Author:Josip Pasic       2014-04-10 Font:S M L




Josip Pasic



Let us start with a few examples ofpoetic images. The stillness, emptiness, quiescence, so essential for theformation of true images are present, in all of Wang Wei’s 8thcentury poetry:

Empty mountain: no man

But voices of men are heard


            - “ Deer’s Enclosure”


Falling flowers are still, still, cries a mountain bird

-      “Composed on the Cold Food Day”


Man at leisure.  Cassiaflowers fall.

Quiet night. Spring mountain is empty.

Moon rises. Startles - a mountain bird.

It sings at times in the spring stream.


-      “Bird - Singing Stream”


But, let usmove now to a different time and place:




And some push ourselves

Wanting to master it

Wanting to hold it all

                            Inour two hands

In the overloaded gaze

                 And the dumbstruckheart.

    Trying to become it.

To give it to some one?

   No, we’d like most

                                To keep it all ourselves



                                                        -“Ninth Elegy”


Compare the Bird - Singing Stream poem ofWang Wei, in which there is not a trace of conceptualization, with the fragmentof Rainer Maria Rilke’s Ninth Elegy. Rilke’s 20th century poem is both cerebral and conceptual.

In Wang Wei’s poem not only the poet isnot there but even the things are not quite the things.  The things are at once affirmed anddiminished or even negated.  The wordleisure, for example, takes away from the word man, that implicitly affirmshimself as an active creature.  Cassiaflowers, an affirmation of the flowers’ presence is negated by the word fall,implying dying, fading away.  Positiveaffirmation of the night is diminished by the word quiet.  Spring Mountain implying by itself a veryactive, alive, phenomenon is diminished by the presence of the word quiet.  Things in Wang Wei’s poems emerge not muddiedby the intellectuality of the poet.  Theyspeak and act as though living things.

Wang Wei’s approach to writing isconnotative: words aspiring to be the things or at least very directly pointingat them.  Rilke’s approach is denotative:words ending up talking about the things, missing them, everlastinglycircumambulating them.  ParaphrasingChuang Tzu’s esthetic dictum: not to hide a boat in the ravine (establishing acausal relationship between the boat and the ravine) but to hide the phenomenonin the phenomenon (establishing an acausal unit) is clearly visible in WangWei’s accurately translated poem:

Empty mountain: no man

But, lost in another bad translation:

There seems to be no one on the empty mountain.

“There seems to be no one” thisanalytical explanatory has destroyed the expression of a true living presenceand putting “ no one” ahead of an “empty mountain” robs the living moment ofit’s uniqueness. 

As in the above mistranslation Basho wasequally dissatisfied with his initial poem:

Fallen snows are light

and the lancelets appear

no more than an inch white


Eventually turning it into a true poem,

In the dawn twilight

there the lancelets appear

no more than an inch white

        - MatsuoBasho


The first poem is just a fragment, just alocal scene of a factual world; all amounting just to a prosaic expression. Inthe final version the factual details nest in the context of the vastness oflife; all amounting to a truly grand scene.

After the contact with some of thespecific images one can begin to talk more extensively about image itself.  Questions such as: what is image? Is imageits structure and isn’t its structure its function and its transformativepower? These and other questions are central to the material that is tounfold.  The questions are notnecessarily to be positively answered, for if answered, they degenerate intostatic notions that are devoid of life. Instead, questions by further questioning themselves, not unlike flowersflowering and eventually withering, expose all their structures and functions,and then even themselves perish.

Etymology of the word image alreadypoints in the right direction.  The wordimage comes from the Latin im- as in imitation. Furthermore im- and its variation in- implying being in, so in (thething) that it can imitate the thing most accurately.  Other implications of these root words im-and in- refer to negation as in impossible or inadequate.  This implication of negation of the things isof paramount importance especially in the formation of the Far Easternimages.  Also this negation aspect of theimage is far more difficult to understand than its imitative, affirmative one.

