The story of existence is a self-portrait, and it begins with a little-known Chinese landscape painting by Shih-t’ao.
This is the story of existence, and it begins with a painting. Like countless other paintings in the Chinese tradition, this painting by Shih-t’ao (1642-1707 C.E.) appears at first glance to show someone gazing into a landscape, an artist-intellectual accompanied by his attendant. But mysterious dimensions quickly reveal themselves, suggesting there is much more here than meets the eye. The poem inscribed on the painting describes a landscape that includes ruins of city walls and houses, abandoned orchards and gardens, but there is no sign of such things in the painting. The painting’s visible landscape isn’t realistic at all. It feels infused with mystery: depths of pale ink wash; black lines blurred, smeared, bleeding; mountains dissolving into faint blue haze. And there’s so much empty space in the composition, so much mist and sky. This sense of empty space is enlarged dramatically by the soaring perspective: the mountain ranges appearing one beyond another suggest the gazer is standing on a mountaintop of impossible heights. And he seems a part of that emptiness, his body the same texture and color as the haze suffusing mountain valleys. Finally, there is the suggestion that the image is somehow a rendering of the gazer’s mind, an interior landscape we may possibly share when looking attentively at the painting. Or perhaps that the gazer has returned to some kind of originary place where mountains are welling up into existence for the first time, alive and writhing with primeval energy? Perhaps both at the same time: an originary place indistinguishable from the gazer’s mind, and even indistinguishable from our minds?
There’s mystery everywhere in this painting because it isn’t a painting about someone gazing into a beautiful landscape, as it might appear. It is, instead, a painting about existence, about the open and immediate experience of existence itself. All of Chinese spirituality and art is grounded in this experience. Taoist philosophy and Ch’an (Zen) Buddhist practice, poetry, calligraphy, painting: as we will see, they tell the story of existence, and at the same time, they are spiritual practices that return us to this immediate experience of existence as a cosmological tissue. Mountain landscape itself offered another form of spiritual practice, a practice that incorporates all the others and is the deep philosophical subject of Shih-t’ao’s painting.
In Existence: A Story, David Hinton stands before a single Chinese landscape painting—discovering there the wondrous story of existence, and as part of that story, the magical nature of consciousness. Our premier modern translator of the Chinese classics, Hinton regards the painting, pondering its elusive message through his extensive knowledge of Chinese wisdom traditions: Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism, Taoism, painting, calligraphy, poetry. What he coaxes from the painting is nothing less than a revelation: the dynamic interweaving of mind and Cosmos, and the glorious dance of Absence and Presence that is the secret of that Cosmos.
Artist-intellectuals found their spiritual home in mountains, thought of mountains as their teachers, and so mountain landscape was the most natural site for the spiritual practices of artist-intellectuals. They lived in cultivated reclusion among mountains as much as possible, where they also built monasteries. And so, they practiced meditation among mountains, either alone at home or with companions in monasteries. They wandered mountains, often lingering on summits as in the painting. They dreamed mountains, and built their creative lives around them. Indeed, rather than an expanse of physical terrain, they saw in the wild forms of mountain landscape the very workings of the Cosmos.
Millennia of Chinese culture’s spiritual and artistic insight, Shih-t’ao’s lifetime of landscape practice: if we could distill all of that into the moment portrayed in this painting—a moment we are invited to share, for we are meant to identify with the gazer, aren’t we?—it would look something like this: We walk to a mountaintop, face out across ridgeline beyond ridgeline, then close our eyes. We forget everything we know, all of the ideas and knowledge and assumptions about ourselves and the nature of things, all of the thoughts and memories defining us each as a center of identity. We turn to the empty darkness that is our own awareness, which is all that remains after this practice of forgetfulness, and we inhabit the expansive space of that darkness.
Since its origins in the ancient Greek and Judeo-Christian traditions, mainstream Western philosophy has generally taken as its starting point the center of memory and speculative thought, that center of identity that we have just emptied away. Descartes’ radical skepticism, for instance, by which he stripped away everything that could be doubted until he found a beginning place: that which is incontrovertibly true. And what he found was thought and self-identity: “I think, therefore I am.” This kind of approach invested Western philosophy from the beginning with an assumption that consciousness is fundamentally different from the empirical realm of existence, an assumption that shaped every level of experience, as we will see; and that assumption led to a preoccupation with otherworldly metaphysics and the seemingly timeless verities of abstract ideas.
But China’s ancient sages assumed that this immediate experience of existence itself was the beginning place, that dwelling here in the beginning, free of thought and identity, is where we are most fundamentally ourselves, and also where deep insight into the nature of consciousness and reality logically begins. The painting’s poem establishes this perspective outside of the normal human framework in an extreme and literal sense: it describes a person isolated and far from home and civilization, standing near the ruins of an ancient city with its abandoned houses and gardens. But you can begin at the beginning anytime, anywhere. A simple room, for instance, morning sunlight through windows lighting the floor; a sidewalk cafe, empty wine glass on the table, trees rustling in a slight breeze, sunlit passersby; a routine walk through a park, late-autumn trees bare, rain clattering in fallen leaves. Mountain landscape was the usual choice for ancient China’s artist-intellectuals, because that is where existence itself is most dramatically present as a cosmology of elemental forces.
