Zen and Creativity

Creative Zen


This week Tesshin Roshi used his talk to discuss Zen and the arts.  Does an artist use Zen practice to bring out their art or does Zen evoke an artistic desire in the artist?  As the group contemplated this, Roshi noted that it is both simultaneously.  


One modern example we can explore is that of Leonard Cohen who started his musical career in the late 1960’s.  Roshi suggested that we watch the Netflix documentary “Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song”   It has said that in his early career, Cohen suffered for his art as he worked quite a bit but never really achieved the huge success he desired.  During this time Cohen also struggled with the deeper meaning in his life.  His traditional orthodox Jewish religious background seemed not to provide what he was looking for at this time.  During the 1970’s Cohen started exploring Buddhism and became an ordained Rinzai monk in 1996.  What is interesting is that his study of Buddhism reinvigorated his music and strengthened his Jewish faith.  Roshi stopped here and noted that studying the Dharma does not mean someone has to walk away from their career or their religious upbringing.  In fact, if Dharma study and Zazen are working properly, these aspects of your life can actually be strengthened.  We can look at Cohen’s experience as an example of this.


What is interesting about Cohen’s later career is that even after his business manager stole all of his wealth, and Cohen had to significantly increase his grueling live tour schedule, he actually became happier in life.  Many music critics actually state that this was the most prolific time in his career.  Why is this?  Could it be that the time on the cushion taught Cohen how to let go of adversity?  Could koan study have taught him how to hold opposing ideas in his mind without getting upset?  Can you have a major reverse in your life, but still find and accept happiness?  Can you be exposed to new ideas without throwing away your old ideas and beliefs?  Can we accept each new event, idea, and person with love and equanimity?


Roshi next discussed a TV series called “McCartney 3,2,1”  in which the famous music producer, Rick Rubin, interviews Paul McCartney.  They discuss McCartney’s early life, work with the Beatles, Wings, and his 50 years as a solo artist. The series also covers the songwriting, influences, and personal relationships that formed McCartney’s songs.  Roshi noted that Rubin looked on his profession not to create commercial success for his clients, but rather to find their creative expression.  Roshi next recommended that we read Rubin’s Book “The Creative Act: A Way of Being”  for some insights from Rubin.


Roshi read some passages out of the book and asked us to compare what he wrote to what we work to accomplish in practice.  For instance, Rubin tries to …


“…[create] a space where artists of all different genres and traditions can home in on who they really are and what they really offer. [Makes] a practice of helping people transcend their self-imposed expectations in order to reconnect with a state of innocence from which the surprising becomes inevitable”  


We should stop here and see how this is exactly what we do in practice as well.  We practice to understand what we really are.  We strive to transcend our conditioning to achieve a state of openness from which many surprising things can happen.  Rubin is not a Buddhist or a Zen master, but his writings on creativity would fit neatly in any book on Zen practice.


So, the relationship between practice and creativity flows in both directions.  We practice being present right her, right now.  We practice Rubin’s “innocence.”  As we mature in this practice everything opens up and spontaneous creativity naturally flows.  It could be a new song, but it could also be a creative solution to a problem at work or a tasty new dish for dinner or even a way to commute to work faster than before.  The possibilities are limitless!