Some stray event, a random thought touched a memory the other day, an image. I can’t recall where or when I first saw it. I found a copy online, put it on my desktop, and just gazed. It touched me lightly, deeply, taking me outside myself, back within in ways I have yet to define or explain. I keep looking at it but the picture deflects all reason, focused sight, insight, returning me only to what it is, a picture of six persimmons.
Still, I keep looking.
It is early summer, after fifteen months of isolation, disbelief, despondency. The virus, they say, is passing, but another variant has appeared and now spreads.
During those months, mass demonstrations and disruption—we got out for these, with masks, without masks, gathering in collective passion or scattered disarray, voicing our dissent, our convictions, asserting our identities, assailing the identities of those not ourselves, aligning ourselves with the belief that our lives matter, that our freedom should be protected at all costs. Banners were raised, symbols flew, hollow symbols, symbols with larger meanings, with meanings too familiar, meanings beyond meaning.
Meanwhile the movement to prove the last election was stolen persists in its efforts to return to office the man who has been diagnosed, convincingly, a malignant narcissist. It is hard to tell whether the movement, like the virus, is in decline or might yet gather fresh momentum. It is impossible to know if their efforts are serious or whether that makes a difference.
And last week the temperature rose to 112 one day, 115 the next, this in Portland. Once more, cause to isolate myself, stay inside.
Six Persimmons, ink brushed on paper, is the work of Muqi Fachang, a Chan Buddhist monk, 13th century, Song dynasty, China, who also painted a crane, a gibbon, tigers and dragons, the enlightened, and landscapes, mists, clouds. Little is known about Muqi. While Six Persimmons is similar to other work of the period in its openness and free brush, other work later, elsewhere, nothing is known about it when made, why it was made, how it was used, what Muqi intended, if he intended anything. Chan—the Chinese transliteration of Sanskrit dhyana, profound meditation, of which the Japanese pronunciation is Zen. But for centuries nothing was written about the six persimmons that has survived until it was recorded as a gift early 17th century to a Zen temple complex in Japan, little written centuries after. It remains in the complex, is seldom shown.
The persimmons rest together, slightly separated, towards the bottom, off-center, yet stand poised and balanced in a vacant field. It is what impresses me about the painting, its sense of itself, of what it is.
For well over a year the virus has kept us distant. Outside, we step away from strangers. When we meet those we know, we smile behind our masks, project our spirits, our public sense of ourselves, our belief that all is as well, as well as might be expected, still at a distance. But back home, after we remove our masks, a reserve returns, questions we cannot answer.
I have kept busy and done well enough, I suppose, but when idle, often, I see no point in anything. I avoid looking in a mirror.
The heat outside was invisible and still, yet palpable, oppressive, like a mass that would absorb you if you stepped in. Indoors, the cooler air was outlined with the edges of its presence. For days the heat blocked all thoughts other than the one that it is hot. When the heat passed, fatigue set in, an emptiness that took me with it.
The virus is invisible, passed on in mists of breath and germs, even from those who have no symptoms. It manifests itself in incessant, dry coughs and shades of orange on a map, pale to violent. While the odds of serious effect are not great, we live with the suspicion, submerged, kept at bay, that all humanity is diseased. We exaggerate small things—a sniffle, a dryness of the throat—and numbly accept large numbers, 600 thousand dead here and counting, in the world, millions.
Like a mutation, the variation of the movement that centers itself on the man whose guiding mantras were hate the bitch, drain the swamp, build the wall. Like the new virus strain, this one appears more malicious, more easily spread. Restricting voting rights, freeing guns, fighting masks and vaccines—all in the name of invisible freedom.
There are other voices, but it is not certain they are heard, that they can listen, that they can speak as one.
The six persimmons do not sink, do not float in emptiness. They just are there. But as I keep staring at them and try to concentrate, they separate and scatter, vision breaks apart. When I back away, clear my mind, return, they reappear.
Likely I saw them decades ago in a popular book about Zen—I had passing interest—but I can’t find it. Modern interpreters took the painting as an apt expression of Zen thought, Zen belief, Zen practice, and the persimmons have since been cast widely in that light. The general idea of Zen is that we learn to see behind illusions, past pain, through doubts, to deny the self to find our inner self, to look out into to the essential nature that is everything and nothing, breaking the split, removing the barrier that separates us from the world. This way we find balance, true perception, enlightenment that transforms us, which can be perceived in anything, in everything, in ordinary things such as six persimmons that Muqi depicts suspended in an open field.
