The Mark of Non-Creating
An excerpt from The Power of an Open Question
The first practice instruction Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche ever gave to me was: “Don’t create.” He told me, “Leave your mind in its natural state—don’t do anything. When thoughts and sensations arise, just let them arise. When they fall away, just let them fall away. Don’t try to manipulate them.” Then he went to Tibet for six months.
My teacher’s instructions—“Don’t create”—presented me with a koan of sorts: what would happen if, instead of constantly trying to manipulate, embellish, or suppress our experience, we actually let ourselves bear witness to the creativity that arises naturally in our experience? If we just let things be, rather than trying to manipulate, embellish, or suppress them, what’s our role in the creation of our lives?
In the family I grew up in, “creative” people were always considered the most interesting. Art, music, and literature were highly valued expressions of a society. Creativity was a good thing. So “not creating”, challenged my newly emerging understanding of what practice might be...and I had to rethink creativity in general. Creative people often talk about “the muse”. Who is she, anyway? I’m pretty sure she’s not the voice that comes in and says, “’i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’.” I don’t think she tells us what to do, and I’m not even sure she inspires us. I’m beginning to think that genuine creativity emerges when we take a step back and stop creating—stop doing, I think the muse is unhindered expression of the nature itself.
Kongtrul Rinpoche has studied painting with his teacher Yahne Le Toumelin—an artist who paints in a way that is freeing, non-conceptual, and expressive. Her method requires the painter to move with and watch the expression of texture and color unfolding on the canvas without passing judgments such as “beautiful” or “ugly”, “good” or “bad”. The discipline of this approach becomes simply to stop creating and let things be.
If the painter clings to his or her preferences, Le Toumelin encourages the artist to continue working until he or she can allow natural creativity to come through. When this happens, the painter reaches what Rinpoche calls “the mark of non-creating”—a state of natural creativity where the artist has stepped out of his or her own way. When all the fixations are exhausted, the painter puts down the brush without trying to improve upon or manipulate the final result. The process I watch Rinpoche go through yields paintings that embody an uncontrived naturalness. And that naturalness speaks to everyone who observes his work.
We have probably all heard stories of great writers and artists whose work represents the creativity that emerges when we don’t succumb to the ordinary concepts of how things should be. Picasso used to blot out whole paintings when he became attached to images. In writing, when we cling to a word, phrase, or paragraph it inhibits the flow of surprises we enjoy and learn so much from. Writing often works best when we write about what we don’t know, rather than what we think we do.
Where does this flow of surprises come from? As Rinpoche says, “We often think of creativity as belonging to the artist. But in a larger sense” he says, “the universe of appearances and possibilities arises naturally without our creating anything. It is not the product of hammer and nail. The mountains, the trees, the sun, and the moon have arisen without our involvement. Everything we have been and everything we have known since we stepped into this world arises from this natural boundary-less creativity.” Dzigar Kongtrul, Natural Vitality. (Crestone, Colo: Sarasvati Publishing, 2007).
How we unlock natural creativity in our experience is not limited to art. It points to a way of being. It points to the spirit of not knowing, to the koan, to our ability to bear witness to the fathomless nature of things, to the mind of an open question. This way of being gives us the freedom to experience and engage mind and its world in the most direct and lively way.
Not creating takes some trust—the kind of trust the Buddha had when he gave up all views (such as good and bad, right and wrong, eternalism and nihilism) and sat beneath the Bodhi Tree. And from this viewless open space, the Buddha came to understand the nature of things, which enabled him to articulate the path of wisdom—the pilgrimage that leads us from misunderstanding towards enlightenment. Now this is not something some ordinary Joe could just patch together. It is truly an expression of uncontrived brilliance
Creativity comes in many forms and I feel fortunate to have been surrounded by some exceptionally creative individuals. In addition to images above, here are a few examples of sparkling, outrageous, unbound creativity in other media.
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Chimé Mattis has been studying and playing music since he was a child. He received his B.F.A. at CalArts in World Music and did post graduate studies in composition at the Federal University of Bahia, Brazil. He lived in Latin America for 20 years and was further exposed and influenced by a number of the musical traditions there. In 2003 he released his first solo CD “Map Home”. The most recent body of songs were written, arranged, performed and recorded by Chimé in a small off-the-grid cabin high in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of Southern Colorado where he is on a long term retreat. He particularly owes this recent musical output to his spiritual retreat and practice which has taught him how to begin to get out of his own way and relate to his music and life with a boldness and openness that was previously unknown to him.
The times are darker
Than ever before
There are 14 locks and bolts
On every door
We thought we had it bad
Never knew the good we had
Between the light and the dark
Greed and a good heart
And you’re out with golden arms tonight, Marie
I’ve lost my mobility
The water’s rising
It’s well above my knees
But before you come around
There’s another part of town
With millions of others who are in so deep
That they can hardly breath
You’re out with golden arms tonight
You’re out with golden arms tonight
Owsley Brown - documentary filmmaker, whose sensitive films tell stories of original contemporary media works with an emphasis on artistic integrity and creative exploration. His powerful new film Serenade for Haiti is a story of transcendence and great humanity as the children and faculty of the Sainte Trinité Music School turn to music to unlock the power of their own lives. The soundtrack features the stunning music of Haiti's great composers who until this time have been largely unknown to international audiences. Watch trailer
Teddy Abrams, the youngest Music Director of a major American orchestra is also a clarinetist, jazz performer, composer and pianist. Meet Teddy in in this online video series - Music Makes the City Now
And for something extra special take a look at the collaboration of the two gentlemen mentioned above, Teddy Abrams and Owsley Brown for a truly unique project: Symphony for Nature
Dungse Jampal Norbu is a passionate alchemist and brewer. The process of brewing and fermenting fascinates me because I love to bring various causes and conditions together and watch them transform. It’s an open and playful process...not random yet full of discovery.
Anam Thubten, is a Buddhist teacher and poet.In his poetry, Anam Thubten explores the "magical impermanence" that is everyday life. There is a tradition in Tibetan Buddhism of Doha or Songs of Realization that express non-conceptual themes like the great emptiness, the unconditioned, boundless love, ecstatic devotion. People sang them to open their own and other's hearts as a way to experience the bitter as well as the sweet flavor of the ordinary and extraordinary truth of human life.
They flew by like flashcards flipping.
My friend asked me to write an autobiography.
I took him seriously.
When I picked up the pen
And began writing the first page
There was a long silence that lasted for three days.
Finally, three words came out:
My cat told me she had the same problems writing her own autobiography.
Is this what the Buddhists call emptiness?
I am not a hero who saves the world.
I am not a merchant who amasses an abundance of wealth.
I would never be a powerful man who builds a great monument.
This morning I moved a slug from the road so she can live another day.
No one noticed it
A simple act that washed my heart with waves of joy.
This afternoon I picked up a glass of wine
While listening to my neighbor’s floppy-haired teenager playing the saxophone,
Hoping to become
A famous jazz man.
I’m just like the apple tree in my backyard…
Yet there is simplicity, beauty and mystery within.
It draws millions of gazes from everywhere.
The sun comes everyday to look at it
The sea of stars comes every night
To peek at it.