The Zen Artist: What Comes Next?
I believe the path of artistic inspiration runs parallel to the path of enlightenment. Let’s explore this idea with an ancient Zen riddle.
Once a monk made a request of Joshu.
“I have just entered the monastery,” he said. “Please give me instructions, Master.”
Joshu said, “Have you had your breakfast?”
“Yes, I have,” replied the monk.
“Then,” said Joshu, “wash your bowls.”
The monk had an insight.
You might be reading this and think, what insight? How is this a riddle? What about breakfast now? Zen koans are abstract by nature, so let’s walk through it.
The monk, like the art student, is looking for enlightenment from a wise teacher. But instead of the teacher providing lessons on higher teachings, he asks the student about the state of his breakfast (I love this). Once they are both up to speed on the current state of the student’s meal schedule, the master Joshu lays out a clear and concise path to insight. “Wash your bowls”.
“Wash your bowls” is not a metaphor. It doesn’t relate to some esoteric text you’ve never read. It is what it says it is. The path to insight, for this student, is to literally wash the dishes.
I meet artists all the time that assume their REAL art career begins sometime in the future. Whether that means after graduation, employment or getting published in an annual. So many artists have failed to notice that they are already real artists. To be a real artist is to wash brushes. It is to unpack the van after a show. It is dumping terrible sketches into the trash.
This lesson came to bear with Justin Donaldson when he realized the “studies” he was making were the true center of his art career. By peeling away the expectation for some future transformation and simply focusing on the work that was already present, he was able to see the ways in which he was already creating great art.
In this riddle and in our art, the challenge is to be present in the process. We are all naturally inclined to glaze over the most important lessons of our life. They just sit there, staring us in the face like day old dishes. Being present in the current moment has the power to clear away that fog and reveal the higher truths that exist in our lives every day.
Because it is so very clear,
It takes longer to come to the realization.
If you know at once candlelight is fire,
The meal has long been cooked.
— The Gateless Gate