“Pine trees” by Hasegawa Tohaku, dated 16th c. (Azuchi-Momoyama Period), Japan
– via the Tokyo National Museum.
This is one of two six-fold panels. Painted with ink on paper, it is considered one of the jewels of Japanese ink painting.
In Japanese and Chinese art, pines symbolise winter, wisdom and longevity, since they do not loose their needles with the cold.
By drawing pines in the mist, the author sought to illustrate the Zen concept of “Ma” 間, generally translated as “negative space,” where contradictory things can connect and co-exist. In other words, “Ma” is the delicate moment of total awareness when what is and what is not merge.
Looking at the kanji may help understand it better. The kanji is made of “gate” (門) under which is the “moon” 月. Together they denote the space filled when the light of the moon shines through a gate. Because of the light (what is), one becomes conscious of the space that is void (what is not).
On the practical level, the concept of “Ma,” which I find extremely delicate and simple, is to allow the creation of moments of quietness, of deep reflection and of detachment. It is creating the potential from which harmony and tranquility may prevail.
* In Japan, the concept of space is more subtle and complex than in Western thought. Space is seen as a place of connection, it is not useless emptiness since it is where time and things can pass through and exist. In many ways, the same notion can be found in the Chinese Tao idea that the emptiness within a bowl is what makes it a bowl as much as its material —without the space it could not hold liquid and hence would be useless. In Japan, four kinds of spaces are generally thought of: relational space (wa), location (tokoro), space that helps create connections to produce knowledge (ba) and negative space (ma).
I wish I could live my life uttering very few words. If we all did, we would be precise and we would be truthful. Every word would spring from the very root of our thoughts, and that is our heart; and we could only but speak directly to the heart of others.
Accompanying music: Arvo Pärt, Spiegel im Spiegel (link).
Detail from “Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife,” by the Master of Northern Renaissance Jan Van Eyck (Bruges, d.1441), painted in 1434.
Van Eyck, known for his illustrated manuscripts, portraits and of course the Ghent Altarpiece (dated 1432), brought life into the scenery and the people he painted like no one before him. He helped define a new trend in art where painting became the medium of grandeur or “the art of arts” as it became known, rather than tapestry or architecture.
He defied the Church (then divided between Rome and Avignon) in many ways, especially for portraying religious figures with human feelings. Yet, he was adored by the nobility (especially the Duke of Burgundy) and the common man who in the aftermath of the great plague, saw renewal and hope in his art, most particularly for his use of light.
Painting on display at the National Gallery, London.
Now that parts of the world are getting immersed in their self-created whirlwind of consumerism and loud celebrations, silence may be welcome. It will not make the other parts of the world any richer or happier or less violent, but it may just may, make you aware of where you stand and bring some serenity along with it.
For one day, just for one day, stay in silence. Silence your gestures and your words and your thoughts. For one day simply remain.
Your body will dance softly as though clouds were beneath your feet. You will smell the aromas that words always cover, and see the colours that thoughts hinder. On that day, anything you cook will taste like a smile, and the water drops on your skin will turn into pearls.
You will finally breathe at the pace of your own heart. You will be still for one day and the universe will whirl around you. From that immense emptiness, things that were entangled in your heart and mind will open up, and you will see bright ideas settling on your canvas like a thousand stars.
You will understand then, that there is no need for prayers, that there is no need for rituals. Silence —and anger will dissipate into forgiveness, fears and wants will follow, and only kindness will remain.
And when you gently go back into the world, an irrepressible soft smile will be drawn on your lips. That is serenity. Cherish it.
Hafez once wrote about a bird holding a rose petal.
As years went by, I realized it is the same petal upon which I lean, its delicate beauty helping me to remain standing in this world of perpetual confusion.
– Hafez (Shiraz, Iran – XIVth c.), Persian poet and Sufi mystic.
Yes. Slowing down. Going at a lower pace.
Looking, really looking around us.
And feeling also. Feeling the wind and immensity of the sky upon opening a window. Feeling the emotions, like a dress we smooth discreetly as we stand up.
Walking without running.
Taking in the taste and texture and colors of each dish when eating, and doing the same when cooking.
Listening to the other person, speaking with precision, pondering each word and adding comas.
It is not to stop time; rather, it is to live it fully.
“We live no more than one hundred years” wrote Sikong Tu at the start of a poem more than one thousand years ago.
We live but a speck in timelessness.
So, why not let our hair turn white and the soft breeze rustle through our clothes?
Why not let the moss cover the stone?
Let us not fret about the world, shall we?
Inspiration: Sikong Tu (China, 837-908), Tang Dynasty poet, known for his poems and for writing the Chinese poetry manual “The twenty-four styles of poetry.”