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Art for the spirit

by KARNJARIYA SUKRUNG, Bangkok Post, Nov 26, 2006

Beauty and aesthetics can serve as a playground to cultivate mindful awareness, as artist and poet-turned-monk Phra Amnart Ophaso discovered

Bangkok, Thailand -- With one stroke of black paint, Phra Amnart Ophaso drew a picture of an oval drop of water on a piece of paper. And he began to ask questions.

"Do you feel that there are two separate things here? Something that is a water drop and the space around the water drop?

"Look deeply. Do you see the difference between the space inside and outside the line that makes up a picture of a water drop? What if I erase the line? What would remain?

"What creates the feeling of division, that there is matter inside and outside?"

With just a simple illustration and some inquiries, artist and poet-turned-monk Phra Amnart Ophaso illuminated profound Buddhist teachings for his audience.

"It is the seed of avijja [ignorance] that blinds us from seeing the truth. Forms may make us look different, but in essence, everything shares the same quality. We see it as a different picture because we are stuck with the frames and forms that seemingly divide things," Phra Amnart said, explaining some of the ideas behind the Law of Dependent Origination (paticcasamuppada) and anatta (non-self).

<< "Art can be agood playground for mindful awareness meditation practice in a sense that art, with its beauty and aeshetics, can stimulate or provoke our attention and sense so sharply that we can be aware of it." — PHRA AMNART OPHASO

"Art is a medium of and towards the truth. Meditative art questions life, and sets a dialogue between artist, pictures and viewers," he said.

For an artist and devout Buddhist to be able to merge artistic passion and monastic vision is truly fulfilling.
Two years ago, when Amnart Klanprachar decided to enter the monkhood to dedicate the rest of his life to teaching and giving dharma instruction, he felt a bit despondent as he thought he would have to leave behind his artistic skill. "I felt like I was losing my arms and legs," he recalled.

But an accident changed this perspective.

One day, ink fell on a piece of blank paper. The black splash of colour invoked the spirit of the veteran artist. Phra Amnart continued the picture with another stroke. Two to three minutes later, another picture emerged, until finally this accidental drop of ink inspired him to create a series of 84 abstract paintings called "The Enigma of Pahsornkaew", the name of the temple where he now resides in Phetchabun province.

"Art can be a good playground for mindful awareness meditation practice in a sense that art, with its beauty and aesthetics, can stimulate or provoke our attention and senses so sharply that we can be aware of it," he said.

In Theravada Buddhist tradition, beauty and aesthetics are often viewed as belonging to the world of the senses, which create pleasure, and thus should be avoided.

"The Buddha does not teach us to refrain from feeling, but to be aware of it and observe what it actually is," he explained.

In fact, mindful awareness practice enhances the clarity and depth of his paintings, he added.

"Not the beauty of a picture, but a brush stroke that reflects the inner quality of an artist. Creating art with a carefree mind that is void of ego-driven expectation or desire, the picture becomes light, sharp, modest and gentle. You can feel it," he said.

Just one good gaze and a picture can move the feelings and communicate noble dharma.

Some people, Phra Amnart said, can become meditative while looking at a picture. "Spiritual art does not mean the religious content that the art depicts, but the process in which the art can get people to meditate and to be awake to the truth within themselves."

Also, spiritual art offers the spiritual effects of creating art. To portray anicca (impermanence) and anatta, Phra Amnart does not use solid mass-colours. Rather, he prefers to make colour dust to portray the state of anatta.

These techniques create a translucent, light, floating, transforming effect. In the details, one can see a picture of a mountain, for example, that is composed of dots and lines of colour particles. And in many of his paintings, one will see that forms, lines and colours are moving, transforming, as there are no concrete demarcations of space. Everything can be dynamic and emerging.

"Artists who aim to create art of beauty and truth should meditate to have some experience of dharma," said Phra Amnart.

"In whatever we do, we need concentration, a meditative state of mind. In creating art, too, artists and musicians will have some quality of meditation while doing it. But such meditation is focused outside. Here, I reverse meditation to look within to see how the mind reacts with each given moment while working," he said.

After finishing work, he usually "tastes" his work before passing it on to viewers. "Art can serve a noble path. So I need to check if the work can enhance the viewers' sense of tranquillity, meditation, perhaps illuminate them with some profound dharma lessons."Creating such art, Phra Amnart said, requires an understanding of Buddhist philosophy through reading and practice and ultimately living a life of dharma. Which, in the case of 51-year-old Phra Amnart, is what he does most of the time.

