The inspiration for this piece stems from my longstanding interest in Zen Buddhism. A few years ago I read Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, a book Shunryu Suzuki, a contemporary monk and teacher of the Sōtō Zen tradition. I was captivated by his frank yet stimulating words on meditation and states of mind. I came to Stanford looking to gain more knowledge into the Sōtō tradition and enrolled in a Religious Studies course entitled “Exploring Zen.” In that class we are reading works from the founder of Sōtō, Dōgen. One of his quotes has been stuck with me for some time, so when this project came to my attention I immediately thought of it. The piece I composed is an attempt to show my interpretation of the quote.
The piece begins with the word “ourselves” repeated three times in a vertical line (both an image in its structure and several words). The words are somewhat off center, drawing the viewer’s attention to them more. I did this because the concept of self and how one thinks of his/herself is the central theme of the quote. However, by presenting it first, alone, and repeated three times, I gave the false impression that self is what one should be thinking of throughout the piece, when in reality it is a bit more complex. The first line of text then begins to fade in. I attempted to make it such that the words would fade in time with how I thought the text should be read, but it proved too much of a challenge to really fine-tune it. Around the same time the zen circle in the background begins to fade in. The zen circle is the metaphor I arrived upon for the quote. I will describe this in more depth later. Once the viewer has read the first line the second line begins to fade in, much to the same effect as with the first line. This fade also has the added effect of showcasing the structure of the lines in relation to each other, which will turn out to be the third image in the piece. By lining up the words, I suggest a connection between the two (two at this point in the piece’s chronology, soon to be three) of them. The pairing is meant to make the viewer question the first line due to their similarities, but the text of the first line begins fading out, leaving the viewer with only their initial impressions of the first line. The third line is the most important line for me, therefore I chose for most of the movement to happen during its appearance. Once the viewer can barely read the word “forget,” the “ourselves” begin to change color to a more menacing tone and then disappear abruptly. Before viewers can even finish the third line the last word is gone. The words then all fade out, with “forget” lingering a little longer than the rest. You are left with the zen circle and your own thoughts. To me, this experience is what meditation is all about. The realization that focusing on the self is what limits you from learning about yourself is crucial to enlightenment. Forgetting everything and focusing on nothingness is what allows you to properly study Zen Buddhism, and therefore study yourself.
The Zen Circle (Ensō) was for me the most important part of the piece. It quickly becomes the backdrop for the quote. To be more precise, it encircles the quote, implying that the circle itself contains the quote and all of its meaning. The circle starts at a certain place and ends right before it touches the starting point. To me, the Zen Circle symbolizes Buddhism. You start at a certain place, with a certain conscious and sense of self, and run away from it. In the case of Zen Buddhism this is through meditation. However, at the end you realize that where you are now is both completely separate from the sense of self you started with, yet at the same time a newfound perspective on that same self.
Reading that last paragraph over I realize that my explanation is not exactly the clearest expression of the thoughts I had in my head, but I think that it might be best that way. My perspective and ideas on the matter are ultimately not all that important. I have created an interpretation of a quote that may not be at all what the author intended to mean, so why shouldn’t someone else be able to interpret my artwork in whatever way he/she wants? The quote and the image are clearly related, but it is up to the viewer to decide in what way.