Hegel And The Buddha in Popular Culture and Art, Part 1 (Dion Peoples)

The following is the first of a two-part series.  The second installment can be found here.

In the world today all culture, all literature and art belong to definite classes and are geared to definite political lines. There is in fact no such thing as art for art’s sake, art that stands above classes, art that is detached from or independent of politics. Proletarian literature and art are part of the whole proletarian revolutionary cause; they are as Lenin said, cogs and wheels in the whole revolutionary machine…

All our literature and art are for the masses of the people, and in the first place for the workers, peasants, and soldiers; they are created for the workers, peasants and soldiers and are for their use…

Our purpose is] to ensure that literature and art fit well into the whole revolutionary machine as a component part, that they operate as powerful weapons for uniting and educating the people and for attacking and destroying the enemy, and that they help the people fight the enemy with one heart and one mind.”  – Mao Tse Tung

Art and class are contrived yet lived political-constructs. Art is a revolution, part of a new reality.  Art is an aggregate of our life-experience.  Art educates us.

Of course, it is complete speculation to assume that the best teachers applying general knowledge and Buddhist arts were found in ancient Buddhist universities. When those sites or institutions of higher-learning were destroyed via historically unclear circumstances, what became of this knowledge? Did all of the knowledge get disseminated abroad? How much was left untaught?

This question will remain unanswered, but what was the status of Buddhist knowledge around two-thousand years ago? Or what was the status of Buddhist art at the time of the destruction of the great Buddhist universities? Sources outside of the Tipitaka suggest that the faculties, or departments (to use a modern term), were fine arts, philosophy, grammar/linguisitics, metaphysics, Indian logic/reasoning, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, politics, law, and the arts of war (archery, hunting, elephant training), tantra, magic, texts, rituals.  City planning and campuses featured libraries, dormitories, and many temples.

Ancient texts, found from Nalanda, possess illustrations, and texts, together on the same page, on every page of the document. They are word in a now dead language, but reconstructed, pictures, and the voice of the monk together assist in delivering the Buddha’s message. Art assists the delivery of the Buddha’s message.

The philosopher Hegel suggests that “the appearance of Absolute Spirit [Dhamma] as a principle constituting on its own account a distinctive stage of experience [the path of purification through sila, samadhi, panna towards liberation] is at once a demand of the preceding development and a condition of making experience self- complete.” Some people argue (it is not the position of this paper to debate Indian history) over the real reason Buddhism decayed.  Rumor has it that the attacker asked someone at the university if there was a copy of the Qu’ran in the University Library? Being unpleased with the response, the university was destroyed.

Zizek could imply that this is the beginning of an event – the end of classic-Buddhist traditions, and the catalyst for the establishment of a new future. He asserts: “The role of the obstacle is ambiguous because although it may be sinister, it is nonetheless needed to bring the couple [Buddhist sects] together in the first place; it is the challenge they face or the obstacle they must overcome in order to realize they want to be together.”(14) Although he is discussing a movie, his slogans are equally applicable to discuss the event. The destruction of the Buddhist universities could have been a sign that the subjects being taught were of an old order, and a new perspective was needed for a newly evolved society.

From Hutchinson’s Story of the Nations, the description below the image reads: “The Kushans were one of the chief Central Asian tribes that over ran the country just beyond the frontiers of India [around 100 BCE], and afterwards became a ruling race in Northern India itself. The greatest of the Kushans was the conqueror Kanishka (Kanerkes of the ‘Greek’ coins), who did such great things for Buddhism by founding the Mahayana or popular gorgeously ritualistic form of it that his fame for ages has been spread from end to end of Asia. But he destroyed the philosophic Buddhism and substituted for it a superstitious polytheistic idolatry.” This image is supposed to be depicting an event from around 100 CE.

If Buddhadhamma is taken as the Absolute Spirit, for the sake of the monologue here, traversing various stages of experience, what is the demand from the destruction of the universities? We could have two events: the redefining of Buddhism and the destruction of institutionalized learning facilities. It could be clear that Buddhism should be rebuilt. An antagonist might suggest to let a thousand flowers bloom – let Buddhism break into various sects.

Something sinister occurred, and those concerned should be brought together (the divided couple), to rebuild, resulting in the experience as self- complete  with Buddhism maintaining itself, despite tragic events. The Buddha didn’t want schism, yet the disciples that we determine to be noble, each took their princely ideas in other directions and established their own methodology and let those teachings take root.

