In 1431, ten-year-old Sesshu Toyo knew it was time to enter the Hofuku-ji Temple in Okayama, Japan, to become a Zen Buddhist monk. However once he was there, he found his temple chores a chore, and he struggled with asceticism. In short he found it hard to concentrate; his mind was on painting and drawing—that’s all he wanted to do. One morning the abbot, who was by now completely fed up with him, tied Sesshu to a post in one of the halls as punishment. At the end of the day he looked in on his novice and was startled by a mouse jumping out from under the boy’s feet. Worried that the mouse might have bitten the child, he took a closer look and discovered that the mouse wasn’t real but was born of Sesshu’s imagination. The boy had drawn the small rodent with precision in the dust; for the ink he had used his tears of shame and for the brush his big toe, putting the mouse in motion. Recognizing Sesshu’s artistic genius, the abbot thereby allowed young Sesshu the time he sought to paint.
This alas is a fiction, and like all legends there are several variations. Sometimes Sesshu—who indeed became one of Japan’s most revered landscape painters—is tied to a tree instead of the post; sometimes he’s punished by his father instead of by the monk. And sometimes, Sesshu paints not one but several mice who gnaw through his ropes to free him. According to Hideo Yamamoto, curator of Kyoto National Museum, the version here with Sesshu in the temple first appeared in Kano Eino’s Honchogashi, a book of biographical sketches of Japanese artists that the author had compiled in the early Edo period, a couple of hundred years after Sesshu put down his brush. The fact that Eino included Sesshu’s tall tale in his book is surely an indication that the tale had been in circulation for a very long time—in other words truth rooted in repetition. Nevertheless this underscored Sesshu’s preeminence and the Eastern then-held belief “in the supernatural power of the artist.”
Today in the Hofuku-ji Temple there’s a screen with an ink and wash drawing of an enso (or circle), the symbol for enlightenment: ‘the totality of our being.’ And out from the center of the circle stares a tiny rodent. Making a painting of the creature, such as Okada Kido’s, above, has been a tradition of Hofuku-ji’s Zen masters who have passed through the doors. Sesshu’s mythology clearly became the temple’s own—the greatest tribute of all I think for any imaginary mouse.
Sources: Tanio Nakamura, Sesshu Toyo, English translation by Elise Grilli, 1975; Audrey Yoshiko Seo, Enso: Zen Circles of Enlightenment, 2007; Fritz Van Briessen, The Way of the Brush: Painting Techniques of China and Japan, 1999; Kyoto National Museum.
(Image Enso at Hofuku-ji Temple by Okada Kido (1902-1988), ink on paper, 43 x 37 ½ inches, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)