William S. Kowinski - Sunday, January 4, 2004 / © 2004 San Francisco Chronicle

Asked to speculate on Zen Buddhism's American prospects, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, founder of the San Francisco Zen Center, replied, "Very colorful."

From the first Chinatown temples through the Beat era and into the 21st century, Buddhism has been contributing to the cultural palette of the Bay Area and California. So when Jacquelynn Baas, former director of the Berkeley Art Museum, heard about nascent efforts among New York curators to examine Buddhism's influences in Western art, she suggested that something like this ought to be done on the West Coast as well. "Buddhism has been an important presence in American cultural life for generations," Baas said, "and historically, demographically, this is where a lot of it really happened."

Baas and independent curator Mary Jane Jacobs organized a West Coast consortium called Awake: Art, Buddhism and the Dimensions of Consciousness, which over the past two years has been a catalyst for such local events as the "Real to Real: Buddhism and Film" festival at San Francisco Zen Center and the Castro Theatre and recent appearances in Berkeley by the U Theatre and Cloud Gate Dance Theatre from Taiwan. Forthcoming events include a major exhibition by artist Tom Marioni at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in January, a Gary Snyder poetry reading next spring and two books to be published by University of California Press. Other projects scheduled stretch into 2006 and beyond.

But several events this month exemplify the dynamics of Buddhism's influences in the arts and cultural life of the Bay Area.

Zen and Now

So prominent in San Francisco's history are Asian immigrants and their descendants -- now constituting about a third of the city's population and a fifth of the Bay Area's, according to the latest census -- that it seems only natural that the largest museum in the United States devoted exclusively to the arts of Asia is in San Francisco. So prominent is Buddhism in Asian history that the Asian Art Museum organized its expanded permanent collection by tracing the spread of Buddhism across that continent.

Now the first special exhibition in its new Civic Center home highlights the golden age of Buddhism in Korea, the Goryeo Dynasty. Two forthcoming exhibitions at the Berkeley Art Museum also feature Buddhist sacred art from China, Japan, Tibet and Vietnam. Though Buddhism's influences on the secular art that exploded in the 1950s derived from different sources, the historic Asian ambience peculiar to San Francisco helped provide a receptive atmosphere.

"San Francisco in the '50s was a Mediterranean and Asian city, in temperament and culture," poet Michael McClure recalls. "We encountered Asian people every day, signs in Chinese, markets in Chinese, food in Chinese and Chinese music in the street."

For non-Asian artists in the '40s and '50s, the ground had been prepared by Buddhist-influenced writings of Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson and William James, and recent translations of Chinese poetry by Ezra Pound and San Francisco's Kenneth Rexroth. Some (like John Cage, who taught music to Chinese, Italian and black children in San Francisco neighborhoods during the Depression before becoming the foremost Zen- influenced artist of his time) were first exposed to Buddhism in books and lectures by D.T. Suzuki.

But beginning in 1953, many Bay Area artists also absorbed ideas from Buddhism and other Eastern thought through hearing talks by scholar and writer Alan Watts on the radio. "Alan was wonderful," McClure says. "I have two friends who came out here because this is where Alan Watts lived. They'd heard his broadcasts." His many radio programs continued airing on Berkeley's KPFA for more than 20 years after his death in 1973, and are still heard on stations across the country.

The most prominent Beat-era poets in San Francisco were the most conspicuously influenced by Buddhism, and many eventually became dedicated practitioners: first Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen (who became a Buddhist monk and abbot) and Joanne Kyger, then Diane di Prima and Michael McClure. By the '60s many major figures in Bay Area arts and entertainment were inspired by Buddhist ideas, from visual artists Sam Francis and Jay DeFeo to theater artists Julian Beck of the Living Theatre and actor Peter Coyote, avant-garde composer Pauline Oliveros to Jerry Garcia and other members of the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane. Some of these artists, as well as contemporary artists such as Berkeley's Kazuaki Tanahashi, are featured in "Zen and Modern Art: Echoes of Buddhism in Western Paintings and Prints," an exhibition at Cal State Hayward.

Formal meditation was largely unknown, however, until Suzuki Roshi arrived from Japan and started the San Francisco Zen Center in 1962, bringing the reality of Zen practice to Americans without regard to race, gender or sexual orientation. With its Green Gulch Farm temple in Marin County and monastery at Tassajara in Monterey County hosting visitors and conferences, and with satellite businesses such as Greens restaurant, Zen Center became the most visible and significant agent of integration for Buddhism and San Francisco culture. Now there are zendos and Buddhist institutions spread throughout the Bay Area, and many (like San Francisco Buddhist Center through its Blue Buddha Arts space in the Mission District) joined Zen Center to continue exploring art and Buddhism.

