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Leisure • Eastern Philosophy

Six Persimmons

Everything has become abundant, everything is in reach; we can have produce from the four corners. Fruit is flown in from anywhere — even persimmons, that taste rich and honey-like when ripe and have the texture of an apricot and a skin like an apple’s.

But the tragedy is also that we don’t notice anything much of what we have. Buddhism takes aim at our haste and our neglect. In failing to appreciate the things before us, we become far more avaricious and dissatisfied than we need to be. We dream of fame and elevated status. We call our circumstances narrow and uninspiring; in reality, we have omitted remotely to pay them justice. We seek a better world, without having taken stock of the one already to hand. If we were able to open our eyes, there would be so many universes for us to see right in front of us.

The Chinese Buddhist monk (one is never just an ‘artist’ in Buddhism) Muqi Fachang completed his rendition of six persimmons in the middle of the thirteenth century. Those with a sympathy for the lessons of his creed have been looking at them carefully ever since, especially after they reached Japan in 1606 and were given pride of place in a meditation hall in the Daitoku-ji temple in Kyoto.

Muqi Fachang, Six Persimmons, 13th Century

There is ostensibly nothing very special about the persimmons — and that is precisely the point. Those who are in a hurry, those who are unable in the end to notice and draw value from anything, will rush past these as they will so much else. Muqi is trying to slow down our impatient gaze. He deliberately empties the visual field and sets these modest works of nature in front of us for reflective contemplation, daring us to ignore them while also beseeching us — with all the resources of his art — not to. 

The painting’s guardians in Kyoto traditionally asked that we pause to look at the work for at least three minutes: that can feel like an awfully long time. But when we accept the challenge, after around the first thirty seconds, our breathing is likely to slow and we may start to see how much there is to appreciate. Each persimmon, though ‘the same’ from a distance, emerges as distinctive in size, shape and colour. What we might initially have thought of as identical declares itself as rife with difference. Each persimmon is — we can now see — as individual as a child is to its parent.

What Muqi asked us to do with pieces of fruit, we might carry out with the world more broadly: we might take a second and third look at loaves of bread, clouds, paving stones, the books on our shelves, blades of grass and — most importantly — one another. Once we have learnt to draw value from inexpensive things, we can never be poor — whatever our ostensible level of wealth — and we can never be bored, however quiet things might have become. The persimmons are with great humility doing momentous work for us: they are pointing us to a path of liberation.

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