Aesthetics and Buddhism

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Aesthetics and Buddhism

Postby Vidyaraja » Mon Feb 25, 2013 9:19 pm

What is the role of aesthetics and beauty in Buddhism? Does it have a role or is beauty simply part of samsara, something to be detached from and done away with? It seems to me that Buddhism hasn't been totally antagonistic to aesthetics; the mantras and chants used in various Buddhist liturgies obviously possess the element of beauty, in Tibetan Buddhism the thangka tradition is one of the world's great traditions of sacred art, the Zen tradition profoundly influenced Japanese aesthetics with its concepts of wabi-sabi, and as I mentioned in my thread regarding the monastic precepts and music, the Chinese tradition of guqin was used by both Daoists and Buddhists as a means of spiritual cultivation.

Though I wonder, what is the source and importance of beauty in Buddhism? For example, in many other sacred traditions beauty is supposed to have its source in the divine and be a reflection of the qualities of the divine, hence it being beautiful. These other sacred traditions therefore see beauty as a means of leading the spiritual aspirant toward the divine--we can see this most strikingly in say the Gothic Cathedrals and Gregorian chants of medieval Christendom or in Islamic notions of beauty reflected in the wonderful pieces of architecture such as the Taj Mahal or the striking interiors of the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque in Iran.

Buddhism though uniquely denies any sort of permanent divinity (as far as I can understand it) so what is the source and significance of beauty within Buddhism, and can it play any role for Buddhists in leading them to their spiritual goals?
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Re: Aesthetics and Buddhism

Postby Johnny Dangerous » Mon Feb 25, 2013 10:38 pm

I've seen it said that Buddhist art is Nirmanakaya manifestation...

As some say the doorway to nirvana is found in samsara.
"Just as a lotus does not grow out of a well-levelled soil but from the mire, in the same way the awakening mind
is not born in the hearts of disciples in whom the moisture of attachment has dried up. It grows instead in the hearts of ordinary sentient beings who possess in full the fetters of bondage." -Se Chilbu Choki Gyaltsen
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Re: Aesthetics and Buddhism

Postby Jesse » Tue Feb 26, 2013 1:11 am

Does it have a role or is beauty simply part of samsara, something to be detached from and done away with


You can appreciate beauty without clinging.
"We know nothing at all. All our knowledge is but the knowledge of schoolchildren. The real nature of things we shall never know." - Albert Einstein
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Re: Aesthetics and Buddhism

Postby Asoka1944 » Tue Feb 26, 2013 1:16 pm

It's a beautiful question as it causes me to ask where my own sense of beauty comes from. Yesterday I took part in a literary discussion, ostensibly having nothing to do with the Dharma whatsoever, attended by a Chinese woman with whom I discussed being Buddhist. I am, she isn't, albeit she grew up in a Buddhist world. The two reasons she gave for giving Buddhism up were 1) on the one side of the red door, monks eat meat and live in splendor while on the other side common people beg and starve; and 2) she finds the red, yellow, and gold garish and unbeautiful. On the latter, I cannot disagree. Where did this antipathy toward bright red, yellow, and gold come from? Culture bound, I am. Although I practice among those warm colors, I prefer black, white, and deep maroon. So, where does that come from?

I want to say that there is the good juxtaposed to bad, and there is the beautiful juxtaposed to ugly. This, I guess, is the world of duality, samsara, Then, there is the good and the beautiful without an opposite number. That, for want of a better word, let us say, is emptiness (sunyata). All this was better said by the last poster whose comment regarding enjoying beauty without clinging to it is all the point we need.

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Re: Aesthetics and Buddhism

Postby PadmaVonSamba » Tue Feb 26, 2013 2:28 pm

Vidyaraja wrote:the mantras and chants used in various Buddhist liturgies obviously possess the element of beauty

Beauty isn't really an object. It is something we impute on objects. Some people might find Buddhist chanting terribly irritating, Buddhist art grotesque and disturbing.

My understanding is that the 'beauty" of buddhist art, of any art (music, poetry, etc.) really, is achieved when the one producing it lets go of any notion of being the one who creates it. At that point, the creator or a painting or the singer of a liturgy, dancer of a dance, or whatever it is, becomes one with what is painted or sung, or danced, and thus, the work is not just a representation, but an actual manifestation of that egolessness.
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Re: Aesthetics and Buddhism

Postby Vidyaraja » Tue Feb 26, 2013 7:41 pm

PadmaVonSamba wrote: Some people might find Buddhist chanting terribly irritating, Buddhist art grotesque and disturbing.


