When Surrealists And Buddhists Face Off In The Bardo…

Where does your monkey mind go when you’re trying to do something else?

Annoying little monkey mind. Shut up! I’m trying to meditate!

But it never does shut up, does it?

Lately my mind has been leaping about, trying to remember examples where Surrealists have grappled with Buddhist ideas.

It’s my own fault, I suppose. When I started my Buddhist horror project, I gave the ghastly simian exactly the ammunition it needed. Now it keeps hurling thoughts into my head non-stop, turning diamond thunderbolts into bananas.

A monkey wearing human clothes. Gouache, 18–. Wellcome Collection. Licensed under CC BY 4.0.

In an effort to satisfy the little beast, I’ve compiled this small bundle of notes on Buddhist moments in Surrealist history. Surrealists’ ideas about Buddhism; not vice versa. (I’m not sure there even is a vice versa.)

I’m not commenting on or evaluating any of these moments here. I’m especially not going to draw any conclusions about whether Surrealism is or is not compatible with Buddhism. Some of the people in the list below would say yes, some would say no, and some would say something much more complicated than either yes or no.

I do have my own views too, but this post is not the place for me to get into that. So in what follows, I’m not siding with any of the positions in the debate. I’m just taking note of where those positions are.

Maybe the little monkey will come back to the topic with its views and conclusions later on, in another blog post.

Or maybe, just maybe, it will shut up and let me concentrate on other things.

Anyway, here’s what the monkey wants me to tell you.

The Letters To The Dalai Lama

In April 1925, the Paris Surrealist Group fired off a series of now famous letters: one to the heads of psychiatric hospitals of the day, one to the Pope, and one to the Dalai Lama. Where the first two were vituperative, the letter to the Dalai Lama – which, like the others, seems to have been largely the work of Antonin Artaud – was altogether different in tone. To quote Buddhist teacher Stephen Batchelor’s translation:

O Great Lama! We are your most faithful servants. Direct your light on us in a language our contaminated European spirits can understand and, if need be, transform our Spirit, make for us a spirit entirely turned towards those perfect summits where the Spirit of Man no longer suffers! […]

Lama, teach us the material levitation of the body and how we may no longer be held by the ground! […]

It is with the inner eye that I look at you, O Pope, at the summit of interiority. It is inwardly that I resemble you: self, impulse, idea, lip, levitation, dream, cry, renunciation of ideas, suspended between all forms and hoping for no more than the wind.

The 13th Dalai Lama, photographed in 1932. Image in the public domain.

This “Address To The Dalai Lama” was published side by side with the letter to the Catholic Pope in issue 3 of La Révolution Surréaliste. The same issue also carried another text by Artaud, the “Letter To The Schools Of The Buddha”, which was full of the same Orientalist fervour. Again quoting Batchelor’s translation:

You who are disincarnate, who know at what point in its carnal trajectory, its insensitive coming and going, that the soul finds the absolute verb, the new speech, the interior ground; you who know how one returns to oneself in thought and how the spirit can save itself from itself; you who are interior to yourselves; you for whom the spirit is no longer on the carnal plane: here there are hands for whom taking is not everything, brains that see further than a forest of roofs, the glare of façades, cog-wheel people and the workings of fire and marble. […]

Logical Europe endlessly smashes the spirit between the hammers of two terms. She wrenches it open and shuts it down. This strangulation has gone far enough; for too long have we been suffering beneath the harness. The Spirit is larger than the spirit, the metamorphoses of life are manifold. Like you, we abhor progress: come and tear down our houses!

Antonin Artaud, photographed in 1926. Image in the public domain.

I don’t know to what extent Artaud’s passion for Buddhism was shared by other French Surrealists around this time – although Claude Cahun, for example, made a self-portrait photograph in 1927 in which she appears dressed and posed as if for Buddhist meditation.

Artaud’s complexly idiosyncratic take on Buddhism also preoccupied him towards the end of his life, long after his break from the Surrealist movement. In 1946 he wrote a “Second Letter To The Dalai Lama” in which he retracted all of his earlier praise. During the summer of the same year, he also wrote in his notebook: “Gautauma’s objections, it’s I who think them”. According to Clayton Eshleman’s introduction to Watchfiends & Rack Screams, around this time Artaud was interpreting his own experiences of electroshock “therapy” in terms of the Tibetan Bardo.

