Path and fruition in Buddhism and the arts

[An essay from my PhD exam process exploring a hypothetical parallel between practice-insight and rehearsal-performance.]

Contemplative practice, framed by the various religions, is almost always represented as a Path — the changing of subjective experience from one state or understanding to another more wholesome one — that leads to a definite fruition. Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle, with its seven “mansions” leading to an inner sanctum where the Divine Marriage is experienced; the Sufi path from tauba, the “turning of the heart” to fruition experienced as the return to the Beloved through fana, spiritual annihilation; the path of yoga leading to liberation from samsara or the round of birth and death.
The Theravada Buddhist model preserved in the Pali Canon and its commentaries is exemplary because its mapping of subjective states is both extremely detailed and rigorously phenomenological, that is, not relying on articles of faith, mythical narratives, mystical cosmology, or speculations on the nature of reality for its pursuit or verification. The Buddha is famous for encouraging self-reliant inquiry, and not taking anything on faith, demanding that practitioners use intelligent, experiential investigation as the path to fruition.
This encouragement includes not assuming something is true even if spoken by a teacher or sage, and distinguishes the Theravada approach from later methods that rely more heavily on guru yoga and mystical transmission, as many Mahayana and Vajrayana schools do. In the Theravada we find ample evidence of a progressive “Path” (magga) orientation, beginning with the Buddha’s naming of his method “The Noble Eightfold Path” (ariya-atthangika-magga) and threading through the texts in countless ways. The end of the Path is characterized by a series of experiences that follow the non-conceptual state of “cessation” (nirodha, considered to be the perception of nibbana/nirvana), though commentators are careful to maintain a taxonomy that recognizes nibbana as “unconditioned” and therefore not a “state”, since states are conditioned experiences. (I will not unpack the dense commentaries on the nature of nibbana here.) Following cessation, the practitioner experiences various recognitions and confirmations of the experience that has just occurred, and knows that fruition (phala) has been reached. The practices that comprise the Path are known as “cultivation” (bhavana), and they hinge on the application of effort via intention. We can then speak to a dyad of action and result, here manifesting as cultivation and fruition.
In order for action to be cultivation, in other words for any activity to be part of the Path toward fruition, it needs to be accompanied by appropriate orientation and intention, which are the first two steps on the Eightfold Path: Wise View (samma ditthi) and Wise Intention (samma sankappa). Bhavana consists largely of trainings for the mind, through ethical, reflective, and meditative exercises such as concentration of the attention on one object or task to the exclusion of all else. But not all concentration is bhavana — many people concentrate: athletes, soldiers, and performing artists among them, but their concentration does not necessarily, or even often, lead to the types of fruition described in religious and spiritual texts.
In order for Buddhist maps of cultivation to be valuable in a discussion of artistic practice, not only will artistic activities have to be interrogated, but the intentions and supporting structures that surround the activities. Taking concentration as an example, the Pali texts describe two variants of mind-unification practice (samadhi): one in which a sense object (like the breath, or a visual image) is brought into attention and maintained there to the exclusion of other sense data, called “one-pointedness” (ekaggata), and leading to absorption (jhana); and one in which attention is sustained on the act of paying attention itself, and then directed to the stream of changing sensory objects (sati, or “mindfulness”) leading to inquiry and insight (vipassana). In jhana practice, the steadied mind is eventually intended away from sensory seclusion in absorption toward the meditative process itself, reflecting on the impermanence and unsatisfactoriness of the (generally very pleasurable) jhana state itself, and thus turned toward Insight. In vipassana practice, the turn toward Insight is immediate, inviting the practitioner to attend so closely to changing experience that impermanence and unsatisfactoriness are apparent even without the stability of mind cultivated in jhana. Either way, the trained mind is used in inquiry into phenomenal experience leading to the deconstruction of the habitual personality and sense of self (atta), and the end of the suffering (dukkha) caused by fixated relationships with both external objects and self. The two types of samadhi lead to different experiences, but the fruition is similar.
Orientation and intention are integral to this process. Jhana, for instance, which is the primary meditative task suggested in the Pali Canon, is intrinsically blissful, maturing into states of great equanimity and ease. But pleasurable sense experience does not on its own impel reflection on its own impermanence or other Dharma qualities. In fact, as we know from our very pleasure-oriented culture, pleasurable sense experience can easily just give rise to the desire for more. The rat on the lever — which of course turns out to be much more complex than it seems. Jhana seems to give rise to inquiry, insight, and fruition only in the presence of appropriate framing, and as such is accompanied in the commentaries by warnings not to be seduced by the pleasure, but to stay sober in the core orientation toward suffering and freedom from suffering. This sobriety is the purpose of the insight stage called “purification by knowledge and vision of what is and is not the path”, in which the practitioner recognizes that every meditative experience, even those colored by substantial clarity and ease, are impermanent and therefore unreliable. It is orientation toward the Four Noble Truths that keeps the practitioner on the Path at a stage like this. The importance of orientation (which I am using as a version of the more traditional “view” for ditthi) and intention as frames for cultivation will support a discussion of whether this model of cultivation and fruition sheds light on the rehearsal-performance dyad in the arts.
