Buddhism Performs: Philosophy, Presence, Pedagogy

Up until the 20th century, Buddhist art retained its traditional forms as seen in the thanka painting tradition of Tibet, the Noh theatre of Japan and the ink brush paintings of the Japanese Zen tradition, amongst others. It is not surprising that Buddhism eventually made its influence known in Western cultural production after its initial infiltration of Western culture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries through the work of the American transcendentalists and the Theosophist movement. In art its influence can be seen through artists such as Paul Gauguin and Vincent Van Gogh, both of who took an interest in Buddhism. Art historian and philosopher Arthur Danto’s statement that ‘perhaps the most one culture can do for another is to give it something it can creatively misunderstand and make its own’ (Townsend 2004, 171) is a strong rebuttal to the argument against cultural homogenization. Despite a proliferation of Buddhist-inspired performance art from the 1950s to the present, the interface of Buddhism and performance has not been widely explored within the field of performance philosophy outside of specific studies on the field of contemporary Buddhist art and in some specialized research on individual artists.

As much as art history and scholarly discourse have brought to the field of performance art, the insight gained through practice-based inquiries cannot be underestimated for their philosophical validity. The Buddhist perspective is grounded in action or, as theatre and performance scholar Barbara Bolt refers to it, ‘[t]he magic is in handling’ (Barrett and Bolt 2007, 27). This is also Heidegger’s observation in Being and Time (1966) in which he argues that there are certain types of knowledge that are contingent upon the direct handling of material and non-material processes. To theorise about meditation is to know nothing about its process and, as a result, it risks losing its philosophical potential. In bringing this perspective to performance art, a variety of methodologies and modes of expression have been developed, drawing directly and indirectly from all of the fundamental principles of Buddhist philosophy, including the notion of emptiness or interdependence, impermanence, non-intention and altruism. As art historian Martin Brauen remarks, ‘The ideas of emptiness and impermanence, embraced by the Abstract Expressionists in the 1950s, have since been taken up by such cultural icons as John Cage and Merce Cunningham, as well as by conceptual and performance artists and others who have sought to explore in art how the insights of Buddhism intersect with everyday life’ (Brauen 2010:1). It is the element of everyday life that continues to inspire Buddhist art for as long as problems continue to arise that demand a creative philosophical response.

The aim of this article is to illuminate a branch of performance art that defines itself solely through its adherence to philosophical debates and practices that fall within the doctrinal tenets of Buddhism and serve as pedagogical toolsfor both performer and spectator. My purpose here is to investigate the range of philosophical considerations of contemporary artists working with Buddhist practice as a way of examining the diversity of approaches within the field. I am also using these artists to highlight some of the differences between work produced in the 1950s and 60s that utilized more external signifiers of Buddhist philosophy to contemporary case studies in which a more subtle and internal approach is used. The practitioners highlighted in this study include John Cage, Marina Abramović and Meredith Monk as well as examples from the Happenings and Fluxus movements chosen for the specific ways in which their work performs Buddhist philosophy. I also posit the methodology of performance theorist Erika Fischer-Lichte alongside literary theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick to offer a new understanding of pedagogy predicated upon the role of Buddhist philosophy in the construction of meaning.

In many ways, Buddhist-inspired performance art represents a return to the artistic philosophy of the pre-iconic phase of Buddhist art in which the Buddha was only referenced through the symbolism of absence.[1] At the heart of these artists’ work there is nothing to be found because not only is nothing left behind by temporal art but, as Buddhism posits, there was nothing there in the first place. John Cage, Marina Abramović and Meredith Monk all share the common philosophical ground of Cage’s 1949 ‘Lecture on Nothing’: ‘I am here and there is nothing to say’ (Cage 1968/2009, 109). It sums up both the aim of their work and the aim of Buddhism as practiced in order ‘to sober and quiet the mind so that it is in accord with what happens’ (Cage in Baas 2005, 166). According to Buddhism, a Buddha (Skt. ‘awakened’) is someone in whom the mind has been liberated from all of its obscurations, attachments and aversions. This is a challenge to Western philosophical discourse in which the conception of ‘nothing’ requires the negation of something else. The Buddhist worldview posits that ‘the experience of nothing…reveals the meaning of everything’ (Gullette 1976, 2). Out of this conception the works of Cage, Abramović and Monk begin to reveal their pedagogic and philosophical function.

As Buddhism continued to spread throughout Western culture in the twentieth century, the end of the Second World War prompted its widespread dissemination through the American art scene of the early 1950s due to the arrival of the Japanese Zen Buddhist scholar and teacher Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki, without whom the writers of the Beat generation and the so-called grandfather of contemporary performance art, John Cage, would not have had access to some of the more detailed knowledge of a philosophy of awakening from the East. [2] The prevailing atmosphere of post-war revel and disillusionment created a fertile ground for people seeking answers to the nature of suffering and existence.  Religious scholar Stephen Prothero positions the Beats and their contemporaries as ‘transitional figures constructing a “middle way” between the early era of armchair Buddhism and contemporary Buddhist practice, which usually involves a formal setting and study with a teacher’ (Tonkinson 1995, 4). The artists highlighted in this article can also be considered transitional figures, occupying an in-between state that serves to join the ‘armchair Buddhist’ with methods of performing philosophy. 

John Cage, Happenings and Fluxus

When pianist David Tudor took to the stage at the Maverick Concert Hall in Woodstock, New York on August 29th 1952 and sat down at the piano, the audience expected to hear what is conventionally considered to be music, containing tonal sounds and rhythm, at the very least. Although Tudor opened the lid of the piano as if to play, he instead looked at a stopwatch. To mark the beginning of each subsequent movement of the three-part work, he raised and lowered the lid in silence. During this time he also turned the pages of a score. At precisely 4’33”, the name for which the piece has become known, Tudor closed the lid for the final time and stood up to the applause of the audience who stayed and the empty seats of those who walked out. John Cage’s 4’33” signifies the beginning of what would come to be recognized as an exemplar of Buddhist performance art as well as a marker of its foundations within contemporary culture (Baas 2005, 165). Although Cage composed over 300 compositions in his lifetime, he cited 4’33” in which silence was ‘performed’ for four minutes and thirty-three seconds as his most significant work, the one that would influence all the others. Through the simple act of doing nothing, Cage sought to provide the audience with an experience rather than a traditional performance, embodying the principles of transcendental phenomenology in which the subject (in this case the audience) is favored over the object (the musical score). This reflected his departure from modernist musical forms such as Schoenberg’s tonal experiments, focusing instead on the primacy of the listeners and their willingness to give themselves over to the experience of listening. [3] It also marked his espousal of chance operations and indeterminacy, two principles that would go on to define his life’s work. Without a single instruction on how to listen, the experience served as a teaching on Buddhist philosophy and provided the audience with an opportunity to hear the sounds of their own thoughts against the backdrop of a silence that wasn’t actually silent. After all, presence-awareness can only be experienced as any discourse on the subject is theoretical and fails to convey the essence of a reality devoid of the dualities of likes and dislikes or past and future. Cage’s framing of presence-awareness as a performance gave rise to the full philosophical potential of 4’33” and the future of Buddhist performance art as a teaching ground. In John Cage and Buddhist Ecopoetics (2013), scholar Peter Jaeger considers Cage’s stance on silence alongside a thirteenth century Chinese Zen master’s kōan:

