the philosophy of presence

 

NGV - Bushido - Way of the Samurai

 

Bushido: Way of the Samurai

National Gallery of Victoria to November 4

Sadly I won’t view this exhibition as I live too many hundreds of kilometres away. But I’m prompted to share a post about it here after reading a review by Christopher Allen last weekend, in The Australian newspaper. I always enjoy Allen’s reviews; he fleshes out his essays with asides that I’m often not familiar with. I learn much from him.

Japanese art and artisanship is, however, a familiar and deeply loved topic for me, having had the good fortune to spend time studying in Japan and working with extraordinary artisans there. The young Christopher Allen also spent time in Japan, and while I’m not sure whether his understanding of Zen was formed in those early years, it’s a joy to read his wise summation in his review of this exhibition.

To read the entire review please click through to the page at The Australian


 

NGV-Samurai-sword

 

What bows, arrows, swords, calligraphy brushes and teacups have in common … is the philosophy of Zen Buddhism. The word Zen is the Japanese equivalent of the Chinese Chan, in its turn an adaptation of the Sanskrit Dhyana, which means meditation or the meditative state of mind. This variety of Buddhist thought in particular seems to have absorbed much from Taoism, which emphasises stillness, attentiveness and awareness of the life of the natural world, and is the deepest inspiration of classic Chinese painting and calligraphy.

Zen teaches presence above all, inviting us to be in the here and now rather than distracted by memories, anticipations, desires and fears. This state of presence is constantly available to us, yet it is not something that we can want or aspire to, since the very act of desiring separates us from being in the present moment: to look for enlightenment, as a famous Zen saying goes, is like looking for an ox when you are riding on it. We only need to stop wanting and desiring and we will find it.

This philosophy of presence does not require one to live a monastic life; it is rather the spirit one can bring to all aspects of daily life, and for that reason Zen was able to become the spiritual philosophy of the samurai. Its relevance to the art of the bow, for example, was the subject of a book by Eugen HerrigelZen in the Art of Archery, originally published in German in 1948. The secret is in the direction of attention and in the elimination of self-consciousness; the archer must forget himself and think only of the target.

The principle is not hard to understand. You obviously cannot meditate if you are thinking “I am meditating”; the meditation starts when self-consciousness stops. Similarly with almost any craft: a potter, a pianist, a painter or a writer has to forget themselves and be entirely in the act. It is the same with swordsmanship, which superseded archery as the quintessential samurai art of war.

The great swordsman, as Zen writers such as DT Suzuki explain, achieves a state of emptiness, of “no-mind”, which alone permits the rapidity of reaction and the accuracy necessary to preserve one’s life and defeat the opponent. The conscious mind is simply too slow: it would get in the way of action.

Many famous samurai stories are about swordsmanship, two of which are illustrated here: in a triptych of ukiyo-e sheets by Kuniyoshi, the 12-year-old Ushiwaka, a prodigy of the art, overcomes the master warrior-monk Benkei at the Gojo Bridge (1839). And once again in a set of three sheets by Utagawa Yoshitora, Night Attack of Kumasaka (1860), we see the young samurai Yoshitsume single-handedly fighting off a band of brutal thugs.

 

Utagawa YOSHITORA: Kumasaka's night attack on Ushiwaka-maru at the Akasaka Post-station in Mino Province

 

The serenity of his expression and the refinement of his youthful features are contrasted with the grotesque types of the bandits, as he parries an attack from their leader with his fan while beheading one of his henchmen. The ­attackers are in a blind intoxication of rage; ­Yoshitsume is in the stillness of no-mind, so that to him each blow is executed with the slow deliberation of a calligraphy master composing the characters of a poem.

Christopher Allen


Images courtesy of the NGV website.

Top – Upper portion of a suit of Samurai armour.

Middle – Samurai sword

Bottom – Utagawa YOSHITORA
Japanese active 1850s-1880s
Kumasaka’s night attack on Ushiwaka-maru at the
Akasaka Post-station in Mino Province

1860 Edo, Japan
colour woodblock (triptych)


Eugen Herrigel –  Zen in the Art of Archery


5 thoughts on “the philosophy of presence

  1. Herrigel was my introduction to Zen back in the late 60’s. Thank you for reminding me of that marvelous book.
    Also, I love the statue at Gojo bridge, and I find the story reminiscent of Robin Hood and Little John. The collapse of the Heian Period is an amazing time in Japanese history, filled with such heroism and such sadness.

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