What is rehearsal-performance? Conventionally, rehearsal is the period in which people prepare a piece for public showing, and performance is that public showing. Rehearsal is preparation, which manifests in many ways — some groups practice skills of body, voice, and thought, some work to build fluency with a given text or score, some improvise and generate material, many do all of these. I will discuss mostly recent rehearsal methodologies, using as a first example generalizations about process-based theater by Eugenio Barba, recognizing a shift in rehearsal process in the 20th century via the exercises of Stanislavsky and Meyerhold:
“[The] exercises… had nothing in common with the courses at theatre schools in which students learned singing, diction, fencing, ballet, and play interpretation. All these were abilities that could be exploited in their future careers, but were not taught by the exercises… At first the exercises appeared to be an aberration from the point of view of tradition and common sense because it was not easy to see their utility for the actor. What was the point in repeating dynamic patterns that had no direct relationship to the rehearsals, which focused on character interpretation and the immediate effect of the production on the spectator?” (Barba, “The Essence of Theater”, TDR 46.3, 2002)
The exercises that would come, in many variations, to comprise the training in many kinds of modern and postmodern theater, were not oriented toward specific theatrically-useful results (like diction), but were focused on “overcoming obstacles and inhibitions; specializing in certain skills; freeing oneself of conditioning, of “spontaneity,” or of mannerisms; the acquisition of a particular way of using the brain and the nervous system… They are pure form, a linking together of dynamic peripeteias, without a plot, but infused with information”. Barba’s description places the Stanislavsky and Meyerhold exercises in contrast to the more specifically theatrical skill orientation of the traditional courses, and recognizes that rehearsal comprises the entire course of training that precedes public showing — including more than just preparation of the specific piece to be presented.
We can then differentiate between training, as the repetition of exercises that cultivate desired qualities and skills, and rehearsal, where specific material is prepared for performance. The 19th century piano virtuoso Franz Liszt is mythically famous for practicing 10 hours a day, with half devoted to technique and half to repertoire. This is probably an exaggeration, but not by much, and it was commonly repeated during the years of Liszt’s celebrity as Europe’s preeminent touring piano virtuoso. So training and rehearsal are separate kinds of preparatory practices, and we can look into how they each prepare the performer for public showing, then look at the moment of performance itself. I will hypothesize that training and rehearsal are methodologically parallel to one-pointedness and inquiry in Buddhist practice, and that they condition fruition, or performance, in revealingly similar ways.
Theatrical exercises, Barba’s “pure form… infused with information”, condition the practitioner in ways that support “a particular way of using the brain and the nervous system”. The exercises are mostly physical, but condition inner states in a relearning process, often through undoing — conditioning, mannerisms, habits — and thus “freeing oneself”. Meditative training does the same, likewise through a process of engaging with the basics of material and perceptual experience — “pure form”. In bhavana, physical practices (stillness, alert postures, and focused, slow movement) support a mental practice of stilling distraction and relaxing into one-pointedness. This process inevitably brings up difficult emotions and personal content, and reveals the practitioner’s conditioning and habits as they express through the process being undertaken. The cultivation of focused states and the emotional work that comes with attempting them both are supported and amplified by repetition, which is the defining activity of training both in the arts and in spiritual practice. If the Stanislavsky and Meyerhold exercises are a version of cultivation that much like one-pointedness training places the practitioner inside forms — Tadashi Suzuki’s method is more recent example — improvisation-centered methods are a training that uses dynamic situations to condition responsiveness, spontaneity, and other valuable performing skills. These trainings, like Viewpoints, Action Theater, Authentic Movement, Contact Improvisation, and many others can be paralleled to the changing-object practices of mindfulness (sati) in that they do not train the practitioner specifically in one-pointed focus on specific forms, like stomping the feet in Suzuki’s method, but emphasize the process of attention and response itself as the field in which virtuosity is cultivated. Virtuosity, which originally meant “manly”, and later “dilettante”, refers now to performers and craftspeople who evince extreme technical skill, especially since the Romantic period applying to celebrity musicians. If training cultivates skills whose utility is “not easy to see”, what does virtuosity look like in a contemplative performer? Virtuosity is fruition.
