Thursday, July 14, 2011

Art, Religion and New Life


Pop-pop Doug arrived one step closer yesterday. Thanks to modern technology, my daughter Kerala now knows that there is a girl inside her and she’s starting to kick. Just imagining both sends a thrill up my spine—new life is in the making. Creation is always a miracle to behold and sends us back to the profound mystery of it all. We wake up each morning taking for granted that the sun has risen, the earth has spun and the birds are singing in yet another day and sometimes we need a big drama like this to remind us just how extraordinary it all is.

Certainly one of the most stunning moments of my life was helping bring Kerala into this world almost 31 years ago. She was born at home in the midst of a San Francisco heat wave over a slow two-day labor with midwives, my sister and a fellow teacher at school attending. When she finally emerged, I cut the cord and took her in my trembling hands, so astonished that this lump in the belly was now a living, breathing being. While the midwives attended to my wife, I took her in the other room and whispered an old Buddhist saying in her ear: “In this body, there is birth and death and liberation from birth and death. Be a light unto yourself.” And sure enough, she has been.

The second birth with daughter Talia was no less remarkable, even though four years later already a bit familiar. I imagine that had I had 12 children, I might have been a bit jaded by the 12th. And this is the deal with the way we’re constructed. As things become familiar, they lose a bit of their magic and glow and we’re vulnerable to them crusting over to mere habit. It is why adults are so much less interesting than children, those little folks for whom everything is still fresh and new, who walk through the world with their sense of wonder intact.

Why do we need a God or gods to justify that the world exists and that creation is at the heart of every day? Wouldn’t it be better to become gods ourselves by co-participating in the act of creation? Besides saving us from the rampage of hatred, small-mindedness, fanatacism, fundamentalism that so many religions have spawned, we would have no place to hide, no figure to do be enlightened for us or die for our sins. We would have to step up and claim our own capacity to create and thus, truly be one of God’s children.

And so enter art. We are most ourselves, most engaged, most happy, when we are creating something. Whether it be improvising jazz, working on a watercolor, writing a poem or shaping a dance routine, creation is what we were made for. And of course that includes cooking a good meal, making a home, inventing a gadget, imagining a new idea.

I suppose art is my religion because it has all the benefits of praise, prayer, worship and the sense of belonging without any of the dogma. It is why the time with those 17 children here in Salzburg was so unforgettable. We probably would have had fun just walking the streets in any case, but to have birthed and brought up the music that we created and shared it with the world brought the whole enterprise to another level.

Last night, Sofia and I led 150 people from 32 countries through children’s games from around the world re-imagined through our way of presenting them and extending them, further creating something from children’s creations. Once again, the laughter, connection and musical power in that room could have solved the energy crisis for at least a week. A parent thanking me for the recent trip asked, “How do you have so much energy?” and all I can think to answer is that devoting myself to the perpetual act of creation is the source that feeds me like an underground spring.

Zen Buddhism takes this a step further and though there is a history of Zen monks doing brush painting or writing haiku, art is sometimes viewed as a cheap imitation or distraction. The most profound act of creation is to sit in zazen meditation and die to your small self, to arise from the cushion and feel the whole world re-born in each breath. Indeed, in the seven-day meditation retreats I used to do, I often felt that sense of wonder restored and my awe for the simplest things—a light breeze passing through the trees, the shimmer of the gravel path, the chipmunk leaping on the rocks—bring the world wholly alive.

So no matter how big or small your personal act of creation is, claim it! Meanwhile, somewhere far away, my little granddaughter is growing and I can only gasp in astonishment that this can be. 

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