Since he was young, Phra Amnart knew his heart lay in both the arts and Buddhism. He did not apply for art school. In fact, he was a school dropout. Having a gambler for a father, Amnart, the second son in a family of five children, helped his mother mind the orchards and run errands from the age of 10. He did many jobs: a writer for magazines, editor for a newspaper, work on a film crew, an accountant in a textile factory.

"For me, art is personal, an expression of experience, thoughts and emotions. It's an innate talent that I can do whenever I want. Besides, the best way to learn is to do it - practice," he said. His fingers were brushes and the air his canvas. "I can practise drawing anytime, anywhere," he smiled, waving his fingers in the air to make a portrait drawing.

Young Amnart learned how to meditate when he was six years old. He read books, practiced meditation and went to religious retreats in the wildest of places - the cemetery, a cave, a cliff, the forest.

"I like challenges, putting myself in unknown and uncomfortable situations. In such states, the mind becomes alert and aware, which is good for practice," he said.

"You can't learn Buddhism from reading alone. One needs to experiment and experience what is the truth and what is the middle path."

As a devout Buddhist layman, his artistic skills were used to serve dharma. "I didn't do art for a living or for fame, recognition or competition. I did art for Buddhism, spirituality and for my goal in life, which was to be awakened and help people," he said.

To exchange the truth of non-self (anatta) with self (atta) was not just worth it, he said.

When he was asked to draw mural paintings at temples, he bartered his artistic fee and time for meals and a place to sleep. With no money, sometimes, he said he had to walk some 30 kilometres from his home to the temple.

Another time, he was commissioned to create a series of 12 paintings explaining the philosophical Law of Dependent Origination. There was no fee but free accommodation and food at a nice resort for the year that he worked. The series are highly acclaimed as the artist digests profound Buddhist tenets into forms that many find easy to understand.

The last major work before he retreated to the monkhood was 78 paintings for the Tarot deck, "Roots of Asia". The paintings in the fortune-telling deck are aimed to integrate dharma with people's belief in fate.

Galleries, exhibitions and viewers are no longer part of his landscape. Today, his canvas is the vast, lush mountain range of Phetchabun province. The landscape of the 65-rai Wat Pahsornkaew provides a plethora of natural impressions. Blooming flowers. Morning dew. Misty fields. Fragile cobwebs. Fat bunches of bananas.

Everything in the natural world is his art and teacher.

"I read poetry and view works of art every day. It's ubiquitous in nature," he said.

One morning, during an alms-round, the rain began to drizzle down. He recalled: "I looked up and saw drops of rain spiralling down from the sky. When each drop fell into a water pond, it created small ripples. It became one with all water.

"Bananas can be ordinary, a kind of fruit in our backyard. But if you observe it closely, you will see the miracles of this bit of nature. When you eat with awareness, it is like you are eating nature's miracle. Bananas won't be just bananas any more."

The same is true of art and so many of life's activities.

"Just be aware of everything you do. That awareness will unveil the truth to you."

Guidelines to mindful awareness

Artist-turned-monk Phra Amnart Ophaso suggests some practical ways to use art to cultivate mindful awareness. These guidelines can be applied to children as well.

While appreciating art

Be aware of the feeling and thoughts that are present. What is happening in your mind? What feeling is present? What thought is present? Like, dislike, pleased or confused, and so on. Accept the feelings as they are.

Just acknowledge like/dislike as a feeling, and don't identify it with "I" . There is a feeling of like, this is how like expresses itself, it is light, glowing, and when dislike appears in the mind, there may be a sense of struggle or closeness within. Observe how these feelings remain and disappear or transform.

We can meditate with art or bits of nature that exude an aesthetical element for our eyes, such as the setting sun, fluffy clouds, swaying leaves.

While creating a piece of art before working

If you have an object that you want to draw or paint, spend time observing it completely. Appreciate it, without judgement or intervention of thought. Observe it long enough that you feel (if possible) that there is no division between subject and object. Or observe it long enough that when you close your eyes, the image can clearly spring up in your mind.

If you intend to draw or paint abstract topics, then contemplate the issues for a while until the concept is crystallised.

Start working

Clear and relax your mind. Leave out expectations for success or beauty, competition of any kind.

Do not think as you spend some time to crystalise ideas. Draw with your heart. Allow the image to emerge in the mind and work on it each present moment. You may have an idea when you start, but you should allow for fresh and spontaneous expression. In short, do not cling to the old ideas too hard.

Be aware of the movements of your hands

Be aware of what is happening in your mind and hands while you are creating the work. What feeling is present? What thought is present?

If you cannot be aware with the present moment, the finished art work can help you contemplate.

Art for children

To inspire children to do art work is a good way to help develop their meditation and awareness skills. One may tell them to draw or paint a picture for someone they love.

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