What is the point of mentioning sectarian-trouble? Today, we care about the status of Buddhist art, as we have it now – relics, preservation techniques, and the production of new works of various forms of art? Today, we can tell if the art is Theravada-influenced or Mahayana-influenced – but wasn’t there only one historical-Buddha in our conventional-era of history? However, are these new forms of art, original forms – or has Buddhist art been carried away by time and space, and other creative elements? A myriad of questions can be asked, but since those original universities have been destroyed, what can we learn, from then for now?

Defining The Artist and Art through Pāli

For this article, I am openly using the Digital Pali Reader for the terminology, and supposing that a general artist/craftsman [artificer] (sippika) is someone skilled in their specific craft (sippaṭṭhāna) – but someone who is artistic (sippanugata), who paints (cittakamma) pictures with paint (citteti) as a painter (cittakara), but not someone who uses colors (vannaka) as a colorist (vaṇṇalepaka), or uses dyes (rajana/ranga) as a dyer (ranjaka/rangajivi).

If someone is drawing (alekhacitta) as a drawing master (alekhacittariya), they can write (lekkhanam) as a writer (lekhaka). A writer (lipikara) uses handwriting (hatthalipi) towards his sacred-writing (dhammalipi). Maybe this will need transcribed (putikam sampadeti) by a transcriber (puttikasampadaka). There are many types of artists, working within or across genres/formats. These are the vocabulary- words used for people who are crafty with illustrations, mentioned in the conventional or general sense, for easy comprehension.

These terms are seldom mentioned in the Tipitaka, implying: arts were not really important for Buddhists (people actively utilizing the doctrine), but there were people in society earning their livelihoods in this way. The art or the craftsmen are not central features for us, as Buddhists.

There were people who created long-lasting artifacts for us to marvel at today, or to be amazed or amused when seeing these relics in modern-museums. Maybe a carpenter (vaddhaki) or a carver (cundakara), was engaged in carving (cundakamma), if it was made out of wood; perhaps they made a statue (patima) of the Buddha, but such organic material has not survived into our modern era.

Artisans who made longer-lasting objects for our scrutiny today are: brickmakers (ginjakasampadaka) who made bricks (ginjaka) possibly for brickhouses (ginjakavasatha) offered to the Sangha; and stonemasons (silavaddhaki). A mason (sudhajivi) would be engaged into masonry (sudhakamma), perhaps using cement (sudhalepa). Perhaps a skilled craftsman could make a statue (patima) or a statuette (khuddakapatima), for an idolator (patimapujaka) who practices idolatry (patimavandana).

If it was not clear before, none of these activities are particularly Buddhist, but all of these activities are outside of the forbidden livelihoods for Buddhists. In other words, Buddhists are free to choose these employment opportunities and to engage in these hobbies, if they desire to pursue such activity. They are not trading in weaponry, trading in humans, trading in meat, trading in poisons, or trading in intoxicants.

In order to clarify Buddhist doctrines, skilled craftsmen [artificer] probably thought it would be wise to depict the Buddhadhamma not in one of the hundreds of languages being used around ancient-India, but to utilize images because these illustrations were something that anyone can ascertain in their own vocabulary.  The Buddha taught, on at least one occasion, not to be caught up with terminology – different tribes call an object by a different name.

Words are not so important when people don’t know some foreign word. Matters must be understood in ones own language. When taking the question to the internet (having never been to India), results suggest there are over 120 languages sizably active around India, although only 22 are considered to be official, about 1600 dialects are used inside (including several non-native languages). People could easily reject an imposition of a language, but it was easier to comprehend an idea. Artistic images become a useful instrument in disseminating a religious doctrine, later one that becomes used for social- control. Derrida claims in Of Grammatology that there is a problem with language, it invades the global horizon, and the term is devalued.(6)

As David Held observes, “culture emerges from the organizational basis of society, as the bundle of ideas, mores, norms and artistic expressions – the heritage and practices of intelligence and arts… Art was unavoidably enmeshed in reality… caught up in and expressed contradictions.”(80-1) Destroy the learning institutions and places where knowledge is stored and disseminated, and Buddhism turns into what? Idealism towards a lost era? Reclamation efforts for some, denying privileges to others?  Turn the –ism into what you want it to be, rather that what it should have been?

In this sense, Buddhism was recreated outside of the land of its birth from all of the cultural-appropriations that occurred as the doctrines or ideas adjusted themselves into local doctrines. It was easy for Buddhism to creep into areas previously under Hindu-Brahmanism – Southeast Asia as the reference, tribal people under a ruling elite that espoused a foreign-tradition to subjugate its people. Buddhism continues to attract and marvel the minds of practitioners.

