David Hinton is obsessed by a simple but profound idea: that outer and inner are one, whole, undivided. As a translator of classical Chinese poetry and philosophy, he has explored this notion for four decades, drawing together in his work as an essayist his interests in art, nature, Tao, and Ch’an Buddhism. It comes as no surprise, then, that his most recent book, Existence: A Story, deals with “the interweaving of mind and cosmos,” this time through the contemplation of a single 17th-century Chinese landscape painting (right). In it, two small figures stand atop a remote summit, gazing into a landscape of fuzzy ridgelines and flowing mists. Boundaries blur. Beginnings and endings become confused. One’s place within a larger environmental whole is realized.

For this interview I spoke with Hinton over the phone, reaching him at his home in Vermont on a weekday morning. He seemed both excited and a little envious to learn that I was calling from an elevation of 9,000 feet in Colorado’s Elk Range. “I love New England,” he said, “but I was born in Utah, and sometimes I find myself missing the vastness of the West.” We spoke for two hours about Existence, Chinese landscape painting, Taoism and Ch’an Buddhism (Hinton often refers to the two as a single spiritual tradition, arguing that they share a common source), and various ways of understanding our relationship with nature. During the exchange, a grandfather clock chimed now and then in the background—soft, round, and mysterious, the sound filling spaces between questions and answers.

Leath Tonino

Tell me about Chinese landscape painting. What’s the history of the tradition? Legend has it that Wang Wei, the great T’ang dynasty poet, more or less invented landscape painting in the early 700s. Like so many other artist-intellectuals who would follow in his footsteps, Wang Wei was a serious Ch’an Buddhist, and his painting was an extension of that spiritual practice. For him, it wasn’t about depicting a realistic landscape, but about enacting a way of seeing the world—of seeing himself in the world. His goal, through both painting and poetry, as well as meditation, was to weave consciousness and nature together.

The tradition developed from there and reached its maturity maybe 300 years later, during the Sung dynasty. Despite certain innovations, the basic idea of “painting-Ch’an,” as it was often called, remained consistent over the centuries. The painting that I focus on in my book Existence was composed almost a full one thousand years after Wang Wei lived, and yet you can see in it the same perennial themes of presence and absence and transformation, and the same expression of human experience—human mind—within the encompassing cosmos.

You’re talking about the painting by Shih T’ao. Who was he? Where does he fit into the tradition? Shih T’ao, or Stone-Waves, was a famously wild and eccentric painter of the Ming dynasty—a restless wanderer and climber of mountains. He was part of the royal family, and he was the only member of that family to survive when the Mongols overran all the Chinese territory in the 1600s. A servant sneaked him out of the palace—he was just a child—and he spent the rest of his life haunted by that early experience, living in hiding at times, changing his name repeatedly. By the age of 10 he had become a monk, and over the following decades he turned himself into both a Ch’an master and a master painter. As was true for Wang Wei and the other prominent figures of the tradition, these were inseparable aspects of his character and life. In fact, he considered his paintings an extension of his teachings. They were lessons in Tao.

Photograph by Phil Dera

In Existence you describe him as a “landscape practitioner.” What’s that? I don’t know that anybody in ancient China actually talked about “landscape practice” per se—that’s my term—but there was a sense that wildlands—and mountains in particular—were the ultimate teachers.

A lot of people today mistake Tao for a mystical, metaphysical concept, but really it’s just a description of empirical reality. We could define it as all of reality, including human consciousness, seen as a single generative tissue in perpetual transformation. The cosmos is always changing, always giving birth, and landscape provides visceral access to this truth. Ridgelines rise from mist. Seasons slide into one another. It’s fair to say that all Ch’an and Taoist practice in ancient China had to do, at their base, with entering this tissue of transformation—what I call the “existence-tissue.”

Well, that’s easier said than done. [Laughs.] Chinese artist-intellectuals were usually government officials, which meant they spent much of their time in urban environments built out of seemingly permanent things. A city street appears solid and unchanging. The books in your office don’t get up and move around. Poets and painters knew that nothing was permanent—in meditation they saw that even their own thoughts came and went like rain or snow, like anything else in the cosmos—but it was difficult to feel this indoors, and so they took every opportunity to visit remote monasteries or just live quietly for a while at rural homesteads. They would empty their minds through meditation, then open their eyes and absorb natural scenes.