I/not I, not this/not that, everything/nothing—the words are attractive, suspect, possibly, likely meaningless, meaningless at least to me. They are just words without reference, that deny reference. As for the six persimmons, they do not, cannot speak for themselves.
Words—I stare at mine and see nothing in them, in the empty space in which they appear. As I write, every sentence feels like my last. Revising, I want to remove them all.
Words—the Chan monks maneuvered words into perplexing sentences to guide disciples, public statements, koans in Japanese. The sound of one hand clapping, our face before we were born—their purpose is to spring traps and break down the barriers of the intellect to free the mind to enlightenment, awakening, satori.
Words—Trump made public statements in his tweets, thousands and thousands, quick, direct incantations, a handful of simple words juggled, recombined, repeated, repeated, repeated incessantly, a daily onslaught of denial, ridicule, debasement, accusation, falsity, unreality, of attacks on individuals, any who set themselves apart, on whole parts of the US, whole groups, whole nations, statements whose most common term of affirmation was his simple name, a term that had no reference beyond itself, himself, whose gathering mass wore us down to moral stupor.
Or freed us to belief.
Malignant narcissist—Erich Fromm introduced the term to analyze totalitarian personalities of his time. Self-love becomes destructive when it loses its center, tears down borders and replaces them with its own. When malignant narcissists feel threatened, and they will always feel threatened, fear turns to rage. Their only recourse is to expand their borders, deny, destroy anyone, anything that is not I, enlarging the self, widening the range of projected opposition, increasing the fear, the rage, the destruction in widening spiral as long as they, the world exist, turning everything into nothing.
But how bold, how confident they appear in public, the malignant narcissists, how much they displace our insecurities, our hardships, our doubts, how much they feed our base suspicions, such a simple, direct message they give us, easily recognized, easily absorbed, reducing our confusion to a single word, channeling our emotions, offering a simple, direct course of action. We believe, we act, we destroy. We get caught up in the cycle, we feed it.
The virus is indifferent to the self, or rather promotes itself through us at our expense, with this difference: it doesn’t matter to it what we believe. We are everything to the virus, we are nothing.
The heat was supremely distant to all life, bringing with it a hint of annihilation. It was caused by a heat dome, an interchange of a high pressure system with the dry, warming ground, a rare event, exacerbated by global warming. We had a hand in this.
As for myself, in my worst moments, I am timid, anxious, afraid or irritable, indignant. What I once thought was solid now appears ephemeral. What I once believed I now doubt as little seems to support it. I do not know what to think, but I find myself hating half the country.
I know better.
There is more I have not tapped, more from the past that has been buried and will resurrect, more to come beyond vision. Still, life could be worse, as we have seen past centuries. But plagues passed, madness came to some kind of order.
I keep up with the news, watching fresh news cover old, washing it into oblivion. Persisting only this, our desire to believe we are OK people and all is OK.
I have no confidence we are prepared to meet the challenges of whatever happens next.
I myself am ill equipped.
Muqi must have spent a lifetime with his beliefs, with his art, with the life around him: looking, observing, sensing; meditating, forgoing, letting go; putting brush to paper, feeling the oblong shape of its handle, its hardness in his hand, the flexing and gliding of its bristles against, across paper, watching the strokes move with his brush, with his hand, seeing the image emerge, the screen fill. Each, his beliefs, his art, his perception of the world, must have influenced the other two, all he did in his life. All three must have taken years of practice, of discipline. What amazes me is how fresh, how spontaneous, how sure his work still appears after all the centuries, through the aging, darkening paper, beyond the incidental marks and wear over time.
Discipline, practice, and, most of all, the experience are what define Zen, I am told. Perhaps if I meditated long hours, days, years, I would think differently, see clearly, be different, become someone else, become myself. But it is hard for me to sit still, and even if I did put the time in I am skeptical I would accomplish anything beyond moving myself into a wordless state.
But we think when we give something a name we have somehow captured, explained it. We do not have words to identify what most matters in life.
So I keep looking at a painting of six persimmons.
