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Finding Zen Scrolls, Part 2

July 29, 2011

In Japan, there are home demolition specialists that tear down a house, salvaging anything that looks of value, for example, interesting pieces of wood and the things a family leaves in the attic, in closets, and in drawers. The contents are sold off—a kind of estate sale. As in the US, there are treasures to be found in these sales, but the goods are almost always in terrible condition.

I had a fourth-generation scroll-maker friend who had huge piles of unmounted paintings and calligraphies that he had accumulated over time all over his studio. For one reason or another, the works of art in the piles had never been made into scrolls. Every so often, we would go through a pile and see what we could discover. Some outstanding and important works surfaced, but, again, in dreadful condition: torn, covered with mold, eaten by bugs, or half disintegrated. Fortunately, he was a scroll-maker, so he could restore the finest pieces, but only the very best, because restoration and remounting is an expensive process.

Although Sendai was fire-bombed during the war the rest of northern Japan was largely unscathed, so many kura, treasure houses of wealthy households, survived. In the present generation of Japanese, appreciation and knowledge of antiques has declined, so people often brought photos or the actual items themselves to my university office for me to evaluate. I was astounded to find that some pieces were on the Important Cultural Property level, especially swords and sword fittings, tea utensils, carvings by Enku and Mokujiki, and important paintings—I saw two genuine Sesshu, as well as calligraphies by Kukai, Ikkyu, Ryokan. With the exception of Tesshu—nearly every household had some of his work—there weren’t many zenga in these collections but when there were I obtained them (if I had enough money).

I now travel widely, both in Japan and overseas, and I make it a point to visit antique stores or fairs where I happen to be. Wonderful zenga-related items continue to turn up in those places as well, far from home. I am amazed that in the midst of a huge mountain of antiques—close to a million things in the case of such gigantic markets as in Notting Hill in London—a piece will call out to me.

That is I why I have always felt that a zenga finds you, rather than the other way around. There is a karmic connection between a zenga and the person who is charged with keeping it in good condition and proper reverence while it is in his or her care.

This post was posted in Zen Art