arts, meditation, thangka, dancing, and poetry. In spite of his young age, he was referred as Vidyadhara, or “knowledge-holder” and was recognized as the eleventh Trungpa Tulka, a prominent lineage of Buddhist meditation masters.

The Vidyadhara arrived in England in 1963 and was completely fascinated with secular forms of Zen art of the 60’s. He studies Western art and culture with dedication, becoming a scholar of comparative religions at Oxford University. He tries himself in a wide array of arts and media: architecture, photography, painting, music, dressage, calligraphy, and poetry.

In 1972, he published his first book of poetry, “The Mudra (Shambhala, 1972), which included his early poems written in Tibet, along with the new ones. In one of them, he wrote,

“You’ve studied hundreds of philosophies

Without grasping any of them.

What’s the point of further study?

You’ve studied without remembering

Anything when you needed it.

What’s the point of contemplation?

Forget about your “meditation”!

It does not seem to be

The Cure for conflicting emotions.”

In North America, where he arrived in 1970, he meets numerous artists and poets. In 1979, the Vidyadhara conducts a highly engaging visual dharma seminar in Boulder, Colorado. Participants were encouraged to compose spontaneous oral three-line poems on the spot to reveal what the Vidyadhara called, “first thought, best thought”. Allen Ginsberg, who was one of the participants, came up with such lines:

Heart beating in my chest

Banner shining in electric light

Everybody listening.

Trungpa founded Napora Institute in 1974, which is now Napora University with a focus on holistic approach and mindfulness and awareness in artistic education. He asked Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldman , John Cage and Diane di Prima to establish a poetics department at Napora during the first summer session, which eventually became Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics that cultivates highly contemplative and unorthodox approaches to creative writing.

The notion of what later became “dharma art” was precluded by Trungpa’s course, “The Iconography of Tibetan Buddhism”.

What is namely dharma art? To understand its smoothly flowing discourse, one should certainly engage much more than just the five senses, breathing in and out its enlightening content with a pacified unbiased mind.

Dharma art as explained by the Vidyadhara, does not mean depicting Buddhist symbols or ideas, such as the wheel of life of the story of Gautama Buddha. “Rather, dharma art refers to art that springs from a certain state. It is an attitude of directness and unself-consciousness in one’s creative work”. This ego-less state of mind opens the gate of unconditional or absolute symbolism. “The idea of absolute symbolism is egoless because you have already abandoned your psychological reference points”, explains the master, such as comfort, memories and many other conditions we depend upon heavily for survival. Introducing three principles of absolute symbolism, Trungpa shows that the true power resides in a void that precedes everything. That’s how he unfolds a paradox of this amazing dynamic. “Unborn means that symbolism cannot happen, because symbolism cannot happen if there is no place to give birth to it. Space can give birth to symbolism, because symbolism does not exist and because of its nonexistence, there is immense energy and power to create an image of nonexistence. So images of immense power and immense clarity, sharp-edged and crystal clear, take place”.

To create something truly beautiful, original and elegant, it does not necessarily take a particularly dramatic inspiration, excessive philosophy, or super high training. Because when it’s too much of it all, one loses blankness. Genuine inspiration, according to Trungpa, is very ordinary. “It comes from settling down in your environment and accepting situations as natural. Out of that you realize that you can dance with them . . . Natural inspiration is simply something somewhere you can relate with, so it has a sense of stableness and solidity. Inspiration has two parts: openness and clear vision, or in Sanskrit, shunyata or prajna. Both are based on the notion of original mind, traditionally known as buddha mind, which blank, nonterritorial, noncompetitive, and open”, he points out.

To create a graceful piece of art regardless of medium, one needs to step out of aggressive mode of thinking and self-expression. “Nonaggression is the key to life, and to perception altogether. It is how to perceive reality at its best”, writes Trungpa. Nonaggression and gentleness are the foundation of authentic actions, or as Vajrayana (Tantric Buddhism) tradition calls them, four karmas. The first karma is the principle of peace, or pacifying, related to the circle, as opposed to the square or any other shape, explains the Trunpga. It’s blue and relates to the sky or space. It also signifies natural goodness and absence of neurosis. There are no sharp edges anywhere close. The second karma is a sense of richness, depicted as the yellow square with sharp edges. The richness and yellowness are related with the earth and the square represents the boundaries that Earth places for us. “This action has a sense of being, harmony, a well-settled situation. It is the idea of dignity, or in Tibetan, ziji. The second karma, enriching, is the intrinsic energy of our state of mind. The third action is usually depicted as a red half-circle and is associated with pure passion, the meeting the mind of another, a man and woman embracing or holding each other. It’s also related with letting go, generosity and fire. The third karma’s principle is magnetizing. And, finally, the fourth action is depicted as a green triangle, connected with destruction, power of the wind and balance, which is the gateway to liberation and ultimate freedom. “When we begin to realize pacifying, enriching, magnetizing and destroying as the natural expression of our desire to work with the whole universe, we are free from accepting too eagerly or rejecting too violently; we are free from push and pull. In Buddhism, that freedom is known as the mandala principle, in which everything is moderated by those four activities”, concludes the author.

In dharma art, artist’s goodness and dignity are highly important. Trungpa cautions from yielding to romanticized culture of neurosis and accommodating public’s twisted tastes who seek in art the mere reflections of its own insanity, compelling the artists to project more and more of such dark polluting energy.

Dharma art reveals the unity of Earth, Heaven, and Human. Balancing between Earth and Heaven and joining them gracefully is the only subject matter that really counts. To achieve that, we start from clearing the inner space, cutting through subconscious gossip that distorts of our vision, for a true art emerges from the state of mind that is centered in the now and has no beginning and no end.

At the same time, by rising our awareness and entering the blue infinite space of the now, we by no means become “little tantric robots”, as Trungpa puts it. On the contrary, by following the natural flow of dharma art, we heighten our individuality and reach illuminated state of being. That’s when individual presence and unique vision of an artist are manifested with the utmost power and connecting Earth and Heaven becomes a purely magic luminous experience.

Dharma art relates not only to the art and life per say, but to everything we do on a daily basis, setting us free from an insanely competitive world. "True Perception" imparts a powerful sensation of immense creative potential that dwells within unbound, meditative and non-territorial mind. It softly carries us beyond the square world we happen to exist in and shows us the precious alternative to its boundaries, which is entering zero or becoming wise fools to start our exciting creative journey.

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