Lewis Hyde is a poet, essayist, translator, and culture critic. Of his 1983 book, The Gift, David Foster Wallace said, “No one who is invested in any kind of art can read The Gift and remain unchanged.” A MacArthur Fellow and former director of undergraduate creative writing at Harvard University, Hyde teaches during the fall semesters at Kenyon College, where he is the Richard L. Thomas Professor of Creative Writing. During the rest of the year he lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he is a Fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society.
Max Gimblett is an artist in New York City. He works with shapes—specifically, the quatrefoil, square, and circle. He draws primarily on canvas, and wood panels with gold-leaf gilding. His work is displayed in a number of prestigious collections around the world.
On a crisp November evening Rachel Hiles—Tricycle’s managing editor—and I met with Lewis and Max at Max’s painting studio on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where Max has worked for nearly 40 years. Among the painting tables, cabinets, canvases, and religious artifacts and figurines, we spoke at length about their recent collaboration on the Oxherding series—a set of poems and drawings that present the classic Zen parable about the conduct of Buddhist practice. “Oxherding” showed at the Japan Society in New York City and is featured in its entirety in the Spring 2011 issue of Tricycle.
During the interview, I was repeatedly impressed with the clarity and precision of Lewis’s answers. He insisted that we were clear, not because he plays the nitpicking scholar (he doesn’t), but because he wanted make sure to deliver the apt response. Meanwhile, Max—with his lengthy, jutting silver eyebrows, and a glimmer in his eyes beneath them—exuded such warmth and enthusiasm at our visit that we grew a bit shy. We got over that quickly, though, and began the interrogation. —Sam Mowe
Sam Mowe: How did you two meet?
Lewis Hyde: Max and I were both at a study center in Italy in 1991. We just bumped into each other there. There were many people working on esoteric problems like the meaning of truth but Max was painting. I remember he came up to breakfast the first morning and he says, “I’ve been painting all morning. My loins are on fire.” And I thought, “Well, this is the guy I’m going to hang out with.” So we spent a month together. And we have visited each other regularly since then. Mostly I come to his studio in New York. I’m a writer. I don’t paint. But he puts a paintbrush in my hand, tells me I’m an idiot savant, and I believe him. Then we play.
SM: How long was it after you guys met that you decided to do the Oxherding series?
Max Gimblett: We started talking about Oxherding during that month [in Italy]. Neither of us can remember it what context it came up, but I did some initial drawings there.
LH: There are lots of people who have translated Oxherding into English and I got five or six English versions. I used them to make my own English version. Then later I thought I should really understand the Chinese, so I found a graduate student at Harvard who is an expert in classical Chinese poetry and had him be my tutor. I worked all summer on these poems so that I really understood how they worked in Chinese and began to translate from the original language.
Rachel Hiles: So you have the paper in front of you. What does the collaboration look like? Are you talking to each other? Are you giving each other feedback?
MG: Before, during, and after.
SM: You started talking about this project in 1991. You guys really decided to commit to the series. How did you know you’d chosen right?
LH: Well, I suppose, partly it’s because it’s a project that has both text and drawing. I’m a writer and Max is an artist. It allowed us to work in a parallel track on something that is, in fact, unified at the root. Beyond that, we both have an interest in Buddhism so you look for excuses to hang out together.
MG: We also both have an interest in poetry and writing. Oxherding is an absolutely essential Rinzai text, centered around koan study. So Rinzai Zen is very dependent on words and text.
RH: Were you working from Lewis’s translations?
MG: Yes, yes. I have most them in my drawer. I also had a Japanese version in The Three Pillars of Zen, Philip Kapleau’s book that I’m very fond of. I’m not fond of a lot of the Oxherding drawings that I see. The drawings done by white guys mostly have been deplorable. They’ve been terrible sets of drawings. Guys leaning up against the door, sitting down, hopeless.
LH: Stick figures.
MG: Yeah, hopeless. If you’re in the West, you can’t be in the East. And if you’re in the East, you can’t be in the West. So a Westerner making his way to the east, it’s a long way to go. The guy who translated The Secret of the Golden Flower, Richard Wilhelm, was a friend of Carl Jung’s. Jung wrote to him and said “Richard, come home, you’re getting ill in the East. Come home.” Richard was going too far into the East. He was getting lost. So the drawings I do are the drawings of a Westerner.
SM: One thing that strikes me about the show is that it’s this mix of abstract and representative images. The ox is there only sometimes. It makes me think of Lewis’s translations—you know, you’ve talked about how the syntax of classical Chinese opens a space to enter into. I’m wondering if abstract and the representative images function that way, you know, create a space for the viewer to enter into. Does that make sense?
MG: It makes sense—but I mean it’s answered by the unconscious. My glory comes from the unconscious. What I did was I drenched myself with Lewis’s texts. I read them hundreds of times. I slept with them under my pillow. I read them and read them. That’s the way I do a text. It absolutely enters into me and becomes one with me, and then the thing springs out. But it doesn’t spring out like every time. You have to tear up a lot of good paper. But when it springs out you can recognize it. Of course, sometimes you can’t recognize it. Sometimes Lewis would come over and give me his opinion. Then some got shafted and torn up and some got redone and it took seven years. In the middle of it, it was relatively painful. I was blocked. I didn’t think I was going to be able to do them. I went and saw two Roshis and I asked them for advice. So this wasn’t easy. It wasn’t light. It was very deep.