When dreaming, perhaps, we could think that Buddhist art is what we see on the walls of temples, or we ascertain what we recollect from seeing broken and old statues in some museum. Whether something is seen as something valuable from the past, as in a museum piece, or as something created recently that catches the eye, people place value on what they determine as good art, and for the sake of this paper.  What is determined to be Buddhist art?  How are people using Buddhist art?

Some scholars envision Buddhist art to be about ancient or decades-old temple-murals, contemporary Buddhist art, Buddhist inspired music or movies, Buddhist inspired architecture seen outside of temples, various images, aspects of mythology, and any other associated concepts falling under the expansive rubric of various arts.  Are we seeing something real or fictitious?

Hegel and Art

Many Buddhists exposed deep sympathies towards the use of the Buddha in arts, tattoos, improper use of statues, and other things stemming from the lack of understanding over tradition or how to represent the Buddha. What is real about Buddhist art? Buddhism is a system of training-regulations and ideas for contemplating phenomena from various angles – art has nothing to do with it.

Oh, well, maybe kasinas could be considered art, materially – OK, that is one compromise. What is being said here is: art and Buddhism really have no connection, but later people created and developed a connection. Hegel has some influential words that can be connected towards how people perceive the Buddha through art: “If reality is essentially spiritual – then experience only finds its complete meaning realized in the principle of Absolute Spirit.”(396)

Thus interpreted – people need to have experience with dhamma, be experienced with dhamma. People would only know what the Spirit of Dhamma is when it is practiced. The best discourse for learning this dhamma is through the Sangiti Sutta. When someone is experienced in the Dhamma, they know the spirit of the Dhamma. If someone is not versed in the Dhamma, they don’t know the reality of Buddhism.

There are different forms of Buddhism, different sects latch onto different ideals, and focus on certain strands or one sutra over another sutra from the entirety of the Dhamma.  Hegel teaches that “the religious attitude differs; and accordingly we have various types or forms of religion.” (397) Opinions towards the Dhamma, and aspects of the Dhamma learned, as segmented and underdeveloped as disciples ascertain and take up as the whole of their teaching-doctrines, are as varied as the multiple personalities discussed in the Vimuttimagga and Visuddhimagga.

These are those with greedy temperaments, those with hating temperaments, those with deluded temperaments, those with faithful temperaments, those with intelligent temperaments, and those with speculative temperaments. These would be discussed where texts mention prerequisite ideals before taking on a meditation-subject, because different personalities are suitable for some forms of meditation and may not be suitable for other kinds of meditation. Some people have elements of some and parts of another. One scholar may be of the intelligent-hating type, while some young monk may be of the deluded-faithful type – the point is, there is Buddhadhamma that is especially catered for different personality-characteristics. Art is biased from these individualized-artificers who craft their wares/ideas.

Artists of whatever personality try their best to depict reality or concepts as they see them, but often this lacks consideration for the passage of time. Hegel urges: “Reality lacks within itself its completion [an unseen terminal point], it is a determinate shape or form.”(399) Buddhism urges practitioners to be mindful of the past, future and present – at all times, in a single moment – as reality. Reality is what we see at some point in time, but since all things are subjected to impermanence, art is only something at depicts a certain period of time.

Since we are aware of time, we should use images from the proper time- period when depicting events. For instance, we see only statues of a young or manly Buddha, but we don’t see images of the elderly-Buddha of 79-80 years old, just before dying. Images (paintings) are disconnected-images that show a younger-version laying down, one of a man far from death – void of reality. Hegel chimes in: “…distinguish from these moments, their specific individuated character.”(400) We have to do the thinking for ourselves, forcing us to recollect what we want to recollect about the tradition, which pushes us into some compartmentalized or sectioned cognition, not permitting us to think of the entirety of the doctrine. Go to Google (or your favorite search-engine, and type in “Buddha Parinibbana”, and look for images for yourself.  Most look like this.

Reality is shown in the faces of older monks, and the old guru in the back, but they show a young Buddha, as if he just gained enlightenment. Sure, artists are entitled to their interpretation in their activation of imagery, but should they not be held up to some responsibility or accuracy? Texts, as in the artistic renditions, could have been written by faithful-personalities, rather than intelligent personalities, because of the misconceptions portrayed. Inaccuracies are taken up as Dhamma, and like the Buddha mentioned towards poets, this leads to a decay in Dhamma – people taking adhamma as dhamma.

Artists take a depiction of a past-Buddha and re-present that form into a timeframe where the past form would not fit the current form. The conversation has been misshaped, but you remember that image and recreate it imperfectly in your dreams and imagination.

