A Zen Story on ‘looking’

The Disciple (Rakhi Varma, 2020)

There was, once upon an old, old time, a Zen Master who was both revered and feared throughout the land in Japan. It was said that if there was ever a master artist, it was he. Rumour had it that he could teach a stone to paint. At the same time, a talented young painter in a far away town heard these tales about the master. He was filled with the urge to become his apprentice. He had already built himself a small reputation and thought that the great master might impart to his art some final finesse, teach him some tricks, which would benefit him greatly. The idea grew on him. One day, having made up his mind, he set off to the remote mountain village where the master dwelt.

In due course, he found himself in the master’s presence. The master looked nothing like the flamboyant character of his stories. Just an ordinary looking fat old man he was. Anyhow, the young man conveyed to the master his wish to polish his already vast pool of skills under the great man’s guidance. The master, who usually chased such aspirants away, took one look at him and accepted him as his disciple. One doesn’t know what he saw.

When the student is ready, the master appears.
– Buddhist Proverb

“Go and paint me a sleeping sow,” ordered the master, starting off the class immediately. Delighted at such an easy assignment, the young painter set off promptly. Loitering in the quiet village, he came across some sows, female swine, sleeping in the mud. They suited his requirement perfectly and he settled himself down to paint. It was nothing. Before the day was out, he was done.

He walked back to the master’s hut on the hill, happy and whistling, eager to show off his work. “Master…”, he said and bent low, offering his painting to the wise man, waiting to hear special praise. The very next moment, he saw his painting being hurled right outside the window, down the steep, green curve of the hill. Aghast, he looked at his mentor. Too stricken to speak. The master repeated the order, “Paint me a sleeping sow.”

Bewildered, the man staggered out of the compound, satchel in hand. “Did I paint too many sows? Did the master just ask for one? Was it the angle, perhaps? Or, may be, the light? No answers came. But he was quite confident that he could do an infinitely better job, whatever may have been the fault. Off he went the next morning and soon found some sows sleeping by a pond. He painted again. On second thoughts, he painted two more. And a fourth one. All from different angles, different gradients of light and colour. Whatever he could think of as an improvement upon his previous attempt. It took him three days but he thought nothing of it. He was never one to shy away from hard work.

When the paintings were ready, he returned and offered them to the master. And waited. The master took a second each to look at all of them, and, without a word, threw them out of the window once again. The man rushed forward, horrified, as if to save them. Little bits of white twirling down to the endless bottom. “You have lost nothing. They are no use,” said the master in his serene voice. “Paint me a sleeping sow. Go.”

Day after day, he went and sat with sows. He looked and he looked, and he painted nothing but sleeping sows. He gave up food and drink. He forgot to bathe. He went mad. It went on for days. For months. Through rain and thunder. But, the master would throw his paintings, tear them up, crumple them. Not one painting met his expectations. And the young man’s confidence dropped to his bootlaces. He had nothing left but his battered self, as vulnerable as an open field.

We are all broken… that’s how the light gets in.”
– Ernst Hemingway

Sohbat (Rakhi Varma, 2020)

So came the glorious moment when he could not take it any more. Riddled with anxiety and frustration, he flew into the master’s room in the middle of the night and cried out: “What is wrong with my paintings? I have done all I can. Now, I need to know! Tell me, master!”

Ah…the necessary anger… The master smiled a smile of deep satisfaction. “At last you found it in you to ask the right question. What took you so long…?”  He asked, not for the answer, but for the impact. The painter frowned, taken aback. The master said, “I asked you to paint me a ‘sleeping’ sow. Not a ‘dead’ sow. The two are not the same. All your sows were great, but seemed dead.”

At that moment the young painter experienced satori.

“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”
Henry David Thoreau

You only see what you are. To see the other, a sleeping sow, a bird, a tree, a beloved, you have to become it. It needs emptying. When the young painter was emptied of his ego, he became a true artist.

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