Work Space: Robert Gray

WORK SPACE: Welcoming Robert Gray

We’re humbled and honored to announce that Robert Gray will be joining SPACES as an editor/contributor, adding his beautiful voice and wisdom to each issue. We’re so happy he’s here. Welcome to Work Space.

On My Desk: Zen Art at Work


“Even the silence of the road would stop me. But how does one capture stillness on paper?” asks Aritomo, exiled former gardener to the Emperor of Japan, in The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng. I’m reading this beautiful novel now. It is here on my desk, waiting patiently as I type these words. Also on the desk: a lamp, a yellow legal pad, a pen, two other books and lots of empty space on the clear glass surface.

When I look up from my computer screen at the wall of windows facing southeast, I see an avian feeding frenzy at the feeder, prompted by more than a foot of fresh snow. Beyond the bird feeder are fields, trees, a wide valley and, in the distance, mountains.

Sometimes–now, let’s say–I cocoon myself in this office for an hour or two and read whatever has drawn my attention to the bookcase nearby. Reading is the place where the world briefly makes a little more sense. Reading is my refuge. Reading is my best side.

Of the three books currently resting on this desktop, two are new: The Garden of Evening Mists and Silver Wind: The Arts of Sakai Hōitsu (1761-1828),” the catalogue for an art exhibit I saw last month at the Japan Society in New York City.

How does one capture stillness on paper? Not in an exhibition catalogue, to be sure, though the book sparks visual memories of the museum visit and the stunning works I encountered. If reproductions are a catalyst, so are the words: “In this large hanging scroll, Kiitsu depicts Japan’s tallest, most sacred peak as a majestic, gleaming vision, using only white pigment to define the mountain’s sharp-edged ridges, covered by snow and ice.”

There is also an old book on my desk. I purchased Zen Art for Meditation by Stewart W. Holmes & Chimyo Horioka 40 years ago, and it has remained close by over the years. I’ve been reading books about Eastern philosophy since I discovered sugarcoated Hinduism in Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge in the early 1970s. I’ve acquired and parted with many books over the years, but Zen Art for Meditation was a keeper from the start, opening my eyes to a Zen perspective that transcended the words I’d read in lessons like the one in which a master advises his students to emulate the crooked-limbed apple tree rather than the stately pine because no one will chop down an apple tree. Its timber is perceived to have no value. Or the one about the Zen master who tells his students they should emulate a pine bough, which does not resist snow, but bends and bends under the weight and then gently releases its burden, springing back to its original position.

Be the pine bough, but not the pine tree?

I know the beauty of Zen is in its seeming contradictions, but what if the pine has been stripped of its boughs by loggers? No matter. Zen doesn’t care. Zen can take it. Zen laughs. “Be the logger,” Zen says.

I doubt that I know much more about Zen now than I did four decades ago, but some people would say this is the point. I keep reading Eastern teachings and viewing Eastern art because I’ve always felt the need for, and understood the distinct advantage of, detachment; for being in the world yet seeking distance from it; for curling in upon myself, for achieving turtle mind, for being here now instead of there then or somewhere else much sooner than necessary.

That’s not always a good strategy. Achieving turtle mind was something my father accomplished instinctively, without supporting texts, during his brief life. His acute introversion swept him up in the watercourse way, the path of least resistance, and he drowned, figuratively at least. Which, again, could be the point, but it’s a point I’m not quite ready to concede, even to Zen.

Now I open Zen Art for Meditation and read that true insight does not come from specialized knowledge, but from preconscious intuitions of a person’s whole being.

Raw silk.

Uncut wood.

The watercourse way again. You are supposed to allow distracting thoughts to enter your mind freely and try not to resist them. Simply let them flow around you as if you were a river boulder.

There is a painting in this book titled “Clear Weather in the Valley” — craggy mountain landscape, crooked trees clinging precipitously to hillsides, waterfall spilling down into the valley, fog nestling between peaks.

Harsh. Simple. Beautiful.

I allow myself to enter the painting further, as if I too am walking down one of the paths in the company of minuscule people — dabs of a tiny brush — who are dwarfed by the landscape, drawn precisely to its scale. No more than a blade of grass. No less than a mountain. Once I read that Western paintings are distinguished by a contradictory perspective, with self-important human subjects dominating the canvas and reducing the natural world to the background.

That’s who I was 43 years ago, as a college sophomore. I did not know anything about Zen yet, but was taking a course called “Origins of the English Language,” taught by Stewart W. Holmes, who was probably writing Zen Art for Meditation at the time. Maybe the course was fascinating, but I don’t remember. Now I wish I could take it again, or at least apologize to Dr. Holmes for my lack of interest at the time.

What I do recall is the quiet presence of a diminutive, unassuming man in the front of the classroom. He was simply trying to share the wonders of our native tongue with students who were “otherwise engaged” in the quest to become variations on a theme of Flower Child; who knew for certain what they should be learning in college, and it wasn’t the origins of the English language from some old white guy who didn’t seem to notice they were changing the world.

Talk about perspective.

Zen Art for Meditation was published in 1973. By then, I was no longer a college student, but somewhere in that brief window of time — less than three years –between taking his class and discovering his writing, I developed a keen interest in Eastern philosophy. My sense of irony arrived later, perhaps as soon as I purchased Zen Art for Meditation, which I picked up because of the title and the publisher (Tuttle, a key source in the U.S. at the time for books about Japanese life and culture). I was shocked to discover the co-author was my old professor. That guy? Really? And yet, now I must admit no teacher influenced me more than he did, despite the fact that when I had the opportunity to study with him in person he’d been all but invisible.

Zen art at work. It’s perfect. Stewart W. Holmes was, and still is, my Zen master. Commenting on a haiku by Meisetsu (“A monk in the mist: / I can see him / By his tinkling bell.”), he asks his readers: “Where are the boundaries of the monk’s being? And yours?”

Here, I reply. Now. At my desk. Working. Glancing up, seeing birds and blowing snow and pines and mountains. Glancing down, capturing stillness on paper.


Robert gray Photo 2-2Robert Gray works as an editor and weekly columnist at Shelf Awareness, which publishes two newsletters–one for general readers and one for people in the book business. He launched his book blog, Fresh Eyes Now, in 2004. Gray has written for numerous publications, including Tin House, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery MagazinePublishers Weekly and Cimarron Review. From 1992 until 2006, he was a bookseller and buyer at the Northshire Bookstore, Manchester Center, Vt. He has an MFA in Writing and Literature from Bennington College and lives in Saratoga Springs, N.Y..

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