Tesshin used his talk this week to discuss the topics of imagination and creativity. During this past week he was doing some art work and asked various people what they thought of it. Some people looked at it, rolled their eyes, and stated that they did not get it. Interestingly, his nine-year-old daughter “got it” right away. Tesshin paused and wondered why children apprehend things so much faster than adults. Could it be beginner’s mind? Could it be that they have not built up a layer of cynicism yet?
Along these lines, Tesshin related a story of a friend of his who works as a prop designer for the theater. One would think that this is a very creative career. However, the friend mentioned that the job has lost its allure and has really become just another job – no better than flipping burgers! Everything is a deadline and it is always about keeping costs down. Tesshin wondered if adults tend to turn everything into dollars and cents and deadlines. There seems to be so little time to just stop and experience.
At this point, Tesshin remarked that many Zen practitioners are also active in the arts. Do you think this is a coincidence? Zen teaches us to slow down and see the creative spark in all things. It seems to be a counter to what the set designer is experiencing. When things become mechanical, creativity is the first thing to suffer.
Tesshin next shared with us a quote from the English poet, Taylor Coleridge. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samuel_Taylor_Coleridge)
The Imagination then I consider either as primary, or secondary. The primary Imagination I hold to be the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I am. The secondar I consider as an echo of the former, co-existing with the conscious will, yet still as identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation. It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate; or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still at all events it struggles to idealize and to unify. It is essentially vital, even as all objects (as objects) are essentially fixed and dead.
Tesshin remarked that Coleridge believed the primary imagination springs is the “living power and prime agent” of human perception. It is the special ability of humanity take in the world through sense perceptions and build something totally novel in their consciousness. The secondary skill is to take this integrated consciousness and actually do something with it in the physical world. In other words, to create something. Stated differently, Coleridge believed that humanity is special because it can perceive things from the outside world and recombine them into new forms. We call this imagination and creativity.
Tesshin next remarked that there is nothing inherently good or evil about imagination and creativity. The top inventions and creations throughout history are a product of the imagination. Einstein did not discover relativity by reading every book in the library. Once he had mastered the basic physics of his day, he did “thought experiments” in his head to work it out. The Wright brothers had to have imagination to believe that an object heavier than air could actually fly. However, history is also replete with disasters and tragedies caused by human imagination. Communism killed over one hundred million people. This was nothing more than intelligent people imagining how existence could be improved. Nazi Germany imagined a peaceful and prosperous country secured with a racially pure population.
What do these examples tell us? Nothing more that our imaginations are very powerful tools. However, these tools must be tied to something greater than ourselves or they can easily be perverted to disaster. It comes as no surprise that Zen reminds us that everything we do must be in the service of compassion and the alleviation of suffering!
Tesshin stated that Zen is full of imagination. You have no chance with the Koans if you read them literally! Dogen knew this, and he knew that he was not just teaching his own students, but teaching all students throughout space and time. One must use the imagination to reach all sentient beings with the Dharma!
Tesshin wrapped up by asking how can we develop the necessary imagination to make progress in our Zen studies. Not surprisingly, the answer is Zazen!! Our practice of meditation allows us to open our mind and move beyond literal sense perceptions. We see more, feel more, experience more. This opens up our imagination to all possibilities. Zazen is imagination, and imagination is one of the most radical acts of healing. There is a place where rationality cannot go? How do you recover from loss? There is not formula or protocol to do this. One must imagine their way to a better life. Zazen gives us the mental tools to do this.