03 February 2010


No time for blogging in the last 6 weeks or so...so I thought I would post the talk I gave on Creativity tonight at the San Francisco Buddhist Center.

What is creativity?
What is creative mind?
And...how do I get one??

We're going to be exploring creativity this evening, especially creativity of the mind. Part of this is going to be interactive. First of all I’m going to be conveying several quotations from people other than myself. And also some of the questions I will ask I would like you to answer, if you are moved to do so, which will be maybe more engaging for all of us. Also I think the model of one person getting up here and talking and everyone else listening…can be a bit limited so I’d like to try something a little bit more dynamic.

I have a cold right now so hopefully my gravelly voice will help move things along as well.

'Creativity' or 'create' is a very old word, possibly going as far back as the proto Indo-European language 4,000 years ago. It's related to the word 'crescent' which means to grow and originally referred to a waxing moon.

So that is one of the meanings of create, to grow or produce something. The other meaning which I sort of made up derived from various sources, is creativity as a mode of operating that is totally open, unburdened by cyclic habitual patterns. True creativity is fueled by insight, by understanding, though not necessarily intellectual understanding, something deeper than that.

William James said, "Genius...means little more than the faculty of perceiving in a non-habitual way."

Essentially what he's talking about is a creative mind. Here I will confess that I’m pretty sure that's all there is to say, but unfortunately I'm going to be talking about it for 45 more minutes anyway!

Much of the material I will present tonight comes from a talk given by Sangharakshita, founder of our Order, at the London Buddhist Center in 2002. Also from an essay by the same author called Mind Reactive and Creative, in which he's distinguishes between two modes of operation of the mind. Which is where I will start.

Apects of the Reactive Mind

The Reactive mind is conditioned, mechanical, repetitive, and unaware. And all these characteristics are pretty much the same thing.

First of all, reactive means re-active. It means acting again in the same way. Re-acting. It does not really act, but only re-acts. There is no spontaneity, out of its own inner abundance, it needs an external cause to set it in motion.

Would someone like to offer an example of this kind of mind, a re-acting mind? I have examples if you don't, but I thought it would be more interesting, at least for me, to hear examples from you.

For me, let's say I get up in the morning and say, ok, I don't need to check my email, I'm just going to eat a mindful breakfast. 10 minutes later I'm checking my email. In the Dhammapada this is spoken about in terms of channeling water. We have these channels. We don't know we're in them. The current is taking us in a particular direction. That is the current of what we have made of our own mind. I'm sure we can all come up with examples of this in our own lives. Things we do over and over again that we are only vaguely aware of.

In that movie Requiem for a Dream this process gets personified as a refrigerator--the woman's refrigerator talks to her, tells her what to do. Which is a very creative way of illustrating an essentially uncreative or reactive mode of operation of the mind.

As is implied by the term re-active, this kind of mind is also very repetitive. You see this very much in certain relationships. You say A, I say B, you say C, I say D. It's very repetitive and predictable.

Like a machine, the reactive mind goes on doing the same thing with no or little awareness over and over again. This is the realm of habit or habitual as William James referred to it. This is associated with what we call cyclic existence and the Wheel of Life. Traveling on a certain track, making the groove of the track deeper and harder to get off of.

Most of all, the reactive mind is the unaware mind. Whatever it does, it does not really know it. It does not have any real knowledge or perspective on what it is doing. When we're in this mode, we can describe ourselves as asleep rather than awake.

Sangharakshita: "It is with this realization — when we become aware of our own unawareness, when we wake up and know we have been asleep — that spiritual life begins."

Which brings us to the main subject at hand, the creative mind.

Aspects of the Creative Mind

As you might guess, the characteristics of the creative mind are the opposite of those of the reactive mind. The creative mind does not re-act. It is not dependent on, or determined by, external events. It functions spontaneously, out of the depths of its own intrinsic nature. It does not see things including itself as isolated or ultimately separate.

