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Finding Zen Scrolls, Part 1

July 21, 2011

Where do Zen scrolls come from?

Every Saturday, I visited the antique stores in Sendai. The dealers were my mentors and friends, and a few were serious Zen students and ardent tea ceremony devotees. (Or they were gangsters.  These guys had acquired high quality goods as collateral for loans they had made over the years. I got along well with them, too; they were actually quite perceptive concerning the quality and value of a work of art, and were in fact enamored of Buddhist art.)  A couple of the dealers were real scholars, far more knowledgeable than any art historian or curator I knew, primarily because the dealers had paid a high tuition for their knowledge:  “If you spend a lot of money on a fake, you make sure you won’t do it again.” They shared their knowledge with me freely, and I spent many pleasant Saturdays cherishing antiques—holding them in my hands, looking at them from all angles, and trying to decipher and interpret what was written on them. The dealers almost always had new finds every week. It took some years before I could afford any zenga but when I was able to I acquired everything of quality that I could.

Every month there were two outdoor antique markets in Sendai, on—as is the custom in Japan—the grounds of shrine. Since the dealers at these markets were itinerant, traveling from market to market each weekend, they had a wide range of stuff. They knew my tastes well, and they usually had a few treats for me every time. Alas, many of the things came from abandoned shrines and temples in the hinterlands. On occasion, a dealer had a large box of scrolls that I bought. Not infrequently such scrolls were covered with the dust of decades, if not centuries, and I had to endure a number of sneezing fits to uncover something good. Twice a year in Sendai, there were two grand antique fairs with dealers attending from all over the country.


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