If you look at the Stone-Waves painting, that’s exactly what’s going on. The mist is rising up the ridges. Autumn has slipped into winter. A little guy is standing on a peak, taking it all in, intentionally blurring the boundaries between himself and the landscape. And what’s interesting to note is that Stone-Waves, in making the painting, would have been doing the same thing.

Chinese painters were often referred to as “forces of nature.” Can you explain that? It’s like what Jackson Pollock said: “I don’t paint nature. I am nature.” He also said: “Painting is a state of being.”

Nature, cosmos, Tao, the existence-tissue—whatever the name, it moves with a kind of effortless, selfless, spontaneous energy. Trees don’t sit around thinking about growing; they just grow. Rivers don’t strategize how they will flow through a valley; they just do it. But humans tend to step back and second-guess and intellectualize. We remove ourselves, at least in thought, and routinely feel as though we are these cocoons of identity, divorced from Tao.

Language does have a unique power, and occasionally it can lead us up to its own edge, where we step from words into a greater silence.

The goal of painting-Ch’an was to let the energy that animates the tree and the river also guide your brush. Wu-wei, which literally means “not acting,” was an ideal state. It doesn’t refer to doing nothing; it refers to leaving behind that alienated, calculating version of yourself. When that happens—when a painter successfully integrates himself with the cosmos—it’s as though the power that uplifted the real mountains is at work on the paper. Actually, it’s not “as though” the same power is at work; it is the same power.

Chinese painters used water-based inks, not oil paints that could be applied and then scraped off, as in the Western tradition, and so they couldn’t really revise. They had to move in the moment, without error. In a great painting, the brushstrokes are full of dynamic energy, and the whole composition, though static and two-dimensional, conveys an incredible force. You can feel nature in a great painting. It’s remarkable.

In his book The Great Clod: Notes and Memoirs on Nature and History in East Asia, Gary Snyder says that Chinese landscape painting began with artists tracing the lines of flowing energy—or ch’i—observed in clouds, water, mist, smoke, and the like. He writes, “The lines finally twisted themselves into ranges of mountains.” As I just said, the main aspiration of Chinese spiritual practice was to get past the constructed ego, or identity-center, and act with and as nature. I really enjoy the abstract petroglyphs of the desert Southwest, in large part because they express that energy you just mentioned; it feels to me like they are an early instance of the existence-tissue decorating itself with spirals and squiggles.

The people who pecked images into canyon walls wouldn’t have understood a distinction between themselves and the rest of nature, because they were wholly immersed. When a Chinese painter worked selflessly, freely, with an empty mind, I believe he inhabited a space similar to that of the early petroglyph artists, maybe even similar to that of the European cave painters from 30,000 years ago. There’s no saying for sure, but you can imagine a kind of thread that runs from those cave painters all the way to Jackson Pollock and beyond.

You’re primarily a translator of poetry, but you clearly have this interest in, and passion for, the visual arts. How come? Do poems and paintings move us in different ways? They do, definitely. Ch’an awakening largely depends on a suspension of language—on a mind emptied of linguistic constructs, a mind that can mirror the empirical world—and poems are, of course, always made of words. Painting’s advantage is that it can present Tao more directly. It doesn’t explain cosmological ideas, but makes them happen in immediate experience. As soon as we begin writing, the ancient poets thought, we’re already off track. The legend about Meng Hao-jan, who was Wang Wei’s slightly older contemporary, illustrates this belief. They say he burned all his poems, judging them failures, though that’s not historically true. Language does have a unique power, and occasionally it can lead us up to its own edge, where we step from words into a greater silence.

Classical Chinese is better suited to this task than modern English. Much of what we call the “necessary” grammatical elements of a sentence are absent from Chinese poems—for instance, the personal pronoun I is rarely visible in a line of verse. A painting uses sky, fog, and water to engage the empty space of a viewer’s mind, while a poem uses, to the extent that it can, the openness of its own language. Despite their differences, the two forms worked very similarly in ancient China.

