Oyster Boy Review 20  
  Summer 2012
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Beyond Expression

Two Approaches to Zen Arts

Josh Hockensmith

  The Zen Art Book: The Art of Enlightenment.
Stephen Addiss, John Daido Loori.
Shambhala Publications, 2009.
103 pages, $21.95 (paperback).
ISBN: 159030747X

  Cuckoo's Blood: Versions of Zen Masters.
Stephen Berg.
Copper Canyon Press, 2008.
114 pages, $16 (paperback).
ISBN: 155659268X

Is there another religion that's as closely associated with its aesthetics as Zen is? The word alone evokes black-and-white brushwork and terse expressions of beginner's-mind wisdom. Not bad as far as pop culture stereotypes go, but it's an incomplete image. These two books together help to give a fuller understanding of Zen through its arts.

The Zen Art Book addresses why it's appropriate for Zen to be identified so closely with its art: Zen art is a form of Zen practice. Co-authors Stephen Addiss and John Daido Loori explain that Zen artworks aren't produced by professional artists to illustrate theological points or events. Instead, they are produced by practitioners themselves to embody their individual, momentary understanding of the dharma. Addiss emphasizes how distinct this is from Western ideas of religious art: "imagine if Pope Julius II, instead of asking Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling, had painted it himself" (11). *

The book presents thirty-eight notable works of Zen art and calligraphy. Each spread features one work on the right page, reproduced beautifully against a black background. On the facing page are an "Art commentary" by Addiss and a "Zen commentary" by Daido Loori. Addiss is a calligrapher and artist as well as an art historian, so his commentaries are rich with both contextual and technical observations. Daido Loori, who died shortly after this book was published, was the founder and abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery in New York. His commentaries concentrate on the spiritual communication of the works and their place in Zen practice. Both of them write with an easy erudition and contagious enthusiasm. Together they give uniquely well-rounded insight into each work.

Zen teaching emphasizes that understanding is beyond words, so Zen poetry is one of the discipline's many paradoxes. What can yet another book of translations of Zen poetry have to offer?

In Cuckoo's Blood: Versions of Zen Masters, Stephen Berg takes the path of interpretive translation. He created these "versions" after years of reading multiple translations of the works and then rewriting them. Instead of "accurate" translations, these read more like poems that the masters might have written if they lived today.

To compare Berg's work with that of other translators, let's look at Ikkyu. Ikkyu is known as an outrageous Zen iconoclast, but in translation he can come across as old-fashioned and quaint. In Berg's version he is a full-blooded human being. Where other translators talk about his "love play" and his lover's "dark place," Berg's Ikkyu confesses that he has "nothing but fucking on my mind" and speaks of his lover's "sweet wet pussy hair." The former may be fine literal translations of Ikkyu's 15th-century Japanese, but give me the latter for a more visceral understanding of his words.

To be fair to both Ikkyu and Berg, it's not all sex and juices:

once I was never here nothing nature never knew me
this Ikkyu corpse rotting like a plum


clouds up there swirling fleeing gray blue white
it's amazing they can't read a single word

Ikkyu is one of sixteen poets represented. Berg's versions are remarkable in the range of characters he creates or channels. When some poets translate loosely, the poems sound unmistakably like their own work. Charles Simic comes to mind (in a positive way). Berg's versions, though, show a great flexibility that serves these varied characters well.

I do have some minor reservations. First, including Basho, Buson, and Issa in a book subtitled "Versions of Zen Masters" is incorrect. Nearly every collection of "Zen" poetry in English includes the three great haiku masters, but Basho was the only one to undertake formal Zen training. Issa was actually a devout Pure Land Buddhist. Lumping Issa and Buson with these major figures of Zen is misleading. Berg's versions of their haiku are wonderfully fresh, though, so rather than wishing he had excluded the poets, I'm simply noting a common misconception.

My second reservation arises when Berg takes other liberties with the work. For example, in the case of the haiku poets he presents long sequences of haiku gathered together under a single new title, as if they were one long poem. It's a unique approach, and one way to present a variety of each poet's work so that haiku from the span of his career can resonate with each other. The reader should be aware of what Berg has done by presenting them in this way, though.

Those are semantic and minor reservations in the face of a bold achievement. Berg brings these poems to life in a new way that makes my objections melt away like so many words.

* In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I was a student of Stephen Addiss in the 1990s and have collaborated with him on multiple projects since then.

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