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  Clearing Autumn Skies Over Mountains and Valleys  


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Kuo Hsi’s “Clearing Autumn Skies
Over Mountains and Valleys”

You are holding in your hands a very interesting object. It is a photographic reproduction, full size, of a painting made by placing ink on silk with brushes. The original scroll is now in the Freer collection in Washington D.C. after being passed through many hands in China during the approximately nine hundred years since it was made. It is attributed to the 11th century painter Kuo Hsi, whose dates are usually given 1020 to 1090, and it is an excellent example, among many excellent examples, of the Northern Sung period, of inspired and timeless creation.

The great painters of China were traditionally the same men who were highly educated in the chosen literature. One of the reasons this great landscape could be created was because learning to write with the brush was the same as learning to paint — up to the point where one actually practiced the brush strokes for rocks or leaves or mountains. The painter became a connoisseur of what was possible by way of making marks with a brush, and it took fifteen, twenty, or thirty years of handling the brush before he got to the idea of mastery.

One of the interesting aspects of this training was learning to discriminate visual analogies to keep the energy flow unimpeded in its connection with the total pattern. For instance, the artist would learn to make marks for the mountains using the "spread-out hemp fiber" strokes. This means that the seer noticed at some point that the light on certain mountain rocks at a certain distance looked like fibers of hemp spread out. The observation of light and dark pattern in two diverse objects and scales brings in a pattern recognition which goes beyond both. The way in which rocks on the mountains break up does record a specific kind of rock. But the recognition of the same pattern in spread-out hemp fibers has a way of removing both scale and concept and of focusing minute conscious attention to variations of the unitive state.

The horizontal scroll unrolls in time and space from your right (its left/east) to your left (its right/west) at the speed you wish to go or at the speed you go. (Traditionally, the scrolls are unrolled never more than two feet or so at a time, and enjoyed as a progression while the painting is revealed foot by foot — thus the handscroll is referred to as the first motion picture.)

The cue to entering the painting here are the two sages standing face to face on the path where it first appears. Imagine yourself standing with them on the path. By this simple imaginative act you are in the landscape and it opens out around you. To get yourself fully scaled in on the path, turn around and you will discover that you can see in all directions and that the size of things and the distances between things is very clear. Turn from your two companions and look over to the little bridge. How far is it from you? Extend your gaze up the long, silent valley past the bridge. If you walk onto the bridge you will hear the water more clearly and can judge the distance down to it. If you turn facing the two men on the path, how far is it to the closest tree? What's the weather like? Is there a breeze and what time of day is it? If you wish, you can sit down on the level ground just beyond the bridge to contemplate the vast space of this valley, or go in on the thread of the sound of the river.

But first come back from the bridge, and continue on the path on this side of the stream. If you look ahead on the path you can see two people coming toward you, one on foot carrying a pole over his shoulder, followed by a man on horseback. Just before you come to these two you have a good opportunity to intensify and clarify your in-the-landscape viewpoint. As you walk on the path, notice how far to your left are the trees on the rocky knoll. You have to look up to them. If you look past them from the path you will see a giant head, your own, which is in fact observing the trees from outside the landscape. Staying on the path, see that you can easily look up on the other side of these trees from the path; turn and look across the river to the tops of those enormous rocks and mountains above. After passing the funny little horse and its rider you come far enough past the cliff to see up a new valley to your right and a meditation house at some distance. You may be sure it is a good place to meditate — unhappily, the path to it is not stated.

To your left is that high outcropping of rocks covered with trees which, if you stay on the path will be seen as though from the other side. How high above you are those exquisite pines?

Continuing on the path we catch up with a sage priest whose demeanor reflects the grandeur and mystery of this valley in autumn and his carry-all, who are approaching two small buildings marked with a square and round windows, nestled in the rocks and enclosed by a fence. Take your place beside, or perhaps become, this sage whose poise and gesture suggests the grace of being in a body. Can you smell the pines? Hear the water? Look high up to the tops of the hills beyond the mists that still hide their bases. Walking past the two houses we come to a point where the space suddenly opens out in all directions except down. We can see over to the waterfall with the five-building temple complex built into the closed canyon beyond. If you turn now to your left, you look past the small meditation platform on to the end of the scroll and beyond; endless void.

This meditation shelter, nestled in protective rocks, is the center of this landscape. It is the place you have come to sit down, a place to move past sensation on the sound of the breeze in the needles of the two dragon-like trees that dance together, or to contemplate and identify with the open space of the valley beyond. What vastness! What beauty! What stillness! Like the time between heartbeats. Each time you walk into the landscape, not clothed in steel, you will discover new things to nourish the spirit. When you have fully memorized this valley, it is more and more as if one really came to these places and you can enter it even without this scroll in hand — ALLEN ATWELL

1. Virtue here refers to the Te of Taoism, not Judaio-Christian ethics.

2. Kuo Hsi, "An Essay on Landscape Painting" (London, 1959) , pp 32-33.

©Aspen No. 10, Section 1



Original format: Single sheet printed on both sides, 67-1/2 by 9 inches, folded into sixths.



Adapted for the web by Andrew Stafford.
All copyrights are the property of their respective owners.