On Art as a Reminder
It’s one of the nicest aspects of Zen Buddhist art that, for hundreds of years, its most distinguished artists spent their time writing things down. They didn’t paint or draw, they just inscribed some very important things on outsize scrolls with exceptional artistry and beauty, so that these words might be hung on the wall and catch our eye at key moments in domestic and business life. The artists expressed things they felt we should all remember but that we too often forget, simple exhortations like: ‘Forgive those who insult you – for they are hurt rather than bad,’ ‘Before blaming, ask if they have eaten and slept well,’ ‘You are not as unusual, or as shameful, as you think.’
It’s a fascinating and neglected idea: making bits of philosophical wisdom into works of art in themselves. But this way of presenting words is sympathetic to a very basic human frailty. We forget key things. At the humblest level, the shopping list had to be invented because we have a tendency to overlook half the requirements of the larder when at the store. We likewise forget a great many pieces of emotional wisdom that are in our minds in theory, but that we overlook in practice. The wise, consoling, encouraging, or cautionary words are simply not there when we need them.
By making words physically beautiful – through the elegance of the script and the soothing texture and proportions of the paper – a Zen scroll becomes a piece of decoration that helps wisdom become a part of us.
The world isn’t short of wisdom: it’s short of inventive techniques for making the wisdom we do have more prominent, and more readily available to us at moments of crisis.