Ox-Herding on Mt. Tremper

Zen Mountain Monastery Sumida River Rehearsals (Pt. 7)

 Contributed by Kevin Salfen, University of the Incarnate Word
Photographs by Kevin Salfen (except where noted)

Sunday, June 8, 2014
Every day I would walk along the wall of the meal hall at the Zen Mountain Monastery to look at—no, to study—the “ox-herding” series by Master Gyokusei Jikihara (1904-2005). These are the artists’ originals, a gift made to the monastery after he painted them there in IMG_5004the early 1980s. Although the idea of a series of “ox-herding” pictures and poems representing stages in the path to enlightenment is almost a thousand years old, the metaphor clearly continues to be potent. First developed by Sung dynasty monks, its more recent proponents include D. T. Suzuki and John Cage.

But again and again, before zazen and around mealtimes, I was drawn to Jikihara’s set with its creative and varied brushstrokes and washes. One long curving stroke delimits perfectly the underside of the ox, somehow suggesting motion, musculature, the sheer heft of the animal. Another delicate loop suggests the rope with which the young man is leading the ox, now so tame that slack is evident in the line. Then there’s the empty circle, made with one great curving stroke, at once the simplest and most virtuosic accomplishment. That disciplined, effortless stroke ties together the act of painting, the significance of the image and the stage of enlightenment, breaking down barriers between those modes in the way that the zen practitioner seeks to shatter the illusion of duality.

IMG_5020Walking along the wall, I would stop at different images for various reasons: sometimes to consider what a particular stroke must have required of Jikihara, sometimes to use the image as a tool to think about where I was personally or where the members of Theatre Nohgaku were in their “practice” of Sumida River. This is an oversimplification. I think the message of the pictures and poems is not that we should locate ourselves—“Today I found the ox’s hoof-prints”; “Yesterday I rode the ox while playing the flute.”—because we are in a process that is too complicated to fix in a single image. Stepping backward and forward, gaining and losing, deluding ourselves when we’re trying to be honest, gripped suddenly and forcefully by moments of absolute clarity. How many people have walked along that wall before zazen, Jikihara’s images silently asking: Where will you be in your practice tonight, and will you remember the path?

IMG_4995But what about TN’s performance of Sumida River on Sunday?

IMG_5026Well, I think we communicated. And I think the audience in the packed Sangha House wanted to hear us. There were tears where one would expect tears. There was sustained applause. And there were conversations, with residents and guests, now become friends. And it’s clear that some of these conversations will continue. But it’s not going to our heads. Next month Theatre Nohgaku will gather again, this time in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, for the twentieth anniversary of the Noh Training Project, and we will practice. We will keep practicing. Or, if you prefer, we will keep herding the ox, as they do on Mt. Tremper.

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About Theatre Nohgaku

Noh, one of the oldest continuing stage arts, combines highly stylized dance, chant, music, mask and costume with intense inner concentration and physical discipline, creating a uniquely powerful theatrical experience. Theatre Nohgaku’s mission is to share noh’s beauty and power with English speaking audiences and performers. We have found that this traditional form retains its dramatic effectiveness in languages other than Japanese. We believe noh techniques hold a powerful means of expression in the context of contemporary English language theatre.
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