A philosopher asks the Buddha, ‘Without the wordless, will you tell me the truth?’ The Buddha keeps silent until the philosopher bows and thanks him, saying: ‘With your loving kindness, I have cleared away all my delusions and entered the true path.’ When the Buddha’s senior disciple Ananda asks his teacher what the philosopher had attained, the Buddha replies: ‘A good horse runs even at the shadow of the whip’ (Jaeger 2013, 10-11).

Far from silence as an absence of noise, critical discourse in the field of linguistics considers silence as another form of communication, reflecting the teaching of the above kōan: ‘[I]n the study of communication, speech and silence should be treated as equally valid and complementary categories’ (Jaworski 1997, 215). All things being equal, Cage’s experiment with silence in 4’33” puts this claim into action.

Having expected the concert to carry on with a solo piano recital, the audience was exposed to the sounds of the concert hall. According to Cage’s description, this included ‘…the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third the people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out’ (Cage in Gann 2010, 4). In essence, the work was a marriage between Buddhist philosophy and performance art, exemplifying everything Cage was trying to convey in his prolific output of writings and lectures to which he credited Zen Buddhism and his Buddhist teacher D.T. Suzuki.[4] He would go on to influence a new wave of artists seeking to bridge the existential chasm between Self and No Self, prompting art historian Jacquelynn Baas to credit Cage with having the greatest international impact on the arts out of any other artist of the 20th century (Baas 2005, 165).

Performance artists of the late 1950s and early ‘60s echoed much of what Cage brought to the genre of performance art from Buddhism: a confidence in being nobody, going nowhere. In other words, a commitment to process-oriented art. The first wave of contemporary performance art began in both the Happenings and Fluxus movements, developed through students attending classes on experimental composition taught by Cage at the New School for Social Research between 1957 and 1959.  Cage’s performance art work Theater Piece No. 1, presented at Black Mountain College in1952, is considered the origin of the Happening. Comprised of a variety of simultaneous performances, Cage created the work using his system of chance operations, derived from the Chinese divination system, the I Ching. [5], [6]  Known at Black Mountain as ‘The Event’, its multimedia structure incorporated a dancing Merce Cunningham being chased by a dog; recordings of Edith Piaf songs; poetry readings atop ladders; slide projections and film; as well as Robert Rauschenberg’s White Paintings (1951) hanging from the ceiling. Meanwhile, Cage stood on a ladder giving lectures on Buddhist philosophy as white-clad servers passed coffee around the audience and David Tudor improvised notes on a prepared piano.[7] The events within the work were both freely improvised as well as guided by adherence to specific time intervals. Performed the same year as 4’33”, the work was the antithesis to silence while continuing to explore the theme of indeterminacy. In the case of 4’33”, its content was determined by chance and left no room for any controlled narrative. In the same way, Theater Piece No. 1 was made up of certain pre-determined elements (including the divination of numbers with the I Ching which gave the piece its time frame). Both works were experiments in form that attempted to embody a sense of absolute freedom of expression. They have also been criticized for their perceived limitations:

[Cage] discouraged all extreme expressions of emotion and physical display; his conception of theatre erased the possibility of actors inhabiting their characters, causing them to become – instead – disembodied, asexual puppets; he never felt a performer’s intuition could add anything meaningful to music; and he remained dubious that taste alone could serve as a source for new music (Haskins 2012, 153).

It is interesting to note Haskins’ use of terms such as ‘disembodied’ and ‘asexual’, words that suggest an art of anti-feeling. In some ways, Cage’s approach foreshadows Frederic Jameson’s notion of the ‘waning of affect’ in contemporary society which itself references the same philosophical stance as the Buddhist theory of No Self. Jameson writes, ‘As for expression and feelings or emotions, the liberation, in contemporary society, from the older anomie of the centered subject may also mean not merely a liberation from anxiety but a liberation from every other kind of feeling as well, since there is no longer a self present to do the feeling’(Jameson 1991, 10). Linking back to the tension between Western and Eastern philosophical discourse, it is clearly impossible to arrive at an objective viewpoint of Cage’s work in this context and the inherent problem of presenting Buddhist infused performance to a mainly Western audience. Outside of critiques such as Jameson’s, there is little in the way of an equivalent concept of No Self within Western philosophical discourse, let alone general parlance. As a result, the element of pedagogy is pivotal to the question of whether an audience can be taught a worldview that is in complete opposition to everything they are familiar with in Western culture, including how to read a text in the form of live performance. Ultimately, it has to be accepted that audience reception is also based on indeterminacy and that Buddhist performance art must have the capacity to address this aspect as one of the philosophical challenges of the genre taken up by Cage and addressed by the artists he has influenced This is particularly evident in the work of Marina Abramović and her development of a performance philosophy for the general public.

In spite of such experiments in form, a tension appears to exist in the genre between detachment from emotion and work that is devoid of emotion, a difference that is decidedly marked throughout its development. The stark contrast of Zen’s seeming lack of emotional engagement distinguishes it from the Tibetan Buddhist approach of using emotions as tools for spiritual awakening. In the case of Cage, he carried his suspicion of music’s ability to communicate emotion into all areas of his creative output, including performance art. With the infusion of Buddhist philosophy into the American avant-garde art scene of the 1950s (a precursor to the burgeoning performance art scene of the 1970s), Cage’s contribution to the field inspired a new generation of artists to create everything from pop art, Happenings, Fluxus and performance art to installation art, Process art and Minimalism (Larson 2012, xiii). Described as ‘the inventor of the ephemeral and transitory poetics of the here and now’ as well as ‘the river that dozens of avant-garde tributaries flowed into and from,’ (ibid.) the Zen Buddhist expression of John Cage revealed a new face of freedom that the post-war generation was ripe to develop. 