The creative mind can be said to respond rather than to react. Most of us are probably familiar with this distinction. One way is awake, one way is asleep. And maybe sometimes there are elements of both present.

And the Creative mind is optimistic in a particular way.

Here is a slightly paraphrased quote from Mind Reactive and Creative:

"Hence it can also be said that whereas the reactive mind is essentially pessimistic, being confined to ...immediate experience, the creative mind is profoundly and radically optimistic. Its optimism is not, however...superficial optimism...a mere unthinking reaction to pleasure...the optimism of the creative mind persists despite unpleasant stimuli, despite conditions unfavourable for optimism, or even when there are no conditions for it at all. The creative mind loves where there is no reason to love, is happy where there is no reason for happiness, creates where there is no possibility of creativity, and in this way 'builds a heaven in hell’s despair.'"
[last part is from Blake]

So in this very inspiring passage we discover that Creative mind is loving and it is happy. No matter what influences it is surrounded by. As we know, it doesn't have a mechanical repetitive response to things, say unhappiness. It's independent in some way, or at least not linked, not bound to external events. I’ll say more about love and happiness in other sections of this talk.

Also spontaneous and free. Sangharakshita says, Indeed, it is Freedom itself.

The Creative mind is also characterized by ceaseless productivity. This is interesting. I think some of us have a sense that we are only worthy human beings if we are productive. But this is a different thing. This is productivity that has absolutely nothing to prove. Because if we feel we always need to prove ourselves, where is the kindness in that?

For myself, I think it’s good to waste some time. If this sounds really hard, probably all the better as something to try. Sangharakshita says, "You don't have to justify your existence by being useful. You yourself are the justification for your existence." What compels the creative mind is of course not justifying existence, or proving or avoidung anything, but simple and pure and free and spontaneous energy.

The creative mind does not necessarily find expression in ‘works of art’. You might think, Well what is it doing then? Later on I'm going to say a bit about four areas of our lives where creativity can manifest itself.

But a general point I want to make first is that creativity is playing. It's a playful attitude, bringing a playful attitude. We don't need to be martyrs. Bodhisattvas joyfully play at everything they do. Sangharakshita says, “One can regard this as a spontaneous overflowing of [their] inner realization, which transcends the immediate situation." So I think this is very interesting this idea of play, as a way of living, and I will come back to it later on.

So, the creative mind is above all an aware mind. Being aware, or rather, being Awareness itself, the creative mind is also intensely and radiantly alive.

So a person who's mind is operating in creative mode, is

intensely and radiantly alive

Elsewhere Sangharakshita has defined nirvana, the goal of Buddhist practice, as "irreversible spiritual creativity." I find this a very beautiful description. Irreversible creativity. Makes it seem more like a process, like a very attractive way of being, rather than a 'thing', which is what it sounds like when we talk about Enlightenment.

What would the effect be if we started thinking of our practice in terms of endless creativity? Would that change anything?

The goal of Buddhism is irreversible creativity. I wonder if that’s all I really need to remember.

Preciousness of Life

Part of that irreversible creativity consists in appreciating things, being in touch with the preciousness of life. Nietzsche said that “art is essentially the affirmation, the blessing, and the deification of existence.”

This is very interesting to me personally. I think I naturally have a great love and appreciation of the preciousness of life. I also have this deep kind of hatred of life. I don't know what is underneath what. I would like to think that the love is underneath the hate, and I think the odds of that are pretty good, but just based on my experience, I do not know for certain. I just know that I get overcome occasionally, sometimes only for a few seconds, with a very bodily sense of I do not care, there is no point, everything is, if you'll pardon the expression, completely fucked.

Part of my process is accepting this aspect of myself, not trying to change it because I can't, although it may well change. I don't need to make it into a problem, just know that this is part of what informs the way I experience or interpret life. And appreciation is also part of that.