You write about languages that describe reality and languages that embody its processes. What’s that distinction all about? In the West, we experience language as a separate, timeless realm that looks out on the world and describes it—the word tree refers to that leafy structure in the yard. That’s language as mimesis, or representation, and it’s one of the main reasons we have such difficulty feeling ourselves as a part of nature. Language is the medium of thought and identity, and if language is a transcendental realm, a kind of spirit realm outside of nature, then so is identity.

But for preliterate oral cultures, thought and language moved like anything else in the world, like streamwater or falling snow. They were not a separate transcendental realm. Classical Chinese, for complicated reasons I describe in Existence, operated more like oral languages. It was nonmimetic; it didn’t create a transcendental realm of thought and identity. Instead, a pictographic ideogram shares a thing’s embryonic nature. It emerges from the generative emptiness simultaneously with the thing itself. Sorry—it’s hard to summarize, as it involves a different concept of time that Taoist and Ch’an cosmology adhere to: time as an ongoing generative moment.

Is calligraphy like a bridge between poetry and painting, like a hybrid art form—part language, part image? I think that’s correct, though I’ve never quite thought of it that way before. Some calligraphy is just careful, elegant handwriting, but other forms are closer to abstract expressionist painting. When you write a poem in what’s called “grass” script, it doesn’t matter what’s said so much as what’s seen and, in turn, what’s felt. Characters sprawl all over the page, coming apart at the edges, dissolving into the empty spaces. Western brushes typically have short bristles and are pretty static, but Chinese brushes are long; they’re designed so that you can push down for a thick line, then release the pressure for a thin line, all in one stroke. The brush used for calligraphy in ancient China was the same one used for painting, and in both arts you can trace the dynamic energy of its path across the page.

Going in the other direction, you could understand calligraphy as a painting that’s in the process of morphing into a text. It’s a visual art—ink and paper, balances of light and dark—but it’s no longer a pure landscape devoid of language. It hints at meaning, almost as if the rocks and waterfalls were beginning to speak. [Laughs.] Again, it’s the same brush and the same method that energizes both the words and the landscape features.

In the Shih T’ao painting, and in many others of the tradition, there’s a poem written down one side. All three art forms engage the viewer simultanenously. It’s amazing, isn’t it? People from the West might find it sacrilegious to scribble across a landscape painting, but I think this blending of language and image actually deepens both expressions. Looking at a painting with a poem written calligraphically on it, we see that the empty space around the words is the very empty space of the painting, which is the generative empty space of the cosmos and also the generative empty space of the meditating mind. The elements bleed together, revealing their shared organic source. It reminds me of opera, with music and language and theater all rolling up to the audience as a kind of unified wave.

Can you talk about the similarities and differences between gazing at a real mountain and gazing at the depiction of one? In ancient China, gazing at a landscape painting—gazing with empty attentiveness—was a cherished form of spiritual practice. People would have positioned themselves in front of these paintings for hours on end and gotten lost inside the textures and shapes and faint washes of color—that play of absence and presence. To be sure, it was a different experience from sitting on the summit of a mountain with the clouds and birds rushing past, appearing and disappearing, but it was a valuable experience nonetheless.

Actually, come to think of it, when you’re out in the real mountains it can be difficult to observe the actions of Tao because the rate of environmental change is so slow. Here in Vermont, the Green Mountains are only around 4,000 feet tall, but in the distant geologic past there were ancestral ranges that rose to 40,000 feet, higher than Mount Everest. It took millions of years for those ranges to surge up and erode away, surge up and erode away again. That’s the generative existence-tissue doing its thing, but the time spans are so huge that we have trouble noticing.

When you look at a landscape painting, though, you can see that cosmology of constant transformation in microcosm. It’s happening right now, right on the paper. As I said earlier, Stone-Waves considered his paintings to be extensions of his Ch’an teaching.

It’s interesting that painters were able to express a landscape’s dynamism by basically freeze-framing it on the paper.  Right. Mist billows up the valleys and swallows the ridgelines. The ridgelines emerge from that emptiness of mist, that pregnant emptiness that gives birth to everything from thoughts to Himalayan-sized peaks. It’s all there in the painting, in the brushstrokes that build and build to create a scene.

