Art & Ritual

Ritual and  Art

From the series Four-fold Symmetrical Studies and Thing-Centered Photographs
click on image to enlarge / click here to see more images

Note: The process of making the Four-fold Symmetrical Photographs has often had for me a feeling related to a ritual act. Perhaps it is the circular imagery, the sense of roundness in the pictorial space. When I see the unfolding of the final image, the merging of the four repeated images into a visual unity, there has often been a conscious awareness of having invoked the transcendental. The quotes below speak of ritual acts across multiple religious 
and artistic traditions and reveal the unity amidst any apparent diversities.


Ritual Space : Sacred Space
Samer Akkach  Cosmology and Architecture in Premodern Islam
Sacred places, Mircea Eliade argues, are not "chosen but rather discovered by religious man."  "The sacred place in some way or another reveals itself to him."  In the absence of a direct revelation, holiness can still be invoked by human consecration through the enactment of certain religious rituals.  Once consecrated, a sacred space becomes a defined, qualified, significant, ordered space.  The act of ordering with reference to cosmic paradigms, Eliade argues, invokes God's blueprint of the world, the universal pattern of creation, and the principal elements of determination that emerged out of the primordial chaos.


Ritual Sanctified Space
Titus Burkhardt, in his book Sacred Art in East and West, quotes Black Elk, a priest and sage of the Native American Sioux Indians. Here, Black Elk describes the consecration of a traditional fire altar]
"Taking the axe, the officiant pointed it towards the six directions, and then struck the ground to the West.  Repeating the same movement he struck the ground to the North, then in the same way to the East and to the South; then he raised the axe skywards and struck the ground twice in the center for the earth, and then twice for the Great Spirit.  Having done this, he scratched the soil with a stick which he had purified in the smoke and offered to the six directions: he drew a line running from the West to the center, then from the East to the center, then from the North to the center, and finally from the South to the center; then he offered the stick to the heavens and touched the center, and to the earth and touched the center.  In this way the altar was made.   In the manner described, we fixed in this place the center of the world, and this center, which in reality is everywhere, is the dwelling-place of the Great Spirit."


Orientation, Islamic Circumambulation
Laleh Bakhtiar: Sufi, Expressions of the mystic Quest
One of the most important rites of Sufism is that of orientation, in particular to the Center to which one orients one's daily prayers, the Ka'ba. To the sufi the Ka'ba symbolizes the Divine Essence, while the Black Stone within it symbolizes the human spiritual essence. The pilgrim circumambulates the Ka'ba seven times in two rhythmic patterns, and thereby essentially spirals around the terrestrial center which is none other than the Vertical Cause, the Divine and cosmic axis.


Sama, Whirling Dance of the Sufis
Annemarie Schimmel: Mystical Dimensions of Islam
The goal of the Sufi mystic attained, sometimes, through constant meditation is fana, annihilation. This final experience is always regarded as a free act of divine grace, which might enrapture man and take him out of himself, often in an experience described as ecstatic, or in Sufism wajd, which means, literally "finding" i.e., to find God and become quiet and peaceful in finding Him.

Dancing and whirling belong to the the oldest religious acts of all. Sama was noted by the first European visitors to the convents of the Mevlevis, the Whirling Dervishes.  

The encircling of a sacred object--or person, as sometimes in the sama--means to partake of its magical power or to endow it with power. Sama for the great Sufi poet Rumi was nourishment of the soul. He has compared the whirling movement of the dervishes to workers treading on grapes, an act that brings the spiritual wine into existence. For Rumi, the dancing lover is higher than the spheres, for the call to sama comes from Heaven; he may be compared to the particle of dust that spins around the sun and thus experiences a strange sort of union, for without the gravitation of the sun it would not be able to move--just as man cannot live without turning around the spiritual center of gravity, of God.  

Rumi sees that "the House of Love is made completely of music, of verses and songs" and that the heavenly beloved circumambulates this house, carrying his bowed instrument with him and singing intoxicating tunes. For Rumi, music was the sound of the doors of Paradise.

Once the fetters of the body are broken by means of enthusiastic dance, the soul is set free and realizes that everything created takes part in the dance--the spring breeze of love touches the tree so that the branches, flower buds, and stars start whirling in the all-embracing mystical movement.

