I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.
Michelangelo, perhaps the greatest sculptor of all time, saw the result at the very beginning. The final form may not have been readily apparent and certainly was not fully evident, but there was no doubt that the angel was present in the marble. Michelangelo's practice was simple to remove layer after layer of obscuration, to remove the rough edges and distortion until the angel was set free.
We might think that this quote is simply referring to a hard chunk of marble, but it is quite profound as it applies to our own practice and awakening. The angel represents our own inner genius, our inherent buddha heart. Maitreya uses a similar analogy from the Uttaratantra:
Suppose an image filled with molten gold inside
but consisting of clay on the outside,
were seen by someone who knows about this gold,
who would then remove the outer covering to purify the inner gold?
After we are introduced to our own buddha heart, introduced to its presence and nature, what choice do we have to remain idle? Who would waste such a precious opportunity and resource?
Having recognized our naturally abiding buddha heart (Skt. tathagatagarbha), the practice is simply to remove layer after layer of negative emotions, perceptual bias and confusion. We refine the rough edges of our intentions and actions. We chisel and carve out habitual tendencies and neurosis.
The result of our work is that our naturally present buddha heart is made fully evident. Just as when the clouds dissipate in the sky to reveal the qualities of the sun, so too, once we eliminate the obscuring factors of our own inner genius then we can enjoy the qualities and activity of the naturally present result.
The artist's practice is the set the angel free, to reveal our naturally abiding buddha heart to the world.
But then what?
That is not the end of the road. The story doesn't simply end there.
The artist must share her art.
Art interacts with the world. It is experienced, impacts others, shapes the time and place. Art shifts postures, influences what people value and affects what they choose to engage in.
Art shapes culture.
The artist who does their work and brings it out into the world shapes the community of values. It is possible to step out into the world and share generosity, kindness and compassion. Equanimity, insight and selflessness can gain a foothold in our communities. There can be recognized value in chipping away the rough edges. Our communities can recognize the potential of everyone, identifying their inner genius and capacity to refine and reveal their own inner angel. Most of all we can start respecting and appreciating the work and the process.
We can value the practice of the artist.
The artist is committed to the practice of revealing the naturally abiding inner genius within. Art not shared is not art at all, so the artist moves into the world where their art interacts with people and the environment. As that art interacts with the world, it shapes values and what we believe to be possible and true.
Art shapes culture, and it is possible to shape a culture of awakening. A culture that is eager to do the work, eager to show up, ready to be present, and that knows this is what we do here.
The artist always knows, this is what we are here to do.