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Epiphanies and Voids

Pádraig Murphy

Epiphanies and Voids
Pádraig Murphy
Attention to the apparently insignificant is a particular feature of Japanese art. It is an aspect of Zen’s emphasis on giving attention not to theory or to abstract truth, but to concrete, existing reality, the here and now.

A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
TS Eliot, “Little Gidding” from Four Quartets

The Daitoku-ji complex in Kyoto is a Zen temple opened in 1305. The Kōtō–in, which is part of the complex, is associated with the Hosokawa clan, an ancestor of whom founded it in 1602, and since then, it is the burial site of the family. From time to time there hangs in the tokonoma, or ceremonial alcove, a scroll with a calligraphy motif which reads: “A bird cries. The mountain becomes more silent.”

The quotation is from a Chinese poet of the sixth century. The Hosokawa family is a very old one, which in more recent times (1993-4) gave Japan one of its prime ministers. (Interestingly, it also contains the grave of Gracia Hosokawa, a sixteenth century Christian martyr, the subject of  a twentieth century Japanese opera.) The calligraphy is itself a work of art, calligraphy being the greatest art form in China and Japan, not merely decorative as, by and large, it is in the West. The reading, although not separable from the calligraphy, can be considered as closely associated with the family in this temple in the former capital of Japan.

The text is immediately striking on a number of counts. It is an aperçu which astonishes by its brevity and reverberates in the mind. It partakes of a quasi-mystical engagement with nature, without reference, other than implicitly, to an ego. It conveys a sense of a very small event, closely observed, situated in a vast emptiness which is nevertheless affected by it. But it points to no necessary conclusion, unlike, for instance, heraldic mottoes, or, indeed, coats of arms or funerary monuments, which are associated with eminent family lines in the West.

Chinese and Japanese art, both graphic and literary, are strongly marked by Taoism and by the Zen development of Mahayana Buddhism. The latter influence is particularly marked in Japan. An important element in this approach to art is that, for one thing, no strict division is seen between art and craft. Long training and concentrated attention are prerequisites for mastery. Old-time Japanese carpenters were apprenticed to the trade from a very early age – about seven. They worked without blueprints and without nails or glue. Zhiang zhi, one of the masters of Tao, recounts:

Ch’ing, the chief carpenter, was carving wood into a stand for hanging musical instruments. When finished, the work appeared to those who saw it as though of supernatural execution. And the prince of Lu asked him, saying, “What mystery is there in your art?”
“No mystery, Your Highness,” replied Ch’ing; “and yet, there is something. When I am about to make such a stand, I guard against any diminution of my vital power. I first reduce my mind to absolute quiescence. Three days in this condition, and I become oblivious to any reward to be gained. Five days, and I become oblivious to any fame to be acquired. Seven days, and I become unconscious of my four limbs and my physical frame. Then, with no thought of the Court present in my mind, my skill becomes concentrated, and all disturbing elements from without are gone. I enter some mountain forest. I search for a suitable tree. It contains the form required, which is afterwards elaborated. I see the stand in my mind’s eye, and then set to work. Otherwise, there is nothing. I bring my own natural capacity into relation with that of the wood. What was suspected to be of supernatural execution in my work was due solely to this.

Simon Leys writes of the practice of calligraphy: “In order to master the brush (and not be led by it), the calligrapher has to achieve a high degree of internal concentration, physical balance and muscular control; long years of intensive training are required to reach a minimum level of competence … In the art of calligraphy, as in spiritual life itself, when self-denial is complete, self-expression reaches its plenitude.”

It is not that concentrated attention was, or is, foreign to artistic or craft production in the West. The Book of Kells and, to give another instance widely separate in time, the fifteenth-century tapestry Allegory of Taste, containing the figure of the Lady with the Unicorn, in the Cluny Museum in Paris, are two of many examples which also, being products of unknown hands, share in the virtue of self-denial.

Simone Weil often emphasised the importance of attention. In Cahiers VI, for example, she says:

At its highest level, attention is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love. There is linked to it another freedom than that of choice, which is at the level of the will. To wit, grace. Pay attention to the point of no longer having the choice. Then one knows one’s dharma.