Commitment to nature and the environment, and a social activism that flowed directly from Buddhist teachings, also formed a common thread between the Zen Center and Bay Area artists. These concerns are finding new prominence with the ascendance of the Tibetan Buddhism of the Dalai Lama and the "engaged Buddhism" of Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. In their different ways, advocates such as Joanna Macy of Berkeley and artist Suzanne Lacy (who developed public art projects with teenagers in Oakland) explore this aspect.

The Art of Don't Know

For artists who are practicing Buddhists, "dharma practice and art are two sides of the same coin," di Prima once explained. But the influence isn't restricted to practitioners. "To appreciate the practice you have to practice, " says Kay Larson, former New York magazine art critic and current Zen practitioner who participated in Awake. "To appreciate Buddhism, you can catch some of the sensibility by being aware of issues like not clinging to things or ideas, and open yourself to the flow of mind and experience -- and that's what artists do anyway. In a way, Buddhism shows them what they're already doing and gives them a larger frame for it."

Yvonne Rand was a major figure at the San Francisco Zen Center for 28 years and has thought a lot about the relationship of meditation and contemporary art, which prompted her to serve on the steering committee of the Awake project. "It depends a lot on the particular artist, but I certainly am convinced that the mind in the moment of creativity and the mind in the moment of meditation are the same mind," she says.

It is an openness sometimes called in Buddhist practice "the mind of don't know." Rand finds it in artists as different as Song Hyun-sook, one of the contemporary Korean artists in the current Asian Art Museum show (Rand hosted her stay in San Francisco for the opening) and Edgar Degas.

"There's a quality in (Degas') sculpture that resonates with anyone engaged in the Buddhist meditation tradition, (in which) one is always seeking to stay open to what's not known, to the unexpected -- in fact to develop a capacity and a taste for the unexpected and the constantly changing nature of experience. I think most artists and poets are also working that edge."

Jordan Simmons, executive and artistic director of East Bay Center for Performing Arts, participated in Awake meetings partly to help him in working with some of the newer Asian immigrants, the Mien from northern Laos, some 2, 500 of whom have settled in the Richmond area. Buddhism is part of their culture, in combination with aspects of Taoism, shamanism and animism. But in the emphasis on the integrity of experiencing art as well as creating it derived from Buddhist meditation, Simmons found a compelling reason for all people to value art.

"For the audience, what's important is not some status experience but a real experience of the work," he said. "And when we teach young people to do art, we are teaching them to value their own experience of life."

The recent emphasis on the Buddhist values of attention and being in the moment is perhaps a response to the faster speed of life and the split-focus distractions of the cell phone society, as well as the new pervasiveness of meditation practice. But Larson, who is writing a book on Cage, cautions that we shouldn't forget how it all started in the Beat era.

"I think there was kind of beauty and innocence early on, when people were picking up these red-hot ideas out of what they read," she says. "There was a gorgeousness about that, a clarity and a freedom that is getting clouded now. The main issue really is getting an atom bomb dropped on everything you think you've got down pat and solid in your life, and every structure you've ever been taught in school, and everything that has ever been fed to you about what the universe is. Everything gets blown away and space frees up and possibilities emerge, and you can be human, you can be yourself, in a whole new way. That's really what happened to people like Gary Snyder. I know that's what happened to Cage -- it blew his mind."

McClure believes that Buddhism brought "a possibility for us to open up to a larger generosity of thinking and a deepening of consciousness, and a myriad-mindedness." Speaking of San Francisco, he adds, "Zen came to a very special place, and we were fortunate to be in that place."


AWAKE: ART, BUDDHISM AND THE DIMENSIONS OF CONSCIOUSNESS fosters educational efforts and public programs in Los Angeles, Dallas, Seattle, Portland, Ore., and Chicago as well as in the Bay Area. Regionally the consortium includes the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, UC Berkeley Art Museum, California College of Arts, Cal Performances, the Judah Magnes Museum, Stanford's Cantor Center of Art, San Francisco Art Institute, East Bay Center for the Performing Arts, Headlands Center for the Arts, and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Funding is from the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the James Irvine Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts and other sources..


