Himalayan Art

John Brzostoski
© 1977

In some parts of the Himalayas, the mountains rise one after another like waves of an endlessly incoming tide. In other places they stand like a snow-covered wall beyond which the world ends in white space. When one walks amongst these highest places there are many thoughts and sensations. However, one is the strongest. It is awe. Foolish thoughts are driven away by the sight of the Himalayas. The superficial which is always with us withers. A profound simplicity settles down upon us. The eyes are the instruments of this entrance of clarity. Simplicity thus absorbs the complexity of our civilized thoughts. The Himalayas enter through the doors of perception and unravel manufactured "cultivated" items of our beings. If the mountains are internalized, the sanity of a natural life returns. If not, there is another way to do it through a special form of art.

The view of the mountains makes them appear endless, one after another. Walking and living in them appears the same, endless. They grow higher, they grow lower. A person follows them up or down. And ever they grow loftier, colder, beyond cultivations of any sort, more remote from what we thought was originally ours. But what is ours cannot be left behind. The thought of life in the Himalayas for Buddhists and Hindus is like this, endless and awesome, one following another, seemingly without end. It is basic to their beliefs, a cycle of lives, of rebirths and being born again and again, sometimes into higher forms of life and sometimes into lower, sometimes with more pain, sometimes with less. One after another. Followed by others into the dim future, they also stretch back to beginningless time.

The religions which hold such a strong belief in rebirth due to karma (cause and effect) also believe in a cure for it. This is Dharma (teaching, spiritual law) which can alleviate bad effects of previous actions. Dharma works on karma. It is itself a form of karma, however to be understood as "good": as opposed to "bad" karma. Actually all karma is more bad than good for it all contributes to a rebirth, only better or worse. Pure Dharma lies beyond this. The ideal is ultimately for no rebirth at all. Dharma thus works first of all to undo the results of old bad karma, to prevent it from returning, or new ones from arising. Good karma is necessary for this, but then when this purification takes place, good karma is not "good" enough any longer, it merely contributes to a better and better rebirth, purer and purer, with less and less karmic influences. It is best when it becomes effects which do away with effects. One of the most powerful manifestations of this spiritual law is art. It works with and through painting, sculpture and architecture. It is a very definite person-object confrontation, an event of primary importance. The art is not made for pleasurable or aesthetic purposes, but for religious ones. As a form of Dharma reaching beyond words and thus effectively dealing with karma in its remnant, present or future forms, it is utilized for liberation. In other words, one's relationship with art, its contemplation, its "worship" (or intense perception) is a life and death matter. It is a matter of lives and deaths. It is to prevent that fluctuation of living and dying that so besets human beings. Within any one lifetime as well, it works upon the pendulum of pleasure and pain, joy and suffering which harasses us with its unpredictable but absolute certainty of unwanted changes.

Again, understand this. The Buddhists and Hindus took this seriously; images were extremely powerful. To look, to see, to perceive images would make changes for the better, cancel out pain, postpone death and allow freedom beyond human limitations. As a consequence of art, people would be able to use talents which they possessed more fully, reach higher states of mind, attain abilities associated with the consciousness of Gods, or reach that type of realization of reality which made perfection available, at will, to them. When all this comes through art, it is called Dharma.

Facing art was a formal event. It could not be off-hand or incidental. That is, one had to stop and with an attitude of intention confront the work. A manner of awareness actually develops into an awareness of strengths. The viewer plans to see and actualizes this sight. There could be a temple full of images, but unless one sets the mind, nothing will be seen. Seeing is a large word here. It includes the idea of bringing something into being by opening the eyes, thus the eye of the mind. The being which is thus seeing, itself is seen. Thus perceived, it manifests and recognizes itself as it comes into being. This could happen at many levels. Some are almost mundane (animals, demons) and some more elevated (Gods, Goddesses, Bodhisattvas). All are very dynamic. Frequently there is a sense of great activity, even turmoil in what one sees. It is the psychological reading of the process of unfolding, of retreating, and of advancing. Frequently this has been called the evolution of a spiritual being. Growth and development, like in a plant as descriptive words, are just as good. It seems like a new entity, but it has been there a long time.

Unless one is instructed to look, one need not expect quick results. It is too confusing to try to see everything at once. Through yoga, meditation or chanting, one goes step by step. Through the teaching of gurus or lamas, one goes from the foothills of consciousness to the lofty peaks. Through the use of mantras (repetitious sounds such as AUM AH HUM), the concentration of attention upon yantras (geometric diagrams), a person invokes deities, reaches for states of mind otherwise not attainable. For the Hindus, merging with God-consciousness is a goal. For the Buddhists, attaining the mind of a being called a Bodhisattva, who can become a Buddha, an enlightened one. None of it is easy. The yantras develop into all the fleshed-out images of the Hindus and Buddhists, all the Gods, teachers, or ferocious-sexual icons. Dharma comes in the form of art and in the form of mantras. These together, as co-operative Dharma, sight and sound, are the basis for the religious art of India, Nepal and Tibet. The art does not function aside from this search for liberation and the end of rebirth.

In the Himalayan tradition everything is open but closed. It is easily approached, but difficult to penetrate. This is due to our insistence on understanding. Of course, our understanding is prejudiced in favor of sentence structure, or logical linear outlining. That is our old self-encircling definition of what understanding is. As good as this is in the hammer and nail world, it is not practical in the common everyday world of the human spirit. The activity in the place of human consciousness is too intense for that, for there existence is simultaneously many things, in many orders, including time in both directions. Linear thinking is only one part of this. A singing poet who is improvising a dance as he paints would do a little better than an engineer figuring the stresses of metal under intense heat. The reason for this is simple. Everything is easily opened but still remains a secret once opened. This secret means that it is magic to us. But there really is no magic, only the "other reality," which is not opposed to airplanes and trees, but includes them in a larger sphere, involving feelings about the unnamable. This is something which we have suspected all of our lives, but our culture has retreated from saying it for centuries. The Himalayan cultures have pursued it. With an artistic act, joining ecstasy with logic, they have captured an extremely basic and important unity. This is vitally charged, full of potentialities, dense in energy. Such images in art are beyond ideas of identity. As distinct forces, collectively seen, they are eternity in a moment. All separativeness is recognized as the ultimate oneness beneath appearance with opposites working together. This was accomplished in Asia. Here, that ancient consciousness is to be found with our eyes.


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