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Set Design

Updated: Sep 14, 2023

Barbara Roether


Among the wandering monks that populate traditional Zen stories and paintings, the motif of two friends often appears. Usually one is a poet, the other a kind of earthy attendant, and their differences help set up a narrative of shifting viewpoints.

When Wet Cement decided to publish John High’s Scrolls of a Temple Sweeper I was reminded of the stories of Kanzan and Jitokku, the Zen poet monk and his broom-wielding sidekick, who are often depicted on diptychs in traditional Japanese paintings.

This led me back to a fascination I have for diptychs in general, the idea of an idea that is actually two ideas. I love the way diptychs shuffle perceptions, the interplay and interposing motions they use to create a separate third entity, not to mention triptychs, the cubed permutations of threes, etc. All of this reminded me of an exhibit I had seen in Tokyo several years ago which had set this train of thought about multiple views in motion. Probably it wasn’t just that exhibit. Probably it was multiple things.

It started when a dear friend showed me the secret route to walk to the Nezu Museum, from my apartment a few kilometers away in Azabu Juban. This sounds simple on the surface but in Tokyo with its underground crossing tunnels, unreadable signs, and streets that veer in unexpected angles along the hills, actually arriving at one's destination always seemed serendipitous and significant. Much of the time, where I was in relation to other locations seemed to be a shifting proposition. And perhaps that’s always the truth of things, that we exist only in relation to. Other things.

The delight of finding the angular edifice of the Nezu, perched on its hillside, extended into what was found inside; as if the contents too were newly discovered; objects of great beauty that just happened to be hidden there. A show of Koren’s famous “Irises” for example, or this show that I’m thinking of simply entitled Paintings Created as Sets.

One enters the ultra-modern Nezu via a long sloping wooden hallway. A glass wall on one side looks onto a formal garden; then slides down into an interior gallery where the lighting is dim and churchlike. Walking in from the bright blue of a clear winter day outside, there is a moment of slight disorientation, the eyes need time to adjust. The Japanese seem to be hyper-aware of this liminal moment, the power of light to reset our perceptions. The reframing enacted through this ritual- entering the modernist equipoise of the Nezu to encounter the ancient art displayed there- is the first in a long series of exchanges among the frames of reference here.

The first pair of scrolls I see are titled “an unworldly woman clothed in leaves and skins.” She is “a hermit and a holy woman” as the plaque tells me. She is a woman alone, wearing a wild cape of leaves, each leaf in her cape is outlined with the finest of lines. The black ink on the ivory paper with its rich range of values, is like an arrangement of shadows. She looks a little like a tree on two legs. This woman reminds me of hippie women I knew in Oregon. I can smell her sweat, she looks happy. In one panel she is turned away, in the other she is facing us. What has happened to make her turn away? I love the word choice of “unworldly” as in naïve, but also how it rhymes with otherworldly.

As I stand watching the unworldly woman, a group of three young women wearing gorgeous kimonos in blue and gold stand next to me. They quickly examine the wild woman clad in leaves but seem perplexed, or embarrassed and move on quickly to the scrolls of camellias and birds where they linger longer, and seem more comfortable. I worry that maybe they don’t want to stand next to me either, I’m too much like the hermit, American and underdressed. It’s Saturday so I’m wearing jeans and sneakers having not yet learned that museum-going is a formal occasion in Japan, sometimes bordering on the ceremonial. Thus the kimonos.

I’m reassured when an older Japanese woman in a pale green wool coat and fine yellow silk scarf, pauses next to me, she is elegant and thin. She takes her time. Together we look at the “Unworldly woman” in her bare feet, with the skins of some animal hanging around her ankles, staring back at us. I feel a sense of kinship with this older woman, we both know that this wandering woman is someone we might be; we see her life as a reasonable response to certain circumstances that we can both imagine. We could do this if we wanted to. Maybe we already are. We accept what the kimono girls don’t know yet, that this unkempt woman lives inside of us.