The first Happening took place in 1959, created by the founder of the movement, Allan Kaprow. Eighteen Happenings in Six Parts was an interrogation of some common Buddhist themes such as time, emptiness, presence-awareness, and impermanence and included elements of fragmentation and dislocation of space. Every object used in the performance such as newspaper, string and sticky tape was destroyed. Kaprow believed in an art that defied permanence and could be ‘renewed in different forms, like fine cooking or seasonal changes… a constant metamorphosis’ (Perlman 2012, 83). In his seminal book Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life (1993), Kaprow details the philosophical underpinning of the Happening as a form of doing life consciously, echoing Cage’s art-life paradigm and Buddhism’s presence-based awareness practice:

Since the substance of the Happenings was events in real time, as in theater and opera, the job, logically, was to bypass all theatrical conventions… Instead of making an objective image or occurrence to be seen by someone else, it was a matter of doing something to experience it yourself… Doing life, consciously, was a compelling notion to me (Kaprow 1993, 195).

The notion of ‘doing something to experience it yourself’ brings the role of the performer into the territory of the spectator, not only in terms of developing tools of observation (e.g. listening, seeing and interpreting) but by turning the observer in on herself. Becoming, as it were, a self-observing consciousness with the experience of the performance providing the pedagogical framework or means for developing insight. The experience remains constantly in flux, mirroring the mind of meditation. Almost twenty years later Kaprow moved to a California Zen monastery and began to refer to his life’s work not as Happenings but as ‘Activities.’ For Kaprow, an activity is ‘a moment picked out of the stream of activity [that] serves as a poetic kernel of a work of art’ (Kaprow in Perlman 2012, 84). By adopting aspects of Buddhist philosophy and translating them in symbolic performance terms, the Happening embodied the pedagogical function of Buddhism that served as another route towards dissemination of the philosophy and practice amongst the general public.

A 1962 Fluxus work in Germany entitled The Piano Activities by Philip Cornerillustrates the combination of artistic experimentation in the movement with Buddhist philosophy.[8] The piece, as described by the artists involved, associated a classical Buddhist meditation tool, the kōan, with the performance. Found primarily within Chan (China) and Zen (Japan) Buddhism, the kōan can take the form of a question, statement or dialogue by which the student is tested through doubt as a tool towards awakening to the empty nature of the mind. A classic example is: ‘What is the sound of one hand clapping?’ In many ways, The Piano Activities draws the audience’s attention to question what the nature of the performance and the performance tools (the piano and other objects) actually are with respect to the mind, cognition and sensory perception. Like the kōan, the performance attempts to lead the spectator (along with the performers) to a state of recognition or experience of anatman or No Self. To illustrate this, a grand piano is rolled onstage only to have a brick thrown at the exposed strings along with teakettles, sticks and a feather duster. The keys are smashed with a hammer, after which the piano is rolled offstage and down a hallway marked Notausgang, or ‘emergency exit’. The kōan can be translated in performance terms and become a pedagogical tool, as Alison Knowles, one of the Fluxus founders and original performers of The Piano Activities, argues:

I was thinking of the Zen encounter of the kōan and the breakthrough a person makes through their own understanding of it. It is a metaphor of the piano destruction event, of breaking through into a new kind of music though it involved a destructive act… it was strongly flavoured with Eastern philosophy (Knowles in Perlman 2012, 71).

Since the traditional use of the kōan is in order to induce great doubt in the mind of the student of Zen, the performance can be seen to be a provocation of doubt as to whether it is a performance at all and, therefore, what role the audience have in witnessing the destruction of a piano. Given the cultural significance of the classical piano in Germany, the work was considered a scandal and introduced on German television with the headline, ‘The lunatics have escaped!’ (Kellein 2007, 65). The Piano Activities exemplifies the spirit of the genre of Buddhist-inspired performance art and the proliferation of challenges to theories of representation, perception and function. If a piano can be used to create something other than music and violence can be performed on an object of perceived cultural value, then the fundamental questions posed by Buddhist philosophy on the mind and its functions (such as attachment to culture) and the ways in which sense objects become infused with meaning (where, perhaps, there is no ultimate meaning to be found, hence suffering or dissatisfaction arises), then performance art might be the ideal medium to teach the Buddhist philosophy to a secular public wary of the dogma of religious institutions. The Piano Activities forces the spectator to confront the experience of irritation and aggression one step removed from the irritations connected to everyday life, leaving the potential for awakening to a realization, even if only momentary, that the irritation exists in the mind as opposed to the outside world where blame is usually directed.

The antics of the Fluxus artists and other Buddhist influenced performance art works echo what literary theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick refers to as ‘affectively steeped pedagogical relations’. Western Buddhism (of which Buddhist performance art forms a part) is not, according to Sedgwick, solely based upon the scholarly model of adaptation. In recognition of its function, Sedgwick argues for the drawing out from ‘the great treasury of Buddhist epistemologies of learning and teaching. What if… an equally canonical topos such as recognition/realization describes some dynamics of Western Buddhist popularization better than does the one-directional topos of adaptation?’ (Sedgwick 2003, 156). For Sedgwick, pedagogy is both ‘topic and relation’. The ‘breakthrough’ to liberation or enlightenment referred to by Alison Knowles in speaking about The Piano Activities allows for a pedagogical reading of the performance as text through the symbolic acts it embodies. It is precisely through the symbolic codes pertaining to Buddhist philosophy that not only does Buddhism perform but it is teaching through unconventional and indirect means. In destroying a piano as a way of pointing to the destruction of deluded mind states, the afflictive emotions in the minds of the spectators have the potential for, at the very least, recognition. If this is the case, the performance will have fulfilled its pedagogical and philosophical function.             

In seeking to define performance art, ‘a practice premised on the undefinable [sic] as an overt resistance to categorization’ (Heddon 1999, 38), its historical development alongside conceptual art displays the art form’s capacity to accommodate theories of an ontological nature. In a similar way, Buddhism’s flexibility displays ‘a unique quality of [its teachings]… they can be expressed through existing cultural norms, making use of them rather than destroying or replacing them’ (Prebish and Baumann 2002, 146). As a result, a truly Buddhist-inspired performance practice is predicated upon the intention of the artist to create a performative pedagogy that aims towards transformation of previously held deluded mind states.[9] Just as the piano is liberated from its meaning and form, the audience might be liberated from delusion. According to the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, ‘Delusions are states of mind which, when they arise within our mental continuum, leave us disturbed, confused and unhappy. Therefore, those states of mind which delude or afflict us are called “delusions” or “afflictive emotions”’ (Brantmeier et al 2010, 120).

