Wednesday February 8, 2006
Yesterday I bought myself some Chinese brushes and a bottle of ink, and I spent last night painting pictures of turnips. I was inspired to do this by looking at the wonderful paintings of Sengai, the eighteenth century Zen master and painter. And given that just looking at the paintings seemed like a poor way of going about understanding them, I thought I’d have a bit of a go with the brush and ink myself.
Sengai’s paintings look simple. In fact, they are simple. But it is hard to be as simple as Sengai, to put aside all ideas of art and success and failure and just to let the brush flow naturally. My first attempt, I must confess (and having said this about success and failure), was not a great triumph of artistic production, but my second effort produced a fairly reasonable turnip. Here are the results: the first one (the good one) is by Sengai, and the second is by me.
Not too bad, although there’s a long way to go until I can match the skill of Sengai’s own lines. I was going to say “not too bad for a beginner”, but perhaps the difficulty is not being enough of a beginner. Perhaps Sengai’s genius is in his beginner’s mind; and to return to such a mind probably needs practice not only with the brush but also on the meditation cushions. Which brings me to the verse that accompanies Sengai’s own turnip:
A turnip and a monk in meditation
Are best when they sit well.
This, then, is what I’ll be doing in the coming days: sitting like a turnip. And I’ll see how well I do when I pick up the brush once again.
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