While that may be true, I don't believe in artistic relativism personally. For example, it seems to me that if a number of people actually believed a Lil' Wayne piece was more beautiful than say a Bach piece or a Gregorian chant or a Chinese guqin piece it wouldn't make it true under the (false imo) notion that beauty is relative. In such a case I'd say they simply have a deficiency or incapability of understanding beauty, because a Bach piece is objectively more beautiful than something by Lil' Wayne or that video that went viral on youtube, Rebecca Black's "Friday" no matter which way you slice it. In the same way the Taj Mahal or a Gothic Cathedral is objectively more beautiful than Soviet apartment architecture.

That doesn't mean taste and different opinions can't exist, but there is a certain limit to how far a subjective opinion can go imo.
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Re: Aesthetics and Buddhism

Postby Johnny Dangerous » Tue Feb 26, 2013 7:45 pm

I dunno, I watched "Friday" obsessively, best part was the non-sequitur rap in the middle of the song.

Sometimes something is so bad it's transcendent in it's way.

Not being facetious either, art only exists in relation to other art, which exists only in relation to it's pieces, and so on.

In music there is an incredible range of what's considered aesthetically pleasing, as an example since you mention classical music, the tonality and composition of Beethoven, Bach, Mozart and others would have been considered abhorrent and musically repugnant a few hundred years prior in Europe. In fact equal tempered tuning itself and everything derived from it still sounds gross to plenty of people who grew up around a whole different idea of tonality I imagine.
"Just as a lotus does not grow out of a well-levelled soil but from the mire, in the same way the awakening mind
is not born in the hearts of disciples in whom the moisture of attachment has dried up. It grows instead in the hearts of ordinary sentient beings who possess in full the fetters of bondage." -Se Chilbu Choki Gyaltsen
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Re: Aesthetics and Buddhism

Postby PadmaVonSamba » Thu Feb 28, 2013 2:12 pm

Vidyaraja wrote:
PadmaVonSamba wrote: Some people might find Buddhist chanting terribly irritating, Buddhist art grotesque and disturbing.


While that may be true, I don't believe in artistic relativism personally. For example, it seems to me that if a number of people actually believed a Lil' Wayne piece was more beautiful than say a Bach piece or a Gregorian chant or a Chinese guqin piece it wouldn't make it true under the (false imo) notion that beauty is relative. In such a case I'd say they simply have a deficiency or incapability of understanding beauty, because a Bach piece is objectively more beautiful than something by Lil' Wayne or that video that went viral on youtube, Rebecca Black's "Friday" no matter which way you slice it. In the same way the Taj Mahal or a Gothic Cathedral is objectively more beautiful than Soviet apartment architecture.

That doesn't mean taste and different opinions can't exist, but there is a certain limit to how far a subjective opinion can go imo.


You have to establish a basis for that sort of objectivity.
Now, there was a study done recently, in which various major and minor (musical) chords were played for a group of indigenous people in whose culture such chords did not exist as part of their music. They were asked to pick out which were the "happy" sounding and which were the "sad" sounding chords, and as it turned out, just as is traditionally experienced in Western music, the major chords sounded "happy" and the minor chords sounded "sad". So, there may be some degree of objectivity that can be established. But perhaps not all over the place.
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The Chinese characters are Fo (buddha) and Ming (bright). The image is of a student of Buddhism, who, imagining himself to be a monk, and not understanding the true meaning of the words takes the sound of the words literally. Likewise, People on web forums sometime seem to be foaming at the mouth.
Original painting by P.Volker /used by permission.
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Re: Aesthetics and Buddhism

Postby KeithBC » Thu Feb 28, 2013 5:54 pm

"Beauty" is an artificial construct. There are only "like" and "dislike". If you can like without attachment and dislike without aversion, that is cool.

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Re: Aesthetics and Buddhism

Postby Johnny Dangerous » Thu Feb 28, 2013 6:41 pm

Bout to nerd out here.

It's been a while, but if I recall correctly, studies like that show mainly that the harmonic series is universal to humans, not that classical western conceptions of harmony are. "Chords" as in notes directly stacked are a new thing for the most part that comes from western classical music, the vast majority of music from around the world is based in melody or a very simple kind of counterpoint - which actually makes modern western harmony more the black sheep, rather than the other way around.

In fact, again if i'm remembering right (so feel free to correct me if anyone knows different) many "traditional" tunings and scales (just scales, indian scales etc.) could be argued to be more directly derived from the harmonic series than modern western tuning and scales, which is sort of artificially broken into equal intervals.

So there does seems to be a primal sense of music that transcends culture, but it's exceptionally basic, and again is relative..some people like dissonance, so even if you ask them "is this a happy note", that may not mean they like it!
"Just as a lotus does not grow out of a well-levelled soil but from the mire, in the same way the awakening mind
is not born in the hearts of disciples in whom the moisture of attachment has dried up. It grows instead in the hearts of ordinary sentient beings who possess in full the fetters of bondage." -Se Chilbu Choki Gyaltsen
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Re: Aesthetics and Buddhism

Postby Kim O'Hara » Thu Feb 28, 2013 10:52 pm

Johnny Dangerous wrote:Not being facetious either, art only exists in relation to other art, which exists only in relation to it's pieces, and so on.