In 1990, yet another Surrealist letter to the Dalai Lama appeared. This time the author was Eva Švankmajerová, and the letter was published in issue 2 of the Prague Surrealist Group’s journal Analogon. Its spirit was closer to the 1925 letter to the Catholic Pope than to Artaud’s first letter to the Dalai Lama. I have never managed to find a full translation from the Czech, but one passage in particular is often cited. To quote Keith Leslie Johnson’s translation:

So you’re proposing that we all put our legs behind our necks for a lark, in order to radiate an innocent, even simple-minded joy? You phony!

The 14th Dalai Lama, photographed as a child in Tibet. Image in the public domain.

The 1925 letter to the Dalai Lama also partly inspired Guy Girard’s 2016 speculative fantasy “André Breton In China”, in which Breton and Dalí take a sea voyage to Shanghai, spend a few months travelling around China, and accompany Alexandra David-Néel on an expedition to Tibet:

Alexandra David-Néel easily managed to secure an audience for her friends with the Dalai Lama. A properly outrageous reception: while Dali sketched the portrait of the Monk-King, the latter civilly thanked Breton for the Address which the Surrealist Group had sent him in the spring of 1925 and excused himself for not having yet sent back a reply. He added that he knew very well that they would be coming and that he was expecting in addition, around 1939, a visit to Potala from a certain Antonin Artaud…

Harue Koga And Japanese Surrealism

According to Yuko Ishii and Michael Richardson’s essay on Surrealism in Japan in volume 1 of the International Encyclopedia Of Surrealism, Japan’s first “Surrealist artist” (their words) may have been Harue Koga, who was also an ordained Buddhist priest. In 1930 Koga wrote an essay outlining his approach. To quote Ishii and Richardson:

Koga saw [Surrealist painting] as an intellectual approach aiming at a dialectical development in which the surreal was achieved by means of a confrontation between the real and art. […] In his dialectical approach to surrealism, Koga […] also recognized a profound philosophical link between surrealism and Buddhist traditions that inclined him towards his own personal approach to surrealism.

Harue Koga, Intellectual Expression Crossing The Reality Line, 1931. Image in the public domain.

Koga died in 1933, but his interest in a link between Surrealism and Buddhism was subsequently shared by Noboru Kitawaki:

Like Koga, Kitawaki recognized in Surrealism a philosophical link with Buddhism through the application of the dialectic, which he also related to Hegel and to the Japanese philosopher Kitarō Nishida. His work is based on an exploration of these complementary influences centered in the tension between opposites.

Kitawaki died in 1951. Ishii and Richardson rate him as a Surrealist practitioner of global status.

Noboru Kitawaki, Diagram Of The Chou Divination, 1941. Image in the public domain.

André Breton’s Zen Connection

Volume 1 of The International Encyclopedia Of Surrealism also contains a separate entry on Zen Buddhism, written by Ikumi Watanabe. This entry focuses on the reception of Zen by French Surrealists during the mid-20th century. It gives a scholarly overview of the materials that would have been available in French during Breton’s lifetime, identifying D.T. Suzuki as a central source (although by no means the only one).

Perhaps Breton’s most celebrated engagement with Zen appears in his crucial 1947 essay “Rising Sign”, in which he substantially developed his ideas about analogical thinking. To quote Franklin Rosemont’s translation:

The best light on the general, obligatory sense that the image worthy of the name must have is furnished by a Zen writer: “Out of Buddhist kindness, Basho one day ingeniously changed a cruel haiku compose by his humorous disciple, Kikaku. The latter having written, ‘A red dragonfly – tear off its wings – a pimento’, Basho substituted ‘A pimento – add wings – a red dragonfly’.”

The poet Bashō meets two farmers. Image by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, in the public domain.

