Drawing on Chaos:
Buddhism and Contemporary Art Practice

This is an excerpt from a talk given, along with Joan Anderson, at Yale University hosted by the Department of Religious Studies. It was part of a series of presentations by contemporary artists whose work is influenced by the Buddhist investigation of mind and phenomena. Sponsored by a grant from the Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation, South Asian Studies Council, the Hixon Fund, and the Department of Religious Studies. It was given on February 21, 2008.

Good evening and welcome. We are grateful for the invitation to speak at Yale and to be part of this series of presenting artists. The title of our talk is Drawing on Chaos: Buddhism and Contemporary Art Practice. Our host, Professor Phyllis Granoff, requested that we describe our experience of contemporary art practice and how it is influenced by our contacts with Buddhism, especially Tibetan Buddhism, given our European ancestry and American educational upbringing. We would like to emphasize the word “practice” in the title: while there is growing interest in the effect that the introduction of Buddhism is having on Western art on a societal level, we will concern ourselves this evening with the more local issue of how Buddhism might affect individual artistic behavior. Yale PosterWhat we hope to do is provide some details about Tibetan Buddhism, describe the practical implications of that for artistic practice, and then show some examples of our work. In the event that things go as planned, we’ll have some time for discussion at the end.

There is a (perhaps) healthy wariness within academia about participating in religions, and a perceived need to separate the study of a tradition from the practice of a tradition. This presents a fundamental dilemma: If I become a believer or practitioner of a given tradition, can I still be an impartial observer? If I am a non-participating observer, can I really know the experience of the observed tradition? It is also the case that belief systems have varying capacities to withstand scrutiny. Most religious traditions, at least the organized varieties of them, have not been entirely open to direct queries about doctrine. Maybe it's a Wizard of Oz kind of thing.

Buddhism is generally viewed as a religion, and in many instances behaves like one, if we could say such a thing about a religion. It has scriptures, a monastic system, a code of ethics, participation of lay people, etc. The Buddhist tradition – and specifically its well-documented practices of meditation may, however, be more accurately described as being a mode of inquiry. It is this inquiry – into mind and phenomena – and its relevance to artistic practice that we would like to discuss this evening.


The object of scrutiny in Buddhist practice is first and foremost the mind itself. Is it possible for the mind to observe itself? Within the Buddhist tradition there are many approaches to this investigation of mind, many of which use the contents of sense perceptions as a focus, such as placing one’s attention onto an external object, or a sound, or on the sensation of breathing, or physical movement. Some practices include looking closely to discover if there is a difference between the object of perception, the organ of perception, and the apprehending mind. One important feature found in the traditional instructions is that the chattering of thoughts, the thinking mind, can itself be regarded as an object of perception, a phenomenon as observable as sight, sound, etc. This detail may seem peculiar to Westerners accustomed to regarding thinking and cognition to be the same.¹

While the Buddhist tradition offers a profusion of instructions, approaches and emphases, there is one common instruction and that is the continued practice of bringing the attention back to the specific details of this moment, and doing so in a way that is direct and non-speculative. This is not easy. Speculation is what we do! (This may especially be the case in an academic situation such as this.) The practice of coming back to the content of this moment makes use of the sense perceptions because sense perceptions only function in the present tense. Certainly we can have a recollection of a smell or the anticipation of a taste, but the actual experience of smelling or tasting can only be an immediate, present tense experience.

If all this is so – especially the possibility of regarding the verbal, discursive mind as being an observable phenomenon – what, then is doing the observing? This question is at the heart of the Buddhist investigation. It also highlights the inherent flaw of limiting our study to conceptual understanding alone. This looking has to be participatory, empirical. If we were studying to become chefs it is not enough to learn the history and ingredients; at some point we have to cook the goose, which turns out to be our own.


I would like to present an example of the kind of looking we’re talking about, which you are welcome to try. (Don’t worry, we won’t be chanting or holding hands.) What I am about to describe is a simple investigation of perception. Sitting here just as you are already, direct your eyes straight ahead of you. Locate an object, mark, or any visual reference point somewhere near the center of your visual field. Rest your attention there. Relax. Now, without moving your head or your eyeballs in their sockets, let your attention move from the center of your visual field all the way to the left. Now, again without rotating the head or moving the mechanism of the eyeballs, let your attention float all the way to the right. Do this without moving your head or swiveling your eyes.

As you are doing this, try to determine precisely what it is that appears to move through your visual field. Does it have anatomical substance or any kind of material form? If not, what existence does it have? It certainly seems apparent. What is it? This type of direct investigation can be applied to any experience. It is especially confounding when applied to the thinking mind itself. If I can be aware that I’m thinking, what is the nature of this awareness? Whose is it, where is it?

This experiment is an experiential peek at a description of mind encountered in Tibetan Buddhism: empty yet apparent. When we are unable to define or clearly situate this vivid whatever-it-is that constitutes awareness, the instructions say to “rest in the not-finding.” The not-finding describes a state of mind in which conceptual certainty is suspended, at least temporarily. Surprisingly, this suspension of conceptual certainty favors potential or possibility, the threshold of creativity. The English word “chaos” comes directly from the ancient Greek. The original meaning of the word was the primal emptiness that precedes the creation of the universe. It also meant simply a gap, an opening, which may be the womb of creativity itself.

¹ Modern psychology uses the term “metacognition” to describe the ability to think about thinking; the philosophical traditions of epistemology investigate knowing itself. Both of these are related inquiries and may provide some insight for westerners into the Buddhist investigation of mind.