They have different sizes, one small, the others larger, not the same but close to each other, and different degrees of roundness, none wholly round, each varying in irregular curve. And they have different stances, leaning at varying degrees, not leaning, swelling against, relaxing within their edges, the edges in places indistinct, and different composures, from squat to upright. All are rendered on a monotone scale, tones black to not quite white. We do not see the bright orange colors of persimmons or sense their tart, sweet taste. Then again, this absence makes us all the more aware of how much they are not there, the taste, the color. Nothing is denied.
The six do not sit on a table with an edge, a plane receding into depths. No focal point defines them or diminishes them into projected space. There is no horizon, a line marking the distance from here to there. Five do almost align themselves on a straight line but sit slightly off, calling into doubt where that line might be. They are not quite centered, left and right, but are framed within borders. Two pairs touch, or come close to touching. One is overlapped, one overlaps, one stands forward, or below, suggesting space, though depth is questioned by the frontal character of each.
Above, below, everywhere, an open field, not the sky, not a wall, but another presence, substantial, not substantial, like a cloud, like a mist. This field is not empty but textured with quiet variations that do not repeat themselves in patterns, asserting itself but not commanding, resting back but not receding. Again, the persimmons do not float, do not sink within, inside, before the field. They have weight and mass, or something mass-like, once more in varying degrees, degrees not related to their size, but the force involved is not gravity keeping them in check, pulling them down, but their variously weighted presence. They are there, in the field. That is the focus.
The temptation is to say their different shadings present different degrees of ripeness, but the contrasts among them are too great for natural gradation. Spherical depth by shading is only lightly suggested in three. Whether the flanking persimmons, both having thick but faint outlines without shading within, reflect light or contain the field are questions that cannot be answered, or if answered may not have a point. There are other temptations that likely would have the same result. What they do is contain the group and establish the group’s relationship with the field, while at the same time opening out to it. That all are positioned towards the bottom calls attention to the large field, while their darker tones and solid shapes offset that field, its largeness, resulting in a measure of counterpoise, a kind of communication.
Opened up, freely, loosely expressed but not dismissed, the sense that they are a group together, a group of persimmons.
The small persimmon turns from the two on the left and looks to the largest, the black, and to the faint one on the right, overlapped, which has a similar rightward, upward bulge. But it also has a tone close to that of the second, bringing back the left two. And it rests beneath the open space between the other five, making us aware of the field, existing in a different relationship to it, qualifying our sense of the field.
The black persimmon, scarcely shaded, stands upright and provides the greatest contrast among the six, is the most insistent. Its blackness anchors the group and counters the lightness, the openness all around. It is not a culmination of some sort, however, but a pause that provides release back into the field.
The other three fall off in shading and degree of light, of darkness, leading in tone to the open two, a quick progression that keeps them all together.
The stems and sprays of leaves on each are black, too, the stems mostly upright, their tops together archly pointing right and up, towards the open field above, and left and down. Each stem and spray is different, abrupt and precise in its expression, in fact together the stems and sprays suggest some kind of expression. Just as much they are individual, idiosyncratic, separately, collectively in their arrangement, statements made apart from characters, expression. Together they charge the field.
The brush strokes throughout, from their soft suggestion, their modest blush, their curving grace, their emphatic strikes, look quick, effortless, certain, at complete ease.
There is more to see, more to say, more, different ways to say what I have said, more relationships to establish and question. Doing so would reinforce the sureness, the ambiguity of the composition. Yet however sure this composition, you realize the six persimmons could have been arranged in other ways, perhaps countless, no less ambiguous, no less sure.
Close your eyes, abstract the composition, imagine the varying axes of the persimmons, of the stems. Draw diagonals from the corners of the frame intersecting on the black persimmon, below, off-center, away from stasis, and project the other lines within, and watch them engage, move from engagement. Let the lines go and engage the field, its openness, its textures. Stay there as long as you can.
Open your eyes, and you see what you expect to see, six persimmons, and what you might have missed, the picture’s quiet energy, its composure, the shimmering tonal contrasts.
I’m getting on in years, and what I most have come to realize is how much I don’t understand, how much I’ll never understand. It is liberating.
Everything is what it appears to be, if we let it to appear to be what it is.
Vigilance, always vigilance, quick, light, unassuming.
We are alone, separately, collectively, together.
There are always options.
I am alive in the world, and the world has life.
An essay with marginal connection to architecture. I make this case, however, that architecture, like all cultural efforts, should depend upon close inspection of the world and some base of reflection—and realize it doesn’t have all the answers.
James Cahill, Berkeley, his given a lecture on Six Persimmons, which can be found here.