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Beauty as a Gateway to Wisdom

by Srivati

Beauty as a Gateway to Wisdom

by Srivati

Audio available at: http://www.freebuddhistaudio.com/talks/details?num=OM445

Talk given at Taraloka Retreat Centre, Great Gathering 2000

‘Sometimes when we are approaching Truth, you have to let go of things.’

This morning after breakfast I had a crisis. And I have let go of the talk that I had written,
before I came here. Because it didn’t fit! And it didn’t feel right. And because of what Parami
said, things are in a state of flux for me at the moment and I felt I had written a talk that I
would have given last year. But I am not the same person I was last year. So…I am going to
begin with a poem:

What I Wrote

What I am looking for is as elusive
as the word for the taste of kiwi fruit.
What I do or say will start a ripple,
I drown in the responsibility for waves.

The older I get, the more scars I have.
Every line tells a story.

I brush my hair, but my mind remains tangled.
While my back was turned, the lilies opened.

I’ve chosen that to begin, because it sort of sums up that state of paradox that connects with
our talk from last night. That is where I find myself at the minute. I am not quite sure who I
am. I am not quite sure what I think about whether the arts can be a way of moving towards
wisdom. I don’t know what I think. I don’t know if I am going to be able to give a talk that
covers everything I want to say to you. I don’t know whether I am going to be happy at the
end of this talk that I have communicated something of what is very important to me. So I am
taking a risk here, and I am just going to launch myself, based on the few scribbles I have in
front of me.

So Kulaprabha last night said to us: “Could we think of an image perhaps for the paradox that
is perhaps at the centre of our lives”. And what came to my mind was a Turner painting. I
don’t remember the name of it. But I remember going to see it in the old Tate Gallery. It’s a
storm. I think it is a ship at sea in a storm. You might know it. It’s…I think it is a fairly square
painting. It’s like a swirling vortex of colour. It is sort of, like a hurricane almost. But at the
heart of it it’s very still. And I feel that sums up the conundrum I find myself with ongoingly
which is being torn between my restlessness, my desire to engage with people, my love of
activity and my hunger for reflection, stillness and a deeper relationship with myself. And that
painting seems to just have it all. And yet I get lost. I end up off around the edges when I am
looking to move towards the middle. So in a way, the reason why I feel rather topsy-turvy at
the minute, to a large extent I can blame the arts for that. It’s the arts fault. If I hadn’t engaged
more wholeheartedly with my appreciation of them and my practise of the arts I would not be
standing here, feeling the way I do right now. Because of that I don’t know quite what to
think anymore. And my big question I want to know the answer to is: can the practise of the
arts take me all the way to wisdom? I think it can. I think particularly if you are a maker and
you engage with it wholeheartedly, put yourself on the line, in the same way we do with our
spiritual practice, I think it can. But I think even if we engage with it say in the realm of
appreciation I think it can support our spiritual practice. I think it can take us in the right

But there are other questions connected with it: is there a direct or an indirect method? And
am I up to it? I have made a promise to myself that I am going to prioritise writing in my life.
I have changed a lot of conditions in my life, so that I can. I now I have got nobody else to
blame if I don’t do it, but me. As like only I am getting in my way right now. And that is part
of the challenge I find myself faced with at the minute.

So I’d like to say to you that I am in recovery. I am a member of A.A.A. -
The Arts Administrator Anonymous society. Whereby I have been somebody who has taken
great delight in helping facilitate other people’s creativity. I am now trying to set up
conditions for my own, and I don’t know, as I say, if I am up to it.

And what I want to commit myself to is the arts as a practice. Not a hobby. Not just
entertainment, although there is an awful lot of enjoyment that I am also looking for. But
actually as a practice, as something that can change me, because the arts have already changed
me. And I want to see how far I can go with it, and I don’t know, as I keep saying. I don’t
know, that’s it, maybe that’s all I should say.

I don’t know. (laughs)

So…I am reading some Rumi poetry at the moment. And I came across these lines a couple of
days ago. ‘Beauty surrounds us, but usually we need to be walking in a garden to know it.’
Now, for me I think the arts are part of my garden. I love nature and gardens, but I also feel
that with the arts I am learning about beauty. And you can only learn about beauty from
beauty. That is something that Kathleen Raine once said. But what is beauty? It is not a very
popular concept, that’s for a start, not in the world of the arts currently I don’t think. I think
that what beauty is, a marriage between pleasure and meaning. If you try to think of an
experience of beauty that you’ve had, in whatever way, in friendship, in nature, through the
arts, there is usually something emotionally positive happens. You like, you enjoy what you
see, It moves you positively. But it is also somehow a sense of your understanding being
stretched as well. And, I want beauty in my life. In fact, I want to be seduced by beauty. I am
hoping that through my engagement with the arts I am going to render myself more and more
receptive to truth. And I am willing to be quite promiscuous for this to happen. I am willing to
experiment with different forms of art and my own practise with the art to help that happen.

So sometimes the arts just give us an experience. We don’t go looking for it. But we listen to
a piece of music, I have had that experience, I have listened to a piece of music, or going to a
play or seeing a film, and it hits me with this experience of beauty, or something in that
direction. But its also via going looking, going seeking, that experience of beauty. And it is
not always in its obvious places. I think, for myself, there is a whole range where I might find
that. And it ranges from what you might call ‘high art’ – so for example, before I ever saw a
Rothko painting, I’d only seen reproductions on a postcard. And I didn’t like them. The
looked boring and dull. Until again I went to the Tate Gallery, and went in to that room they
used to have there that was just all Rothko paintings. And I found myself sitting down, and
stopping. Because it was like walking into a cathedral. And it had a very strong effect on me
that I hadn’t anticipated at all. It was very beautiful. Very unexpected. And then, there are the
Terminator films. I didn’t go to see the Terminator films, you know Arnold Schwarzenegger
and all that, when they came out because I thought that was not my kind of a film. And then
my good friend Abhayasuri introduced me to the Terminator films. And I am so glad she did,
along with the Alien films, which I also like. (Audience laughs) Because although there is a
lot of violence in those films, there is something archetypal going on in the stories that really
engages me and I want to dwell more in an archetypal realm. I want to have access to what
lies beyond the mundane, so I find my self enjoying, of all people, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Who would have thought it?

I want to be more receptive. I want to be more open, and my experience has been the arts has
helped that change.

Most of all at the moment though, what I am looking for is to be able to dwell in the present
moment. I am increasingly aware of how much I am looking backwards or looking ahead. I
am too much in the past or I am too much in the future. And again the arts, the appreciation of
the arts and attempting to write poetry has helped me be more here, more now. And I am
thinking back to when I was in Montana last summer. I did a solitary retreat there, and it was
a very beautiful experience. It’s a beautiful place for you who haven’t been there and I would
recommend it as a solitary retreat venue, by the Blackfoot River.

I had three weeks experience of contentment and I think it was because I had reached a point
in my life where I was able to really sit still. And so I am going to take another risk and read
you another poem, which is called ‘Montana Flowers’, from that retreat.

Restless at my desk
and seeking the quiet moment,
I want the red tulips to open,
as if to crawl inside would give me rest.

But this is not tulip country. ...

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