There are in ancient China many conceptual schemes used to approach the deep nature of existence. One of the most fundamental of these schemes is the distinction between heaven and earth. Heaven and earth are the embodiment of yang (male) and yin (female) on a cosmic scale, and their interaction generates the perpetual transformation that is the life of the Cosmos. This Cosmos is the Cosmos of our immediate experience, and if we don’t think of heaven and earth as mere abstractions, we can see that heaven and earth are indeed an accurate description of the physical reality in which we live. The generative life-supporting reality of earth requires the infusion of energies from heaven, energies that evolve through annual patterns creating the seasons: sunlight, rain, snow, air. Indeed, as we now know, earth is made of heaven’s scattering of stardust, and will again become heaven when our sun explodes into a nebula that engulfs earth, turning it again into stardust. We dwell in our everyday lives at the origin place where this vital intermingling of heaven and earth takes place, at the center of a dynamic cocoon of cosmic energy, an all-encompassing generative present, but we are rarely aware of this wondrous fact.
Reinvigorating our awareness of that wonder is one purpose of Chinese landscape painting as a spiritual practice, which explains the primacy of mountain landscape in the tradition: that intermingling of heaven and earth is most immediately visible in mountain landscape. There, one can see earth rising up into heaven, and heaven seething down into earth in the form of dramatic sunlight and mist and stormy sky. And so, ancient artist-intellectuals saw in the wild forms of mountain landscape the workings of the Cosmos not as abstraction, but at the intimate level of immediate experience. As it is where existence reveals its most dramatically cosmological dimensions, mountain landscape opens consciousness most fully to the depths of those dimensions. There are, therefore, countless Chinese paintings of mountain landscape, and very often they include figures gazing out at lakes, cliffs, blossoms, moons, empty skies, rivers. Or most likely, as in the Shih-t’ao painting: gazing out at mountains.
Shih-t’ao was himself a restless wanderer and climber of mountains. He lived in the aftermath of the “barbarian” takeover that brought vast destruction and an end to the Ming Dynasty, and his paintings were often autobiographical. So we might assume that this painting, with its mountains and ruined city, is of Shih-t’ao himself. And in the deepest artistic sense it is. But more literally, it is a painting of Shih-t’ao’s friend Huang Yan-lü. A poet completely forgotten except for his association with Shih-t’ao, Huang Yan-lü adopted the personal name Yan-lü, meaning Inkstone-Wander, because of his devotion to travel and writing (inkstones were used to grind ink for writing with a brush). After the fall of the Ming, many artist-intellectuals remained loyal to the Ming and the lost ideal of native Chinese rule. Inkstone-Wander and Shih-t’ao were among them. As an act of resistance, Inkstone-Wander took a long journey visiting many sites famous in the struggles against foreign invaders that conquered the Ming Dynasty and half a millennia earlier, the Sung Dynasty. Inkstone-Wander commissioned Shih-t’ao to paint those sites, and to inscribe on each painting the poem Inkstone-Wander wrote at that site. For Shih-t’ao, for it was an opportunity to express his own disdain for the foreign usurpers and sorrow at the lost Ming Dynasty.
But it was even more a chance to deepen his art as spiritual practice a little more, for underlying this painting’s political dimension is its more fundamental spiritual dimension: a figure gazing out at mountains, taking in their teachings. In painting Inkstone-Wander, Shih-t’ao was painting his own political sentiments; but even more, he was painting the wisdom that has come from a lifetime of landscape practice. So at this spiritual level, the figure is more Shih-t’ao than Inkstone-Wander. And we too are clearly meant to identify with the figure, to gaze into landscape with the clarity he seems to have, a clarity that has come from Shih-t’ao’s lifetime of landscape practice.
Distilling that practice further, eyes closed, forgetting and forgetting, emptying our minds completely, we turn to the empty darkness that is our own awareness in and of itself. We inhabit the expansive space of that darkness for a time, then open our eyes. We gaze out as if it were sight seeing for the first time, gaze with no expectations at all about the nature of consciousness and reality, wanting to see them as they are in and of themselves, free of all our tenuous human stories about them, our ideas and beliefs. This is, in a sense, the moment portrayed in the painting, and in it we encounter a revelation altogether unexpected and unimaginable: existence! Existence miraculously and inexplicably here when there might just as well be nothing! The sheer presence of materiality—vast and deep, everything and everywhere!
It’s a beginning place, and almost as soon as this empty gaze into the nature of things reveals existence vast and deep, it reveals something else no less wondrous and unimaginable: there is no distinction between empty awareness and the expansive presence of existence. They are whole, a single existential tissue, which is to say that existence-tissue is our most fundamental self. Mountain ridgelines, mist, winter-charred trees: it’s magic, isn’t it, the way existence opens through eyes into awareness, filling us with its form and space? Magic the way there is no distinction between inside and outside, no I separate from everything else (though in describing it, our language insists on that separation)? Here in the beginning, there is this existence-tissue open to itself, miraculously and inexplicably aware of itself, when there might just as well be nothing but opaque existence, existence blind to itself! Vast and deep, everything and everywhere—the sheer presence of materiality is open to itself through our eyes, aware of itself here in the beginning. The story of existence is a self-portrait. And here for Inkstone-Wander, for Shih-t’ao and for us, the self-portrait looks like this: ridgeline layered beyond ridgeline, paper-pale sky, bare winter-charred branch-tangles, sky-infused sea-mist, mist hiding broken city walls, abandoned houses and orchards and gardens.
 For detailed information about this little-known painting, grateful acknowledgement is made to Jonathan Hay and his Shitao: Painting and Modernity in Early Qing China.
Header photo of mountains in the mist courtesy Pixabay. Painting by Shih-t’ao courtesy David Hinton.