The sama means to die to this world and to be revived in the eternal dance of the free spirits around a sun that neither rises nor sets. Fana and baqa, annihilation and eternal life in God, can thus be represented in the movement of the mystical dance as understood by Rumi and his followers. click here to learn more


Art as Ritual in Japanese Traditions
The following excerpts are from Richard Pilgrim's essay "Foundations for a Religio-Aesthetic Tradition in Japan" from the book Art, Creativity, and the Sacred, edited by Diane Apostolos-Cappadona. Note: many of the themes presented in Sacred Art, Sacred Knowledge is included in this brief essay, such as Beauty, Presence, Nature, The Traveler, and the Void.

Ma (the space between)
Ma is a complex term generally suggesting intervals or gaps in time and space. For example it refers to a room as the space in between the various walls, or to a musical rest as an interval in the temporal flow of the music. Similarly it can simply mean "between."
Ma's roots lie in ancient Shinto ideas concerning the nature and signs of Kami ("gods" or "sacred powers"). In that context it refers to an in-between time/space into which the essentially formless kami energy or spirit came to dwell temporarily and bring its benefits. As such, it was closely related to kekkai ("gap" "rip" "crevice") as the void into which kami came, and to kehai ("sign" "indication of presence") as the distinct atmosphere or indicator signaling this coming and leaving of kami. Ma came to mean the sensitivity to this atmosphere of ephemeral, temporary, spiritual presence.

As one Japanese architect wrote: "Ma is the way of sensing the movement of movement and is related to the term utsuroi. Originally utsuroi meant the exact moment when the kami spirit entered into and occupied a vacant space . . . Later it came to signify the moment when the shadow of the spirit emerges from the void. This sense of kami's sudden appearance gave birth to the idea of utsuroi, the moment when nature is transformed; the passage from one state to another. The Japanese have earnestly attempted to grasp and to fix the emergence, the flowing, the movement along time into space. Here again we find a mode of thinking that merges rather than differentiates space and time. This interpenetration of time and space dominates the Japanese aesthetic."

When seen in this way, ma suggests a mode of apprehending the world that places primary value on immediately experiencing the presence of kami--a "spiritual" rather than material presence that appears in between all space/time distinctions and transforms by fleetingly filling that in-between with sacred power.

As "immediate experience" ma places a premium on a heightened, intuitive, aesthetic sensitivity, both to the shadowy, fleeting, vague, and ephemeral atmosphere created by the coming and going of kami, and to the formless, in-between, essentially "void" character of Reality.

The mode of experience that seeks to merge immediately and directly with the flow of things expresses itself in the beauty of form; the "aesthetic" as intuitive, direct experience becomes the "aesthetic" as the beauty of form.

Ku (emptiness, nothingness)
A middle way, a way between other ways. The Buddhas says all question about whether this is or this is not are not rightly put. Rather, he says, awaken to "empty" character of things; and abandon all refuge in subject/object mental attachments. Such an emptiness-realization bears no necessary relationship to "aesthetic" except, perhaps, as aesthetic refers to direct, unitive experience. Ku became particularly associated with a tradition of immediate, aesthetic apprehension in the tranquil stillness of nature. Sabi -- loneliness, or tranquil solitariness -- is related to ku. And wabi -- the aesthetic, sensuous expression of an awareness of the void -- is related to ku.

Ku and ma, sabi and wabi, are key words which express the intervening territory between spaces--temporal, physical, or spiritual.

Art as Ritual
A rather different way to come at the foundations of a religio-aesthetic tradition in Japan is to consider the important relationship between art and religious ritual, and/or between artistic action and ritual action.

Here "ritual" is understood rather broadly as any specific actions that function religiously to make connection with that which someone considers transcendent, holy, sacred, or Real, and as that which transforms life in some significant way. Ritual is thus any particular action in which the religious dimension or character of experience is heightened.

In early Shinto and folk-religious practices, and in any culture, the shaman was one who becomes the special vehicle for divine or sacred power and "knowledge," and acts this out in a variety of the artistic modes. Visual, literary, and performing arts are the stock and trade of the shaman. To this day, the sacred music and dance of Shinto "remembers" this mythic model, even though history has interceded to change the particular character and function of it.  

These brief comments are intended to suggest the idea that much of the Japanese aesthetic sensitivity and artistic tradition is at least grounded in--if not continually related to--religious ritual of a more indigenous sort.