To see the preciousness of life, we have to stop focusing on what we think is wrong, and obsessing over how to overcome what is wrong and get our needs and standards met. We have to see suffering for what it is, see into the heart of suffering, see it even if it is covered over or cloaked by an angry or indifferent face. This is part of the reason our life is so precious, because of all the difficulties, and the fact that whatever good conditions we may have today may not be here tomorrow.

Seeing the suffering in life and not turning away from it. From our own suffering and the suffering all around us. Seeing the suffering in our entrenched relationships and working on them. Which are possibly some of the most 're-active' connections we have, perhaps with people in our family.

This is one way that we free up creative energy, by engaging with and untangling our tangled up human relationships. I think we all have them. (If you don't have them, then you perhaps have a lot of energy available!)

Wallace Stevens: "The way through the world is more difficult to find than the way beyond it."

Very true, very beautiful. So as we go through the world we see how much difficulty there is, we see deeply how precious this opportunity is, how precious this life is. We feel it every day. How lucky we are, and our pain, and what is made by the combination of the two.

Trungpa agrees, "Genuine inspiration is not particularly dramatic....It comes from settling down in your environment and accepting situations as natural. Out of that you realize you can dance with them."


Another angle on this from Trungpa:
"Genuine art—Dharma Art—is simply the activity of nonaggression."

Fascinating. What is meant here by aggression? Aggression is re-activity. Aggression is unaware stress, confusion, suffering, shutting down toward life, not seeing life, not appreciating life.

Trungpa also says, "We have to be honest, real, and very earthy, and we need to really appreciate things as they are."

I felt a small shift along these lines the other day when I felt locked in stress and went for a walk up the hill and saw three beautiful Siberian huskies. There was a lot to appreciate before I saw them but after I saw them I was more able to appreciate everything else.

Non-aggression means whatever is not aggression, which suggests love. Which brings us back to what we were saying before, "The creative mind loves where there is no reason to love." The creative mind takes Rumi's advice, who tells us that "our task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within ourselves that we have built against it." So this is part of the work, the play of the creative mind.

We don't ordinarily think of associating Buddhism with love. It has kind of a rational, mental connotation in the west, where many of us fear hocus pocus. I think we need to start associating Buddhism with love. Ideally people who meet us would automatically start to associate Buddhism with love just by how we are.

Freedom From Self

We can use creativity as a skillful way of working with the energy of the eternally hungry or dissatisfied ego centrism or egoism that we all live to some degree.

Duke Ellington said of his art, "I merely took the energy it took to pout and wrote some blues." Which echoes very much what I was saying before about channeling habits. He is showing us how we can divert egoistic energies into more creative channels, and find ways to do that.

Suzuki Roshi said, "Our delusion is a step ladder." Our delusion is essentially egotism, or a failure to imagine or deeply experience our intrinsic connectedness with the world. So creativity is very much about using, celebrating even, all the energy that we have.

From an essay called The Path of the Inner Life:
"It has been recognized even in the West that all great Art contains an element of self-transcendence akin to that which constitutes the quintessence of religion. When this element of self transcendence is consciously cultivated in poetry, in music or in painting and sculpture instead of the element of mere sensual appeal, art ceases to be a form of sensuous indulgence, and becomes a kind of spiritual discipline, and the highest stages of spiritual contemplation become spiritual experiences."

Another quote, this one from Adrienne Rich who said, "Change is the only poem." So we can use the spiritual discipline of creativity to work with the entrenched self, and use it to help there be movement beyond the self all together, and enter into the freer, more open realm of the play and spontaneity and spaciousness and color.

What Conditions Make us Feel Creative?

These five things are mostly from my own thinking about what makes creativity more accessible.


To become more creative we can cultivate spaciousness: expansive rather than contracted point of view. Suzuki: "To give your cow or sheep a large meadow is the way to control him."