And that scene, I should add, isn’t out there, viewed through a window, which is the case with most Western landscape paintings. Chinese landscapes, because they don’t aspire to realism and don’t stick to the rules of perspective, place us inside the mountains and inside the mist. Plus there’s almost always that guy somewhere in the scene, that tiny human whom we identify with; he also draws us into the painting.

In her book The Future of Ice the American writer Gretel Ehrlich describes a long winter of depression after her fiancé died, and how she got in the habit of looking at T’ang dynasty and Sung dynasty paintings. She writes, “They were places to which I could go in my mind’s eye. They never failed to save me.” What do you make of that? When you lose yourself in a Chinese painting, it can free you from that isolated, closed-in center of identity—in this case the “Gretel” who has been devastated by the passing of her partner. If you meditate long enough on a painting, you begin to sense your grief and loneliness, and even death itself, as part of this larger cosmological process we’ve been discussing. Everything belongs. It’s all the existence-tissue in motion, creating and taking away. There’s no easy fix when it comes to suffering, but there is at least a type of grounding, or dwelling, offered by these paintings.

The ancients certainly weren’t eager to die, yet they did find a kind of solace in mortality. It was a return to a deeper reality, a deeper self; you identify not with your little ego but with the whole of nature. T’ao Ch’ien, the great poet who was active around 400 CE, wrote a few death poems, one of which ends this way: “Once you’re / dead and gone, what then? Trust yourself / to the mountain’s flank. It will take you in.”

I’ve stood on many summits, and though I love the exposure—the cliffs and swirling air and everything—it can sometimes be a bit too intense. The sides of mountains, on the other hand, generally make me feel quite snug and safe. That’s a good point. Hiking in a valley, with mountains to the left and right, it can feel like there are these protective presences, these massive bodies, watching over you. It’s probably similar to what children feel around their parents.

It’s common to disregard the emotional and psychological dimensions of the human-landscape relationship. Every kindergartner knows that some kids are nice and others are mean, and that it makes a big difference who sits next to you at lunch, but for some reason we don’t apply that same understanding to mountains. No, we don’t. We assume that only humans are characters, even though mountains all have their own unique attributes—some are intimidating, others welcoming, and so on and so forth. Character is just an expression of the existence-tissue, and it’s not the exclusive possession of our species. If only because they were so dedicated to painting them and writing about them and meditating on them, the ancient Chinese, I think, would have appreciated that a mountain’s character and a person’s character are not radically different. Sustained engagement is probably the key, and we just don’t have that kind of contemplative tradition—that landscape practice—in the West.

Do you consider yourself a landscape practitioner? How does your interest in Ch’an and art and nature manifest in daily life? I’ve always been oriented toward mountains, distances, space—always felt that I needed the natural world filling my mind. It’s sort of an unquestioned assumption in my life that landscape—or maybe I should say: the interface where a human and a landscape meet—is where value lies. So much of intellectual history is people sitting in rooms reading books written by other people who sat in rooms. I don’t get that, not at all. [Laughs.]

I live on a dirt road in the forest, surrounded by mountains. I take walks and ride my bike and relax in the yard. The moment of magic, when it’s all woven together, my own consciousness and the surrounding landscape, is what I’m after. Speaking generally, I’m not sure what we’re after in the West—maybe being righteous so you can get to heaven, or finding the timeless capital-T Truth? Those are just stories. For me, there’s no magic quite like the eyes mirroring empirical reality—the eyes putting the world inside of my being. I can never get over that. It’s inconceivable. And somehow it makes me feel less like a modern American and more like an ancient Chinese, which I enjoy.

In parting, I wanted to mention that I was impressed by the number of exclamation marks in Existence. Despite the complex, somewhat scholarly subject matter, your enthusiasm really showed through. It was as if you were saying: Consciousness . . . cool! Nature . . . cool! Existence . . . cool! You’re not far off. [Laughs.] Maybe I should have let you write the book. You could have done it in three lines!

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