Friday, 27 November 2009

Rivers and lakes

The famous "Hyônenzu" (Gourd and catfish, ink painting by Josetsu, probably dating from the early 15th century, detail shown above) is often descriped as one of the most enigmatic artworks of Japan.

I recently came across an article by the historian Higashijima Makoto which throws an interesting light on this painting. It discusses the idea of "rivers and lakes" (gôko or kôko) as an early form of public in Japan. Higahijima shows that the expression "rivers and lakes" was popular in the Meiji era when it was used much like we would use "public sphere" today. Thus participants in the movement for freedom and popular rights were called "wanderes of rivers and lakes", to publish something was called "asking the rivers and lakes", the expression "learned men of rivers and lakes" corresponded to a Lesepublikum, newspapers used "rivers and lakes" in their names etc.

The expression itself derives from Zen Buddhism and is closely linked to the idea of wandering about without fixed abode or home. In medieval Japan it was used for instance in the expression, "the scattered people of rivers and lakes" (gôko sanjin), which stood for people not bound by village society, travelling freely and transcending the community, and who were often despised by the people of the community. According to a 16th century Japanese-Portugese dictionary, "scattered people" was a derogatory term for people lacking a domicile, while "rives and lakes" itself stood for despised or humble people of no account. Travelling artists were part of this group. Needless to say, it also appears close to the group of Japanese outcasts ("hinin", or non-human, a term which in medieval times was used in a broad sense for all people who moved outside the life of the settled community, such as monks, beggars, artists, lepers etc).

Among medieval Zen monks, however, the wandering among "rivers and lakes" was not despised at all, but a wistfully glorified ideal. Thus we find the monk Gidô Shûshin (1325-1388) in his old age rejecting the prestigious office of head priest of Nanzenji with the following verse:
To an old man like me, a head priest is a fish in a small pond.
What bliss to be set free and depart for the rivers and lakes!
Here wandering among "rivers and lakes" obviously connotes freedom. The bliss of “rivers and lakes” also became a popular motif in Zen inspired painting. A famous example is Sesshû’s “Haboku sansui” (1495)

To Zen monks, Higashijima writes, landscapes like these "were an image of freedom, of a utopian world".

Another popular way of expressing this idea of freedom was by depicting a fisherman and a fish, and here we arrive at Josetsu’s "Hyounenzu", which is often interpreted as a picture of a man who tries to catch a fish in a gourd. In the light of Gidô's rejection of the shôgun's offer, Higashijima writes, the man is the shôgun and the fish is the Zen monk.

We can add, I think, that Nanzenji can be seen as the gourd. Gido rejected the offer in 1386, and earlier the same year Nanzenji had been elevated to top of the hierarchy of Rinzai Zen temples in Japan, in rank even exceeding the "five mountains", i.e. five main Rinzai Zen temples in Kyoto. This, I think, is an important part of the background to why Gidô describes it as a "small pond". Small ponds that appear big are in fact the best traps.

A friend who is teaching at a university in Sweden once told me about how anxious he felt everytime he left the department for a longer period of time, since power struggles were constantly going on and he never knew what the situation would be like when he returned. There are few things I dislike so much as power struggles. Struggles can be important, but not power struggles, struggles for power. I abhor them, not only for the pain they inflict, but also because of what they do with people who get caught up in them. Institutions have a way of imposing themselves on us as if they were the entire world, but in reality they are nothing but gourds or small ponds. Freedom is the big sea.


Higashijima, Makoto (2002) “Kô wa paburikku ka?” (Is ‘kô’ the ‘public’?), pp 37-48, in Sasaki, Takeshi & Kim, Tae-Chang (eds) Kôkyô tetsugaku, Vol. 3: Nihon ni okeru kô to shi, Tokyo: Tôkyô daigaku shuppankai (University of Tokyo Press).

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