Zen Seeing, Zen Drawing (1993)

Zen Seeing, Zen Drawing, by Frederick Franck 

Let me first say that the concept — Zen — is thought of by the experts as indefinable. I got this from my mother when she was reading a book devoted to the subject. (Isn’t that funny?) Only after she’d gone through a couple of chapters, could she say that it meant being “still,” and thus, the practice of Zen is the practice of being “still.”

Franck offers another interpretation: “the awakening to the intimate contact with the sanity of our core…” (p. 23)… which sounds very intense, but it’s not. It’s supposed to help you achieve harmony with everything else.

I bought this book when I was very young, with my allowance, at a B Dalton’s bookstore… I think. I simply liked the pictures. You could say I liked his artistic style, but Franck, I imagine, would interrupt and emphasize, as he does in his book, that he focuses not on the final product, that which one can see as a particular “style,” but on the work itself.

He explains how seeing/drawing is his way of practicing Zen:

“From D.T. Suzuki, I learned that every art has its mystery, its spiritual rhythm, its myo in Japanese. The myo is intimately related to all the arts. The true artist, the artist-within is the one who is really moved by the myo, the as-is-ness of things… When I draw a tuft of grass, a face, a crowd, I am confronting this as-is-ness of things… The appearance of things is the manifestation of the myo, of their Meaning…” (p. 25)

In short, Zen is about seeing and not producing. It is not a means to another end but an end in itself, and this suggests that an art student, who wants to be more skilled in one’s ability to put down on paper the idea of something one sees, is missing the point of practicing Zen.

Now, brought up on Western ideas, I immediately have an alternative interpretation to what may actually be at the heart of Zen Drawing. When finding a thing’s “myo” through drawing, I want to say that any essence of spirit one records is not intrinsic of the thing but a product of something within oneself, and feeling united with the thing is the feeling of catharsis from seeing what was within oneself. While within oneself, it can feel boundless, but outside of oneself, one can appreciate it more consciously. If it caused you anxiety, it becomes manageable. If it only had the potential to bring you joy as an idea, it becomes a tangible thing that inspires joy without you calling up the idea yourself.

Franck quotes a handful of poets and says the mentality of a poet writing poetry is similar to the mentality of a person seeing/drawing. In my experience, writing poetry was always a way of getting the most out of an idea which may or may not have had anything to do with my immediate surroundings.

When I would get inspired by some material object in front of me, I would often project my feelings for something else onto my view of the object. Moreover, I believe that words are ideas and whatever they represent they do so symbolically.

Drawing gets a little closer to an object but it too can only do so symbolically.

In terms of Western thought, we are in the subject of perception, and I think Franck agrees with as much when he says, “Art is what opens up the clogged pores of perception…” (p. 154)

Overall, the author’s goal seems to be the expression of truth and thus proposes that Zen Seeing offers something true about the object one is seeing. I believe this is misleading and what one can achieve is not truth but at best honesty.

We see an object in the context of time and place and time involves how one feels and thinks at a given moment. How do you know that what you’ve recorded is not the spirit of the object but one’s own spirit or how one feels at the time about the object or the feelings for something else which one was projecting onto the object?

The burgeoning Zenist in myself may rebut this by simply saying the above is a pitfall of continuing to distinguish one’s ego and oneself from all else. (Zenists believe that one is all and all is one… which sounds a lot like the motto of The Three Muskateers… but I digress.) Let’s get back to the subject of art, because that is how Franck accesses the idea of Zen, for himself and for us. He says drawing “has been described as the art of leaving out. The critical point is, of course, what to leave out and why… This apple tree is my koan.” (p. 121)

This idea of recording the essence of a thing has been influential in Western abstract art. I’m thinking of the Japanese prints decorating the walls of Monet’s home in Giverny or the ones Vincent and Theo Van Gogh collected in the hundreds. I’m also thinking of Picasso’s delineation of a cow… or was that Bauhaus’ Klee or Kandinsky who drew the essence of a cow?

Franck says that “True drawing demands craftsmanship of the hand as it does visual intelligence of the eye.” (p. 118)

But intelligence to see what exactly? How can one ever know for sure one is seeing myo?

Franck says that what he draws “confronts [him] with the mystery of Being.” (p. 151) He concedes that he cannot verbalize what he sees and goes so far as to say that “This Presence remains perceptible only as long as it is not verbalized.” (p. 133) He quotes Hui Neng as saying, ‘The Meaning of Life is to see,” and says that “life itself is its Meaning” and we all have to find that out for ourselves. (p. 130)

So let me try to answer my own question.