Hegel instructs us that “if consciousness, self-consciousness, reason and spirit belong to self-knowing spirit in general, in a similar way the specific shapes, which self- knowing spirit assumes, appropriate and adopt the distinctive forms which were specially developed in the case of each of the stages – consciousness, self-consciousness, reason, and spirit. The determinate shape assumed… appropriates from among them [the characteristics of the religion of its origin].”(401) It could be that the physical location of these concepts are impressions and interpretations of chemical reactions occurring in the brainstem. Our experiences can change our connectomes. Neural activity is the stream of our consciousness. “Consciousness is the brain’s non-conceptual theory about itself, gained through experience – that is learning, interacting with itself, the world, and with other people”, according to Axel Cleeremans, a cognitive psychologist from Belgium. Cleeremans redefines our idea of consciousness, saying it is not a property, but something that the brain learns to do.

The artist should know the Dhamma, his/her own personality, the personality or mood to convey onto the art, so that there is, as Hegel puts it, the “coordination of universal directions.”(402)  We should be able to discern the intention of the author and the direction of the art we are experiencing.

According to Mao, art should be for assisting the people to overcome some strife. Art should inspire,   There should not be art for the sake of art, art should be for the people. Dhamma is for the people – it is for anyone willing to practice. Hegel asserts: “Spirit knowing spirit is consciousness itself; and is to itself in the form of objectivity. It is; and is at the same time self-existence.”(404)

Cleeremans just opined above: consciousness is what our brains learn to do, so it is something that could become habitual or predictive. If we know our minds are able to predict responses, we could try to train our minds to respond differently to create new responses. Meditation allows for this training. The time taken to create art could be the meditation-effort of the artist. There is some Dhamma that some practitioners are unwilling to practice – what is left to perform is the intentional-motivation towards the outcome of the project. What is depicted is an aspect of the art from the biased and conditioned mind. The artist could have used the wrong mindset.

Likewise, from conditioning, according to Hegel: “the form or shape of religion does not contain the existence of spirit in the sense of its being thought detached and free from thought, nor in the sense of its being thought detached from existence. The shape assumed by religion is existence contained and preserved in thought as well as something thought which is consciously existent.”(404) It’s maintained that religion is designed for social-control, and in the sense of Buddhism, it’s advocated that Buddhism is socio-psychological behavioral therapy. Hegel says again: “…the artificer, and its action… producing itself…”(409)

The artist, paints, a piece of himself, that is, “…the work accomplished is not yet in itself endued with spirit.”(409) This means that the art doesn’t have the full implementation of the dhamma within it. There is something wrong will all of the images we have. Unlike the perfect doctrine, no art is perfected, none of it is perfect. Translators, as skilled artists working in the realm of language and words, cannot even produce one standard Pali Tipitaka – there are variances across the different national traditions. Consider the burden of the translator, in the following context:

This is Hegel, again telling us: “…these are the works produced by this artificer, the worker of the strict form. …purely abstract intelligible nature of the form, the work is not itself its own true significance; it is not the spiritual self. …works produced only receive spirit into them as an alien, departed spirit, one that has forsaken its living suffusion and permeation with reality, and being itself dead, enters into these lifeless crystals… – throws significance on them.”(409)

The Tipitaka is not the Buddha, the Dhamma is not the Buddha – it was only what he revealed – it is only part of his mind and what he learned, thought and later taught. Spirit or the intention of the author is only later given as the attributes suggested, perhaps when questioned in an interview: “What is the meaning of your art?”, by a journalist. The art cannot express itself, and the artist himself is limited by his ability to use language. Here at least, the art has decayed fourfold since the Buddha’s time, fivefold if we include our personal limitations, sixfold if we teach others:

  • One: decay through only what is preserved in the Tipitaka
  • Two: decay through what is only interpreted from the passages read and chosen
  • Three: decay through the limitations of the art via the capacity of the materials used
  • Four: decay through the descriptions provided by the artist
  • Five: decay through our ignorance of art and level of dhamma-comprehension
  • Six: decay through our ineffective dissemination of ideas to others

Some religious teachings prohibit the illustration of animated life, such as people, and only suggest geometric-formulations, but somehow, even leaf-like formations have appeared. Art similar to fractals began to be something of an approved format. Hegel opines: “The artificer employs plant life for this purpose, which is no longer sacred… the artificer… takes that plant life as something to be used and degrades it… to the level of an ornament.”(410)

Above, shown already, is the sixfold form of decay that this paper revealed and propagates. The borders of images are often framed with plant, lined or spiral designs on panel-presentations.  Trees are often used to frame an action occurring in the forest.

Dr. Dion Peoples is a lecturer in the Faculty of Buddhism at Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University, Thailand.

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