Friday, March 22, 2013

Was Leonardo da Vinci a Buddhist?

I had this weird idea the other night. I was playing around on the internet, just wasting time, really, reading da Vinci quotes on As I read through the list, I was struck by how many of these quotes seemed to be saying pretty much the same kind of thing I read in books and websites on Buddhism. I realized that the Buddha actually lived 2,000 years before da Vinci, so I suppose it is possible that the painter had run across Buddhist doctrine somewhere along the way.

Our view of the world is what forms our thoughts and actions. If we see and understand things as they really are, we are less likely to be disappointed when things don't turn out the way we'd like. Senore da Vinci wrote about his "Principles for the Development of a Complete Mind: Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop your senses - especially learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else." But he also recognized that "There are three classes of people: those who see, those who see when they are shown, those who do not see." We should try to be one who sees because "The noblest pleasure is the joy of understanding."

The Buddha's Right Intention and Right Effort focus on making a commitment to mental and ethical self-improvement. Learning to substitute desire and anger with the intention of goodwill and compassion will make us better humans. Leonardo said, "You will never have a greater or lesser dominion than that over yourself... The height of a man's success is gauged by his self-mastery; the depth of his failure by his self-abandonment... and this law is the expression of eternal justice. He who cannot establish dominion over himself will have no dominion over others." Of course, Leonardo saw the ongoing search for knowledge as a duty. "Iron rusts from disuse; stagnant water loses its purity and in cold weather becomes frozen; even so does inaction sap the vigor of the mind. So we must stretch ourselves to the very limits of human possibility. Anything less is a sin against both God and man."

Da  Vinci speaks against the many who "have made a trade of delusions and false miracles" and also says "Where there is shouting, there is no true knowledge." The Buddhist idea of Right Speech encourages followers to abstain from lies, slander, gossip, and harsh language that hurts others. Rather, the goal should be to help others. Right speech to a painter would also cover his art: "A painter should begin every canvas with a wash of black, because all things in nature are dark except where exposed by the light." He also believed that "Art is the queen of all sciences, communicating knowledge to all the generations of the world."

Buddha's Right Action, what is often referred to today as Lovingkindness, teaches us to be honest and compassionate, respect others, and abstain form taking life. Da Vinci points out that "He who does not oppose evil... commands it to be done." He also said,
"I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must do." And he seemed to be encouraging vegetarianism with "The time will come when men such as I will look upon the murder of animals as they now look on the murder of men." He also said that his body "will not be a tomb for other creatures."

Buddhism teaches that all life is suffering, but that we bring on that suffering ourselves by wanting something that cannot be. Life will always bring unwanted change, illness, and, eventually, death. We can suffer less by accepting that these things will happen and giving up trying to change that. We can't always get what we want, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't have goals. We just have to realize that things may not go as planned. Leonardo encouraged going with the flow: "As you cannot do what you want, want what you can do." He once said, "Life is pretty simple: you do some stuff. Most fails. Some works. You do more of what works. If it works big, others will quickly copy it. Then you do something else. The trick is the doing of something else." 

Consider mindfulness - the idea of devoting 100% of your attention to what you are doing at the present moment. The idea is that our minds are wandering all over the place so much of the time, worrying about what has been or what may be in the future, that we don't even notice what we are really doing as we move through life. The Buddha taught that we should pay careful attention to what is going on in our bodies and all around us so that we don't miss the opportunity to see things as they really are. Leonardo once said that the "average human looks without seeing, listens without hearing, touches without feeling, eats without tasting, moves without physical awareness, inhales without awareness of odor or fragrance, and talks without thinking." It sure sounds to me like he is suggesting that we should be practicing mindfulness.

Finally, a life dedicated to seeing and understanding the world around us, doing what we can to help those less fortunate than ourselves, and sharing love and joy and knowledge, is a life well-lived. Da Vinci may have been having similar thoughts when he said, "Just as a well-filled day brings blessed sleep, so a well-employed life brings a blessed death."

*** Please keep in mind that I don't read much Italian, especially when written in reverse, so I am relying on the translations of others for these quotations.


  1. Absolutely loved this entry. Your words remind me so much of a man, an artist in many fields of endeavor, who inspires my whole life now.
    Keep 'em coming!!

  2. Yes, I heard it. My father is wisdom and my mother is voidness. My country is the country of Dharma. I am of no caste and no creed. I am sustained by perplexity; and I am here to destroy lust, anger and sloth.thanks all!

  3. Thanks for the reflexion... very good in deed...