Existence: A Story

 

 

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This is the story of existence, and it begins with a painting. Like countless other paintings in the Chinese tradition, this painting by Shih-t’ao (1642-1707 C.E.) appears at first glance to show someone gazing into a landscape, an artist-intellectual accompanied by his attendant. But mysterious dimensions quickly reveal themselves, suggesting there is much more here than meets the eye. The poem inscribed on the painting describes a landscape that includes ruins of city walls and houses, abandoned orchards and gardens, but there is no sign of such things in the painting. The painting’s visible landscape isn’t realistic at all. It feels infused with mystery: depths of pale ink wash; black lines blurred, smeared, bleeding; mountains dissolving into faint blue haze. And there’s so much empty space in the composition, so much mist and sky. This sense of empty space is enlarged dramatically by the soaring perspective: the mountain ranges appearing one beyond another suggest the gazer is standing on a mountaintop of impossible heights. And he seems a part of that emptiness, his body the same texture and color as the haze suffusing mountain valleys. Finally, there is the suggestion that the image is somehow a rendering of the gazer’s mind, an interior landscape we may possibly share when looking attentively at the painting. Or perhaps that the gazer has returned to some kind of originary place where mountains are welling up into existence for the first time, alive and writhing with primeval energy? Perhaps both at the same time: an originary place indistinguishable from the gazer’s mind, and even indistinguishable from our minds?

    There’s mystery everywhere in this painting because it isn’t a painting about someone gazing into a beautiful landscape, as it might appear. It is, instead, a painting about existence, about the open and immediate experience of existence itself. All of Chinese spirituality and art is grounded in this experience. Taoist philosophy and Ch’an (Zen) Buddhist practice, poetry, calligraphy, painting: as we will see, they tell the story of existence, and at the same time, they are spiritual practices that return us to this immediate experience of existence as a cosmological tissue. Mountain landscape itself offered another form of spiritual practice, a practice that incorporates all the others and is the deep philosophical subject of Shih-t’ao’s painting.