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.
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.
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