André Masson’s Zen Disconnection

Watanabe also mentions André Masson, who seems to have first learned about Zen from the Japanese scholar and translator Kuni Matsuo in 1930. Watanabe quotes Masson’s account of his experiences during World War I:

The intensity of shelling was at its height. I was then overcome by a feeling of unknown calm. There was nothing more: no past, no future, only the present; it was this pure calm. This emptiness was plenitude. It was as if I had been born into a perfect world. When, many years later, I told a Japanese friend about this inner experience, he told me it was what Zen doctrine called a satori.

However, Masson’s deeper Zen phase seems not to have begun until the 1950s – after his break from the Surrealists, which happened around 1943.

Brief Bief Beefs

David Nadeau informs me that there was a brief Surrealist spat about Zen during the late 1950s. The second issue of the journal Bief mentioned an anonymous letter from a European painter who was then living in Japan. The letter lambasted certain French Surrealists’ enthusiasm for Zen:

During this time our beautiful Parisian minds are doing rounds of the legs [sic], gargling with “Zen” and other “spiritualisms”. Zen, in Japan, is Bushido, Bushido is Nationalism, Militarism, police regime, and what follows!

The previous issue of Bief had included two articles that referred to “Zen dialogues”: one written by Adrien Dax about a book by Guy Cabanel, and another article titled “D’une lettre de Guy Cabanel”. It may well therefore have been Dax and/or Cabanel that the anonymous letter writer had in mind. (Jean-Pierre Lassalle later identified the author of the anonymous letter as Roger Van Hecke.)

Pieces Of Paz

Octavio Paz’s 1967 book Alternating Current makes numerous references to Buddhism, Surrealism and the potential links between the two. Paz cannot straightforwardly be described as a Surrealist; his shifting relationship with the movement was more complex than I can encompass here. Alternating Currents was written during a period when he seems to have been relatively close to Surrealism, albeit not fully inside it.

Paz’s ideas about the affinity between Buddhist meditation and Surrealist automatism are probably the most significant for my purposes. The following passage appears in an essay on André Breton:

The practice of poetry demands the surrender, the renunciation of the ego. It is regrettable that Buddhism did not interest him: that tradition also destroys the illusion of the self, though its aim is not to foster language but to foster silence. (I must add that this silence is one that for more than two thousand years has never ceased emitting meanings.) I believe that “automatic writing” is something of a modem equivalent of Buddhist meditation; […] it is a psychic exercise.

Other essays in the same book include extended comments on Buddhism as part of Paz’s wider consideration of mysticism and the spiritual in poetry.

The Carrington Conundrum

Numerous sources state that Leonora Carrington had a strong interest in Tibetan Buddhism. But as is so often the case with Carrington, there’s a proliferation of secondary sources that all refer to each other much more assiduously than they do to primary evidence. So far I’ve found it difficult to pin down the original facts beneath the piles of commentary, although I will keep looking.

When Carrington died in 2011, several obituaries claimed that she had studied Tibetan Buddhism with an exiled “Tibetan monk” in 1971. Some added that she had travelled outside of Mexico in order to do this. None that I have found identifies the monk in question or adds any further detail. If the information is correct, it remains unclear whether her interest was a long-lasting engagement or a passing fascination.

Sculpture by Carrington near the University of Guanajuato in 2015. Photo by Cecygdl. Licensed under CC BY SA 4.0.

The best evidence I’ve found so far is in Elena Poniatowska’s Leonora: A Novel Inspired By The Life Of Leonora Carrington. In the novel. the character “Leonora” does indeed meet a (still unnamed) Tibetan lama in Scotland, who offers her solace following the death of her mother in 1970. “Leonora” then follows the Dalai Lama to Canada. “The guru” (it’s not clear whether this refers to the Dalai Lama or the lama in Scotland) tells her:

Go and seek tranquillity. Thus shall you achieve Nirvana. You possess an intuitive wisdom.

Perhaps this is the source of the claims made in all those obituaries. If so, it’s probably reliable – more or less, at least. Poniatowska knew Carrington personally, and the book was written during Carrington’s lifetime. On its status as fiction or otherwise, Poniatowska says in the acknowledgements:

I call it a novel, for it has no pretensions whatsoever to being a biography, but is instead a free approximation to the life of an exceptional artist.