From the perspective of the Buddhist performance artist, it is the delusions that give rise to artistic expression as a vehicle for mind training. One of the problems, however, lies in the tension between theory (in this case, Buddhist philosophy) and practice. In seeking liberation from afflictive emotions, the practitioner perpetuates the delusion that seeking leads to freedom. According to Buddhist philosophy, it is only by abandoning desire that freedom or liberation is attained. As if to make things more complicated, Buddhism posits the radical claim that it was always there to begin with, it simply went unrealized due to the presence of afflictive emotions. Rei Terada makes the case in Feeling in Theory (2001) that ‘[a] living system is self-differential… The idea of emotion is as compelling as it is because in the honest moments of philosophy it has served as the name of that experience’ (Terada 2001, 156). His next remark then mirrors the Buddhist approach to emotions: ‘On some level everyone knows that rationality may be where we want to be, but emotion is where we are. So when we want to get from where we are to where we want to be, emotion has got to come along’ (ibid). What Terada is offering is a way of understanding the art of pedagogy; a way of learning through doing or, more precisely, through being, starting with affect, feeling and emotion in order to reach a level of rationality or detachment.

In practical terms, John Cage’s summation serves as a singular directive for the Buddhist performance artist: ‘You can feel an emotion, just don’t think that it’s so important… Take it in a way that you can then let it drop! Don’t belabor it!’ (Cage in Baas 2005, 162). Although this would seem difficult to convey to an audience, it is perhaps the most important aspect of performing Buddhist philosophy. Cage’s Theater Piece No. 1 is a case in point in that the simultaneity of so many activities happening in the performance space, many of them improvised, does not leave room for emotional indulgence which, according to Buddhism, leads to delusion and afflictions. But in spite of the limitations of the union of Buddhist philosophy and the performance event, it serves as a point of radical inspiration towards the merging of art and daily life.

Marina Abramović and the Autopoietic Loop

Erika Fischer-Lichte believes that ‘performance art… seems to create and reactivate some of the last residues in contemporary culture that make it possible to communicate directly in public and to act as a member of a community’ (Fischer-Lichte 1997, 232-233). In her theories on theatre and performance art, Fischer-Lichte makes no reference to Buddhist philosophy yet offers highly relevant observations on the subject that work alongside its essential principles, suggesting that performance philosophy is more universal in scope than previously realized. She utilizes the term ‘autopoiesis’ for talking about live performance, an idea originally developed out of the biological sciences to explain the ways in which living systems operate as both producers and products, ‘circular systems that survive by self-generation’ (Fischer-Lichte 2008, 7).[10] Fischer-Lichte posits performer and spectator as the two sides of the circular system and uses this relationship to demonstrate how live performance forms an essential function within society. Within the frame of Buddhist performance art, this communal function serves an entirely pedagogical function: the genre goes beyond mere representation through a specific relationship between pedagogy and culture. It serves as a means as opposed to an end, highlighting its processes in, through and alongside Buddhist symbolic, philosophical and meditation practices. This is suggestive of the formulaic nature of Buddhist pedagogy, a methodology that is contested in contemporary theories of education: ‘Because it is processual, learning is unrepresentable: its means and ends emerge in the flow of activity. And this means there is no basis or regularity on which education’s effects and affects can be staked’ (Ellsworth 2011, 308).  The value of knowledge is called into question here and challenges the role of Buddhist performance art as knowledge producing, let alone possessing the ability to transform either performer or spectator in any significant way.             

As Sedgwick points out, the practitioner is simply learning what she already knows: ‘In Buddhist pedagogical thought… the apparent tautology of learning what you already know does not seem to constitute a paradox, nor an impasse, nor a scandal. It is not even a problem. If anything, it is a deliberate and defining practice’ (Sedgwick 2003, 166). If this statement were to be applied to Cage’s 4’33”, the performance could be valued purely in terms of what it lacked (conventional notions of music). The seeming lack of sound provoked attention to actual sound and the art of listening, something the concert audience already knew how to do and yet were faced with doing in unexpected ways. After all, they bought tickets to hear a piano concert and were denied one for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. The act of listening reveals the inherent delusion of expectation. As with Cage, the ‘learning what you already know’ applies as much to the spectator as to the performer of Buddhist philosophy, the development of which has been taken up by the Serbian performance artist Marina Abramović.

By way of illustration, the work of Abramović offers a compelling example of the use of philosophy in performance. The disruptive gaze as a symbolic teaching tool can be seen in her seminal work The Artist is Present (2010) which took place at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York. Spectators queued for hours and, once inside the museum, they were never absent from the action taking place in the extremely intimate encounter of the gaze between Abramović and the person sitting in the chair opposite. The work contained a single directive: the spectators were invited to sit in a chair facing the artist and gaze into her eyes with no time limit. Although in this case the gaze was not centered on the spectators at large as in some of her previous work, it was the simple gaze between the two figures that captured audiences along with Abramović s ability to sit in stillness for a total of 750 hours, the longest work of performance art in the history of the genre. [11] In spite of a total lack of clear narrative on which the spectator can follow an individual’s personal history, the video documentation of the performance reveals a subtle type of autobiographical encounter revealed through the individual expressions on the faces of Abramović’s gazing partners. The spectrum of reactions includes laughing, smiling, frowning, crying and neutral expressions, all of which reveal highly individual responses to the simple gaze of another individual. The fact that the one-to-one encounter takes place in the public gaze directly affects the experience of the encounter. Abramović notes, ‘I gazed into the eyes of many people who were carrying such pain inside that I could immediately see and feel it… I become a mirror for their emotions. One big Hell’s Angel with tattoos everywhere stared at me fiercely, but after ten minutes was collapsing into tears and weeping like a baby.’ (O’Hagan 2010). Notwithstanding the cult of fame surrounding Marina Abramović, it is fair to say that the simple act of sitting and being present in public entails a certain element of pedagogy of which Buddhist practice and philosophy seek to engender and codify. It is this paradigm that Abramović draws from in all of her work, although it began to establish itself more firmly post-1981 when she encountered Tibetan Buddhist culture.

Another of Abramović’s more recent works attempts to take the pedagogical encounter a step further. In 512 Hours (2014)at London’s Serpentine Gallery, the public entered three gallery spaces in which there was nothing to be conceived as an art object and no art on which monetary value could be placed (the chairs and cots were entirely functional and provided places of rest). The performance took place over the summer of 2014 for eight hours a day, six days a week and covered the period of time in its title.[12] From its inception, Abramović challenged every strategy she had used in the past by knowing nothing about what would happen in the performance space. Her only directive was that she would be in the space, engaging or not engaging with the public, with no rehearsal such as in Kaprow’s Happenings and the Fluxus experiments. Eye masks and noise silencing headphones were made available although there was no requirement to use them. The only rules were that mobile phones, watches and bags were to be left in the lockers provided outside the gallery and that silence must be maintained at all times. There was no time limit on how long the public could remain but if someone left the space they would need to join the queue again to enter. Reviews of the work were far from favourable and yet its public reception through social media reflected a communal need for the kind of meditative experience the work provided. Particularly curious is this reflection from Richard Dorment in his review for The Telegraph. Dorment interweaves a performance review with his own personal development: 

I hated every second I spent in this show. I longed to escape and can’t tell you what relief I felt on emerging from it into a world of light and air where people walked and talked normally, where they checked their iPhone, raced for the bus and had deadlines to meet. Yet even as my mind raced with all these thoughts I was perfectly aware that of all the people who visited that show I was the one who most needed to be there. The important thing about Abramović’s work is not what your reaction to it is, but that you react to it at all. (Dorment 2014).

