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The Zen of Creativity: Cultivating Your Artistic Life

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For many of us, the return of Zen conjures up images of rock gardens and gently flowing waterfalls. We think of mindfulness and meditation, immersion in a state of being where meaning is found through simplicity. Zen lore has been absorbed by Western practitioners and pop culture alike, yet there is a specific area of this ancient tradition that hasn’t been fully explored in the West. Now, in The Zen of Creativity, American Zen master John Daido Loori presents a book that taps the principles of the Zen arts and aesthetic as a means to unlock creativity and find freedom in the various dimensions of our existence. Loori dissolves the barriers between art and spirituality, opening up the possibility of meeting life with spontaneity, grace, and peace.

Zen Buddhism is steeped in the arts. In spiritual ways, calligraphy, poetry, painting, the tea ceremony, and flower arranging can point us toward our essential, boundless nature. Brilliantly interpreting the teachings of the artless arts, Loori illuminates various elements that awaken our creativity, among them still point, the center of each moment that focuses on the tranquility within; simplicity, in which the creative process is uncluttered and unlimited, like a cloudless sky; spontaneity, a way to navigate through life without preconceptions, with a freshness in which everything becomes new; mystery, a sense of trust in the unknown; creative feedback, the systematic use of an audience to receive noncritical input about our art; art koans, exercises based on paradoxical questions that can be resolved only through artistic expression. Loori shows how these elements interpenetrate and function not only in art, but in all our endeavors.

Beautifully illustrated and punctuated with poems and reflections from Loori’s own spiritual journey, The Zen of Creativity presents a multilayered, bottomless source of insight into our creativity. Appealing equally to spiritual seekers, artists, and veteran Buddhist practitioners, this book is perfect for those wishing to discover new means of self-awareness and expression—and to restore equanimity and freedom amid the vicissitudes of our lives.

From the Hardcover edition.

272 pages, Paperback

First published June 8, 2004

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John Daido Loori

47 books25 followers

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 50 reviews
Profile Image for Deb (Readerbuzz) Nance.
5,872 reviews293 followers
December 30, 2016
Sometimes it's nice to take a step back and look at the whole picture. That's what happened when I read this book. Instead of focusing on creating something I focused on getting into that place where creating happens. It was a good break and I think I will take that shift into my everyday life.
Profile Image for Sarah Booth.
394 reviews40 followers
April 2, 2018
a fantastic book about the creative process and how to cultivate it. Having been lucky enough to have met this man before he died I thought he was an individual of great integrity and knew what he was talking about. You never feel feel as if someone is trying to sell you some snake oil. I enjoyed the writing and found the material greatly inspiring. I plan on reading it again. I gave a couple of people a copy of this book.
Profile Image for Valerie.
12 reviews3 followers
May 30, 2008
This book came to me at a time when I needed to rethink my creative life -- I was putting tremendous "effort" into my writing, but little was working. This book had a quieting effect on me and taught me something about the intangible creative process as well as patience (at least where my process is concerned). Excellent, too, for anyone interested in Zen Buddhism.
Profile Image for Roben.
357 reviews5 followers
February 22, 2014
I read The Zen of Creativity over a period of a year. Quiet and thoughtful, John Daido Loori brought a sense of wonder into my processes of art.
Profile Image for Robyn.
154 reviews1 follower
September 6, 2018
Rather than write a critical review, I have instead listed notes taken during my reading of this book. Perhaps this will help others determine whether or not the book is a good personal fit.

Author attended photography workshop led by Minor White.

Page 55 - Still point - being in the moment
“The first step to access the still point is simply to quiet down. We are constantly talking to ourselves. We spend our time preoccupied with the past, which doesn’t exist — it’s already happened. Or we are preoccupied with the future. It too doesn’t exist — it hasn’t happened yet. As a result, we miss the moment-to-moment awareness of our life and barely notice its passing. We eat but we don’t taste, we listen but we don’t hear, we love but we don’t feel. We spend our lives lost in our heads."

Page 71 - In knowing, we make reality inaccessible.
“How many individuals do we miss in our daily experience because we’ve stopped seeing and started knowing? How much damage do we create in our confusion? […] The poet Walt Whitman advises us: You must not know too much or be too precise or scientific about birds and trees and flowers and water-craft; a certain free margin, and even vagueness — perhaps ignorance, credulity — helps your enjoyment of these things.”

