An artist, in his wisdom, could paint something ugly, and in some way there is something beautiful about it. I like old buildings that look like they are falling down. They represent decay. They also represent a place where beings lived and were protected. Some beings might still use an old, deteriorating barn as protection, at least rats, mice or squirrels. Maybe people slept in it at one time, so it has a feeling of history to it. It’s not blank; various beings resided there and used it as a home. Some died or moved out, and other animals or people moved in. Now it has been through its lifespan and is falling apart, so perhaps it's not used in the same way, but it still has a feeling that it was home. I don't feel any negativity about any of that. When I see a dilapidated barn, I feel the Tao.
An artist doesn't have to draw something pretty. There is something very beautiful in that crumbling barn. Soon it will become dirt and compost. It has the chi of a particular time in the cycle, in this case, decline.
If you consult the I Ching and pick a hexagram that seems negative such as #23 "Erosion/Decline," you might think, “That’s unfortunate. I got the bad one." You shouldn't really think of it as negative, however. When I come across a ramshackle barn, that is an example of decline, but I am able to see that in a good way. I don't try to make it a happy barn. I just observe it and feel the ghosts of it, and somehow there is something satisfying about it.
An old barn or a run-down cabin is an interesting thing. Certain beings inhabited it and now they are gone, but a bit of their energy still remains in those walls and you can feel it in there. Even though the structure is not pretty, in some way it has appeal because it is starting to blend in with nature more, with the trees and grass around it. It’s turning brown, losing its paint, starting to fall apart. It is beginning to look like a compost pile. If you kept watching it for long enough, eventually it would be a forest.
Out in the country, sometimes I see rock foundations where people must have lived a hundred years ago. They must have been tough people. Some of the frames are fairly large, so they must have put up decent-sized houses. When I look at those foundations, I see people.
When an artist paints, he doesn't have to paint everything. All the metaphysics will go into the painting on their own. The American artist Thomas Kinkade exemplifies that very well. He paints a painting, and then his metaphysics go into it automatically. The painting has more to it than the sum of its parts, so he doesn't have to paint the magic in it. The magic jumps right in. Everything he paints is like masks and shells. He doesn't try to paint the soul because it's not possible to paint the soul. The soul jumps in on its own—it goes along for the ride.
All forms are merely shells. An artist can only paint clothing, masks, shells. Even if he paints nudes, he is just painting clothing. Even if he paints faces, he is just painting masks. Even if he paints beings, he is just painting shells and fur coats. Until an artist understands that he won't paint as well. All forms are simply ornamentation of the spirit. An artist can't paint the spirit. Everything he paints is like necklaces or earrings. It can be great fun to make ornamentation. An artist is painting wonderful ornamentations on the spirit, on the Tao. He can't paint the Tao anymore than a buddha has characteristics. He can't paint the Tao; he can't paint the buddha, but he can go ahead and ornament it endlessly. He is painting shells, ornaments and clothing. He might think he is painting the essence, the Tao, God or spirit, but he isn't. Those are in everything already; he doesn't need to paint them.
A dilapidated building can easily hold the energy, teaching and wisdom of the Tao. A work of art that is trying to be the Tao can't really know the Tao very well. Some art pieces can make it difficult to recognize the Tao, but the Tao is there. They don't take the Tao away, but they do make it more challenging to know the Tao.
Other art pieces can make it easy to know the Tao. If an artist paints the shell, then the soul can jump in there. But if the artist thinks he is painting the soul, then he becomes confused, competitive. There is no need to compete with the Tao. The Tao is already in the ink even before the artist starts drawing. The Tao is already in the canvas before he touches it. The artist could give the Tao a coat, a hat, some new shoes. The Tao could have a body, a building, a tree, a vase of flowers.
What the artist does is to give the Tao a form. There is nothing wrong with that. He doesn't need to try and sculpt the Tao. He sculpts the form that the Tao can embody. He is creating a vase into which the Tao can insert itself.
Memorize these words: an artist should only paint shells, clothing, ornaments, jewelry, masks. Those are the correct words. All painters should paint those things.
If an artist doesn't know the Tao and with heavy conceptuality thinks, "African masks are very exotic," and then paints an African mask, that is unlikely to be a great painting. If he knows the Tao, however, when he paints someone's face, he sees that face as nothing but a magical, playful mask.
An artist who doesn't know that is not a great artist. He doesn't really have the Yin and Yang to create fully. A face is a mask, and even a naked body is clothing. Whatever an artist paints is an ornamentation of the buddha. If an artist has fun, then the buddhas will enjoy his painting. Buddhas don't think that if he is serious and ponderous that his artwork will amount to much. It will just be heavier. The artist doesn't have to create excessively dense clothing and masks made of lead.
All things are just ornamentations of the Tao. Everything is the clothing of the Tao. That's all it is.