Images, any images, Eastern or Westernones, are essentially artifacts; they are mere pointing devices.  No image is ever a thing; but howeverself-evident that may seem it is of paramount importance to stress it because,in fact, we habitually mistake the image for the thing itself.

All images are a conglomerate of familiarand  unfamiliar elements.  No image Eastern or Western is just a photoreplica of the world.  In the Westernesthetics, as well as in the broader culture, the emphasis is, nonetheless, oncopying as accurately as possible the world of appearance.  This is where the familiar aspect of theimage comes into the picture, and ironically, appearance is more a matter ofapperception rather than perception. Perception and apperception are radically different: perception isseeing and apperception is viewing.  Inseeing there are no boundaries, no observer, such as Wang Wei’s:

Empty mountain: no man

Apperception is viewing with the tyrannyand rigidity of the syntactic framing of the language, as well as, theinfluence of the observer with all his conditioning:

Wanting to hold it all

In our two hands

In the overloaded gaze

And the dumbstruck heart.


Rilke epitomizes the Western apperceptive approach to image.

The result is an image of naive realism,image then not being that different from the way we already see the world.  We end up seeing what we already see.  In this there is no learning. 


The Far Eastern attitude in formation ofimage is primarily perceptual; it is an outcome of observation.  For example, Western painting looks like theway we see something.  Far Easternpainting looks very unlike the way we see something, unlike the way itappears.  One attitude captures thesurface, remaining superficial, the other, largely omitting the details ofappearance, captures the essence.  SikongTu says in his On Poetry: “there are a few who can truly describe somethingwithout describing its appearance”, and Li Zhi of the Qing Dynasty says in hispainting “Bamboo During A Storm”.  “WhatI have painted may not look like the real bamboo; it is difficult to paintwind.  It is easy to paint bamboo in itstrue form; it is difficult to paint bamboo that does not look like the realBamboo”.

Far Eastern images emerge out of perceptualground, and these images make even language (or any other expressive elements)flexible and inseparable from that perceptual ground.  This flexibility of language results infreedom from the rigid syntactical structures. Gone are the well known dichotomy of subject and object, presence ofarticles, and personal pronouns.  Connective elements (propositions, conjunctions), relative independenceof parts of speech, and tense declinations in verbs are sparse or absent.  Even more important than fading away of therigidities of the language is the poet, the observer, stepping out of theobservational field; the poet leaving with all his notions, beliefs, all of hisconditioning.

Likeness and unlikeness is the mostcryptic way of speaking about the image. Familiar and unfamiliar, as discussed above is using different words tosay the same thing.

Likeness points in the direction ofimitation.  Likeness is likening of wordsor other expressive devices to the appearance of the thing of expression, theremust be some likeness to the way a thing appears.  That likeness is a starting point.  Somehow we have to start with where weare.  Only then can we proceed intoexploring the unfamiliar realm, the world of unlikeness.

East and West radically differ in expressionof the element of unlikeness.  In theWest the element of unlikeness either does not exist or it exists in variousmental inventions like gods and other monsters (angels, devils, heroes, dwarfs,dragons etc.). 


In the Far East the unlikeness is simplyexpressed by emptiness.  Plenty ofemptiness dominating the painting, be it as emptiness in the objects (one couldcall that relative emptiness), or emptiness per se not representing anything.  This emptiness one could call the absoluteemptiness.

This emptiness being void, beingnothingness, is the transcendence of the sensual world, transcendence of thephenomenal world.   Actually thisemptiness is the ground of being, ground from where the phenomenal world emerged.   Image is only a true image, alive andeffective, if connected to that ground. If it is not, the image is only a partial image, only a fragmentmechanically related to other fragments. A true image is a simultaneous,acausal manifestation of the familiar (things) and the unfamiliar (void).

The Far Eastern, unlike the Western, artis not a matter of beauty or even a matter of precise capturing of the likenessof the images to the phenomenal world. As a matter of fact the Far Eastern art is often deliberately clumsy inexpression.  The clumsiness de-emphasizesthe importance of appearance.  Itsemphasis is on the pondering, meditation of the ontological status of realityrather than just emulating the surface of being, the phenomenal world.

