Zen Art

Paul Reps' "Zen Fish"

For the past forty years, anyone with even a passing interest in Zen has likely read Zen and the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel and Zen Flesh, Zen Bones by Paul Reps (and probably Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki as well). Reps was an eccentric character who lived as a beggar-poet and artist, primarily in Japan and Hawaii.

Reps brushed simple Zen paintings accompanied by his haiku-like poems, some of them consisting of only a couple of words. Sometimes people would ask to buy one of his works. Reps would ask, “What do you do for a living?” “Do you have a house or rent?”  “Do you have a car?” After hearing the reply, Reps would price his work accordingly—a higher price for those with more money. Reps survived on almost nothing, but late in life and in need of money he discussed starting a magazine called Playgirl with one of his friends—this was in 1966. An actual Playgirl magazine was published by someone else in 1973.

After discovering gyotaku (ink rubbings on rice paper of live fish), a traditional Japanese art form, Reps began painting fish based on that art in the Zen style.  One inscription that Reps put on a fish painting was, “Let’s live in the air, like fish live in the water.” That is, fish in the water can go anywhere they wish because there are no artificial barriers or boundaries to get in their way.  Reps was no doubt recalling the celebrated philosophical banter of Chuang Tzu and Hui Shih:

When Chuang Tzu and Hui Shih were walking by the Hao River, Chuang Tzu said, “Look at the fish darting about, going where they like.”  Hui Sui said, “You are not a fish, so how do you know what fish enjoy?” Chuang Tzu countered, “You are not I, so how do you know I don’t know what fish enjoy?” Hui Shi: “OK, I am not you, but you still are not a fish, so how can you know what fish enjoy?” Chuang Tzu: “By asking me the question in the first place shows that you assumed I did know what fish enjoy.”

The inscription on this Zen fish is “Who is…Reps,” a puzzling phrase that can be taken in a lot of ways—“Who am I?” “Who are you?” “Who is this fish?” “Where is it going?” “What does it enjoy?”—and so on. The chop on the painting reads “empty.”

When Reps visited a restaurant in Japan, he left one of his paintings as a tip. When he visited a person’s home he brought his Zen art as a gift. This painting no doubt came from one of those occasions. This painting, discovered in Japan, has now been very nicely mounted for display.