Shamatha as Visual Art

In response to my request for artwork that expresses one’s spiritual journey or awareness, artist William C. Johnson, sent in this pencil piece inspired by his Shamatha practice. It may not be the kind of image you’d usually associate with meditation – no cliched sunrises and lotus flowers here – but spend some time sitting with it and allow the imagery to wash over you before reading William’s commentary on the piece below the image. Regardless of what we see or don’t see in it, as an artist myself, I know that the act of drawing it in pencil is meditation. Meditation that produces a physical result.

Bill says of this work:

You will no doubt recognize the transliteration for the Tibetan shinay (Tib. ཞི་གནས༽ or shamatha. My pieces sometimes blur the distinction between inside (the body) and outside (the body). Sometimes I create an exterior with some references to the internal channels and chakras. So, the vertical conduit pipe running top to bottom is the central channel. There is a distortion of the pipe with some bends there midway.

If you look closely, you will notice the Tibetan word for “blockage.” Not meant to be taken literally, but to suggest that anyone delving deeply into shamatha practice will encounter obstacles to their practice as things get dredged up from the substrate. The hint of a ladder suggests movement up through the nine stages and is a positive symbol. The striped pole references the two qualities necessary to attain shamatha, viz.,  mindfulness and introspection. Or more loosely, single-pointed concentration.

The plumb bob is a stand-in for what is exactly true (our true nature, emptiness, finding emotional and mental balance or well-being). The small sliding door below and to the left of the plumb bob, which is slightly open, portends a glimpse into the true nature of the mind. Sometimes I will reference this by creating a window or portal looking out onto a night sky full of stars. Space and Dharmakaya are infinite.

What did you get out of this piece?

Oh, and don’t forget, if you dabble in art in any capacity or variety, I’d love to post it here, so please send photos of it to tahlia (at)

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