In music there is an incredible range of what's considered aesthetically pleasing, as an example since you mention classical music, the tonality and composition of Beethoven, Bach, Mozart and others would have been considered abhorrent and musically repugnant a few hundred years prior in Europe. In fact equal tempered tuning itself and everything derived from it still sounds gross to plenty of people who grew up around a whole different idea of tonality I imagine.

Hi, JD,
I'm about to out-nerd you :tongue: in reference to that sentence I've bolded: there is plenty of historical evidence that most European musicians who grew up with Just Intonation (and mean-tone, which was the closest approximation to it that worked for keyboard instruments) loathed equal temperament (ET) when it was introduced by the generation after Bach. Many who grew up alongside ET in the following centuries (up to and including the 21st) chose to work in Just Intonation as much as possible - Kodaly, for instance, insisted that young singers should learn away from the piano so their ears wouldn't be corrupted by ET.
"How did ET get in, then?" you may ask. I blame it on the composers, who were all pianists and therefore used to playing out of tune :tongue: and wanted to be able to modulate all over the place.

What does all this have to do with the topic? Probably not much, but it does back up your belief that some ideas about the beauty of music are cross-cultural and perhaps universal.
If you want to go for the greatest possible universalism, it is probably the notion that "beautiful" is a label attached to anything which supports, encourages or enhances life - health, wholeness, newness, etc - while "ugly" is attached to anything anti-life - sickness, decay, age, etc.

:namaste:
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Re: Aesthetics and Buddhism

Postby dakini_boi » Fri Mar 01, 2013 6:55 pm

Vidyaraja wrote:What is the role of aesthetics and beauty in Buddhism? Does it have a role or is beauty simply part of samsara, something to be detached from and done away with?


Aesthetics are important in Mahayana, and particularly in Vajrayana. Since beings are generally drawn to what they find beautiful, aesthetics can be useful in Bodhisattva activity.
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Re: Aesthetics and Buddhism

Postby Thundering Cloud » Wed Mar 06, 2013 1:48 am

PadmaVonSamba wrote:
Vidyaraja wrote:
PadmaVonSamba wrote: Some people might find Buddhist chanting terribly irritating, Buddhist art grotesque and disturbing.


While that may be true, I don't believe in artistic relativism personally. For example, it seems to me that if a number of people actually believed a Lil' Wayne piece was more beautiful than say a Bach piece or a Gregorian chant or a Chinese guqin piece it wouldn't make it true under the (false imo) notion that beauty is relative. In such a case I'd say they simply have a deficiency or incapability of understanding beauty, because a Bach piece is objectively more beautiful than something by Lil' Wayne or that video that went viral on youtube, Rebecca Black's "Friday" no matter which way you slice it. In the same way the Taj Mahal or a Gothic Cathedral is objectively more beautiful than Soviet apartment architecture.

That doesn't mean taste and different opinions can't exist, but there is a certain limit to how far a subjective opinion can go imo.


You have to establish a basis for that sort of objectivity.
Now, there was a study done recently, in which various major and minor (musical) chords were played for a group of indigenous people in whose culture such chords did not exist as part of their music. They were asked to pick out which were the "happy" sounding and which were the "sad" sounding chords, and as it turned out, just as is traditionally experienced in Western music, the major chords sounded "happy" and the minor chords sounded "sad". So, there may be some degree of objectivity that can be established. But perhaps not all over the place.
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Actually, even then I do not think there is a basis on which to establish true objectivity. I do think beauty is relative. For instance... for some, what is beautiful is by default something which is not commonplace, and therefore relative to their environment by definition. Certain sounds may correspond to certain emotions even for distantly removed people... but they are still humans, evolved from the same DNA, living in the same general biosphere (Earth), etc. A common predisposition among them does not make it objective... it just makes it common. By way of analogy, almost all houseflies (apparently) think that dung smells awesome... yet surely this is not an objectively valid opinion... :tongue:
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Re: Aesthetics and Buddhism

Postby Vidyaraja » Wed Mar 06, 2013 4:44 am

I personally think there is an objective superiority or inferiority to some respect. While there is also relativism, such as individual tastes, still I find it impossible to actually entertain the idea that beauty is completely relative. For example, a child's playdough sculpture of a turd is not more beautiful than Michelangelo's Pieta, nor is a tone deaf girl singing Jay-Z's Big Pimpin' more beautiful than something by Bach, both in their capacity to express the experience of the beautiful and the amount of genius it requires to produce them. If a group of people, even many of them, decided that they thought the examples I listed as inferior were more beautiful, I wouldn't say that such an opinion deserves merit. Rather I would say that their capacity to experience and understand the beautiful is deficient. I'd wager it is entirely possible that in the same way one man can be a faster runner than another or physically stronger than another, there are people capable of apprehending beauty more so than others, of course keeping in mind a certain relativity relating to individual taste.
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Re: Aesthetics and Buddhism

Postby Karma Dondrup Tashi » Wed Mar 06, 2013 5:04 pm

Vidyaraja wrote:... a child's playdough sculpture of a turd ...

