Hanga Treasure Chest: Print #18

A couple of years ago, in my 5th Surimono Album, I included a Totoya Hokkei print depicting one of the characters from the famous Chinese tale known in Japan as Suikoden. As there are 108 main characters in the panoramic story, it obviously provides a fertile field for artists to plow, and has indeed been the inspiration for any number of illustrated versions.

The image you see here is used in the introduction to a set of illustrations of the Suikoden produced by Katsushika Hokusai. It is a reference to a set of ten 'ox-herding' images which originated in ancient China and which are generally used as an allegorical illustration of stages in man's quest for enlightenment.

The boy playing flute while riding the ox homewards is the sixth in the set. I myself have never had any concern about my level of 'enlightenment', but as I read about this set of illustrations, felt that if I had to consider which of the ten stages I would like to be in, it would be this sixth one!

I suppose this is an extreme simplification of a process which some people contemplate for almost their entire lives, but I see the earlier stages as being a struggle to 'find one's self', and the later stages as an attempt to then 'forget one's self'.

But this particular stage seems to me to be a quite worthy goal in itself - to be completely comfortable and at ease with yourself, to be no longer concerned with 'winning' and 'losing', and to be able to let things take their course without hindrance.

I don't mean to imply that this describes my situation; and actually, now that I think about it more deeply, I think that I would rather stay just a little bit 'below' that state; there are quite a number of 'battles' remaining that I still wish to fight!

But doesn't it sound wonderful ...

     On the back of the ox you make your way slowly home,
        playing the flute in the red glow of sunset.
     Each measure is filled with inexpressible beauty;
        What need is there for words?  *

* (my adaptation of some ideas expressed in a 12th century poem on this topic)


Monday, October 3, 2005