I’d never seen a wild woman in Asian art before, only males, though I’ve since learned women hermits weren’t uncommon. In the basket she carries, I imagine the evidence of what she’s been up to as she wanders in the inky mountains. There are bird feathers, or a dead bird, hard to tell, but I don’t think she killed it. There is a drinking bottle with a cork, in case wine is offered? There is an empty bowl, bundles of herbs she has found along the stream, and amulets she sometimes gives to passing children. In the winter she stays in the temple. She tells me, it’s a better life than being told what to do all day by some grumpy husband. I say, I know, being married remains an almost impossible arrangement. My husband is back in America, I say. I’m not sure I want to go back but I should. You are always too much in the middle, she tells me, eager to please even when you don’t agree. Make a decision about how you want to live and start out, I did. I’m trying to, I tell her.

In one scroll she is approaching. In the other she is walking away.

It’s obvious that the essential element of sets is in their suggested relationships to one another, but it is never simply this plus this. The sets are algebraic in their design, variable sequences of connection that seem to open into an infinity of association. There are the images themselves that call to mind their creation, the motion of the artist's hand with a brush. There is the story the image tells, and my story here telling of them. My vision is overlaid on the artist's vision, and all overlaid with a deep sense of time. In some sets a river passes between the two scrolls, in others whole seasons. Some sets contrast comfort to danger, or youth and old age. An owl and a rooster call out night and day. The border of one scroll might function as a fence, or a page in a calendar.

The mathematics of these myriad relationships feels tangible. I have the sense that if I could just stay here in the Nezu long enough, sifting through all these permutations, I could uncover the secret esoteric revelation of the nature of inter-relationships. I realize at the same time that this might be overly ambitious and that they’ll never let me stay past closing. But there seems to be something essential I need to understand for my writing, something fundamental about the illusion of any single point of view. Time, space, creator, viewer, maybe I can solve for X.

There is a triptych with deer. Images of two deer painted with spectacular subtlety, a warm gray so full of colors I can’t believe it’s just ink. They gather near the bottom of the long vertical scroll drinking from a river that is filled by a waterfall at the top. A delicate plume of water is falling toward them that simply fades halfway down, into an empty white space on the paper, before appearing again in the pool of the stream that catches it down below. In this era, only parts of every scene are suggested. The viewer fills the space remaining, bringing some kind of wholeness to the fragments shown. The water in the stream is ice cold, falling from the melting snowfields high up the mountains. I once camped in a canyon like this along the Tuolumne River outside of Yosemite, the water poured with such roaring force it kept us up all night. The suggestion of immense vertical space here gives me vertigo.

In one panel the deer’s delicate necks are turned toward us, with expressions of wide-eyed innocence. In the other scroll, the deer are on the other side of the river closer to the waterfall. In the center scroll a giant dragon is lurking in the river. He is angular and bony, portrayed like a sort of x-ray image, as if seen through the water's surface. We feel the threat of the dragon in the river. The noses of the deer skim the water unaware of what lurks within, their delicate lips in danger of being torn away. Someone should alert the deer. Will the dragon attack? Danger and innocence use the same river, and we are never sure where in the river the dragon is. Still, we put our mouths in to drink.

On days like this, when I’ve talked to no one, my loneliness is made tolerable only by this beauty. It is a language I understand, full of human presence, eternal, immediate. I drink deeply through time and space, willingly transported. Take me, please.

As we get older borders become more familiar, since we have progressed through so many. Each role, child, lover, mother, teacher, traveler, artist, is bordered by its own edges of possibility, economics, the limits of a medium. There is always the diptych of relationships, each of us captured within our own experiences, the extensions and contractions of love. Often we hang out next to our partners, but we’re not always in the same picture. I no longer believe most of the stories I’ve told about my own life, though I keep making up new ones. National borders are another kind of frame, though perhaps a false one. In Japan, I become a container for America; or a contrasting American. Even though Japan feels more like my own internal territory- reserved, spartan, and concerned with beauty- than America ever does.

