Surrealists Versus Buddhists: Final Score?

Way back in March, I compiled an overview of previous Surrealists’ interests in and/or engagements with Buddhism. The post became a long one, thanks not least to extra suggestions from various Surrealist friends. The fact that so many people were so keen to pitch in only goes to show that the Surrealist interest in Buddhism remains as lively as ever.

In the March blog post I simply listed examples, without offering any commentary or analysis. Since then, several friends have asked me about my own views on the subject. Are Surrealism and Buddhism compatible, or aren’t they? I’ve been airily promising that I’ll answer that question soon.

Tibetan ritual flaying knife, 15th century CE. Image in the public domain.

Eight months later is probably stretching the word “soon” as far as it will go. But today I am finally getting around to it.

I won’t go through every single example I listed in March – even I’m not such a headbanger as that. But looking back at that post, I think Surrealists’ interests in Buddhism can be roughly sorted under three headings: exoticism, automatism, and anti-dualism. I’ll offer some brief comments on each.

Exoticism: O Great Lama!

I’d place the earliest historical examples in this category. Most obvious are the 1920s texts by Artaud, which contrast the Dalai Lama and his followers against “logical Europe” and “our contaminated European spirits”.

This romantic Orientalism has little to do with the content of Buddhism and everything to do with the Surrealist revolt against Western so-called civilisation. It’s part and parcel of Surrealists’ general attraction to non-Western societies, often conceived in terms of the “primitive” and/or the Indigenous.

Tibetan Cham mask, early 20th century. Photo by Ethan Doyle White, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The wide field of Surrealist anthropology is complex, and its politics is highly ambiguous. I unpack some of that ambiguity in my essay “Anthropomancy“. I won’t repeat the argument here. For these purposes, it’s enough to note that this category of Surrealist “interest in Buddhism” is not really about Buddhism per se.

The same can be said of the subsequent insulting letters to the Dalai Lama. These are explicitly (Artaud’s 1946 letter) or implicitly (Eva Švankmajerová’s 1990 letter) repudiations of the earlier Surrealist praise of him. They are not so much rejections of Buddhism in particular as they are (re)statements of Surrealists’ rejection of religion in general – a rejection that Artaud’s previous enthusiasm had embarrassingly failed to observe.

Automatism As Meditation

This category is more interesting, because it is genuinely about Buddhism. It revolves around the idea that Surrealist automatism is akin, or even equivalent, to meditation.

I think there are a couple of factors in play here. The first is that both automatism and meditation entail the cultivation of a curious kind of receptivity that slips the mind into a different gear. A suspension of narrative or critical thought, an active and deliberate passivity. A passionate yet detached embrace of whatever arises, on its own terms, simply because it has arisen – as if from elsewhere, from beyond one’s own consciousness.

The second factor perhaps pertains more to automatic drawing or painting than to writing. I’m thinking here of the experience of flow states. These are psychological states characterised by (among other things) intense focus, deep immersion in the present moment, an indissolubility of thought and action, and a loss of the sense of oneself as an individual separate from one’s context or surroundings. These characteristics also apply to experiences of absorption during meditation.

Yogic asana, Joga Pradīpikā, India, 18th century. Image in the public domain.

Flow states often arise when people are improvising creatively. The best-known example is musical improvisation. But doubtless the same can occur for painters and other visual creators, especially if they are working automatically, and perhaps even more especially if they are doing so as part of a collective.

Having experienced all of these phenomena myself – automatism, individual and collective flow states, and moments of meditative absorption – I have to agree that they do feel similar. They take place under different circumstances and in different ways, and they certainly cannot be collapsed into each other. But the immersion, the clarity, the energy, the joy: yes, there’s an undeniable affinity there.

Such affinities have their limits, however. I’ll explain why in a minute.

Anti-Dualism: The Hot Dog/Button Issue

Philosophically speaking, this category is the gnarly one.

It’s everyone’s favourite Buddhist joke: the Dalai Lama walks up to a hot dog stand and asks the vendor to “make me one with everything”.

From the Second Manifesto onwards, Surrealism’s central concern too has been to surpass or overcome dualism. On the face of it, this anti-dualism looks like a dead ringer for the Buddhist insistence that all things are essentially one. In Breton’s celebrated words:

Everything tends to make us believe that there exists a certain point of the mind at which life and death, the real and the imagined, past and future, the communicable and the incommunicable, high and low, cease to be perceived as contradictions. Now, search as one may one will never find any other motivating force in the activities of the Surrealists than the hope of finding and fixing this point.

What’s more, Surrealists are convinced that dualisms must be overcome through dialectical transformation. This conviction fuels many of Surrealism’s greatest vehicles, from the indebtedness to Hegel to the commitment to dialectical materialism to the fascination with alchemy. And again, it looks like a slam-dunk for Buddhist philosophy.

