Japanese Zen Buddhism and the Impossible Painting, Yukio Lippit 2017

While I realize that some of my reading choices may seem esoteric or even bizarre, this book may push that thought even further.  Why would I read a book about an obscure 15th C. Japanese painting that hangs in a Buddhist monastery in Kyoto and is unknown to all but the most diligent scholars of Japanese art?  The short explanation is that Susan and I traveled to Japan 9 years ago and in preparation, she audited a course in Japanese architecture at Harvard.  It was a graduate seminar where she was welcomed and respected by the professor, Yukio Lippit, the author of this book so I bought the book for her as a present and it’s been sitting around the Vermont house since.  Why not read it now?  Lippit was asked by the Getty Research Institute to give this lecture about the painting ‘The Gourd and the Catfish’ painted by the Zen monk Josetsu in 1413, a work that has been referred to as the ‘impossible painting’.  Impossible because Zen’s core value is emptiness and how can a painting depict emptiness?  Also impossible because there is no way that the peasant with the gourd can ever catch a catfish, so the painting is a zen koan, “expressing the elaboration of a doctrinal principle couched as an artful quandry.”  The lecture given at the Getty Center in 2014 is actually fascinating and reminded me of how scholars can spend their lives trying to understand and explain the most recondite and seemingly trivial matters and by doing so, can expand and enrich our appreciation of the broader world.  Not for everyone but a jewel for fans of Josetsu, Lippit, and Zen.

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