Three Scenes of Autumn is a famous triptych by Mitsuoki, an artist (b.1617) who in the Edo period wanted to recapture the elegance of Medieval Japan. In each scroll a poet stands in a landscape. In one, a temple is suggested in the distance, next there is a craggy mountain, the other is Mt. Fuji. Several of the poet’s works are written at the top of each scroll (vertically). Next to this is another set of triptychs, created in dialogue with this one, that has no poems and no poets, just the same landscapes. Viewers of the 17th century would have known the famous poems that commemorated the scene, and the poet. They would not have needed to see those elements but would imagine them there, audible and visible in memory. Presence, absence. The landscape itself seems to hold the nascent essence of both poet and poem. It is in essence a negative set, the frames here are around what is missing. The Japanese even have a name for this “motif of absence” (rusu moyo). It is designed to allow the viewer to imagine themselves into the scenery more easily than if someone else were already there.

In a famous set of screens Cherry Blossoms in Yoshino, Maple Trees in Tatsuta (Japanese 17th century) there are two scenes, one of white flowering cherries against a yellow background, the other of scarlet red autumn leaves against the same background. Magically the same dark blue lake swirls at the base of both scenes. Each tree is hung with (tanzaku) poems on small vertical scrolls that were hung in trees, and each tanzaku, has a faint landscape painting behind the letters. They are branching trees of phrase and image, at two different places, inside the emotional container of a season.

For much of its history landscape paintings were often accompanied by a poem, written at the top (vertically) so that having a text on the image is a deeply ingrained tradition. In looking at a lot of Japanese work I feel that a text remains present, whether or not it is included.

I’ve been thinking about how the presence of some imaginary text hangs alongside so much of what we look at. The set of elsewhere that colors this where. It can be the text we are writing at the moment, or one we’ve read before, or the names of another image we associate with this one. The way for example, as I was writing the first notes for this, the view off my back deck in North Carolina, down a broad sloping field to a tree line of black walnuts and redbud; resembled, on most days, the paintings of Constable. North Carolina in one scroll, England in the other. Something about the preponderance of sky in proportion to the tree canopy, the trees, fan like, or hand like against a blue sky, with white clouds.

There’s a temptation to reduce things to this interrelationship of two, but that’s not really where the energy is. It’s in the process of moving between, of standing back and then looking up close, or the expanse of time or space in between one and the other, so that what the scrolls suggest is the opposite of whatever is static. I think this possibility of flux and change is one of the essential ways that so much Japanese art reflects Buddhist principles. It’s the constant flickering change of samsara. A shifting frame that keeps me coming back. No single view holds; could be this, could be this other, and then again. Such indeterminacy is a kind of arousal.

The next diptych at the Nezu is of two friends, Xuyou and Chaofu, more wandering monks, who are always the perfect characters to put in a landscape. Where they wander we follow along inhaling the scent of pine forests, listening along the sibilant river. One screen shows Xuyou, who, on being asked by an Emperor to become his successor, went out and washed his ears in a stream because the idea was so terrible even to hear, so polluting. His friend on the other panel is making a detour because now the water in the river is polluted. I can hear Chaofu saying “That jerk, Xuyou, polluting the whole river with what he heard, what am I supposed to drink now?” They wander along the same river, separated by months and miles, but still in reference to each other, the story completed by its other part. I love the concept of the water being polluted by words, the interpenetration of the natural and manmade.

In the partnership of Kanzan and Jittoku, [Hanshan and Shide in Chinese]. Kanzan is the poet, while Jittoku, his sidekick is a “temple sweeper” always pictured with his broom. The broom is partly an emblem of his lowly status as a mere janitor, but in another sense, it is a tool for sweeping away the litter of illusion; our minds as they are, full of superfluous longings In these stories the temple sweeper is of some indeterminate origin, (as heroes often are) but often of higher spiritual expertise. It's always the grubby sidekick, like Jittoku who knows the most.