Potently and paradoxically in Theravada practice fruition — comprising the experience of spontaneous cessation (nirodha) and unbinding (nibbana), the recognition (phala) of that cessation, reviewing of what led to it (paccavekkhana) and the stabilization of a new experience of (not-believing-in-)self called Stream-Enterer (sotāpanna) — is considered both to be the reason for training and not conditioned by it. Cultivation brings the mind and body to the extremely heightened state that cessation generally arises within, but because nibbana itself is understood as “unconditioned”, it can not arise as a result. Fruition therefore isn’t so much the moment of cessation as the reflection afterward that recognizes that the taints (grasping, aversion, confusion, and the sense of the self as substantial or continually existent) have been uprooted. We have a model then of repetitive training that conditions heightened states of mind and an orientation toward seeing certain qualities of existence clearly (impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and not-self). With that heightened state as support but not condition (meaning fruition is not inevitable), spontaneous moments can arise in which the sense of self and all that is known ceases, followed by the recognition of that ceasing and appreciation of the new state that arises in its wake.
Performance, as the fruition of training and rehearsal, is conventionally the moment of public showing. But what is different in the performer’s state between private practice and public showing? The performer may be nervous or have other psychological content around being seen or heard, but structurally the primary difference is in the charge or energy their directed attention brings into the system. This will give rise to a general heightening of the performer’s energetic state, but the situation is not yet electric — not yet revelation. But as many performers know, within the heightened situation of public showing there can be moments that break out of the mundane energy present, even if quite high. These transcendent moments, like those of jhana and sati, manifest the qualities described by Csikszentmihalyi as “flow”, including concentration, non-self-consciousness, and the activity being satisfying for itself rather than with a goal in mind, or autotelic.
If we distinguish moments of flow as the sought-after fruition in performance, then like in spiritual practice we have a dyad of heightened state as support, and a categorically different spontaneous experience that includes attenuated self-consciousness as the fruit. I will call the general situation of activity-while-witnessed “performance”, and the moments of spontaneous flow that stand out from what is otherwise iteration of the already known “revelation”. This enables the assertion of a basic sequence that holds for both spiritual and performance practice:
1. Training (cultivation of skills) gives rise to virtuosity (reliable heightened states).
2. Virtuosity is a condition for a spontaneous state shift into Flow, or absorption.
Derailment! I planned upon getting to this point that I would assert the parallel between cultivation-fruition and rehearsal-performance, but now can’t do so. The fruition state of Flow, or absorption, is taxonomically different from any of the Insight or Reviewing states in the Theravada insight sequence. What it is parallel to is the states of jhana. In other words, it is a more heightened state than the mundane expression of virtuosity, but it does not contain the reflective or insightful qualities of fruition (phala). This brings us back to the necessary supports for bhavana to condition Insight and not just stillness: orientation and intention. If Flow was automatically productive of the uprooting of the taints, there would be a lot more enlightened athletes, artists, and craftspeople around! That there aren’t, at least by the Theravada rubric, is because one of the conditions for absorption to crest into wisdom is consistent orientation toward the Four Noble Truths — essentially toward suffering and its release — with the intention to let go of clinging to sense experience (Right View, in Buddhist terms). In the absence of this orientation, the pleasure and clarity of Flow may just give rise to the desire for more Flow, and keep performers devoted to their art, but not be a ground for profound liberation. When performers DO experience profound liberations, as they sometimes do, I would assert that there was a guiding intention behind their work that served as a fundamental orientation and therefore conditioned [standard “unconditioned” caveat here] the transformative experience. This perhaps indicates that clarification of the intentions behind making performance is an underemphasized aspect of arts pedagogy.
In discussing performer experience through training, rehearsal, and states of Flow, I have not focused on specifically “contemplative” performance as a method, style, or genre, but described a taxonomy of states common to many kinds of live performance, if not most. In terms of the audience, therefore, I’m assuming a standard theatrical, dance, or musical audience, who is involved in the performance simply through the directing of their attention onto the action, which I’ll call “observational” audiencing (a softer word for what Martin Jay and Anna Fenemore call “assertoric gaze”).
Some performers, however, engage contemplative states specifically as a central practice, both in rehearsal and performance, and the structure, vocabulary, or aesthetic of those pieces might be different from a piece that maintains a culturally standard (hegemonic) relationship between artist and audience with standard activities happening in each. In such cases, the contract between artist and audience might vary widely from the assumed theatrical contract, particularly if the artist structures the piece such that the audience members themselves enter altered or heightened states, which I’ll call “immersive” audiencing (Jay and Fenemore have “ontological vision”).
The analysis of contemplative work of this kind is a focus of my dissertation research, and recognizes that the change in audience-performer contract and relationship can dramatically change the situation in the room, ethically and experientially for people in both roles. The basic spectrum of training, rehearsal, performance, and flow/revelation will be the same in pieces that invite observational and immersive audiencing, with observing audiences generally witnessing only the last two states (in the form of the performer/other), and those vicariously, while the immersed audiences may experience the sequence much more fully for themselves, as they are taken through activities that correspond to some or all of the stages. Further research will explore the possibilities for both transference of heightened states and communication of profound understanding between performer and audience in public showing, and following the sequence of stages described here the explicit need for audience training if revelation, on the part of the audience, is desired as a theatrical goal.

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