Denial of Beauty by Austerity?
- By Fa Dao, OHY
- Dec 22
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According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, beauty is "the quality or aggregate of qualities in a person or thing that gives pleasure to the senses or pleasurably exalts the mind or spirit." According to some it is an aspect of life or "samsara" that Zen/Chan denies.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
There is a reason why Chan in particular, and Buddhism in general, counts among its numbers a large population of artists, writers and creative people. This reason keys on the aspect of beauty that "exalts the mind or spirit."
No one can look upon the body of Oriental and Buddhist arts and letters and show them as a denial of "exhaltation of the mind or spirit." It is perfectly acceptable (even expected) as practitioners of Chan that we appreciate the beauty of a sunrise, of mountains shrouded in clouds, a masterful song or lyric -- or even a handsome man or woman who passes through our life. Anyone who as ever seen a proper temple altar cannot deny its "exhaltation of the mind and spirit."
The "Middle Way" of Chan teaches us that we can have a greater appreciation of beauty if we do not become attached to it. We accept that the rose has thorns. Is it not obvious, for example, that our appreciation of a beautiful man or woman is actually lessened when the appreciation becomes lust or desire?
The "Middle Way" of Chan teaches that we are human beings on a spiritual path and that appreciation of the beauty in small things can lift us out of mental sorrow or spritual adversity. The simple nudge of a pet against our leg lifts calamity an can change tears of sorrow to tears of joy.
The Middle Way of Chan teaches us that beauty is transient. After the sunset comes the night. The flower fades. The beautiful man or woman falls ill or is capable of anger.
The Middle Way of Chan teaches us that NOW is the only moment we truly have and that the beauty in that now should be cherished. The clouds on the mountain may bring cold and snow, but even the snow will blanket the earth in a mantle of purity.
Chan certainly recognize that beauty is a creation of mind -- the coming together of aggregate things that the mind then perceives as pleasurable. But so does Merriam Webster. How does this detract from beauty in the moment in which it is perceived? It doesn't. Only if we forsake the NOW and cling to the future loss: then we deny the beauty.
In the Pali language, the teachings reflect that, among the qualities of the Buddha and the qualities to be sought in life, is sugatha. Sugatha means "beauty, excellence, pleasantness". The teachings state that the Buddha himself was endowed with Sugatha. In some Buddhist traditions it is even taught that a beautiful many-colored aura of light radiated around his body.
We can certainly appreciate the poetic description of beauty, excellence and pleasantness emanating like lights to the world.
If we follow the Eightfold Path, we too radiate sugatha -- beauty, excellence and pleasantness into the world. If we live the precepts, walk the teachings and see the beauty in even the most harrowing of situations, it is we who have become the lamp radiating light to ourself and to others. And how better would we appreciate the beauty in any moment than by becoming a part of the beauty itself?
The lotus flower is one of Buddhism's most significant symbols and itself a parable about beauty and wisdom. It is a symbol of enlightenment and mental purity, but the beautiful flower has its roots in mud. It reminds us that as humans we may be "only human," but we too can reach enlightenment and perfection.
In Buddhist art, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are often depicted sitting on a fully opened lotus flower. An open blossom in Buddhist art signifies full enlightenment; a closed blossom signifies a womb, and the potential for enlightenment -- the untapped presence of Buddha-nature in us all.
Shakyamuni Buddha is often associated with a pink lotus. Kwan Yin or Avalokitesvara is associated with the red lotus, which symbolizes love and compassion. The blue lotus is associated with Manjusri and symbolizes wisdom.
The Venerable Mahakashyapa, our first patriarch, came to enlightenment by the beauty and subtlety of the flower. He inherited the Dharma when the Buddha twirled a lotus flower during an Assembly of monks. Mahakashyapa, understanding the Dharma in that moment, gave a subtle smile. The Buddha then announced, "The Proper Dharma Eye Treasury that I possess, the wornderful mind of Nirvana, the real mark that is no mark, the subtle and wornderful Dharma door that establishes no texts and is a special transmission outside the teaching, I entrust to Mahakashyapa."
The Buddha passed on to Mahakashyapa his robe, his bowl and his spiritual legacy all because of a beautiful flower. It is from the experience of Mahakashyapa that we recognize the sudden aspect of enlightenment and understanding of the Dharma from ways other than scholasticism and training.
Every act in Chan is an act of beauty if we practice mindfullness. There is beauty abundant in "chop wood, carry water.
We all know the stories about taking joy and actively participating in even the most mundane actions -- "becoming one with washing dishes" or the "Wax on, Wax off" silliness as the Karate Kid washed his teacher's car. -- but there is truth in these stories. If we appreciate the functioning of our muscles as we apply the car wax and then wipe it clear, the chore becomes an engrossing and even sensuous experience. If we learn to appreciate the rhythm of lift, wash, rinse, dry -- lift, wash, rinse, dry -- lift, wash, rinse, dry; then we learn to see the rhythm of life itself (and are less likely to contract disease from eating off of filthy plates!).
The simplest of foods or the meanest of meals is a banquet if we appreciate it for what it is -- sustenance, a gift from the earth and the fruit of the labors of men and women. A simple noodle is fit for a king when we appreciate its texture and subtlety of flavor. Even crusty old Lin Chi recognized this by asking at a banquet "what place is this to speak of coarse and fine?"
This is the depth of the beauty we learn from the Chan teachings.
Denial of beauty by austerity? Not on your life -- or any of the moments therein.