A vision of ordinariness

This year’s Archibald prize has to be reckoned as a significant moment for Australian Buddhism. A portrait of a meditator in Zen posture has won the award.

At first glance the subject of a meditator might be seen as exotic and to many it must appear that way. The sitter (both ‘subject’ of the portrait and ‘sitter’ as the one who meditates) is both ethnically exotic (the sitter is of Chinese descent) and exotic in that Buddhist meditation is the subject. But at the same time, there is a cultural familiarity. This practice of meditation is no longer so culturally strange as it once was.

I like the portrait very much, for it is a vision of the ordinariness of the meditator.  The artist, Tony Costa, has painted his friend Lindy Lee  in Zen kneeling posture, just sitting. He has painted her in dark tones on a light flat background; she is grounded, but only just. She could be floating, but she sits somewhat lopsided, not an idealised Zen pose at all.

The painting makes sense to meditators; we know this ordinariness of practice, the ordinariness of  mind and body observed as a daily exercise. Joseph Goldstein remarks in Mindfulness how the practice eventually leads us to realise the commonality of our experience, how we suffer with others in similar ordinary ways, leading us to develop benevolence, compassion and sympathetic feeling.

For me the ordinariness of the practice suggested by the portrait is a reminder of how much we gain by abandoning the expectation that meditation is out of the ordinary, that it should deliver special or extra-ordinary experiences (as, of course, it will sometimes do). That expectation is the meditators special attachment. Better to see the extraordinary in the ordinary, in the everyday availability of ordinary experience to honest inquiry.

There is another aspect of the winning portrait that I want to mention. We are reminded or challenged to think about what Australian Buddhism means. Here is a Zen meditator, just sitting, not our tradition, for we do things in a different way, yet we are at one with her, sharing her purpose and valuing of practice, sharing the fundamentals.

Meditation is no longer culturally strange, as it once may have been, not so special, but culturally normal. Here is a particular practice, but it is familiar, it has its counterpart in other traditions, it is part of the plurality of Australian Buddhism, it’s diversity of teachings and practices, it’s ethnicities and cultural traditions.

A portrait of a Zen meditator has won the Archibald!

By John McIntyre

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  1. Just one comment regarding John McIntyre’s article. He describes the sitter as Chinese. I know Lindy and sat with her over a number of years. A little research might have discovered that that she is Australian of Chinese ancestry, born in Brisbane in 1954. This is not a trivial observation as who is and who is not an Australian is a contentious cultural and political issue. People of Chinese ethnicity have lived in modern Australia since the early days. They have made a significant contribution to Australian society and yet this is often airbrushed out of the dominant cultural narrative.

    1. Thanks Michael, I’ll pass on your message to John – I’m sure he’ll appreciate the pickup and be happy to make a change to the article.