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Friday, August 15, 2014
Art & Entertainment ... Photo ... Zen ...

I was leading the “kinhin” walking meditation line this past Sunday at my local zendo, and my mind was pretty much on auto-pilot. I’ve led kinhin a good number of times before, and I can mostly do it now in my sleep. Actually, I hadn’t gotten enough sleep for the past 3 or 4 nights, so I wasn’t all that far from sleep. I wasn’t thinking about much, but I wasn’t “in the moment” either (such as the Zen teachers keep babbling on about). Just keeping count on how many circles we had made and how many we had left; 3, 2, 1, back into the sitting hall.

When you have your mind in neutral like that, however, you never know when something previously unnoticed will suddenly capture your attention, just because of the random, chaotic “churning of attention” that goes on in the brain. I was walking towards the wall, leading the group into a turn, when my eyes quickly focused on the brush painting on the wall. Specifically, a brush calligraphy character representing the famous Zen-word “mu”. The painting was by the late but well known Soen Nakagawa, a Rinzai roshi from Japan who made frequent visits to the USA during the 50s, 60s and 70s, as Zen was takiing root in America amidst the Beats and then the Hippie and New Age cultures of the 60’s and 70’s.

Soen was known for being an eccentric but well-loved Zen teacher. Amidst his typical Japanese Zen students he supposedly was just another tough “Rinzai bastard”. But with Americans, he reportedly showed a lighter, more playful side hardly seen since his passing in 1984. The typically dour oriental Zen teachers spawned a group of even-more dour American imitators.

So, here’s a shot of Soen’s artistic take on the famous “mu” concept of negation and contradiction, an idea found in a variety of koans (most notably Joshu’s Mu, about dogs having/not having Buddha nature). It’s just orderly and symmetrical enough for my mathematical side, and yet spontaneous with its imaginative claw things at the top and roller-coaster loop at the bottom. The big horizontal blob seems to anchor and stabilize things, while the loopy vertical crossbeam and the claw-like strokes at the top seem to give it all some motion. There’s a nice balance to it; it even looks like it could stand up just fine without tipping over, maybe even dance a little jig.

Does a kinhin line led by a sleepy anti-Buddhist skeptic have Buddha nature? Probably not, but we are lucky to have that Soen brushwork on the wall to help us “wake up” just a bit. Thanks, Roshi, for a little jolt back to life last Sunday.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:29 am      

  1. Jim, With all due respect to the rendering of the Zen word “Mu”, I am somehow not able to get myself too taken with it. In fact, I am unable to get myself interested in any writing that is supposed to stand for a serious meaning that’s written in a language about which I have no clue. For instance, Chinese, any Arab language, Japanese, Russian, etc., all these I have difficulty finding any reverence for when I see them in a place where reverence is supposedly due.

    The reason for my attitude is that I know nothing whatsoever about how these languages are written or what the words could possibly mean. It’s a lack in me, but one I refuse to apologize for as one can learn only so much.

    When I see such pictures, posters, etc., I always find myself wondering if they *really* say what we think they say or what we are told they say. I find myself wondering: Who is to say the painter (or writer in some other cases) might have simply changed one little stroke, thus changing the meaning of the word from something profound to something like some kind of slur regarding the onlooker. (It’s so easy to do that kind of thing in English; I wonder that it must be similarly easy in other languages.) It may be that I believe too many of the jokes I’ve heard regarding tattoos written in a language little understood in our country that supposedly say one thing but turn out to say another.

    Furthermore, I’m not sure I “get” the idea of “negation”; “contradiction” I would have no trouble with (in English). Life is full of contradictions, and I seem to spend too much time pondering the contradictions of life, I sometimes think. Then again, I do not think in Japanese, and thus I may not be even close to the Japanese meaning here. One thing that fascinates me is that as one learns a language, one has to also learn to “think” in that language. We think in English (for the most part); I wonder how much of the Japanese meaning is “lost in translation” when this Japanese character is translated into English or when we “think in English” about a Japanese meaning of a Japanese written character.

    What the “negation” might concern, I’m not sure. I am not one who has ever taken too seriously any idea of death leading to negation of all that my life has concerned. That’s just a guess at a possible meaning of negation in this case. I doubt an English meaning of “negation” would come close to a Japanese meaning of this word/character. I would think the Japanese have an entirely different concept of “negation” than we would have in English. (Then again, one might easily say, what do I know? And be 100% right.)

    I also notice, with all due respect to your tho’t, that your own idea of the painting had little to do with the supposed content of meaning but a lot to do with the symmetry and math aspect of the painting.

    Back in the 1980s I spent some time attempting to learn Chinese and Chinese writing and came against a “brick wall” of sorts; I quickly abandoned any tho’t of really learning anything about the language. (I’ve been told by friends that Chinese has “simplified” [if I understand correctly] a lot of their characters in recent years.) I also spent some smaller amount of time attempting to learn Arabic. It was most interesting to approach the writing of the language from the right side rather than the left as English does. I learned a few letters, etc., but have quickly forgotten them over the years. The same has to do with Coptic, the Egyptian language that took Greek words and wrote them in Egyptian. Since I barely knew Greek, learning Coptic was hardly possible. Another, “forget it”.

    I never fail to see such posters, tattoos, writing, etc., anywhere but I find myself wondering if the translations actually mean what they say is meant. The saying that a meaning has been “lost in translation” has developed for a reason.

    Anyway, I can see the symmetry you like, and I think you’ve got a good point there. But, as usual with me, the math aspect you see escapes me. (What a surprise!) There’s so much to learn in this world that one must pick and choose what one will learn; something I came to realize as the information age progressed.

    With much respect for those who reverence this poster and draw inspiration from it, I think this poster will have to go in the category of what I myself would not choose for contemplation for the several reasons I mention. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — August 15, 2014 @ 2:22 pm

  2. A friend just gave me this scroll…nibbled by mice…actually actually a very wonderful touch. The calligraphy looks identical of the character my. We are trying to figure out if it’s a print. Where did the photo of this character come from?

    [Daisy — it’s in the collection of the Clear Mountain Zendo in Montclair, NJ — you can contact Sensei Bachmann via their web site for more information.]

    Comment by Daisy Kimberly — December 28, 2014 @ 2:35 pm

  3. Spell check…mu, of course…

    Comment by Daisy Kimberly — December 28, 2014 @ 2:36 pm

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