Editorial: Why We Dance

Featured in Mountain Record 25.2, Winter 2006

A few years ago, the Philadelphia Museum of Art exhibited a collection of Flemish and Dutch tapestries that made me rethink my concept of art. Many of these tapestries had been commissioned by royalty, which meant their beauty, complexity and dimensions had to reflect the grandeur of their surroundings. One particular tapestry, about fifteen feet high and twenty feet wide, depicted, with an incredible degree of detail, a typical palace feast. But what was most outstanding was the fact that a single artist—or rather, three consecutive artists within a single family—had worked on that hanging for a combined total of 104 years until its completion.

What does this kind of dedication say about an artist who knows she will not live to see her work completed during her lifetime? What does it say about those of us who are willing to work hard at creating art, but only insofar as the results match our expectations—preferably with accolades?

“Creativity is our birthright,” says Daido Roshi when speaking about the creative process. It is an irrepressible impulse and the way in which—to use a cliché—“we express ourselves.” But what exactly are we expressing? As Roshi asks, “What is the reality of the subject?” Is it its form, its characteristics, its ineffability? This is one of the questions that art as spiritual practice tries to address.

Not all the contributors in this issue are Buddhists, nor are many of them overtly religious in their approach to the arts.

Yet their way of understanding artistic expression goes far beyond the dictionary definition of the term as “the application of skill and taste to the production of beauty.”

Rainer Maria Rilke says in his Letters to Cézanne that a work of art is to the artist, “the ever-returning proof to himself of his unity and genuineness... existing merely as necessity, as reality, as being.” Art seen and created in this way is not merely art for art’s sake, but rather a continuation of humanity’s ongoing attempt to understand itself and the universe.

Katherine Dunham, known as the “mother of Negro dance,” said that an artist always strives to recreate an impression of universal experience. In her own work, she used her knowledge of anthropology to inquire into the nature and function of the creative process. As she explained, it is not enough just to dance. It is also critical that we understand why we dance, and in doing so, understand a people’s “entire state of being throughout their entire history.”

Shugen Sensei says, “All the practices that we engage in are directed back to the self.” Then it is fair to say that, as a gate of training, art practice is an exploration of the self through artistic expression. And as any other discipline, it requires that we not just passively accept what we see, but that we thoroughly and constantly question

Mn. Vanessa Zuisei Goddard, MRO
Mountain Record, Editor