LH: I think the breakthrough drawing was the first drawing in the series. When Max first started doing the drawings they were quite traditional and representative. They showed a man and a bull or an ox and a rope and so forth. And, in a way, he had to kind of clear the ground like that. But the first drawing in the set that we now have is, in a sense, two things. One is a skull. A skull is a symbol or an image that is often found in Max’s work. And there is also, in a way, the enso, or the circle. In fact, a skull itself has a circle—the brain cavity of a skull is a round figure. The way the poems are set up, the problem in the first stage of the series is that the ox herder has everything he needs but he feels lost and diluted. The confusion is a mental confusion. It’s the delusion that needs to be seen through. So, in a way, that drawing is more representative than others I’ve seen of the first stage, which is where it’s as if you are lost in your own head. You’ve entered the skull and it’s full of cross roads that lead you endlessly down paths and you can’t figure out which way to go. So the first drawing seems like a wonderful mix—it’s both a gestural Gimblett drawing and accurate to the text.
SM: With that painting and other ones was it obvious to you when it was the one?
LH: Yeah. I remember when I first saw that one, I came in and said, “Oh, now he’s gone through the membrane. Somehow he’s on the other side of this. He’s now working in the true land.” So yes, and there were other drawings that we would puzzle over and come at again, once or twice. One of the things that Max asked one of the teachers was a puzzle about how to do the last drawing. In the traditional series it shows the man who’s come back into the world. So it’s called “Entering the Village With Gift-Giving Hands” or something like that. And often it shows Hotei and somebody else.
MG: A young child.
LH: It’s a little hard to read because it’s not necessarily the characters that were in the beginning. As a representative of coming back into the world because one feels compassion for other sentient beings, it seems almost too literal in many of the traditional drawings. The puzzle was how to do it. Didn’t you talk to Michael Wenger [Zen teacher] at San Francisco’s Zen Center about…
MG: Yeah. Michael Wenger is my teacher. He led me through my vows. He’s a calligrapher. He puts words in his calligraphy. I asked him how many figures in ten and he said two.
LH: But it was also two in relation.
MG: Two in relation is what he said.
LH: It’s important because there is no human relationship in any of the other drawings. There’s a man and there’s an ox and they disappear and so forth. But it’s not about community or society or being in the world with other people. In the end, it is. So it’s kind of sweet, actually. I think the last drawing has two ovals of slightly different size. It’s as if there’s an older guy and a younger guy or a teacher and a student or a man and a woman, I don’t know what. But there’s a relationship there.
MG: I went and saw Susan Postal [Zen teacher at The Empty Hand Zen Center] and said to her I was having trouble with drawings seven through ten. And she said, “Anybody in their body will have trouble with seven through ten. They’re on the other side. You won’t know about them until you’re dead. You’ve proceeded with good faith. You’ve done the first six. Just proceed and accept the results.” Then I went to Roshi Hogan in Byron Bay in Australia and said, “I’m having trouble with the Oxherding drawings.” And he asked, “In your life?”
LH [To Max]: Do you understand that to mean the same thing that Postal said, that if you’re in your life, of course you’re going to have trouble? Or how did you understand it?
MG: I understood that I had the drawings outside of myself pinned on the wall. He wanted me to bring them into my living heart and live them as flesh and blood and draw them out of my hands. But also what you said about Postal is right. So, in the end, I went to three Roshi’s over the seven or eight years to seek advice, quite spontaneously. It was not planned.
RH: Do you two feel as though over time your understanding of the parable has changed and evolved?
LH: Well, a teaching story like this works because it’s endlessly evocative. It’s like parables in the bible or koan study—you can come at it again and again and every time you come at it you see something new and you feel like an idiot that you never saw it before. I wouldn’t be surprised if this continues. It’s confusing on one level because it seems like there are two different ways to read the image of the ox. One is that the ox is the self of appetites that needs to be disciplined, or it’s the mind that wanders around and needs to sit on a zafu. The other way is to see the ox as the true self, the thing you were before you were born. And these seemed to be odds. I think, each reading is right and the fact that they’re at odds doesn’t particularly matter. But then I was amused to think about the drawing where the ox herder and the ox are pulling in opposite directions on a rope. It seems at that point like the ox is the body that’s full of appetites and wants to wander around aimlessly. But I was amused to think that the Chinese is a little unclear. I don’t think this is what means, but it was fun to think that maybe the ox is the true self and once you’ve had a glimpse of it, it begins to discipline you. It’s like it’s got its rope on you. You think you’re disciplining it, but it’s disciplining you. So now we have a single reading of how to think about the ox. It actually is the true self, and after you get a little taste of it, it forces you into practice even though you didn’t you think wanted to.
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.