The most regenerative trip I have ever taken, both spiritually and creatively, was to Italy. I had just finished the traumatic second draft of my second novel and was feeling burnt out. The work was great – the prose had flowed brilliantly onto the page, but my personal life was falling apart. Having locked myself away in creative isolation for a good two years, I had developed some pretty severe emotional problems: fear of intimacy and commitment, separation anxiety, and all sorts of abandonment issues. I had developed such severe social phobia that screwing up the courage to pick up the phone and call a friend would take me an hour. After finishing the second draft, I had a few weeks free while my editor made his judgement, so I decided to contact an old college friend who had moved to Italy, and hopped on a plane to the Eternal City.
I was struck by Rome’s beauty; not just its natural beauty, but the beauty of its architecture. The white marble buildings, the elegant, symmetrical structures enraptured me. I loved the flowers that grew out of the cracks of marble walls.
Walking around the city was like walking in a museum. On a casual stroll, you would come across fountains designed by the great Renaissance artists, with water spurting from the mouths of nymphs. Even the streets were beautiful. New York is organised according to a grid whose uniformity, after a while, becomes mechanical and boring. The streets of Italy wound around unpredictably, twisting here and there, rising up and down. Something about the wet, shiny and slick cobblestones makes European cities seem magical – especially compared to modern American cities with their concrete sidewalks. The difference between European and modern American architecture is that the builders of the Roman Pantheons and villas were artists. They weren’t just interested in function, in creating utilitarian buildings; they wanted to create beautiful things. I think this is what I dislike most about living in America: I notice a trend in modern American art where little value is placed on beauty. Instead, American art and architecture seem to value the intellectual concept. A typical example is the Nam June Paik exhibition at the Guggenheim museum in New York City in 1999. In these video installations, the artist experimented with the use of TV screens. A typical piece used TV sets as fish tanks. When you see art like that, the pleasure is primarily intellectual: you think, how interesting – I’ve never thought that TV sets look like fish tanks, but now that he’s pointed it out, I see the world in a new way. A TV set/ fish tank is an interesting concept, but it isn’t beautiful in a classical sense. On the Italian trip, I was suddenly surrounded by objects of art that were classically beautiful – just viewing them gave me intense joy and physical pleasure. They stimulated not my intellect, but my visual sense. I won’t describe how those objects looked; instead, I’ll tell you what effect they had on my mind. I spent hours sitting in front of a gorgeous fountain in the Borghese Gardens. I found my mind soothed and my heart filled with joy. And I know I would not have had the same feeling looking at a fish tank made out of a TV screen. I know all about beauty being subjective and relative, that what’s beautiful for me might be ugly for someone else, but when I say that the fountain was beautiful, this is what I mean: when I looked at it, my mind was transformed. This object filled my heart with faith. Something about the fountain hinted at an extra dimension – one far beyond the utilitarian and financial obsessions that surround typical American urban objects. It hinted of a world of serenity and love and bliss, of the divine, and showed that this very world has a dimension beyond the mundanity of eating and driving to work. But the fountain’s hint is finally indescribable, located exactly beyond words.
As I mentioned, before I went to Italy, I had felt totally burnt out. The trip turned out to be creatively regenerative, because I saw what power artists could have. The artist, like God, can create a thing of beauty out of nothing, a thing that can soothe the mind and heal the soul. One might even define beauty by the effect it has on a person. Try this: beauty is anything – an object, words on a page, the sound of music – that stills the soul and fills it with joy, peace, and love. Artists have been given a gift from God: the ability to heal the soul. As I looked at those objects in Italy, the more beauty I saw, the more beautiful I felt inside. I began to understand a profound but simple truth: you become what you contemplate. In 2 Corinthians Paul writes, “we, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image.”
This verse uses the metaphor of God as mirror: God is a mirror at which we are told to gaze, and in the mirror, we see ourselves, yet at the same time not ourselves, but God. As we look into the face of God, we become transformed. After gazing at the mirror face of God long enough, we see ourselves, having ourselves become images of God. When we gaze at the glorious, we become glorious. We become an image of what we look at.
That’s the profound truth: you are what your mind looks at. You are what you contemplate. I suppose that’s why environment has such a powerful effect on the soul. What does your mind gaze at, stare at? If you look at ugliness and violence all day, you become ugly and violent yourself – a good argument for promoting aesthetics in urban planning. When we build our office towers and decorate our cubicles, it’s important that we do this in a beautiful way. Our buildings should not be merely functional, but should inspire peace and joy. The old European architects had an instinctive respect for the power of beauty, something our modern age seems to have forgotten.
