Art – Hasegawa Tohaku and the concept of “Ma” 間

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“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.

Kenza.

* 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). 

Like Han Shan

The wise Chinese poet Han Shan once wrote that in his secluded dwelling, he could be “a person beyond form.
Away from the “dusty” world, he wrote about mountains peaks and clouds as his neighbors, the echo of the deep river and the flutter of butterflies. He saw trees bloom and turn red, and some die of old age. He felt the mist as it entered his cave, and felt sadness and joy “under his wisteria hat.
He was away from the world but he felt it. He was on the side, alone, yet fully aware of its madness and beauty, enabling him to laugh and shed tears all at the same time.
Don’t you feel sometimes like Han Shan?
I do.

Kenza.

Inspiration: Han Shan 寒山, Chinese Tao and Zen Poet, ca.9th c. Han Shan means “Cold mountain.” I keep a volume of Han Shan’s poetry next to my bed.

Ryōkan’s hut

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Often, I think I am in Ryōkan’s hut.
I see the sky through the window,
the wall next to it hiding the house across the street.
Birds come on the window sill chirping away
enthralled by the morning glory overflowing its small pot.
Cars pass intermittently
and I try to muffle their sound.
Rain falls gently on the roof
and I pretend it is thatched.
I sit like he did.
I push aside the woes of the world,
my mind at peace
and yet…
I am not in Ryōkan’s hut.
I have to deal with the everyday:
the market and talking to strangers,
walking through filled streets,
thinking of tomorrow,
having a house in order and a wallet also.
I cannot create Ryōkan’s hut,
I can at most pretend that I am in it.
Some of you may not understand,
and as Ryōkan said
“Who can indeed content himself with this manner of life,
Unless he has seen himself altogether lost in the world.”

Kenza.


– Quote from one of Ryōkan’s (Japan, 1758-1831) Chinese poems.
Art: self-portrait by Ryōkan.

The first dawn of Autumn

The vast sky brightens. A few clouds from last night’s rain remain, taking deep hues of red then slowly whitening.

Several flocks of swallows fill the sky in waves moving east towards the lake for the day. They are so close above my head that I can hear the swoosh of the air.

I feel a slight chill and go back inside. I wrap myself in a soft earth colored pashmina.

A flower quietly withers on the kitchen table.

Autumn has arrived.

Kenza.