To understand the function of the imageone must understand the basic structure and function of the human mind.  Human mind, more precisely called mentalactivities is nothing other than human consciousness.  Human consciousness is a complexphenomenon.  Consciousness is not onlywhat is known as consciousness in a narrow sense of the word, but it is alsowhat is known as unconsciousness. The etymology of the word consciousnessconsists of the Latin word con- meaning “with” and the word scientia meaning“knowledge”.  Also the Latin word sciremeaning “to cut” is the root word for scientia, knowledge.  Consciousness then literally means looking atlife through (or with) knowing, of cutting the unbroken wholeness of life in anarbitrary way.

We are naively prone to think that wehave direct contact with the so-called external and internal world.  Yet we, by the virtue of the cumbersomepresence of consciousness, experience the world only indirectly.  We experience it through various contents ofconsciousness which include also, what is known as, the psychologicalunconscious.  The psychologicalunconscious is wrongly coined unconscious because it still has its own contentlike the consciousness itself.  We maythen more accurately speak of conscious unconsciousness and the unconsciousconsciousness or even more accurately concealed or tacit consciousness.  

But there is such a thing as the trueunconscious, fundamentally different from the psychological unconscious.  The etymology is the Latin un- meaningnegation.  This implies total negation ofthe contents of consciousness.  This trueunconscious is one and the same as the void in Zen, or the elements of theunfamiliar, the elements of unlikeness explored above. 

Presence of a true unconsciousness,meaning looking at life without the parameters of the psychological knowledgeof the human mind, is an opening of a new instrument, namely the instrument ofseeing.  The mind that looks at lifethrough knowledge, the viewing mind, may be called scientific mind.   The mind that looks at life without thisknowledge, the seeing mind, may be called the truly religious mind.

Further understanding of the very natureand function of consciousness requires understanding of its most basic buildingblocks.  Thought (knowing, memory) is themost basic and irreducible structure of consciousness.  The very essence of any thought is itsliminality.  To put it simply, thought islimited.

The emergence of consciousness then,thanks to the essential liminality of thought, inevitably forms (otherwiseformless) life into a certain ordering that amounts to nothing more than asubjective fabrication.  The immediateactuality of life prior to any consciousness is a cluster of senseimpressions.  Actuality on that levelmakes no sense.  The world is nothingmore than a random sense data.

Consciousness, the web of thought,through the power of its semantic articulation, brings to life the most basicimages known as sense images.   Thus, theworld of things comes into being through the basic geometry of the mind.  This world of things is also known as aphenomenal world (phan-, Latin, for fantasy) or the world of appearance.

The liminality of consciousness, the webof thought, not only brings into being the world of things, it also producesthe so-called inner world.  That sameliminality of thought generates the sense of isolation.  Loneliness, anguish, anxiety, angst, angerall come from the Latin word angle for liminality of thought.  Consciousness “angulates” or corners usproducing all those suffering feelings. Its liminality is also projective producing misperception,illusion.   Its liminality being divisiveproduces strife and conflict.  All thatfeels like a complex and unbearable perturbance that wants to heal itself.  Consciousness everlastingly tries to healitself through itself and its inventions. But alas consciousness is not capable of healing itself.  It can only perpetuate itself, its sufferingitself.  In seeing that every aspect ofconsciousness is absolutely not capable of healing itself one asks then whatwill do it? (The word healing comes from a Germanic word heilen meaning to makeit whole).

All this makes us look at the image.  Makes us ask, does image in its structure andfunction carry the potential for healing.  

When looking, let’s say, at Chinesepainting, one not only sees in the outlining of the objects the familiaroutlining of the world, but sees as well the familiar outlining of ourconsciousness.  One also, even moreimportantly, sees in the dissolution of the objects ¾ presented by the broken outlining, empty spaces in the objects andoutside them ¾ the invitation to our mind todissolve.  Presence of a good image thanis an implicit questioning of everything ¾ our consciousness, world, in short, questioning the ontologicalstatus of our being.  Every authenticimage, then, shares with consciousness the liminal and familiar.  But where it radically departs is that theimage introduces the void.  And that veryvoid ¾ so lacking in us ¾ is the healing power of the image.

