how to look

In preparing for our trip to the Hakuin exhibit in NYC, I’ve re-visited Stephen Addiss and Audrey Seo’s lovely book How to Look at Japanese Art.  Before dropping into their typical intense scholarly style of explaining everything from ceramic to ink art, Addiss and Seo examine the nature of Japanese art that sets it apart and makes it enduring as an art form.  There are four characteristics that typify Japanese art and in reading about them, it seems these are also four characteristics of practice.  I’m not surprised that reading about the nature of one form resonates with the nature of True Form.

The first characteristic of Japanese art is a “deep understanding and respect for nature, including human nature.  This appears in subject matter – such as birds and flowers, landscapes, or human figures in daily activity – and it is also apparent in artistic approach.”  Not enough to simply hold the object of art in esteem, Japanese art forms drop into the heart of the object with reverence.  The form and texture of clay, wood, paper, ink, brush are all part of the final completed work.

Examining my practice through this lens, I’m challenged to hold every aspect of practice with respect, especially my very human nature that tends to derail it regularly.  In the metaphor of brushwork, my nature is the unruly brush that refuses to pick up a sufficient reservoir of ink in its hair and can only splatter illusions across the paper.  As I stagger along this route, I’m constantly amazed by the delusional mind;  how self-serving, how willing to latch onto the shards of information that allow me to hold onto to those things that support my greed, aversion, and ignorance.

Now I’m wondering: what if my work is not to save myself from my Self but rather to love it?  What if I simply hold my delusional mind with respect for what it is?  What if that pesky ox who keeps revisiting my art table decided to turn and meet its herder with a “deep understanding and respect?”

What might happen then?

Thank you for practising,


Tomorrow: Transforming what is given

13 thoughts on “how to look

  1. Recognizing self as a phenomenon just as beautiful as the rest of the world, one can begin to grow the real roots for compassion and not just selfless behavior.

    Thank you for this Genju, for your blog in general. I really enjoy coming here.

    – Happi

  2. Happi! Thank you for your kind words. I enjoy your blog too!

    Christine, thank you!

    Barry, very cool… and so true… just looking.

    ZDS, don’t give me ideas! I’m craving another tattoo!

  3. Genju,
    Hi. I know this post is a couple of years old, but it came up on google when I was looking for ox-herding pictures. Do you happen to know who the artist is? It came up in a search for Hakuin images, and it almost looks like his style, but I’m not sure. Thanks so much! ZenDoe

      • WOW! Well done!! I love this one because it’s off-kilter, as we all are. It’s balanced. The weeds on the left are perfect. And the ox… Bulls-eye! (ha ha) He looks… well… shy. There’s a vulnerability that shines though. This really is an awesome piece. As others have said, t’would make a great tattoo. I may just do it, with credits to you.

        • Deep bows, Zen Doe! It was an interesting process to explore the Ox Herding Pictures through the eyes of the ox… the 10 are in the posts that follow this (I think).

      • YOU made this? My gosh — I thought it might have been one of Hakuin’s masterworks! It’s stunning. I keep returning to it over and over. (And I’ve thought of having it tattooed, too!) In fact, it’s become a sort of insipiration or mandala to me as I work on a Zen-themed novel, and I’d love to use it as cover art (if it ever sees publication!). Would you mind getting in touch with me, at your convenience? msbellows on gmail.
        Scott Shojikido Bellows
        Portland, Oregon

  4. Hmmm… not finding them, but I’ll keep looking. You mention Steve Addiss. I was very fortunate to meet him and have him teach me the basics of brushwork. But that was long ago. I have a brilliant calligraphy that he did for me a long time back.

    • The tag “Ox-Herding” to the right of the posts will connect to the two series, one a traditional exploration and the other from the perspective of the ox.

      Stephen is a lovely, generous person and a brilliant artist. I too feel blessed to have been taught by him.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.