Life is an Art or Buddha’s eightfold path

Life is an Art or Buddha’s eightfold path

“Art can give us hope, I think, but religion can’t.” said Damien Hirst in a conversation with curator Ann Gallagher on the occasion of his 2012 exhibition at Tate Modern.

This struck me as a very interesting statement. Isn’t living life itself an art? Isn’t living life as if it were an art an art? And didn’t religion use to provide guidance towards a life well lived?

Consider the ingredients the artful mastery of life includes:

The creativity that manifests a truly individual live not lived according to a holy instruction manual or solely by the tacit requirements of society.

The Call of the Unknown that requires you to leave your comfort zone and step out into uncharted territory like Abraham or any other misunderstood artist. (That histrionic guy from Austria with the toothbrush-moustache comes to mind, so, tread carefully when you enter the dark zone!)

The quest for an ultimate answer to the question this very moment of being poses, wedged in between the wonders of once having been and the mystery of soon not going to be.

The pursuit of beauty in the absence of perfection. (If trial ends in error as it usually does, then why not at least err beautifully?) Trace the convoluted paths of your searching soul like Jackson Pollock‘s drippings on the canvas of life.

The constant practice required to learn how to live your life while driving with no instructor sitting next to you to hit the brakes. Consider practice as an integral part of the performance and count in the endless hours you spent perfecting that piece of music as an a prelude to its final blossoming on stage.

The need to shine in the darkness, the ambition to grow, expand and multiply, the fickleness of fortune. Living, if not ones best life, then at least a decent one, is a heroic task apparently as unlikely to accomplish as painting something like the Mona Lisa.

In the past, I’d like to believe, religion equalled the daily practice necessary to master the art of life.

It was guidance, it was inspiration and aspiration, it was beauty.

But these days common sense is that the failure of good old-fashioned religion is undeniable. Beaten and worn out it has left the public arena and become a niche product. The wisdom that emerged from the life-experience of countless individuals dedicated to the quest for truth, distilled over generations in beautiful narratives, doesn’t speak to us anymore. (You may have wondered why I mentioned Abraham and what Abraham has in common with an artist.) Once upon a time these old stories served to unite tribes but they could not but fail to unite humankind globally. Cultures clash and disintegrate, all kinds of different ideas abound, we are drowning in a flood of information we simply don’t know how to deal with, and as a consequence more and more of us feel like being caught in a maelstrom of dissolving order or like being  stuck in a global traffic jam. Like butterflies to the wet paint on canvas.

Being stuck to the dried paint on canvas spells doom.

But it’s not quite true. You’re not really stuck. This is a story you can stop telling yourself.

We are now free to pick up bits and pieces of ancient wisdom someone left by the wayside. And every once in a while one of those abandoned old sages, (usually, I’m afraid, white, privileged and male, how annoying!) actually speaks to me. Can’t say I quite understand what he’s saying but it resonates with me and I accept it as authoritative.

Like Buddha’s eightfold path.

But what am I to do with it as a foreigner in a foreign country that has long left Buddhism behind?

I lack the cultural background and the community within which these dead old words can come to life.

I need to try and understand, then appropriate the idea behind those words with due respect, make it humbly mine and exercise all the care and responsibility an adopted stray cat would deserve. Wisdom must not be subsumed under preconceived ideas or egocentric illusions, but recognised as the voice of what Marcus Aurelius called the Ruling Faculty which is creating, ordering, and sustaining the whole universe as well as your mind, soul and body if you allow it to.

Such seizing, interpretation and retelling has been going on for millennia ever since the idea entered collective consciousness, and is part and parcel of the tradition, the Medium and the Message. The results range from unfortunate usurpation like “The Eightfold Path of Buddhism for an Effective & Credible Leadership” which will enable your boss to perpetrate his destructive wrongdoings with a perfectly good conscience to Aldous Huxley’s rephrasing in “The Perennial Philosophy” which particularly appealed to me and which I would like to quote here in full:

Buddha's Eightfold Path

Complete deliverance is conditional on the following :

first, Right Belief in the all too obvious truth that the cause of pain and evil is craving for separative, ego-centered existence, with its corollary that there can be no deliverance from evil, whether personal or collective, except by getting rid of such craving and the obsession of 'I,''me,''mine';

second, Right Will, the will to deliver oneself and others;

third, Right Speech, directed by compassion and charity towards all sentient beings;

fourth, Right Action, with the aim of creating and maintaining peace and goodwill;

fifth, Right Means of Livelihood, or the choice only of such professions as are not harmful, in their exercise, to any human being or, if possible, any living creature;

sixth, Right Effort towards Self-control;

seventh, Right Attention or Recollectedness, to be practised in all the circumstances of life, so that we may never do evil by mere thoughtlessness, because 'we know not what we do' ; and,

eighth, Right Contemplation, the unitive knowledge of the Ground, to which recollectedness and the ethical self-naughting prescribed in the first six branches of the Path give access.


Painfully aware of the ultimate outcome of all my earthly efforts I have spent many years practicing Zen-meditation, investing in spiritual growth and creating non-lucrative art rather than directing my energies towards making money or a career.

I strove with none, for none was worth my strife:

Nature I loved, and, next to Nature, Art:

I warm’d both hands before the fire of Life;

It sinks; and I am ready to depart.

But now, as old age is approaching and I re-read Buddha's Eightfold Path, it’s dawning on me that it’s all interconnected: attaining enlightenment is predicated on right livelihood and vice versa. In fact, the Eightfold Path now reads like a perfect blueprint for a successful life lived in wealth, abundance and joy. Asceticism and unworldliness is no longer a worthy goal and appears self-serving, benefiting no one but the budding Sadhu.

I shall explore this in more detail in future blogs.

Also, I recommend checking out Jessica Davidson "Writer-Storyteller-Mystic"

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