BY THE BAY EASTERN RELIGION MEETS THE WEST COAST ART SCENE
S. Kowinski - Sunday, January 4, 2004 / © 2004 San
to speculate on Zen Buddhism's American prospects, Shunryu Suzuki
Roshi, founder of the San Francisco Zen Center, replied, "Very
the first Chinatown temples through the Beat era and into the
21st century, Buddhism has been contributing to the cultural
palette of the Bay Area and California. So when Jacquelynn Baas,
former director of the Berkeley Art Museum, heard about nascent
efforts among New York curators to examine Buddhism's influences
in Western art, she suggested that something like this ought
to be done on the West Coast as well. "Buddhism has been
an important presence in American cultural life for generations,"
Baas said, "and historically, demographically, this is
where a lot of it really happened."
and independent curator Mary Jane Jacobs organized a West Coast
consortium called Awake: Art, Buddhism and the Dimensions of
Consciousness, which over the past two years has been a catalyst
for such local events as the "Real to Real: Buddhism and
Film" festival at San Francisco Zen Center and the Castro
Theatre and recent appearances in Berkeley by the U Theatre
and Cloud Gate Dance Theatre from Taiwan. Forthcoming events
include a major exhibition by artist Tom Marioni at the Yerba
Buena Center for the Arts in January, a Gary Snyder poetry reading
next spring and two books to be published by University of California
Press. Other projects scheduled stretch into 2006 and beyond.
several events this month exemplify the dynamics of Buddhism's
influences in the arts and cultural life of the Bay Area.
prominent in San Francisco's history are Asian immigrants and
their descendants -- now constituting about a third of the city's
population and a fifth of the Bay Area's, according to the latest
census -- that it seems only natural that the largest museum
in the United States devoted exclusively to the arts of Asia
is in San Francisco. So prominent is Buddhism in Asian history
that the Asian Art Museum organized its expanded permanent collection
by tracing the spread of Buddhism across that continent.
the first special exhibition in its new Civic Center home highlights
the golden age of Buddhism in Korea, the Goryeo Dynasty. Two
forthcoming exhibitions at the Berkeley Art Museum also feature
Buddhist sacred art from China, Japan, Tibet and Vietnam. Though
Buddhism's influences on the secular art that exploded in the
1950s derived from different sources, the historic Asian ambience
peculiar to San Francisco helped provide a receptive atmosphere.
Francisco in the '50s was a Mediterranean and Asian city, in
temperament and culture," poet Michael McClure recalls.
"We encountered Asian people every day, signs in Chinese,
markets in Chinese, food in Chinese and Chinese music in the
non-Asian artists in the '40s and '50s, the ground had been
prepared by Buddhist-influenced writings of Henry David Thoreau,
Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson and William James, and recent
translations of Chinese poetry by Ezra Pound and San Francisco's
Kenneth Rexroth. Some (like John Cage, who taught music to Chinese,
Italian and black children in San Francisco neighborhoods during
the Depression before becoming the foremost Zen- influenced
artist of his time) were first exposed to Buddhism in books
and lectures by D.T. Suzuki.
beginning in 1953, many Bay Area artists also absorbed ideas
from Buddhism and other Eastern thought through hearing talks
by scholar and writer Alan Watts on the radio. "Alan was
wonderful," McClure says. "I have two friends who
came out here because this is where Alan Watts lived. They'd
heard his broadcasts." His many radio programs continued
airing on Berkeley's KPFA for more than 20 years after his death
in 1973, and are still heard on stations across the country.
most prominent Beat-era poets in San Francisco were the most
conspicuously influenced by Buddhism, and many eventually became
dedicated practitioners: first Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen (who
became a Buddhist monk and abbot) and Joanne Kyger, then Diane
di Prima and Michael McClure. By the '60s many major figures
in Bay Area arts and entertainment were inspired by Buddhist
ideas, from visual artists Sam Francis and Jay DeFeo to theater
artists Julian Beck of the Living Theatre and actor Peter Coyote,
avant-garde composer Pauline Oliveros to Jerry Garcia and other
members of the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane. Some
of these artists, as well as contemporary artists such as Berkeley's
Kazuaki Tanahashi, are featured in "Zen and Modern Art:
Echoes of Buddhism in Western Paintings and Prints," an
exhibition at Cal State Hayward.
meditation was largely unknown, however, until Suzuki Roshi
arrived from Japan and started the San Francisco Zen Center
in 1962, bringing the reality of Zen practice to Americans without
regard to race, gender or sexual orientation. With its Green
Gulch Farm temple in Marin County and monastery at Tassajara
in Monterey County hosting visitors and conferences, and with
satellite businesses such as Greens restaurant, Zen Center became
the most visible and significant agent of integration for Buddhism
and San Francisco culture. Now there are zendos and Buddhist
institutions spread throughout the Bay Area, and many (like
San Francisco Buddhist Center through its Blue Buddha Arts space
in the Mission District) joined Zen Center to continue exploring
art and Buddhism.
to nature and the environment, and a social activism that flowed
directly from Buddhist teachings, also formed a common thread
between the Zen Center and Bay Area artists. These concerns
are finding new prominence with the ascendance of the Tibetan
Buddhism of the Dalai Lama and the "engaged Buddhism"
of Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. In their different
ways, advocates such as Joanna Macy of Berkeley and artist Suzanne
Lacy (who developed public art projects with teenagers in Oakland)
explore this aspect.