As damning as Dorment’s review is, the fact that he acknowledges the value in the work reflects how far Buddhism and its practices have permeated the mainstream social sphere of the 21st century. It is revealing of a culture that recognizes the role of personal development in the creation of a more self-reflective and mindful society as well as registering the cultural environment to which critical theory has responded through the ‘affective turn’.

Committed to the development of performer training for both artists and the general public, Abramović’s view of performance art recognizes its universal pedagogical foundations.[13] When asked what she thought the task of the artist was in society, she answered: ‘The answer is very subjective and differs depending on each artist. Joseph Beuys saw his role in society as a shaman, Mondrian referred to his task being to present a true reality and Marcel Duchamp wanted to change the way society thinks. As for myself, my task is to be a bridge between the Western and Eastern worlds… it is almost autobiographical in a way’ (Abramović 2003, 15). In each case, the suggestion of the pedagogical encounter between art and life is paramount.

Performing Presence

In the final chapter of Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (2003), Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick asks whether the only way to learn is when we know we are being taught (Sedgwick 2003, 153). In performance terms, there is a case to be made that the pedagogical exchange begins for the spectator through what Fischer-Lichte refers to as engagement in an ‘aesthetics of disruption’ through the act of the ‘freely wandering’ gaze: ‘Reception is thus completed as the various subjective disruption of the space-time continuum’ (Fischer-Lichte 1997, 109). This is the starting point of the autopoietic loop that Fischer-Lichte regards as a specific type of phenomenology inherent in the self-reflective affective nature of live performance. She proposes a ‘radical concept of presence’ linked intrinsically to embodiment that counters the mind-body dualistic tendency of Western philosophical discourse (Fischer-Lichte 2008, 99). Presence, according to Fischer-Lichte, manifests through the spectator as she encounters herself and the performer as ‘embodied mind in a constant state of becoming’ (ibid). Whether or not Fischer-Lichte is aware of her theoretical connection to Buddhism is not clear but her recognition of a mind-state of shared embodiment during the performative encounter offers an insight into some of the shared principles of performance art, Buddhist philosophy and their affective foundations. Presence and its development, therefore, become the primary tools of Buddhist performance pedagogy, as illustrated in the work of Cage and Abramović. Without the development of presence-based awareness, it is impossible to engage with Buddhist practice and training in mental quiescence. Sedgwick recognizes this pedagogical assumption as ‘relationality’.

Referring to the way in which Tibetan teacher Sogyal Rinpoche writes in detail about his relationship with his master while making no reference to Buddhist teachings in the introduction to his book The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying (1993), Sedgwick states: ‘In this world it is as though relation could only be pedagogical – and for that reason, radically transindividual’ (Sedgwick 2003, 160). If this assumption were to be applied to the Buddhist performance art event, the mind states of the audience and performer(s) involve an aspect of collective participation, even if it appears to be a passive one. Attendance alone implies acceptance of the possibility of transformation from one mind state to another and out of this acceptance comes freedom or liberation. For is liberation not the hook that draws the Western seeker of self-knowledge into a relationship with Buddhist philosophy? Whether he stays in the relationship is another matter but for as long as he engages with it through its various means of dissemination he is engaging with pedagogy. Sedgwick goes on to highlight the fact that the ‘[Buddhist] teaching situation, evidently, thrives on personality and intimate emotional relation. At the same time, it functions as a mysteriously powerful solvent of individual identity’ (ibid). In many ways, this is the key to understanding the extent to which Buddhist performance art succeeds in transmitting its philosophical basis. Without engaging the emotions of the audience, it may be difficult to retain their focus. In practice, the dissolution of self-identity is contingent upon the recognition of a sense of self-identity. This is, perhaps, where Cage’s work shows its limitations as although he recognized an audience’s propensity towards emotional engagement, his work demonstrated a significant lack thereof, perhaps echoing his understanding of Zen as emotionally detached. As referenced earlier and worth emphasizing here, this highlights one of the differences between the Zen and Tibetan forms: Tibetan Buddhism uses the energy of the emotions in order to liberate the mind from them whereas Zen emphasizes sitting meditation practice as a tool for disengaging with them.

Meredith Monk

Just as with Cage and Abramović, I want to shift now to the spectator-performer relationship as it forms the foundation of a work by American performance artist and composer Meredith Monk. A Buddhist practitioner since the mid-1980s, Monk considers her commitment to Buddhist practice has not changed her process considerably as, looking back on her work prior to her conversion from her Jewish roots, she was always working with Buddhist themes:

[A]s a young artist my sensibility was actually dealing with a lot of things that are talked about in the Buddhist practice. The basis of my vocal work was always silence. I was usually working from a very quiet place, no matter how much it sounded like I was screaming at the top of my lungs… What I have tried to do in my work these last years is to offer a place where people can actually have some time to let go of the narrator or the discursive mind for a while and experience in a very direct way fundamental human energies for which we don’t have words… The voice – the original instrument – can delineate feelings and states of being so that the music can be experienced directly by anyone. In that way, it is transcultural and it has a sense of timelessness, which I would say is characteristic of a spiritual way of thinking about things (Monk in Marranca 2002, 23).

Monk’s statement is reflective of the silent nature of meditation practice and offers an example of the way in which Buddhist-inspired performance art can become pedagogy for the audience. Less interactive than inter-relational, the following performance art work will be explored as a visual-sonic encounter with the sublime.

Given that Monk’s access point is the voice, it follows that she would be attracted to the form of prayer-singing, found in all of the major world religions as a way of feeling closer to a sense of God or to enter meditative states. In 2008 she embarked on a project that began through a meeting with Norman Fischer, former abbot of the Zen Center of San Francisco. He was working on a translation of some of the psalms from the Old Testament known as ‘Songs of Ascent’. Thinking they were called ‘Songs of Ascension’, it inspired her to begin thinking about the symbolism surrounding the idea of an upwardly moving spiritual ascension:

[‘Songs of Ascent’] are psalms from the 120th to the 134th. People from all around an area would come to a mountain, they would bring their best harvest, and they would recite or sing these songs going up the mountain…Apparently, at each of the steps one of these psalms was sung. Now I didn’t know all of the details of it but something intrigued me, and I was thinking – isn’t it interesting, first of all, that so many cultures go up to worship? Why is it better than going down? I was intrigued to know what those songs would have sounded like – and that idea of walking up and singing… In Buddhism there are stupas that you go up as well as the circumambulation aspect of going around them (Monk in Marranca 2009, 17).