Page 100 - Creating a creative feedback group.
Demand that your audience express their feelings — not ideas, criticisms nor opinions.

Page 112 - "When originality becomes a goal, it is no longer original. The artist is merely trying to be different.”
- Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting (Taoist), using repetitive practice
- “Originality is born of craftsmanship, skill and diligent practice, not from trying to stand out in a crowd.”

“Those who know don’t talk. Those who talk don’t know.” — Laozi

Page 118 - Barriers - The pain of being over invested in our art; thank it and let it go.

Page 133 - Expectation disconnects us from reality.
- the “no mind” approach to the creation of art

Page 135 - “The moment the brush touches the blank canvas, the empty space springs into activity and enters a dynamic relationship with form."

Page 137 - the Zen aesthetic
“Our lifestyles have become extremely complex. How can we simplify our lives, reduce consumption, lower our impact on the environment, do less harm to other living things, reduce expenses, have fewer distractions, have less maintenance, enjoy more freedom and flexibility, and be able to live in a way that is financially less demanding? These are the questions that the simplicity of Zen can help to address.”

Page 141 - Still point, no mind, simplicity, ordinariness, mystery, playfulness, and suchness

Page 152 - Chado, the way of tea
- Wabi is a feeling of loneliness or solitude, reflecting a sense of non attachment and appreciation for the spontaneous unfolding of circumstances.
- Sabi is the suchness of ordinary objects, the basic, unmistakable uniqueness of a thing in and of itself.
- Aware is a feeling of nostalgia, a longing for the past, for something old and worn. It’s an acute awareness of the fleeting nature of life, its impermanence.
- Yugen is the mystery, the hidden, indescribable, or ineffable dimensions of reality.

Page 154 - Culture of excess
“To be simple means to make a choice about what’s important, and to let go of all the rest. When we are able to do this, our vision expands, our heads clear, and we can better see the details of our lives in all their incredible wonder and beauty. Simplicity does not come easily to us in the West. In general, we don’t like to give anything up. We tend to accumulate things, thinking that if something is good, we should have more of it. We go through life hoarding objects, people, credentials, ignoring the fact that the more things we have to take care of, the more burdensome our lives become. Our challenge is to find ways to simplify our lives."

Page 166 - Trust is necessary to create art. Trust in simplicity; trust that you are enough.

Chapter 11 - Mystery

Page 201 - Trust in yourself and in the creative process. Give yourself permission to *be* yourself and don’t be frightened by the unknown.

Page 221 - Poem: Endless Spring by John Daido Loori
“Set down the baggage, take off the blinders.
See for yourself
This very place is the valley of the Endless Spring.
This very body is the body of the universe."

Chapter 14 - Indra’s Net
Profile Image for Diane.
345 reviews11 followers
April 22, 2008
I think this is a book geared toward the artist who is just starting out or perhaps an artist who needs a kick-start for their work.

The book seems to fall into three sections: looking at your art in a different way, how to meditate, and Zen koans.

If you are searching with your art work and have a spiritual bent you may enjoy this book.
Profile Image for Carmen.
52 reviews12 followers
March 14, 2021
Comprehensive and delightful overview of the Zen creative arts and the key philosophical concepts behind them (e.g. wabi, sabi, aware, yugen, simplicity, emptiness, completeness, nonduality, no mind). I see this book as an invitation to live life more freely and embrace the ineffable through cultivating a deep trust in your spiritual practice, the creative process, and yourself.

