Toward a Buddhist Aesthetic

Lindesfarne Guest House, Green Gulch FarmLindisfarne Guest House, Green Gulch Farm (Photo: Travis Stansel)

“In entering the eightfold path, self-centeredness is the first thing to fall away, which brings us into wisdom, which brings us into a greater empathetic relationship with others, and also, I think, opens up a new aesthetic…. the world ceases to be flat, opaque and not terribly interesting; boring. And that begins to wear away once we begin to realize how rare and how temporary our life on this earth is. It opens up the world, and begins to give us a whole new perspective on life, one that is not driven by satisfying our selfish and egocentric concerns but one that is concerned with responding to life at a much greater depth.”

Stephen Batchelor at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, Nov. 1, 2009

What exactly would a Buddhist aesthetic look like? As Batchelor says above, it would be driven by forces other than greed, hatred or fear. This new aesthetic would consider and be designed with the needs and concerns of others in mind. It would need not be “Asian” or “Japanese” or “Zen-looking” or necessarily contain any specific cultural signifiers, but would instead be responsive to the world around it. The greed that drives strip malls and sprawl would fall away under the weight of awareness of the harm done to the planet.

There is a Zen parable in which a student asks an elderly teacher what the essential teaching of Zen is. The answer is not nirvana, emptiness, or even the Four Noble Truths. The reply is simple: “an appropriate response.”  It is the right response to the questions, concerns and problems of the world around us. It takes into consideration and tries to mitigate the suffering of others, however seemingly distant they feel to us.

For those who say that aesthetics are empty and not of concern on a path toward enlightenment, I say, yes, aesthetics are empty. But so is emptiness itself. To not care about such things is to be attached to that emptiness. It’s to give up the responsibility of making and creating our world, the only one we know, to others who may be driven by lesser impulses.

The new aesthetic must not be “driven by satisfying our selfish and egocentric concerns” but instead be “concerned with responding to life at a much greater depth.” In other words, it is an appropriate response, a response that looks at a product, a building, a place, as part of a larger whole rather than a permanent, differentiated, individual thing unto itself.

Photo: Lindesfarne Guest House, Green Gulch Farm, Muir Beach, CA. Photo by the author, 2008.

12 Responses to “Toward a Buddhist Aesthetic”
  1. This is an excellent post. Thank you. I like to learn as much as I can about Buddhism. I found this very interesting…the appropriate response. Yes, it does come down to that, absolutely.

  2. Enjoyed this – thank you!

  3. J. Quigley says:

    Reblogged this on Yin Yang and commented:
    Great thoughts on what a ‘Buddhist aesthetic would look like in relation to the eightfold path. Thoughts for the day.
    -j. quigley

  4. Great post. Thank you for sharing. Nice pictures too!

  5. Thank you for reposting!

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