Japanese Zen Buddhism and the Impossible Painting, a book by Harvard professor Yukio Lippit, studies one national treasure of Japan: The Gourd and the Catfish, a painting by Taikō Josetsu, a Zen monk who was active during the Muromachi period (1336-1573). Lippit’s book examines the painting’s subject matter, innovative technique, manner of display, and literary and artistic responses to it. It is the first book--though merely 60 pages--in English that focuses on the painting. Despite of its great significance, the book is sketchy when it comes to the study of the inscriptions on the painting. As a poem-picture scroll, or Shigajiku (a painting that is accompanied by poetry and has its roots in China and where the painting and the poetry are inherently connected), sources that could aid the understanding of the inscriptions need to be introduced, and the poems representative of the inscriptions should be scrutinized. This essay will therefore distinguish Josetsu’s painting in its use of an improbable scene along with the poems to capture how the impossible struggle to catch a catfish with a gourd eventually can help the fisherman roam free of obstructions to Buddhist enlightenment. It will reinforce the book’s conclusion that the painting mobilizes a new mode of artistic representation to pictorialize the nonsensical nature of a Zen koan and by extension the relationship of such paintings to various social contexts of the medieval Japanese culture.
Yuemin He, Northern Virginia Community College, United States