With brush and ink the Japanese artist Hokusai (1760-1849) shows how the legendary warrior archer Tametomo protects the islanders of Okinawa from the deadly demon smallpox. Since the demon cannot be killed he subdues it with his centred energy. Smallpox demon submits and vows to leave the island, stamping its inky handprint as testament.
Hokusai’s drawing is the visual equivalent of what we Zen students do in kong-an practice (Jap: koan). We are given an apparently baffling question which does not yield its answer through conceptual thinking. We must use deep, focussed attention and patience to find our way through the fog of delusion, then the answer will appear as if by itself.
Tametomo is successful because he uses the power of the non-moving mind to win through. We are witnessing a moment of interaction between true self and small self. True self partakes of the energy of the whole universe, not making self and other. Hokusai shows him not separated from his adversary. Small self is inherently limited by the delusion of separateness: I, me, my. Its demon nature is revealed in the glimpse of a clawed foot.
While Tametomo looks down on the creature with single-pointed concentration, the smallpox demon faces us with blind eyes; a shrunken, tattered figure. Perhaps Hokusai is inviting our compassion: how can we share space with what we fear? How is transformation possible?
How we respond in kong-an practice also shows us the tactics we deploy to meet the challenges of daily life: procrastination, complicity, aggression, complacency, flight, to name a few. But when we patiently stick with it and perceive the core issue many a situation can get shrunk to a manageable size and resolved.
Hokusai shows us this work in progress: a perfect visualization of what each of us encounters in our human lives. A situation appears and we must respond. It cannot be resolved unless we do. When we feel threatened we tend to follow our usual habits of coping, such as running away, pretending it doesn’t exist, getting busy elsewhere, getting someone else to intervene, using emotional or physical violence to try and make it go away. But in this drawing Tametomo is not doing any of that, he is simply using the creative wisdom of his non-moving mind, his true self, to dispel the demon. When we do the same we are unblocked and free to respond to any situation with energy and clarity.
How does all this speak to the complicated and overwhelming challenge of the climate emergency? Because of its scale and ubiquity it’s hard to believe that the same principles apply. But both Hokusai’s Tametomo and kong-an practice show us that we have an opportunity here. We can wake up to the part we play and to how we are responding. We can see how our behaviours affect sentient beings everywhere, since we are all connected. We can look with unwavering gaze at our grief and fear and anger, then get centered and act with an open and questioning mind, free of the filters of preconception and pre-judgement. And return again and again and not give up.
Hokusai says look carefully. He says pay attention…
Roger Start Keyes, art historian, Hokusai scholar, and co-founder of York Zen, wrote his poem “Hokusai Says,” featured on our York Zen Welcome Page, in Venice in 1990. It appeared suddenly as he was making notes for the “Young Hokusai” paper he was to give at a symposium on Hokusai the following day.
He says keep looking, stay curious. He says there is no end to seeing…
Roger describes how he was writing in one of his daily journal books when he experienced a sudden “raising of tone” and found himself writing out a continuous text until the impetus finally died away. On reading the piece through he felt it had the rhythms of a poem, organized it into lines, and made a few minor corrections. He took the title “Hokusai says” from the first line that had appeared.
He says everything is alive…
Back in California, Roger showed it to artist friends. One was Connie Smith Siegel, who shared it with W.S. Merwin’s daughter, Susan. Susan wrote it out in beautiful calligraphy and drew a border around it with motifs taken from a Hokusai woodcut.
Connie also showed it to Joanna Macy, scholar of Buddhism, systems thinking, and deep ecology. Joanna started reading it in her workshops and, when later asked about its influence, wrote that “she enjoyed reading it aloud and feeling the impact it consistently had…for the masterly way the words convey a state of grateful and rapt attention that brings one more fully alive to the everyday mystery of life.”
Everything has its own life…
Its influence spread. It was reproduced in the Spirit Rock Insight Meditation Center newsletter (1996) and in a number of books, including Mark Williams and Danny Penman’s Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World (2011). It also started appearing online in blogs and YouTube videos.
He says live with the world inside you…
Realizing that none of the online recordings of the poem was by Roger, his friend and curator of The Laurence Sterne Trust, Patrick Wildgust, generously intervened. In 2015 he arranged for a recording to be made of Roger reading “Hokusai says” by sound engineer Jez Wells at York University. You can listen to this recording on our York Zen Welcome Page (and online).
Contentment is life living through you. Joy is life living through you. Satisfaction and strength is life living through you. Look, feel, let life take you by the hand. Let life live through you.
Who knows where “Hokusai says” will next appear?
Watching you work, completely focused, single-minded, bringing all you are to make this one thing alive, creating meaning, beauty and function in one whole piece; generated through instinct, and coming into being as we watch, though still invisible to the wider world. Meticulous, patient, bit-by-bit becoming until there it is, in the light: complete, unique and perfect. (And so it is with each of us: one by one each thing has it, one by one each thing is complete.)
As Sven’s fingers move over the keyboard building this website with colour, fonts and photographs, an about-to-become-a-mother blackbird inspects the corner of a shelf against the white-washed wall of our city yard. She hops and settles, repeats. Is this the right place to build a nest? She moves aside some clematis vine to make a space behind it, flies off, and returns with her mate. He looks too and they agree, and so she weaves a bowl of feather, leaf and twig. When Sven and the blackbird each have finished building, he the website, she the nest, you don’t see either of them anymore, but each is present in their creation.
Thank you, Sven Mahr, for building the website for York Zen Group and taking the brilliant photos. You have completely realized our vision, laying out the warm welcome we want to give to all who already enjoy Zen meditation and all who might like to begin. Sven Mahr is based in Leipzig and can be contacted via his website here.