Zen, poetry and pictures: The scent of a horse’s hoof.

There is a zen-folktale about an Zen Master and painter named Ichu. One day a warrior came to visit him. He challenged Ichu to paint the fragrance described in the following line:

“After walking through flowers, a horse’s hoof is fragrant.” In response to the challenge, Ichu drew a horse’s hoof with a butterfly. Unsatisfied the warrior said, “Spring breeze over the river bank,” and then requested a picture of the breeze. Ichu drew a willow branch.

The warrior then quoted the Zen phrase, “A finger directly pointing to the human mind; see Buddha Nature,” and asked for a Ichu to draw a picture of Mind.

Ichu responded by picking up his wet brush and flicking it into the warrior’s face. While the warrior grimmaced, Ichu drew the warrior’s face. When he then asked for a picture of True Nature, Ichu broke his brush in two and stated “If you haven’t got an eye of wisdom, then you can’t see it.”

Each school of Buddhism has the seeing eye and presents in it some form of art: The Theravadans create poetics that mirror the teachings of the Buddha, massive stupas and golden Buddhas; Mahayanists create singular works of benefit that cast the eye from the inside back to the world, objects of devotion and large halls; Zennists used folk-tales to break down the illusions of ego, craft tricky word-snares to trap delusions and construct art-in-form; Vajrayanists sing songs of wisdom that delve deep into the pranja-reserves of each of us.

When songs are crafted, poems composed, buildings constructed or books written, there is a moment when the seeing prajna eye of the crafter is captured in the work. It is up to the reader, viewer or singer to find it. It is not found by mirroring the eye of another but by honing our own eye of wisdom. We can attach to the craft but Ichu broke the brush in two – Hui-Neng burned the commentary he wrote – temples are torn down by time and history. The brush does not capture the absolute – words to not capture the meaning of the mind. Each just express a moment that lies beyond form. Once found? Why dwell?

That is the moment that is captured when we look through a painting and break the brush behind it. That is the moment when we read a sutra, see beyond the words and then burn it away. It is that moment when we let words drip from our lips, out of our memory and into the soil of this life’s koan. Each moment is the moment with our teacher where our knowledge is tested with 30 blows from a stick.

So… what do you see?

[credit to h.koppdelaney for images]


Mind is unfettered, shiny, clear and consistent.
     but do not forget shadows emerge;
     clouds peak over hills.
Like the fragrance of yesterday’s rain in the air;
     with the silence of the past,
     what is the purpose of the future?


5 thoughts on “Zen, poetry and pictures: The scent of a horse’s hoof.

  1. this is such a terrific post. Beautifully written – and capturing something I have been thinking about for a few days but havent been able to articulate. Yours was the first blog I really loved when I came to Buddhism, and this kind of post reminds me why!!Thankyou for writing – it really helps me along my path.

  2. Oh no! Thanks be to you @captnspacecadet, comments like yours make me proud to say that I waste some of my day pounding away on a keyboard.Cheers!

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