It's hard to keep up this kind of spacious perspective in a city. I really can't do it, although I'm getting a bit better, and I rely a great deal on retreats for this, for a little infusion of perspective, a little space around my life. Spaciousness also means creating space in our lives for what is important. For example, just meditating in the morning can be like a little holiday from practical demands.


Cultivate receptivity to spiritual friends, to the dharma, to art, to ritual, to other points of view.
As Jean Cocteau said, "The poet doesn't invent. He listens."

We can be aware where our views are rigid and seeing the suffering of that, trying to loosen up a bit around that. Even though we're right. Rightness isn't defensive. Creative rightness expresses the non-aggression referred to before by Trungpa.

Be more pagan

So bringing the emotional life, the body, physicality, our animal nature, more into spiritual practice.

I just feel sometimes like there's kind of a WASPY bourgeois aesthetic. So trying loosen up around cultural conditioning and be more open. I don't want to assume anything about other cultures and backgrounds. I just know that some aspects of my mind are derived from a certain Scandanavian reserve combined with the classic suburban obsession with convincing others that everything is ok.

So by being more pagan, I mean, everything is not necessarily ok. Things are sometimes wild and chaotic. We don't have to put on a show, or at least not all the time, at least not, hopefully, here.

Anyway. I would like to be more in touch with the earth.


Embrace the insight of skilful humor, which sees through life, sees the irony of life. Lenny Bruce said that the only honest art form is laughter.

Sarvananda, a member of our Order and a playwright says: "The comic spirit delights in the new, in the dynamic, in energy. The comic spirit detests the habitual, the repetitive, the familiar. The comic spirit seeks to liberate energy. That’s what a laugh is - liberated energy. In the Vajrasattva mantra, there’s that explosion of energy - Ha ha ha ha ho. It’s the cosmic joke.
I thought I was a ball and chain and basically I’m a dynamic, free flowing bundle of energy. And that’s funny."

Remembering that one of the characteristics of irreversible creativity is happiness. And with happiness comes playfulness and laughter.

Explicit creative activity

Engaging in explicit Creative activity makes us feel more creative. This is in the realm of what Sangharakshita calls the Imaginal faculty—I think he got it from Shelley—that is, imagination as the creative power, the creative force, in the human mind. The ability to operate in other modes besides the strictly rational. In the realm of myth and symbol. Not going to say much about that in this talk but perhaps more will be said about creativity in regards to myth and symbol on some other occasion.

So engaging with fine arts is a way to be more creative.

[A brief interlude: can we just not let our lives get sucked away by the internet? Or letting it be involved to the degree that it gets our work done and supports creativity, and no more.]

Singing and dancing. We often leave these things to children. We often leave creativity to children, because they are so naturally imaginative.
Is there some kind of creative endeavor that you love that you have left behind in your childhood?

So I recommend singing and dancing, especially if the idea horrifies you. Maybe we'll be able to offer something here this year that will help.

In a way what this is about is finding different modes of expression. For example, here we communicate through speech, sometimes one person speaking and others listening. But there are other ways to communicate. For example, throwing or catching a ball.

Four Arenas for Creativity

What are the areas of your life where creativity is operating, or could operate?


The first is of course the rather obvious one of the arts — music, poetry, literature in general, film, the visual arts, painting, sculpture — these are all, at their best, manifestations of creativity.


Maybe this is obvious. The second area or field of creativity is meditation. So when you meditate what are you creating? Sangharakshita says, we're creating skillful mental states or mental events. We are bringing them into existence.

It's funny that to say I'm creating positive mental states when I meditate doesn't really mean that much to me, although the way I would put it probably amounts to about the same thing. I see meditation as helping me see how my mind works, and that process, even if what I'm seeing is unskillful, seems to facilitate a more positive and creative mind and of course is itself a more positive and creative mind.

So it’s important that we think of meditation as a creative activity, as one of the most creative activities in which we can possibly engage, whether we are on our cushion or whether we are moving about in the world.