The Songs of Ascent inspired the notion of circular prayer and, as demonstrated in the performances inside installation artist Ann Hamilton’s Tower, is also indicative of the circularity of the autopoietic loop between performers and spectators. In this way, prayer translates as a teaching on how to work with the discursive mind through an environment that stimulates silence and reverence. Having worked with Hamilton on mercy, she was invited to perform inside an 80’ x 40’ concrete turret built on a ranch in northern California. The inside of the tower consists of a double-helix staircase that opens to the sky at the top reflected in a pool of water at the bottom. In this way the audience are intertwined with the performers at all times.

The debut of Songs of Ascension was in concert form at Dartington College, England with a theatrical version at the Walker Arts Center, Minneapolis before going on to create the site-specific version in Hamilton’s Tower. In keeping with the symbolist style that is her preferred mode of theatrical vision, every aspect of the site-specificity alludes to her underlying conviction in continuing to make work for the public as a means to transform consciousness. Her work ethic demonstrates the efficacy of Fischer-Lichte’s view of the body as a singular material unlike any other and therefore suggests the need for a loosening of theoretical values. Rather than a body that ‘makes’ and ‘does’ and ‘is’ something or someone, the liveness of it is in a continuous state of becoming and never arriving; a state of ‘permanent transformation’ (Fischer-Lichte 2008, 92). In Buddhist terms, a constant state of change or impermanence. Buddhist scholar John Powers identifies its fictional quality: ‘The only conclusion that can legitimately be reached is that the self is a fiction, a mere label… a concept created and reified by the mind but lacking any substantial reality’ (Powers 2008, 49). Monk utilizes the fiction of identity as a teaching tool which is integrated with her meta-approach of creating the circumstances for silent encounters with discursive thinking on the part of the audience. When asked if she strives for the transcendent in her work, Monk replied, ‘Yes I am, but I am also trying to wake people up. I am striving for theatre as a transformational experience and also an offering… Why do we make a separation between art and spiritual practice? We don’t think of art anymore as offering. There are so many cultures where it’s totally integrated within daily life’ (Monk in Marranca 2009, 91-92). Monk’s statement suggests one of the fundamental contextual differences between Western performance art practices and religious ritual and calls into question the relationship between monetary and cultural value with body-centered knowledge production. French feminist critic Hélène Cixous maps this trajectory by highlighting the link between embodiment and materialism: ‘This is what my body teaches me: first of all, be wary of names; they’re nothing but social tools, rigid concepts, little cages of meaning assigned, as you know, to keep us from getting mixed up with each other, without which the Society of Capitalist Siphoning would collapse’ (Cixous in Heddon and Klein 2012, 1).

Encompassing a broadly Buddhist theme regarding the labeling of phenomena, Cixous regards affective experience as the more trustworthy source of knowledge. This stance is not without problems, however, as affects are not cognitive but embodied states and appear as responses to either external or internal stimuli. For the body to teach, as Cixous would have it, cognition must surely be engaged, even at a later stage, in order to learn something from the feelings and emotions arising as a result of an affective state. Thus pedagogy entails a threefold process of affect, feeling and emotion, all of which are embodied. All of Monk’s prolific body of work echoes this sentiment primarily through the unique musical form she has developed that espouses invented language. Through its lack of linguistic signification, her work is able to settle into embodied forms of knowledge production based on feeling and intention and, finally, interpretation. It is ‘… no wonder then that performance practices become privileged means to investigate processes where history and body create unsuspected sensorial-perceptual realms, alternative modes for life to be lived’ (Banes and Lepicki 2007, 1). This suggests that a performer can feel her way into presence, a method utilizing mindfulness meditation techniques that move beyond mere theories of presence. What is most useful in this regard from Cixous’ writing is the refusal to reify theory above embodiment. As she clarifies in the most Buddhist of terms:

All that is stopped, grasped, all that is subjugated, easily transmitted… all that comes under the word concept, which is to say all that is taken, caged, is less true… There is continuity in the living; whereas theory entails a discontinuity, a cut, which is altogether the opposite of life. I am not anathematizing all theory. It is indispensable, at times, to make progress, but alone it is false (Cixous and Calle-Gruber 1997, 4).

In cultivating theories of presence, it is difficult not to heed Cixous’s warning when pitting the two terms alongside each other, theory and presence, for fear of cancelling each other out.

Since the 1960s, performance art practices have privileged the body over the mind and extended the movement of conceptual art into quasi-theatrical terms (this is not surprising, given that the human form is typically the first point of contact for the spectator as well as being intrinsic to the experimentation on the limits of the body). Monks’s Songs of Ascension is an example of one of the ways in which live performance transcends theory, referring back to the pedagogical function of Buddhist performance art. The tension that exists between theory and presence is tangible through the ‘doing’ of Buddhism. Aiming to provide her audiences with a space wherein the theorising mind might have the opportunity of rest, Songs of Ascension contains slow-moving melodies with harmonies associated with medieval plainchant, evoking the ritual of a temple. Elsewhere, string sections are galvanized to pick up the pace, giving the impression of swiftly moving bodies spiraling in all directions. In either case, the tension created between alternating tempos creates the effect of an eternal present, an element found in traditional sacred music. The entire composition has the feel of being highly stylized and meticulously planned which belies the actual process Monk undertakes in all her work. In sound she seeks the developmental course towards a quality or richness that enables the listener to be transported through the tension created between sound and silence; and in terms of the visual sphere, the work relies on the symbolism of the performers spiraling between heaven and earth, alluding to the Buddhist conception of different realms of existence which includes the mediation of heavenly and earthly realms by way of the human being.

Throughout the performance, an eternal ‘presence’ is manifested through the evocation of the numinous in the harmonics of the music. Theatre and performance theorist Hans-Thies Lehmann’s definition of presence in live performance comes close to reflecting the nature of Monk’s work:

This present is not a reified point of time but, as a perpetual disappearing of this point, it is already a transition and simultaneously a caesura between the past and the future. The present is necessarily the erosion and slippage of presence. It denotes an event that empties the now and in this emptiness itself lets memory and anticipation flash up. The present cannot be grasped conceptually but only as a perpetual self-division of the now into ever new splinters of ‘just now’ and ‘in an instant’ (Lehmann 2006, 144, author’s emphasis).