A couple of my favorite quotes:

"Naturalness, spontaneity, and playfulness are all aspects of the ordinary mind that catches a glimpse of the world of things just as they are. To live this life fully means to see all of it. The doorway to this experience is the creative process. Please delve deeply into it. Give it a chance to do what it is capable of doing. Engage it fully with the whole body and mind. If you do, sooner or later, this limitless way of being will be your own. It will never make sense, and you'll never be able to explain it to anybody, but you will experience it, and by so doing, you will make it real." (pg. 190)

"Artistic creations are no less real than reality. From Dogen's perspective, they are not an abstraction of reality. They are indeed reality itself. Your poems, your art, are reality. What Dogen is saying is that we need to get past our dualistic perception of the universe and the self. We need to train ourselves not to accept either the imaginings or reality at the expense of one another. They are, in fact, nondual and a clear expression of the truth." (pg. 238)

"When originality becomes a goal, it is no longer original. The artist is merely trying to be different. The word "original" comes from origin, the source. Different just means something that is set apart from everything else. In the Zen arts, originality can be reached only through a long, arduous process of self-discipline and mastery of the medium. Then, ultimately, our own uniqueness naturally finds its expression." (pg. 112)

"If I was asked to get rid of the Zen aesthetic and just keep one quality necessary to create art, I would say it's trust. When you learn to trust yourself implicitly, you no longer need to prove something through your art. You simply allow it to come out, to be as it is. This is when creating art becomes effortless. It happens just as you grow your hair. It grows." (pg. 167)

"In the instant in which there is intent there is expectation. Expectation is deadly because it disconnects us from reality. When we get ahead of ourselves, we leave the moment. No mind is living in the moment, without preoccupation or projection. On the other hand, hesitancy or deliberation will show in our art when we leave the moment. Words in a poem will not flow. Notes from the flute will lack smoothness. The flower arrangement will be contrived rather than a natural reflection of nature herself." (pg. 132)

"This quality of simplicity or lack of complexity opens up a creative space that is filled with possibility. In simplicity there is a touch of boundlessness. Nothing limiting, like a cloudless sky. There is a dynamic that exists in the relationship of form to space, or of sound to silence. The moment the brush touches the blank canvas, the empty space springs into activity and enters a dynamic relationship with form." (pg. 135)

"To be simple means to make a choice about what's important, and to let go of all the rest. When we are able to do this, our vision expands, our heads clear, and we can better see the details of our lives in all their incredible wonder and beauty." (pg. 154)

"Renunciation is not giving up the things of this world, but accepting that they go away." – Shunryu Suzuki
Profile Image for Elizabeth Andrew.
Author 5 books129 followers
December 17, 2020
To tell you the truth, I don't completely read the vast majority of writing texts I pick up. Because I write them myself, I feel some obligation to follow what other writers say about process and craft. But I've read so many, and not found my writing much improved nor have I learned anything significantly new for it,that I dread reading most titles that cross my desk. At the same time, I'm constantly hoping for a writing text that can shed light on how and why writing is a transformational act, and what I might do to facilitate this transformation, both in me and in my readers.

John Daido Loori's THE ZEN OF CREATIVITY satisfies. Here is a deeply wise perspective on art-making. Here is a relationship to writing I might yet grow into. Here is a text I'll actually buy and add to my shelf.

In Zen, we say that each one of us is already a buddha, a thoroughly enlightened being. It’s the same with art. Each one of us is already an artist, whether we realize it or not. In fact, it doesn’t matter whether we realize it—this truth of perfection is still there. Engaging the creative process is a way of getting in touch with this truth, and to let it function in all areas of our lives.
—John Daido Loori, The Zen of Creativity
Profile Image for Ginette.
77 reviews1 follower
May 19, 2009
This is one of those books you don't really appreciate until you actually have had time to marinate the ideas set forth and put some of them to use. If anything, I've become more aware and appreciative of the small and seemingly unimportant things around me; I've been believing in myself more as I have been letting ideas flow without prejudice; and I have newfound artistic inspiration, which hasn't happened in a long long time. Now I just need to dig out my art supplies and visit the art store.
Profile Image for Dwan Dawson-Tape.
221 reviews3 followers
February 5, 2012
Such a strong contrast to the last Zen book I read (Everyday Zen, by Joko Beck). It will definitely affect my approach to both my Zen practice and my creative explorations.

That said, this is ultimately a Zen text - in other locations I've seen reviewers complain that it wasn't what they were expecting, but in each of these cases, as best I can determine, the reviewer was more interested in exploring his or her creativity and was not interested in deepening his/her understanding of Zen.
Profile Image for Alejandro.
Author 26 books22 followers
April 9, 2013
I really really really enjoyed this. It worked like a koan. It stirred up an understanding in me that goes beyond words.