There was something Zen-like about the architecture I saw in Italy. Zen principles of art are indirect and non-representative. By this I mean if you asked me, “What is a moon?” I might say, “The moon is a bright yellow thing that appears in the sky at night.” This would be giving you an indirect, verbal representation of the moon. Instead, a typical Zen response to “What is a moon?” would be for me to point to the moon. This would lead you to a direct experience of the moon, and when you see the moon, my finger would disappear. That is the principle by which Zen works. Zen is the gesture that leads to a personal experience with the transcendent. And that’s how objects of beauty work too – whether a bright field of red wildflowers or a bronze sculpture of a Greek goddess. On my Italian trip, I saw fingers disappearing all the time. I spent two weeks wandering around abandoned ruins, beaches, museums, villas, graveyards and gardens, and was continuously exposed to beauty, both natural and man-made. These objects all hinted at something not physical, something awesome and noble and kind and full of love. This is how I would define beauty: beauty points toward the transcendent. Like the Zen finger, it points to something in a non-physical dimension, to an invisible reality. It hints of God.
Though Zen, as a religion, teaches that one can experience the sacred in every place and every thing, it also follows specific rules in the aesthetics of its temple architecture. A Zen monastery is scrupulously clean and tidy, and all work – chopping wood, cooking, doing laundry, or shaving – is done with such precision and regularity that it becomes a ceremony. There is very little waste of time or material, and the monk owns so little that if you gathered all his possessions together, you’d have barely enough to make a pillow for him to sleep on at night. This is not because Zen believes in asceticism, but because it believes in economy. Zen believes in using the right amount of time, energy and material to achieve a goal – no more and no less.
Some Zen monasteries are treasure houses of Chinese and Japanese art, filled with paintings, pottery, bronzes, lacquer and carved wood, but these treasures are not flaunted. The decoration of the monastery follows the same rule of economy. If too many works of art are displayed at the same time, they can’t be appreciated, so Zen artwork is displayed sparingly. Thus a Zen monastery has an air of austere simplicity, with empty spaces relieved here and there by carefully positioned objects of beauty. The very rooms are beautiful, even without furniture. The walls are tinted paper, stretched over wooden frames. The floors are covered with yellow rice mats. The rooms have a quiet, indefinable beauty, yet everything is made from the simplest and most inexpensive material. At the centre of the temple is the Meditation Hall, where again the aesthetics of economy prevail. The room is empty except for the statue of the Buddha, who sits holding a single spray of flowers.
The Zen temple is different from Israel’s ancient temple in Jerusalem. While the Jewish temple is believed by Jews to be the house of God, the place where the Creator of the Universe lives – and the design reflects this belief – the Zen temple makes no claim to be the location of any supernatural force. Its architecture, rather, is a tool to aid in the practice of meditation, a place where the aesthetic of simplicity wipes away the distractions of the world. That’s the principle of Zen, whose monks live with no possessions but “one robe and one bowl, under the tree and on a stone.” Zen believes this to be the best spiritual environment for man, for the curse of humanity is a distracted mind, and only when we have dropped all distractions, when they have fallen like dust to the ground, and when that dust has cleared, then will we have the clarity of vision to see the divine that has been in front of us all the time.
Part of me has always sought that emotional epiphany in travel and art and books. I long for the mystical high, the collision of truth and feeling, illumination along with a rush of joy, the thrill of learning something previously unimaginable. I want the mountaintop experience, and the danger with the mountaintop experience is that it can become an idol. A restlessness has developed in me, a cesspool of boredom that drains me daily and can only be relieved by moving to a new place and receiving blinding insights. I worry that I have become addicted to tourism.
Let me give you a personal example. It took place in New York, oddly enough, when I went to see one of the most famous sights in the world – the Statue of Liberty. The trip didn’t start well. I squirmed on board the Circle Line ferry that would slosh me to Liberty Island. Though the passengers had come from all corners of the world, they wore the same uniform: loose, comfortable clothing with sports shoes. A few sported memorabilia caps and T-shirts that, under normal circumstances, they wouldn’t be seen dead in (I hoped). Nearly everyone humped a bulky bag, and I hadn’t seen so much photographic equipment since Ming’s Electric Emporium. Everything on the boat was priced at forty percent above its market value. The burger, served by a sullen boy who looked as though he’d just missed a visit from his probation officer, tasted like a bat that had decided to die in a soggy bun. Liberty Island, I knew, would be tourist hell.
Tourist hell: a place designed, usually via an unholy alliance between government mandarins and corporate sponsors, to simulate a cheerful version of what the natives think foreigners want to see in their culture; the extortion of money through entry fees and the swindling of ignorant, defenceless aliens in overpriced theme restaurants and gift shops; a fake, bland, closely supervised educational experience.
We all looked at the ocean with the same blank sheep eyes.
QLRS Vol. 1 No. 1 Oct 2001