Section 7: About Shih Ko's patriarchs


The picture reproduced is owned by a monastery in Japan. It is the most famous work of Shih Ko, who is supposed to have painted in the 10th century. A Chinese critic writes about him, saying, "It was from the wild mockery of the world in which he lived that his painting derived its masterly freedom." But we know nothing of the source of his admiration and his knowledge.

Noma says the painting is based on a story about the Second Zen patriarch, Hui Ko. The master, "when reproached for being drunk, said he would 'set his mind in order' by drinking or by any other means he thought suitable." But Waley says that the inscription on the painting might be interpreted as either "The second patriarch attuning his heart to the infinite", or as "Two Zen patriarchs attuning their hearts".

There is a controversy over whether the painting is a free copy or whether it proves that the late Sung Zen adherents were followers of a well-developed style. In relation to the characteristics of Zen painting, Shih Ko seems to depend on Liang Kai's innovations.

It is not a secular picture; there is no traditional religious iconography and no imitation of appearance, either.

See the reproduction of the painting in its own window.

The subject matter is a spiritual portrait of a monk. But, whereas Liang Kai painted personal portraits of individuals, here the unconcerned personality is accepted, as in "the monk with a shrimp", the "Immortal", and others attributed to Liang Kai. As the type of personality is accepted, the picture becomes rather didactic, instead of exploratory. It also becomes metaphorical. The stress on the casual ordinariness of things is not naturalistic and "caught", but intended. It is obvious to someone not familiar with what the painting is "supposed" to mean that the peace between these two did not happen actually, but is an idea, the picture being a metaphor for a known state of mind. The Chinese king of beasts becomes a tame pussy who simply sleeps with the wise man.

Since naturalism has given way to the metaphorical type, the non-relativity of the individual thing is expressed with ease. There is no setting. The beast and the monk are oblivious of each other and unconcerned with the rest of the world. This seems to be a study of what forgetting relative distinctions involves, in allegorical terms.

The image is inventive and the composition is an original device. It is very important that the plane of the tiger's face seems to be moving to the right, counter to the man's face to the left. Yet the two circular heads split the attention from the geometric center of the picture. The two bodies curl around each other like the symbol of yang and yin. symbol

Although composition is a word used to characterize any picture, still it seems that this is a style that uses composition in a peculiar way to realize the idea of the subject matter. Each statement demands a unique composition. Each good picture looks quite different, on the whole.

The fugitive aspect of nature is here a convention. This is not a fleeting event rendered realistically. But it is obvious that this slumber is a peak moment and has been achieved. It is not a lasting state, except as an ideal.

Here we see the use of suggestion much elaborated, and interpreted more broadly.

Emptiness surrounds the things, permeates them. There is no indication of a setting or even of a sky.

The over-all-all-at-once character of the brushwork may be noted in the similarity of the tiger stripes to the strokes of the drapery.

No other evidence of the advanced character of this painting need be cited, save the use of the mass stroke. It has spread to a variety of uses in one picture, and is combined with the old technique of filling in areas. The outline of the drapery is loose and eccentric, though it still functions as an edge implying the plane; the forms of the tiger are loosely stroked over the surface. The texture details are touched over the form. Here, the tendency of the mass stroke to look like a photographic negative works wonderfully (the stroke is over the front of the form, where a highlight might be), in tension with the positive forms implied by the outlines.

The tiger's face, which is logically ahead, tends to recede as well, when compared with the light face of the monk. The tiger is yin and the man yang: yin, tiger, is the left, dark, female, earth or passive principle; and the monk, yang, is the right, light, male, sky or aggressive principle. Since these are opposed technically with variations of the way of representing form, it would seem to me that this is a late work.

The forms do not extend to the edges. The articulated space is limited to extending within or between the figures, except for the space read around them. The "expanding space" is reminiscent of that seen in Mu Chi's "Chestnuts".

Suzuki says that Zen understands there can be a circle with no circumference. This is imminent in Liang Kai's "Li Po". It is closer in Mu Chi's "Chestnuts" and again in Shih Ko's "Patriarchs". I first consciously experienced this watching my partner dance. He seemed like a circle that has no edge -- like being "all circles". He was dancing from the inside alone to the music which is nowhere, and not describing a circle but being describable by a circle. It is Hui-neng's "Show me your primary face before you were born." Technically, it is called a spontaneous rightness (with beauty and truth) about the unselfconscious expression of the individual.

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