Does Buddhism say anything about a relationship between greatness in art, music or other creative areas, and spiritual development? For example, consider the well-known great composers: is there anything to say about how they are able to produce astoundingly complex and beautiful works, like symphonies? (Answers from any tradition are fine.)

Addition: I mean being actively creative, not just listening to music. Is being active and creative valued in Buddhism, or is the point to extinguish everything? What is the purpose of life besides trying to scream and run away? (OK, getting a bit frustrated here.) If life arose for any reason, would it not be to enjoy being in all its forms, and all activities? Or is that a Vexing Question?

  • It appears that Buddhism is generally down on music? (7th Precept - I just read a related Question).
    – user2341
    Commented Dec 11, 2015 at 1:49
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    I think Buddhism is generally down on sense pleasure. Music, art, or whatever else engages the senses and distracts from concentrating on what Buddhism considers to be important. But having said that, you're free to do whatever you wish with your life! Enjoy music and dancing if you wish. There's no harm to yourself or others. You may not be following the classically "ideal" path, but in the end it's all a matter of your own choice. You follow the path you wish, the way you wish.
    – newbold
    Commented Dec 11, 2015 at 14:35

4 Answers 4


In Asia, the various forms of Buddhism have inspired uncountable number of art objects created over the centuries: statues, monuments, temples, icons etc. Some art forms, particularly Japanese ones, are considered no less than expressions of the Enlightened Mind.

Many Zen Masters were known for their calligraphy, drawing, and/or poetic skills. The now famous music of shakuhachi flute was popularized by the Fuke sect of Buddhistm.

Late Chogyuam Trungpa Rinpoche was known for his endless creativity. Check out his True Perception: The Path of Dharma Art, Timely Rain: Selected Poetry of Chogyam Trungpa, The Art of Calligraphy, and other writings.

Teacher I.L. declared awakening of the enlightened creativity, as a tool for the universal benefit to oneself and others, to be the point of Enlightenment. From other teachers I heard that creativity is one of the hallmarks of Enlightenment, as the mind without defilements uncovers potential for unlimited uninhibited creation.

So in short, most of the time Buddhism welcomes art and creativity, especially the kind that either expresses Enlightened Mind or popularizes Dharma.


I suppose it says that people don't typically become 'enlightened', in the Buddhist sense of the term, by listening to music.

I think that the Pali canon discouraged making happiness dependent on sensual conditions (e.g. "I would be happy if only I were listening to a symphony", or "... a better symphony than this one", or etc.).

I saw a movie once (probably Amadeus) where the composer says, "You lucky people: God loves you, and I'm about to prove that to you." Such "enthusiasm" might be admirable but it seems to me a fabrication (inventing a 'God' and so on to explain sense-input).

On the other hand there are some Arts which are traditionally or culturally associated with some forms of Buddhism: for example Bokuseki. I don't know about that, I guess from my reading that's supposed to demonstrate a lack of defilements/hindrances in the author's mind, and to be a visible (informative) record/remainder feedback/learning tool of something (i.e. of the author) which really happened.

My take on it is the Pali canon was like,

  • You're supposed to be monks, not spend your time and indulge your desires by sneaking off to listen to music festivals
  • Arahants and non-returners are above/beyond a craving/thirst for music (i.e. sensual desire)
  • Lay people who want to be like monks and arahants, who want to sip from the experience which monks should aspire to full-time, ought to put aside their craving for music at least on holy days

I read a non-Puritanical attitude into this answer though, e.g. you wouldn't despise a lay person for liking music,

If someone really has no problems, that's great, they are Enlightened! The historical Buddha (According to Stephen Batchelor's retelling) said as much on his death bed, when he asked if anyone had any questions left, no one did, so he said, well you all must be enlightened then. People need Buddhism when their current raft has sunk. If there is food on the table, a comfortable place to sleep, and they have no complaints about their daily routine, then our jobs as Buddhists is to rejoice in their success (mudita).

What should naturally creative people do with themselves?

I'm sorry, I don't know doctrine about "creativity", whether natural or otherwise.

The impression I get (from the Pali suttas, summarized in a book titled The Buddha's Teachings on Prosperity: At Home, At Work, in the World) is that what lay people "should" do is behave as good and responsible members of society -- i.e. practice "ethics" or virtue.

The book includes advice (quoting various suttas) on how to handle wealth, marry, be a parent, and so on.

One of the suttas mentions "six directions" i.e. each person's responsibility towards their parents, teachers, spouse and family, friends and colleagues, workers and servants, and "ascetics and Brahmans".

When you make money it recommends re-investing some, saving some, and using only a portion for your needs. It recommends wealth without squeezing others (like a bee collects honey without harming the flowers) -- and so on, the whole book contains instructions like these for lay people.

The canon does warn against an excess of partying, immorality, for example,

And what six ways of squandering wealth are to be avoided? Young man, heedlessness caused by intoxication, roaming the streets at inappropriate times, habitual partying, compulsive gambling, bad companionship, and laziness are the six ways of squandering wealth.

Buddhism also recommends Dāna (generosity or charity: especially giving to monks, spiritual people).