I wish the images were reproduced better, however, because they are such an intrinsic part of what he is talking about.
Profile Image for Susan.
152 reviews
April 24, 2018
I don't read hardly any books two times, but I would
give this a try. In a way, the statement is simple -
get the clutter of your life tamed and experience
the present moment. Theory and execution, however,
are two different things.
Profile Image for Karen.
461 reviews22 followers
April 7, 2021
I appreciated the author’s clear explanations of some key concepts like still point, playfulness, and simplicity as these ideas apply to creativity. I enjoyed his personal stories, and I appreciated being able to see his photographs because I had absolutely no idea what he meant when he was describing how he learned to take photos mindfully.

I used to think I wanted to really study the Japanese tea ceremony. However, having read about it in this book, I haven’t got even a remote interest in immersing in this or many other aspects of Zen Buddhism. So while there are a dozen or so notes I will make from the book, and some great quotes I’ll copy, I’m with the reviewer Lawrence in saying that this book isn’t for me. If you are a student of Zen and an artist, you’d be the perfect reader for this book. But if your interest is mostly in creativity, there are more appealing options out there.
Profile Image for Katrina Sark.
Author 9 books39 followers
May 3, 2018
p.21 – “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

p.54 – “As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” (Nelson Mandela)

p.84 – Each artist expresses through art his unique way of experiencing life. This is the essence of creation. Through our art we bring into existence something that did not previously exist. We enlarge the universe.

The act of creation begins with the need to express oneself.

p.113 – “I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.” (Pablo Picasso)
Profile Image for Wojtek.
15 reviews9 followers
August 26, 2019
This book has changed my approach to art practice, as well as directed me in new ways of looking at my business work. Loori speaks softly, but his words have this crushing power that moves cogs in our brains when we need to have some of them moved. I think that it's also one of better introductions to Zen in the context of art — as Loori was a photographer himself (do check his work out), his vocabulary and sense of aesthetics would appeal to a serious image-maker.
Profile Image for Patrick.
2 reviews2 followers
August 6, 2021
A fantastic read

This book makes long for the possibility of learning from the author who has passed some time ago. It’s not an attachment. It’s an appreciation of Daido Roshi’s facility with words although the words, as he says, aren’t the only source of understanding. They very much are not. Somehow his writing is vehicle to getting there. The work is beautiful, and I’m grateful to have found this fitting contribution to both Zen and the arts.
Profile Image for Luke.
905 reviews17 followers
February 13, 2021
Unpretentious and unfrivolous intersection of art and zen, beginning with Loori's own journey from photographer to priest. A fine angle to introduce buddhist approaches to calm, impermanence, direct experience; or approach it as a varied source of creative inspiration, every couple pages has a beautiful reproduction to go with meditative practices.
Profile Image for Wyatt Reu.
102 reviews13 followers
December 4, 2021
Despite the seemingly hackneyed title, this is a great introduction to Zen and Zen arts. Practical, down to earth, engaging, clear. Daido Loori was a real American master! This book will be of use and interest to any practicing artist or meditator.
1,053 reviews2 followers
June 19, 2022
This was a reread and just as insightful as the first time I read it, eight years ago.
July 30, 2022
This is necessary itinerary for all people who want to know the link between aesthetics and Zen thinking.
Profile Image for Michael Slattery.
66 reviews1 follower
February 7, 2023
This is the kind of book that you wish you'd stumble into while walking through a bookstore. I didn't relate to the stories throughout the text, but the quotes were ethereal.
44 reviews
May 29, 2023
A book about life. Insights into the nature of beauty, art, and creativity. Not a workbook on art, but a workbook on life.
Profile Image for Jim Ringel.
Author 4 books108 followers
December 2, 2017
You do not need to be a Zen practitioner to benefit from John Daido Loori’s insights. But if you’re pursuing the artist’s path—whether in visual, musical, or the written arts—you may be half-way there already.
John Daido Loori was himself a photographer and founder of Zen Mountain Monastery in Mt Tremper, NY. His observations in The Zen of Creativity: Cultivating Your Artistic Life, along with writings and artwork from others, and the meditation exercises Loori provides throughout the book, are all designed to help the creative find inspiration as it exists around us.
Maybe all we artists pursue our work this way. I remember how the classical Greeks thought of sculpture as the act of bringing a design already embedded inside stone out into the open. A beautiful but very Western way of thinking. Within each being, there is a soul waiting to be brought forth.
But for the Zen artist, Loori explains, this “soul” does not exist outside and distinct from the artist. It exists between artist and subject in very intimate conversation. Likewise it exists between art and the reader, or listener, or museum visitor. To create or receive art are acts of co-creation between subject and object.
Loori explains it by referencing the “action of no-action” (wu-wei), in which the artist’s mind silences allowing him or her to see and hear and feel the subject expressing itself. Creation as meditation. Creation as the energy that exists between artist and art. Creation as a means of lifting the artist’s mind beyond pre-conceived and hackneyed expressions into something uniquely experiential.
Daido introduces his Zen of Creativity in four lessons. The first is experiential meditation, called zazen. While in a strict sense zazen is the act of sitting meditation, Loori emphasizes it as an exercise we practice in every moment of our lives, freeing the artist or art recipient to be intuitive, and less critical of art. See it for what it is; not for what we wish it to be.
The second lesson is an appreciation of koans, “the seemingly paradoxical questions that have been part of traditional Zen study.” Here again, the emphasis is on breaking from traditional dualism into shared experience.
Part Three emphasizes the Zen aesthetic: a way of feeling Zen and art in our daily lives. The emphasis is on such Zen characteristics as simplicity, mystery, spontaneity, and seeing the world as it exists without our preconceptions.
The fourth lesson is a return to the beginning: zazen, emphasizing that the artist’s mind as not only inside us, but also encircling us moment to moment.
The Zen of Creativity: Cultivation Your Artistic Life is more than a reading experience. Like art and Zen, the book is a living experience. As a writer, I revisit it every few years as a reminder, as a meditation, and as connection to life best lived as an artist.

