johnsu01 (johnsu01) wrote,

A Flock of Fools

[Cover of the book]

I just finished A Flock of Fools: Ancient Buddhist Tales of Wisdom and Laughter From the One Hundred Parable Sutra, translated and retold by Kazuaki Tanahashi and Peter Levitt.

This is good, because it makes room in the reading schedule for the lovely Writing and Difference by Jacques Derrida, which I intend to try and read in the next month as part of the new LiveJournal theory book club. I guess I miss talking with people about books like this, and the stuff just doesn't stick if I don't talk and/or write about it.

I've been reading A Flock of Fools slowly over the last couple of months. As is clear from the title, it's a collection of very short parables about people doing foolish things, none of them more than two small pages long. The stories come in two parts. The first part is the story, the second the explanation of what the story means in terms of Buddhist teaching.

My real interest in this book though, had less to do with the text or the teachings than with the art. Interspersed in the book are brush and ink paintings by Kaz Tanahashi. He often paints with a human-sized brush, and is famous for his one-stroke paintings. I appreciate his black and white work the most, since it puts the attention on the stroke and handling of the brush, which is where most of what interests me about his work lies. But, the colors he uses in the other paintings do provide a nice change of pace and some stunning additional effects.

The paintings in the book are all black and white. Actually, some of them are just black. I was surprised to see some representational works, and wasn't as attracted to them as I am to the abstract, suggestive, and one-stroke paintings. A painting of two doves in particular struck me as something that was thrown in for people who really want paintings to look like things they know, and who want the art to illustrate the text. Looking at the suggestive, texture-oriented works calls to mind the beauty of whatever momentary pattern is in a flame or batch of leaves in the wind. Though there is no doubt the painting will remain on the page for quite some time, it looks like it's about to leave at any moment. I haven't seen any other style of "static" art that embodies motion and impermanence to the degree that Kaz's does.

Rumor has it that Kaz likes to play the fool, and his paintings are the perfect whimsical accompaniment to these stories, which, while they often include gruesome details like decapitation, defenestration, and the gouging out of eyes, are in the end intended to inspire laughter at the stupidity of others (followed by reflection on similar instances of one's own stupidity).

If I were to read this book again --- and I'm sure I will come back to some of the stories in the future, probably during bouts of bibliomancy --- I think I would skip the morals. What I mean is, I think you can get an entirely different read from the book by skipping the explanations that follow each story. The explanations should be read at some point, because there are many opportunities for interesting contemplation in comparing the explanation to one's own impression of the story, but as in other aspects of the path, it is best to experience insights directly, to not just accept the words and thoughts of others as the right interpretation.

I've posted my current favorite parable, Asking for Nothing, in the Quotes section. [Cover of Brush Mind]

I also highly recommend Kaz's Brush Mind as a source of inspiration for whatever kind of art you may involve yourself in. It is probably a better book for admiring his paintings, as they are larger and more interesting selections. The text follows from the visual work, whereas in A Flock of Fools, the opposite is clearly true.

A Flock of Fools is itself, as a book, a visually attractive piece, with each story placed carefully on the page, surrounded by plenty of whitespace, each first paragraph opening with several words in bold that constitute the title of the story and balance the facing Kaz ink. The book has slick covers and heavy pages, so it feels great in the hands and has a bit of that tactile distinction that any book claiming some spiritual significance should probably have.

Tags: book, buddhism, calligraphy, painting
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