I hear echoes of Jittoku in Scrolls of a Temple Sweeper. As a long-time Zen practitioner, John’s work is at play with this sense of indeterminacy. What is the relationship between narrative and narrator, between then and now? Norman Fisher calls John’s work “Zen infused” by which I think he means that the “Scrolls' ' operate in a landscape of Buddhist thought and practice, as indeed, does much of traditional Japanese art.

The characters in John’s scrolls, are his own creations, they have a different relationship than Jittoku and Kanzan, and John has broader intentions, but there are echoes, which is a key word when talking about sets, whether of paintings or chapters. In the “Scrolls” no one is sure where the temple sweeper comes from. As in the deer scrolls with the falling water, there is an empty space in the narrative, a space between images where a number of stories might appear. As I read John’s scrolls I think of the Japanese concept of juku/myuke, which the scholar William La Fleur describes as “leaving the empty, and coming into the provisional.” I like that idea to describe writing, it comes from silence, and makes an utterance. It doesn’t make a certainty.

Scrolls of a Temple Sweeper begins in this territory.

"There was never a time that didn’t include you. Even if the others don’t remember, it’s fine she says to the boy. No one will bother or care—that smell of apple & wood chip, a girl walking along the river & she was you and knew it too. All of her hands shifting into birds, or maybe balloons, floating out of your arms. You smell the corn seed in her hair & skin—and you hear the wind & love letters never written and already here & revealed now as you finally read them. The body softening after so much violence—underwood blue jay, stone pile, river run, sky a bit undone. And full it was there & there was a time the door of the courtyard opening, a boy waiting, and you sense without asking, he too, is a part of you, has come for you, witnessed you. Here we are—a piece of wounded time & wow, what a miraculous place to come home to. This is what the brush of ink is speaking to you right now as you prepare to leave the dream—or enter it again."

The concept that things lack an inherent existence in and of themselves (are inherently empty) is a foundational concept in Buddhism. The Heart Sutra famously posits that “form is no other than emptiness and emptiness no other than form.” This is not to say that we occupy a void, but that the existence of things and ideas occurs in relation to other things. The example of a chariot is often used: Is a chariot the wheels, is it the cab, is it the horse that must pull it? Or is more accurately a relationship between wheels and wood and horse? As La Fleur writes “The corollary of the doctrine of the void is that all things are radically related.” (La Fleur, 90-92). I sense this ‘play in the field of relativity’ in John’s work. Are the speaker and the spoken to really separate? Is the past present? What about the mute girl who seems to tell stories? The one eyed boy who sees so much?

Juku/nyuku, and its opposite direction, juke/nyuku from the provisional to the empty) is part of an exegesis undertaken by the Medieval Japanese poet Shunzei who insisted that poetry itself (as practiced by certain monks) was a kind of transmission of dharma. (La Fleur again). According to Shunzei some uta poem/stories have elements that function for the reader as an example of the movements in an enlightened mind. “From the void (ku) to the provisional (ke) and to their middle (chu). The abstract is no less real than the concrete.”

As a younger person my Buddhist practice wasn’t Zen, but its ornately costumed cousin, Tibetan Buddhism. The Prajnaparamita, or emptiness teachings, which fundamentally shaped my young anarchist imagination, are common to both. Living in Japan I often felt these Buddhist ideas embodied around me, not just in temples, or art but in manners, in air, in memory.

And a memory comes to me here in North Carolina where it is now raining very hard. I was in Japan, taking a group of my Tokyo students to Kamakura, where we visited several historic Zen monasteries, then a much smaller Zen center (known by a friend of a friend) in an older house in a residential neighborhood. As we sat for a few hours, it began to rain. The rain was audible on the red tile roof in a particular way. Softer or louder depending on the intensity, the sound seemed to mimic our breath, coming in, going out. The sensei and his wife were kind and patient with my teenage students. We sat for an hour or more; then we rose to leave. Outside it was just dusk, and the rain began pouring with renewed exuberance, pouring off the tile roof onto the bamboo hedges around the house. This too seemed a continuation of the practice, that the door would open into this shower, just on the cusp of darkness. Walking with us to the porch the sensei pauses, then turns into a nook from which he produces a basket full of beautiful old silk umbrellas. He insists we each take one, with of course no thought of them being returned, and we do. It’s a parting memory that returns often. Because somehow, return was implied, were the umbrellas the dharma, protecting us now, was giving an insistence on return?

