Zen & the Arts - Field Notes

Koan: Two Monks Roll Up the Blinds

The monks gathered in the hall to hear the great Fayan of Qingliang give a talk before the midday meal. He pointed to the bamboo blinds, and two students went and rolled them up in the same way. Fayan said, “One gains, one loses.”

“Two Monks” – Allison Atwill, Acrylic on birch panel with gold leaf, 30″ x 40″ (2014)

Ten years ago, koans began to form themselves into images inside me. From this time forward all of my paintings have been the lived visual record of my encounter with a koan, each piece an impression left after its passing, like a print in the earth beside a spring.

I didn’t know what I was doing or from which direction the next painting might come, feeling my way in the dark. Images and their arrangements began to emerge, and I came to trust and rely upon the conduit opened by the koan.

Each koan found me in a different way, but when it did, was immediately recognized as the next one to be painted. As soon as the koan announced itself, images, fields of color, fields of feeling—even the size and medium—coalesced around it. Anything I saw, heard, felt, imagined, dreamed or remembered might be the beginning; my life became the source. In this way, the pieces made themselves through and with me. This is the story of one piece.

On a bright, frigid, fall day two years ago, restless and somewhat irritable on the Friday after Thanksgiving, my daughter Isabel and I visited the Yale Art Gallery. Wandering into the Renaissance collection, I turned a corner and a painting arrested and concentrated my attention the way a magnifying glass gathers sunlight. The piece is oddly shaped, tall and slender, on rough wood. Two large figures occupy the central space, floating above birds, flowers, and several small robed figures in gold and white, playing trumpets and violins. My heart and chest enlarged, moving involuntarily toward it, my skin merged with the blue of their robes.

I didn’t follow the story of the imagery, but the deep ultramarine blue of the robes, and the shape of a gilded arch above them, transfixed me. I didn’t want to lose these items. It was this particular blue, this certain curve of arch that I needed. At that time, I was still working on my current koan painting, and I only create one at a time, but this blue and these arches were, undeniably, the opening elements of the next piece.

The only paper I could find was the museum entrance ticket, and in tiny careful script I wrote Giovanni del Biondo. The piece is “Christ and the Virgin Enthroned with Allegories of the Old and New Testament.”

The announcement of my next koan piece in this way was surprising, even alarming. With previous paintings the koan always arrived first, then the images, dreams, hues, and currents of feeling formed around it.

While I was completing the unfinished koan painting, the lapis blue and the lancet arch lived and moved in the dark recesses, waiting. I was content not to know the koan yet. I found myself on occasional evenings past midnight researching the history and particulars of lapis lazuli, grinding the brilliant blue stone to a fine powder in my mind, mixing it with linseed oil and fragrant pine resin to make my own paint, a beautiful hue and saturation of blue. I looked into lancet arches and found myself drawing them on torn scraps of paper, which I saved.

A month or so later, on an afternoon of golden, winter light, I was running fast downhill in the San Ysidro Canyon near my home. A canopy of coast live oak shaded the steep, twisting, rocky trail. The sound of the creek on my right, my breath, and the rhythm of my boots merged, the chaparral was a blur of motion. The trail required my complete attention, and, not thinking anything, I fell into an animal, fluid openness.

Just then, someone shouted into my mind, “Two monks roll up the blinds!”

“No!” I yelled to the oaks, “I hate that koan!”

I told no one, didn’t say the koan out loud, or look it up in any of the koan collections. I avoided anything likely to solidify, or encourage the koan. Perhaps this was some sort of mistake, a letter sent to the wrong address. If I simply placed it back in the mailbox with “Return to sender” scrawled across it, the postal deliverer would take it back.
All the while—through the bargaining and maneuvering—I suspected that this was the koan, and that there was no escape. Two monks had captured me. By the time it erupted into my awareness I’d already let the images—lapis blue and lancet arch—inside the fortress. If this painting had taken the usual path in which the koan arrived first and then images aggregated around it—I would have rejected it.

Through the following year, I lived with and worked on the painting. The koan steadied me, turning me toward, and into, the world of “one gains, one loses.” Fayan’s Two Monks live on my staircase now. Their faces change in the light throughout the day and when I pass them I feel a great affection for the koan, and everyone who has ever gained and lost.

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