Our consciousness is responsible for producingall such dichotomies as: inner and outer, me, you, us, them, this, that,things, time, etc.   The healing functionof the image is in its ability to move us from this fixed narrow minded view ofthe world to allowing a sense of wholeness to flower.           

 Ina way, image already did what we need to do. Image, as a healing factor, is not unlike a mantra, Zen Koan goading andprodding us into meditation, into pondering over not becoming, pondering overthe world, as we see it, the world of subjective fabrication.

Of course this is easier said than donefor there are innumerable obstacles, rigidities and resistances of the mindthat would not let that happen easily. I will just mention here thatpsychological images are fake images, for the center of their operability isfake and virtual as well.  That center isme, self, ego, I, all being the same. All psychological images are dualistic as me and not me, fosteringconflict, misperception and loneliness, which all are living movements ofsuffering.

It is important to add here that trueimages, unlike those psychological ones, do not aspire to end onlypsychological problems, for ending only these does not mean complete ending ofhuman suffering.  In order to understandthis complex and enigmatic problem one has to understand not only the natureand structure of our psychological problems, but also one must understand thenature of the phenomenal world, of our basic world view.  Even the phenomenal world, the world of things,though we may not see this at all, is still an offshoot of the most basicgeometry of our mind.  It is important atleast to suspect that such notions as time, space, the inner and outer, thingsas this vs. that, me and you, us and them are ultimately inventions,nonetheless useful but ultimately illusionary.


The very interaction between these thingsessentially invented by this most basic thinking of ours is the birth of thechronological and more subtle, psychological time. What I am getting at is:there must be at least some suspicion that all these are pseudo-problems.  All these distinctions, not only in thestrictly psychological but even in the phenomenal world ultimately have nosignificant relevance.  The relativesignificance is in the pragmatic matters only.

All this brings us to the point of seeingthat reality is somewhat a pseudo-phenomenon. Seeing that may stop us, or at least slow us, in the frantic runningafter so-called “outward” things and turning them into the “inward” things in orderto fill up the supposed inner emptiness.

In conclusion I may say: anything, be itstrictly psychological or be it phenomenal, all being significantly a matter ofour consciousness, inevitably and imminently carries in itself that, alreadymentioned, sense of isolation, projection and division, and consequently,suffering.

That does not mean that suffering isabsolutely integral to the phenomenon of man. The ending of suffering can happen if there is insight into all thisactivity of the mind.  The point is notto do away with the phenomenal world but to achieve some transparency of thephenomenal world so that in everything one sees at once a thing itself and farmore importantly no-thing at all.  For ifwe see things as things only in that there is a sense of isolation, divisionand so forth.  For only if there isessential no-thingness amongst relative thingness will there be no isolation,no illusion, no strife and, in short, no suffering.


Common to all Far Eastern schools ofthought is the emergence of the image out of          no-image.  The images that come out of our mind areprojective and solipsistic in nature pointing at the mind they come from ratherthan pointing at things they claim to point at. Therefore, these and most other images are not true images.  The true images come into a being out ofobservation.  Etymologically, observationliterally means hovering around caringly. This hovering around caringly can only happen in the absence of the observer.  When the observer is present there is apresence of the whole conscious, unconscious conglomerate, and observation isprevented with formation of a usual dualism of observer and the observed.Observation can only happen when seeing: that we do not have a separateobserver and the observed but rather that the observer is the observed. In theinsight into that as fact the illusionary dichotomy of the separate observerand the observed collapses automatically and mind is in observation. 

A brief exposition of the I Ching, Taoismand Zen, three major Chinese traditions cast further light on the nature ofimages.


