Through the Dharma: Explorations of Form and Emptiness in Ceramics and Buddhist Studies

Plan Author

  • Michael Schneeweis, 2014

Fields of Concentration

Sample Courses

  • Course: Art History Survey II – From the 15th century to the Present
  • Course: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Mindfulness
  • Tutorial: Making Ceremonial Objects out of Clay
  • Tutorial: Tradition, Modernity, and Change in Buddhism

Project Description

An exhibition of three-dimensional objects.

Faculty Sponsors

Outside Evaluator

    • Malcom Wright, ceramic artist


The connecting principle of my Plan of Concentration—indeed of my entire life—is the Buddhist Dharma. My undergraduate education has been a winding path towards integrating my passion for Buddhist practice with the academic process. One of the Buddhist teachings that runs through all of my work, both in ceramics and in Buddhist studies and philosophy, comes from a line in the Heart Sutra, perhaps the most widely known Buddhist text, which reads: “form is emptiness, emptiness is form; emptiness is not separate from form, form is not separate from emptiness.”

The work I have been doing explores questions linked in various ways to this pithy statement. In ceramics I have been investigating the relationship between form and emptiness both as it relates to the work I make and as it relates to my artistic process. Regarding the actual ceramic objects, I have been considering how the form of the object and the space within it work together to produce a particular effect. From the point of view of my artistic process, I have been looking into how the state of my mind—whether full or empty of discursive thought—effects the work that I produce. In this sense, both the product and the process of my artistic pursuits are linked to the Heart Sutra.

My writing in Buddhist studies and philosophy examines the topic of form and emptiness in perhaps a more “Buddhist” manner. In my paper “Views of Emptiness,” I draw from foundational Buddhist texts to outline the evolution of the idea of emptiness within the Indian Buddhist tradition. In “A Look Into Buddhist Modernism,” I present an account of modernity’s effect on Buddhism and raise the question of how much the forms of Buddhism ought to be preserved and how much their “emptiness” might allow them the freedom to change.


“Because certain types of Buddhist meditation have been embraced as a practice suited to modernity, it might seem as though Buddhism itself enjoys a secure position within modern ideological frameworks. However, while it is true that Buddhist forms of meditation have been established within modernized cultures, it is an oversimplification to think that modernity has embraced Buddhism—that is, the entire network of culturally-engrained assumptions and practices that developed in Asia. For most Buddhists in the world, the path centers around ethical conduct, rituals, and service to the community of monks and nuns, whereas meditation practice is reserved only for the especially dedicated monastic. This indicates that while modernity has indeed embraced certain aspects of the Buddhist traditions—namely meditation—its relationship with customary Buddhist practices of Asia remains tenuous at best. Popularized Western conceptions of Buddhism are in fact only a small piece of the total picture”

“Perhaps somewhere in between a sudden abandonment of traditional ways and a fearful resistance to change lies a ‘middle way’ that is neither completely ‘traditional’ nor fully ‘modern.’ What this middle way ought to look like will continue to be a matter of debate, and it is unlikely that Buddhists will agree on what Buddhism “really is.” However, this debate need not turn into a sectarian competition. Instead, it can serve as an invitation for practitioners to consider deep questions: What am I looking for in a spiritual path? What are my values? What is the meaning of tradition, of innovation? What is universal, and what is cultural? Through cultivating both meditative awareness and a familiarity with the doctrinal roots of Buddhism, it is my hope that Buddhists of the 21st century will be able to intelligently assimilate the vital aspects of their tradition into the modern world without diluting the teachings or disregarding the needs and demands of contemporary societies. It is my wish that Buddhists will remain persistent in their efforts to ensure that the Buddhist teachings continue to exist as both socially relevant and socially challenging practices.”


My inspiration was the Buddhist Dharma and the urge to be creative. The most interesting part of my Plan is my paper about Buddhism and modernity. Any prospective student seriously interested in Buddhism would find it interesting. I remember working way too hard, and I remember a feeling of accomplishment and relief after submitting my papers and hanging my show.