Buddhism also contributed to the general sense of artistic form serving distinctly religious and ritual purposes. All the way from the rich iconic/symbolic art of an esoteric Shingon Buddhism to the more "economic" iconoclastic/nonsymbolic are of Zen Buddhism, visual and performing arts have played a central role.

A Shingon master of the ninth century states: "The Dharma is beyond speech, but without speech it cannot be revealed. Suchness transcends forms, but without depending on forms it cannot be realized. Since the Esoteric buddhist teaching are so profound as to defy expression in writing, they are revealed through the medium of painting to thos who are yet to be enlightened. The various postures and mudras depicted in mandalas are products of the great compassion of the Buddha; the sight of them may well enable one to attain Buddhahood."

As with painting, however, so also with sculpture, architecture, and music--all may serve important religious function in the practice of Shingon Buddhism, for here is a tradition that realizes the essentially formless nature of Reality, but also realizes the importance of form in the process of realizing this deeper Reality.

Zen Buddhism
At the other end of at least one buddhist spectrum, however, is Zen. The tradition in Japan has been suspicious of iconic and symbolic forms, as it has also been of doctrinal or verbal formulations of the Truth. The result is a tradition that tends to break with orthodox iconographic tradition, especially in statuary and painting.

However this does not mean that Zen forsakes a ritual art or an art that stands central to its expression. Zen's aesthetic sensitivity and artistic interest has simply found outlet in other ways and other artistic styles--particularly calligraphy, landscape painting, poetry, gardens, and the tea ceremony.

The emphasis in Zen art is on the direct and immediate expression or manifestation of buddha-mind, emptiness-realization, not on the mediated meaning of a more symbolic art. Its art has been "ritual" art and inextricably religious. It is ritual not so much in the sense of particular practices designed to further the religious progress, but expressions that ideally directly manifest emptiness-realization. As such, Zen also contributes to a larger religio-aesthetic tradition in which artistic form is inextricably bound up with aesthetic/artistic form.  

The Artistic "Ways" (d0)
While the arts as Ways can sometimes merely refer to the traditon of a particular artistic form and practice, often the Japanese arts took seriously the spiritual or releigious implications of the Way. Toyou Izutsu writes: "The do in the field of art is a way of leading to spiritual enlightenment through art; the do consists here in making an art a means by which to achieve enlightenment as its ultimate goal. In the artistic do particular emphasis is laid on the process, the way, by which one goes toward the goal. To every stage of the way a certain spiritual state corresponds, and at every stage the artist tries to get into communion with the quintessence of art through the corresponding spiritual state, and make himself bloom in the art."

In many of these arts, the perfection of technique and form is simply the beginning of a deeper art. The purpose is to go beyond technique and form in disciplining body, mind, and spirit for a deeper creativity--one which is both spiritually and aesthetically based. 

Art as spiritual exercise / spiritual journey
Art is thus a kind of spiritual exercise, and its vocation a kind of spiritual journey. Like other spiritual practices in Japan, it is considered a shugyo or ascetic discipline in which concentrated practice seeks to press through to a deeper spiritual fulfillment. Much of what runs through all these arts--at least in their religio-aesthetic ideals--is an in-between sensitivity that features unitive, direct experience understood both religiously and aesthetically, and a sensitivity closely related to nature as a religio-aesthetic paradise.  

Such a sensitivity, experience, or "mind" is called by the great poet, Basho a "narrow" or "slender" mind. Only a slender mind can slip in between the thingness of things, or in between the subject and its objects. As Basho says, "When you are composing a verse let there not be a hair's breadth separating your mind from what you write. Quickly say what is in your mind; never hesitate at that moment. To learn in this art means to submerge oneself within the object, to perceive its delicate life and feel its feeling, out of which a poem forms itself."


Frithjof  Schuon  Art from the Sacred to the Profane ~ East and West
No art in itself is a human creation; but sacred art has this particularity, that its essential content is a revelation, that it manifests a properly sacramental form of heavenly reality, such as the icon of the Holy Face . . . the statue of Shiva dancing  . . . the carved images of the Buddhas  . . .  and in certain cases, the calligraphic copying--likewise ritual--of the sacred Books . . .  Sacred art is first of all the visible and audible form of Revelation. . . The form must be an adequate expression of its content. . .


Also see:

Welcome Page  to The Departing Landscape website which includes the complete hyperlinked listing of my online photography projects dating back to the 1960's, my resume, contact information, and more.