Elsewhere in the Cahiers, she characterises truth as the objective of attention, and “truth is the splendour (éclat) of reality”. It is a principle of order, comparable to light, which cannot be seen but makes things visible, it is “the unnameable (alogos) point in respect of which order can be made”.

Attention to the apparently insignificant is a feature of Japanese art especially. It is an aspect of Zen’s emphasis on giving attention not to theory or abstract truth, but to concrete, existing reality, here and now. Thomas Merton writes of Hui Neng, “It is axiomatic in the Zen of Hui Neng that works and external concern should in no way be regarded as obstacles to Zen; on the contrary, Zen is manifested in them as well as anywhere else, including eating, sleeping, or the humblest material functions.

This calls for an emptiness, a notion assimilated from the Tao, Tao being reached when one’s mind is entirely emptied of delusive thoughts and intriguing feelings. And when Tao is thus finally reached, you have the knowledge of all things. In turn, this is related to the Buddhist notion that the void is the origin of all things, Buddhism denying both God and Absolute. So little things in their intense actuality are the focus of attention, apparent also often in what is called in Japanese the “one-corner” style. Here, the apparent subject of a painting is depicted off-centre, or leaving a large more or less blank space. An example is the thirteenth century painting of a wagtail on a withered lotus leaf. As in the case of the text in the Kōtō-in, the reverberations of unfilled space are vast. Poetry provides many examples of this and of the concentration on the actual. Hō Koji, a disciple of the eighth century, exclaims:

How wondrous this, how mysterious!
I carry fuel, I draw water.

Bashō’s (1643-94) haiku is well known:

The old pond, ah!
A frog jumps in:
The sound of the water.

From the classic collection One Hundred Poems, One Poem Each, by Fujiwara no Teika, (1161-1241):

When the wind gusts
Over the autumn fields
The glistening white dewdrops
Lie strewn about
Like scattered pearls.

Finally, by Shiki (1869-1902):

Among the grasses
An unknown flower
Blooming white.

We may take some Western writers for comparison. George Herbert wrote of everyday activities:

All may of thee partake:
Nothing can be so mean
Which with his tincture (for thy sake)
Will not grow bright and clean.
A servant with this clause
Makes drudgery divine
Who sweeps a room, as for thy laws
Makes that and the action fine.

John Drury remarks in his recent biography that “working with minute care on a very small surface does not in the least constrict Herbert’s mind”.

Wordsworth too could be exercised by the apparently insignificant – the Lucy poems are an example:

She dwelt among the untrodden ways
Beside the springs of Dove,
A Maid whom there were none to praise
And very few to love:

A violet by a mossy stone
Half hidden from the eye!
‑ Fair as a star, when only one
Is shining in the sky.

She lived unknown, and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be;
But she is in her grave, and, oh,
The difference to me!

Tennyson too had his moments:

Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies,
I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower – but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.

There were very few more attentive observers than Gerald Manley Hopkins, even if he belonged to an age of fine observers – one thinks, for instance, of Ruskin. Here he is on a landscape in Wales: “The nearer hills, the other side of the valley, shewed a hard and beautifully detached and glimmering brim against the light, which was lifting there. All the length of the valley the skyline of hills was flowingly written all along upon the sky. A blue bloom, a sort of meal, seemed to have spread upon the distant south, enclosed by a basin of hills. Looking all around but most in looking far up the valley I felt an instress and charm of Wales.”

On carnations: “Carnations if you look close have their tongue-shaped petals powdered with spankled red glister, which no doubt gives them their brilliancy: sharp chip shadows of one petal on another: the notched edge curls up and so is darked, which gives them graceful precision”. Two of his poems should be quoted in this connection. Firstly, “Pied Beauty”.

Glory be to God for dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as a brindled cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change;
                          Praise him.

