Saturday, March 06, 2010

The Empty Boat(s)

“This notion of Emptiness thus...concludes that all known realities are constructed realities whose identities are merely intellectual conveniences used to order the world so that it can be understood.”
from Buddhism by Kevin Trainor

Last summer an old friend commissioned me to do a painting as a birthday present for her husband. She wanted a painting of her husband's favorite story, a Buddhist fable known as The Empty Boat Story - a story I had never heard despite the fact that my brother was a Buddhist monk and my mother is a practicing Buddhist. There are various versions of the tale but the consensus is that a man is out in a boat; it is either dark or foggy- depending on the version - but basically there is no visibility. All is peaceful until suddenly the man's boat is rammed by another boat and he becomes quite angry until the clearing fog (or emerging moon) reveal that the offending boat is empty; his anger collapses in the face of this revelation.

Like all great stories this one can be read in many ways. Possible readings range from advice on anger management to a meditation on the nature of reality. At its essence I believe it is a story that questions whether we can know what is real.

At first I was quite daunted at the prospect of this commission: the story was interesting but not really a painter's story. But I really like this friend of mine and I didn't want to disappoint her. Plus I needed the money. So I brushed up my Buddhist chops, thought deeply about the tale, and even spent a day out drawing boats. Then I did what we all do - threw it aside and just painted. And once I started I couldn't stop and, instead of one painting, did two.

In the first a boat emerges from the mist and appears to move towards the viewer with the force of intention but the shifting atmosphere reveals that it is, in fact, empty. The empty boat is like an angry emotion that rises up unbidden during meditation. When the meditator gains the awareness that that emotion is an illusion his consciousness expands. The second painting shows tis hieghtened state: here the scene has shifted to a moonlit night and the illusion of logical reality falls away like torn paper, revealing a luminous center – or is that too an illusion?

I gave my friend the option to choose either painting and she chose the first one, the realistic one. I was left with the semi-abstraction and after awhile I copied it and did a larger version.

The experience left me thinking about how painting, like Buddhism, deals with "constructed realities" and how paintings are used to order the world so it can be understood. And from this began a new artistic journey...