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By force of taking away

Updated: Oct 15, 2022

Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) said: 'by sculpture I understand that which one does by force of taking away' ('per scultura io intendo quella che si fa a forza di levare'). The artists does not impose a pre-conceived shape upon matter, but rather remove the excess of matter that hides the shape already nestled in it. This principle is particularly evident in a series of statues called 'Slaves' ('Prigioni'), some of which are (deliberately?) unfinished.

The practice outlined by the Buddha in the discourses has two important aspects in common with Michelangelo's view of sculpture.

(1) Practice is done by force of taking away, removing, undoing certain conditionings, factors, yokes, fetters, intoxicants, and so on. One does not practice in order to impose an extrinsic order upon a chaotic matter, but rather for the sake of freeing a matter imprisoned in a certain order from that order. Any new information, concept, scheme, technique that is learnt along the way is meant to work as a peg aimed at disbanding the seemingly smooth and necessary running of the whirlpool of greed, aversion, and ignorance. The practice aims at removing and letting go, more than at positively introducing anything new. After all, the understanding (citta) is originally bright, although it is defiled by external defilements (AN 1.49-152).

(2) While the purpose of practice is to weaken and remove what seems necessary but it isn't, the shape that will be eventually revealed remains a surprise. Each piece of marble is different, it hosts a different form, a different potential. Working on oneself, sculpting oneself (which includes the relinquishment of I-making), is a process of discovery in which something unexpected progressively emerges. And this is something unique, unpredictable. There is no pre-established canon or model that one will embody. The Buddha points out how to remove the surplus, but leaves it open what will then shine. In this sense, one's practice is one's art, one's masterpiece. Like Michelangelo's slaves who emerge from the anonymity of marble. But in this case, what emerges is the profile of unprecedented and unsuspected freedom.

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