Zen & the Arts - Field Notes

There is a traditional Chan practice of meditating in the presence of a painting. The insight was that a single dragon was keeping company with itself. The physical act of painting, the painting itself – living its own inanimate life free of the painter – and the one encountering the painting, were all seen as manifestations of the same shape-shifter. With this framing, a great, deep painting would be capable of catalyzing this recognition in the one who gazed upon it. I can imagine word spreading about the potency of a particular painting, reports that spending time with it could be delightful and disturbing, like spending time with a profound teacher of the Way.

The photographs of James Snarski – Cap’n Jimmy to his friends – often give a loving view of a bird’s life entwined with other lives. Sometimes when I look at his photographs I can feel the dragon stir, rising in response to a call that is still clear, no matter that I’m looking at a copy of a copy on my laptop screen. In one photograph it’s the texture of wet feathers on the neck and upper breast of a Great Blue Heron, wings and long neck fully extended. The variegation of blue and white feathers covering the heron’s neck are the shape of flames. My eyes stroked that neck again and again, just to feel its lovely touch.

Another time the Captain caught a moment of a golden fish just caught by a Great Blue. The bird stands in profile, its neck a supple S, the long beak sharp as an awl. The egret’s great eye gazes out from the photograph, right at me. The fish, arched in midwriggle, golden scales bright in the sun, is looking directly, and unmistakably, at me. To describe the caught fish as wide-eyed is like saying the ocean is large. This fish eye, this dragon eye, swallows the world. The first time the photograph of the bird and fish looked directly at me I was a bit stunned. Perhaps I felt a very gentle version of what the fish was experiencing at the moment caught and stilled in the photograph. As I gazed, the hidden eye of the photographer emerged. I suddenly saw, at that moment of fish capture, Cap’n Jimmy’s eye, as wide with life as the fish’s. He too was being caught by some great bird.

As the old Chinese practitioners may have done, I spread word among a few friends of my uncanny feeling when looking at this photograph of a moment. A moment that seemed to continue being. When I told one friend that I thought Jim’s eye was widest of all, he said, “Oh? What about you, hmmm…?” With those words my world tilted slightly. With those words the blue heron and golden fish began speaking to me. They spoke from the same place as my friend when he inquired into my condition.  The golden-eyed fish said, “This time I’m the fish, he’s the heron, and you are the person watching. Next time you be the fish, and I’ll be the heron, and he’ll be person watching. And the next time… .”

Thanks Jim, it’s a fine thing to see the beauty and be seen through by the beauty. Please keep sending me those invitations.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.