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Dec 27
Arts and Poetry
The Impulse to Reach Out

A songwriter’s memoir reveals connections between Dharma Art and the creative work of a punk/rock musician

by Michelle Welch

I love finding Buddhist themes in unexpected places, most often in books that are otherwise unrelated to Buddhism. Recently I read The Art of Asking, a memoir by rock/punk singer and songwriter Amanda Palmer, which describes not just her life and career in music but also her artistic aesthetic. It’s in part an expansion on a TED Talk she gave (which I recommend if you want a 15-minute overview of the book), and it sums up the artistic impulse like this: artists want to reach out, to make connections with people, to be seen and let people know they see them, too.

Palmer admits in her memoir that she has, in fact, studied Buddhism, and some of her remarks make this apparent. At a yoga retreat she took part in an exercise where pairs of people simply looked at each other. “The thread echoed again and again: many people had never felt so seen by another person. Seen without walls, without judgment… just seen, acknowledged, accepted.” This desire for connection informs all art, according to Palmer: “The whole point of being an artist, I thought, was to be connected to people…. I knew the way to keep the fans happy was by staying present.” Not only is art about being present – a very Buddhist suggestion – it’s about accepting everything: “This is what art does. Good or bad, it imagines the insides, the heart of the other, whether that heart is full of light or trapped in darkness.” Everything is included.

I’m reminded of a dharma talk I heard that made reference to Chögyam Trungpa and his describing art as bodhisattva action. Dharma art is anything that brings people in touch with their humanity, this talk suggested, and nothing is more human than the desire for connection. Finding another artist who regards art in the same way is wonderful and inspiring to me.

 Editor’s note: this post previously appeared on the Phoenix Shambhala Center website
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1 response to “ The Impulse to Reach Out ”
  1. Michelle,

    You equate boddhisattva activity here with art, with “getting in touch with one’s humanity” and finally with social connection. That’s a very wide-ranging definition.

    I don’t read the same meaning in the Dharma Art talk by CTR. He says art “should be geared toward waking people up from their neurosis”. He also questions calling oneself an artist, as art is a meditative discipline irrespective of the activity one is engaged in. Desiring to see and be seen, on the other hand, is the mark of ego. Perhaps that seems harsh, but isn’t Dharma Art, by definition, non-ego?

    I think of ikebana as a good case in point. It’s an art form that immediately expresses one’s mind and leaves no enduring “piece of art” residue. One bows before placing an item and in so doing endeavors to drop motive. It’s specifically not-self expression. As such, it can serve to wake up the viewer to nowness — non-conceptual and klesha-free.

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