This idea, that insights of the spirit, or the inner life, are best realized when mediated through another element, human, or rain, or poetry, extends the spiritual life into the people and landscapes around us. For me, that moment in Kamakura, emerging from meditation into the release of nightfall, the cleansing of rainfall, and the sensei’s kindness, persists as an entire spiritual lesson. A place I sometimes think of as a beginning, that I have not yet started from.

John's work seem to echo this sense of indeterminacy of start and of finish. He has this beginning after the first beginning, and time loops back and forth. Learning to live more comfortably among these multiple “views'' and voices seems a relevant lesson from Buddhism in all our current politics, personal and public. He also gives us two beginnings. Here is the second.

A Letter By Way of Introduction From Our Monastery On The Sea By Head Monk, Enduring Sound, Friend of Our Temple Sweeper, The 9th Month, 1st Day, Year of the Dragon
The words you just read, or perhaps heard, between the Mute Girl and the One-Eyed Boy—these were the last the Temple Sweeper spoke to me on the night of his death. I am not sure why he spoke them, or any of his other sayings and stories—these fragments he uttered, as if dropping pebbles along the shore of our monastery. The notes that follow include my own tonight, as well as those written to the one he called the “mute girl” in these scrolls—right up to and with his final breath. Nor can I say I am sure as to why he transmitted these last sayings and ink drawings to me on the nights leading up to his departure from the body. He was a silent man, and though he arrived long after me, we lived for many years together in the monastery, he conversed on few occasions and then only by sheer necessity. I would follow his footsteps out by the sea, trailing furtively behind him—or sweeping the halls of our temple, and often I wondered how he gripped the broom so sturdily, as he had few fingers. How he lost them, I did not yet know. Still, we would work the fields of our small island side by side with the other monks, and he was a good worker. Many of the monks considered that he had been reincarnated from the spirit of a fox, for as an ancient sage once said of our pasts— “He is no longer blind to cause and effect.” I did as he requested and wrote these letters, stories, sayings, and poems during his last months. Eventually he even had me write down my own words, and I have included them alongside.

September 2023


1. La Fleur, William R. The Karma of Words: Buddhism and the Literary Arts in Medieval Japan. University of California Press, Berkeley. 1983.

2. The Nezu Museum website has a copy of the exhibit guide to Paintings Created as Sets:

3. There is a wealth of information available on Kanzan and Jittoku

a quick Wikipedia search renders the following: “Hanshan and Shide (Japanese: Kanzan and Jittoku) are popular figures in Zen painting. The duo is a common motif in Zen painting and is connected to a variety of interpretations in Zen Buddhism as a whole. Hanshan, whose name means "Cold Mountain," is believed to be an eccentric Zen poet from the Tang Dynasty (618–907) who lived on the Tiantang Mountain in Zhejiang Province. Shide, whose name means "foundling" or "pickup," was a kitchen worker at the nearby Guoqing Temple. He is said to have been abandoned by his family, and then found and raised by Fenggan, another Zen eccentric. As legend goes, the two formed a close friendship, with Shide stealing scraps from the kitchen to bring to Hanshan, and the pair spending time in nature, away from societal structure and institutions. …Hanshan and Shide are easily recognizable in Zen painting. They almost always appear disheveled, wandering in nature, laughing, or with mischievous looks on their faces. Hanshan is identified by the scroll he holds in his hand, alluding to his work as a poet. Shide is identified by the broom he holds, which references his work as a kitchen cleaner at the monastery.”...Representations of Hanshan and Shide remained very popular in Japan in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, and well into the 19th century.

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