“Li Bai chanting poetry” by Laing Kai, China XIIIth c. (Southern Song Dynasty) – via Tokyo National Museum
An ink painting on paper remarkable for its simplicity in technic made with just a few brush strokes; and in the portrayal of Li Bai (701-762), one of the great Chinese poets of the Tang Dynasty, known for his unencumbered use of words and depth of poetry.
The robe seems to blend with the background and a faint shadow suggest that Li Bai is walking during the evening. The painting has no elaborate details and yet we can feel the serenity of both the poet and the setting.
There is one poem by Li Bai that has always moved me and that with time, I have come to understand:
“The birds have vanished down the sky,
and now the last cloud drains away.
We sit together, the mountain and I,
until only the mountain remains.”
“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).
Love the writing less and the ink more,
and as you flatten the white paper,
remember to shed your clothes
before crossing the threshold.
Sufi and Zen inspiration.