The Blue Cliff Record is a collection of one hundred koans, or teaching stories, assembled over a thousand years ago in China. As it has come down to us, each case includes a commentary by master Yuanwu (1063-1135) who, while praising the sayings of his predecessors, nonetheless asserted that putting Zen into words was like “gouging a wound into a healthy body.” Indeed, Yuanwu’s disciple, Dahui, (1089-1163) took his admonition seriously and attempted to burn every copy of The Blue Cliff Record he could lay his hands on.
Therein lies a paradox: the healthy body of life as it is already perfectly presents to us the dharma truths of impermanence and interdependence—they are continuously on display if only we were prepared to look. Alas, instead, we habitually look past them, craning our necks to catch a glimpse of what we imagine is perfection, a mirage that seems to hover forever out of reach, receding with the horizon.
Yet it is the illusionary pursuit of perfection that sets most of us on the path, logging endless miles on a journey that ends only when we finally look down at what has been beneath our feet all along. Yuanwu asserts words do violence to reality, but he does so in words. Words can only paint a picture of reality, and at some point, we have to tear up the picture.
Photographer and clinical psychologist Donna Bassin took one such journey when she traveled to Kyoto in search of the beauty and meditative repose for which its monasteries have long been famous. But she brought a unique dual perspective with her, as both a photographer and trauma therapist, a perspective that allowed her to look beyond and beneath the superficial, if exquisite, beauty of her surroundings.
Her work as a therapist had already taught her that perfection is illusionary. We seek wholeness, but that wholeness must incorporate all the painful aspects of ourselves and our history that we typically enter therapy or meditation practice to expel or expunge. Encountering the Japanese art of kintsugi, Bassin discovered a perfect metaphor for the processes of rupture and repair that occur in every life, and every therapy session. For while most young therapists go into the field hoping that they will be in a position to give their patients the attention, understanding, and compassionate responsiveness missing from their upbringing, they must learn that they may inevitably repeat the very traumas of misunderstanding and mis-attunement that their clients have suffered from growing up.
Failures are not just inevitable, but are a necessary part of the process. A good mother is not one whose baby never cries, but one who knows how to respond and soothe her crying baby. We learn that to be part of the solution, we must be willing to be experienced as part of the problem. Like those old masters, we must risk gouging a wound in healthy flesh if we are to have any impact at all.
Bassin’s photographs, which she deliberately tore and repaired in the manner of kintsugi, demonstrate how our scars, emotional and physical, must be accepted as part of our “picture” of ourselves. She could have returned from her trip with beautiful photos of old Kyoto, as have legions of tourists before her. She could have come away from her monastery stay with a certain degree of meditative calm. Instead, she brought back something more complex and challenging. In these images, we see repairs that do not restore the photographs to their previous states, nor, as with veins of gold in traditional kintsugi, do her stitches merely add a new decorative element.
Find the series below, followed by a Q&A with the artist.
Scenes of refined elegance (3A) or quiet domesticity (2A) are rudely disrupted. In another, (4A) the walls and floor seem to be cracked and damaged as if by an earthquake. Bassin’s repairs often appear literally as scars, with the crude stitches suggestive of an emergency room, not the neat and delicate lines we might expect. Not only are the scars and stitches sometimes painful in themselves, but the tears have let in alien colors and textures, that have now been incongruously incorporated into the scene, the way strange and disturbing feelings and images may suddenly arise in our minds during meditation.
A woman’s smile (5A) eerily floats into one scene, disturbingly detached and disembodied. The stone statue of a monk or buddha (26) has a swath of color floating across it, as if spoiling his samadhi. In every case, some intrusive element elbows its way into the foreground, insisting on its right to be part of the picture. So it is with our lives, as Bassin evidently knows all too well.
We are called upon to incorporate what we wish we could exclude, to own what we are desperate to disown. To recognize the scars we bear not as intrusions into our otherwise perfect lives, but as our life itself.
How did these series come to be?
Donna Bassin: In 2019, I took a trip to Japan with the Upaya Zen Center led by Roshi Joan Halifax and Sensei Kaz Tanahashi. I needed breathing space from the occupational hazards of my clinical work with traumatized individuals. And, despite my embrace of the teachings on non-duality and encouragement for my patients to compassionately accept their complications and imperfections, I was faltering. Suffering appeared to intensify during the Trump years. Long ignored cracks ruptured as racial and economic injustices were brought to the forefront of collective consciousness and our democracy teetered on the edge. I needed to gather myself differently and detach from the ongoing pain of others. And, perhaps more usefully, I could find (through the aesthetics of Japan’s traditional sacred arts), a way to contain and artistically express the grave injustices in our society.
Once in Kyoto, I wanted to capture all the beauty I saw. Instead, I was reminded to let go of filling my camera with images and to allow myself to be there fully. But I could not, and I returned home with hundreds of photographs.
I printed the photographs on 16″ x 16″ pieces of rice paper. My square format was an enlarged version of Kodachrome slides similar to those my parents had taken while traveling to foreign places. The colors were softened, and the edges blurred as the images were absorbed into the rice paper. They reminded me of the colorized photographs of the nineteenth-century Japanese photographer Kusakabe Kimbei, who created kitschy souvenir postcards for Japan’s first European tourists. His photos were staged in “traditional” scenes and often purchased by tourists before they even began their tour.
I grew up in a home filled with Japanese art objects gifted to my family by an uncle who served as a military lawyer during occupied and post-war Japan. My own collection included child-sized kimonos and wooden dolls. I tried to understand the meaning of the words “Made in Occupied Japan” stamped on the bottom.
In my photographs of temples, meditative landscapes, monks, and monasteries, I had only captured the preconceived. I replicated the surface imagery of traditional Japan. They were souvenirs of the trip—pretty but unsatisfying. Clearly, the underlying aesthetic practices that embody aspects of Zen philosophy were not present in my work. In a moment of artistic frustration, I ripped the photographs—attempting to let go of what I had captured. However, the vision changed as the objects of the photographs lost their clean edges.
You were inspired by kintsugi. Can you explain what that is?
The ancient craft of kintsugi is a practical expression of Zen Buddhism’s philosophy of Wabi-Sabi, which nurtures acceptance of and appreciation for imperfections and transience. In Kyoto, we waited on a long line to view an exquisite ancient bowl once shattered and then repaired with gold lacquer in such a way to highlight its damage rather than hide it. I adapted the repair of this broken pottery to my photographic prints.
Can you describe your process?
In some images, torn fragments from other photographs were used to join the now torn edges, leaving a visual reminder of the damage and disrupting the wholeness of the image. Colored embroidery thread mindlessly and crudely sewn welcomed my unthinking body into the process. The work was now an opportunity to be both the one who injured and the one who could repair. The ripped and torn images were then dipped in an encaustic beeswax medium, leaving a translucent skin-like texture. Skin holds us together but is also a reminder of our impermanent nature. Held to the light, one can see the rip and the mending, highlighting injury and repair simultaneously, resulting in precious scars.
I want to express my gratitude to Barry Magid for the special quality of attention he gave to my work and providing a Dharma frame, to Sensei Kaz Tanahashi for introducing me to art practice as meditation, and to Roshi Joan Halifax for her compassionate patience with my grasping.
“…For nothing can be sole or whole
That has not been rent…”
–William Butler Yeats