Then there is “As Kingfishers catch fire”:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves ‑ goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

Í say móre: the just man justices;
Kéeps gráce; thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is –
Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

As we know, James Joyce made particular use of the term “epiphany”. In Stephen Hero, he explains the term in the context of Thomas Aquinas’s theory of beauty: integritas, consonantia and claritas:

Now for the third quality. For a long time I couldn’t make out what Aquinas meant. He uses a figurative word (a very unusual thing for him) but I have solved it. Claritas [surely related to Simone Weil’s éclat] is quidditas. After the analysis which discovers the second quality [the consonantia] the mind makes the only logically possible synthesis and describes the third quality. First we recognise that the object is one integral thing, then we recognise that it is an organised composite structure, a thing in fact: finally, when the relation of the parts is exquisite, when the parts are adjusted to the special point, we recognise that it is that thing which it is. Its soul, its whatness, leaps to us from the vestment of its appearance. The soul of the commonest object, the structure of which it is so adjusted, seems to us radiant. The object achieves its epiphany.

The closeness to Hopkins’s instress/inscape, or the lines from the “Kingfisher” poem ‑ Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: / Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; / Selves – goes itself; myself it speaks and spells / Crying Whát I dó is me, for that I came” ‑ is evident, a closeness due to the teaching, not so much of Aquinas as of Duns Scotus, who maintained that our knowledge was of the haecceitas, or thisness, of a thing.

In Ulysses, Joyce takes the trope further:

Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot. Snotgreen, bluesilver, rust: coloured signs … Stephen closed his eyes to hear his boots crush crackling wrack and shells. You are walking through it howsomever. I am, a stride at a time through very short times of space. Five, six: the nacheinander. Exactly: and that is the ineluctable modality of the audible … Am I walking into eternity along Sandymount strand?”

The successive ineluctabilities, nebeneinander and nacheinander, are the thisnesses of what can be seen and what can be heard, the “souls of the commonest objects”, so that the question arises whether his progress is in the direction of eternity.

The contrast between the Chinese/Japanese approach and that of the Western writers is striking. Where the thisness of Hō Koji’s carrying of fuel and drawing of water is left just at that, with Herbert the drudgery is fine, because done “for thy sake”. Wordsworth’s lines, “A violet by a mossy stone / Half hidden from the eye” would by themselves have made up a Japanese or Chinese poem (in calligraphy). But they are accompanied by the thought of what a difference to “me” Lucy’s death made. No Chinese or Japanese poet would think of drawing explicit conclusions about God and man from holding an uprooted flower in his or her hand. Hopkins is as explicit as is Herbert on the author of all: “Praise Him”. As for Joyce, it may perhaps be said as the cliché has it that once you give a boy to Jesuit education, the Jesuits have him for life, and Stephen certainly is portrayed as having been caught in that net: the concentrated encounter with the here and now is envisaged as a progress towards eternity.

All generalisations are of course hazardous: there are multiple exceptions, and Western artists such as Mallarmé, Paul Klee and Vasily Kandinsky could not be regarded as conforming to the pattern of those cited. On the other side, there are many Chinese and Japanese artists who do not fit into the Taoist/Buddhist/Zen matrix. But in each case, the artists cited represent a central strain in their respective traditions. The three components on the Asian side have been mentioned. (Kurt Singer says Zen, when it arrived from China to Japan, “immediately became the centre of a moral and aesthetic cult which reveals the most Japanese of all Japanese characteristics”.) The crucial difference on the Western side, as it seems to me, is the central place in the Western tradition of the notion of nature as revealing a specific salvation history or, in secularised form, a specific lesson. In the Old Testament, the Psalms pronounced that “The heavens proclaim the glory of God and the firmament shows forth the work of his hands”. The New Testament brings matters down to earth. The fundamental text in this regard is the famous opening of St John’s gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God … And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory.” Nietzsche’s secularised version of this centres on Socrates: “The image of the dying Socrates, the man elevated over the fear of death through knowledge and reasoning, is the heraldic shield hung over the entrance gate of science in order to remind everybody of its purpose, namely to make existence appear intelligible and so justified.” In China and Japan, flesh was the objective of intense attention, but the mysterium tremendum remained implicit (and perhaps all the more tremendous for that). In the Christian West, there was the same intense concentration and attention, but the objective was to force the flesh to reveal the Word, as if the bargain should be repaid. Or at least, the impact on the writer’s ego should be proclaimed widely.


Pádraig Murphy is a retired official of the Department of Foreign Affairs. The translations from One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each are by Peter McMillan, from the book of the same name by him, Columbia University Press, New York, 2008. Other translations are from Daisetz T. Suzuki, Zen and Japanese Culture, Princeton University Press, New York, 1959