  • So it appears that you are saying the scriptures say nothing in particular about creative expression, and nothing about how creative expression is affected by spiritual development. My experience has been that when I see creative work, I get a sense of the creator's state of being - happy, sad, disciplined... How do you feel when you look at a Rothko painting? I always felt depressed and repelled. As it happens, he took his own life due to depression. Some works are amazing, and I wonder if that is purely the 10,000 hour rule, or if some of it is the person's nature and development generally?
    – user2341
    Commented Dec 14, 2015 at 1:21

For example, consider the well-known great composers: is there anything to say about how they are able to produce astoundingly complex and beautiful works, like symphonies? (Answers from any tradition are fine.)

Not that I know of from the sutras. From them, I understand it's generally considered a skill like any other -- which can be highly developed by some. But I understand these are skills that are not particularly encouraged, seen as particularly special, or find a significant place in the buddhist path [when put alongside with the doctrinal concepts and practices].

Does Buddhism say anything about a relationship between greatness in art, music or other creative areas, and spiritual development?

There are links between Buddhism and art. Starting from the sutras, we find verses attributed to monks (possibly arahants). From then on, Buddhism was a theme for many artists through history. But here we are talking about the culture of Buddhism in the context of art, not about it's doctrine it's relationship to art.

Addition: I mean being actively creative, not just listening to music. Is being active and creative valued in Buddhism [?]

It seems to me the above refers more broadly to the faculty of intelligence (which includes creativity) combined with skills, and not necessarily artistic expression or art appreciation. Naturally, these faculties are generally beneficial for any kind of endeavor, including the study, the practice, the teaching and propagation of Buddhism.

... or is the point to extinguish everything?

To extinguish every illusion that impair one's life and creates suffering. Not to extinguish everything.

If life arose for any reason, would it not be to enjoy being in all its forms, and all activities?

Anyone can come up with any formulation to explain to themselves why life arose for them. The truth is, it's a chosen answer, not certainty, not truth. To "enjoy being in all its forms and all activities", then is just one's choice for living their life -- the question of how life should be lived remains unanswered as long as there's the possibility of finding out one was mistaken.

To Buddhism, this is not an incorrect way of life, nor correct. If the Buddha was asked if this was a correct life choice, I understand from the sutras he would just say something like: "are you willing to keep suffering, to be subject to suffering? If not, here's what I invite you to try." -- which is just another way of saying what he has been recorded saying to similar questions: that he simply teaches there's suffering, there's the origin of suffering, there's the cessation of suffering, and there's the path to it's cessation.

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    There is a famous Philosophical question: "Why are there essents [things that exist] instead of nothing?" The answer I know relates to something one of my teachers told me: "The Void can't know itself." So, the Void gave rise to Experience, which is what is happening now. The Void knows itself through all that is. To me, this is a satisfactory answer, and I do not consider it possible to be mistaken. So in that case, I can say that life exists to enjoy being in all its forms. This means I can enjoy being creative, and that is a perfect and necessary part of all that is, or it would not be.
    – user2341
    Commented Dec 11, 2015 at 20:50
  • My point is that high philosophical questions and contemplations such as the ones you presented remain unanswered in the hard sense: they aren't solved from then on. I can't go to my friends and family with the good news and tell them "know that old question about what we should do to our lives? It has been answered, no need to have doubts anymore. Here it is: " and not sound unreasonable. So, it remains an open philosophical question, regardless of people finding peace in any specific provisional answer they like. And, from what I know, Buddhism is silent about this particular question.
    – user382
    Commented Dec 15, 2015 at 15:51
  • OK. I was hoping that somewhere I would find that sort of answer, which I could tell everyone, saving them much time and trouble. I guess it does not exist.
    – user2341
    Commented Dec 15, 2015 at 23:01

The Buddha of the Pali canon mentions a sensuous deva realm or heavenly realm called the nimmanarati deva, 'deva's delighting in creation'. One may conclude from this that creativity could be a pursuit of a heavenly mind, or a mind fit for the material deva realms. Happy these destinations may be, we are all aware that the Buddha's goal for us was much higher than this. It may prove helpful to remember that there are another 20 realms beyond the material deva realms, each one more blissful and less material than the previous, and all of which possibly may have left physical creativity behind.

As human beings, the pursuit of creativity seems to lead ones mind to a place of reflection of feeling. Developing this facet of ourselves may have the benefit of leading us further up and into the realms of feeling or the 'sensuous realms' of the sensuous devas. The Buddha instructed those who's spiritual faculties were not yet well developed to aim for these deva realms, through good moral conduct in life, as when they found themselves there they would have better circumstances to practice and go further. However for those who's spiritual faculties were quite developed, he instructed them directly to the end game, which naturally would not entail the faculty of physical creativity.

The Buddha states that one who has developed even the first jhana will upon death secure a place in the Brahma realms, beyond the sensuous realms. Interestingly, the first jhana has feeling as it's principle component, when the first jhana is fully established, one can be said to have surmounted the human capacity for feeling. It feels very nice and afterwards, there is not much want for physical creativity as one's need to understand feeling has been satiated. Furthermore there is little want to listen to or write music as the feeling this brings falls short of what is experienced in the first jhana.

The reason I use the term physical creativity is at this point I am unsure what creative potential one might have in the fine material or immaterial realms, where it seems to simply think something would make it so.

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