In this second part of lesson 5, Stephen reflects on the topic of negative capability.  [#add text].


Talk ‘Negative Capability’ [Download this audio file here]


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Discussion Question
What role does creativity play in your practice of the dharma? Find examples of how creativity is manifest in everyday life, not just when you are performing an explicitly “creative” or “artistic” task


Q&A / discussion [Download this audio file here]



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Preparation for lesson 6

Look at Chapter 11 on ‘Thirty-two dimensions of Awakening

Read ‘A culture of Awakening’, which is the last chapter of After Buddhism (particularly pp. 321-322 on the Ten Theses on Secular Dharma).


Additional material [#links may need to be added]

#Link to discourse in the AN (chicken and the eggs)


Stephen's Notes

Chapter 10. Negative Capability


Let’s start with a famous dialogue between Bodhidharma, the first Chinese patriarch of Chan Buddhism, and Emperor Wu of Liang:


Emperor Wu: What is the highest meaning of the noble truths of Buddhism?

Bodhidharma: Unholy emptiness.

Emperor Wu: Then who is facing me?

Bodhidharma: I don’t know.


This emphasis on “not-knowing” implies the capacity to be able to live in a state of constant curiosity and questioning. For only when you accept that you do not know who you are or what the universe is, can you suspend your views and opinions and rest in wonder — the precondition for the experience of the sublime.

This implies that what Gotama calls “complete perspective,” the first step of the eightfold path, is also a condition of wonder.

“By and large, Kaccānagotta, this world relies on the binary of ‘it is’ and ‘it is not.’  But one who sees the arising of the world as it happens with complete understanding has no sense of ‘it is not’ about the world.  And one who sees the ceasing of the world as it happens with complete understanding has no sense of ‘it is’ about the world.”

To no longer rely on the binary of “is” and “isn’t” is not just to find oneself in a blank state of mind, but in a state of perplexity, uncertainty and wonder. This is a long way from “right view” understood as a correct understanding of the nature of Ultimate Truth.

In the Korean Sŏn tradition, in which I trained, the practice of meditation simply involved asking the question: “What is this?” to such an extent that the words fell away and one became filled with what is called the “sensation of doubt.”

My teacher Kusan Sŭnim described the Sŏn meditator as one who considers such an embodied sensation of questioning “as his very life:”


“When going, the question goes; when coming, the question comes; when eating, the question eats; when sleeping, the question sleeps.  Even when shitting you must investigate earnestly, never letting the question out of your mind, to the point where it seems that the question is shitting.” [Kusan Sunim.The Way of Korean Zen, p. 76]


Yet one of the most precise definitions of this kind of meditation is found In a letter John Keats wrote to his brothers Thomas and George in December 1817, where introduces for the first and only time his concept of ‘negative capability.’  He defined it thus: ‘That is when a man is capable of resting in mysteries, uncertainties and doubts without any irritable reaching after fact or reason.

‘Without any irritable reaching after fact or reason’ means without any automatic, reflexive, reactive reaching after fact or reason.

In that sense it’s very close to what happens when we ask: ‘What is this?’  There we are, sitting on a cushion, trying to ‘rest in mysteries, uncertainties and doubts’ – only for the mind to ‘irritably’ – that is, reactively – clutch on to an idea, a story or some rational answer to the question, which sends us off into la-la land again.

For Keats, this negative capability was not seen as a meditation practice — he knew nothing about Buddhism let alone Zen — but as the necessary condition for the creative imagination of the artist. Negative capability was something “which Shakespeare possessed so enormously.”

In another letter Keats describes Shakespeare as “the least of an egoist that it was possible to be. He was nothing in himself; but he was all that others were, or that they could become.”

He later expanded on this: “As to the poetical character itself … it is not itself — it has no self — it is everything and nothing — it has no character — it enjoys light and shade… It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen. What shocks the virtuous philosopher, delights the chameleon Poet.”

In a Buddhist context, “negative capability” succinctly captures the tension between the negative quality of nirvana or emptiness which allows for the capability of the creative and empathetic responsiveness of the imagination. (Cf. moving from the third to the fourth task…) 

To embark on a path of human flourishing requires the creativity to imagine another way of living in this world. For Gotama, creativity (iddhi) was not a quality that some gifted people possessed and others did not; it was available to everyone. It is included among the thirty-two dimensions of awakening along with mindfulness and strategic effort as part of the first task of embracing life. He describes it through giving examples of skilled artisans.


“Just as a skilled potter can craft whatever kind of pottery vessel he likes, or as a skilled ivory-carver can craft any kind of ivory-work he likes, or as a skilled goldsmith can craft any kind of gold article he likes; in the same way — with his mind thus focused, purified, malleable, radiant, and steady — the practitioner directs and inclines it to forms of creativity.” [Samanaphala Sutta, D. 2]


He understands creativity as a capacity that has four bases (pada): desire (chanda), energy (viriya), heart and soul (citta), and experimentation (vīmaṁsa).


A potter, for example, first desires to create a work that so far only exists in her imagination. She then has to commit herself to the sustained effort needed to bring it into being. She needs to let go of her conceptual preferences and trust the aesthetic intuitions of her heart and soul for guidance in creating the work. And she has to keep on experimenting. For it is only through making pots that fall short of her ideal that she discovers, often by serendipity, the kind of pot she intuitively knows to be “right.”


The practitioner likewise makes a sustained effort to become the kind of person she aspires to be. She too has to trust the intuitions of her heart and soul to guide her along the path. And she needs to keep experimenting with different approaches and practices in order to discover what works for her. Once the mind is stabilized, radiant and integrated, a new kind of freedom dawns. Previously unimagined possibilities open up as one’s creative potential unleashed:


Having been one he becomes many; having been many he becomes one. He appears. He vanishes. He goes unimpeded through walls, ramparts, and mountains as if through space. He dives in and out of the earth as if it were water. He walks on water without sinking as if it were dry land. Sitting cross-legged he flies through the air like a winged bird. With his hand he touches and strokes even the sun and moon.” [Samanaphala Sutta, D. 2]


All Buddhist traditions without exception have taken this passage literally to mean that one is able to do these things through having acquired magical powers. Nowhere is it explained how this is done, i.e. what the four bases mean, nor what purpose it serves to be able to do them. Moreover, in other discourses, Gotama dismisses such things as mere “conjurers’ tricks.”


Creativity is thereby cancelled. It is no longer an integral part of one’s practice, but a supernatural, magical power employed by great saints to demonstrate how they are no longer bound by the mundane laws of physics. I suspect the reason for this is because creativity is potentially subversive to orthodoxy. People are not to be encouraged to think or imagine for themselves, but to follow what has been laid down as true for all time by tradition.