The third area where creativity manifests itself, the area of friendship.

A lot can happen within the context of a friendship as I hope many of us know. Friendship can become what Sangharakshita has called "a sort of mutual transcendence of egoism". This goes back to the freedom from self we talked about earlier. And if of course you get a number of people, in a relationship of mutual friendship, as we have here, something very great and very precious can be produced.

In the context of Buddhism, spiritual friendship is based essentially on the fact that both people are committed to the Dharma, are dedicated to the Dharma — that is an important basis on which the friendship is founded. So as spiritual friends we are helping each other to engage more deeply with that common Dharma to which both of us are dedicated. So in this way there comes about that mutual transcendence of self, of separateness.

Friendship is something unique. If you have a real friendship with someone you get from that friendship something you don’t get from your relationship with your parents or from your relationship with your employer or your relationship, say with your children, or your relationship with your sexual partner. You get something completely different, something unique.

So this is the third area, the third arena, in a way, within which creativity manifests itself — within that of friendship. I'm curious as to whether people relate to this or not, whether or not you feel that your friendships have this element of creativity.


The fourth one is institutions, a word that instantly makes me think of prisons. But if we think about it institutions are very important. Without institutions there’s no civilization, there’s no culture.

Sangharakshita makes the point that everything that is alive is organized. If you look at a plant, it’s organized, it has a structure, and when the plant dies, when it’s deprived of water, what happens? — it disintegrates. So long as it has life it has structure, it has organization, its elements are cooperative. It’s the same obviously with the human being. Whatever is alive is organized. So the organization within the context of civilization and culture is a very important development, a very important manifestation of creativity. It usually takes a lot of people to bring an institution into existence, and it takes a long time for them to do it.

We see in the world all sorts of organizations, and among them of course is what used to be called FWBO which is now called the Triratna Buddhist Community, of which this Center is a part. FYI Triratna means three jewels. It has been built up, created, over the last 40 odd years. The San Francisco Buddhist Center is also an institution. So much energy went into its creation and continues to go into it, some people are very committed to this place and many people over the years have benefited from it.

So this place represents the creation of something valuable, which is of benefit to people. We have the Triratna Buddhist Community also as an institution. We have the SFBC as an institution. I mean, it's a small one. I guess if we have a negative view of institutions, we can at least see the positive aspects as well. American culture very much emphasizes individual will, but what an individual can do is very limited. We are cooperative creatures.

So these are some of the areas, within which creativity manifests. There’s the arts; meditation; friendship, especially spiritual friendship; and finally institutions that are established for people's benefit.


Above all the creative mind is a nondual mind, without limitation. The creative mind breaks through appearances, moving toward a free and unknown reality.

So let's work together on being more creative, on being more

intensely and radiantly alive

And let's think about how we can approach our practice of irreversible creativity. If you have ideas about ways you would like to explore this at this Center, I would like to hear them.

I hope that coming here especially over this year will help us all to get more in touch with our creative, playful mind. May we find it together.

So that maybe at the end of our life, we can say as Oscar Wilde suggested that our life has been our art. Maybe then we will be able to say that our days were our sonnets, that we have set ourselves to music.


Sangharakshita, Mind Reactive and Creative
Sangharakshita, Fields of Creativity
Chogyam Trungpa, Dharma Art [on Amazon]
Sarvananda's website
San Francisco Buddhist Center

1 comment:

nobodhi said...

cherishable words in (for me) a classic dharma talk i'll refer to again & again thank you

next time you're in the 'hood, pls stop by the haiku corner of the tricycle universe i've been hosting for tricycle magazine's online poetry club : http:;//community.tricycle.com ( sign up & speak out ) ; look for the frog, everyone's welcome. haiku tap into & empower universal creativity. and u wld always be happy to do my 3-hr haiku workshop at the center in 2010 or 2011 or 2012 if you like. bye for now

happy year of the tiger & the tigress

palms joined



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