Art of Don't Know
artists who are practicing Buddhists, "dharma practice
and art are two sides of the same coin," di Prima once
explained. But the influence isn't restricted to practitioners.
"To appreciate the practice you have to practice, "
says Kay Larson, former New York magazine art critic and current
Zen practitioner who participated in Awake. "To appreciate
Buddhism, you can catch some of the sensibility by being aware
of issues like not clinging to things or ideas, and open yourself
to the flow of mind and experience -- and that's what artists
do anyway. In a way, Buddhism shows them what they're already
doing and gives them a larger frame for it."
Rand was a major figure at the San Francisco Zen Center for
28 years and has thought a lot about the relationship of meditation
and contemporary art, which prompted her to serve on the steering
committee of the Awake project. "It depends a lot on the
particular artist, but I certainly am convinced that the mind
in the moment of creativity and the mind in the moment of meditation
are the same mind," she says.
is an openness sometimes called in Buddhist practice "the
mind of don't know." Rand finds it in artists as different
as Song Hyun-sook, one of the contemporary Korean artists in
the current Asian Art Museum show (Rand hosted her stay in San
Francisco for the opening) and Edgar Degas.
a quality in (Degas') sculpture that resonates with anyone engaged
in the Buddhist meditation tradition, (in which) one is always
seeking to stay open to what's not known, to the unexpected
-- in fact to develop a capacity and a taste for the unexpected
and the constantly changing nature of experience. I think most
artists and poets are also working that edge."
Simmons, executive and artistic director of East Bay Center
for Performing Arts, participated in Awake meetings partly to
help him in working with some of the newer Asian immigrants,
the Mien from northern Laos, some 2, 500 of whom have settled
in the Richmond area. Buddhism is part of their culture, in
combination with aspects of Taoism, shamanism and animism. But
in the emphasis on the integrity of experiencing art as well
as creating it derived from Buddhist meditation, Simmons found
a compelling reason for all people to value art.
the audience, what's important is not some status experience
but a real experience of the work," he said. "And
when we teach young people to do art, we are teaching them to
value their own experience of life."
recent emphasis on the Buddhist values of attention and being
in the moment is perhaps a response to the faster speed of life
and the split-focus distractions of the cell phone society,
as well as the new pervasiveness of meditation practice. But
Larson, who is writing a book on Cage, cautions that we shouldn't
forget how it all started in the Beat era.
think there was kind of beauty and innocence early on, when
people were picking up these red-hot ideas out of what they
read," she says. "There was a gorgeousness about that,
a clarity and a freedom that is getting clouded now. The main
issue really is getting an atom bomb dropped on everything you
think you've got down pat and solid in your life, and every
structure you've ever been taught in school, and everything
that has ever been fed to you about what the universe is. Everything
gets blown away and space frees up and possibilities emerge,
and you can be human, you can be yourself, in a whole new way.
That's really what happened to people like Gary Snyder. I know
that's what happened to Cage -- it blew his mind."
believes that Buddhism brought "a possibility for us to
open up to a larger generosity of thinking and a deepening of
consciousness, and a myriad-mindedness." Speaking of San
Francisco, he adds, "Zen came to a very special place,
and we were fortunate to be in that place."
ART, BUDDHISM AND THE DIMENSIONS OF CONSCIOUSNESS fosters educational
efforts and public programs in Los Angeles, Dallas, Seattle,
Portland, Ore., and Chicago as well as in the Bay Area. Regionally
the consortium includes the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco,
UC Berkeley Art Museum, California College of Arts, Cal Performances,
the Judah Magnes Museum, Stanford's Cantor Center of Art, San
Francisco Art Institute, East Bay Center for the Performing
Arts, Headlands Center for the Arts, and the Yerba Buena Center
for the Arts. Funding is from the Nathan Cummings Foundation,
the James Irvine Foundation, the National Endowment for the
Arts and other sources..
AND MODERN ART:
ECHOES OF BUDDHISM IN WESTERN PAINTING AND PRINTS
of Bay Area artists Sam Francis, William T. Wiley, Jay DeFeo
and Arthur Monroe, including calligraphy by Alan Watts,
visual work by Suzuki Roshi and paintings by Lawrence Ferlinghetti,
join examples of traditional Zen art, Surrealists (Miro,
Mark Tobey, Morris Graves) and abstract expressionists (Pollock,
de Kooning, Motherwell, Franz Kline) influenced by Buddhism.