I Ching, a most ancient attempt to codifythe universe consists of 64 hexagrams, all made of two lines: broken andunbroken.  These two lines are well knownin Chinese traditions as Yin and Yang lines. Since the inception of the I Ching, innumerable interpretations wereadded.   For example, names of thehexagrams with their commentaries and judgments.  What was the rational for the additionaltexts.  Was it that the hexagramsappeared too abstract, obstinate and hard to enter?  The hexagrams are no less abstract than anyother so-called representational images. Ultimately all images are abstract for no image is the thing.  And so all images, in that sense, areabstract.  One wonders: are 64 hexagramsthe true I Ching, and is the rest of the book only explanations that point moreto the traditions that came from (Taoism, Confucianism, Zen) than at thehexagrams themselves?

One wonders then, shouldn’t the hexagramsof the I Ching be pondered just as they are, without bringing into the picture“the text”.  Shouldn’t they be approachedempty handed as one would approach Beethoven’s Last Quartets, Mozart’s pianosonatas or Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier. Treated that way they are not the usual divination devices.  They are like Zen koans capable of breakingthe radical patterns of our conditioned mind.

Even Yin and Yang are still part of thatprojected cultural baggage, part of the Taoist, Confucianism program, projectedonto the hexagrams to explain them away. That is not to say that there is absolutely no Yin and Yang dynamic inthe hexagrams.  The problem is onlycreated when we see all hexagrams being only a matter of Yin/Yang dynamic.  That robs them of their much greaterimplications.

It was said that the unbroken line isYang and the broken one Yin.  If takenthat way hexagrams would shrink to a narrow dynamic of the dialecticalinterplay of psychological and other type of thought.  I feel there is much more to I Chinghexagrams than just depicting the drama of the “ten thousand things”.

Unbroken line is for example a statement,literally any statement not unlike a myriad of the statements stored in ourmind. 

Different groupings of these unbrokenlines create different Yin/Yang conditions. For Yin and Yang as diverse and even opposing as they may be they arestill ideas and so a homogeneous reality of the same order. 

The broken line to me is not Yin asopposed to the unbroken line, Yang. The broken line is a radically differentemergence, one is a thing (unbroken line) and the other is a  thing-in-breaking (broken line) or, ultimatelya no-thing.

Hexagrams are not different frompaintings, poetry or other expressions of claiming and unclaiming.  They are the indications of our incessantneed to define things and simultaneously claim we can’t define them accurately.In these hexagrams one may see Zen in its inception.  Also we can’t look at hexagrams line by lineas a successive unfolding.   One needs tosee them at once in order to capture their mandalic grandeur.

 Instead of analyzing them line by line oneshould see them as jumping boards throwing one into the realm from where theycame gaining access to vastness/stillness so needed in our lives.

The whole point of meditation is then notonly to define things but far more importantly, simultaneously to un-definethem producing a necessary transparency of the world.


In Taoism we already start with images ofmythopoetic nature.  Symbolic tales inTaoist tradition are metaphysical expression, where things of our empiricalworld are presented as an ontological process of their coming into existenceout of primordial nothing, establishing themselves as the “ten thousand things”and their eventual falling back into primordial nothing.  Two examples will shad some light on what wassaid:

Once upon a time, I, Chuang Tzu,

dreamed I was a butterfly flying happily

here and there, enjoying life without

knowing who I was. Suddenly I woke up

and I was indeed Chuang Tzu.  Did

Chuang Tzu dream he was a butterfly, or

did the butterfly dream he was Chuang

Tzu?  There mustbe some distinction between

Chuang Tzu and the butterfly. 

This is a case of transformation.



              The ruler of theSouth Sea was called

              Light; the ruler of the North Sea,

              Darkness; and the ruler of theMiddle

              Kingdom, Primal Chaos.  From time to

              time, Light and Darkness met one

              another in the kingdom of Primal

              Chaos, who made them welcome.  Light

              and Darkness wanted to repay his

              Kindness andsaid, “All men have seven

              openings with which they see,hear, eat,

              and breathe, but Primal Chaos hasnone.

              Let us try togive him some.” So every

day they bored one hole, and on the

seventh, day, Primal Chaos died.



