Not men, but mountains and rivers are my teachers

I have just received a facsimile of “The Long Scroll” by Sesshū, considered by some Japanese as the greatest of all their artists.

I quote from the Scroll’s introduction and commentary by Reiko Chiba:

Sesshu Toyo

Sesshū Tōyō, 1420 – 1506

In considering Sesshu and his work, it is well to remember his concurrent role as a Zen priest. He was born in 1420 near Okayama, in the southern part of Japan’s main island… (He) matured early and at the age of twenty advanced to the famous Sokoku-ji, a temple in Kyoto where he made rapid progress both as an artist and as a popular figure in the Zen denomination…

He was a whole man in the sense that we in the West frequently associate with great Renaissance figures… In addition to being a painter he was an accomplished poet and landscape gardener. While at the great Sokoku-ji he was selected to act as host and entertainer for visiting dignitaries. He was also a businessman, trusted with the purchase and evaluation of art objects and given considerable authority on one of the great contemporary trading expeditions to China. Sesshu enjoyed company and parties. He was an inveterate traveler, most famous in his day for his long journey to China but always restlessly on the move in Japan until the end of his long, full life at the age of eighty-six…

Sesshu was not a strict traditionalist. As he himself once said, not men, but mountains and rivers, were his teachers. Even in his own day he became a legend and was the founder of an extensive school. His fame today is secure, and a major portion of Japanese painters have acknowledged him as master.

Sansui Chokan-detail

Sesshu’s work exhibits the three traditional brush-writing techniques: shin, gyo, and so. Shin is distinguished by an angular quality, firm and decisive strokes, and attention to linear detail; gyo, by curving lines and rounded forms resulting from more rapid use of the brush; and so, by a cursive, comparatively indistinct quality that achieves its effects through suggestion rather than literal interpretation…

The Long landscape Scroll was completed in 1486, roughly six years before Columbus discovered America. The original, done in ink and faint color washes on paper, is approximately 51 by 1.25 feet in size.

You can view the book and scroll, completely, here:

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The Water Vendor

Early morning, Saturday July 25, 2020

After brewing and pouring coffee, I sit at the computer station in my home office. I answer a message in my mailbox and review and respond to a few posts and comments from friends in Facebook. It is still early morning and the sun is strong on the lake. All is quiet and peaceful outside and inside. What next to do in and with this day? I have no plans, no urgent writing or other projects, nothing important to do.

I swivel my chair 90 degrees right and stare at the cork board on the wall, where I post all manner of items.

My gaze fixes on the man in the picture, left of center. I admire this man whom I have never met.

It was June 2005 in Kabul, Afghanistan, when and where I was performing a consultation for the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan. It was my second day of orientation and was being driven through Kabul while receiving commentary by the driver, an Afghan employee of the Committee.

The man was dressed as if for an important occasion: clean, crisp-appearing clothing. He strode erectly and purposefully—proudly, I intuited. He was selling water, according to my guide.

Although this image always inspires me, it also enhances the dissatisfaction I am feeling. I’m old and have completed my life’s work, I have provided for my children, I have said almost everything I have say, and have long ago begun to repeat myself.

Yet, I am fit and healthy, still able to do… something. What?

Well, today we will visit the garden and enjoy the rewards of having cultivated a small plot of flowers, vegetables and berry bushes. There will be the sounds of birds, and also of children playing in the nearby field. There will be bees and other insects doing their vital work.

I am aware that I am on the verge of complaining and I begin to castigate myself. All these voices one carries!

I think of Zorba. He would verbally abuse me for this puling. I think of the Zen teachers of Peter Matthiessen who might merely strike me with a bamboo stick.

I think of my father and his recitations of Invictus during very hard times.

I think of Uncle Tommy who carried the whole fishing community of Newport Beach on his shoulders when there were still fish to catch.

I think of Uncle Harry who went through hell as a child and young man, but who prevailed to create a beautiful life and family.

What then, for me, now?

Back to the teachers of Peter Matthiessen.

Just be. Just do.

Or as Frank Sinatra said, “do-be-do-be-do.”

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