Lehmann might as well be talking about the practice of meditation given the similarity of the language of presence in performance terms. But, as he states, the ‘present cannot be grasped’, just as Buddhism states the impossibility of realizing emptiness or interdependence through the intellect. It is through the performance of presence that Monk’s sense of transcendence and self-transformation is achieved, or at least hinted at, in Songs of Ascension. Lehmann emphasizes the nature of performance art as a striving toward ‘self-transformation’ as opposed to the transformation of external reality such as the processes of conventional theatre practices, placing Monk at the apex of her field.

As a result of her Buddhist approach to making work, the social function of the performing arts as cultural commodity is turned into a pedagogy of presence: ‘…you’ve done this piece, that piece… and then you go to your grave. And what do you think you have – a piece of paper that tells you all the pieces you’ve done? So what?…What it gets down to is: how do you want to spend your time on earth?’ (Monk in Jowitt 1997, 192). As a Buddhist, her point of focus always comes back to motivation, considering it her duty to share her philosophical and musical discoveries with the public. Her work continues to be grounded in the process-oriented minimalism brought to contemporary performance art culture by John Cage, whom Monk credits with having a direct influence on her work: ‘Perhaps the most direct influence… was that 4’33” encouraged composers to forget about conventional expressivity and submit themselves to objective processes’ (Gann 2010, 200). Working only with sounds as opposed to words, Monk’s aim is to ‘wake people up’ by offering them a transformational experience (Marranca 2009, 30).

For the Buddhist influenced performance artist, objective presence-based processes are indistinguishable from the task of the meditator and educator. As 19th century Tibetan teacher Jamgön Kongtrül observed:

Why chase after thoughts, which are superficial ripples of presence awareness? Rather look directly into the naked, empty nature of thoughts; then there is no duality, no observer, and nothing observed. Simply rest in this transparent, nondual presence awareness. Make yourself at home in the natural state of pure presence, just being, not doing anything in particular (Jamgon Kongtrul in Yam 2016).

Thought of as an objective process, presence awareness engages Buddhist concepts to reach beyond concepts. In this way, Buddhist performance art circles in on itself, perpetually inclined towards ontology.         

Notes


[1] Art historians and archaeologists divide Buddhist art into pre-iconic (5th century – 2nd century BCE) and iconic phases (2nd century BCE – present). The pre-iconic phase consisted of depictions of the absence of the Buddha: his footprints carved in stone; an umbrella with nobody beneath it; an empty seat. Contemporary Buddhist inspired performance art reflects a similar adherence to the philosophical stance of No self.

[2] The Beat Generation of American writers came together around 1944 to the early 1960s and played a central role in the development of Buddhism in Western culture. Writers include Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Anne Waldman and Joanne Kyger, amongst others.

[3] Cage describes this departure as a foreshadowing of electronically produced sound: ‘[I]n the past, the point of disagreement has been between dissonance and consonance, it will be, in the immediate future, between noise and so-called musical sounds.’ (Cage 1939/2009, 4)

[4] Japanese Zen Buddhist scholar D.T. Suzuki was a visiting professor at Columbia University in 1951, giving a series of lectures for the public that were attended by John Cage and other artists.

[5] At the centre of the surge in Buddhist interest amongst artists of the 1950s was Black Mountain College in Ashville, North Carolina. Opened in 1933 as a liberal arts college, the institution came to be known for its radical embracing of experimentation and attracted artists seeking an environment in which philosophical enquiry and creative arts practice were given equal value.

[6] An ancient Chinese divination system involving the throwing of yarrow sticks or coins. Cage used the system as a way of devising lists of numbers from which he would compose musical scores from these chance operations.

[7]  A prepared piano is one in which objects are placed on or between the strings to enable the player to use it as a percussion instrument.

[8] The work was created by Philip Corner and performed at the International Festival of the Newest Musicin Wiesbaden, Germany in 1962. The performers included Fluxus founder George Maciunas, Emmett Williams, Wolf Vostell, Nam June Paik, Dick Higgins, Benjamin Patterson, and Alison Knowles.

[9] In this case, delusion refers to a fundamental ignorance of the nature of reality as being empty of inherent existence. Referred to in Buddhist epistemology as ‘unwholesome factors’ (Skt. mūlakleśa) or deluded mind states which include: attachment (raga); anger (pratigha); ignorance (avidya); pride or conceit (māna); doubt (vicikitsa); and wrong view (dristi).

[10] Coined by Chilean biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, the principle of autopoiesis is also used within the fields of sociology, psychotherapy and anthropology, amongst others.

[11] The Artist is Present attracted the second highest attendance of the work of a living artist in MOMA history, bringing in over 850,000 spectators over a three month period.

[12] The work was commissioned by The Serpentine Gallery and ran between June 11th – August 25th 2014.

[13] Abramović’s has created a systematic training methodology called ‘The Abramović Method’ (originally referred to as ‘Cleaning the House’). It utilizes a variety of real and invented meditation tools to heighten awareness, raise energy and develop endurance. Many of her exercises take between 1 – 3 hours to complete.

Works Cited

Abramović, Marina. 2003. The House with the Ocean View. Milan: Charta.

Baas, Jacquelynn, 2005. Smile of the Buddha: Eastern Philosophy and Western Art. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Banes, S. and Lepicki, A. eds. 2007. The Senses in Performance. Abingdon: Routledge

Barrett, Estelle. & Bolt, Barbara, eds. 2007. Practice as Research: Approaches to Creative Arts Enquiry. London: IB Tauris.

Brantmeier, E. J., Lin, J. and Miller, J.P. eds. 2010. Spirituality, Religion and Peace Education. Charlotte: Information Age Publishing Inc.

Brauen, Martin. 2010. ‘Buddhism’s Influence on Contemporary Artists’. Rubin Museum. http://rubinmuseum.org/images/content/Grain_of_Emptiness_press_release.pdf.

Cage, John. 1968/2009. Silence: Lectures and Writings. London: Caldon & Boyars Ltd.

Cixous, Hélène and Calle-Gruber, Mireille. 1997. Rootprints: Memory and Life Writing. London: Routledge.

Dorment, Richard. Marina Abramović’ Review: ‘I hated every second but I can’t deny its power.’ The Telegraph, 12th June 2014. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-reviews/10895104/Marina-Abramovic-review-I-hated-every-second-but-I-cant-deny-its-power.html.

Ellsworth, Elisabeth. 2011. ‘The Wicked Problem of Pedagogy, an Afterword.’ In R.T. Scholz (Ed.), Learning Through Digital Media: Experiments in Technology and Pedagogy (305-311). New York: The Institute for Distributed Creativity.