Even in here, in these elaborate stories,the elements of likeness ¾ wherethe story appears in all the details of the phenomenal world and the elementsof unlikeness where the details of the story appear decaying and fading away,are clearly present.  In I Ching, aswell, an unbroken line, a statement about life is already a most cryptic story,broken line is its undoing, story in decay.

So unlike these Far Eastern stories arethe Western stories that thrive so heavily on the positive: the aggressivehero, the male, gaining treasure, maiden or god, ending up having more than hehad at the beginning.  Far Easternstories do not have a hero, and the females are the central characters.  At the end they each lose a lot or die.  The emphasis is on losing.


All these Taoist stories, successivelypointing at development, are radical different from the mandalic presences ofthe hexagrams in I Ching and even more so from the Zen ones.  Zen the latest of the three traditions,fundamentally speaking, dismisses all images, mythopoesis.  Yet that does not mean, as sober as Zen is,that Zen is what we call realistic.  ForZen to be realistic means to wallow in a lot of fantasies and imagination.  To be realistic for Zen means to live adream-like existence.  Zen is so radicalin its attempt to get into the heart of things that it not only dismissesmystic, symbolic, mythopoetic but even the most basic sense images that accountfor the phenomenal world, things like trees, mountains, rivers, sky, etc.

For example, to see a tree as tree wethink nothing of it.  But for Zen thatattitude is to have a dream of a tree.


For Zen, images have only place in thepragmatic world.  In all other areas oflife, they are considered obstacles. 


Not unlike I Ching hexagrams where thingsare stated and unstated Zen does use stories, complex statements with a heavyironical twist that so vehemently and emphatically shatter everything said inthem.  Even in these stories the elementsof likeness and particularly the elements of unlikeness, so emphaticallyemphasized in Zen matters, is seen in this of Dogen’s poem:

                     Four and fifty years

                     I’ve hung the sky withstars.

                     Now I leap through ¾

                     What shattering!


Zen uses stories only to claim themwrong.  For Zen something recognized as atree is more a thought than the living tree. But to see at once a tree as a tree and as a no-tree that’s seeing ittruly, seeing it ontologically rather then seeing it as we usually dophenomenally.  We mistake the being withthe world of appearance.  For what istree or anything else without its ontological ground?  What is anything without the void?  In that sense Zen images are ontologicalimages par excellence.

What is actually happening is: we aretrying to capture the limitless, timeless being into a net of the limitabilityof our expressive devices, realizing we can’t.

Zen stories thrive on a metaphysicalhumor.  Zen Koans are good examples ofspeaking in absurdities: what is the sound of one hand clapping?


In a way knowing (stories) for Zen is amistake but a necessary one.  For to comeout of the mistake one has to be in one. One may say then that the knowing, the mistakes are part of the order ofthe universe.

I will end the presentation with VaskoPopa’s poem, “Proud error”, which is deeply relevant to all that I have saidand says it in much far fewer words:



Once upon a time there was an error

            So ridiculous so minute

      No one could have paidattention to it

      It couldn’t stand

      To see or hear itself

      It made up all sorts ofnonsense

      Just to prove

      That it really didn’texist

      It imagined a space

      To fit all its proofs in

      And time to guard itsproofs

      And the world to witnessthem

      All that it imagined

      Was not so ridiculous

      Or so minute

      But was of course inerror


      Was anythingelse possible

                    - VaskoPopa, 20th century Yugoslavian poet


As an epitaph I will add: Far East,China, Ancient China in truth, brought forth, what one would call, trueculture.

The word true image used throughout thepaper amplifies the much broader implications of the word true culture.

The word culture etymologically comesfrom the Latin word culere, meaning “to till”. Poetically speaking, tilling takes place where there is incrustation,formation of the distinct line between Heaven and Earth, distinctions among thethings.  Culere, consequently, culture isthan tilling the existent incrustations, strong lines of the definitions ofthings in order to allow flowering of the wholeness among the relative presenceof the things. 

West consistently, not only strengthenedalready existent distinctions, but even brought forth plenty of new ones.

Counter culture, lack of culture, ortruly, just civilization?