The Zen of Seeing: a Thoughtful Discourse on Drawing as a Form of Meditation

“How I would like people
To hear…the sound of the snow falling
Through the deepening night…” – Hakuin, as quoted in The Zen of Seeing

I just finished reading The Zen of Seeing: Seeing/Drawing as Meditation, published in 1973 by Frederick Franck, a dental surgeon, artist, and writer who spent years working with Albert Schweitzer and who published many books on Buddhism.  Besides The Zen of Seeing, his most significant contribution is the conversion of a dumping ground near his home in New York to a public sculpture park named Pacem in Terris (“Peace on Earth”).  He died in 2006 at age 97.

The Zen of Seeing is handwritten, which is unusual for a modern book.  Franck explains this in the foreword:

This book is handwritten because, in its way, it is a love letter, and love letters should not be typeset by compositors or computers.

What sort of love letter?  A love letter to life itself, as he explains on the final page:

In seeing/drawing, that which matters can be perceived through the senses, not denied but maximally affirmed.  While seeing/drawing, I glimpse into nature, I taste nature, the nature of reality.

The entire book is about drawing from life as meditation.  It really spoke to me because I, too, see drawing as a form of meditation.  In fact, Franck, who had numerous one-man shows and later had works in major museums worldwide, apparently abandoned the art world for a private drawing practice:

I abandoned [painting and photography] when in seeing/drawing I found an art more urgent than art itself.  I had painted and exhibited for years.  I folded up my easel, closed my paintbox when I discovered that it was not really my aim to add to the world’s stock of art objects, discovered that what I really wanted was to truly SEE before I die.  And so I started to draw as if my life depended on it.  It very probably did–and does…

…After much seeing/drawing, my eye goes on drawing whether my hand draws or not.

…The sense perception, the activity of the reflex eye-heart-hand, is…the leap from a platitudinous world to one of mystery.

…Seeing/drawing is not a self-indulgence, a ‘pleasant hobby,’ but a discipline of awareness, of unwavering attention to a world that is fully alive.  It is not the pursuit of happiness, but stopping the pursuit and experiencing the awareness, the happiness, of being ALL THERE.

It’s clear from reading this unique, wonderful book that even in 1973 the developed world was pretty mindless (but perhaps less so than in our age of social media and microscopic attention spans):

We do a lot of looking: we look through lenses, telescopes, television tubes…Our looking is perfected every day, but we see less and less…Never has it been more urgent to speak of SEEING.  Ever more gadgets, from cameras to computers, from art books to videotapes, conspire to take over our thinking, our feeling, our experiencing, our seeing…Millions of people, unseeing, joyless, bluster through life in their half-sleep, hitting, kicking, and killing what they have barely perceived.

His drawings are scattered throughout the book.  Some are simple, others complex.  Some are quiet, others dynamic.  Many are quite lovely.  Not that loveliness matters:

In the minds of ‘common-minded people’–those who are blind–that which the draftsman’s hand precipitates is an attempt to make an image of reality.  To him who knows and sees, it is a witness to reality.

It’s also a book about Zen, as viewed through the lens of a drawing practice:

Zen raises the ordinariness of The Ten Thousand Things to sacredness and it debunks much that we consider sacrosanct as being ordinary.  What we consider supernatural becomes natural, while that which we have always seen as so natural reveals how wondrously supernatural it is.

Finally, it contains my new favorite quote:

“If your eye is just a little clouded, flowering illusions are rampant.” – ninth-century Zen master, Kisu

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