Creativity, Imagination, and Awakening to One Another, April 2024

April 2024

Creativity is a way of letting in the whole world.

Soon we’ll open our May Zen Circle where we’ll enjoy the works of Eihei Dogen and Bob Dylan side by side. It’ll be great fun and I hope you’ll join us. We have a strong arts practice at Bread Loaf Mountain, especially at Gather. Each week many of us sit at the crafts tables to express to each other our hopes, sorrows, and life stories in painting, sculpting, beadwork and more. On Saturday mornings for over a year now we get together for our “creativity jam,” where we sing and make music, laugh and cry together. It’s our way of continuing an important Zen method of awakening – creative practice.

In Zen practice, creativity and imagination are held up as ways to experience the oneness of life. For a long time, meditation, calligraphy, flower arranging, and the Zen arts, have been used to move beyond conventional ways of seeing and thinking, allowing the mind to flow freely without self consciousness and clinging. The act of being creative fosters a connection with life in this moment, with the wonders of the human mind, and the beauty of the world around us. Creativity reveals the inherent beauty and wisdom of life’s impermanence. Creative practice in Zen is not merely an aesthetic pursuit or working on the perfection of skills. Rather, it’s a path to experiencing the world in its truest form, encouraging a life lived with intention, attention, awareness, and an open heart. It can be fun and filled with a lot of joy.

It seems like Zen is often setting up creative ways for us to look at the space in between things. It is full of contradictions and paradoxes. For example, on the one hand, Dogen writes, “When you sit zazen…stop considering things with your imagination, memory or reflection.” He tells us that there is nowhere to go, nothing to do, nothing to attain.

But elsewhere he uses his own rich imagination to inspire all of us to imagine what attainment is like:

When a person attains realization, it is like the moon reflecting on the water. The moon never becomes wet, the water is never destroyed. Although it is a vast and great light, it reflects itself on a small amount of water. The whole moon and even the whole sky reflect on even a drop of dew on a blade of grass or a single tiny drop of water. Enlightenment does not destroy the person as the moon does not make a hole in the water. The person does not obstruct realization as a drop of dew does not obstruct the moon in the sky.

When we try to say something about the experience of having a life, the best we can do is to paint a vague image akin to an impressionistic watercolor where the brush touches wet paper and one thing bleeds into another. Having life, experiencing life in a moment is elusive and mysterious and bigger than any words can describe. Dogen was a wonderful poet, a true painter with words who created beautifully evocative attempts to make sense of the Great Mystery:

what is this world like?
as a waterfowl shakes its bill
on each drop of dew
the moon is reflected.

Zen is filled with great imagination and great art. We use beauty as a way to awaken the wandering spirit, the wondering heart. We step deeper into the center of the circle of wonder where nothing is out of place anywhere.

Great art and great Dharma give rise to something that has never quite been imagined before. While we are instructed to let go of “considering things with the imagination,” both meditators and artists alike aspire toward a novel act of creation. The mere acts of sitting steadfast like a mountain or a Buddha, or embodying peace in the world, are exercises of spiritual and moral imagination.

Images, words, songs, and movements help us embody our natural creativity, resourcefulness, and wholeness, as well as the lives of peacemaking we are capable of actualizing. In art we build a culture of appreciation and care. We also honor the imagination not by confining it to the static or unchanging but by allowing it to flourish and come to life.

Much like great art, great Dharma — the teachings as they arise within us all — often originates from dissatisfaction, unrest, and even agony. Artists remind us that acknowledging the reality of suffering, instead of avoiding or overlooking it, is frequently what initiates our journey toward beauty. I think of this poignant verse of Basho:

Departing spring.
Birds crying.
Tears in the eye of fish.

The human imagination is a powerful force, and every person – not just Dylan and Dogen – have the gifts of imagination and creativity. Imagination enriches spirituality, and it motivates us to practice beautifully under all conditions of body, heart, mind, and world.

Today, we often relinquish our imaginative power to social media memes, TikTok videos, and websites. These are the creations of others, aiming to shape our thoughts and imaginations to align with theirs. While some of this influence is accepted, very little remains authentically our own. Our May Zen Circle offers an opportunity to reclaim and liberate our spiritual imaginations through meditation, study, creativity, and service. It’s a chance to give voice to something uniquely ours, something born from our personal life experiences and our naturally endowed wellspring of creativity.

Samuel Coolidge, a biracial poet from the 18 th century, said, “Creative imagination is the threshold between self and not-self.” Within this boundary of non-separation, where art is enlivened, there lies the potential for deep human and earth connection. It’s here, in the creative threshold, that Dylan and Dogen converge. It’s the space of the meeting of a Buddha and a Buddha. You, me, and all beings can meet here too.

I hope you’ll join us for this month of imaginative beauty and creativity.

Recent Posts