Rik Lina’s Zen Calligraphy

Contemporary Dutch Surrealist Rik Lina has a long-standing fascination with East Asian art in general and Zen calligraphy in particular, from which he has drawn much inspiration.

In a 2012 conversation with Laurens Vancrevel, Lina even suggested that an early interest in Zen had been one of his main routes into Surrealism in the 1960s:

The motional manner of painting attracted me, the wild style of Pollock, Franz Kline, Mark Tobey, Dotremont or Karel Appel. I only arrived at surrealism when I understood that this way of working was related to automatism – that they had learned it from the surrealists.

Automatism was already familiar to me at the time, but from a completely different corner: through the Beat Poets I got into contact with Zen Buddhism, whose masters propagate an intuitive consciousness which was put into practice by the Zen painters of China and Japan. […] The calligraphic way of representing reality, in which seeing and feeling, writing and thinking blend into a unique painted reality, was what I tried to make my own.

Jason Abdelhadi’s Materialist Past Life Regression Game

Ra Lotsawa biography. Book cover reproduced under fair use.

Published in Chimaera issue 2 in 2016, this game was devised by Canadian Surrealist Jason Abdelhadi and inspired by the biography of Ra Lotsawa:

The concept of the surrealist exhibition was brought to perfection in 11th century Tibet by a necromancer and scholar known as the Great Ralo. […] Ralo’s feats of magic and marvellous whimsy range from founding temples to provoking dogs and sheep to enter profound cosmic meditations. His ritual murders are reminiscent of Sade or Ducasse in their dialectical benevolence. His heaps of wealth, his penchant for splendours and surrealist objects denote him as a magically gifted precursor to the practice of revolt against orthodoxy and the pursuit of universal emancipation by any means necessary. He is a Tibetan André Breton. […]

The Method [for playing the game]:

Roll your eyes about and pretend you are watching the stream of time shift back and forth under your command.
Close your eyes if you must.
Breathe as you would to stay alive.
Ask your shadow or pet to deliver an image from the timestream.
That image is your past life.
Ask your dream hand to point to a number on the Ouija Board of your inner eyelid.
That number is indicative of the era of this incarnation.
If you are familiar with Chrono Trigger, the soundtrack is already provided.
Discuss with your colleagues.
Weaponize this discussion for the poetic or political emancipation of all things.

Motes In The Void

So far, these are all the examples my friends and I can think of where Surrealists have made substantial encounters with Buddhist ideas or practices.

But surely there have still been others that I either don’t know about or just don’t remember.


If there are, don’t hesitate to tell me. Or rather, tell my monkey.

Hero image: Noboru Kitawaki, Picture With Trees, 1937. Image in the public domain.
Thanks to Jason Abdelhadi for pointing me towards Guy Girard’s text as well as his own.
Thanks to David Nadeau for sharing his knowledge about Claude Cahun and Bief, and for tracking down the Artaud “Gautama” quotation.
Thanks to Stuart Inman for reminding me about Octavio Paz.
Thanks to Penelope Rosemont and Riain Mac Cárthaigh for suggesting that I investigate the Leonora Carrington connection.

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12 thoughts on “When Surrealists And Buddhists Face Off In The Bardo…

  1. In TRANSFORMAcTION 8 (1977) John Lyle writes about “two viewpoints analogous in some ways to that of the surrealists – those of subatomic physics and of the Mahayana sutras” It is a great polemical essay sparked by the then recent Tutankhamun exhibition and the upcoming 1978 Howard Gallery exhibition of surrealist painting. As we approach the centenary, I think it apt to quote from the 2nd paragraph and be on guard as “the thesis-writers are sharpening their typewriters; and numbers of young pensioners proclaiming they have ‘always’ been surrealists are crowding onto the lecture-circuit to instruct us in the arcana of this revolutionary movement in return for government money.”

  2. Really interesting read. A recent example of (coming at this form the other way around) a Buddhist encountering Surrealist ideas and poetry is in the first chapter of the American Zen monk and poet Norman Fischer’s book ‘The World Could be Otherwise: Imagination and the Bodhisattva Path’ in which he tells the tale (which may be apocryphal but I’ve come across it somewhere else – can’t remember where just now) of Robert Desnos in a concentration camp loudly and confidently reading the palms of some of his fellow inmates bound for the gas chambers and forecasting long and happy lives for them. Hearing this the German guards apparently didn’t feel able to carry out their orders and – at least for one day – let them go back to their barracks.

