All ji, no ri

Owl asked if asana can be considered art. From a three-dimensional object in space perspective, it could certainly count as sculpture. But what else?

I’ve been reading a book called Picturing Mind: Paradox, Indeterminacy and Consciousness in Art and Poetry. I don’t quite know what to say about it. Now that I think back, I’m not really sure what I expected it to be. The things it gets at seem obvious, which makes me tempted to say that the book is naïve.

I wonder though if the author just isn’t interested in many of the same things that I am and, therefore, drawing many similar parallels — so it all seems, well, obvious so far.

Here’s a quote:

Observational painting as enquiry into “the real, resistant and experienced world”

In our experience of things-in-the-world, we seem to encounter volume, solidity, materiality, substance — yet the appearance of substance is deceptive when looked at through three different lenses. Firstly, through our perceptual experience, we discover that the object is not a static stable entity but a dynamic part of a continually changing field of perceptual and interpretive activity. Secondly, through our cognitive processes, particularly scientific modes of enquiry, we encounter at the sub-atomic and quantum levels a world of interpenetrating energies and forces. Thirdly, in considering our existential condition we find our own identity or self to be anything but a fixed, finite, object-like construction — rather it is a matrix of at times contradictory moods, feelings, thoughts, processes which somehow cohere but are open to continual revision and transformation as we negotiate changing circumstances and conditions. Our position as observer is more transparent, indeterminate and inseparable from what we observe that might at first be assumed.

Thus “objects” are events or fields of relationships, transactions between observer and observed. They have no enduring substance or self-identity, no permanent essence. They are relative, impermanent, and ever-changing. And observational paintings present us with iconic and indexical images which are the products of an engagement with these event fields.

Some of these ideas about painting and drawing from observation can be linked to ideas about experience, thought, perception and notions of the real put forward by a number of poets from the 1960s onwards. In exploring their ideas we can see, from another angle, more of the complexities and paradoxes that surround our relationships with the world — our entanglement in the unfolding mystery of being with other beings in amongst the fabric of things. We share our existence with beings who have purposes, needs and corporeal presences that are not ours, and we exist in a world that has a profound disinterest in our presence and an enduring materiality that is both our habitat and spatial/temporal reference. Engaging with this materiality gives rise to questions about reality and otherness, how we experience and how we represent or express changing fields of consciousness.

Okay, as I was reading that into the voice-to-text software, I thought, “Wow, this is actually quite pretty.”

Now I just want to throw in something that I was reading yesterday from Shunryu Suzuki’s book Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness, which is a series of talks as he did on the Sandokai.

We do not make much distinction between things that exist outside and things that exist within ourselves. You may say something exists outside of yourself, you may feel that it does, but it isn’t true. When you say, “There is the river,” the river is already in your mind. A hasty person may say, “The river is over there,” but if you think more about it you will find that the river is in your mind as a kind of thought. That things exist outside of ourselves is a dualistic, primitive, shallow understanding of things.

So the characters in the first line [of the Sandokai] refer to ri, the source of the teaching beyond words. The true source, ri, is beyond our thinking; it is pure and stainless. When you describe it, you put a limitation on it. That is, you stain the truth or put a mark on it. In the Heart Sutra it says, “no color, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch, no objects of mind,” and so forth. That is ri.

The next line reads Shiha anni ruchusu — “the branching streams flow on in the dark.” Shiha means “branching stream.” Sekito says shiha for poetic reasons: to make these two lines of the poem beautiful and to contrast shiha with reigen, “source.” Reigen is more noumenal, and shiha is more phenomenal. To say “noumenal” or “phenomenal” is not exactly right, but tentatively I have to say so. That is why it is good to remember the more technical terms ri and ji here. Ji refers to the phenomenal — to something you can see, hear, smell, or taste as well as to objects of thought or ideas. Whatever can be introduced into our consciousness is ji. Something that is beyond our consciousness — the noumenal — is ri.

We talk about emptiness, and you may think you understand it; but even though you can explain it pretty well, it is ji not ri. Real emptiness will be experienced — not experienced, but realized — by good practice.

So you may ask, “What is the real teaching of Buddha?” If you don’t understand it you will keep asking, “What is it? What is it? What does it mean?” You are just seeking for something you can understand. That is a mistake. We don’t exist in that way. Dogen Zenji says, “There is no bird who flies knowing limit of the sky. There is no fish who swims knowing the end of the ocean.” We exist in the limitless universe. Sentient beings are numberless and our desires are limitless, but we still have to continue making our effort just as a fish swims and a bird flies.

When we understand things in this way, according to Dogen, we are not people in mappo, the final period; our practice is not disturbed by any framework of time or space.

Okay, so back to asana as art.


What does art need, in order to be art? Documentation? Intention? A “product” or “object”?

Gah! I can’t go down this path. It gives me art school flashbacks!

Maybe art needs ri, tied up somewhere in the web of its aesthetic or documentation or intention or objecthood? No matter, it is WELL beyond anything we can pick at with critiques or analyses. (Thank God.) And how about the web of the being making shapes? Can it possibly be in a position (yes! a little joke!) outside/beside/beyond ji, with its appearances and words and framework of time and space?

Who knows? No matter. In the meantime, let Suzuki Roshi put a bluejay in your heart.


3 Responses

  1. Oh god, what a feast to return to after thanksgiving. The passages and the video and the play are all lovely. Especially Roshi’s smile at the beginning of the video, which is like your smile at the end of the post.

    Danvers seems interesting. He writes well, filling in a place with words that you and others took intuitively and necessarily without words. Maybe if we’d have read something like this alongside western aesthetics, it would have seemed like a bigger deal.

    Funny, the writing is quite nice… (there’s a paper online where he talks about how teaching should be about “participating, improvisation and indeterminancy… hes describing the space you have come to creatively?) but the artwork he has on his website seems to be trying too hard to SHOW ethereal-ness, to show emptiness and form at the same time. Why try? Just show form. Emptiness takes care of itself. Trying to do both makes for images that seem busy and desultory.

    Something I read, attributed to the Buddha, the other day: I consider the positions of kings as that of dust motes.

    But maybe he didn’t mean that as an insult. 🙂

  2. hi Karen
    happy thanksgiving. yes, thanks for posting that Susuki Roshi clip. i love how they left everything in, even the coughing part – because it makes it human and real. he may have been battling his cancer then. his inner joy comes through when he talks, and it’s what must have inspired so many of the teachers that have come out of the San Francisco Zen Center. i think he’s also talking about adjusting to an environment. for example, i have lived a year and a half on market st in san fran, and to me the ratatat of the trolleys sound happy, saying something like “rise and shine; be productive; the day is here.”

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