Fischer-Lichte, Erika. 1997. The Show and the Gaze of Theatre: A European Perspective. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press

  • 2008. The Transformative Power of Performance: A New Aesthetics. Abingdon: Routledge.

Gann, Kyle. 2010. No Such Thing as Silence. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Gullette, Alan. 1976. ‘Nothing is Sacred; or, the Concept of Nothing in Zen.’ Religious Studies 3770: Zen Buddhism (Spring). Knoxville: University of Tennessee.

Haskins, Rob. 2012. John Cage. London: Reaktion Books.

Heddon, Deirdre. 1999. In Search of the Subject: Locating the Shifting Politics of Women’s Performance Art. A Thesis Submitted in partial fulfilment of the Requirements of the University of Glasgow for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy. Glasgow: University of Glasgow.

Heddon, D. and Klein, J. eds. 2012. Histories and Practices of Live Art. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.

Heidegger, Martin. 1966. Being and Time. Trans. J. Stambaugh. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Jaeger, Peter. 2013. John Cage and Buddhist Ecopoetics. London: Bloomsbury.

Jameson, Frederic. 1991. Postmodernism, or, the Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press.

Jaworski, Adam. 1997. Silence: Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Jowett, Deborah. 1997. Meredith Monk. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Kaprow, Allan. 1993. Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kellein, Thomas. 2007. The Dream of Fluxus: George Maciunas: An Artist’s Biography. London: Thames & Hudson.

Larson, Kay. 2012. Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism & the Inner Life of Artists. New York: Penguin Press.

Lehmann, Hans-Thies. 2006. Postdramatic Theatre. Abingdon: Routledge.

Marranca, Bonnie. 2002. ‘Art as Spiritual Practice’, PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, 24 (2): 18-34.

  • ‘Performance and the Spiritual Life: Meredith Monk in Conversation with Bonnie Marranca’, PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, 31, no.1 (2009): 17.

O’Hagan, Sean. 2010. ‘Interview: Marina Abramović.’ The Observer, October 3, 2010. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2010/oct/03/interview-marina-abramovic-performance-artist

Perlman, Ellen. 2012. Nothing and Everything: The Influence of Buddhism on the American Avant-Garde 1942 – 1962. Berkeley: Evolver Editions.

Powers, John. 2008. A Concise Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism. Ithaca: Snow Lion.

Prebish, Charles S. and Baumann, M. eds. 2002. Westward Dharma: Buddhism Beyond Asia. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. 2003. Touching Feeling: Affect, Pegagogy, Performativity. Durham: Duke University Press.

Sogyal Rinpoche. 1993. The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. New York: Harper Collins.

Terada, Rei. 2001. Feeling in Theory: Emotion After the Death of the Subject. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Tonkinson, Carole ed. 1995. Big Sky Mind: Buddhism and the Beat Generation. New York: Riverhead Books.

Townsend, Chris. 2004. The Art of Bill Viola. London: Thames & Hudson.

Yam, Freddie. 2016. ‘View and Meditation of the Great Perfection.’ Accessed March 11, 2021. https://freddieyam.com/gen2/p/jamgon-kongtrul.html

A Moment by the Front Door

Our house is on the smaller side of space for four so there comes a time when my husband seeks the sky outside, on foot. He walks, he strides, he meets the folk who know him in unexpected places in town. This meeting takes place outside the front door in the cold, cold of day. I can see him out the window from my perch indoors, talking animatedly. No stranger receives such warmth so I step outside and see a masked woman in conversation with him and I recognize her by her long dark hair and short stature. She is a student who we know and my husband’s fatherly nature embraces her meekness. She has taken a job as a carer in a retirement home in Attleborough and is asking my husband for help with some shopping. He is a kind man and will help anyone who asks. This is no exception and I stand there watching this exchange and wonder what it could have been like to be on the receiving end of fatherliness. My own father, in his failure, is no match for my husband and I walk back indoors after the briefest of greetings. I have seen many of these moments with the man I married, each one a reminder of my good judgment. Middle age has been good to us and we are lucky to know the freedom that can exist in the depths of monogamy. No marriage is without its difficulties but this one, the second for me, is what I wish I had in the first.

My husband walks back in the house, smiling and sure of himself. He speaks warmly of the student and explains why she asked him for help. He tells me he feels protective of her, knowing how far away from home she is and that she finds herself lonely in the almost empty house she lives in. The other students have not returned during this long lockdown and she is left alone to keep her own company. I smile back at him, always present with his concerns and offer to make a cup of tea. This simple act during these simple times speaks volumes.

Learning from ABCs

I go looking but the centre of my palm remembers more. The shelf gave up the dark mahogany wood to my daughter but only briefly can I recall the gifting. Such small carpentry with its little metal clasp hiding the treasured alphabet. As a child I wondered at my mother’s trinket collection: locks of baby hair in tiny ribbons; the baby teeth of me and my siblings; the miniature pencil encased in silver; and the mahogany box of animal bone letters, carved with such care that it was hard to fathom. The miniature alphabet’s font is unfamiliar but if I had to hazard a guess from its apparent function I would think it was Century Schoolbook. What small hands held these letters? I know that my mother was given the box by her godmother Edith in Herefordshire. Weeks were spent at her farm after the war learning how to churn butter and pluck a chicken.

B U T T E R

C H I C K E N

Edith was beloved in the family as she represented the best of old England. She had no children of her own and treated my mother like family. The bone letter box was a prized possession for what it symbolized and it was not lost on me that my mother considered Edith her first true teacher. To spread the bone letters out on the table is to reach into the history of childhood learning. The letters have sharp corners, except for the rounded ones, and are the colour of cream. Tiny cracks reveal their origins though not enough to suggest cow versus horse bone.

C O W

H O R S E

The box is lined with dark blue velvet, or is it black? Torn in places and smelling of the musty quality of old wood, this box has ancestors. Once grown for its timber, the mahogany tree became a valued commodity to Britons starting in the 18th century. The houses of Victorian England cannot be imagined without the ubiquitous dark wooden furniture, finely carved and lacquered. Reeking of Empire and assets, this little alphabet box could not be here without Britain’s slave history. Mahogany was a status symbol and no amount of tiny bone letters could have been separate from our colonial past.

B O N E

S L A V E

Whether or not she was cognizant of the box’s origins, Edith was a woman of her time and she loved my mother through her gifting of practical skills and encouragement. Gathering up the letters from the table and placing them back in the box, I wonder if my daughter knows its history through osmosis. She knows British colonial history and she knows the alphabet. But she doesn’t know how to churn butter nor pluck a chicken.