The Zen of Comics.
Or How to be happy while not quite being where you want to be.
In the words of Bjork “I’m no fucking Buddhist” but I do have very keen interest in their thought system and how they approach the problems of life. The fascinating thing about Buddhism is (as many, many self help “The Zen of…” books are a testament to) that it is very easily applied to wide range of areas. I think it does indeed have something to say about making comics.
Zen Buddhism is a later form of Budhism that emerged after Buddhist thought left India and travelled to Japan and China. Whereas traditional Buddhism talks about endless cycles of death and re-birth, Zen presents a vehicle an Instant Enlightenment. For this blog post though, I will be more leaning towards the original teachings and have used The Zen of Comics as a title only as it was the best name I could come up with.
There is no need for our current purposes, to go into the history of Buddhism or any sort of long winded introduction. There are plenty of resources for that around the webs, instead I am going to jump straight to the basic teachings and the Four Noble Truths, with particular emphasis on the first two Noble Truths.
THE FOUR NOBLE TRUTHS
1 Life is Dukkha
2 The Cause of Dukkha is clinging
3 There is a way out of it
4 The way out of it is the 8 fold path
So what the hell is Dukkha? Well, it has been popularly translated as suffering but current thought suggests that this is a poor translation as it doesn’t give the whole picture. There are many suggestions to what it means. One is that it is the opposite of Sukkha which means sweet. So from this we could say that life is Bitter, but again we aren’t just quite there yet. Others have suggested: unsteady, disquieted, uneasy and unbalanced.
One I quite like is that it could mean Bad Axle, as in an axle of a wheel and not an 80′s rock god. This would suggest to us that, as with a bad wheel axle, things are a bit wobbly.
But, I think the best way to describe what Life is Dukkha is that like Neo, we realise that something just isn’t quite right . It’s something that we just can’t put our finger on but we know its there.
So what is the cause of this? Where does this feeling come from? Unfortunately People haven’t quite agreed on this one either. Some say the cause of Dukkha is attachment, clinging, wanting, needing or grasping. Alan Watts suggests that a better way to look at it is to use the phrase “Hang Ups”. But lets go with “wanting” for the time being.
So, you ask, what remotely has this got to do with comics or drawing or superheroes? Well, here’s the thing: are you happy as a comic creator? We all, obviously, have a need or want to create things of beauty, excitement and adventure in the form of sequential art but has any of us become any happier as a person as a result? Do you get frustrated when no one cares? Do you feel deflated when months of work go unnoticed?
The whole goal of Buddhism is to become happy. Not to find God, not to each enlightenment and not to become more powerful than others. It’s singular goal is to become happy.
Now, I am not going to suggest that all of us are depressed, suicidal or the type that just can’t out of bed to face another day of comic making. If you are anything like me, and I reckon some of you at the very least are, then we go through phases of huge motivation, followed by complete lack of motivation, followed by apathy or something similar.
On good days we’re unstoppable, on bad days we’re unstartable.
Over time, and again I have seen this mostly with myself but surely in others, the sheen and lustre of the comic process fades, as Unfortunately does the passion, the drive and the will.
So, although we are not in the bleakest dark knight of the comic soul (see what I did there) we definitely could up the happiness factor. So let’s move to the second noble truth.
I find it so amazing that so many of us continue to do our thing when quite frankly our only audience is ourselves for the most part. And how horrible an audience we are too, for we can never truly elevate your work over our own. Which is fair enough.
If our audiences is mostly our contemporaries, the chances are that our creations can only be seen as relative to our “fans” creations, with our fan’s creations always being more important in their hearts.
In simple terms, it is hard to have a fan base that are in competition with you for the lime light.
Buddhism suggests the cause of our suffering (uneasiness, unbalanced, etc.) is because we want things to be different than they are. We cling to things and demand that they are so before we can be happy. The problem being that even if all our demands are met we immediately have a new set of demands that need looking at.
We want our comics to be loved, cherished, admired and successful. When this doesn’t arise we can get frustrated, sad and demotivated.
To find happiness in a possible future event (such as “making it”) means we can never be happy. By the time we get to this future event we are already steps ahead looking at what we “need” next and the cycle continues into eternity.
So how do we not cling to our hopes and ambitions? First of all we have to see them as hopes and ambitions and not as necessities. Its is fine and worthwhile to set goals but lets not count on them to be happy. The cliché of its the journey not the destination is all well and good if the destination is assured and frankly, no destination is assured.
With no assurance of success or even that it is even likely (we work in a niche of a niche of a niche) how is it possible to become balanced, easy, at ease or most importantly content with where we are, wherever on the ladder we are?
The secret, it seems, is in not being attached to the outcome of your efforts.
So, if you spend months working on a comic and you publish it and no one cares, pay no mind. If you spend months organising a comic event and no one comes, pay no mind. If you feel you are better or equal to successful people but no one acknowledges it, pay no mind. If you feel you are not good enough and everyone will point and laugh at your comic, pay no mind.
Just do your comic.
Because, at the end of the day, being humans we will never be happy with outside reflections or acknowledge anyway. If 1000 people says your comic is the most amazing thing ever and 1 person says it sucks, what are you going to be thinking about before you go to sleep?
So have no destination, have no journey, just do something better than you did the day before. Do the comic you want, do the comic you love, do the comic that makes you happy. But do it for that reason alone.
Expect no praise, love or prestige from your efforts and you can never be hurt by not getting them. But equally don’t go into expecting nothing but hardship, criticism or ridicule. Expect and want nothing other than to make your comic.
And when you hear that someone is doing well and getting closer to their goals be happy for them and be as genuine as you can.
Someone else succeeding doesn’t mean there is less success left in the world for you. It just means their “needs” have now changed.
So, in conclusion, the first two Noble Truths of Buddhism suggest that although making comics can sometimes be a bit shitty it is probably our own rules and wants and clinging that make it so. If we can make comics for the sake of making comics, and to hell with the consequences, perhaps we might have a much better experience. If our goal is solely to make the best comics we can, and the result be damned, we can not fail to succeed and therefore be happy.