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Meditation: Art

I first began to understand the difference between a sage and just any old monk on the road some days past the village of Regnon. We had stopped in the village, as usual, to pray at the temple, get our injections, and stamp our Circuit books there and, also as usual, we shopped a bit in the market below the temple, buying supplies for the next leg of the Circuit. Massey surprised me by also buying himself a new blanket, as his old one was getting raggedy.

The surprise wasn’t that Massey bought a blanket, as his had indeed more holes than blanket. The surprise was the blanket he chose: rather than the usual dull brown to match his robe he bought one of a sky blue with a design at one end the dyer had made by cunningly gathering together the fabric and tying it before dipping it into the dye such that it had a round and random splotch of white there. The dyers wife had then quilted the fabric over batting with a series of straight lines running diagonally across the cover instead of the usual criss-cross stitching. (I know all this because Massey talked long with the couple running the stall, who turned out to be the very dyer and his wife.)

Later, on the road, I asked him why he had purchased this blanket, saying “It seems more like the kind of thing a tourist would buy than a monk. Or,” I added pointedly, “a sage.”

Massey only smiled and said “I bought it because the design resembles a cloud.”

Later, on the second day past Regnon, Massey’s attention was distracted by a bee and he followed it off the road until he found the hive in an ancient oak, one of many aged trees making up a copse there. Declaring this a fit place to meditate he decided to stop there for a few days to reflect on the meaning of the word ‘art’ and, incidentally, to increase the distance between us and the large Junrei party who had passed us on the road the day before.

Each morning for three days Massey laid out his blanket and sat on it so that he could see the design while meditating. Sometimes he watched the bees and sometimes he stared at the ‘cloud’ on the blanket and sometimes he tilted his head back and stared at real clouds; giving each one his full attention for hours at a time. I tried to sit near him and do the same, but found little of significance there. The bees zigged and zagged about and the design on the blanket did indeed resemble a cloud, if you let your vision become unfocussed enough, and the real clouds were, of course, clouds: ever changing, sometimes resembling rabbits and train engines and the like. When I mentioned this to Massey as we ate our daily meal in the evening he only sighed and said, “You miss the point.”

After a day of this I grew bored and wandered the hills, returning often to find Massey as engrossed as ever in the bees and the clouds. On the afternoon of the third day I returned to find Massey gone from the copse, along with both our packs. Hearing a commotion towards the road I went that direction and found Massey, on his blanket, watching a group of clowns practicing in a meadow. They had set up camp there: gaily painted wagons and hand-carts around a central fire over which some women cooked their dinner.

I joined Massey and found this meditation more to my liking. As it grew dark the clowns finished their practice and, returning to their wagons, one stopped and asked us to join them at meat and ale. Massey thanked him for the thought, but explained we were on the Circuit and could only eat rice and beans and whatever fresh greens we found along the way. Then he added a benediction, saying “May your hospitality earn you a better reincarnation; if there is a better one for a clown.”

The clown laughed heartily at that and walked on to his camp while Massey and I returned to the copse for our frugal meal. The next day we meditated near the bees as usual — only this time, before I grew bored, Massey suddenly snorted and then stood up, stretching and breathing deeply. “I have found understanding!” he declared, rolling up his blanket and tying it to his pack.

Later, on the road, I asked him about this understanding he had found. At first he tried to shrug it off, saying that thing sages say about inspiration: how it is an individual thing and meaningless out of the context of the person receiving it. I complained that sages always say such things, making me wonder if all their wisdom wasn’t equally personal and meaningless to others.

He laughed at that and walked for a while in silence. Then he frowned and spoke, “I suppose it would be instructive to describe to you how I came by the understanding, even if I would find it impossible to describe the understanding itself. Think you on the design of the cloud on the blanket. Was there a pattern to it?”

“Not really.” I thought for a while, visualizing Massey’s blanket. “I mean, it is generally round and generally does resemble a cloud. But mostly it is very random. Of course the stitching has a pattern, but even the stitching isn’t regular.”

“In what way isn’t the stitching regular?”

“It is parallel lines, certainly, but they aren’t an even distance apart. Some are closer together and some not so close to the next.”

Massey then stopped and dropped his pack, detaching his blanket and rolling it out. “Look now on those gaps. See how the wider gaps contain more of the blue and the narrower gaps contain more of the white?”

I looked carefully and it was true. If you were to measure how much of each of the colors existed in the diagonal strips of fabric between the lines of stitching and then graphed that against the width of the strips there would indeed be a correlation between the amount of white and the narrowness of the strip. Moreover, on the part of the blanket with no white at all the strips were uniformly and equally wide.

“Ah… I see. So the quilter did it on purpose.”

“Indeed. But only following the lead of the dyer, who’s craft is naturally random. Thus we see how craft becomes art and art bleeds into craft: the dyer could have made all of the fabric an even mix of blue and white, but in doing so he would not have created something that looked to me like a cloud. The quilter could have stitched her lines evenly, but in doing so she would not have respected the art of the dyer. Instead she added another level of art playing off the first level. Thus the craft was the making of the blanket while the art is two thin, yet intertwined, layers of decoration; both arising from a central randomness. Each going about it differently.

“Think now on other crafts. Sometimes a thing is made purely utilitarian, like my old brown blanket. It serves a purpose, but adds nothing more.” Then Massey rummaged in his pack and removed his old squat iron teapot; a worn and stained thing that nonetheless had a certain beauty to it. “Sometimes a thing is both utilitarian and art, because it is designed so naturally fit for its purpose our eyes find it pleasing.

“Yet look again at the blanket. It’s design is as random as the paths of the bees while they gather honey and pollen for their hive. Moreover the utility of the blanket is purely to warm its owner and give him something softer than the ground and the design adds nothing to this purpose, thus separating the utility from the art. Yet the paths of the bees have utility, do they not? Otherwise how would the hive survive year after year?”

I was dizzy for a moment, stunned by a thousand conflicting ideas buzzing in my head at one time. Was this what it was like to be a sage? “But what about the clowns?” I was thinking of the painted wagons; how those were decorated with paintings, art which itself had the utility of advertising the clown’s art.

“Oh, them. They made me laugh.”

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