    Fischer likens this powerful and surreal act of the imagination to a Zen koan and claims it as the sort of thing someone aspiring to the path of becoming a Bodhisattva might do.

    1. Thanks. I haven’t read Fischer’s book, very interesting. A pal of mine tried to authenticate that famous Desnos story a few years ago and didn’t get very far, although it does sound like exactly the sort of thing he would do. I love the idea of Desnos as bodhisattva.

  3. Dear Merl
    I am an artist and yoga teacher and an explorer of buddhism, aspiring to be more……. .
    As well as an explorer of art. I have always had an interest in the Surrealists, (Max Ernst, Magritte and Leonora Carrington, Andre Breton, just read Nadja).
    I am exploring lucid dreaming, and reading about Tibetan Buddhist Dream Yoga. The unforeseen images that appear during my lucid dreams are becoming more of a feature in my art but I find some clear parallels in images that may come up during deep meditation. Both during states of complete stillness peacefulness and clarity. So, I like to think there is a link and would love to explore this more deeply. Perhaps I will. Maybe I already am! In the meantime you said you have your own views on this but this particular post is not the place for you to get into that. I would love to know if you care to share?
    Very best wishes

    1. Satty, I envy your lucid dreaming skills! I have only ever had one such experience, and it arose spontaneously – I have never managed to induce lucid dreaming on purpose.

      Yeah, I’m still reflecting on the compatibility or otherwise between Surrealism and Buddhism. Certainly there are irresistible connections to be made between dream experiences, meditation experiences, and automatism in general. And insofar as automatism is about exploring the movement of the mind in action, that can’t help but be the case. However, my hunch is that at the deeper level of principles and precepts, Surrealism and Buddhism are not compatible. I am thinking about that very actively, and I may well try to do so out loud on the blog soon. Watch this space. 🧘

      1. I love lucid dreaming, one week I did it every night. That was incredible. Now it is once a week. One of the reasons I guess for the curiosity in the linkages between Buddhist meditation, lucid dreaming, Tibetan dream yoga and Surrealism is that they kind of come together for me, precisely because that is where MY attention is going for parts of the day. It is almost inevitable therefore that these interests and experiences coagulate and seep into the crevices of the subconscious, stirring up other similar or totally unrelated stuff from the space of the mind. And then creating a beautiful surreal dream, and even better if it is a lucid one.
        The one beauty of surrealism I guess is the actual experience, the lucid dream is the act of surrealism, that only the experiencer will know. How I record that, ie in my dream journal, and then how I interpret that, ie in my painting or video art, becomes a by product or an adjunct to, or a meta interpretation of, the original experience itself. The raw unforeseen surreal experience comes to life within / through the art form.

  4. I have had several surrealistic poems published in literary journals, including the Harvard Advocate, and I have practiced Zen for over 25 years. I do believe that the automatic writing of surrealist poets is a kind of meditation. There are many different kinds of meditation. Shikantaza, as practiced in Soto Zen, is basically awareness of–without being for or against–all sense objects, including thinking (the mind is considered like the sixth sense).

    In one respect, thoughts are considered no different from any other sense object, or even silence, when you are aware of them without “thinking about thinking”. The key is to have insight into the true nature of thoughts, to not be attached to them: to watch them come and go like clouds in the sky without being for or against them. It is a mistake to believe that Zen is all about silence. That leads to nihilism and is just another form of attachment.

    Practicing silence is useful in the beginning when to you a tree is still a tree. But when you can silence the chattering mind monkey for long periods of time, including in activity, then a tree will no longer be a tree. Eventually, when you have insight into the true nature of all things (including thoughts and words), a tree will once again be a tree (but in a different way), and you can think and be silent at will whenever it is most useful. Then words, whether you speak them to a friend or think them and write them in a poem, will be no different from silence or the babbling of a brook. If this was not so, you would never hear Zen masters speak, and speech is only thinking vocalized.

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