Profile Image for Charu Uppal.
23 reviews
March 29, 2022
This is a guide, not just a book. One returns to this book repeatedly. I bought the book over a decade ago and have read it about 3 times since. Authored by a Zen Buddhist Roshi, John Daido Loori --the book intertwines the place of art in lives from many angles. My favourite part is when he talks about 'meditation in the process of creating art.'. One aspect that stands out is the emphasis on how state of our mind while creating, taking pictures, writing reflects in the final product.

Art is alive. Art is interactive.

We need to be mindful when creating. I wonder the kinds of arts that would be created if we approached art as a healer both for the creator and the consumer? How much truth can we show in art? How much truth do we want to? How do we the gauge?

The book considers simplicity in our lives, as one cornerstone of creating art that both heals and connects.
Profile Image for David Guy.
Author 7 books31 followers
March 9, 2012
My wife had bought this book because of her interest in visual arts, and I had always avoided it because I think the subject is a little hokey and overworked. But Loori began as a photographer and only later became a Zen priest; he does know the tradition very well, and is completely devoted to Zen practice. There is probably still a little too much John Daido Loori in this book, but I thought it was an interesting treatise about the Zen arts, and the connection of art and Zen in general.
Profile Image for Jimmyle.
26 reviews4 followers
September 13, 2014
Beautiful and insightful. Wonderful illustrations. I was disappointed that Loori didn't shed more light on the relationship between creativity and ego... to creator addiction ... as described in the following verse:

The artist limits time and space
In hopes of setting up a place
Where he defines the world anew.
And, God-like, grants himself the grace
To pardon
And be pardoned too. (Kido, ~1981)

Profile Image for Carole.
275 reviews
August 3, 2011
This is a series of essays on creativity in general and how Daido Loori teaches creativity and photography. The later essays deal more specifically on the creative arts in Zen with brief and lucid discussions of calligraphy, different styles of painting, and poetry. The books is illustrated with wonderful examples of works that he describes.
Profile Image for Lisa.
146 reviews
November 4, 2021
A surprisingly good read. The illustrations and the fact that a lot of his travels I have been to as well allowed me to really get into this book.
Short chapters that flowed nicely and some humor added to an enjoyable read.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 50 reviews

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