The Buddhist doctrine of pratityasamutpada, variously translated as “dependent origination” or “conditioned co-production”, states that all things, events and phenomena arise in dependence upon one another. Since all things arise in mutual interdependence, all things are also in constant process or flux, ever-changing, always transforming.

From a certain point of view, the doctrine of pratityasamutpada might look a lot like dialectical materialism, or Surrealist alchemy – or even complexity theory, if that’s how you prefer to roll. Buddhists make their own karma, we might want to say, but not in conditions of their own making.

As I outlined in my March post, a couple of important figures in Japanese Surrealism in particular seem to have equated Buddhist pratityasamutpada with Surrealist dialectics in this way. It’s fascinating, and I wish to hell I could read Japanese to find out what they thought in more detail.

Bhavacakra image (detail), India. Photo by François Zeller from Montreal, Canada, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Pratityasamutpada also has a flipside, a dualism of its own. Buddhist thought recognises the phenomenal world of pratityasamutpada as conditioned reality, but it also speaks of a reality that is unconditioned.

The Unconditioned is true reality, absolute reality. It is reality as perceived by the Enlightened mind of the Buddha. As such, it is the ultimate goal of Buddhist practice, the spiritual reality for which the Buddhist yearns. A Buddha’s mind has indeed reached the point where life and death, real and imagined, high and low, Conditioned and Unconditioned, cease to be perceived as contradictions.

But when you get right down to it, is this doctrine of the Unconditioned compatible with Surrealism?

The Unconditioned is the Absolute. It is Transcendental with a capital T. And on principle, Surrealists reject the very idea of the Transcendental. For Surrealism, there is no world but this one. There is no otherworld, no spiritual realm, no absolutes, and certainly no Absolute. This is Surrealism as poetic materialism, virulently anti-religious, resolutely profane.

It boils down to this: Buddhism is a spiritual path. You’ll hear some Buddhists of various schools insist that they don’t believe in God, or gods, or anything supernatural at all. For these reasons you’ll hear some say that Buddhism isn’t even a religion in any conventional sense of the word.

I don’t have a beef with any of that. Nevertheless, the fact remains that Buddhism is a form of spirituality. The Unconditioned may or may not be another world – there’s a whole rich seam of Buddhist thought right there. But even if it is not, it is certainly another dimension of this world. A spiritual dimension, a Transcendental dimension.

Pratityasamutpada is not just dialectical materialism. Meditative absorption or dhyāna is not just a psychological flow state. They encompass those things, but they also reach beyond them. That “beyond” is the spiritual dimension. Ultimately, it’s what demarcates Buddhism from Surrealism, despite their superficial affinities.

No Ignorance Or End Of It

I had planned to conclude this blog post by telling you definitively: no, Surrealism is not compatible with Buddhism. Because Buddhism yearns for the Transcendental, whereas Surrealism strives to transform the immanent.

But perhaps it’s not so simple. In the profoundest possible sense, whenever I try to talk or even think about the Unconditioned, I’m talking crap. I literally don’t know what I’m talking about. The Unconditioned is beyond the limits of human thought – not just discursive thought, but imagination and poetic thought too. Hence the Buddhist’s yearning.

To return to the quote from Breton: I am trapped in the contradiction between the communicable and the incommunicable. This side of Enlightenment, we are all trapped there.

I’m sitting here typing, trying to think my way through to the unthinkable, like a nitwit. Bandying terms like “Absolute” and “Transcendent” as if I knew what they meant.

As if they were anything other than a shimmering mystery.

Gate gate pāragate pārasaṃgate bodhi svāhā.

Robert Fludd, Utriusque Cosmi, England, 17th century. Image in the public domain.

Hero image: Noboru Kitawaki, Diagram Of The Chou Divination, 1941, in the public domain.

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One thought on “Surrealists Versus Buddhists: Final Score?

  1. Interesting read, thanks Merl.
    The clear link that I see between buddhism and surrealism is that they are both paths / portals / gateways to the exploration of consciousness. Buddhism, (from the perspective of Shamatha and Vipassana meditation practice), and Surrealism, are ways of mining the depths of consciousness, beyond the waking, dreaming and even deep sleep states. Delving into the laboratory of the mind, can be creative, it can create paradigm shifts in ones behaviour, it can lead one to a more spiritual place as we take the time and effort to deepen our practice. Creating artworks we enter a flow state and it can often also be a state of more direct self enquiry.

    It is through my meditation and creative practices that I have entered into the exciting world of lucid dreaming and (Tibetan buddhist), dream yoga. I talk about both in this video here which is specifically about lucid dreaming and surrealism, -if you are interested:

    Essentially, I think exploring consciousness through the laboratory of the mind is what closely links buddhism and surrealism.

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