Sounds kind of cute actually. You obviously have something against children, playdough or poops.

:tongue: :tongue: :tongue:
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Re: Aesthetics and Buddhism

Postby PadmaVonSamba » Wed Mar 06, 2013 5:20 pm

Vidyaraja wrote: I'd wager it is entirely possible that in the same way one man can be a faster runner than another or physically stronger than another, there are people capable of apprehending beauty more so than others, of course keeping in mind a certain relativity relating to individual taste.


You can establish a starting and ending point in a foot race.
But you still haven't established an objective standard for beauty,
or even defined what beauty is.
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The Chinese characters are Fo (buddha) and Ming (bright). The image is of a student of Buddhism, who, imagining himself to be a monk, and not understanding the true meaning of the words takes the sound of the words literally. Likewise, People on web forums sometime seem to be foaming at the mouth.
Original painting by P.Volker /used by permission.
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Re: Aesthetics and Buddhism

Postby PadmaVonSamba » Wed Mar 06, 2013 5:29 pm

Vidyaraja wrote: a child's playdough sculpture of a turd is not more beautiful than Michelangelo's Pieta, nor is a tone deaf girl singing Jay-Z's Big Pimpin' more beautiful than something by Bach, both in their capacity to express the experience of the beautiful and the amount of genius it requires to produce them.


You have to establish why these things:
1.the capacity to express the experience
2. genius
are prerequisites to beauty.

Is a snowflake, or the Grand Canyon objectively beautiful?
Neither express an experience or reflect genius.

What they do accomplish
is to stimulate the human imagination, intrigue us, hold our attention,
even create withing us a sense of awe.
That will vary from person to person,
you say there are people capable of apprehending beauty more so than others.
To be more accurate,
some people are more intrigued than others, their imaginations more stimulated, they are in awe, and they appreciate that experience more than others.

But this is all happening in the mind,
rather than being an objective quality in the thing itself.

I have a stronger preference for Michelangelo and Bach too,
but I admit that these preferences are purely subjective.
there is no component to anything which contains "beautiness"
so, beauty must be something imputed.
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Profile Picture: "The Foaming Monk"
The Chinese characters are Fo (buddha) and Ming (bright). The image is of a student of Buddhism, who, imagining himself to be a monk, and not understanding the true meaning of the words takes the sound of the words literally. Likewise, People on web forums sometime seem to be foaming at the mouth.
Original painting by P.Volker /used by permission.
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Re: Aesthetics and Buddhism

Postby Johnny Dangerous » Wed Mar 06, 2013 8:23 pm

Vidyaraja wrote:I personally think there is an objective superiority or inferiority to some respect. While there is also relativism, such as individual tastes, still I find it impossible to actually entertain the idea that beauty is completely relative. For example, a child's playdough sculpture of a turd is not more beautiful than Michelangelo's Pieta, nor is a tone deaf girl singing Jay-Z's Big Pimpin' more beautiful than something by Bach, both in their capacity to express the experience of the beautiful and the amount of genius it requires to produce them. If a group of people, even many of them, decided that they thought the examples I listed as inferior were more beautiful, I wouldn't say that such an opinion deserves merit. Rather I would say that their capacity to experience and understand the beautiful is deficient. I'd wager it is entirely possible that in the same way one man can be a faster runner than another or physically stronger than another, there are people capable of apprehending beauty more so than others, of course keeping in mind a certain relativity relating to individual taste.



What on earth is beauty? inherent beauty is nonsense, in the human realm it crumbles quickly and fades to nothing. To me, any claim of authentic beauty is tied to simply being a piece of samsara that points to the deathless, and that can take nearly any form. All the great works of art will be eaten up and swallowed by time, One day no one will remember them or the people who made them, it will be like they never existed. So either there is something inherent in the objects themselves and you believe that "thing" lasts forever and is transcendent (wrong, and provably so IMO), or you can believe that it is possible for pieces of the world of birth and death to point to the place with no birth and death, but the thing that points there is different for every person. The object of 'beauty' itself is meaningless and will be gone in the blink of an eye.
"Just as a lotus does not grow out of a well-levelled soil but from the mire, in the same way the awakening mind
is not born in the hearts of disciples in whom the moisture of attachment has dried up. It grows instead in the hearts of ordinary sentient beings who possess in full the fetters of bondage." -Se Chilbu Choki Gyaltsen
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