The Light Enters You

Bill Viola captures not just image but experience, and shows us what video art can be. He talks in depth, for the first time, about his Buddhist practice and how it informs his art.
Shambhala Sun: Where and how did you first encounter Buddhism?

Bill Viola: As with many in my generation, I was first exposed to Buddhism and so-called Eastern philosophy through reading and meditation workshops in the late sixties and early seventies. Firsthand experience came during several visits to Japan in the 1970's, where I traveled to many of the major Buddhist temples, gardens and sacred sites. The sense of a palpable stillness and silence, reflected in the serene image of the Buddha's face, was so different from my memories of being in church. This left an even deeper impression than the art and architecture I was ostensibly there to see. Then in 1980 I received a Japan/U.S. Friendship Commission Fellowship to live in Japan with my wife, Kira. During that period I had several experiences that changed my life and my understanding of art and its place in spiritual practice.

The first came when we were at the Suntory Museum of Art in Tokyo to see an exhibition of art objects from a Buddhist temple in Kyoto. While we were standing before a row of life-sized bodhisattva figures, reading the relevant facts and descriptions, a little old lady walked right past us and moved down the row, stopping to bow in silent prayer at each figure, placing a silk scarf over their outstretched hands. I was dumbstruck. This was an art museum! When the guards didn't react, I was stunned. At that moment, the living practice, the living art in these works, shone through, and I felt like someone who for years had been admiring the outer form of a computer without ever turning it on.

The second experience came after I had become frustrated at finding someone to teach me the traditional Zen ink painting I had seen in books. The Japanese have a beautiful way of allowing you to fully realize your stupidity before they finally correct you, and I was becoming exasperated at not getting a straight answer in response to my request (which I realized later must have been like a young Japanese artist going to contemporary Amsterdam to learn how to paint like Rembrandt). Finally, Mr. Tanami, one of the directors of the fellowship program who had been watching all this unfold, took me aside and said, "Bill, why don't you just go to a temple and study Zen. Then everything you do will be Zen art!"

Like a loud gong resounding in my brain, the reverberations of that statement are still with me. Could my precious art exist in service to something else, something much broader and deeper? Until that moment my measure of success in art resided within the confines of exhibiting in museums, galleries and alternative art spaces. In Japan it was beginning to sink in that perhaps art resided in life itself, that as a practice it derives primarily from the quality of experience, depth of thought and devotion of the maker. Everything else-virtuosity with the materials, novelty of the idea or approach, innovation in craft or technique, skill of presentation, historical significance, importance of the venue-in short, almost everything I learned to value in art school-was secondary.

Shambhala Sun: What about practice? What has been your experience with teachers?

Bill Viola: I've been very lucky to meet the right teachers at the right time. In art school at Syracuse University I was fortunate to have Jack Nelson as my professor, an iconoclast and maverick who saw through institutional limitations. He established a new department called Experimental Studios ("The only rule is that there are no rules"), and gathered around him a group of students disillusioned with the status quo. He inspired us to be truly free with our creativity. I probably would have dropped out if I hadn't met him.

In Japan in 1980, Kira and I were both interested in pursuing Zen meditation, and through contact with a shiatsu master in Tokyo we were introduced to a visiting Zen priest, Daiju Tanaka. We immediately connected. Tanaka Sensei was an independent free spirit, another maverick of sorts. Not associated with any temple, he traveled around the country visiting a loose association of friends and students. He knew very little English, yet the level of communication we had was deep, vivid and clear.

Trying to break the ice at our first meeting I said, "Sensei, I have read many books on Zen." He looked me right in the eye and laughed loudly. Shrunken, I tried again and told him that the next week we were going to visit Eiheiji, the original temple established by Master Dogen, the founder of the Soto school of Zen Buddhism and Tanaka Sensei's lineage. It is one of the largest working temples in Japan. Again, he gave me a piercing look and snapped, "Eiheiji!-too big! Zen Mitsubishi!!" He then took us to a nearby Mister Donuts and over coffee gave us the first of many teachings in regular after-meditation sessions that Kira and I affectionately dubbed, "The Mister Donuts Seminars on Zen Buddhism."

Tanaka Sensei was also an artist. He was always working, freely, spontaneously and fearlessly. We could be anywhere-in a restaurant, on a train, and he would suddenly call out: "Inspiration! Inspiration! Paper… Paper!" He'd grab a pen and quickly make a little Daruma (Bodhidharma) face because that was the moment to make a Daruma face. I was witnessing art inserting itself into experience-where it needed to be, not where you wanted it to be-and it was very inspiring to see.©
Excerpted from The Light Enters You, Shambhala Sun, November 2004.