Mystic artistry is present in most faiths, easily flowing from one art form to another, as works build upon each other to construct ever more powerful messages. For example, in Islam the Mystic poet Jalal la-Din Rumi created written works that express the cosmology of Sufism by asking us to re-examine reality, and recognize all of existence as a microcosm of spiraling molecules and swirling human activity that is indistinguishable from the macrocosm of spinning planets and galaxies:
Daylight, full of small dancing particles and the one great turning, our souls are dancing with you, without feet, they dance. Can you see them when I whisper in your ear? (37)
A secret turning in us makes the universe turn. (278)
Inside the needle’s eye a turning night of stars. (278)
In the religious order he founded, Rumi’s understanding of reality was enacted physically by the famous whirling dervish ballet of revolving bodies that to this day simultaneously reminds us of dancing solar systems and atoms. The faith underlying Rumi’s art may be subliminal, but is also intentional, and effective. Curiosity in the dervish dance, and the popularity of Rumi’s poetry have served to convey Mystic experience while disseminating a measure of the Sufi doctrine to people who would never have encountered it otherwise.
Art’s power to transmit religious doctrine can seem deceptively light and simple. In Chapter
One of the Tao Te Ching, the mythic philosopher Lao Tzu delivers not only a cosmology, but a theology and a psychology. He defines reality as the “name that cannot be named”, crediting “the nameless” as the origin of heaven and earth, and “naming” as the origin of all things. Man’s role is to rid himself of egocentrism and witness the glorious workings of the universe. All of reality is encompassed in a few brief lines.
The technique of the Mystic artist is to show us familiar reality, then turn it around in our minds, and – like a magic trick that produces a diamond from a raindrop – reveal profound truth. Once we have achieved that magical shift of perception, the subtle force of such a work can also carry deeply serious ethical implications.
“Water Stone”, 1987, Isamu Noguchi
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Nothing in the world is softer than water. Yet nothing is better at overcoming the hard and strong. This is because nothing can alter it. That the soft overcomes the hard And the gentle overcomes the aggressive Is something that everybody knows But none can do themselves.
(Lao Tzu, chapter 78)
Here (above) we see the creations of the poet Lao Tzu and the sculptor Isamu Noguchi. Although the works of these two artists span over two thousand years, both contain the same cleverly understated message: Power is in the hands of the weak. If we perceive political overtones in this, they are clearly deliberate. Kings and Presidents are not impervious to the workings of reality. As evidenced by these two works, the universality of the Taoist doctrine has remained pertinent to mankind through the millennia – people of all cultures and countries still receive this ancient message receptively, demonstrating the extent of religious art’s reach.
The moral ideal at the heart of religious art is its ultimate – and most compelling – message. Artful illustrations of spiritual compassion can attract large numbers of people, break through cultural barriers and affect the spread and acceptance of a faith. In a Buddhist example (below), a man named Asanga encounters a mangy dog, its back covered with sores infested with maggots. Flooded with compassion, Asanga cuts a piece of flesh from his own body and transfers the maggots with his tongue to the substitute meat. This visceral, even repulsive imagery is vividly epitomized on canvas and is reflected in verse emphasizing selfless concern for others, a principal Buddhist belief.
“Buddhist Lineage” (Detail)
Collection of Rubin Museum of Art, New York
Thus others will be now my chief concern.
And everything I see my body has
Will all be seized and given
For the use and service of all other beings.
Take others - lower, higher, equal - as yourself, Identify yourself as 'other' ... (Shantideva, 8:139-140)
Works of art emphasizing compassion helped Buddhism advance eastward, finding a receptive audience in China, where the Bodhisattva goal of helping other beings reach enlightenment meshed readily with ancient Confucian concepts of social responsibility.
The inspired artist creates his work not only to convey his passion, but to evoke it in others – every work of art has a mission. Religious art is the most successful missionary because it bypasses word and thought to communicate directly with our souls. Art takes the artist and the viewer to a place of shared experience which is, for as long as we linger there, timeless. There we experience unity – like the Mystic, we become passion itself.
Lao Tzu. Tao Te Ching. Charles Muller, trans. New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2005.
Noguchi, Isamu. Water Stone. 1987. Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Oct. 2006.
Rumi, Jalal al-Din. The Essential Rumi. Coleman Barks, trans. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1995.
Unknown artist. Buddhist Lineage. New York: Rubin Museum of Himalayan Art. Himalayan Art Resources.
Shandtideva. The Way Of The Bodhisattva: A Translation Of The Bodhicharyavatara. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1997.