Works of Bay Area artists Sam Francis, William T. Wiley, Jay DeFeo and Arthur Monroe, including calligraphy by Alan Watts, visual work by Suzuki Roshi and paintings by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, join examples of traditional Zen art, Surrealists (Miro, Mark Tobey, Morris Graves) and abstract expressionists (Pollock, de Kooning, Motherwell, Franz Kline) influenced by Buddhism. Also featured: prints made by John Cage in the Bay Area, and painting by Berkeley's Kazuaki Tanahashi created for this exhibition. Noon-3 p.m. Wednesdays to Saturdays through Jan. 31 at University Art Gallery, Arts and Education Building, California State University, Hayward.


Ceramics, paintings, prints and illustrated sutras, sculpture, ritual implements and metal crafts of the Goryeo Dynasty, when Buddhism was a dominant religious and cultural presence in Korea and Korean art. This is the Asian Art Museum's first major temporary exhibition in its new building, the former Main Library, in the San Francisco Civic Center. Running concurrently is LEANING FORWARD, LOOKING BACK: EIGHT CONTEMPORARY ARTISTS FROM KOREA, the museum's first exhibition of contemporary Asian art, presenting 26 works by eight artists from Korea, all of whom were in San Francisco for the opening. The artists (Cho Duck-hyun, Jung Jong-mee, Kim Hong-joo, Kim Young-jin, Lee Jungjin, Song Hyun-sook, U Sunok and Whang Inkie) examine the future in terms of the Korean past. Well-known artists in Korea, they are introduced to an international public in this exhibition, which is curated by Jeff Kelley, visiting curator of contemporary art at the Asian Art Museum, and Kang Seungwan, curator of contemporary art at the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Korea. These shows run through Jan. 11. The museum's permanent collection features THE SPREAD OF BUDDHISM THROUGH ASIA, 2,500 objects organized to roughly follow Buddhism's path from its origins in India to Southeast Asia, the Himalayas, China, Korea and Japan.

Asian Art Museum/ Chong-Moon Lee Center for Asian Art and Culture, 200 Larkin St., San Francisco. The museum is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, until 9 p.m. Thursdays. $10 for adults, $7 for seniors, $6 for youths 12-17, and free for children younger than 12. After 5 p.m. Thursday evenings, admission is just $5 for all visitors except members and those younger than 12, who are always admitted free. (415) 581-3500 or www. asianart. org. .

AWAKENING: BUDDHIST PAINTING FROM TIBET, CHINA AND JAPAN Rare Asian Buddhist paintings, including paintings from Tibet drawn from the collection of Theos Bernard (1908-1947), which have never before shown at the museum. Through Feb. 22 at UC Berkeley Art Museum. .

HELEN MIRRA/MATRIX 209: 66 INSTANTS Exhibition of 65 works inspired by an insight of Nagarjuna, second century Buddhist originator of the Middle Way, and created during several months' residence. Through Jan. 24 at UC Berkeley Art Museum. .

THE GARDEN, an installation featuring objects from the museum's Eastern and Western art collections that either emerge from historical Buddhist traditions or simply lend themselves to meditative reflection. Through July 3 at UC Berkeley Art Museum.


525 B.C.
The Buddha attains enlightenment under the Bodhi tree.

1844 Thoreau and Emerson publish first English translation of a Buddhist sutra, in the Transcendentalist periodical Dial.

1853 First Buddhist temple in San Francisco Chinatown.

1898 First Japanese Buddhist missionaries to United States arrive in San Francisco.

1925 Japanese monk Nyogen Senzaki opens zendo on Bush Street in Japantown, the Fillmore.

1945 John Cage attends D.T. Suzuki's lectures at Columbia.

1953 Alan Watts does first radio broadcast on Zen, KPFA, Berkeley.

1954 Jack Kerouac discovers Dwight Goddard's "A Buddhist Bible" in the San Jose Library.

1955 Promising "free satori," San Francisco poetry reading at the Six Gallery introduces Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen and Philip Lamantia.

1956 Poet Gary Snyder studies Zen Buddhism in Japan.

1958 Keroauc's novel "Dharma Bums" links Beats and San Francisco Poetry Renaissance to Buddhist consciousness.

1959 Shunryn Suzuki arrives, soon to establish San Francisco Zen Center

1967 "Zenefit" at Avalon Ballroom with the Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company and Quicksilver Messenger Service to support S.F. Zen Center's Tassajara, the first Buddhist monastery outside Asia.

1979 Fourteenth Dalai Lama begins first visit to America in San Francisco.

Zen Center opens Greens Restaurant.

1991 Poet Philip Whalen becomes abbot of Hartford Street Zen Center.

1996 First Tibetan Freedom Concert in United States at Golden Gate Park with the Beastie Boys, Smashing Pumpkins, Beck, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Rage Against the Machine.

2003 Expanded Asian Art Museum opens in Civic Center.