Looking back, one of the stranger aspects of my childhood -- which included a lot of strange stuff -- was how my mother took me to Chinatown in San Francisco when I was fairly young, maybe 12.
I came home with many inexpensive pieces of Chinese art that I put up in my room. Most were images that still appeal to me today. Misty mountains with a small figure of a person walking along with a pagoda or hut perched on the edge of a cliff.
I don't know where that instant attraction came from.
Nobody I knew had any interest in either Chinese art or philosophy. Maybe it stemmed from growing up in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Our house had a picture window in the living room that looked out at the high Sierras and Sequoia National Park.
And we were surrounded by smaller hills, with the Kaweah River flowing by close enough that I could hear the soothing sound of the water if I left a window open at night.
Anyway, I just finished reading an intriguing book by David Hinton, Existence: A Story. The Amazon listing says:
The mystery of existence and our place in that mystery--as expressed in a single Chinese landscape painting: a new work of meditative philosophy by the renowned translator of the Chinese classics and author of Hunger Mountain.
The message of the book is difficult to summarize, because the Taoist philosophy underlying that message is notoriously difficult to conceptualize. I guess I'd call it something like Mysticism in plain sight.
Meaning, Chinese mysticism isn't other-worldly. It is rooted in the here and now of this world, especially the natural world.
This is the painting that's the focus of the book, Shih Tao's (1642-1707) Broad Distance Pavillion.
And here's the last section of the book, which provides a good overview of Hinton's perspective on the painting. Stone Waves is another name for the artist, Shih T'ao. Inkstone-Wander wrote the poem that Shig]h T'ao inscribed on the painting.
The most crucial thing about the story of existence is that it knows itself to be mere story, as Lao Tzu and the Ch'an masters recognized, that it recognizes is own meaninglessness, its own vanishing.
Only when we forget story and explanation are we returned to dwell here in the beginning, where empty awareness and the expansive presence of existence are whole, a single existence-tissue vast and deep, everything and everywhere.
How strange that the story is most true when it falls silent. And yet, how liberating that we can return to begin at the beginning in that silence anytime, anywhere.
A simple room, for instance, morning sunlight through windows lighting the floor; a sidewalk cafe, empty wine glass on the table, trees rustling in a slight breeze, sunlit passersby; a routine walk through a park, late autumn trees bare, rain clattering in fallen leaves.
Or the mountain landscape in Stone-Waves' painting, where we share with Stone-Waves the culmination of his lifelong landscape practice. We walk to a mountaintop, face out across ridgeline beyond ridgeline, then close our eyes.
We forget everything we know, all of the ideas and knowledge and assumptions about ourselves and the nature of things. We forget Lao Tzu's seminal poem, forget Inkstone-Wander's poem and Stone-Waves' painting, and continue on from there, forgetting all of the thoughts and memories defining us each as a center of identity.
Here, we share this experience with Stone-Waves in the deepest possible way, for there is no longer any distinction between us as separate centers of identity.
We forget this entire story of existence, and turn to the empty darkness that is our own awareness, which is all that remains after this practice of forgetfulness, and we inhabit the expansive space of that darkness.
We abide in that darkness for a time, then open our eyes. We look as if it were sight seeing for the first time, seeing things as they are in themselves, free of all our tenuous human stories about them, our ideas and beliefs.
And there we find mirror-deep awareness and the ten thousand things filling that awareness, as it does in any routine moment of mindful attention to immediate experience: the expanse of awareness and the expanse of existence returned to their original nature as a single tissue, the existence-tissue vast and deep, everything and everywhere.
We gaze out onto dark-enigma, even if it is drenched in sunlight: ridge lines trailed out kingfisher-greens and indigo-blues, sea-ch'i mist billowing through valleys and rising up mountain slopes, through abandoned orchards, seething up to erase broken walls and houses, a city in ruins, scatters of wild chrysanthemum-blooms fading against winter, unharvested pears and apricots, and soon the mountaintop where Inkstone-Wander stands.
Here in the beginning, existence rustles. From nowhere else, it occurs and occurs. It gazes out at itself, and it is whole.
And as it is our most elemental identity, we too are whole. It is whole, but not complete, never complete. It is restless.
It rustles, occurring and occurring. It wants to recognize itself, to orient, to celebrate. It wonders. It wants to know itself, to understand and explain, to decorate itself with story and meaning as if there were meaning.
It is whole, and it wants to begin: This is the story of existence, and it begins with a painting.