Also featured: prints made by John Cage in the Bay Area,
and painting by Berkeley's Kazuaki Tanahashi created for
this exhibition. Noon-3 p.m. Wednesdays to Saturdays through
Jan. 31 at University Art Gallery, Arts and Education Building,
California State University, Hayward.
ART OF THE GORYEO DYNASTY (918-1392)
paintings, prints and illustrated sutras, sculpture, ritual
implements and metal crafts of the Goryeo Dynasty, when Buddhism
was a dominant religious and cultural presence in Korea and
Korean art. This is the Asian Art Museum's first major temporary
exhibition in its new building, the former Main Library, in
the San Francisco Civic Center. Running concurrently is LEANING
FORWARD, LOOKING BACK: EIGHT CONTEMPORARY ARTISTS FROM KOREA,
the museum's first exhibition of contemporary Asian art, presenting
26 works by eight artists from Korea, all of whom were in San
Francisco for the opening. The artists (Cho Duck-hyun, Jung
Jong-mee, Kim Hong-joo, Kim Young-jin, Lee Jungjin, Song Hyun-sook,
U Sunok and Whang Inkie) examine the future in terms of the
Korean past. Well-known artists in Korea, they are introduced
to an international public in this exhibition, which is curated
by Jeff Kelley, visiting curator of contemporary art at the
Asian Art Museum, and Kang Seungwan, curator of contemporary
art at the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Korea. These
shows run through Jan. 11. The museum's permanent collection
features THE SPREAD OF BUDDHISM THROUGH ASIA, 2,500 objects
organized to roughly follow Buddhism's path from its origins
in India to Southeast Asia, the Himalayas, China, Korea and
Art Museum/ Chong-Moon Lee Center for Asian Art and Culture,
200 Larkin St., San Francisco. The museum is open 10 a.m. to
5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, until 9 p.m. Thursdays. $10 for
adults, $7 for seniors, $6 for youths 12-17, and free for children
younger than 12. After 5 p.m. Thursday evenings, admission is
just $5 for all visitors except members and those younger than
12, who are always admitted free. (415) 581-3500 or www. asianart.
BUDDHIST PAINTING FROM TIBET, CHINA AND JAPAN Rare Asian Buddhist
paintings, including paintings from Tibet drawn from the collection
of Theos Bernard (1908-1947), which have never before shown
at the museum. Through Feb. 22 at UC Berkeley Art Museum. .
MIRRA/MATRIX 209: 66 INSTANTS Exhibition of 65 works inspired
by an insight of Nagarjuna, second century Buddhist originator
of the Middle Way, and created during several months' residence.
Through Jan. 24 at UC Berkeley Art Museum. .
GARDEN, an installation featuring objects from the museum's
Eastern and Western art collections that either emerge from
historical Buddhist traditions or simply lend themselves to
meditative reflection. Through July 3 at UC Berkeley Art Museum.
525 B.C. The Buddha attains enlightenment under the Bodhi
Thoreau and Emerson publish first English translation of a Buddhist
sutra, in the Transcendentalist periodical Dial.
First Buddhist temple in San Francisco Chinatown.
First Japanese Buddhist missionaries to United States arrive
in San Francisco.
Japanese monk Nyogen Senzaki opens zendo on Bush Street in Japantown,
John Cage attends D.T. Suzuki's lectures at Columbia.
Alan Watts does first radio broadcast on Zen, KPFA, Berkeley.
Jack Kerouac discovers Dwight Goddard's "A Buddhist Bible"
in the San Jose Library.
Promising "free satori," San Francisco poetry reading
at the Six Gallery introduces Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Michael
McClure, Philip Whalen and Philip Lamantia.
Poet Gary Snyder studies Zen Buddhism in Japan.
Keroauc's novel "Dharma Bums" links Beats and San
Francisco Poetry Renaissance to Buddhist consciousness.
Shunryn Suzuki arrives, soon to establish San Francisco
"Zenefit" at Avalon Ballroom with the Grateful Dead,
Big Brother and the Holding Company and Quicksilver Messenger
Service to support S.F. Zen Center's Tassajara, the first Buddhist
monastery outside Asia.
Fourteenth Dalai Lama begins first visit to America in San Francisco.
Center opens Greens Restaurant.
Poet Philip Whalen becomes abbot of Hartford Street Zen Center.
First Tibetan Freedom Concert in United States at Golden Gate
Park with the Beastie Boys, Smashing Pumpkins, Beck, Red Hot
Chili Peppers, Rage Against the Machine.
Expanded Asian Art Museum opens in Civic Center.