You may never get to see the myo of a thing in its entirety at any given time, nor know for sure what it is you see is in fact myo, but you can practice seeing as much as you can each time you try.

I think I can compare this to how I process literature. In order to be honest, one must strive for Truth, even if absolute Truth is not attainable. When I read or process information given to me in the form of some kind of text, I know I have to read between the lines and consider out of what context the author may be writing/thinking (akin to seeing/drawing, no?)

If the author isn’t writing out of an honest intention to consider an idea as fully as “reasonable,” then I am that much further removed from the essence of the idea the author had wanted to convey. I would like to say that all great works of literature are like koans and even minor works of literature for that matter, as one attempts to extract the essence of the mind of the author while he or she was writing, which varies from one moment of writing to another as — I am tempted to say — no one human being has a true and consistent essence.

To this, I can hear Franck re-appropriating a quote by the poet, Ryokan, who had said, “You say that my poems are poetry… Well, they are not and until you understand why they are not, you won’t see their poetry.” (p. 116)

I believe Franck was referring to how “poetry” has become symbolic of something “splendid,” which can then get in the way of how receptive one is to what is actually being expressed; and in trying to understand Zen Drawing, you may be confronted with a similar problem.*

If you want to have drawn something beautifully, and if desperate enough, you can fool yourself into thinking it was drawn beautifully. The idea and one’s opinion of it is malleable. But if you are intent on drawing something that resides outside of yourself, the source of what you’re perceiving is much less malleable. Of course, what is important in Zen practice is not creating or even recording something beautiful. What is important is not beauty but accuracy in perception.

And here we come full circle.†

I can only assume that Franck has faith alone that every thing has a myo, and yet he describes the act of seeing myo very beautifully, “Seeing first hand… I know the sacred… I draw myo in the tangled weeds behind our house…” (p. 134)

Somebody who believes in the sacred presence of myo may simply say that one needs to be “still,” while somebody who has learned about art and literature in the West might say one needs to be “receptive” and to be “open-minded.” But as a skeptic, I find myself returning with the same rhetorical question, How can one ever know for sure that one is seeing myo? The scientist may even ask for objective proof, as though without a community of scientists, all of what one perceives could potentially be dismissed as a figment of one’s imagination.

Maybe – to reconcile the skeptic with the one who wants to be more forgiving and trusting of human perception – it’s enough to speak broadly of Zen and think of it in layman’s terms as the sheer existence of what one is privileged to witness and capable of appreciating.

Franck describes seeing/drawing as “a meditation-in-action on That Which Matters.” (p. xii) However, thinking of Zen in terms of what “matters” may not get you very far, logically. ‡

For now, I’m afraid I’ll have to settle for an analogy to something we allow ourselves to accept in math: the area under a curve. We calculate only a close estimate, as accuracy is infinitely removed… or something along those lines… I really only remember the phrase, “as we approach infinity.” It’s been awhile, and I never studied math on a philosophical level… so in general, if we can allow for close estimates in math and settle for the idea that we at least are approaching the answer we seek, then we can think likewise in our search for myo.

It’s obviously not a perfect analogy, as the area under a curve has clearly defined parameters, and the parameters are numbers and not emotions, but what is similar in both quests for either answer is that while we strive to approach the answer, we are infinitely removed. Some phenomena, even those that are logic-based, defy being defined.

So, again, our parameters may differ drastically, but every quest must begin somewhere, as does one’s logic.


* Frank re-appropriates the quote and says, “You say this drawing is splendid. Well, it is not, and until you understand why it is not, you won’t see how good it is.” (p. 116)

† Edit: 12/15/17 — And here we’ve come full circle used to be “And here lies a paradox.” It’s not an actual paradox. There’s a problem (IE, there’s no way of knowing what you are perceiving is being perceived accurately), but this isn’t a paradox. You can in fact be perceiving something accurately even if you don’t know if you are perceiving it accurately.

‡ I think, to reconcile Western thought with Eastern thought, we must go beyond the notion that anything “matters,” because in terms of Western thought, what “matters” could be defined as what is valuable, and it can only matter to somebody who has the capacity to see that it matters; IE, building a system of values is internal, thus you go inward, as opposed to focusing on something that is beyond yourself. For the Zenist, having something matter is inconsequential. If all are of one phenomenon and appreciated for one’s sheer existence, then all are of equal value. If all are of equal value, then value as a concept is nullified, as value is relative and can only be appreciated in relative terms.

Franck, Frederick. Zen See, Zen Drawing. Bantam Books, 1993.


Last edited November 4, 2018 


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